Helping improvisers find flow
Amsterdam improviser Rod Ben Zeev tells us how to reach that point in a performance where everything just clicks.
Actor, writer and improviser Rod Ben Zeev runs the My Real Story storytelling night in Amsterdam. We talked to Rod about his workshop on Flow, which examines that point where improv comedy, meditation and basketball intersect (you know, that one)…
What do you mean when you use the term ‘flow’?
To me flow represents a definite feeling. After a show you come off saying ‘Wow, we went somewhere we never thought we’d end up.’ And it feels great, like you’ve hit exactly how it’s supposed to feel. There was no moment where it felt you as players were catering to each other or the audience. You were part of this larger mechanism and it just worked.
When I picture flow I see this wave, which can continue to flow no matter what gets in the way. If there’s a rock in the way, the wave just crashes through it. It’s a very beautiful sight.
Ah yeah. That’s a sensation that most performers would recognise, but it’s famously fleeting and unpredictable. Why is it so hard to stay in the zone?
A lot of time we ignore our original impulses, which are actually very, very brilliant, and replace them with a thought process based on what we’ve learned in classes – all the little rules and the dos and don’ts. Everything happens in milliseconds, but it’s enough to interrupt our flow. You’ll often see players waiting for the moment to make a move – they’ll take a step forward to go, then immediately step back again, because they doubt their instincts.
Yet that impulse was probably 100% correct in terms of its timing. If they were absolute beginners they wouldn’t have given it a second thought – they’d just do it and see what happens. All you’re doing there by holding back is cheating yourself out of those original impulses. Yet it’s those very impulses that create flow. Listen to them, do what they’re telling you to do, and don’t question it.
Your workshop introduces improv students to meditation. Where did the idea come from?
I got a lot of it from basketball coach Phil Jackson. When he became head coach of the Chicago Bulls in 1989 they were a team that wasn’t winning anything, despite having Michael Jordan, the biggest star in the history of the game. Jackson had been on a spiritual journey to India and Nepal, where he’d learned a lot about meditation, and before every practice and every game he made players meditate so they’d become aware of their internal thoughts, concerns and egos. The aim was to use this learning to build a better team together. It really worked: the Bulls won six championships in a row. Watching their offense was like visualising that flow wave – all these totally amazing fluid ball movements. Everybody who held the ball held it for a reason. It felt like they all were a part of this incredible system, this incredible process, and were executing it brilliantly.
So how does that relate to improv shows?
In many ways a good improv show looks just like that basketball team: when it’s working well you can actually visualize that wave flowing. But the moment you start checking your movements, or asking ‘How are we going to wrap this up?’, is the moment you’re no longer in the moment. In fact you’re trying to be above the moment, which means you won’t be in the flow either. That’s when you drop the ball.
Through the meditation I get people to tap into their concerns about the show. I believe it can be good to bring those concerns up in real time if the show starts going ‘wrong’. You wouldn’t come out and say, ‘This show isn’t working,’ but your character could say to your partner in a scene, ‘We’re not clicking so much any more’. That would be a huge step because a). it would free you from this huge sense of responsibility you feel; b). it frees up your partner, who’s probably sharing that sense of responsibility, as you’ve said something they’re probably thinking; and c). it would be a huge relief for the audience, as suddenly what you're saying matches your body language, which means they can relax.
So it’s ok to call your feelings out like that? Is that similar to how, if a phone rings during a show and the player incorporates it, it just feels way less awkward than if you just let it ring with no one acknowledging it?
Absolutely. If they lose the flow the players may start thinking: ‘I’m playing a role right now, the show must go on, I’ve got to play this’. And these are things that interrupt the flow further. But the moment that you acknowledge that right now you feel insecure because the scene isn’t going so well, or that you got distracted because someone’s phone rang, these all part of the brilliance of improv that we’re making up as we’re going along – and so you should call them out.
It seems that what links the Bulls’ flowing offense to the changing tones of an improv show, and to improvisation in, say, rap or jazz, is the rhythm that runs underneath it all. It’s like if you do start thinking about what you’re doing, you’re simply cutting yourself off from that beat.
Rhythm is huge. The two most important physical contributors to flow are the rhythm and the eye contact. You can’t explain it but you can feel it: the eyes are like gravity, they focus you in on the true soul of the person, and are central to the timing. The rhythm relaxes the body and brain. It means you’re working with the intuitiveness, not relying the part of your brain that is constantly coming up with new things and trying to be creative.
The key to flow in everyday life is to truly enjoy the things that are happening in the moment, to enjoy the processes that lead to the goal. That’s where you’ll find the flow.
For more on Rod: www.rodbenzeev.com.