Falling Forward in Improv

“Fall, then figure out what to do on the way down.” – Del Close

This is an improv note that I’ve been given in workshops and classes, and in turn, one that I’ve given to my students and teams. This past Sunday I had the opportunity to have the literal experience this quote describes. It was quite a rush!

My husband had the car for the weekend so I decided to run home after teaching my improv class–Atlantic Station to Decatur–about 10 miles. Around a mile into my run when I was on 17th Street in front of the Atlantic Station commercial district, I tripped and started falling. My body stayed in motion as I fell forward, a physics experiment gone awry: mass * acceleration = eating concrete.

My first thought was this is going to hurt. My second thought was this is going to be embarrassing because all the people around me are going to witness it. My third thought was don’t collide with anyone. My fourth thought was this is going to mess up my run dammit. My fifth thought was I hope I don’t sustain any long term injury. My sixth thought was how have I not hit the ground yet?

In my mind, I heard “Fall! Fall! Fall!” on repeat but my feet kept moving, hurtling me even faster into what I assumed was an inevitable tumble. I charged forward off balance, looking like I would fall over any moment for like a quarter of a block, but I never hit the ground.

When I finally recovered my balance, I kept running resisting the urge to throw my hands over my head Rocky Balboa style. I tried to make eye contact with the next few people I passed, but they avoided me–presumably because they didn’t want to embarrass me by acknowledging my ungraceful careen down the sidewalk.

I wasn’t embarrassed, though. Quite the opposite–I was proud I’d made it through the trip unscathed. Finally a guy I was passing did look at me and said, “that was really something.”

“Yes. It was amazing!” I told him.

It was a rush. Losing control. Running faster even though I was falling. Coming so close to hitting the ground but then pulling out of it.

Before this experience, whenever I heard the quote “fall, then figure out what to do on the way down” I’ve pictured someone jumping out a window or off a cliff. But an improv scene doesn’t go downward (one hopes). It moves forward. So my close encounter with the Atlantic Station sidewalk is perhaps a better visual representation.

Because the quote is not about falling and losing control completely, it’s about taking risks and figuring out what to do when you’re falling. Sure, sometimes you’ll hit the pavement. But other times you’ll be stunned by the brilliance of your mind (and body) to pull through challenging circumstances. The trick is not giving up even when hitting the ground seems imminent.

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