So an improviser and a Rabbi walk onto a plane…. sounds like the start of a joke doesn’t it.
Today I was flying back to Melbourne from New Jersey. My first flight was New Jersey to Denver then I had to change flights to continue to LA. I’ll be honest sometimes when I travel I hit my disconnect from humanity button. I surf the monotony of lines ups and endless waiting, or I’m seduced into the personal on flight TV screen. Whatever the distraction the shields of non interaction are up.
Today was different.
Today I met an extraordinary man, who happens to be a retired Rabbi, who was travelling with his wonderful wife.
Today I received a great lesson from this inspiring man.
I consider myself to be a pretty positive person. I believe that impro principals are also good life principals. If we don’t apply the basics of listening and valuing the other person it is often due to the fear of engaging with strangers and what type of interaction will occur. Will it be bad or awkward and will my acceptance of this interaction screw up my trip. Life fear is parallel to stage fear in so many areas. I hit the humanity disconnect button not because I don’t want any interaction, but because I don’t want the awkward uncomfortable interaction. I turn off in case. This is my strategy for dealing with the fear and therefore to avoid the possibility of those undesirable interactions. Lets face it if I knew that each conversation with a stranger was going to be fun, interesting or rewarding there would be no shield cause there is no fear. I think the same holds true with improvisation scenes. In scenes people Block out of fear of others having control and out of losing control themselves. If we knew they would always work, there would be no fear. But why do we always assume the worst?
To meet someone who in life is a natural improviser was such a joy. His openness, acceptance and positive energy put me to shame. He was genuinely interested in every story, what was outside the plane, slogans for ads, the flight attendants, his wife. Everything was an offer that he embraced fully.
It wasn’t just his attitude but his perception. In improvisation I believe everything is an offer and if you look at things that way you are never without. He did this. For example he asked me why I was in NJ. I told him I was teaching in Maine and I said ‘Maine is beautiful.’ He replied ‘All places are beautiful if you have the joy inside you to see it that way.‘ This was impro logic in life. A quote of Keith Johnstone’s that I use a lot is ‘It’s not the offer but what we do with it that makes or breaks the scene.’ If we are fearless we embrace all offers with honest acceptance and see them as possibilities not lack of potential. The same is true in life. Change our perception and the offers are obvious.
I said ‘Driving through the midwest is hard. Your driving in endless nothingness’ he replied ‘It’s not nothingness, there is so much there, it just is all the same.’ Again, good impro logic. It’s not the offer, it’s our perception of the offer. If we are looking for clever and imaginative offers we missed the possibilities of what is in front of us. Again, we miss the obvious.
He constantly aimed to make others feel good and his eyes had that delight and sparkle of an improviser at play. He told jokes freely, spoke through the divide between seats to crying children to entertain them, effortlessly complimented me, his wife, and the world. Showed me pictures of his family and took a honest interest in mine. His story telling skills were wonderful and he would delight in sharing a tale with a twinkle in his eye. I said to him ‘ Your congregation must have really loved you.’ He replied ‘You can’t teach people if they are asleep.’ He learned to inspire his audience by being present and making them feel good to be there. He gave his congregation a good time.
When we arrived in Denver we had to switch flights. I walked through the Denver airport with this amazing good feeling inside me as a result of this man who, basically, improvised with me. He made me feel good, he inspired me, he played, he was fearless and open and accepting. It was in the Denver airport that it clicked he was being a great improviser. I found my normal airport mood shift and felt light on my feet and hoped I would be sitting next to him on the next flight. I wanted to observe and learn more.
I arrived at the gate and boarding had already begun. It was an airline that doesn’t assign seats you get called in groups and just have to find an available seat. I found myself suddenly worried someone else would be next to my new friend. I boarded the plane looking for them my eyes searching each row. I glanced down the plane and there was his wife waving and he was saving a seat for me. How wonderful! Again he made me feel great!
On this flight I learned he has had many health problems and it was touch and go as to if he would make this trip. I saw the deformed bulge in his arm from years of the dialysis treatments he endured. I learned about his new kidney donated by a donor after a car accident. I learned of how he and his wife had travelled and how he felt standing in Tiananmen Square. I watched him treat his wife with such respect and love, holding her hand and laughing with her.
I also learned of his lists. In 1988 he began a document on his computer called Lists. A line by line list of names, addressed, phone number, and notes. Not in any ordered system just type, hit return and add more. No breaks between items, bullet points or numbering. There are some words in colour, different fonts and sizes. Aside from that there is no real distinguishing beginning or end. The list contained things like an interesting road name, a slogan for a soda pop, information from a business card, his nephews finances cell number, a birthday he always forgets, a dish he tried at a restaurant that he liked any moment of discovery, joy or interest. A list of things, people, moments, items that he wanted to keep in some form. Be it place, person, object he just put on a list. It is now 36 pages long. 36 pages of life offers. The latest entry is my name and email.
When we said goodbye there was no long linger or forced promises of contact. We wished each other the best and he said maybe he would send me a note sometime. I found myself not wanting to break contact with them but it was obvious he had moved onto the task of needing to get the rental car. Our scene was over.
How funny I shifted from not wanting to engage humanity to not wanting to let these strangers vanish off into the world.
Like working with a wonderful improviser he inspired me through his fearlessness, joy, openness and acceptance to be open to the offers around me in life and not to shut down, or turn off. It just denies me the opportunity to improvise on the greatest stage of all, life.