If you're a fan of the sci-fi series Doctor Who, you’re familiar with the TARDIS. Named for the anagram for Time and Relative Dimension in Space, The Doctor’s spacecraft and time machine is deceptively simple on the outside. It’s meant to blend. Of course, a 60’s era police box from the UK is no longer commonplace, but the idea is that it’s easy to pass by, overlook, and take for granted. Meanwhile, the modest blue box conceals limitless possibilities to transcend time and space, and the interior of the TARDIS is massive.
When I teach improv to new groups, I often bring up an image of the TARDIS to demonstrate the potential of our art form. On the outside, it may seem simple and silly sometimes. But once you’re inside, running around, turning dials and pulling levers, suddenly you’re hurtling through space with no idea where you’re going to land. And contrary to some magical theories of improv, you’re not landing somewhere that never existed. You’re landing in a place in the past, future, or present (well, really it’s always the present) that exists and always already existed—and you’re exploring it for the first time.
Anything you invent is based on something the audience recognizes from their own experience, even if it’s surreal or futuristic. Everywhere we look we’re saturated with claims of novelty, but when you look closer, you recognize what Gary Peters calls “the retro logic” that “resituates innovation within what has been rather than what is to come, thus liberating the discussion of improvisation from its longstanding obsession with the new.” In other words, there’s nothing new under, around, or beyond the sun, even if the sun takes human form and exacts its revenge.
One reason Doctor Who remains so popular is that wherever the TARDIS takes The Doctor and the Companion, the story always reflects the hopes, fears, absurdities, and longings that we recognize in our own lives. Likewise, every improvised scene should include something both disorienting and familiar. Doing another scene about the toilet seat being up? A guy giving birth? An argument over a cookie that ends with someone pulling a gun? Fine. We’ve seen this all before, but that doesn’t stop you from seeing the familiar territory with new eyes. Make the toilet matter. Give the wacky birth scene real stakes. If there’s a gun, let it go off and deal with the consequences. Even standing still, we’re all hurtling through space, and our attraction to the TARDIS isn’t about escape—it’s about giving a direction to our trajectory, adapting to the landscape, and discovering why we landed where we are.