Have you ever seen or experienced any of the following in your life?: You are in a meeting. You try to offer something, and no one notices. It feels like you are invisible. It feels like you cannot do anything right. You present an idea, and it is criticized immediately. You feel like you should be more respected.
Everyday, we witness, exert, and experience power behaviors. At work, at home, at the PTA, in the grocery store. Every culture can recognize and understand on an unconscious level what certain behaviors and phrases imply about where we stand with another person and/or our communities. For the most part, we feel these shifts and think about their impact. We consider how to respond based on where we think we might be in the pecking order of the group that we are in. Social scientists of every stripe have written obscure and not so obscure books about how people use and abuse power, and yet, we still encounter these same problems that we’ve been dealing with for centuries.
What would happen, if we could step back and see these exchanges like an audience watching the action in a play? What if we could develop a vocabulary to recognize, analyze, and discuss power dynamics in approachable terms? There is an emerging discipline exploring and investigating these things. Consultants, educators, trainers, and leaders using ‘applied improvisation’ techniques have been using a concept called “Status”. Improvised theater guru, Keith Johnstone, described and formalized this notion in his writing and his work.
In the late 60’s, he became fascinated with the research in anthropology and psychology on dominance and submission. Johnstone was trying to figure out how to get performers to improvise more authentic relationships and dialogue and get them away from the trite absurdities that improvisation seemed fixed in (Johnstone, IMPRO).
To our benefit, he figured it out and developed the concept of “status” in improvised scene work and refined it over the decades. Instead of simplifying status into being a fixed thing founded in material wealth and positional power, he reframed his notion of status as a fluid and constant thing that can change from exchange to exchange in a single interaction, and/or a net perception developed over time through trends in behaviors from a person (Johnstone, 1989).
In my own research work on improvised theater (Fortier 2010), social and cultural scripts are something that are constantly in play in improvised content, in order to make the work understandable to other players and the audience. Embedded in those social and cultural scripts are expectations and reinforcing behaviors that communicate and maintain power for almost every context we move through. That social and cultural lexicon of power behaviors includes:
- behaviors between two individuals
- behaviors between an individual and a group
- behaviors between an individual and an organization or entity
- behaviors between an individual and a system.
These power relationships are something anyone raised amongst other humans is socialized into understanding and accepting on some level. This understanding includes behavioral strategies for communicating and navigating these established structures of power, whether they be personal level or state level. There are also a wide spectrum of strategies that are linked to the nature of our own identities. These strategies are shaped by the limitations and allowances of our own experiences, which are inexorably shaped by our identities.
Over the years, through participating in the annual conferences of the Applied Improvisation Network, I have connected with other researchers looking into a variety of aspects of applied improvisation. In 2010, I met Dutch researcher and consultant, Henk Stultiens. He shared a white paper with me. In it, he simplified the behavioral strategies of status down to four essential moves. I translated it into Figure 1 which focuses on the actors and the actions.
In any exchange, there are at least two parties; yourself and the other. In Johnstone’s conception of what could result in status being raised, he looked at physical elements related to taking up more space (standing, spreading, appearing solid or immovable). He also looked at audial elements like volume of voice, clarity and strength of shouting or commands. Another consideration of high status mixed in was confidence and knowledge. These things individually or used in combination could be used to raise status up (Johnstone, 1989). Conversely- taking up less space or displaying frenetic energy [sitting, curling up, appearing fidgety or squirrelly]; speaking softly; having a shaky voice; lacking confidence or knowledge are all hallmarks of lowering status (Johnstone, 1989).
One of the ways that Johnstone explored this concept in more depth was from a behavioral standpoint. He came up with a series of lists of behaviors that help someone to ‘be thought of as…’ a number of different things like; a jerk, a flirt, a hero, a know it all, boring, and more. In honor of one of theater’s first greats to look at acting from a more behavioral standpoint, he named these lists “Fast Food Stanislavski” lists (Johnstone, 1999). Johnstone has employed these lists to train thousands of performers, teachers, and directors over the decades to sharpen their senses for interpreting behaviors in order to craft better responses depending on your purpose.
