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Improv and Existential Philosophy

When they hear the term "existential philosophy," most people probably imagine something particularly serious. From Sisyphus's optimistic condemnation to Kierkegaard's entirely pessimistic outlook, modernity weighs on the human condition.

A central tenet of existentialism is rejecting the idea of fate (all forms of determinism) and a metaphysical acceptance of freedom of will. Unfortunately, instead of signalling a joyous onset for the exploration of the humane, the foremost thinkers of the genre focus on the burden of responsibility, the existential anxiety one experiences in the search for meaning in an indifferent world and the feelings of alienation and isolation from oneself and the world that modern humans face. Indeed, in the era of social media and the digital substitution of direct communication with synthetic interfaces – coinciding with historically high anxiety levels and uncertainty about the future – these questions remain more relevant than ever, not only as theoretical pursuits but as crucial daily life issues.

Confused, lost and deeply alone, humans struggle to forge a path toward meaning. Is there a chance that humour and improvisational interaction might serve as an antidote to the alienation of modernity? I believe so, and I am not sure that philosophers did not engage more extensively with the issue of merrymaking because they were not very observant or particularly funny. Either way, it’s a lost opportunity and I will attempt to right this wrong!

Part 1. Embracing Uncertainty and Ambiguity

If there is a dominant anxiety of the subject in existential contemplation, it is the anxiety of uncertainty. And if there is a staple of any improvisational process, it is embracing uncertainty. Regardless of experience, the participant must relinquish control of the game. Just as in life, they control only a tiny segment of the process. The story moves by external forces, and yet it is a common sight to see people delight during an improvisational game! One would expect that merely the thought of this exposure would elicit terror – and at first, for many, it often does – but after the initial stages, once they feel comfortable enough to embrace the unknown, a transformation occurs. A small, improvisational miracle! The very condition of uncertainty, from being a source of anxiety, becomes the foundation of fun!

It is said that many people change radically by engaging with this art. Their self-confidence increases, their social anxiety decreases, they can speak in front of an audience or friends with renewed strength. And perhaps therein lies the power of improv. In transcending the fear of the unknown, in converting it into a foundation of creativity. From a very young age, we learn to move within predetermined models. We prepare for exams at school, study for classes, train in sports; every moment of performance is a moment of examination, and every examination reduces the person to a result. In contrast, in improv, the concept of outcome disappears. Every outcome is equally positive as any other. The person returns to the forefront and regains the right to authentically embrace the moment of performance for its own sake. We could say that improv is a form of de-education or re-education in a format more fitting for human satisfaction and not oriented toward human industry. I do not think it is a coincidence that people become addicted to improv. When, otherwise, the rest of social conventions demand your suppression, improv stands as one of the few that demand your authentic self. And who does not want to be themselves?

Part 2. Community

Another issue I want to share my thoughts on is communication. I think it is commonly accepted that our relationships are increasingly being replaced by digital interactions on social media. At the same time, work seems to occupy an ever-larger portion of the pie, while entertainment seems to be molded into pre-packaged choices. Movies, series, video games, even at the bar, there is the blueprint of the expected successful night. But if one observes children playing, they will see that pure play is a spontaneous act beyond expectation and etiquette, and children seem happier than all of us. Is that a coincidence?

I believe that it isn’t. There lies something magical. Just like above, improvisation manages a momentary de-instrumentalization of the person (forget drinking buddies, sex buddies and movie buddies), bringing the person back to the here and now and giving value to the here and now – as opposed to some promise of future cash-in upon which we base the rest of our lives. The community comes alive again, and people communicate truly outside labels, gender, age, and any kind of division we have injected into the game of life. Human to human.

So, if you are anxious about our awareness of death, if inflation scares you and rents are predicted to triple in the next decade, if you feel powerless against the indifferent movement of the world, remember that there is always improv! You can meet your friends in the afternoon and laugh together at the spectacle.


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