Ambition vs. learning

David Foster Wallace on Ambition (animated interview from PBS Digital Studios)

There are lots of things that interest me about doing improv, but one of the top is that there’s no time when you’re performing improv that you can perfect anything. The scene you are making exists, and then it’s gone — it exists perhaps vaguely in your memory, and maybe a bit more clearly in the memory of the audience, but there’s nothing else to show it ever even happened. And what this means is that you can’t worry about polishing or revising or rethinking. Whatever you were able to do was as good as it could be.

This though is also frustrating, because it doesn’t allow for the kind of practice that you can work on in, for example, sports or playing an instrument or even acting. You can’t repeat things until you get them right. The only way to practice is to perform or rehearse, and rehearsals are really just performances without an audience. Every scene is different from every other scene you’ve done before, and for me this means it’s hard to learn from what I’ve done before. The combination of what my scene partner or partners have said and done, any contributions from the people on the back line, the input and reaction of the audience, my own mindset: It’s different every time, and what “worked” or didn’t previously doesn’t help me a lot in choosing what to do now.

Even programming isn’t as variable as this. Computers are very complex, but the ways we interact with them and what we can do with them is structured, so it’s finite.

All of this is a long way of saying that I’m extremely frustrated at what feels to me to be the very slow pace at which I’m learning to do improv. Like, glacially slow. Sure, I’ve been at this for not yet three months, but I can’t help but want to be getting better at it faster.

In the charmingly animated interview I posted above, David Foster Wallace talks about how he discovered the limit to how far he could go in competitive tennis, about being impatient with teachers he had in school, and about how differently he viewed things once he himself began to teach. None of this is exactly the same as what I’m felling about learning improv, but all of it is sort of resonant: creating without worry about perfection, learning as a practice, accepting that others with more experience have useful information to share, trusting that learning is a journey that never ends, being humble.

It’s still maddening though.