These lists of behaviors are notable for both their simplicity and effect. Even though they are not applicable pan-culturally, they do a great job of framing the spectrum of ‘constructive’ and ‘destructive’ behavior that people enact every day and in every way in the course of navigating relationships and social situations in a Western context.
It was for this reason that I developed another visual model for positions or possibilities that can emerge as a result of trends, tendencies, or clusters in behavior, as depicted in Figure 2.
These concepts are versatile and useful in training around subjects of leadership, diversity, equity, and inclusion. In working with these models with a variety of groups, they have proven to be useful terms and concepts. They establish a vocabulary of identifiable, relatable behaviors. They also lay the foundation for the larger conversation of how our identities are deeply linked to the sorts of status behaviors that our cultures encourage and reinforce in all of us. For some, impunity to consequences in many contexts. For others, heightened scrutiny and an expectation of consequences in many contexts. These are the opposing ends of the spectrum of power all of us can find ourselves, depending on who and where we are.
This new behavioral vocabulary of ‘status’ is then used by participants as a lens to observe, analyze and diagnose the nature of a power in a relationship. Because of this, they are better able to consciously choose a strategic response that may interrupt a common pattern to improve a relationship outcome (or avoid one). This phenomenon of slowing down and reflecting on our approaches to relationships is an instrumental piece of theater education and like therapy in other ways. What is at play (for us or others) in finding motivation to act? Or in being inhibited by our context, our circumstances, or our identity? When we get to discuss the answers to these questions honestly, we get to open a window to understanding ourselves, our relationships, and our organizations far better. That can be both stressful and healing.
Anthropologist, Victor Turner, mapped a similar process in regards to how people use ritual and theater. He regarded the motivating incident for a “social drama” as a breech in the social fabric of a community in some form:
- not knowing which silverware to use in a formal setting,
- gossiping about someone negatively,
- taking more than your share of meat from an animal you helped kill on a hunt
- crops failing
- Police killing people with impunity
- a birth of a child
That ‘breech’ would then be interpreted, and a staged response would occur. That response would then be processed by the community, which in turn, would take action socially or politically. As illustrated by Turner’s diagram in figure 3.
Where we see “Theatrical techniques”; we could fill in with “social/cultural response behaviors”. This is because, when we are unaware of the status play, our social/cultural response behaviors become reflexive due to our socialization. These reflexive behaviors could also be considered expressions of our conscious and unconscious biases. However, when we learn about how status play functions in shaping our perceptions, impressions, feelings, and opportunities/consequences, we can add the “Theatrical techniques” into our personal behavioral and perceptual lexicon to make relationships (potentially) more legible, manageable and/or easier to navigate. Stated more simply, we can become conscious of our reflexive behaviors and make better choices that interrupt patterns that may harm a relationship or defeat our purpose.
Improvised theater, specifically, contains a myriad of tools and insights for relationship building in the moment. Basic conceptual tools that are considered vital in improvised theater:
- listening intently and actively
- being open and curious
- accepting what is going on or being said or factual for the situation
- adding your take honestly with generosity in mind
- supporting those you work with
- noticing your impact and adjusting as necessary
- failing and recovering quickly
For performers, these habits are honed in order to navigate the stress of improvising content for a performance. I mention these tools because they can be good guides in learning to work constructively with status scenarios, and they are, more generally, a solid list of inclusive behaviors to practice.
In example, while working with physicians and executives through the Foundation for Medical Excellence, I introduced these concepts with a few different interactive exercises. The first one was merely to divide the group in two and give them two different instructions for making eye-contact. Neither group knew what the other had been told until after when we debriefed the experience.
