Building a Spontaneous Village


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 The heat of San Antonio has been replaced by the verdure of a Portland summer.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.

Published by bradfortier

Educator, Anthropologist, Entertainer who lives in Portland Oregon.

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