Sometimes in life, you get to see the rewards of a collaboration unfold. In 2012 at the Applied Improvisation Network conference in San Francisco, I sat next to the wonderful Dr. Mary Tysczkiewicz on our way to a day long symposium on science and improv. We had one of the most engaging conversations that has only grown more interesting over the last 2 years. We’ve spent hours on the phone helping her refine and solidify her vision and approach for Heroic Improvisation, which is using the techniques and theories of improvised theater to create a framework for ground-level disaster response from citizens and local government. This video highlights the success of her February 2014 field testing of this approach in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan which struck the Philippines in November 2013. Knowing Mary’s work and seeing a need, I contacted her right after the Typhoon hit and connected her to another colleague, Gabe Mercado, who is a trainer and improviser in the Philippines. Click the link, watch the video and judge for yourself on how their collaboration went. I’m also excited to announce that Mary will be guest blogging about her experience here soon.
Of late, I find myself teaching and coaching high and low throughout Portland. Some days I go from teaching college improv, to coaching middle schoolers, to coaching professional performers, to coaching organizations. As a scholar on the subject and a fanatic, I’ve developed a tendency to help the young and new to the art connect it to their lives, or, more importantly how it can connect ‘their’ lives.
It is not at all necessary for someone to shoot for a stage career in improv (and as many of us know, not a lucrative path to take), but everyone can benefit from becoming a better listener, noticer, supporter, and initiator. One thing that has been causing me to reflect is how a majority of American youth that I work with are so steeped in the put down. I would love to look into the reasons/causes of this phenomenon. Is it brain development? Is it western industrial culture? Is it socialization? Is it a blend of these? My training leads me to believe in the blend because there is no simple magic bullet when it comes to dealing in human behaviors. We are affected by and affect the systems and contexts that we encounter and inhabit.
If there’s one thing improv training can do, it is to help us explore and master that reality of human existence. If we can accept that we are vulnerable and can find strength in finding an emotional center in our lives, we can move from that center to create connection and embark on challenging journeys toward discovering what our experiences and connections have to offer in terms of satisfaction and growth. The habits of listening, noticing, supporting, and initiating (the keys of collaboration and cooperation) are our birthright as humans.
So, as I write this, teach that, and perform something else, I get to proselytize and advocate for all of the things I hope to see emergent in the generations coming up. In my mind, our scions lived by a similar code of cooperation and collaboration (more often than not), and when I read about riots, and occupy, and protests, and disaster response, and happenings; I like to think that I am seeing the stirrings of a long slumber. The defectors who have stopped listening, stopped noticing, stopped supporting, and stopped initiating are beginning to be recognized for who they are (even if they are ourselves). The beauty of this realization can even be explored through the lens of improv in that mistakes are opportunities to notice ‘the now’. With an edit, or with an agreement, or with an embellishment; we can change our course and emerge from the dark underworld of tragedy and separation to the sunny skies of comedy and connection.
My childhood play took me to extremes, and all of them, I now understand, were a fun way to test the social realities into which one is born. Surely this is a most important evolutionary function of play—finding out what is fun and fair or not fair on the field of life.
- Jaak Panksepp from the American Journal of Play, Winter 2010
Improvisation is at the heart of the process of life; from the construction of RNA to a flock of birds to actors creating characters, narrative, and relationships onstage. It is a process that requires focus, intent, communication, connection, and action. From the hard skills of survival to the soft skills of human interaction, making due with who and what is at hand is the most essential of skills for beings to flourish.
Improvised theater, pioneered and expanded in the 20th century by luminaries like Viola Spolin, Keith Johnstone, Paul Sills, and Del Close, is moving away from being the trite little brother of scripted theater to a widely applied toolkit for professional and personal development. What is it that makes these ideas, games, and exercises (that people who teach and train others using improv) so effective at improving collaboration, creativity, communication, and leadership? Why is it that these things cross cultural and social boundaries to connect people using guided imaginative and role play? What are the skills and abilities that get exercised in improvisation? Let’s explore these questions by looking at some of the most basic parts of this practice, and like any practice from meditation to martial arts, the more you do it; the better you become.
Openings for Connection
Christian Swenson, a Seattle-based dance and movement professional who has traveled the world studying movement traditions from many cultures, said in a workshop I attended “The eyes are the spine of the face.” His implication was that a majority of our intentions and inner feelings play outward from our eyes. The most basic forms of connection between humans begin with a meeting of our eyes. From the wide-eyes of terror to the soft eyes of love, we find the building blocks for engaging, understanding, and communicating in the simple act of eye-contact. The eyes are our primary openings for connection. Some of this is evidenced in the fact that blind people tend to be less social than sighted people (click here for facts on ‘social exclusion’ and ‘well-being’ of the blind).
