Status, Power, Behavior and Inclusion

Introduction

Have you ever seen or experienced any of the following in your life?: You are in a meeting. You try to offer something, and no one notices. It feels like you are invisible. It feels like you cannot do anything right. You present an idea, and it is criticized immediately. You feel like you should be more respected.

Everyday, we witness, exert, and experience power behaviors. At work, at home, at the PTA, in the grocery store. Every culture can recognize and understand on an unconscious level what certain behaviors and phrases imply about where we stand with another person and/or our communities. For the most part, we feel these shifts and think about their impact. We consider how to respond based on where we think we might be in the pecking order of the group that we are in. Social scientists of every stripe have written obscure and not so obscure books about how people use and abuse power, and yet, we still encounter these same problems that we’ve been dealing with for centuries.

Exploring ‘Status’

What would happen, if we could step back and see these exchanges like an audience watching the action in a play? What if we could develop a vocabulary to recognize, analyze, and discuss power dynamics in approachable terms? There is an emerging discipline exploring and investigating these things. Consultants, educators, trainers, and leaders using ‘applied improvisation’ techniques have been using a concept called “Status”. Improvised theater guru, Keith Johnstone, described and formalized this notion in his writing and his work.

In the late 60’s, he became fascinated with the research in anthropology and psychology on dominance and submission. Johnstone was trying to figure out how to get performers to improvise more authentic relationships and dialogue and get them away from the trite absurdities that improvisation seemed fixed in (Johnstone, IMPRO).

Keith Johnstone

To our benefit, he figured it out and developed the concept of “status” in improvised scene work and refined it over the decades. Instead of simplifying status into being a fixed thing founded in material wealth and positional power, he reframed his notion of status as a fluid and constant thing that can change from exchange to exchange in a single interaction, and/or a net perception developed over time through trends in behaviors from a person (Johnstone, 1989).

In my own research work on improvised theater (Fortier 2010), social and cultural scripts are something that are constantly in play in improvised content, in order to make the work understandable to other players and the audience. Embedded in those social and cultural scripts are expectations and reinforcing behaviors that communicate and maintain power for almost every context we move through. That social and cultural lexicon of power behaviors includes:

  • behaviors between two individuals
  • behaviors between an individual and a group
  • and between an individual and an organization or entity.

These power relationships are something anyone raised amongst other humans is socialized into understanding and accepting on some level. This understanding includes behavioral strategies for communicating and navigating these established structures of power, whether they be personal level or state level. There are also a wide spectrum of strategies that are linked to the nature of our own identities. These strategies are shaped by the limitations and allowances of our own experiences, which are inexorably shaped by our identities.

Over the years, through participating in the annual conferences of the Applied Improvisation Network, I have connected with other researchers looking into a variety of aspects of applied improvisation. In 2010, I met Dutch researcher and consultant, Henk Stultiens. He shared a white paper with me. In it, he simplified the behavioral strategies of status down to four essential moves. I translated it into Figure 1 which focuses on the actors and the actions.

Figure 1. Status Moves diagram. The ends of the x axis are "Self" and "Other". The ends of the y axis are "Raise" and "Lower"
Figure 1. (Fortier 2014, Stultiens 2004)

In any exchange, there are at least two parties; yourself and the other. In Johnstone’s conception of what could result in status being raised, he looked at physical elements related to taking up more space (standing, spreading, appearing solid or immovable). He also looked at audial elements like volume of voice, clarity and strength of shouting or commands. Another consideration of high status mixed in was confidence and knowledge. These things individually or used in combination could be used to raise status up (Johnstone, 1989). Conversely- taking up less space or displaying frenetic energy [sitting, curling up, appearing fidgety or squirrelly]; speaking softly; having a shaky voice; lacking confidence or knowledge are all hallmarks of lowering status (Johnstone, 1989).

One of the ways that Johnstone explored this concept in more depth was from a behavioral standpoint. He came up with a series of lists of behaviors that help someone to ‘be thought of as…’ a number of different things like; a jerk, a flirt, a hero, a know it all, boring, and more. In honor of one of theater’s first greats to look at acting from a more behavioral standpoint, he named these lists “Fast Food Stanislavski” lists (Johnstone, 1999). Johnstone has employed these lists to train thousands of performers, teachers, and directors over the decades to sharpen their senses for interpreting behaviors in order to craft better responses depending on your purpose.

These lists of behaviors are notable for both their simplicity and effect. Even though they are not applicable pan-culturally, they do a great job of framing the spectrum of ‘constructive’ and ‘destructive’ behavior that people enact every day and in every way in the course of navigating relationships and social situations in a Western context.

It was for this reason that I developed another visual model for positions or possibilities that can emerge as a result of trends, tendencies, or clusters in behavior, as depicted in Figure 2.

Figure 2. Diagram of Status Possibilities. X axis goes from Constructive to Destructive. Y axis goes from High to Low. In the high constructive quadrant are the words mentoring and advocating. In the high destructive quadrant are the words rigidity and judgment. In the low constructive quadrant are the words appreciation and inspiration. In the low destructive quadrant are the words apathy and disengagement.
Figure 2. (Fortier 2014)

These concepts are versatile and useful in training around subjects of leadership, diversity, equity, and inclusion. In working with these models with a variety of groups, they have proven to be useful terms and concepts. They establish a vocabulary of identifiable, relatable behaviors. They also lay the foundation for the larger conversation of how our identities are deeply linked to the sorts of status behaviors that our cultures encourage and reinforce in all of us. For some, impunity to consequences in many contexts. For others, heightened scrutiny and an expectation of consequences in many contexts. These are the opposing ends of the spectrum of power all of us can find ourselves, depending on who and where we are.

This new behavioral vocabulary of ‘status’ is then used by participants as a lens to observe, analyze and diagnose the nature of a power in a relationship. Because of this, they are better able to consciously choose a strategic response that may interrupt a common pattern to improve a relationship outcome (or avoid one). This phenomenon of slowing down and reflecting on our approaches to relationships is an instrumental piece of theater education and like therapy in other ways. What is at play (for us or others) in finding motivation to act? Or in being inhibited by our context, our circumstances, or our identity? When we get to discuss the answers to these questions honestly, we get to open a window to understanding ourselves, our relationships, and our organizations far better. That can be both stressful and healing.

Anthropologist, Victor Turner, mapped a similar process in regards to how people use ritual and theater. He regarded the motivating incident for a “social drama” as a breech in the social fabric of a community in some form:

  • not knowing which silverware to use in a formal setting,
  • gossiping about someone negatively,
  • taking more than your share of meat from an animal you helped kill on a hunt
  • crops failing
  • Police killing people with impunity
  • a birth of a child

That ‘breech’ would then be interpreted, and a staged response would occur. That response would then be processed by the community, which in turn, would take action socially or politically. As illustrated by Turner’s diagram in figure 3.

Diagram of Victor Turner's social drama process.
Figure 3. (Turner 1977)

Where we see “Theatrical techniques”; we could fill in with “social/cultural response behaviors”. This is because, when we are unaware of the status play, our social/cultural response behaviors become reflexive due to our socialization. However, when we learn about how status play functions in shaping our perceptions, impressions, feelings, and opportunities/consequences, we can add the “Theatrical techniques” into our personal behavioral and perceptual lexicon to make relationships (potentially) more legible, manageable and/or easier to navigate.

Applications

Improvised theater, specifically, contains a myriad of tools and insights for relationship building in the moment. Basic conceptual tools that are considered vital in improvised theater:

  • listening intently and actively
  • being open and curious
  • accepting what is going on or being said
  • adding your take honestly
  • supporting those you work with
  • noticing your impact
  • failing and recovering quickly

For performers, these habits are honed in order to navigate the stress of improvising content for a performance. I mention these tools because they can be good guides in learning to work constructively with status scenarios, and they are, more generally, a solid list of inclusive behaviors to practice.

In example, while working with physicians and executives through the Foundation for Medical Excellence, I introduced these concepts with a few different interactive exercises. The first one was merely to divide the group in two and give them two different instructions for making eye-contact. Neither group knew what the other had been told until after when we debriefed the experience.

