Kierkegaard and the 3 Stages of an Improviser’s Life

Sexy philosopher, or SEXIEST philosopher?

Sexy philosopher or SEXIEST philosopher?

Søren Kierkegaard was a super smart guy from Denmark who had some pretty interesting ideas about human existence. Like so many other deep thinkers, he wrote a lot of stuff that most people find super boring.

For that reason, a large part of his philosophy has been reduced to the idea that people live life in three distinct stages: the Aesthetic, Ethical and Religious. Not everybody ends up progressing through all three stages, nor do those who do end up progressing at the same pace. All stages inform the others.

Suppose, then, we apply these stages to everybody’s “life” as an improviser – from the moment one starts taking classes all the way to the development of a beautiful improviser butterfly.

Students, get ready for a philosadventure!

Pre-Staging: The Uninitiated

Sør-Kie proposes before any of the stages take hold, humans live a detached existence in which they are simply fulfilling what is expected of them by society and instinct. Metaphorically, they are ants in a colony – fulfilling basic tasks and roles as necessary. For our purposes, this is a person who has not started doing improv yet.

They are horrifying.

Ants are not funny.

Generally, something happens that inspires a person to move on to the Aesthetic stage. In the case of a potential improviser, he or she probably saw an improv show and will probably sign up for classes.

Stage One: Aesthetic Improviser

Most people are not satisfied living as an ant. Therefore, he or she begins doing things that feel good – like going to Dave Matthews Band concerts, windsurfing or watching Iron Chef marathons on the Food Channel. There is no aim to these endeavours save to fulfill a desire, however nebulous that desire may be.

The typical improv beginner takes the stage and makes selfish decisions. One’s own ideas take precedence over others’.

Common dialogue: “No,” “Yes, but,” and “You’re not my mother, you’re on drugs.”

Often, when two beginners take the stage, the result is two separate scenes displaying very little communication happening simultaneously.

Naturally, improvisers in the Aesthetic stage think they are awesome.

Stage Two: Ethical Improviser

Though the Aesthetic stage feels good, many people end up with a sense of emptiness as a result of its fleeting nature. Those who recognize their actions have an effect on others begin to make decisions not solely based on what they want to do, but also on whether or not they should do.

“Do I want to get drunk at my cousin’s Sweet 16 party? Yes. Should I? No.” For Sør-Kie, this comes down to making decisions between good and evil.

My money's on the guy in the band.

Dick Jokes vs. Emotional Investment

If you’re taking improv classes, you’ll probably become an Ethical Improviser pretty quickly. You’ll start judging your decisions. You’ll wonder if you’re supporting your partner enough. You’ll try to apply some technique your instructor taught you. You may even judge others for their improvisational style (or lack thereof).

You start filtering your Aesthetic instincts through your developing Improvisational Ethos. Theoretically, this is a good thing. Unfortunately, it can lead to some pretty bland scenes.

Common dialogue: “I don’t know,” “You do it,” and “What’s going on here, Frank?”

People who get stuck in this stage are generally described as competent improvisers. They themselves will likely become jaded, cynical and doubtful of their own ability.

Stage Three: Religious Improviser

Trying to live life ethically can be difficult, frustrating and even more dissatisfying than the hedonistic Aesthetic lifestyle.  Sør-Kie believes at this point people must make a “leap of faith” in Christianity. One must accept his or her inherrently sinful nature, try to live by the ethics of the religion and trust in the existence of God despite lack of observable evidence. Only at this point can one live happily without guilt.

So, too, must an improviser eventually make a “leap of faith.” Trust in yourself, your scene partner and techniques you’ve acquired along the way. You must accept you will make mistakes and forgive others for doing the same. Stop censoring yourself – you are a good improviser, despite the lack of any observable evidence.

The path to a good scene may still be invisible, but trust you will get there by the end.


Without the Aesthetic there cannot be the Ethical nor the Religious. For some, taking the improvisational “leap of faith” takes much longer than others. It is, however, crucial to realizing one’s full potential.

I hope you do.

By Jan L-G

Yes, and...

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