The Pink Elephant Unconscious Arts Show

A BLAST FROM MY PAST: My Life as an Improviser, Pt. 1

By Tom Soter


The man was missing an arm. That was obvious.

I was teaching my Tuesday night improv class at the Lucy Moses School when a new student came in. And he was clearly missing an arm.

Now teaching people to improvise may seem like a contradiction –¬ how can you learn to be spontaneous? – but it actually isn’t as strange as it sounds. As children, we can usually be very spontaneous, saying the first thing that comes into our heads, damn the consequences. But as we grow into adulthood, we are taught to reign in those spontaneous thoughts (lest we be considered rude or, worse yet, a bit nuts) as we find our place in polite society. When you teach improv, you use various techniques to get people to avoid censoring themselves. You teach them to once again be free to share their thoughts.


In any event, this new student walked into my class, sans arm. I politely ignored commenting on it and didn’t consciously notice it any more. But my unconscious must have been working over time. “How did he lose his arm?” it must have been saying to me. “How does he manage?” “What’s it like?” And although I pride myself on being sensitive to my students’ needs (and have successfully run a number of improv classes since 1987), I found myself making unconsciously insensitive remarks.

“You had one arm tied behind your back,” I said to another student in my comments after a scene he had done in which he put up an impediment to succeeding. After I said it, I realized that my new class member might find the remark in bad taste. I made a few other off-key comments, and at the end of class Ii talked to him about the good work he had done, encouraging him to come back. I also apologized for the brief comments that I thought might have bothered him.

“Oh, don’t worry about it,” he said, jokingly adding, “It was rough, but I can take it.”
I vowed to myself that I would do better, and one week later, when I was walking to class, I ran into my one-armed student. He was limping.

“Did you hurt yourself?” I asked.

“No, I screwed in my leg wrong,” he replied matter-of-factly.”

I smiled wanly. His leg missing? And Mr. Sensitive Improv Teacher commented on it?

It was going to be one of those nights.

The happy ending to this tale of insensitivity revealed was that the young man whom I had so abused (and amused) went on to take my classes for years, and even ended up in my performance class and in my Sunday Night Improv comedy jam. And when he performed, he was terrific. But at one show, my father, in the audience, noticed that his fellow performers would often do scenes about people losing limbs and other body parts. When he commented on this phenomenon to me, I expalind it was the nature of spontaneity, and the more you tried to staunch it, the more it would surface. Not unlike the so-called “Pink Elephant” syndrome. “Don’t think about pink elephants,” you tell a person. Then, of course, all he can think about is pink elephants.

My father, naturally didn’t listen to me (do fathers ever heed the warnings of their offspring?), and the next week, when my student came to watch the show, my dad went backstage and warned the cast of his presence. “Now be careful what you say,” he added as he left the dressing room. They all thanked him and promised to be sensitive, and even though I know they all meant it, I shook my head in knowing despair. Sure enough, the performance that night could have been titled, “A Pink Elephant Showcase for the Unconscious at Work.” Indeed, not since the French Revolution have there been so many scenes of people getting arms hacked off, heads guillotined, and other acts of de-limbification. The moral of the stoy: leave well enough alone.

A footnote: a few years later, I had a student who suffered from multiple sclerosis. He was confined to a wheelchair, and he was very funny, often using the chair – and his coondition – as the basis for humor. Not knowing this when we first met, however, I spoke with him before his initial class about how to refer to his condition.

I brought the matter up, I explained to him, only because of an experience I had had as a writer at Habitat magazine, interviewing someone in the mayor’s office for the handicapped for a story I was writing. “Do the handicapped…” I had begun to say to the mayor’s rep before he cut me off. “Don’t use the word, ‘handicapped,’” he warned. “It’s negative. It puts a negative spin on their condition.”

I had tried again. “Do the disabled…”
“Don’t use the word, ‘disabled,’ he had warned once more. ‘It’s negative, too. It puts a negative spin on their condition.”

“What do you suggest?”

“I suggest ‘physically challenged’ or, better yet, ‘people with disabilities.’”

I could see that phrase smoothly fitting into a story. Nonetheless, I realized people were sensitive and that words do matter. So, I had complied, and now in my improv class with my MS-afflicted student, I asked him, “What should I call you?”

He paused, as though thinking deeply, and then, with exquiste comic timing, replied: “Call me a cripple, Tom.” He laughed uproariously and we were students of each other for many years.

August 25, 2010