By asking one group to make a simple change in their eye-contact, it evoked feelings of insecurity, doubt, and subordination. It created the perception that one group was above the other and possibly more trustworthy. If subtly shifting eye-contact can create this much tension in a group, what does that imply about power and perception when we add in the rest of the body and the voice? It implies a very complicated, often unspoken, dynamic arena where power is constantly being communicated. This is exactly what Keith Johnstone has been saying and teaching for decades. The eye-contact exercise was a Johnstone creation.

After the eye-contact exercise, I gave a ‘lecturette’ that was part talk and part performance to not only explain but also demonstrate a number of extremes that helped to define the spectrum of behaviors to help participants locate, for themselves, what these can mean. It also illustrated how tendencies toward certain strategies could be either ‘constructive’ or ‘destructive’ for relationships and groups through their impact. When it is a culturally mixed group, it is also an opportunity for intercultural learning to happen regarding norms, expectations, and decorum.

With the above communicated, I invited several participants up to role-play a meeting. A quick side note: This activity is something I have done for years, and the results are always incredibly fascinating. In the activity, there are three participants, and they are given an instruction to decide for themselves silently to play either high, middle, or low status (prepped with a basic understanding of how these behaviors appear by the lecturette). They are also asked to stick with their choice, even if they realize someone else is playing the same status as them. Every time, including this time with medical leaders, the activity results in a rich scenario to debrief about what behaviors helped viewers understand what status choice the volunteers made (high, middle, or low).

The Challenge

However, one of the medical leaders made an astute request. The first simulation depicted a negative instance. How could we use these ideas and tools to navigate to a positive outcome? So, I invited up another set of volunteers and tasked them with doing the same activity, but this time, if they became aware that the scenario was heading a negative direction, to be intentional in switching toward a ‘constructive’ status strategy. I had drawn my models on chart paper as an aid to the role-play volunteers during scenario play.

The outcome was remarkable. I can tell you from decades of experience that people improvising content for the first time go into argument territory 80-90% of the time. This is a result of how fear, and the accompanying adrenaline and cortisol, shift neural flow away from the social areas of our brains and toward the amygdala where our fight, flight, or acquiesce instincts kick in (Fortier, 2012).

However, this time one of the participants remembered the challenge for their group, and they began choosing constructive behaviors and completely changed the tone and outcome of the faux meeting to the positive.

In the debrief, the participant that made the change reported recognizing the familiar feeling of a meeting going wrong and that triggered the challenge script. They reported shifting gears toward listening in order to strategize how to apply a constructive behavior in that moment. In reply to that, another participant said that the “listening moment” pause was foundational for their willingness to shift themselves. It was interpreted as an empathetic behavior by the person playing a subordinate in the scenario.

Power, Status, and Inclusion

When just starting in improv, arguments seem dramatic, but they are typically boring pauses that hold up the narrative of a scene or story. The essence of an improvised argument is that both sides want to win. The stakes are generally low: “You put sugar in my coffee?!”. Because we are improvising all the content, that is a losing strategy for creating compelling scenes together in front of an audience.

When you find yourself in an improvised argument, someone must choose to lose because that will end the argument and allow the relationship and story to advance. I generally coach performers toward this because it plants the seed for the relationship and connection to be the real drivers of plot, fun, and discovery.

When this health care administrator in a status role-play activity paused to listen, she inadvertently chose to lower her status, and by doing so, she allowed the relationship to proceed and the meeting to move forward. That is the essence of aware and constructive leadership; knowing which arguments are important and which are frivolous ego struggles. It shifts the interaction from the ‘destructive’ side of the spectrum (anxiety producing) to the ‘constructive’ side (anxiety reducing). For the sake of inclusion, listening openly to understand is also the first step toward creating an inviting space when navigating difference in a place where you have privilege.

Let’s look into that. Let’s imagine what happens when we map this idea of status to the intersections of our identities. Those intersections are where your gender, race, sexual identity, physical ability, etc combine into a net advantage or disadvantage in society. Those advantages and disadvantages translate into a disparity between expectations of and access to the quadrants of the status positions above. Consider how these status behaviors map to interpersonal instances of racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, etc.

Each of these terms refer to a system of power that governs the identities across the continuum of it’s concern. Who has access to what status positions depending on their intersectional identities? Also, in what contexts do these circumstances change (if at all)? What does that imply for our understanding or misunderstanding of these issues, and what implications do these have for discussions and training around these issues? Which positions are occupied by accomplices or advocates, or rather which positions are prone to respectful conduct and inclusive behavior? If we look back at figure 2, it appears that anything that could fall into the ‘constructive’ side of the graph could be construed as an inclusive operator in the system of status. I would generally agree.

However, if we consider cognitive influencers like bias (unconscious and conscious), we could start to see how many of us have been socialized to assume specific status positions in regards to our perception of someone else’s identity. When we look at something simplistic like the gender binary difference between how assertive men and assertive women are received in the work environment, we can start to see that the consequences of occupying a position on the more destructive/dominant end of the spectrum. Men tend to be ‘expected to’, possibly ‘allowed to’, occupy that space of directing people in the context of sexism (read: patriarchy). Women are not expected or allowed to occupy the destructive/dominant end of the spectrum in terms of directing people and many times endure consequences of varying degrees because of it. Men get praised as ‘strong and confident’, and women get cast as ‘cold and bitchy’. The joke is that all of us can be all of those things without gender.

Think about popular representations of different racial and ethnic groups, LGBTQIA+, people with disabilities over time in the United States. What are you supposed to do when the very culture you live in is covered and brimming with negative depictions of your identity? When the culture you live in automatically leads to an assumed low status, an othering of some sort. Systems get structured to discount you and your worth. Those systems then recycle, reinforce, and remake institutions that maintain the stigma and enforce the now assumed dominance of the majority identity.

This pattern is alive and well in all of us to some degree. Because the conversation (race and class most discernibly) has surfaced so obviously during the COVID pandemic, people are in the streets calling for the systems and institutions to be reformatted. The people who possess all of the advantages of the current systems and institutions fear the loss of their high status and will fight dirty to keep it.

Starting Positions

This notion of our identities being the drivers of our experiences and beliefs brings to mind an adage from the Talmud: We do not see the world as it is; We see the world as we are. With this in mind, it’s incredibly important to see that, as we gauge these behaviors and positions, it’s impossible for any one of us to have a completely clean or innocent lens in deciphering these status interactions. When I facilitate learning using these tools, it’s generally through using reflective questions in the style of popular education to factor for the variety of perspectives and experiences and to be reflective of how my own biases could manifest. Inviting and nurturing a space for inquiry and dialogue allows for all of those experiences of power, status, identity, exclusion and inclusion to be discussed and investigated using the behavioral vocabulary and tools of status from improvised theater.

By using the improv concepts around Status, the answers start to become clearer around our experiences and identities and how to navigate our relationships and teams towards inclusion and respect. Investigate for yourself: What do you find when you reflect on which of the quadrants you could technically inhabit with fewer consequences because of who you are? What about the experiences of people different from yourself in regards to the consequences of inhabiting the destructive/dominant end of the behavior spectrum? Imagine it honestly for a while, and you may start to uncover the patterns that you have been socialized to accept as “normal”.

There is a lot more to explore, research and clarify, as I can also see these positions being occupied out of a need for defense. That is why context and the subtlety of intersectionality needs to be engaged in concert with these tools. Part of the work of inclusion is remaining open to the fact that we are limited by the boundaries of our experience and identities, and people who are different from us can help us discover the richness and reward that comes with growing our circle of understanding and acceptance.

We are all more complex than the mechanics described in these status models, but they do take us much farther into communicating about healthy leadership, equitable outcomes, and inclusive behaviors. For these reasons, I am excited about the potential of applying these status play tools in creating more competency and understanding on how to navigate, interrupt, dismantle, and possibly even heal our relationships to power and each other.

References:

To be added soon…

Pertinent research:
https://www.gsb.stanford.edu/faculty-research/publications/power-corrupts-especially-when-it-lacks-status
https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/power-in-relationships/201908/revisiting-power-in-our-relationships

Know of a good article relevant to this? Leave it in the comments!

