I was looking forward to being the guest instructor in a class that I had founded in the 1990’s. Dan Klein was one of the early and gifted Stanford students in this Drama 103, Beginning Improvisation course. When I retired in 2005 he was offered the instructor position to continue teaching this popular class. It was so much in demand that each quarter literally hundreds of students attempted to register for a single section. Normally the class limit was 24 students. In an attempt to push the boundaries of class size the Drama Department was experimenting with the upper limits of enrollment. How many students can you teach in one section?
On a warm April Wednesday in 2013 Dan invited me to give a guest lecture for this class. (Leading an improv class is rarely a “lecture” per se, but more like a ringmaster’s job.) I think there were 90 or more students in the cavernous room where we billeted that day. The venue was a full court gymnasium with forty-foot ceilings and a basketball court floor. The acoustics had the feeling of an echo chamber. We were kindly provided with stacks of metal folding chairs that we could arrange and rearrange as we moved from one activity to another. Improv learning always happens all over the place and rarely in tidy rows of students facing the instructor and a chalkboard.
I was enjoying barking orders to the group to “find a partner for a listening game.” Following this I invited the students to rearrange the chairs into tidy rows in an orchestra shape. I can still hear the sound of 90 metal chairs being dragged across the court. I tried to get all of us close together so that my voice could actually be heard. At last the sound of scraping metal subsided and I was standing in front of the group. I began telling a story about a top end professional improv troupe, True Fiction Magazine, and how they routinely practiced repeating five-minute stories to each other. Their partner was expected to listen carefully enough to be able to repeat the story verbatim with all the details.
Suddenly a four-inch dragonfly lit on my left arm. And sat there. It was unexpected, and I stopped mid sentence to observe the insect. His delicate body glistened in the reflected light of the gymnasium.
Everyone became silent. For a long time we all starred in wonder at the many legged creature and admired his audacity to interrupt the lecture. The moment was etched in time. I felt at peace and blessed somehow. Nothing needed to be done except to enjoy the serendipity. The tiny winged fellow appeared content to be sitting still and was in no hurry to leave. The students joined me in a quiet homage, almost a meditation.
I don’t really know how long this went on, but finally the critter took flight and we all watched as it flew high into the rafters. I resumed the lecture with a smile and without comment. I could feel that something memorable had taken place.
A year later a student from that class, a journalist, wrote me a note thanking me for my teaching and he mentioned the incident with the dragonfly. He reflected that my stopping everything to attend to the little winged fellow taught him more about the value of attention than any encyclopedia or power point.
Years earlier a Chinese graduate student had asked me: “What’s most important when you teach improv?” Immediately I replied, “You must model what you teach. You need to be improvising as you teach others to do so. That is, you simply cannot come into a classroom and “execute your syllabus” or “give your lecture.” You need to be wild-eyed awake.
Of course you “have some plan” (I’ll teach the necessity of listening well, of attention to the present moment, etc.) but when you show up to lead the lesson you have to be fully alert to everything that is going on . . . the climate in the room, the acoustics and most especially to who is in the room, their expressions, their names, the complete gestalt. And then you must teach from this reality, not from any premeditated idea of how the lesson should go. My work has taught me that instead of teaching content we should be teaching students.
You have to notice everything that is going on, and then you need to follow your impulses and try things. You have to make mistakes and correct them as you go. You have to show yourself to be human in the presence of the assembled students. Your own vulnerability is one of your greatest teaching assets. Allow yourself to be surprised and even thrown off guard.
So we must be improvising when we teach. It’s the only way. We must trust reality and respond to it freshly. We must allow insight/inspiration to come through us. We must model what it is to change course, make discoveries, deal with unplanned events, make mistakes, learn things as we go.
Like the dragonfly we can allow ourselves to land, breathe and experience the moment. When you are speaking from this vantage point you are alive and open to inspiration. So, go ahead and make your lesson plan, but then tuck it away in favor of showing up and being there 100% or as great a percentage as you can muster. Remember that you already have what you need.