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August, 2011

Zen and Improv: Fingers Pointing at the Moon

[Thoughts from Ryan Hill, zen practitioner and current Level Two student]

“All instruction is but a finger pointing to the moon; and those whose gaze is fixed upon the pointer will never see beyond. Even let him catch sight of the moon, and still he cannot see its beauty.”
— Zen Saying

Earlier this year I became obsessed with improv. I went from knowing of improv only through “Whose Line is it Anyway?” and a couple of ComedySportz shows to watching ten hours of the 2011 Hideout Improv marathon including a caffeine-fueled midnight Saturday to six on Sunday morning stint. I was hooked. It was hilarious, charming, and amazing. I’ve done a little acting (including some pieces that encouraged improvisation), some voiceover work, and been part of a comedy podcast that was primarily improvised. So I also had the feeling that, with practice, I might be able to do some improv myself, which both brought me both joy and fear.

The thing that most intrigued me about improv was, “How do they do that?!” It was amazing, but clearly it could be done. I think it was the qualities of the improvisers when they were at their best that hooked me. They were generally not self-conscious, and when they were, they made a joke about it or used it in some way. They seemed calm, yet energetic. They were willing to take risks. They seemed to have an open channel to the creative part of their minds. They could laugh at themselves and had no problem playing ridiculous characters. They were open, shared control, and took care of each other. And perhaps most importantly, they were having a lot of fun. I was totally impressed. Now don’t get me wrong, I know that improvisers are like most humans with all the standard foibles and faults and a few that are particular to the breed as well. They were sometimes the opposite of all these positive qualities as well. However, they had a lot more access to those positive qualities than most people I know, including me. There was something here I wanted in addition to making comedy. I was totally intimidated, but I signed up for classes and got started.

As I started learning improv it began to remind me of something else. Many of these qualities I saw were similar to the qualities I had seen in meditation practitioners. Many of the lessons I heard in class, or read in improv books reminded me of things I had heard in dharma talks. I’ve been a pretty consistent meditation practitioner for a few years. I dabbled for many years before that. I practice in the tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Zen Buddhist Master and peace activist.

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The Littlest Improviser

Oh, man, look at this! Here’s the newborn daughter of Hideout rising star Zac, sporting her brand new Hideout Onesie.

Awwww! Congrats to Zac and the whole family! Best wishes from everyone at The Hideout.

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