Inclusive Leadership for the 21st Century

We need to have a critical conversation about what it is to lead and what kind of leaders our world needs to engage the very real, very serious problems facing humanity. The issues our world faces are global in scale. Our oceans are filled with trash and toxins. We are experiencing the hottest year ever recorded. We are seeing disasters of scale on a weekly basis. “The stakes are high” might be an understatement.

denethor

People who know me, know that I am an unapologetic nerd. So, I tend to refer to things like Lord of the Rings and Star Wars, among others. The stakes we’re in right now with leadership in the United States call to mind a scene where Denethor the caretaker of Gondor, a self-involved domineering figure, steps out of his throne hall to see that his city is surrounded, burning, and being overrun. He begins shouting a diatribe of hopelessness, doom, and orders to flee. He is suddenly interrupted by Gandalf, an embodiment of character, authenticity, and wit, with a couple of smacks from Gandalf’s staff to render him unconscious. With Denethor unconscious, Gandalf begins shouting orders for everyone to take their posts and defend their homes and families. I feel like we really could use something like the spirit of this.

Let’s just put a pin in this idea for a second. In 2001, I was in Milwaukee WI, my hometown, for the winter holidays. I was sitting in a matinee for my first viewing of Fellowship of the Ring. As the trailers before the movie were playing, two local high school classes walked in to take their seats, a majority of the students were african american and black. Their chaperones, presumably their teachers, were white. All of us settled in and were taken by Cate Blanchette’s breathy voice over, which itself seemed relevant to our own world. The movie rolled on. About 10 to 15 minutes into the film, murmuring erupted amongst the teenage students then started escalating to protest. Within two minutes, the teachers were up and ushering the still upset students out of the theater. I didn’t know what was going on, but I was glad they took it outside.

Two years later, in the social theory class, we covered systems of oppression (like sexism and racism) and how they are maintained. My heart sank as we discussed how “representation” is used and abused to paint us into a story that, depending on what side of the advantage/disadvantage coin you land on, convinces people that they are either deserving of utmost respect, admiration, acceptance, and deference OR deserving of suspicion, disrespect, dismissal, and even disgust. Does this make sense? Does it sound familiar? Do you ever see this in our world? 

orc lotr

The full realization hit me like a punch in the gut. In the theater that day two years earlier, those teenagers had watched the first black people to appear in the story as evil, violent, animalistic creatures. Why the hell had it taken years for me to figure this out? Because I had grown up in a racially segregated city, Milwaukee WI. I had been shielded from and warned about black people from birth by those I loved. Those sinister characteristics had often shown up in the stories I had been repeatedly told by numerous people I trusted, films, tv shows. Meanwhile, white people were always framed as reasonable, approachable, trustworthy. They occupied leadership positions in all of the institutions around me, and they were always shown as heroes in films, television, and the books I read. As a result, my mind became accustomed to associating danger and fear when interacting with black people and safety and comfort when interacting with white people. 

In that college classroom years ago, I connected the dots to the pain that motivated the protest of those teenagers. They were already growing up in a city that saw them as that, as something like orcs. An anchor dragged my heart into imagining the slow, subtle hell of that realization. All this time, I had never known and only assumed based on trusting the intentions of those I loved who had also largely assumed based on trusting their white elders.This cyclical process is called being “socialized”.

I wanted to paint that picture because true inclusive leadership in our time needs to understand the depths of how to identify our biases that support harm (those stories we’re told about the others in our world) and how they are woven into our institutions and systems. Two years to figure out why something I love had the capacity to cause harm!

We need leaders who can identify their conscious and unconscious biases and actively work to weed them out. We need our leaders to invite and listen to the stories of people unlike ourselves and ‘believe’ them when they talk about their experiences. We need to understand that there is incredible value in a diversity of experience, thinking, knowledge, and approaches to life. This diversity is the biggest key to solutions and innovations. We need to embrace vulnerability and authenticity as the mortar that builds the bridges across difference; because it will build humility as we fall down in the task of building common ground and common purpose with people unlike ourselves.

So how the heck do we use the tools of improv on that journey? How do we use interactive and experiential training to give people the insight to be better leaders? How can we seize a moment of human crisis to inspire positive change?

janet helms
Janet E. Helms

Here are some things that I have tried in stumbling towards what Janet Helms calls “Courageous Imperfection”.

In researching what refugees needed to settle in and return to a functional state of being in community for the design of Spontaneous Village, four ideas emerged as wayposts on that journey: familiarity, the notion that a new person is no longer mysterious (they are knowable); trust, this new person has demonstrated they are safe; routine, one regularly engages with the new person in sharing an experience(s); community, you and ‘I’ have become a ‘we’ and share common concerns and goals with the people around us in this venture.

Let’s talk about these things in the context of an “Inclusive Leadership” training I designed and delivered for the director of a state agency in Oregon and his cabinet. For the familiarity piece, I drew on an exercise that I created (really just practices from other cultures) in a collaboration with Lieselotte Noyen. I call it “Long Introductions”. The participants were asked to walk about the room and pair up repeatedly to introduce themselves. However, they needed to do that by situating themselves in their family context.

“Hello, I am Brad; grandson of Phillis and Joseph, Joyce and Robert; son of Lonnie and Donnie; brother of Annette and Todd; and Uncle to Riley.” 

We did this for about 5 minutes before we stopped and debriefed. People in the cabinet commented on the vulnerability and reflection it created about themselves in the process of doing. Then, a Native American participant spoke up. They said to the group, “This feels like home. This is how my people greet.” A silence followed as the impact of that moment of inclusion sank into all of us.

Trust is almost always steeped in time and shared experience. Having a group establish agreements is always a good first step. I also believe that we need to experience something challenging together and come out the other end affirming our connection and support. In the consulting I’ve done with my colleague Phil Incorvia, I cooked up something we called “Cultural Quirks” where we distribute slips of paper to participants with a single behavioral objective to guide them in a simulation of something like a work meeting, a cocktail party, etc. They can be something as simple as “It’s rude to be too far away from someone when you talk. Keep within arms distance at all times and touch them to affirm you’re listening.” or as complex as “It’s important to give a lot of context and background before getting to your point. Make sure you’re thorough in explaining something or telling a story.”

When we went through this exercise, people invested, and the circus of crossed boundaries emerged. After a little more than 5 minutes, we stopped, and I invited everyone to take time to repair anything they felt they needed to. Laughs, hugs, arm squeezes, and relieved conversations erupted throughout the room. Everyone survived and expressed their regrets, thanks, and prized one another. Relationships grew in that moment. Trust was growing among them.

In trainings on equity, diversity, and inclusion topics, the routine I like learners to engage and reflect on are the unconscious thoughts and actions that we all have and do. There is an asian caterpillar that produces a really fine thread. What’s that called? I’m from Wisconsin, and we all know that cows drink _______? 

Water. Cows drink water. That’s a simple example to demonstrate how automatic our thinking and responses can be due to associated ideas. If this can be for something as safe as cows and milk, what more is hiding in us when it comes to things like race, gender, ability, sexual orientation, etc? How can we start noticing what we never notice? We have an experience that reframes a situation in a new light.

Jane Elliot is the educator known for dividing her class of 3rd graders by eye color in 1969 and discriminating against one while favoring another in response to Dr Martin Luther King’s assassination.

jane elliott
Jane Elliott

Inspired by her work, I took a risk and created a similar activity for another leadership training. In this group exercise, participants draw a timeline of the workday and identify all the points in the day where unconscious bias could have an impact on the workplace. Before the exercise began, I distributed two different sets of instructions to participants: some tables had yellow and the rest of the tables had blue. The blue set had secret instructions on the back on how to behave toward the yellow instruction people during the timeline group work. We mixed the tables up for the group work. 

The instructions created an atmosphere of subtle discrimination during the timeline exercise. We finished and debriefed in stages. First, people grouped with their like color at their original tables. Second, we revealed the ruse and debriefed in light of the new knowledge with a focus on systems of power. Third, we invited people to take deep breaths and go around to do repair work, ourselves included. As participants departed for lunch, several stopped to tell us that they had never really believed minorities when they complained of these experiences. Being on the other side of the experience had changed their minds. Their routines had been broken, and a new routine was being forged.

