Improvisation is at the heart of the process of life; from the construction of RNA to a flock of birds to actors creating characters, narrative, and relationships onstage. It is a process that requires focus, intent, communication, connection, and action. From the hard skills of survival to the soft skills of human interaction, making due with who and what is at hand is the most essential of skills for beings to flourish.
Improvised theater, pioneered and expanded in the 20th century by luminaries like Viola Spolin, Keith Johnstone, Paul Sills, and Del Close, is moving away from being the trite little brother of scripted theater to a widely applied toolkit for professional and personal development. What is it that makes these ideas, games, and exercises (that people who teach and train others using improv) so effective at improving collaboration, creativity, communication, and leadership? Why is it that these things cross cultural and social boundaries to connect people using guided imaginative and role play? What are the skills and abilities that get exercised in improvisation? Let’s explore these questions by looking at some of the most basic parts of this practice, and like any practice from meditation to martial arts, the more you do it; the better you become.
Openings for Connection
Christian Swenson, a Seattle-based dance and movement professional who has traveled the world studying movement traditions from many cultures, said in a workshop I attended “The eyes are the spine of the face.” His implication was that a majority of our intentions and inner feelings play outward from our eyes. The most basic forms of connection between humans begin with a meeting of our eyes. From the wide-eyes of terror to the soft eyes of love, we find the building blocks for engaging, understanding, and communicating in the simple act of eye-contact. The eyes are our primary openings for connection. Some of this is evidenced in the fact that blind people tend to be less social than sighted people (click here for facts on ‘social exclusion’ and ‘well-being’ of the blind).
In improv training, the first activities to be introduced usually involve standing in a circle and playing a game that requires a lot of eye-contact. It is a first phase of warming people up to more intensive communication. The hominid march toward bigger brains and more complex cognition started here according to Stephen Mithen in his book The Prehistory of the Mind: the Cognitive Origins of Art and Science. According to Mithen, the domestication of fire in early hominid history resulted in early hominids sitting in a circle to enjoy the warmth and benefits of the fire, which inevitably meant that our ancestors found themselves regularly face to face looking into each others’ eyes. This stimulated the development of the neocortex where the bulk of our social intelligence is centered and necessitated the cognitive skills required to have a “Theory of Mind“. More recent research has uncovered a neuron system in our brains called “mirror neurons” that many researchers believe are integral in learning and developing a sense of empathy. Eye contact is one of the key signals that we are engaging on a deeper level of connection…Listening.
Listening is the other opening that allows us to connect with others. Being able to stop and listen opens us up for a lot of important data about our surroundings to filter in: bird calls, approaching cars, music, crying, cars honking, whispers, that strange sound the engine is making in your car, that your kids are a little too quiet right now, the meaning behind what someone is saying. Listening has always been a valuable skill. It can be the difference between missing the point and getting the point of what someone is saying. For our ancestors, it was a way to find game, locate water, track herds of animals, follow birds, or note changes in wind direction. Mind you, the ability to hear does not always mean that someone has good listening skills. Listening is the ability to focus and follow the things we’re hearing in order to get the point, find the source of the sound, be affected by what’s transpiring right now. Listening keeps us in the present and connected to what is going on.
Improv-based training is rife with exercises that allow us to work our listening muscles (sometimes in conjunction with our observation skills). For instance, there is an exercise where one player must repeat verbatim what they just heard from the other player before they can utter their contribution to the scene/conversation. There is another simpler exercise that requires both people to have a conversation, but the speakers must try to speak the same words at the same time. This tends to slow the speakers down and make them very aware of how much more involved listening is when you cannot simply listen to respond but, instead, must hang on every word uttered so that you can utter it too. The understanding with many of these listening exercises is that listening is a muscle (or a group of muscles) that can be strengthened through regular practice. It’s also very important in regards to the next section.
Doing these things regularly helps us grow and exercise our understanding of people by allowing us to deepen and expand on our own theories of the minds of others. It may also have the potential to strengthen one of the key brain systems that helps us learn, communicate, and empathize. Regular play with people, helps you learn how their minds work. This knowledge helps us develop trust by learning how others are like or unlike ourselves. More importantly, playing also helps people discover how their minds work together. It fosters occasions for innovation, and the chance to find and feel the space of innovation for a particular group. It would seem that improv training starts building the habits of connection where our ancestors started, face to face in a circle listening to what the community and the natural world had to offer.
Putting Out the ‘Welcome’ Mat
The next phase of improv-based training is introducing the notion of agreement, of “Yes”. To agree, to say “yes”, is an act of vulnerability. It is an expression of trust to some degree. It’s essence is that, on some level, the person who is ‘agreeing’ is validating and welcoming the ideas or presence of the other. Historically, humans have not been very good when it comes to ‘others’. Xenophobia, the fear of the new and different, is a distinct part of the primate psyche. It comes from a want for security and stability. Keith Johnstone, one of the big idea men in the world of improv, is often quoted in regards to this. These words come from his famous book Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre “There are people who say ‘yes’, and there are people who say ‘no’. The people who say ‘yes’ are rewarded by the adventures they have, and the people who say ‘no’ are rewarded by the security they attain.”
