The other night as I was getting in my car to head over to Harold Night at ImprovBoston I turned on the radio and heard a sort of pinched, nerdy-sounding voice say the following: “You can’t connect the dots going forward; you can only connect the dots going backward.” It was Steve Jobs, from a commencement address to the students of Stanford University in 2005 (you’ve probably heard some other quote from it lately, too).
When I walked into the theatre, I shared with my team what I’d heard in the car. Lately we’ve been talking about “looking back over your shoulder” at a show (a phrase that Bill Arnett, my mentor and coach from iO, used in a recent workshop here at ImprovBoston) as a way of being in the moment while being conscious of that moment’s relationship with the rest of the show. This quote from Jobs seemed to build off that idea.
Not being able to connect the dots going forward doesn’t mean that you can’t or shouldn’t be deliberate; it doesn’t mean being erratic or disjointed or unconcerned with one’s choices. Jobs would never have gotten where he was by being haphazard or unaware of his context. But it does mean that you can’t know the sum total of the effect of your choices until you look back at them in the rear-view mirror. And it also means that each new choice, once it’s made, becomes a part of that rear-view picture.
You do an opening. As the opening evolves you look back at the moves that have come before and get a sense of them as a whole, and you feed that—“if this is true what else is true?” After the opening, you look back to it as a source that feeds your first beat scenes—but here’s the trick: you don’t think about the scenes themselves as part of the big picture while you’re doing them. You just do great scenes. You have great relationships and you heighten and you find the truth of the scene. Then, when that scene is over, it starts to recede into the rear-view with the opening, and you can see a new picture begin to come together. That picture feeds the next scene, but, again, that scene can’t worry about how it fits into the picture—not until it’s over and it, too, falls back over the show’s shoulder. As more and more of the show recedes into that rear-view, the picture of what the show is becomes more and more distinct. Even this reflection over your shoulder, as it were, can’t be so intense that it gets in the way of your forward motion. It’s best to let one’s sense of the patterns and center of the show emerge from one’s natural intuition (humans are pattern-seeking and pattern-recognizing animals, after all, and your brain will naturally do the work of finding those connections if you are mentally present in the show). In your play, you act based on this intuition and impulse, and since you come at it after looking in the rear-view, you naturally build off the foundation of what came before and (subconsciously), can’t help but make moves that in some way connect. That’s why after a show, you’ll sometimes have an audience member (or teammate) praise you for a brilliant callback that you didn’t even realize you’d made—the show did its work on you, and you were open to receiving it.
The irony present here is one that permeates all of long-form improv; it’s the irony present when someone (usually an uncle or some dude from work) asks you how you can rehearse improv at all. How can one be completely given over to the moment at hand and then instantaneously reflective of that moment—and switch back and forth as the situation requires? It’s not unlike Orwell’s doublethink from 1984 (ironic, that is, given the Jobs reference and the iconic Macintosh computer ad campaign that launched Apple to personal-computer fame), but to a positive end: “To know and not to know…The power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.” One must be both utterly convinced of the meaningfulness of the show as a whole as well as its every individual piece, yet while creating it and experiencing it in the moment, utterly convinced that nothing but that moment matters, and unconcerned with making it fit into a coherent whole. Or, as Jobs explained it, “believing that the dots will connect down the road will give you the confidence to follow your heart…”
The creative process is the creative process, whether that creation is a personal computer or improv comedy. Follow your heart. Believe that the dots will connect. Believe that what you’re doing matters. And, if you want to do it better than anyone else, wear a black mock turtleneck while you’re doing it.