At the finish of the Inclusive Leadership training, the director stopped me as I was gearing them to establish some goals. “Brad, with what you’ve taken us through today and the kinds of experiences and discussion, I think it would be negligent to make a plan right now. We are going to need to focus on getting a deeper understanding of how all of this is affecting us and our systems.” The seed was planted. That was my small contribution to the team effort. The director of their office of equity and inclusion took over from there to nourish that seed into a full direction change for that state agency to prioritize “health equity”. 

This past January, almost a year after that training, the director of the Oregon Health Authority penned an op-ed to the state’s largest newspaper titled “A Health Care System Built for People Like Me Needs to Change to Serve Everyone Better.” The idea of community had expanded thanks to the efforts of the office of equity and inclusion growing and nurturing that change to bear fruit.

Inclusive leaders for our world need to be representative of all people, and they need to redesign our systems to minimize (if not eliminate) the differences in access to the things that make our lives safe, manageable, and worth living. Inclusive leaders need to embrace the challenges of this century with an understanding that every last person is necessary for solving these problems. As applied improvisers, we can all help in this effort by providing laboratories of experiences and behaviors through the interactive improv tools at our disposal. We have the gifts and the responsibility to help the citizens of the world work together to create a new story that includes us all.

Impro, Politics, and the “Egg Test”

Here it is, Easter Sunday. A week ago today, I was walking off of a plane from Europe back into Portland, Oregon (where I live). From March 11th through March 19th, the Berlin International Impro Festival created one of the most moving and thought-provoking festivals that I have ever been privileged to be a part of.  The theme of this years’ festival was “Borders, Limits, and Liberty”.

The Cover to the Program

Die Gorillas, a long-standing professional improv troupe in Berlin, has been hosting the festival since 2001. They were very aware of the risk they were taking with choosing a political theme. Germany has become intimately familiar with the flight of refugees from Africa and the Middle East. It is a daily topic in Europe in general, considering how many countries are now hosting tens to hundreds of thousands of refugees.

Several members of ImproBeirut were in attendance, and they were asked to facilitate the creation of shows that embraced and explored the realities, imaginings, and possibilities of the refugee situation. They were the perfect choice for this, considering some of the work they had done with theater and conflict before. The days of rehearsal with them would lead to the shows titled “A Place to Be”. The process focused on looking at similarities and differences amongst the cast first (25 people from 13 different countries). It then turned to listening and connecting with the stories told by several refugees who came to a rehearsal to share their stories.

The Centerpiece Show

The show itself would use a format called a “Superscene”; wherein 4 players are asked to ‘direct’ a story/performance in four parts that the other performers will improvise with their guidance. In between the parts, the audience was asked to decide which story was least “honest”, vote it out, and eliminate it for the rest of the show. Each of the ‘directors’ were given a recent news article about the European refugee situation to inspire their piece.

In the show I was a part of, the scenes bounced between the mundane, profound, ridiculous, moving, and intense. My favorite of the improvised stories was inspired by a news article about a Swiss family that had somewhat adopted a little refugee boy who had been separated from his parents at sea. The arc of the family integrating him and his own reticence created a compelling narrative inhabited by very realistic characters. It existed in this sweet space between the players who seemed to know the importance and fragility of this story without knowing it’s end. This made the third of four chapters incredibly intense when a social worker showed up to take him to his real parents after nearly 2 years of being with that family. The character of the mother was intense and fraught with distress, yelling and crying. The social worker merely stood and reiterated “I’m sorry, but he will be coming with me today”.

In the fourth scene, it was the family together speaking fondly of the boy and what he meant and brought, a picture of him hanging on the wall. In the dreamlike way of long form improvisation, the picture of the boy melted into a scene of the boy with his real father calling him away from the window to go to the playground. Another moment of improvised magic happened. It’s a magic that only seems to come from the aesthetic of these international ensemble-building festivals.

The Refugees

Much of the intensity of the performances came from hearing the stories from the people who had made the journey and we’re living in a camp at the outskirts of Berlin. One of them saw his brother shot and then ran for his life, undertook a harrowing journey through Pakistan and over the sea only to get to Berlin and discover that his fortunes were as stark at the end of his journey. He now lives in a camp where there are 200 people for every bathroom. The lines can be from 20-40 minutes long. The camps also have a hierarchy and social strata depending on how many of one ethnic group or another are in the camp, if you have a visa or not, or sometimes if you are of an upper class.

For people who practice improvisation, we know that it can go a long way in building bridges between strangers. The nature of my research was about investigating the premium outcome of this process that performers call “Group Mind”. That research was a big part of developing Spontaneous Village, an approach to building community for refugees with improvised theater.

While in Berlin, myself and several others went off to connect with refugees who were meeting at a church for coffee and German lessons. For about 30-40 minutes, we played improv games with whoever would join. Sometimes we explained in French, sometimes in English, sometimes in Arabic. For some, this may seem like a maddening proposition to bounce between all of these languages, but the outcome is always worth it. When language starts to fade and the game becomes the source of connection, tensions eased and smiles and laughter began to arrive. For the dislocated and dispossessed, those moments of play are sunshine for the soul. Even those who were shy and only watched began to get closer and get infected with smiles and giggles of their own. To me, this is a global lesson. If we put forward some effort to understand each other and set some simple rules and goals, we can connect and discover what we all have to offer.

The Berlin International Improv Festival has been doing that very thing for 15 years, and in that church in that moment, it was happening again. Not for professionals flown in from across the globe, but for the desperate who fled for their lives and the hopeful seeking a better chance who marched through the cold of a European winter to get there.

Of Conflict and the “Egg Test”

One of the highlights of this festival for me was being on a panel for a discussion of mixing politics and improvised theater.  Video of that panel discussion will be forthcoming I have been told.

On the ride over, by my request, one of the members of ImproBeirut told me all about their work with using theater tools to resolve conflict between sectarian fighters in Lebanon. One of the fighters would not attend without a live grenade for the first several meetings. Like taming a fox, they coaxed this man to distance himself from the grenade over time until he finally no longer brought it. As expected, the work they did moved the men from being enemies to being sincere friends. When the government heard this news, they tried to minimize it and hide it. Like many countries, the ‘powers that be’ profit from keeping their population embroiled in conflicts over religious and identity-based matters. According to some members, Lebanon is no different.

One of the members of ImproBeirut is persona non-grata in Lebanon because of the activist work that he has been involved in to expose corruption and injustice. The government has actually demanded on several occasions that he provide scripts of what they might say in their performance. The most recent document was about 120 pages of every possible iteration of dialogue that might happen onstage that could be construed as politically offensive. These things are no laughing matter, however. One of them had been detained and beaten by the authorities for his work, both improvised and scripted.

During the discussion, they also shared how the demonization of homosexuality was used as a witch hunt to imprison people. They disclosed that one of the main things they do to try to imprison someone is the “Egg Test”. My informant, being modest, never described the act verbally but instead used mime. Essentially, the authorities insert an egg into a man’s rectum. If it breaks, he is deemed straight and is set free. If it does not, he is a homosexual and is sent to prison. This is the political climate that ImproBeirut performs in. For the most part, they try to avoid controversy. One of the members was ordered by his father to move to Canada, where he now resides, to avoid getting swept into the controversy that led to Lucien’s detention and beating. In Lebanon, the stakes could not be higher on the freest form of expression improvised theater.

Berlin International Improv Festival 2016

Since 2001, Die Gorillas has been hosting an international Improv (Impro) festival. Unlike many improv festivals, this one gathers performers from across the globe to make multi-national casts that do rotations of different themed and formatted performances. It has been a distinct honor to be a part of these amazing festivals. It was my participation in the 2004 Berlin festival that led me to do anthropological research on the art of improvised theater.  

 This year is the third time that I have been invited to be a part of the festival. Since Europe, and especially Germany, have taken in many refugees from Syria, the festival is themed “Borders, Limits, and Liberty”. The performances that are being crafted collaboratively, with the guidance of a director and players from ImproBeirut, involved having refugees from a nearby encampment come to a rehearsal and share their personal stories of the journey and resulting challenges of resettlement and uncertainty.