In improv training, the first activities to be introduced usually involve standing in a circle and playing a game that requires a lot of eye-contact. It is a first phase of warming people up to more intensive communication. The hominid march toward bigger brains and more complex cognition started here according to Stephen Mithen in his book The Prehistory of the Mind: the Cognitive Origins of Art and Science. According to Mithen, the domestication of fire in early hominid history resulted in early hominids sitting in a circle to enjoy the warmth and benefits of the fire, which inevitably meant that our ancestors found themselves regularly face to face looking into each others’ eyes. This stimulated the development of the neocortex where the bulk of our social intelligence is centered and necessitated the cognitive skills required to have a “Theory of Mind“. More recent research has uncovered a neuron system in our brains called “mirror neurons” that many researchers believe are integral in learning and developing a sense of empathy. Eye contact is one of the key signals that we are engaging on a deeper level of connection…Listening.
Listening is the other opening that allows us to connect with others. Being able to stop and listen opens us up for a lot of important data about our surroundings to filter in: bird calls, approaching cars, music, crying, cars honking, whispers, that strange sound the engine is making in your car, that your kids are a little too quiet right now, the meaning behind what someone is saying. Listening has always been a valuable skill. It can be the difference between missing the point and getting the point of what someone is saying. For our ancestors, it was a way to find game, locate water, track herds of animals, follow birds, or note changes in wind direction. Mind you, the ability to hear does not always mean that someone has good listening skills. Listening is the ability to focus and follow the things we’re hearing in order to get the point, find the source of the sound, be affected by what’s transpiring right now. Listening keeps us in the present and connected to what is going on.
Improv-based training is rife with exercises that allow us to work our listening muscles (sometimes in conjunction with our observation skills). For instance, there is an exercise where one player must repeat verbatim what they just heard from the other player before they can utter their contribution to the scene/conversation. There is another simpler exercise that requires both people to have a conversation, but the speakers must try to speak the same words at the same time. This tends to slow the speakers down and make them very aware of how much more involved listening is when you cannot simply listen to respond but, instead, must hang on every word uttered so that you can utter it too. The understanding with many of these listening exercises is that listening is a muscle (or a group of muscles) that can be strengthened through regular practice. It’s also very important in regards to the next section.
Doing these things regularly helps us grow and exercise our understanding of people by allowing us to deepen and expand on our own theories of the minds of others. It may also have the potential to strengthen one of the key brain systems that helps us learn, communicate, and empathize. Regular play with people, helps you learn how their minds work. This knowledge helps us develop trust by learning how others are like or unlike ourselves. More importantly, playing also helps people discover how their minds work together. It fosters occasions for innovation, and the chance to find and feel the space of innovation for a particular group. It would seem that improv training starts building the habits of connection where our ancestors started, face to face in a circle listening to what the community and the natural world had to offer.
Putting Out the ‘Welcome’ Mat
The next phase of improv-based training is introducing the notion of agreement, of “Yes”. To agree, to say “yes”, is an act of vulnerability. It is an expression of trust to some degree. It’s essence is that, on some level, the person who is ‘agreeing’ is validating and welcoming the ideas or presence of the other. Historically, humans have not been very good when it comes to ‘others’. Xenophobia, the fear of the new and different, is a distinct part of the primate psyche. It comes from a want for security and stability. Keith Johnstone, one of the big idea men in the world of improv, is often quoted in regards to this. These words come from his famous book Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre “There are people who say ‘yes’, and there are people who say ‘no’. The people who say ‘yes’ are rewarded by the adventures they have, and the people who say ‘no’ are rewarded by the security they attain.”
Johnstone’s approach to improvisation was informed by the disciplines of psychology and anthropology, and his contributions to the art in the 1970′s still have great impact on the world of improvisation even today. When people are taught about ‘agreement’ during arts or applied improv training, they are asked to recognize that this is not an uncritical approach to agreeing with anything that’s said or done. Rather, they are trained to use it as a way of noticing, appreciating, and acknowledging the things that are unfolding in the moment during any sort of interaction; whether that’s a scene onstage, an interaction between a boss and an employee, a teacher and a student, a mediator and parties in conflict, or creatives meeting to design or develop anything. This approach has even been used for homeless youth outreach to teach pro-social skills. It’s a skill that is key to establishing and encouraging authenticity and honesty in communication, as well as generating, expanding and exploring ideas.
