People Floating Near You
Partial Documentation of
Everything a Person Knows
by Sheila Heti and Misha Glouberman
Misha Glouberman is my very good friend. Years ago, we started a lecture series together called Trampoline Hall. He was the host, and I picked the lecturers and helped them choose their topics. After several years of working on the show, I quit, but Misha kept it running.
A few years later, I really missed working with Misha, so I decided I would write a book about him. It was to be called The Moral Development of Misha. I got about sixty pages into my story of a man who wandered the city, who was nervous about his career and life, yet was a force of reason in every situation. Work on it stalled, however, when I couldn’t figure out how to develop him morally.
Worse than that, I never found the project as interesting as I found my friend. I have always enjoyed the way Misha speaks and thinks, but writing down the sorts of things he might say and think turned out not to be as pleasurable as encountering the things he actually did say and think. If I wanted to capture Misha, in all his specificity, why was I creating a fictional Misha? If I wanted to work with Misha, why not leave my room and walk down the street?
One day, I told him I thought the world should have a book of everything he knows. He agreed to collaborate on this project with me, but only if I promised not to quit in the middle as I always do with everything.
Here are four chapters from what ended up being a book—I didn’t quit!—called The Chairs Are Where the People Go. The book has seventy-two chapters in all, pretty much encompassing everything Misha knows and thinks about and does. The chapters that follow are about the classes he teaches in sound improv games. Other chapters are about things like monogamy, quitting smoking, and going to the gym.
We spent a spring and summer meeting at my apartment every morning, drinking coffee, working our way down through a list of topics. Misha sat across from me at my desk. As he talked, I typed.
I. THE CONDUCTING GAME
Here is a music improv game that can be played by a group of ten to one hundred people.
You walk around the room and make sounds, whatever sounds you want. If and when you decide you want to be conducted, you stand still and put your hand up and point at your head.
If you see someone who wants to be conducted, you should conduct them. Don’t leave people standing there waiting to be conducted, because it’s impolite.
The conducted piece should last about a minute or a minute and a half, and it ends when either person walks away. When you walk away, don’t say ’bye or anything. Just leave.
Then you walk around some more.
The notes for conducting are: Conduct with as much specificity as possible in your gestures. Use very clear and deliberate gestures. Be as emphatic as possible. Try to fill each gesture with a lot of urgency and meaning. Trust that the person you’re conducting is great at what they do and is going to make great sounds. Know that the gestures will be interpreted as having meanings that you do not intend. That’s OK.
For the person being conducted: Trust that the conductor knows exactly what they’re doing. Trust that they’re a great conductor and that you’re excited to work with them. Trust that you know instinctively, immediately, and completely what every single gesture means. Trust that this person is going to extract incredible sounds from you, and that everything that comes out of you—all the sounds that you make—is their responsibility. You should respond to the emotional content in the conducting and ascribe as much meaning as possible to every component of their gestures—their facial expression, whether or not their fingers are curved. Assume that every element of the conducting has meaning.
This game is largely about dialogue and control. It might look like the conductor is in control, but that’s not really the case. The game is actually a dialogue between the conductor and the person being conducted. It’s a dialogue in which both parties are in a perpetual state of surprise, and experiencing lack of control.
For instance, the conductor might slowly raise one fist in the air and then open up all the fingers of his hands and clench his shoulders. No one really knows what that’s going to sound like, but the person being conducted very quickly decides what that means and what that sounds like, so both people are being surprised.
As for the person being conducted, if the game is going well, you really feel like the other person is controlling you—you feel not in control, like they’re making everything happen. But really you’re the author of all the sounds in the piece. There’s not a single sound in it that wasn’t devised by you, the person being conducted. It’s all choices you have made. This is one part of improv that I think is really critical—this experience of feeling not at all responsible while actually being completely responsible.
The same is true for the conductor, but less obviously so. When you’re on the outside watching the game, it’s clear that the conductor serves to inspire the sound-maker. If you just put people in a room and say, I want you to make interesting sounds that change a lot, and that do interesting things and are varied, people will have a very hard time doing that. But if you put someone in front of them, a person making essentially meaningless gestures, and call that person the conductor and say that the conductor is in charge, then people can make these really amazing sounds. People do fantastic work in this game very quickly. The conductor serves to inspire them and gives them permission to do much more, by appearing to take away control while not really taking away control.
The conductors can also feel inspired by the people being conducted. If you’re asked to make a bunch of really dramatic gestures, you might find that difficult to do, but if you’re a conductor in a dialogue with a person who’s making these inspiring and incredible sounds, you find you can make really interesting gestures easily and spontaneously. It goes both ways.
We hope you enjoy this excerpt.
To read the full piece, please purchase a copy of the magazine from The McSweeney’s Store.