Meanwhile, in the larger context of Germany, there are elections going on within the German states. A new right-wing party, whose platform is largely xenophobic specifically against refugees, has taken 25% of the vote in one of the larger states. This means that they can hold legitimate power as a political party in that state and must be consulted and included in governmental decision-making for that state. The troubling thing is that performers from all 13 nations represented at the festival (Germany, Norway, Syria, Lebanon, US, Canada, Algeria, Colombia, Australia, Greece, Slovenia, Kazakhstan, Isreal) report essentially similar political and economic climates; wealth inequality coupled with a growing radical right wing.

The stories of a government that allows ecological degradation and the curtailing of civil liberties in favor of economic elites abound. Meanwhile, the rest of the world is watching what the US elections will bring in terms of what direction the political winds will blow after a new president is elected. This is a common topic brought up to me as a US citizen. Considering the political focus of this festival, it is no surprise. 

In reflection, the commonality of these situations suggests that, in fact, we are all far more alike in the challenges we face as citizens of nations whose power has been overshadowed and curtailed by multi-national corporations. This has led to conversations of how it is even possible to change, challenge, or transform these systems toward a more humane and equitable realization utilizing improvisation. The irony lies in the fact that many of the performers and teachers at this festival make some or much of their living by using improvised theater tools to create trainings for a variety of business clients, including multi-national corporations.

Using improvised theater tools for corporate trainings is a practice that began sometime in the 80’s from what I have gathered from the Applied Improv Network, an organization of improv-based training professionals. Maybe improvised theater has inadvertently contributed to the current situation in ways unforeseen? Hard to tell without a lot of research.

I am taking the opportunity to engage my other improv-based project, Spontaneous Village, while I am here. This Saturday, I will be collaborating with a colleague from Algeria to put on an improv play/learning session with refugees here in Berlin. I am very excited to be working with a Muslim, Arabic speaking improviser. Raouf Khelifa was an integral part of ImproBeirut before moving to Canada for work. He and others from ImproBeirut have also been working with Syrian refugees in Lebanon through improvised theater. I’ve had the good fortune to spend time and have great conversations with Raouf. 

Like other years working in international performance festivals, I am largely filled with hope and inspiration from the collaboration of nations. However, with the backdrop of a world splintering into pieces that are filled with fear, doubt, and despair, it makes me wonder if the future of collaboration is one of bridging differences or one of factionalizing in response to fear. One thing is certain. When people of different backgrounds come together to talk in reasoned tones about our hopes and concerns, we find far more similarities than differences. In our similarities hides the stuff of connection. In connection we find our humanity.

The Impact of Improv on People: a rant (or a fable)

Once upon a time, people sat in circles; living and working together in small groups to take care of the necessities of life and living. This worked really well for over 1 million years of hominid evolution. There were good times and bad. Not everyone got along all of the time, but we found non-violent ways to deal with disagreements about 80-90% of the time. The necessities of survival kept us close, made us strong, every person was valuable, and egos were kept small to keep the circle intact. Collaboration was essential; not only between people, but also between people and their environment. We had a better understanding of the reciprocal relationship between what we could get away with taking from our environment because we did not live apart from the natural cycles that govern our world. Those that forgot that relationship eventually encountered collapse. Daily life was a process of accepting what is here and now and thriving with whatever is at hand; people, resources, environment.   

Then one day, we got better at moving and growing plants that we ate, and we followed suit with animals that we found tasty. That started to take more time. It was worth it, though. We finally could have calories set aside. We found ways to store them. However, this left us less time together and less time for recreation. Quit screwing around, there’s work to do! Our stories, rituals, and beliefs began to shift with this new discovery. We had figured out how to get to the proverbial cookie jar, in a sense, because of our innovation now called domestication. We wrested some control away from a mysterious world filled with spirits.

In so many intricate ways our lives and our experiences transformed our stories and our beliefs. Once we realized that, for the most part, we had the food thing covered, we realized that somehow we were different from the animals who once were revered as our teachers and intermediaries between the known and the unknown. We began to believe that beings like us in some manner governed the machinations of reality because that was now our experience. We could have food when we wanted it, for the most part. We could create long-lasting shelter. Slowly the circle as a symbol, a structure, a perspective, and an experience began to fade to the background.

Even the people around the circle began to fade. We didn’t need everyone to gather food for the group anymore. Having all these spare calories from agriculture allowed women to birth many children close together. However, there was far less time to play. Crops needed tending, and with so many people being born, shelters needed to be better. Wandering around looking for food and game was less necessary; over the centuries, becoming a hobby, a pastime, a specialty. That knowledge gets replaced by the specialization of animal husbandry. Over those same centuries, so much specialization occurred. A boom in people gathered in increasingly urban enclaves. Tribes gave way to villages, villages to towns, towns to cities, cities to states, states to nations. So many minds connecting so many ideas so fast.  

 

The straight line and the square take over. Flat places to walk, ride, drive, sleep, eat. Tow the line. Stay in(on) line. Get in line. Out of alignment. Crossing the line. Face front. No talking! Lines dividing us; dividing our space…making ‘your space’ and ‘my space’ more definite, giving egos more space to breathe and grow. The commons did not die. It was murdered. Slowly, as this transformation happened, the needle on the grand scale of agreeableness gradually moves into the territory of ‘no’. No is a line in the social sand. That line became so much more necessary in the emergence of a crowded urban reality.

Boundaries and lines are so helpful, though. Look at all these little lines that let me explain ideas. So beautiful and poetic that it is the collaboration between the straight and curved lines that carry meaning and messages into our minds. Sometimes making things clearer. Sometimes making things more confusing. Read the fine print!! And yet, a picture paints a thousand words. And thousands upon thousands of years, our eyes and our voices conveyed all the meaning, connected our communities. So many eyes meeting over so many fires, gathering in so many huddles, bodies facing bodies, holding hands and dancing, telling the stories of how our worlds move, grow, falter, and triumph. The spoken word is no longer a bond. The written word is the only enforceable contract.

Now we’re swept up in the giant roaring metal illusion we call modern civilization; At least, those of us who are privileged to live in industrialized nations above a certain socio-economic bracket. We bounce from distraction, to fear, to pleasure in our continuing hunt for fulfillment channelled through digital pathways fraught with gatekeepers, watchers, monitors for those who fear the day when people wake back up into their power. For the time when we look away from the screens and our four walls and back to each other. For things to come full circle in a flash, as they have time and again in the sweeping expanse of human history.

Improv is that herald. Bringing bodies and minds back to the circle. Encouraging eyes to lift and meet and notice more than danger and unfamiliarity. Reinvigorating the connection between eyes, bodies, voices, and minds. Calling back into the circle the spirit of support and looking out for those who share that circle, whomever they may be. Support the connection with your openness and vulnerability. Build the plane as it flies. Fail. Fail bigger, and be caught in arms that understand ‘the more you fail, the less you fail’. To fail is to learn, and to learn is to liberate. Our ancestors free in their shared knowledge of what to pick, what to track, when to pick it, how to dress it. Not separate but integral. Above and below were still mainly directions, not social stations necessarily.

Antwerp International Improv Festival

 Improv wakes up your senses. Notice. Notice all of the things; from the stillness to explosive creation to deep insightful discovery ushered in with laughter. That is me. That is us. We are here. Here now. Showing our values through the active reflection of improvised play. We explore, experiment, explain, and reproduce human behavior to understand, and those understandings erase the fear with the laughter of recognition. As we discover each other, we connect like a myriad of neurons in the giant world mind. Laughter is the ecstasy of new connections; sometimes nervous, sometimes hearty, sometimes maligned, sometimes enamored. Emotions are the social hormones that unlock responses and reactions that move us to grow and diminish in the tidal patterns of our lifetimes. They are the silent language that underlies all language.

Improv asks that we use all of our senses to listen. Use your sight, smell, touch, and hearing to understand. That is the essence of listening. Without understanding, we flounder around having conversations with our bruised egos. Those things that protect us in a shell of fear, need and desire. Improv asks that we leave our ego behind, and it rewards our efforts with one of the most beautiful experiences, group mind. That uplifting frame of mind where I and you disappear into the only us and everything and the everything within us. Floating in a realm without bias supported by ludic wings of serving the purpose of ‘why this now?’ It inoculates us against its evil twin, group think, whose dark shadow connects mobs and relieves us of our moral functions in the throws of anonymous anger, systemic oppression, and wanton destruction. Two sides of the same coin, I’m afraid.

