The Zen of Listening

By Randall | Improv Tips
3 Apr 2012

The following is an except from the book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind:

“When you listen to someone, you should give up all your preconceived ideas and your subjective opinions; you should just listen to him, just observe what his way is. We [practitioners of Zen] put very little emphasis on right and wrong or good and bad. We just see things as they are with him, and accept them. This is how we communicate with each other. Usually when you listen to some statement, you hear it as a kind of echo of yourself. You are actually listening to your own opinion. If it agrees with your opinion you may accept it, but if it does not, you will reject it or you may not even really hear it.”

When an improv scene begins, you are no longer you. You are your character. Your scene partner is no longer the person he or she was; they are their character. Everything that they say should be interpreted as something that character is saying, in the context of the scene. Do not bring into the scene your history with the other person – your friendship, or your fights, or your failed romantic relationship, or your secret attraction, or that hurtful thing they said to you in workshop. When you are on stage together, neither of those people exists any more. The characters exist, and they have their own world to live in, their own history. The only things to interpret are the things that are happening now, in this moment inside the scene – the words they use, the tone, the facial expressions and body language. Even if your partner breaks character, interpret it as if it had happened in the scene; keep the reality intact.The audience does not know this person the way you do, but they can know the character exactly as well as you do. Do not sell the audience short by bringing in an inside history that they know nothing about. The audience should always feel included.

If you are always doing scenes with a particular improviser, you may assume that they are following the same pattern that you have established in your mind from knowing them for a period of time. This is natural, it is how our mind works, but you are also denying them the space and opportunity to change. When you improvise with the character that is in the scene, you can both be surprised by what the character does because you have never met them before. (Do not confuse yourself with your character – your character may know this character well, even though you, the improviser, do not.)

Once you remove the preconceptions in your mind about who this improviser or character is, then you can stop listening to yourself and start listening to them.

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