To say “yes” or ‘agree’ or ‘acknowledge others’, is to create an opening for discovery and building something that did not exist before. It is like a new connection between neurons creating a pathway for a novel idea. It is the basis for combining the proverbial chocolate with the proverbial peanut-butter (If those things can even be considered proverbial). In some recent research that was published in Psychology Today, it was found that the word “no” can have a distinct impact on our ability to reason, communicate, and think logically. In general, negativity can hamper our ability to succeed in life, work, and relationships. Improv training is focused on the practice of saying yes and being positive, and both of those skills, when exercised regularly, lead to more resilience. Accepting things like our own mistakes helps us reserve our mental energies for bigger challenges than maintaining our own bruised egos. Matt Smith, a well respected improv teacher and trainer, has even implored people to adopt a “Failure Bow” in order to accept the mistake and move on. Working on our skills of agreement puts the welcome mat out for growth in our professional and personal lives through fostering more authentic relationships with a constructive approach to communication.
Big or Small
We’ll finish with discussing another important facet of improv-based training. That is the notion of “Status”. This big idea was brought to the art by Keith Johnstone inspired by reading Desmond Morris’ books The Naked Ape and The Human Zoo. These books fascinated Johnstone in the way they viewed human interaction in terms of dominance and submission. He was very careful to separate his ideas of status from socio-economic notions of status by stating, “Status is a misleading concept unless one understands it as something that one does. One can have a low social status and still play high and vice-versa.” In improv-based training, the introduction of status concepts and exercises are generally applied to developing leadership and communication skills, and it is focused on how people gain or lose face or pass power back and forth over the course of an interaction. This is usually observed, and eventually brought into mindful control, by bringing attention to the verbal and physical moves that parties make in a conversation. Understanding how to view and engage with Johnstone’s approach to “status” gives people entry into understanding how we influence and affect others, but also how others influence and affect us.
One scholar, Henk Stultiens, describes four basic ways that people move status in an interaction: raise your own, lower your own, raise the other, lower the other. These moves can be achieved by complimenting or cutting at someone, or complimenting or cutting yourself verbally. They can also be exhibited physically by behaving in ways that diminish or elevate a person’s presence or appearance. However, the finer points of these approaches should be judged in their proper cultural contexts. What may be considered a ‘high status’ move in the American milieu may be seen as ‘low status’ in the Japanese milieu, and vice-versa. The underlying implications of looking at human interaction in regards to dominance and submission are astonishing. In essence, it is training people to go from being moved by sub-conscious and unconscious behaviors that help or hinder our communication to becoming conscious of what actions and words actually do to affect the outcomes of social interactions. Becoming versed in the language of status is to become versed in the intricacies of what humans do to make themselves or each other seem big or small, happy or sad, praised or blamed.
Of Presence and Absence
So what have we learned about what improv teaches? It teaches us to reconnect and look back into each other for support, connection, and creation. It teaches us to be present. Through the eyes, we tie back into systems that have evolved to make us successful through the long march of time and change. When we face one another, it is easier to discern intention and work toward authentic and deeper ways of relating. This is a no-brainer for some, but it is a new discovery for others who spend large quantities of time in front of screens with minds absent from the world around them. The universality of being able to look, listen, and interpret emotional cues from peoples’ expressions is the groundwork to building communication across language and cultural boundaries.
The approach of being able to find common ground through discovering things that we can agree upon, acknowledge, and appreciate in the ideas of others (even if it is only part of the idea that is agreed with) will take one leaps and bounds toward accomplishing forward movement and achievement of goals and the finding of solutions. The ability to foster a welcoming atmosphere is something that is valuable and sought after the world over in business because it is both a driver for commerce and productivity, but it is also sought after in the human realm for reasons of simple comfort and belonging. That, I believe is the most important of reasons, AND the very thing that has been selected for in the long slog of human evolution because groups that are high-functioning and pro-social are most likely to be creative and solve challenging problems that hinder the group’s success.
Knowing where you stand in the pecking order of a group and understanding your own role is very important in that very same process. Also, being able to know what it takes to step up and command a new role is the sign of a resilient and self-sustaining group. To have a clear understanding of when to bow and when to stand (and also when to break with those traditions) has informed all of human history if we look at the repeated rise and fall of human civilizations. Understanding systems of social power and control through working with status leads to incredible insight into how relationships, groups, and organizations grow and diminish.