Play free. Play hard. Play because it does not compute. It is one of the clearest signs of health. Yes, improv can be a road to health for me, you, and us. Improv asks that we pay attention to patterns; in ourselves, in others, in the group, and in whatever is unfolding in the present moment. It is a tool for growth and discovery. It is the old coming back and whispering in our ears “Remember. Remember when things were connected. Remember that people belong together. Remember that we need mistakes. Remember how to make others feel good too. Remember your body and voice. Remember that you are not alone. Remember laughter. Remember play.” And in remembering, we can again see the world as it is rather than as we imagine, and when we do imagine, we discover together co-creating new visions of lives and worlds both sublime and terrible. Like the shamans of old who journeyed to the heavens and hells to find new insight to heal.

Because those who do not play often have a wound or some dis-ease which separates through fear. Fear tarnishes the soul. It clouds our minds and destroys the ‘us’. Improv asks us to engage with our fears, to follow them to their conclusions, because that’s where humor and catharsis reside. For only those who face the beasts within and without can find the mysteries of the wider world and travel the dark roads of the underworld of the unconscious with impunity. They can pierce the veil of fear, the veil of the ego.

So when your boss, your president, your colleague, your friend, your retreat planner, your spouse, or you scoff at improv. Ask, do you want to be transformed, if even for an hour? Do you want to conquer fear? Do you want to feel connected? Do you want to feel supported? Do you want to learn the power of supporting? Do you want health for you and your community? Don’t you think laughing for an hour or two would feel good? Then play. Play anything. We improvise in sports, dance, music, theater. Improv has always and will always be our human default for excelling in dynamic and changing situations. It is a skill to be practiced, strengthened, honed. Ask people who do it. They’ll tell you. The better they got; the better life tended to get. It’s so short sometimes, like the mandala-like realities improvisers create in the flow of play. We are built to improvise. We are born to connect, and connection brings fulfillment.

Building a Spontaneous Village

Background

The Field Innovation Team deployment is done. The foundation for the first “Spontaneous Village” has been built. The heat of San Antonio has been replaced by the verdure of a Portland summer. Laughter, clapping, snapping, and made up stories in Spanish from the game of ‘Slide Show’ are still echoing in my head.

The “Spontaneous Village” pilot consisted of 8 hours of in-person class time with kids and a cumulative total of 6 hours with adults spread across sporadic half hour sessions. That doesn’t count the close to 20 years of improvised theater experience and 8 years of training in anthropology and pedagogy that it took for me to have the skillset and know-how to create this program.

But this isn’t about me. It’s about people, kids, who need something to hold on to in order to feel secure and safe. They are refugees from violence, war, or exploitation. They need familiarity, trust, and a community to come down from their traumas. They need a spontaneous village, a place of warmth and belonging that arises around them during a pause in their journey.

I was one of about 6-8 subject matter experts who were brought in by the Field Innovation Team to pilot new curricula at St. PJ’s Children’s Home; specifically St. PJ’s international program, which houses some of the unaccompanied child migrants/refugees coming in from Central America.

The average stay of one of these children (ages 5-17) is a little more than 2 weeks. In that time, St. Pj’s clothes, feeds, houses, and educates them. The road to this village began when Desi, the director of Field Innovation Team, went down to investigate what was being done to manage this crisis. She visited numerous facilities of varying quality where these children were being housed and cared for. During this process, she contacted a number of FIT volunteer members, including Mary Tyszkiewicz, who runs an applied improv business called Heroic Improvisation.

Heroic Improvisation focuses on training people for disaster preparedness and disaster response using the principles of improvised theater. Mary and I have been in contact for the past several years after meeting at a conference. When Desi contacted Mary about what improv could do for these kids, she felt a little out of her element. In a phone conversation shortly after that ask, Mary confided that to me.

“Give me 48 hours, I think I know how to tackle it” is what I offered Mary. After reading about 150 pages of anthropological journals focused on refugee studies (and within 48 hours), I sent a 2-page proposal outlining a 3 phase program that would move a group through a process of familiarization, collaborative play, and finally visioning and ideation for their future through a curriculum of interactive and narrative games. I also included a caveat that this training would only be effective if their basic needs (clothing, food, water, shelter, medicine) were being adequately met. People are far less playful when they’re focusing much of their energy on meeting their basic needs.

Within 48 hours of delivering that proposal, I was invited to a conference call with Desi, Mary, and other FIT staff wherein I was asked if I could pilot this curriculum. What I didn’t fully realize then was the incredible opportunity I was being invited into. FIT (Field Innovation Team) is, essentially, the only NGO that has been allowed in to work with these children.

Because of their reputation for cutting-edge, innovative responses in other crisis situations like Hurricane Sandy in New York and the Oso Mudslide in Washington, and armed with the team’s curricular proposals, Desi approached these shelters with the offer. St. Pj’s, seeing potential benefit for their kids, invited FIT to deploy to San Antonio, pilot these programs, and do an exploratory measure of their impact. By July 20th, we had all been informed that the project had been green-lit, clear our schedules, and begin the background check process required to work with the kids.

On the Ground

I arrived late on the 18th, slept for 4 hours, and was whisked off to the orientation for volunteering at St. PJ’s. The standard operating procedure for the international program is respect the children’s privacy, keep them safe, and enhance their well-being for as long as they are there. There are clear parameters that I must adhere to in writing about this project, as well.

Orientation went well, and the FIT team also spent time familiarizing ourselves with each other through…playing improv games every morning before our day started with St. PJ’s.

There was a secondary challenge in developing the “Spontaneous Village” program, and that was staff training. It was a challenge, considering we (Mary and I) could only do this in hour blocks with (at best) 5 staff at a time. On top of that, we were asked to use the hour as a sampler of a name game, icebreaker, and two of the four programs (Science, Tech & Design, Art, and Improv). Had it not been for the support of many of the FIT team joining to beef the ranks of the examples out, it would have been a far more awkward training. My fellow volunteers were an incredible team of accomplished women and a few men who came and went sporadically.

The structure of the training ended up being advantageous for the improv program because we began every hour of training with a name game and icebreaker. The disadvantage was that it was very difficult to create a meaningful experience for the staff in 15-20 minutes the two times we were able to demo. They had some fun and were informed that they would eventually be the ones to explain and run these games. We also clued them in on the power of the debrief to have them notice things about the experience and themselves, but even that needed to be explained in brief.

Thankfully, the recreation director, who had been the champion for FIT being invited, let the staff know that they needed to pay attention to this because they would eventually be the ones running the activities.

The First Round

The first Friday of our time with St. PJ’s was the roll out of a 45 minute treatment of one lesson plan to be done with the children and accompanying staff. Since familiarity is the primary goal of the first phase of the Spontaneous Village curriculum, the lesson plans are structured to begin with a name game followed by some form of ‘getting to know you’ icebreaker that slides into a couple of themed playful games, and ended with a reflection on the play (which I’ll discuss in more detail in the section “Bees, Museums, and Slide Show” below).

This day was going to be the first time that we would be meeting and interacting with the kids. On top of that, they were being taken to a park for what is normally their open play time for soccer, swing sets, and general free-play. Our beta test program was a little bit of a ‘bait and switch’ situation for the kids. This is not the best scenario for piloting new curriculum for kids.

Thankfully, I’ve had a fair amount of experience working with ages 5-17 with some of the work I do in Portland. Because of this and the situation we were presenting (improv for non self-selecters), I was expecting resistance from teen boys the most and juvenile girls the least. That’s essentially how it unfolded on the ground. We took them through a name game where people say their name with an accompanying motion, which builds to passing the focus around by calling out other peoples’ names with the motion that goes with it. This transitioned to a round of 5 things (a game that requires players to answer a question with a list of 5 things).

