But Seriously, Folks

Happy Valley Improv turned two last Saturday. Well, sorta.

Two years ago my friends Andrea, James, Nate, and I performed three sets of improv for a live audience. We’d been meeting regularly, but that evening on stage at the State Theatre signaled we were up to something a little more serious.

Improv isn’t serious, is it? Are you serious? Improv is probably the most serious practice I’ve stumbled upon. Seriously. And I take it seriously. So our group takes it seriously, too, because we take collaboration seriously. How seriously? Well…

In two years we’ve built a small improv theatre company. We even have business cards. I’m serious. Super serious. The tagline on our cards? Classes, shows, and workshops. Regular meetings. Regular rehearsals. How do you rehearse improv? You articulate and practice what Cornel West might describe as a mode of being.

Why am I writing about Cornel West, that prominent democratic scholar? Well, my serious reader, we held a birthday party for Happy Valley Improv last Saturday. We bought an extravagant cake, rented out a space downtown State College, and invited the community to a celebration. It was a twelve-hour day that included classes, shows, and workshops. And an academic symposium.

This scholarly panel was organized around the question: “What does it mean to be an improvisational scholar and a scholar of improvisation?” Andrea gave a brilliant talk about how improvisation solved her crisis of conscience and helped her imagine new ways to do math education research. Our friend Joe Julian, a neurologist and artist in resident at Penn State, presented a descriptive model that describes improvisation and the mind. I took a stab at thinking about what it meant to be an improvisation scholar. Preparing my talk took my back to my dissertation.

Way back in 2012, when I was still 6’4” and the United States wasn’t run by Russian bots, I was thinking about what it meant to be an improvisational scholar. This was because I was trying to write a dissertation. I was pretty sure that my teaching was improvisational, whatever that means, and I wanted my research to be improvisational too. But I’d never really written about what it meant for something to be improvisational. So I was reading. And my reading took me to Cornel West. And then I stumbled onto something that Dr. West (1995) wrote about jazz:

I use the term “jazz” here not so much as a term for a musical art form as for a mode of being in the world, an improvisational mode of protean, fluid and flexible dispositions toward reality, suspicious of either/or viewpoints, dogmatic pronouncements and supremacist ideologies (p. 146).

First, I want to let you know that I just figured out how to embed quotes through wordpress. Pretty cool, right? Looks pretty serious. Next, I want you to go back and read that quote again. Because I love it. For West, jazz is not so much a practice or an art as it is a mode of being.

What is a mode of being? I’ll take a stab at that in my own words. Modes of being are the holistic roles – I often think of these as characters – that we fall into by virtue of our places in communal contexts. We speak, behave, think, and even dress differently in different contexts. For example, way back in 2003, I began learning how to be “Mr. Tanner” at Cooper High School. That role emerged over the next four years out of all sorts of idiosyncrasies and internal and external expectations (drama teacher, young white guy, energetic, sense of humor, unprofessional, intellectual, artistic, naive, etc.) I had some control over how this role began to come together but, more often than not, what emerged was a product of how people understood me. My past collided with my present in the ways I behaved in that role and something new emerged. When I took a job across town at a whiter school, the “Mr. Tanner” I’d learn to be at Cooper did not work. In fact, he got me in lots of trouble. And I spent the next eight years trying to figure out my role at Roseville High School. And now I’ve spent five years learning how to be Dr. Tanner at Penn State. Dr. Tanner means something different at Penn State Altoona than he does at Penn State’s University Park campus. And the role of Sam in Happy Valley Improv is something else altogether. All of these professional and semi-professional versions of myself are different modes of being. Ways of being. These things influence how I think, how I behave, and what I do. And of course there’s a million other modes of being that I live out too. Parent. Son. Spouse. Writer. Believer. Friend. Enemy. Jew. Christian. White. Anti-racist. Scholar. Short. All of these words describe me in relation to other people. A relationship rooted in a particular social reality. A mode of being.

Okay, with that attempt to think through modes of being, let’s return to West’s (1995) quote. Dramatically. Seriously:

I use the term “jazz” here not so much as a term for a musical art form as for a mode of being in the world, an improvisational mode of protean, fluid and flexible dispositions toward reality, suspicious of either/or viewpoints, dogmatic pronouncements and supremacist ideologies (p. 146).

West, and he’s writing specifically about how Black folks navigate white supremacy in the United States, suggests that jazz illustrates how people might move through the world improvisationally. I’m weary of people who believe they are only one thing. One mode of being. Or that one mode of being is superior to another. Or that modes of being are only the products of individual choices and not of complex encounters with social realities. Jazz, for West, offers a more fluid way to imagine what people are.

For me, improvisation, if we take it seriously (and I do), offers one way to practice being fluid, flexible, and suspicious of dogmatic reality. We practice an art that asks us to be complex beings in relation to other complex beings. In relation to complex social realities. What we are is fluid. In the moment of the improvisation, we can be flexible. Reality can be flexible. If we do this collective work well, we become more and more leery of supremacist and dogmatic impositions. We learn to be open to emergence and surprise. Improv teaches us not to be so rigid in how we imagine what we are. What others what. What all of us might be in relation to each other. What we might become.

That’s pretty cool, my serious readers. That’s one way to imagine what an educational researcher might be. A scholar. It seems that improv is worth thinking about some more, at the very least. My short and frenetic talk went in that direction at our birthday party last Saturday. And twelve-hours later, after all the workshops, classes, and shows, I felt like I was hit by a train. And I went home to my family after another night where I wasn’t at home with my boys. It takes serious work to do the serious work of building an improv theatre company, for sure. And sometimes I wonder why I’m doing this work.

An improvisational mode of being, it seems to me, is exhausting. That’s why we need communities. That’s why we need practice. That’s why we need to be serious about it. This seems especially true as people become better and better at confirming dogmatic, limited views of reality. I like this tweet and share this post on Facebook and all of a sudden I’m a foot soldier in service of an ideology that normalizes one way of thinking. One way of being. West seemed worried about such fixed modes of being. God knows I am, too.

So it’s great that Happy Valley Improv does classes, shows, and workshops. But I think we are promoting a practice that challenges our communities towards improvisational modes of being. And that’s a serious mission.

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