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.

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, denethora 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 lotrThe 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 the Oregon Health Authority 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, our Tribal Liaison, Julie Johnson, spoke up. She is a member of the Burns Paiute tribe in southeastern oregon. If you remember the news of the militia standoff at an Oregon wildlife refuge, that is the area she comes from and those are the ancestral lands of the Burns Paiute. She said to the group, “This feels like home. This is how my people greet.” A silence followed as that 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. The director of my office, Leann Johnson, and several other colleagues took over from there to nourish that seed into a full direction change for our 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 our office’s team.

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!