Please indulge me in a brief digression at 5 things. In one of the teen boy groups, one of them was asked to list 5 friends he’d made at St. PJ’s. He had to point them out because, even after spending days to a week with them, he did not really know their names. Mary, astutely, insisted that name games become the new daily ritual for the kids while at this shelter. The experience in this instance certainly supported the need.

From 5 things (Cinqo Cosas!), we moved into the Stanford created game “I am a tree” (Yo soy un arbol). As I expected, some boys bought into it and others became very skeptical (El es loco! It’s crazy). It unfolded in a similar way to other teen groups that I have worked with. As the game continued and people became competent, the game started to really bloom and the laughter and excitement grew. The boys on the sidelines became interested and began to participate. Even the one who didn’t, became interested enough to get critical about what people were doing and offered suggestions of things to try.

Due to the time it took to explain, get translated, clarify, get translated, offer a note to improve play, and get translated, we generally got to finish with “I’m a tree”. Rightfully, the rec director and my colleague Mary, felt like it went a little rocky. They had never taught teens improv and seen the process. Considering the facts that we were inserted into what is usually ‘their’ time and that we were relative strangers to them, I expected them to be reserved and skeptical of us and everything we had to offer. Like all human beings, change, strangers, and the unexpected are all cause for caution and resistance.

However, the fact that we got majority participation; we found numerous points of shared laughter; and they got to see us play alongside them, had built the foundation that we needed for deeper work moving forward. Like building any village, there is more effort in the beginning as we gather what we need and establish the process of building. The premise I use to build off of is the concept of creating a joking culture, an idea originated by another anthropologist, Gary Alan Fine. By becoming familiar with our tools (our own knowledge, our imaginations, the games that facilitate sharing and creating) and the skills that each individual brings to using them, we embark on the road to creating a shared home that we like and collaborate on improving.

The Second Round

In the second round, we were asked to deliver a full hour’s improv lesson and have other non-improv FIT team members deliver the lesson. This was intended to test whether or not people without improv knowledge or training could run the lessons successfully.

The three FIT members who were proficient in Spanish were the leads. We split the students into 3 groups. They ran the program like champs while I bounced between rooms to teach St PJ’s staff how to run the closing game. We, the rec director and FIT, wanted to start the transition process to staff becoming familiar with running these activities.

We had included in the notes different modifications and tune ups for each activity to make it faster or more fun. As I went from room to room, I saw different groups modifying as needed, and the kids were laughing and engaged in every room. My eyes got a little misty. It appeared that the seeds was coming to fruit. The boys were digging into the games. The girls were laughing and cross-talking far more. It was full on play.

Bees, Museums, and Slide Show

Generally, when building a curriculum, in a single lesson I like to move from simpler games that build skills that will be used in a more complicated game that come near the end of the lesson. Also, for people who are new to improv, it’s a ‘foot in the door’ approach to preparing them to take bigger risks with each other.

We were asked by Desi to develop lessons that would be a Big Bang for our last day with the kids. I had already spent several days mapping out 6 lesson plans to leave behind after the FIT deployment. So the plan for the last day was built to demonstrate the ‘foot in the door’ approach.

The lesson moved as such: name game -> zoom -> defender -> night watchmen -> slide show. When it came to running slide show, we had an adult be the narrator for the first one. This ended up working great for all but one of the sessions (the adult had not paid attention during the game explanation and a restart was required which left us with only one successful slide show rather than several). It also happened to be the one lesson that the recreation director was not present for.

In the debrief with the kids after each lesson, the benchmarks that helped them were pronounced. When asked what they liked or remembered, the most common responses were “Avispa” (Wasp, a move in zoom that required everyone to run around in a panic like a bee was in a car and end up in a different place around the circle), “Museo” (night watchmen, where they had to freeze in a pose in order to escape being caught by the watchmen). They also liked slide show.

This feedback matched my expectations with the lesson. Zoom would allow them to explore strange movement and odd vocal play, and night watchmen would introduce them to the move-pose dynamic that is an essential part of slide show. The rec director also offered up a great support move for the game. In spanish, she would explain that the game is like talking about pictures on your cell phone and the changing poses are all the pictures you scroll by until you stop on one that helps continue the story.

Play, Laughter, and Connection

The program was effective. The kids were able to find the play space. They added the improv games to their repertoire of socialization in their own non-structured time. Laughing together is an equalizer and basis for creating common frames of reference through shared humor. In the final debrief that included the FIT team and St. PJ’s teachers and staff, the improv program got high marks.

One of the teachers noted: “The two Guatemalan boys don’t speak Spanish or English. They have been having a hard time connecting, but today in the improv I was so happy to see them connecting in the museum game. It was like the actions of the game became a language that they shared. They were part of the group finally, and that was powerful to see.”

The recreation director added: “I have to say that improv was the real underdog these two weeks. It had a rocky start, but it grew on the kids so fast. I never thought in one week that I would see them play like they were playing today. There was one boy who usually sits out and criticizes, but he jumped in to narrate a slideshow like ‘let me show y’all how it’s done’. Count that in with snap-pass being used in the dorms outside of class by the kids for fun and communication, and I’m thinking ‘way to go improv’!”

The biggest kudos didn’t come from staff, though. They came from the kids. From the boy who spent that last day weaving me a bracelet with my name on it. From the girls who wrote and signed the most sincere and moving thank you card in my life. From the boy who called out to me from across the hall in another class to play snap-pass one more time before we went our separate ways. From a note a child wrote saying they thought all Americans were mean and full of themselves, but we came and volunteered to make their lives more full. And that gave them hope that there are still good people in the world.

Those were the messages from a spontaneous village. They were from the hearts of a transient community who had shared space, substance, joy, friendship, sorrow, and laughter. It was a privilege to meet them there and give them some of what has helped so many to connect, create, and communicate. It has only been about a week since I left, and I’m already wondering how they are (wherever they may be).

Although, I am still a little haunted by the kids at our final, somewhat bittersweet, goodbye. The FIT team had the comfort of knowing where we were going to end up, but many of them had no clue where the system would send them to. Back to their home country where danger is not far away? Into the arms of family in the US? Another week at St. PJ’s waiting for a hearing or a ‘know your rights’ meeting with a lawyer? My hope of hopes is that even a little playtime will give them the psychic reserves to weather these times and come out the other end thriving.

Spontaneous Village

In 2013, the global population of refugees due to war, conflict, and disaster was more than 52 million people. 1.1 million of them applied for asylum in an industrialized country, and only about 100,000 of them had been placed in a permanent new home according to the UNHCR. If refugees were a country, they would be the 26th largest nation on the planet.

 

There is a definite need for humanitarian aid for refugees. Considering what the initial outcomes were for this program, I feel very strongly about being able to grow the program into multiple pilots that grow to encompass adults as well.

Because of the time constraints and and age group, I was never able to roll out the third phase of the “Spontaneous Village” curriculum that would allow refugees to envision hurdles, next steps, and how to deal with each through narrative and scenic games. Ideally, this approach would become the basis for a non-profit that partners with other aid organizations in order to build a sense of hope and agency back into the lives of refugees.

Considering the state of our planet, the increase in change and migration due to conflict and climate will most likely continue to drive crises that result in refugees. I feel that it is vital to grow methods that create a productive, safe, and creative space that foster peoples’ abilities to communicate, strategize, and adapt. There needs to be a method that returns us to one of the most simple forms of human interaction and settlement, the village; even if it is only for a few weeks out of nowhere. The best solutions that our forebears came up with always grew out of face to face contact and a blending of perspectives. This is what Spontaneous Village can bring to the table.

Sweat & Metaphors

The time has gone quickly since Tuesday when the Field Innovation Team had its orientation at St. PJ’s Children’s Home‘s campus. Mary Tyszkiewicz from Heroic Improv and myself have joined forces to create one of four content areas of an innovative curriculum. This curriculum is designed to help ground and focus people of all ages in disasters and crises.

We spent a day introducing the staff that manage St. PJ’s international program to a taste of youth-centered curriculum that deals with art, technology, science, and improv. Today we rolled out an experimental lesson to see how it would land with the kids.