By asking one group to make a simple change in their eye-contact, it evoked feelings of insecurity, doubt, and subordination. It created the perception that one group was above the other and possibly more trustworthy. If subtly shifting eye-contact can create this much tension in a group, what does that imply about power and perception when we add in the rest of the body and the voice? It implies a very complicated, often unspoken, dynamic arena where power is constantly being communicated. This is exactly what Keith Johnstone has been saying and teaching for decades. The eye-contact exercise was a Johnstone creation.
After the eye-contact exercise, I gave a ‘lecturette’ that was part talk and part performance to not only explain but also demonstrate a number of extremes that helped to define the spectrum of behaviors to help participants locate, for themselves, what these can mean. It also illustrated how tendencies toward certain strategies could be either ‘constructive’ or ‘destructive’ for relationships and groups through their impact. When it is a culturally mixed group, it is also an opportunity for intercultural learning to happen regarding norms, expectations, and decorum.
With the above communicated, I invited several participants up to role-play a meeting. A quick side note: This activity is something I have done for years, and the results are always incredibly fascinating. In the activity, there are three participants, and they are given an instruction to decide for themselves silently to play either high, middle, or low status (prepped with a basic understanding of how these behaviors appear by the lecturette). They are also asked to stick with their choice, even if they realize someone else is playing the same status as them. Every time, including this time with medical leaders, the activity results in a rich scenario to debrief about what behaviors helped viewers understand what status choice the volunteers made (high, middle, or low).
However, one of the medical leaders made an astute request. The first simulation depicted a negative instance. How could we use these ideas and tools to navigate to a positive outcome? So, I invited up another set of volunteers and tasked them with doing the same activity, but this time, if they became aware that the scenario was heading a negative direction, to be intentional in switching toward a ‘constructive’ status strategy. I had drawn my models on chart paper as an aid to the role-play volunteers during scenario play.
The outcome was remarkable. I can tell you from decades of experience that people improvising content for the first time go into argument territory 80-90% of the time. This is a result of how fear, and the accompanying adrenaline and cortisol, shift neural flow away from the social areas of our brains and toward the amygdala where our fight, flight, or acquiesce instincts kick in (Fortier, 2012).
However, this time one of the participants remembered the challenge for their group, and they began choosing constructive behaviors and completely changed the tone and outcome of the faux meeting to the positive.
In the debrief, the participant that made the change reported recognizing the familiar feeling of a meeting going wrong and that triggered the challenge script. They reported shifting gears toward listening in order to strategize how to apply a constructive behavior in that moment. In reply to that, another participant said that the “listening moment” pause was foundational for their willingness to shift themselves. It was interpreted as an empathetic behavior by the person playing a subordinate in the scenario.
Power, Status, and Inclusion
When just starting in improv, arguments seem dramatic, but they are typically boring pauses that hold up the narrative of a scene or story. The essence of an improvised argument is that both sides want to win. The stakes are generally low: “You put sugar in my coffee?!”. Because we are improvising all the content, that is a losing strategy for creating compelling scenes together in front of an audience.
When you find yourself in an improvised argument, someone must choose to lose because that will end the argument and allow the relationship and story to advance. I generally coach performers toward this because it plants the seed for the relationship and connection to be the real drivers of plot, fun, and discovery.
When this health care administrator in a status role-play activity paused to listen, she inadvertently chose to lower her status, and by doing so, she allowed the relationship to proceed and the meeting to move forward. That is the essence of aware and constructive leadership; knowing which arguments are important and which are frivolous ego struggles. It shifts the interaction from the ‘destructive’ side of the spectrum (anxiety producing) to the ‘constructive’ side (anxiety reducing). For the sake of inclusion, listening openly to understand is also the first step toward creating an inviting space when navigating difference in a place where you have privilege.
Let’s look into that. Let’s imagine what happens when we map this idea of status to the intersections of our identities. Those intersections are where your gender, race, sexual identity, physical ability, etc combine into a net advantage or disadvantage in society. Those advantages and disadvantages translate into a disparity between expectations of and access to the quadrants of the status positions above. Consider how these status behaviors map to interpersonal instances of racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, etc.
