, Newburyport, MA


August 15, 2013

Improvising a work of art

Because I was restless, I took a little walk that hot, steamy day into the interior of Maudslay State Park.

After taking some photos of the formal garden and tracing the foundation footprint of the long-destroyed Helen Moseley mansion, I took a turn into the pathway to the old estate cold cellar. The entrance loomed tall and dark, but it had always been closed off on previous visits. I was curious. As I headed into the side of the hill through the entryway chute, a flamboyant troupe of people of varying ages was meandering out. Two young women lingered inside.

Despite tarrying in the dank coolness to allow my eyes to adjust, it was still too dark to see much, so I started to head out. But first I asked of the two women, “Is something going on here?”

“We’re trying some scenes for an improv show,” said one.

“Well, I’d better improv right out of your way,” I replied. As I departed, a solo voice echoed from the darkness of the cellar, and a dancer stretched in the sunlight of the entryway.

On the way home I wondered about the motivation and the process of improv. Suddenly it occurred to me, “It must be a lot like writing an essay.”

An idea, an incident, a person triggers a thought process that meanders experimentally to a logical conclusion, something that offers meaning by the end of the trail.

In an essay, the writer decides from the outside. In improv, the group decides from within.

An essay is open to editing — at least until publication. Running improv scenes in the park, I suppose, is the equivalent to the early drafts of a writing piece, with the eventual performance as publication.

As a high school journalism teacher, I used to tell my students that writing an essay is something like choosing a sandwich at a smorgasbord. The top bun must be attractive, or no one will pick it up/read it. Each successive layer — lettuce, tomato, bacon, cheese, patty, pickle — must have a purpose and must add to the taste, or the diner/reader goes no further. Finally, the bottom layer of bun must hold everything together, or the whole effort falls apart.

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