Misha Glouberman is my very good friend. Years ago, we started a lecture series together called Trampoline Hall. He was the host, and I picked the lecturers and helped them choose their topics. After several years of working on the show, I quit, but Misha kept it running.
A few years later, I really missed working with Misha, so I decided I would write a book about him. It was to be called The Moral Development of Misha. I got about sixty pages into my story of a man who wandered the city, who was nervous about his career and life, yet was a force of reason in every situation. Work on it stalled, however, when I couldn’t figure out how to develop him morally.
Worse than that, I never found the project as interesting as I found my friend. I have always enjoyed the way Misha speaks and thinks, but writing down the sorts of things he might say and think turned out not to be as pleasurable as encountering the things he actually did say and think. If I wanted to capture Misha, in all his specificity, why was I creating a fictional Misha? If I wanted to work with Misha, why not leave my room and walk down the street?
One day, I told him I thought the world should have a book of everything he knows. He agreed to collaborate on this project with me, but only if I promised not to quit in the middle as I always do with everything.
Here are four chapters from what ended up being a book—I didn’t quit!—called The Chairs Are Where the People Go. The book has seventy-two chapters in all, pretty much encompassing everything Misha knows and thinks about and does. The chapters that follow are about the classes he teaches in sound improv games. Other chapters are about things like monogamy, quitting smoking, and going to the gym.
We spent a spring and summer meeting at my apartment every morning, drinking coffee, working our way down through a list of topics. Misha sat across from me at my desk. As he talked, I typed.
I. The Conducting Game
Here is a music improv game that can be played by a group of ten to one hundred people.
You walk around the room and make sounds, whatever sounds you want. If and when you decide you want to be conducted, you stand still and put your hand up and point at your head.
If you see someone who wants to be conducted, you should conduct them. Don’t leave people standing there waiting to be conducted, because it’s impolite.
The conducted piece should last about a minute or a minute and a half, and it ends when either person walks away. When you walk away, don’t say ’bye or anything. Just leave.
Then you walk around some more.
The notes for conducting are: Conduct with as much specificity as possible in your gestures. Use very clear and deliberate gestures. Be as emphatic as possible. Try to fill each gesture with a lot of urgency and meaning. Trust that the person you’re conducting is great at what they do and is going to make great sounds. Know that the gestures will be interpreted as having meanings that you do not intend. That’s OK.
For the person being conducted: Trust that the conductor knows exactly what they’re doing. Trust that they’re a great conductor and that you’re excited to work with them. Trust that you know instinctively, immediately, and completely what every single gesture means. Trust that this person is going to extract incredible sounds from you, and that everything that comes out of you—all the sounds that you make—is their responsibility. You should respond to the emotional content in the conducting and ascribe as much meaning as possible to every component of their gestures—their facial expression, whether or not their fingers are curved. Assume that every element of the conducting has meaning.
This game is largely about dialogue and control. It might look like the conductor is in control, but that’s not really the case. The game is actually a dialogue between the conductor and the person being conducted. It’s a dialogue in which both parties are in a perpetual state of surprise, and experiencing lack of control.
For instance, the conductor might slowly raise one fist in the air and then open up all the fingers of his hands and clench his shoulders. No one really knows what that’s going to sound like, but the person being conducted very quickly decides what that means and what that sounds like, so both people are being surprised.
As for the person being conducted, if the game is going well, you really feel like the other person is controlling you—you feel not in control, like they’re making everything happen. But really you’re the author of all the sounds in the piece. There’s not a single sound in it that wasn’t devised by you, the person being conducted. It’s all choices you have made. This is one part of improv that I think is really critical—this experience of feeling not at all responsible while actually being completely responsible.
