Posted on August 1, 2020

How Improvisation in Theater Changed My Life

Breathe in…
Breath out…
On the next breath focus on the point of equanimity and silence inside you, look for it, where it is located, focus on this place, close your eyes for two more breaths…


What is the one thing that you learned in your life that moved everything from foggy and frustrating to exciting and fulfilling? 

Nothing? Keep looking, your journey has not even started. 

I will tell you how it happened for me, my search for meaning took me across the globe to make a loop back… 

Meaning, meaningful life, what is meaning for you?

Sure, meaning is different for everyone, and for me it is almost impossible to put it to words. 
Meaning for me -  is not a concept, it is a process, a search. I will look for it and hopefully find many answers and many questions in my path. 

Yet there is some substance that I can give you now, in my journey looking for my meaning I stumbled on two questions that stuck with me… 

Can I express myself artistically?

It’s not a closed question, sure silly you can… No - how can I express myself artistically, in a way that the medium I choose will not distort and limit my messages? 

Second question, as simple as is, CAN I CHANGE THE WORLD? 
No surprise, I have a suspicion that this is your question too, in fact I bet it is anyone’s question. Sometimes we rush to answer it: No, you're too small to change the world, you, greedy. Why would you attempt such a thing? But really, what means “changing” and what means “the world”? Is it the universe, multiverse, this planet, any particular country, my neighbourhood? 
I claim no responsibility to know the answer, what I can only say that this is all and none and its meanings, changing depending on circumstances, my experience, and my feelings. So there is no way I can have one simple answer, more like many answers. 

Did You Mention Theater?

Before 2013 theater was a dead form of art for me, a shell of its former glorious achievements. My experience with the theater did not encourage much interest at all, it felt boring and forgettable. Not that I gave it much opportunity, but working for the film industry I had this fascination for old pre-film theater, which was the culmination of human achievements in storytelling. One human on the stage could create a story much like a book. 

My first real experience with theater and subsequent deep dive into theater as a form of art was complex and fascinating, which made me understand that theater will never be a dead art form as long as we humans are humans. 
In my first encounter, I experienced the improvised plays which were confusing, yet there was something that touched me beyond my comprehension on a deeper level. Now there, it made me curious, what is there more for me?

The Colors Of a Lonely Soul

Loneliness is an important topic for me, what is loneliness, how it impacts us as humans, what can we do about it? 

The most persistent feeling that followed me through my life was this feeling of profound isolation...
I felt fine and thoroughly entertained all by myself, yet I had this weight that everything I feel, think, earn, love, hate will never be shared, understood and felt by anyone but me, and this made me feel profoundly lonely. 
Yes I knew as being a bookworm that I can learn how to write and ultimately share my loneliness with my readers. Still, I knew clearly that words are not enough to cure that loneliness. 

I often listened to people… 
If you let anyone talk for hours, nodding sometimes, it’s like clicking on any link on wikipedia - after a while you will land a philosophy page, people start talking about their deepest feelings, questions, experiences, unearthing what does not open sometimes for years, or never.
This taught me that we all need to connect, yet the language does not help, because a phrase is like a misplaced quote from a book, it sounds good but it's misleading. 

So if Language Doesn't Help Us Connect, What Does?

Art - is my first choice, if you do not have the luxury to spend hours, days, months, and years to connect to a person so finally, maybe, you will have a moment of that connection. We can use art as a fast track from my inner world to your inner world. We all rely on the common ground of experiences like we all experienced happiness, joy, excitement, disappointment, fear, hurt, and these are only basics, we can all go to a more nuanced feelings and experiences that we share. This is why it’s easier to connect with people from the same country, because we share more common experiences. 

How We Relate to Each Other?

Remember a moment in your life when you spent a whole day or night talking to a person and it felt that you connected so deeply?
You don’t even remember on what grounds you connected, what was the discussion that made that connection, in that moment you could see the infinite depth and complexity of that person, feeling amazing human underneath the surface and at the same time feeling that this person sees something true and deep in you. 
Don’t you cherish these moments? 
Do these moments make you remember that you matter, and loneliness is not forever? 

Connection, Perpetual?

