Performing improvisors know the almost impossible to resist pull of going onstage when a scene is going well.
I’ve stood on the sidelines knowing that I am not needed — the actors are solidly playing the characters they have created, the story is flowing, the audience is laughing or crying — and yet, I want to be onstage. I want to be a part of that. Who wouldn’t? When it feels good just to be close to that action, it is easy to imagine that it would be incredible to be in the middle of it. That thought is never at the forefront of my consciousness; my imagination gives me all kinds of ideas that would justify getting out there, but underneath it all, I know that I just want to be out there for the good stuff. From inside a scene that is rocking and rolling along, I’ve felt the “oh no” as other improvisors pile on in to try and be a part of it.
It is the flipside of hanging out in the wings when things are going badly and you don’t know what to do. When the stage is cold and the improvisors on it are floundering, just getting yourself on the stage to make some kind of offer is the best thing. When you do that, even if it doesn’t help the scene, at the very least, your fellow players know they are not alone. There is the difference — when the stage is cold, we need to be reminded that we are not alone and return to the most basic principles of taking care of our partners and triggering their imaginations. When the stage is hot, we need to know that sometimes the best offer is the one held back in respect of what is already happening. The choice to not to do something can be just as playful and wonderful a choice as doing something.
I have gotten (and given) the post-show note, “You weren’t needed in that scene. Stay offstage.” It is common. It is so human. When there’s fun, we want in. Yet going on stage when you are not needed often throws a scene off-kilter. The magic of the moment can be deflated by the over-eager newcomer.
And so it is in playing with our little people too. There is a delicate balance to be found between offering opportunities to play together, joining play, letting the little people take the lead, taking the lead, and staying out of it.
Which brings me to yesterday morning’s cat pancakes.
LP & I had a number of days in a row where all our mornings felt rushed. So yesterday we were taking it slow and I suggested making pancakes for breakfast. The response was an enthusiastic “YES!”
In the middle of helping pour and mix, she climbed down from the stepstool to harvest some cats to add. (She has long been into the book Farm Fresh Cats by Scott Santoro. In this book, Farmer Ray’s cabbage crop mysteriously turns into a cat crop. Very quirky and fun.) She went back and forth a number of times, harvesting her imaginary cats from the other room and running in to add them to the pancake batter. Throughout this, I bantered with her –calling her “Farmer Ray” and talking about cat harvest — while cooking and cleaning up a bit.
Once the pancakes (with blueberries) were cooking, LP was back on the stool counting cat eyes (blueberries). Her face was alight with delight, her energy was big and bold; it was just fun to be next to her. And I noticed myself start to think about making pancakes in the shape of cats. Surely that would be even more fun, right?
Fortunately there was no space to start a new pancake at the moment of that idea so I got to sit with it a minute. And realized that, LP was completely engrossed in the experience she had created. My offer of cat-shaped pancakes (which of course won’t really look much more like real cats than my un-cat-shaped pancakes), would be the equivalent of going onstage when I am not needed. My offer of shaping the pancakes intentionally like cats might have deflated her imagining of them.
LP’s imagination was off and running, her play was full and robust. She was showing me the level of interaction that added to her pleasure; my role was mostly audience with a little verbal interaction. If she had been minimally engaged in playing this out, joining her in harvesting the cats or making my sorta-cat-shaped pancakes would be invitations for more engagement as I tested out things to spark her imagination.
Throughout breakfast, I stayed focus on being appreciative audience for LP’s Farmer Ray; It was easy to do, especially since Farmer Ray enjoyed her cat pancakes with gusto.
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