The same is true for the conductor, but less obviously so. When you’re on the outside watching the game, it’s clear that the conductor serves to inspire the sound-maker. If you just put people in a room and say, I want you to make interesting sounds that change a lot, and that do interesting things and are varied, people will have a very hard time doing that. But if you put someone in front of them, a person making essentially meaningless gestures, and call that person the conductor and say that the conductor is in charge, then people can make these really amazing sounds. People do fantastic work in this game very quickly. The conductor serves to inspire them and gives them permission to do much more, by appearing to take away control while not really taking away control.
The conductors can also feel inspired by the people being conducted. If you’re asked to make a bunch of really dramatic gestures, you might find that difficult to do, but if you’re a conductor in a
dialogue with a person who’s making these inspiring and incredible sounds, you find you can make really interesting gestures easily and spontaneously. It goes both ways.
II. Who Are Your Friends?
Teaching my classes, I started to notice that during the breaks there was so much warmth between these people who often had very little in common. They had engaged in a kind of fairly passionate and intimate kind of play with each other, and the connections between them happened so quickly, and they developed such a collective fondness for each other. But in this fondness were traits we don’t normally associate with adult friendship. They didn’t know that much about each other. They didn’t know what was going on in each others’ lives. But they felt a strong and genuine closeness. They were happy to see each other. And I started to think, Oh—friends are the people you play with. That seemed like a pretty good definition of friendship to me, and
I was satisfied with it.
Then, about five years ago, a friend of mine moved here from Kelowna, B.C. She said, “You know, in Toronto, friendships are all based around talking. What you do with your friends is you go out for coffee or drinks, or you go to their apartment, and you talk about stuff.” She said, “In Kelowna, what you do with your friends is go swimming.”
It just seemed really beautiful to me that in Kelowna your friends might just be these people who liked floating around in the water with you—that the people floating near you are your friends.
III. Get Louder or Quit
Lots of improvisations tend to end with a slow fading out, which I find really boring. I’m very interested in finding other types of simple endings. One instruction I really like for ending a piece is: get louder or quit. This works especially well in a large group, and the instruction is this:
Every few seconds, every member of the ensemble should check in on themselves and see how they’re doing, and they can decide to do one of two things. They can drop out of the piece—and if everyone’s standing, they can actually lie down and listen—or they can continue, but if they want to continue, they’re obliged to become louder. Partly I like it because
I like how it sounds—the gradual transformation from fifty people making soft sounds to ten people making louder sounds to two people screaming at the top of their lungs. But partly I also like that it discourages lazy group behavior. It says that it’s OK and even interesting to stand out and go your own way in a piece. As an improviser, when you notice that most other people are becoming silent and dropping out of the piece, the joining-inclination tells you that you should do the same thing—you don’t want to be left behind; you don’t want to be the gazelle that strays from the herd and gets killed by a lion. But being a good improviser is also very much about fighting that inclination. It’s nice that while everybody else is quietly ending the piece, some people start yelling louder.
IV. Feeling Like a Fraud
The feeling I have before taking on any interesting project, especially teaching classes, is pretty much a feeling of terror and sickness. I think that’s really not evident to people involved in my projects, because so much of what they’re about is taking crazy risks and doing ridiculous things, and, on the surface, not caring so much about outcomes. But maybe in part because of all that, I have such a fear that these projects will be bad, or that they’re terrible ideas, or about being a fraud in some way.
So before every series, and sometimes before every class, the main thing that often goes through my head is: I have nothing to offer these people—they will realize that I am a fraud—I have nothing to say about this.
I think it’s worthwhile for people to know that. I think a lot of art is about creating the illusion of ease, and I think it’s great to enjoy that illusion, but I think it’s great to know that it’s an illusion, and I suspect—in my experience—the process of creating anything involves quite a lot of fear and difficulty, and it involves covering up quite a lot of that fear and difficulty.
So, for example, you get an email from me announcing that I’m teaching a class in how to play charades, and you think, What a crazy idea, and what a delightful, happy-go-lucky person who’s doing something as impractical as teaching a class in charades. But, in fact, I’m waking up in the middle of the night having panic attacks. About a fucking charades class.
I don’t know. I just think it’s important for people to know these things.