Johnstone’s approach to improvisation was informed by the disciplines of psychology and anthropology, and his contributions to the art in the 1970’s still have great impact on the world of improvisation even today. When people are taught about ‘agreement’ during arts or applied improv training, they are asked to recognize that this is not an uncritical approach to agreeing with anything that’s said or done. Rather, they are trained to use it as a way of noticing, appreciating, and acknowledging the things that are unfolding in the moment during any sort of interaction; whether that’s a scene onstage, an interaction between a boss and an employee, a teacher and a student, a mediator and parties in conflict, or creatives meeting to design or develop anything. This approach has even been used for homeless youth outreach to teach pro-social skills. It’s a skill that is key to establishing and encouraging authenticity and honesty in communication, as well as generating, expanding and exploring ideas.
To say “yes” or ‘agree’ or ‘acknowledge others’, is to create an opening for discovery and building something that did not exist before. It is like a new connection between neurons creating a pathway for a novel idea. It is the basis for combining the proverbial chocolate with the proverbial peanut-butter (If those things can even be considered proverbial). In some recent research that was published in Psychology Today, it was found that the word “no” can have a distinct impact on our ability to reason, communicate, and think logically. In general, negativity can hamper our ability to succeed in life, work, and relationships. Improv training is focused on the practice of saying yes and being positive, and both of those skills, when exercised regularly, lead to more resilience. Accepting things like our own mistakes helps us reserve our mental energies for bigger challenges than maintaining our own bruised egos. Matt Smith, a well respected improv teacher and trainer, has even implored people to adopt a “Failure Bow” in order to accept the mistake and move on. Working on our skills of agreement puts the welcome mat out for growth in our professional and personal lives through fostering more authentic relationships with a constructive approach to communication.
Big or Small
We’ll finish with discussing another important facet of improv-based training. That is the notion of “Status”. This big idea was brought to the art by Keith Johnstone inspired by reading Desmond Morris’ books The Naked Ape and The Human Zoo. These books fascinated Johnstone in the way they viewed human interaction in terms of dominance and submission. He was very careful to separate his ideas of status from socio-economic notions of status by stating, “Status is a misleading concept unless one understands it as something that one does. One can have a low social status and still play high and vice-versa.” In improv-based training, the introduction of status concepts and exercises are generally applied to developing leadership and communication skills, and it is focused on how people gain or lose face or pass power back and forth over the course of an interaction. This is usually observed, and eventually brought into mindful control, by bringing attention to the verbal and physical moves that parties make in a conversation. Understanding how to view and engage with Johnstone’s approach to “status” gives people entry into understanding how we influence and affect others, but also how others influence and affect us.
One scholar, Henk Stultiens, describes four basic ways that people move status in an interaction: raise your own, lower your own, raise the other, lower the other. These moves can be achieved by complimenting or cutting at someone, or complimenting or cutting yourself verbally. They can also be exhibited physically by behaving in ways that diminish or elevate a person’s presence or appearance. However, the finer points of these approaches should be judged in their proper cultural contexts. What may be considered a ‘high status’ move in the American milieu may be seen as ‘low status’ in the Japanese milieu, and vice-versa. The underlying implications of looking at human interaction in regards to dominance and submission are astonishing. In essence, it is training people to go from being moved by sub-conscious and unconscious behaviors that help or hinder our communication to becoming conscious of what actions and words actually do to affect the outcomes of social interactions. Becoming versed in the language of status is to become versed in the intricacies of what humans do to make themselves or each other seem big or small, happy or sad, praised or blamed.
Of Presence and Absence
So what have we learned about what improv teaches? It teaches us to reconnect and look back into each other for support, connection, and creation. It teaches us to be present. Through the eyes, we tie back into systems that have evolved to make us successful through the long march of time and change. When we face one another, it is easier to discern intention and work toward authentic and deeper ways of relating. This is a no-brainer for some, but it is a new discovery for others who spend large quantities of time in front of screens with minds absent from the world around them. The universality of being able to look, listen, and interpret emotional cues from peoples’ expressions is the groundwork to building communication across language and cultural boundaries.
The approach of being able to find common ground through discovering things that we can agree upon, acknowledge, and appreciate in the ideas of others (even if it is only part of the idea that is agreed with) will take one leaps and bounds toward accomplishing forward movement and achievement of goals and the finding of solutions. The ability to foster a welcoming atmosphere is something that is valuable and sought after the world over in business because it is both a driver for commerce and productivity, but it is also sought after in the human realm for reasons of simple comfort and belonging. That, I believe is the most important of reasons, AND the very thing that has been selected for in the long slog of human evolution because groups that are high-functioning and pro-social are most likely to be creative and solve challenging problems that hinder the group’s success.
Knowing where you stand in the pecking order of a group and understanding your own role is very important in that very same process. Also, being able to know what it takes to step up and command a new role is the sign of a resilient and self-sustaining group. To have a clear understanding of when to bow and when to stand (and also when to break with those traditions) has informed all of human history if we look at the repeated rise and fall of human civilizations. Understanding systems of social power and control through working with status leads to incredible insight into how relationships, groups, and organizations grow and diminish.
To engage in the practice of improvisation is to engage in becoming present in our world as it is right now. It is an active meditation on human existence and human interaction, and it is also an introduction to the revitalizing and connecting power of imaginative play. It is a modality for experimenting with different approaches to managing communication and relationships in a low impact setting. No performance is necessary to glean the benefits of improvisation. A little training and a fun group of cohorts is all you need to begin down the road of this amazing practice. Improvisation is like yoga or martial arts for your mind, but the only pain you’ll leave with is from laughter.