I want this experience to be not just one day of my life, I want this to be, if not every day experience, at least it to happen often enough for me to forget about loneliness… 
You may smile now, it may never be achieved? 
I’m not delusional, if I see that this is possible once, I just need to find a way to repeat it at least once again, because if it happens twice means it can happen infinite times.  

A Path to Connection

If I think about it strategically, it means that the human connection has a process that can be studied, understood. And from it we can devise strategies and learn ways how we can make the connection not a fleeting accident, but a skill. 
Yes, connecting with people is a skill that should be learned and trained. 
Remind me again why I need this connection? 

Why is Human Connection so Rare?

The frustration and dissatisfaction is ever growing.
The way we interact with people around us, and the way society functions, it feels harmful and often lacking common sense, counterproductive and often destructive. 

Why is It Hard to Connect With People? 

It happens for many reasons, and here are 3 that I have identified. 

Insecurity, insecurity, insecurity… 

Insecurity is most prominent in experiences where we are exposed to others, when we make love, when we express our opinion, our feelings, when we help others or when we ask for help. 
Remember how you felt, when you were undressed for the first time in front of a person you're in love? There is nowhere to hide, vulnerable, and around these moments our insecurity shows its head, like in the wacamole game - no matter how much we fight it back it will pop up again. 

Bad Experiences Feed The Monsters

Our bad experiences are never really related to our personality, no matter who we are and what we do, we deserve to be loved, accepted, heard, considered… 
But somehow, if someone doesn’t give us our much needed acceptance, we store this as proof that we are unworthy and there is something wrong with us. This is how we make other people do what we want them to do, but this is a two edged sword. While we punish others, we treat ourselves with the same unkindness. 

And to learn how to undo this vicious circle I needed to train as a professional actor and learn how to play improvisations in a modern theater. 

Theater Improvisation as a Training Ground

In theatre improvisation, and in life, when you open yourself, you risk failing, but in theater failing is a part of the process, and often in life we give up too fast. 

Why was theatre improvisation more successful in teaching me how to connect with myself and others, better than anything in the world? 
I mean anything, I tried so many things, and traveled to many countries to find my answers, ironically the solutions were somewhat based on theory and focused more on the problem and what is wrong with me, without giving me an opportunity to change anything. 

Where in the studio, from the very first attempt, my trainer gave me the most valuable lesson how to survive a toxic character, experience, situation or person. 

“Nicoleta, it is your free choice to let in the feeling, you decide whether this experience you will have or not.” 

In subsequent training lessons my trainer (Elena Cushnir) taught me how to work safely with situations that can make me feel bad, and how to protect my inner balance so that I can freely experience anything without being affected deeply by it. It’s like reading a book, in the book you are reading about people dying, suffering, happiness and abundance of experiences, and you do feel all of it, but they do not touch your core, in your core you are a spectator that feels compassion and does not differentiate bad from good experiences of the characters, you enjoy all of them and appreciate their role in the story, acknowledging that without them the story would not be. 

Same with acting, you live it deeper than a book, it is your skin for the time being, you feel what this character feels, at the same time your core is not touched and any moment something goes wrong, you have a choice to stop it, and it stops every time, in fact it never gets to the point I need it to stop. 

This was the first lesson I learned, out of a long journey through acting school. 
The acting space is good for learning how to connect to people, because you need to be - vulnerable. You will do many things you are uncomfortable with, in front of people, actors, trainers, and the audience. But you will routinely learn how to overcome this vulnerability and enjoy the adrenaline from it and the freedom to be the paradox you are, in a safe environment, because here in the studio, I am expected to be a paradox, I am expected to be vulnerable and open, this is what people need from me. 

Path to Reconnect With Yourself

Acting cannot happen if you are not connected to yourself. My mind, and body are my instruments in the theater, and I need to wield them in perfection, to be able to find the strings and play them in tune with the role and the story of the play.

