At the beginning of the year, I had the joy of doing an improvised show for a private party.
It was glorious and hilarious and freeing and all the things improv gives you when you trust yourself and the form. Afterwards a man came rushing up to me to say how wonderful he thought we were (thank you, I like compliments) and then asked the quite common question “What do you do when it all goes wrong?”
It rarely actually goes wrong, is the true answer. Because it is a team effort.
So it takes a lot for it to go horribly wrong, rather than just a bit of turbulence every so often.
Which I said to him. He said ‘Come on, you must sometimes not know what to say. It must go really, really wrong some times. What do you do then?’ His eyes were gleaming, waiting for the outpouring of me re-living some miserable moment from my past.
And I stopped and thought about it.
Eventually I said ‘The only real thing that I can do is to say to myself DON’T PANIC. Because most of the time, we start to sense it is going wrong and so we PANIC and then the thing that was just a bit wobbly gets thrown by the Panic into being something that does go wrong. So actually, it wasn’t what was happening on stage that was going wrong, but rather the response to what was happening on stage. So we need to be with the moment, no matter how sticky and not panic about the moment. That will stop if turning from ‘not exactly right’ into ‘wrong’.
The man was clearly disappointed that I didn’t just say ‘Oh yes. Sometimes I want to kill myself, but that’s improv!’ He politely thanked me again for the show and left.
It stayed with me, this idea of Don’t Panic. So much so, that when I was teaching improv a few days later to a new group of would-be improvisers, I said the only skill you really have to master to be a top improviser is Don’t Panic. Easier said than done, but what a skill to master.
I was listening to an interview with the non-dualist thinker, Rupert Spira, of whose work I am a fan, in which he recalled a story of his pottery barn burning down (not the American home furnishing store, but his literal barn where he keeps his pottery). His friend and mentor called in that moment and told him ‘Don’t try to change this moment.’ Which I understood to mean - in literal terms - don’t panic. We don’t want the barn to be burning, so we panic. But the barn is burning. Sure, call the fire brigade. Get out of the burning building, but don’t add panic on top of that. To panic would be to suggest that we can stop the barn from ever burning or my brain from not having a moment where it doesn’t know what to say. But the barn is burning. My brain doesn’t have a word. Panicking elongates that moment.
It strikes me that 2022 is the year where our mantra needs to be Don’t Panic.
We are at the end of two years of locked in and up and out. Of Vaccine arguments and mandates. Of Brexit wars and climate anxieties. And then we are trying to live our lives with all the normal worries and struggles, whilst the world is opening up and learning what it is to live with the continued battle of Covid.
Like WW1, we thought it would only last a few months, and here we are, still fighting years later. Not sure if we took the right route, but it is a route we have taken. We cannot live in the routes we didn’t take. We can only notice the decisions that have been made, the place we are right now and move from here. If we panic when we make those decisions, then we make decisions we regret.
We go into the burning barn.
We force a word into a show that makes no sense.
We choose dubious solutions because we panicked.
There is, of course, nothing worse than someone telling you not to panic when you are panicked, so think of it as a mantra rather than a command. Something to meditate on. Something to consider when you have a brain fart.
Don’t panic, my friend.