The Penn State Walk
My second university teaching job was at Penn State University in State College, Pennsylvania. As an Assistant Professor in Theatre Arts I had a lot on my plate. I remember one particular stressful day in the fall of my second-year teaching in 1976. It was just after a fast lunch in the school cafeteria and I was walking at a rapid clip across the campus rushing to the Theatre Arts Building for my three o’clock class. I was in high gear. My mind was racing with a growing sense of panic. The inner monologue was something like this: ‘And when I get to the office I’d better photocopy the class exercise sheets, and then after the Voice class I have to go to rehearsal until 9:00 PM, and then I have to pick up the dry cleaning before it closes, and then I have to drop off the books at the library, and then I have to be sure to remember to call Ellen about tomorrow’s lecture, and then I have to get gas, and then...” My mind became a ‘demon date book’ barking at me. As my frustration mounted I tripped slightly on the path and all of sudden I heard a voice inside my head, speaking quite calmly, clearly and resonantly: “Patricia, PATRICIA, did you know that all you have to do right now actually is walk to the Theatre Arts building? That is all you have to do. So, why not just do that?” (My memory is that this was the voice of God speaking.)
That’s true, I thought. All I can do right now is walk to the building. I can’t actually do the photocopying or any of the other tasks I was listing in my litany of ‘things I had to do.’ All I can do right now is walk. Why not do that really well? Just walk to class.
It was as if I had woken up suddenly. I slowed down and began looking around at the colorful fall maples which lined the path abundantly. What lovely trees! As I walked I noticed the beauty of the campus, I felt the crisp fall air brush my cheeks, I noticed the other people on the path, all hurrying, too. All at once I was simply living that walk. All I had to do at that moment was walk to my office. That was forty-two years ago. I can still remember the color of the leaves and the warmth of the sun on that walk.
The lesson here is to remind yourself to do just what is in front of you now. Brian Lohmann, founder of Pulp Playhouse, told me once: "I try and slow down time when I come on stage." It’s important to avoid the panicky, frenzied state that overtakes new improvisers in particular. Instead of being in a hurry (to contribute something) the players should take on what appears to be a relaxed watchfulness. From that alert state they are free to join in or wait, whatever is needed. There is a quality to the attention that is very ordinary. It is, of course, extraordinary, however, to call up this everyday mind in front of an audience. William Hall, a master improviser and teacher, reminds us that a trade secret to successful stage improvisation is to breathe. And keep breathing.
I've noticed that everything around me seems to be speeding up these days. But I can choose another way.
Problem: Not enough time?
Solution: There is. Slow down. Breathe. And just do the thing you are doing . . .well.
El Granada, CA
June 16, 2018