This reminds me of the experience once I had in deep wreck dive, which happened in the Philippines in over 50 meters depth - it was dark. The pressure was higher than normally I would be used to, which complicated everything, with every breath I took multiplied the amount of air I was consuming, changing my body and my brain. Yet the main challenge was the fact that a wreck is a dangerous place, where keeping your level in water is crucial not to damage the life sustaining equipment or getting dangerous injuries. Panic was not an option - while entering the sunken ship at this depth, where every extra heartbeat meant more erratic breathing which resulted in rapid loss of depth, too much oxygen could raise me up to the metal spikes that were sticking out of the ship's belly. 
I remember, as clear as it happens with me right now, how my pulse quickened when the open mouth of darkness swallowed me into the ship's guts. In that moment something clicked in my brain, all the training and the information I had before the dive appeared in my mind. I knew If I don’t find a way to calm down something bad could happen, and in that moment something clicked in my mind, fear transformed into crystal clear awareness, I felt my body, every cell of it, pulsating, living, and the surroundings, it felt that I can see everything, no distance and no darkness were impediment to me… I felt for the first time alive, existing, here, now… I could see the world in its entirety. 

In that moment I felt powerful, in control… 

Now you can see why I love diving, other reasons are the world which gives me amazing inspiration and the experience. Being under water is different, unfamiliar, out of body, out of daily experience. 
Theater for me is like scuba diving, a big world, thrilling, scarry, sometimes dangerous, yet it's the whole world in itself yet it feeds and nourishes other parts of my reality. 

My question was, can we have these experiences more often? How will these experiences change us? Can I use it for something?

This is why I like to meditate and I was always deeply aware of myself for all my life, but in theater I had to take this to the next level, awareness had to be the beginning of my character, and of the story I had to create in the improvisation. This meant I had to dig deep, learn how to listen to myself and express this information, I had to repeat the diving experience every time. 

Expanding My Consciousness

Improvisation puts the atlassian burden of storytelling on the shoulders of the actors, not that I only have to find the character and make it believable so-to-speak, at same time I have to see the potential of the story and develop it as well, that is interesting and engaging, paradoxical, relatable yet pushing my and spectators understanding. 

How on Earth do you do that?! I had to become my own storyteller, this means that I need to be always on the hunt for stories, read classics, mythology and go through days with my mind open to human experiences. And all that to help me understand one thing, how to ask good questions, because a good question can give birth to an infinite number of stories, and the deeper the questions is, closer to the origins of human consciousness, closer to our truth, the better stories come out of it. But ultimately, we ask one question, that always is a tool that helps us create stories on the go:
What is happening here and now?

Deepening the Awareness

One of the cornerstones of the acting and in particular of the improvisation, is to develop an ability to open your mind, your awareness, to the reality, to the happenings of “now”. It is one of the most complex tasks, even for most trained and skilled professionals in this task like for example buddhist monks that spend their entire life on developing their awareness abilities. For an improvisation actor, awareness in the process is like air. You can’t see it when it is here, but you’re suffocating when it is gone. This training helps me use this ability not only for improvisation, but for daily life, to deepen my understanding of happening, where my subjective emotions do not interfere anymore with the information I get, and this allows me to see deeper into things beyond what I would see otherwise. 

Learning How to Listen to Others 

As simple as it sounds, this one is a hard one, especially when the results depend not only on your effort.
How to make yourself heard? 
Improvisation and acting most of the time is a dialogue, verbal and nonverbal. Here happens the magic, the beautiful dance of human connection. It is what I ultimately was looking for, and this is what I had to do routinely, I had to ensure that connection with my partners on the play. And experiencing this scary process in a safe and nurtured environment, where I am expected to make mistakes, and my trainer and the partners in play respect my learning process and are here to help me get it right. 

All these stages are necessary for an improvisation actor to be capable of playing the improvisation, yet I have come to realise that these are also the same stages necessary in our life to connect to people. In the end, what is the teater, if not the attempt to study the same question we all humans have embedded in our brain? 

What is happening here and now? 

Yet theater and improvisation gave me the opportunity to explore human experiences beyond what I would dream to do it in any other way. The human in theater is studied from different points of view - in theater we do not isolate one side of us, theater studies human phenomenon in all its entirety, without limitations and without judging what’s good or bad. All that is human in theater is fascinating, important, necessary, accepted, and worth studying. 

And this is why I believe that modern theater will help us gain the human connection that is so crucial to our survival, and lost. 


Tags & Categories

Reach me on social media:

Nicoleta Nagailic © 2021, Built with ♥ , Gatsby & Drupal 8.