To engage in the practice of improvisation is to engage in becoming present in our world as it is right now. It is an active meditation on human existence and human interaction, and it is also an introduction to the revitalizing and connecting power of imaginative play. It is a modality for experimenting with different approaches to managing communication and relationships in a low impact setting. No performance is necessary to glean the benefits of improvisation. A little training and a fun group of cohorts is all you need to begin down the road of this amazing practice. Improvisation is like yoga or martial arts for your mind, but the only pain you’ll leave with is from laughter.
The existence of cooperating pairs of molecules in prelife is very plausible. Indeed, replication of a single strand of RNA can be thought of this way: one strand of RNA builds a complimentary strand, and so on. Thus cooperation is older than life itself.
Martin A. Nowak in his book Supercooperators.
In years past, a passage by Vicki Noble, a healer of sorts, really had struck a chord with me. It had to do with her approach to cancer. In the passage, she said that she didn’t focus so much on attacking the offending cells. Instead, her energies were trained on awakening, enlivening and empowering the healthy cells. She used this as a metaphor for engaging in the work of building peace in communities and the world at large.
This is something that comes to my mind a lot in the research and writing that I do. Of course, my lens makes me see improv as a hammer that can hit any social skill/social awareness nail. That aside, I’ve been considering what are the particular notions that we play with in improv that can really help enliven individuals to being more courageous and effective. That word “courageous” is what led me to think of heroes and heroism. There is a lot of great work out there on these subjects. Instantly, my mind goes to the great work of Joseph Campbell and all of the folks who have been inspired by and built on his work. I’m spending some time now becoming more familiar with his canon, but before I jumped into that, I wanted to experiment a little with the notion in a workshop.
Recently, I did a pro-bono workshop for the local Comedysportz cast focused on discovering what kind of hero people are and having them more fully engage in an active exploration of what that could mean for their lives. I based it on an anthropology article that I had blogged about before.
Part of the workshop involved people telling stories of heroic things that they’ve done in life; not so much as a chance to brag as much as a way to help them see their own potential for heroism. This had an interesting effect on many of the people in the workshop. One participant remarked that it was so different from general conversation in life for her because she rarely spoke of herself in terms of being heroic. She felt that it was rare in her circle that people would make such an accounting of their helpful or heroic deeds.
Another colleague of mine actually applies similar work through her job at FEMA. I had the pleasure of connecting with Mary Tyszkiewicz and got to see her speak about her own brainchild called Heroic Improvisation. Soon after her talk, she was hired on by FEMA to help realize some of their new goals of creating teams of volunteer first responders using these techniques.
My mind wanders on how to expand this work to bolster the ‘healthy cells’ that walk around us every day because I believe we could all use reminders that we are capable of being remarkable in terms of helping one another. This seems important when we appear to live in times where partisan tensions and income inequality reign supreme. In the wake of the tragedy of the Boston Marathon, it was heartening to see that most of the people that walk around us every day are primed to be heroes when circumstances call. My big hope is that those heroic qualities will filter up the chain of power in time to deal with the impending challenges of our new millennium.
A particular quote always crops up in my mind in regards to what I would consider true heroism in the human scheme. It was written by Shadi Fader in the “Fool” edition of the magazine Parabola (2001):
“A fool’s strength lies in the very qualities that separate him from the conventional image of the heroic: humility and the willingness to support others rather than seeking power or glory directly”
That quote was in reference to the journey of Frodo Baggins in the Lord of the Rings. On that fictional journey, there was no promised reward, but it was undertaken all the same because the alternative was darkness and suffering. Our world could definitely be helped by asking that question more often: Will this result in more suffering for us all?
If the answer is ‘yes’ to the suffering of the many, and one acts to stop or avoid that outcome; that is a hero. If one acts to advance or support that outcome to cause the suffering of many; that is a villain. The unfortunate part of these dilemmas in the real world is that these situations are rarely that black and white, but with more data, the issues can be nailed down to which shade of grey they may be.
In the world of improvised theater, everything emerges from shades of grey to become black and white, and this happens through the heroic process of being present, listening, agreeing and appreciating ideas, and supporting our fellows. It’s a process that is in play in every healthy community. In my mind, it is our default setting when we are not threatened. Improv training can help us retain our composure when the going gets rough and remember these ideals in a crisis. It can bolster the healthy cells against the cancer of fear and doubt. One more reason to keep spreading the ideas of improvisation to the world…to fill it with heroes. Villains beware!!