The Only Guru Is the Moment

Mark Larson is the author of the wonderful book Ensemble: An Oral History of Chicago Theater. He recently posted on Facebook an excerpt from a conversation he had with actor John C. Reilly for an interview that he did for The Paul Sills and Viola Spolin Oral History Collection at Northwestern University.

Though it speaks specifically about improv teachers, I think it’s important for improvisers to read this as well, since we have all taken or are taking improv classes, and to remember that there are no gurus.


MARK LARSON: I recently spoke with actor John C. Reilly about the work of Paul Sills and Viola Spolin and how profoundly it has impacted his own work and life since his days at DePaul University with Patrick Murphy.

But I think there is something wonderful here for all my teacher friends in all disciplines.

JOHN C. REILLY: Doing Spolin’s work requires, even from the teachers of her work, a certain suspension of ego, because in Spolin’s games-based improv workshop, the teacher is not an expert. The teacher is just a guide who has more experience maybe than you at playing these games, but they’re not the expert. They’re just there to join into the moment with you.

One of the most amazing things about doing Spolin’s work is when you finish doing your scene or the games you’re playing, you stand there and you turn to the group.

The teacher doesn’t read you a list of what you did right or wrong. The teacher turns to the group, too, and says, “Well, did you see the focus of the game? Did you see the weather in their movement? Did you see the ‘beyond circumstances’ in their relationships?” And then everyone talks about it.

So, it’s this wonderful kind of Socratic dialogue where there is no guru; the only guru is the moment. And there’s something really, really pure and true about that. When you go into the workshop, all you have to sign up for is being attentive to the moment and being willing to transform according to what the game asks of you. There’s something really beautiful about that. And it’s very self-empowering.

But it requires a kind of rigorous, um, ego checking, you know? Just, like, get out of your head. Don’t worry about being good, just focus on being THERE.

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Working with Del Close

I am so grateful that there are so many schools, teachers and methods of improvisation. It’s the best thing for the art form and is one of the reasons it keeps growing.

That was not the case when I started taking improv classes back in the late ’80s in Chicago. In those days, you had three places to study: The Players Workshop, Second City, and The Improv Olympic (now called iO). It was like the Bermuda Triangle of improv classes. I started out at the very gentle Players Workshop, and then went on to the more competitive Second City Training Center. When I got there, all I kept hearing from the other students was: “You’ve got to study with Del Close.”

At the time, Del was teaching at The Improv Olympic. They did not have their own space at the time, so when I started taking class with Del, the location kept changing. My first class with him was above a Swedish restaurant. We would move around from back of an old, stinky German bar, to a theater, to a classroom space. Sometimes you didn’t know where you going to meet until the day of the class.

Though I made some life-long friendships and learned a lot there, there was something cult-like about the place back then. Del was the guru, with his deep booming voice and his intimidating presence. There was myth surrounding him and all of the famous comedy legends he had worked with. So it didn’t take much for a fat, insecure twenty-something like me to buy into it. I worshiped Del, and so desperately wanted his approval and validation.

Del Close was brilliant, and a genius — someone who’s ideas I still respect to this day. But I think one of the reasons I got better in his class was out of fear. All you needed to do was watch him rip into someone, to the point of tears, and decide quickly that that was not going to be me.

I was terrified. Scared shitless. My fear manifested into a nervous habit I did not even realize I had. I would rehearse dialogue when I was standing in the back line of a Harold. I was a nervous wreck.

This could all change in the matter of a few seconds when Del would give you a compliment. It was a drug. You could feel your body chemistry change, endorphins kick in, and suddenly you were high. If you’ve ever heard drug addicts talk with excitement about going into dangerous neighborhoods and almost getting shot, just so they could get high, you know what Del’s class was like for me.

I made Del my guru, my father, my higher power. I swore that his way was the only way, and I became judgmental of other people’s brand of improv. I would jealously put down people who got hired by Second City for the touring company because they where not trained “the right way” like myself – and by doing that, I limited by learning and my opportunities. I was like the improv version of an Ivy League snob.

Over the years, I’ve done the same thing with other teachers, performers and directors. I have always had this problem with putting other people on a pedestal and using it to put myself down. I lose myself  by trying to get in their head and figure out what they wanted, what would please them. Never asking myself, “What would please me? What makes me laugh?”

I recently interviewed Jill Soloway, the creator of Transparent, for an upcoming episode of Improv Nerd, and I admire her because she is someone who never seemed to have this problem, but always trusted her own voice and her own instincts. If she thought something was funny and would make her friends laugh, she would put it up on stage. And that is what improv, or any of the arts, is really about: finding your voice and trusting your instincts.

Today, no one teacher is going to have all the answers for you, not even me. Thank God. You may love working with me and you might get a lot out of my improv classes, but I don’t have all the answers. You need to be constantly working with other teachers, directors and coaches so you don’t fall into the trap of thinking that there is only one right way to improvise. The best way to approach improv is to realize is there are many approaches, and it’s your right to borrow from whatever school or style works for you. So please work with as many people as possible.

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