We spent the day off campus at a park rotating the kids through the programs (while sticking to the shade and sweating in the Texas heat). This is a spanish speaking population, and many of these kids have traveled across Central America and Mexico at great risk to get here. If you want a hint at what they’ve gone through, you should check out the film Which Way Home, nominated for an Academy Award. It is one of the things that inspired me to volunteer my time and expertise for this project.

Mary and I spent all morning and part of the afternoon playing games with a variety of kids; boys and girls ranging in age from 5- 17 split into gender and age cohorts. My assumption was that the teens would be the hardest sell because that has been my experience generally with teens who have never had the opportunity to do anything performative. We wanted to test their threshold for complexity. The program I designed, Spontaneous Village, is focused on moving through three phases with a specific list of games and exercises along the way. Phase 1 is focused on familiarizing them with each other. Phase 2 is building on that familiarity with simple games that require collaboration, and Phase 3 is focused on using storytelling games to envision and problem-solve for the future.

There are several challenges. We need staff to translate for us and the kids. We need to find ways to connect concepts to their context, and we need to roll with the times when these games brushed up against differing cultural values. As expected, the teen boys were the most challenging. Many of them have had to trek across Mexico riding the infamous train often referred to as “La Bestia” or the beast. FIT’s own spanish-speaking staff were asked not to use that word when explaining things in spanish to avoid triggering the youth. What is important to the improv situation is that many of these boys have had to forgo childhood and become men through this treacherous journey. The staff often pointed to this as a possible inhibitor when engaging in less-structured play. In my opinion, they were as inhibited as any other non self-selecting teen I’ve worked with.

The breakthroughs came when I relaxed into being translated real-time rather than pausing phrase by phrase. Secondly, I just drew from my arsenal of aphorisms when I usually teach improv. Such as the fact that learners in games need to go through 3 phases: they need to fail, fuilure then leads to competence, and competence leads to confidence. I needed more than that for these boys to understand. So I drew on a comment from the recreation director and our picture pretest when we asked the kids to draw what they found “fun”. Most of the boys drew soccer fields, and the rec director had said they could play it endlessly. So I compared the process of ‘Yes and’ in the game “I’m a tree” to three passes between players on field leading to a goal in soccer, but in improv when we get a goal everyone laughs instead of cheering (but sometimes we cheer too).

Lights went on, and they left laughing and excited talking about the “Loco” things that they created together. Not everything we tried hit. I think with these youth, sticking with the first 2 phases of the program may be the way to go for now. Unless anyone knows spanish-speaking improvisers in or around San Antonio who would be willing to perform for and/or teach more games after I disappear at the end of next week. Anyone?

Connect, Collaborate, Envision: Refugees Creating Spontaneous Villages

The world has become a far more dangerous and dynamic place. Due to violence and natural disasters, people are being displaced, and the global population of refugees is steadily climbing. Today, I’m embarking on an assignment with the Field Innovation Team, a non-profit spin off from FEMA that focuses on novel approaches to managing and responding to disasters and crises.

In early July, a colleague contacted me about improv and how it might be used to improve things for refugee populations. Over a couple of days, I researched and wrote a 1500 word proposal on how it could be done. Within a week, I was on a conference call with the head of the Field Innovation Team (FIT) getting asked to pilot my proposed project.

Over the next two weeks, myself and 13 other members of FIT will be roling out a program geared toward building community, imparting concrete skills, and fostering a process of visioning their next steps as individuals and communities. If this program is effective and successful, it will be roled out on a more global scale as an open-sourced method for aiding refugees. I will be blogging about my experiences and insights here. Out of respect for those we are aiding, I will not disclose any details pertaining to the identities of those being helped. Here’s to stepping off the sidelines and into the fray!

Disconnection, Doubt, and Hope

Many of us are reflecting on the death of Robin Williams. It’s a fresh wound for any of us who were fans. The man was an inspiration, a hero of free play. The past few days have been filled with friends and family recounting their favorite characters, bits, movies, and jokes that are his legacy. Williams was a comedy and improvisational icon, a cultural phenomenon.

Stepping back from the loss and watching the ripples in the social world reminds me of an idea called a “joking culture“. The simplest way to describe it is that it’s a social grouping around shared humorous experiences. That bond often extends between audience and performer, as well. We’ve all shared fun journeys through the experiences of Robin William’s characters and routines. He was a light that many of us were drawn to. Like any good comedian, he was adept at bringing an audience on a fun ride of foibles and vulnerability. One might even call him a hero for paving his life’s road with laughter despite the darkness. His comedy has connected us for decades placing us in the middle of a joking culture dedicated to his humor and work. It is our shared bond in the wake of his passing.

In the end, his loss has been huge because he was an exemplar of the ultimate showman, a hero who can roll with anything and find the fun. Now, one of the planet’s avatars of play has willfully exited, and it certainly makes one feel like the world has dimmed.

Excuse me for a bit as I travel down a darker path. We’re inhabiting a planet that has become a bit haggard. Living systems across this world, as well as social systems for people, are rapidly changing and suffering is coming of it. With the 24 hour news cycle, it’s easy to forget that we can connect for good things, productive things, positive change, discourse, collaboration.

Institutions in the US and other industrialized nations that were once trusted (government & media) have largely been hijacked by organizations (let’s face it, corporations and the economic elite) that collaborate only to defeat any vestige of contributing to the good of the commons. As I write this, I’m reading about no fly zones and threats to reporters and media in Missouri in order to ensure that the police are not filmed “controlling” the crowds after a black unarmed youth was shot to death for what seems like no reason. There are factions at large who actively work towards disconnecting and misinforming people, simply so that they don’t unite against the structures that maintain the status quo. Doubt is their weapon, and they are experts at applying it and worked for years to control a multitude of channels to deliver it. Doubt is the enemy of improv, as it is the enemy of all human relationships. It keeps us isolated and fearful. In our fear, all offers become suspicious and we recede or lash out for security. In both scenarios, we disconnect.

For me, despite these dangerous situations globally, it is also a hopeful time. It is hopeful that people have reached their limits and no longer accept the shortsightedness of the ‘your on your own’ mentality that is austerity. Anyone who improvises knows that in supporting people one is laying the groundwork for trust and the success of whatever the venture is. Because of this understanding, hope has bubbled up for me from a few things.

It’s been my life’s mission to expand the discourse and understanding of improvised theater. In the last 2 months, I’ve worked with high school juniors at an event called Idea Lab, hosted by Oregon Humanities. At Idea Lab, the students from high schools around the state appeared to have a functional understanding of improvised theater and it’s basic tenets. Portland is also mounting a large improv festival, and in a television news segment, the reporter opened by talking about the concept of ‘Yes, and’. This brings me hope. Improv is an incredibly effective social technology for forging strong social bonds. People who get together to have some improvised free play grow close, share joy, collaborate in the face of difficulties, celebrate successes, and actively work on improved communication. The fact that it is becoming more of a popularly understood phenomenon is very heartening.

In my mind, this is just in time. The current ‘consume and control’ paradigm is beginning to thrash and damage people through imprisonment, militarized police forces, civil & border wars. When coupled with accelerating climate change, it’s becoming a world in flux on many levels. It will be a world that demands skillful improvisation to survive. It will also require people to pull together ultimately. My hope is that collaboration wins over competition because this planet can’t take much more of human competition and remain habitable for our kind.

In a strange way, the passing of one of the world’s greatest fools and funny men is a way-post on a road that is less certain. He was, after all, a genius at synthesis and imagination. If he could be taken by despair, then what does that mean to me? I consider this a call to link arms and forge a new paradigm. It’s already happening through popular movements like the actions of Anonymous, the hacktivist group, First Nations, and the Occupy movement. We are on the edge of a tectonic shift in human systems. This will not be a time to be shy. All hands on deck, because we need new heroes of innovation, light, collaboration, mirth, and kindness. Come forth, collaborate, innovate, connect, and overcome!! Do good where you are. Improvisers, connect up and help bring positive change for all in your communities. Walk the talk. Fan the flame of humor, understanding, and empathy that was lit by the heroes of your own lives, be they Robin Williams or someone else. Help keep the light in the world by growing heroes and diminishing villains.

Improv and Disaster Relief

http://anc.yahoo.com/video/heroic-improvisation-having-fun-while-040204960.html

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.

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