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.