About 3 months ago, I stumbled across an Improv podcast called “Zenprov”. Naturally the unusual name and the podcast bio prompted me to have a listen to see what it was all about. 2 months later, I was sitting in a Zenprov workshop in London, having an improv experience like no other.

It took a bit of prodding of Cardiff’s improv legend, Nathan Keates, but he took control of organising a venue in London and getting participants on board. We all met on a Friday evening in a quaint but relevent yoga studio in London for a night of action filled Zenprov!

Zenprov is actually 2 people, Marshall C. Stern and Nancy Howland Walker. (Both also improvise under as Chicago Improv Associates.) Both of them are very experienced Zen practitioners and improvisers. Realising the common ground in Zen and improv, they developed the Zenprov program. One of the common themes in both Zenprov and improv is that of “being in the moment.” Their approach to improv is with what they call “Wu Wei” or “Effortless Effort.”

I know what you may be thinking, that this sounds very hippie and wishy washy. But in reality it’s actually the opposite. What I learned in the workshop was a literal interpretation of HOW to be be in the moment. Admittedly I had my doubts at the start of the workshop when Marshall told us we would open the workshop with a brief meditation. I have never meditated before and I can’t sit cross legged for more than 10 seconds without feeling pain! However being a fan of the podcasts I went along with it. Marshall guided us in a down to earth and respectful manner.

As the workshop progressed, I felt empowered with the guy’s teachings. I felt extremely comfortable in scenes in a way I don’t think I realised previously. It became apparent to me during one scene when my co-performer resisted some of my offers. Rather than thoughts of rescue strategies or character changes filling my mind, a moment of zen hit me! And I just continued with the scene. It was quite a liberating moment! It really helps keep you focussed.

There was much coverage of emotional content in the workshop. In real life, one way that we very much are in the moment is when we are emoting. The work with emotion on stage helped create some beautiful scenes and moments. It really was innovative improv!

Outside of the workshop I had the pleasure spending some time with Nancy and Marshall where we talked improv, Chicago and a bit about Ireland too. (Check out Marshall’s Irish accent!) Nancy is the brains behind the show “MUSICAL! The Musical”, the world’s first musical improv show. She has written a book called “Instant Songwriting: Musical Improv From Dunce To Diva”. When Marshall is not improvising or acting, he is hosting his politics radio show “Awakened America”. Both Marshall and Nancy are currently writing a book on Zenprov.

If you visit Chicago I highly recommend checking out a Zenprov workshop or one of the guy’s shows. If you are serious about improv, it’s a must.

I had the pleasure of interviewing the guys gaining some deeper insight into what they do. Enjoy!


How did Zenprov come about?

Marshall: In 1999 I was in Chicago, taking classes and Josephine Forsberg was teaching a class, she’s one of the founders of the Players Workshop. She was talking about the elements of improv. I was at the time studying Zen, and I was struck by the similarities between them. The idea of staying in the present moment, not being in your head, things like that. So that was the first version of the idea. From there I started working on it on my own and bringing it into my classes that I was teaching in Nashville. Then I met Nancy and we developed it further.

Nancy: We wrote a brand new curriculum for Players Workshop together based on Zenprov

Marshall: Yes, it was an idea that was evolving and has being evolving ever since. In 2007 we started the Zenprov podcast and from the podcast we discovered even more. Last year [2011], we were working on a book and were getting stuck and thinking we had come so far but now it seems that everything we did back then, doesn’a lott really work anymore because we had come up with a new theory. We said there has to be one view of this that just works. And thats when it came to us. We invited people to our home and did some experimental workshops.

Nancy: Some people drove from Kansas City to Chicago, which is a 10 hour drive, just to come for an experimental workshop which was fabulous.

Marshall: Everytime we have taught it since then it has worked very well. Now we are teaching it here [in the UK], we were in Nottingham, Brighton with the Maydays and now London too.

What differentiates Zenprov from traditional improv?

Marshall: To me the rules of improv are what got me started. Be in the present moment. Don’t be in your head. But I also heard people say to me, “How do I do that?” And there was no answer to it. Other teacher’s weren’t teaching that. And that’s what I was interested in. That’s where the Zen comes in. Zen is all about being in the present moment and coming from a place that is more honest in your mind.

Nancy: Its all about what we call ‘accessing the source of genius’, so there’s truth in it. I think our improv is more perhaps a little more theatrical than improv that is about standing up and going ‘make them laugh and laugh’, always going for the laugh line. We really love stillness and silence. We love the dramatic moments which make the comedic moments so much funnier. We try to get a really three dimensional scene always going.

Marshall: It’s not that we’re against comedy, it’s just that there are different types of laughter. You got the shock laugh, like breaking a taboo, the nervous laugh, etc. The laugh that we love is the laugh that comes from the recognition of truth. In terms of ‘you feel that too!”

With the teaching you have done internationally, do you find improvisors learn and evolve the same way?

Marshall: There are cultural differences in terms of willingness to express certain emotions and to portray different things on stage. However in general, there are great similarities. Some areas take it more serious than others. I am really impressed with what I have seen in the UK. I see a lot of people who are very serious about it here and that want to grow it. In the US its a little different. Perhaps its because we have had it for so long!

Nancy: There are some that take it very seriously but there are others just there for a laugh. They are happy to do a show once in a few months.

Marshall: Which is fine. We are more interested though in the people who really want to perfect this as an art. I find in the UK that people are a lot more open. There is a problem we talk about it in Zen a lot, “Beginner’s Mind”. It’s something you never want to lose, no matter how long you are doing something. You want to be at the point where you understand that you have a certain humility that you dont know everything. “I’m open to whatever comes to me.” Its much easier to teach people who dont have the arrogance of “I know this, you really have nothing to show me”. We really can’t teach people like that.

Nancy: Chicago is the mecca of improv. It’s difficult moving to Chicago as an improvisor when you have already done some improv because you have to start all over again. If you learnt it anywhere else, you don’t know improv. Thats what we’ve come up against.

Talk to me about the podcast. Were you surprised at how the podcast took off?

Marshall: Oh yeah, we put it out there and its kind of funny when we think of it now. We just sit in our office and just talk.

Nancy: No one really listened at first, it took several episodes. It slowly took off.

Marshall: I remember the first response we had was an email. It was so exciting. It was like “Wow, someone is listening to us!”

Nancy: They asked a question so we started taking questions.

Marshall: I really just wanted to put this all out there and see if there was any interest in it and we do get a great response.

What is the future for Zenprov and the podcast?

Marshall: Oh goodness.

Nancy: Wow… For the podcast, I don’t know. We have covered a lot of improv, 50 episodes.

Marshall: Yeah but you know, we have been there before, thinking we’re done. And then the whole thing takes off again. But also from teaching these workshops, I am always getting new ideas.

The workshop tonight was fantastic, I really loved it. So what do I have to do to get you over to Ireland next year?

Marshall: Take me on the Guinness tour. I love that stuff!

There you have it, I hope to welcome the Zenprov team in Dublin at some stage in the future! For more information on Zenprov, Nancy and Marshall, check out the links below!

Chicago Improv Associates

You can also download the Zenprov podcast via iTunes.

Zenprov: Where Improv and Zen Meet!
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One thought on “Zenprov: Where Improv and Zen Meet!

  • 14/June/2012 at 2:46 am

    Ah Neil. Thank you for this lovely blog post. I am so very happy that you found something of value in what we teach and am even happier that everyone will be asking me to do my Irish accent though I think you were only impressed because I swore so profusely. 🙂 2013 in Dublin mate.

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