Each of these terms refer to a system of power that governs the identities across the continuum of it’s concern. Who has access to what status positions depending on their intersectional identities? Also, in what contexts do these circumstances change (if at all)? What does that imply for our understanding or misunderstanding of these issues, and what implications do these have for discussions and training around these issues? Which positions are occupied by accomplices or advocates, or rather which positions are prone to respectful conduct and inclusive behavior? If we look back at figure 2, it appears that anything that could fall into the ‘constructive’ side of the graph could be construed as an inclusive operator in the system of status. I would generally agree.
However, if we consider cognitive influencers like bias (unconscious and conscious), we could start to see how many of us have been socialized to assume specific status positions in regards to our perception of someone else’s identity. When we look at something simplistic like the gender binary difference between how assertive men and assertive women are received in the work environment, we can start to see that the consequences of occupying a position on the more destructive/dominant end of the spectrum. Men tend to be ‘expected to’, possibly ‘allowed to’, occupy that space of directing people in the context of sexism (read: patriarchy). Women are not expected or allowed to occupy the destructive/dominant end of the spectrum in terms of directing people and many times endure consequences of varying degrees because of it. Men get praised as ‘strong and confident’, and women get cast as ‘cold and bitchy’. The joke is on us; in that all of us can be all of those things without gender.
Think about popular representations of different racial and ethnic groups, LGBTQIA+, people with disabilities over time in the United States. What are you supposed to do when the very culture you live in is covered and brimming with negative depictions of your identity; when the culture you live in automatically leads to an assumed low status, an othering of some sort? Systems get structured to discount you and your worth. Those systems then recycle, reinforce, and remake institutions that maintain the stigma and enforce the now assumed dominance of the majority identity.
This pattern is alive and well in all of us to some degree. Because the conversation (race, gender and class most discernibly) has surfaced so obviously during the COVID pandemic, people are in the streets calling for the systems and institutions to be reformatted. The people who possess all of the advantages of the current systems and institutions fear the loss of their high status and will fight dirty to keep it.
This notion of our identities being the drivers of our experiences and beliefs brings to mind an adage from the Talmud: ‘We do not see the world as it is; We see the world as we are’. With this in mind, it’s incredibly important to see that, as we gauge these behaviors and positions, it’s impossible for any one of us to have a completely clean or innocent lens in deciphering these status interactions. When I facilitate learning using these tools, it’s generally through using reflective questions in the style of popular education to factor for the variety of perspectives and experiences and to be reflective of how my own biases could manifest. Inviting and nurturing a space for inquiry and dialogue allows for all of those experiences of power, status, identity, exclusion and inclusion to be discussed and investigated using the behavioral vocabulary and tools of status from improvised theater.
There is a lot more to explore, research and clarify, as I can also see these positions being occupied out of a need for defense. That is why context and the subtlety of intersectionality needs to be engaged in concert with these tools. Part of the work of inclusion is remaining open to the fact that we are limited by the boundaries of our experience and identities, and people who are different from us can help us discover the richness and reward that comes with growing our circle of understanding and acceptance. ‘To belong’ is one of THE central concerns of being human.
We are all more complex than the mechanics described in these status models, but they do take us much farther into communicating about healthy leadership, equitable outcomes, and inclusive behaviors. For these reasons, I am excited about the potential of applying these status play tools in creating more competency and understanding on how to navigate, interrupt, dismantle, and possibly even heal our relationships to power and each other.
Fortier, Brad. A Culture of Play: Essays on the Origins, Applications, and Effects of Improvised Theatre. LULU publishing, 2013. Print.
Fortier, Brad. Long-Form Improvisation: Collaboration, Comedy, Communion. Lambert Academic Publishing, 2010. Print.
Johnstone, Keith. Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre. London: Faber and Faber, 1979. Print.
Johnstone, Keith. Impro for Storytellers. New York: Routledge/Theatre Arts Books, 1999. Print.
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