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.

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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.

What can improvised theater teach us?

Introduction

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

eye-contact-true-feelingsChristian 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

MyWelcomeMatsThe 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.

Improvisation and Trance: an Experiment

Recently, while at the Applied Improv conference in San Francisco, a Dutch colleague approached me to collaborate on creating a workshop that was focused on bringing the participants towards a state of trance. She had some knowledge of neo-shamanism from reading and participating in some European personal growth workshops, and she wanted to collaborate with me for my experience and anthropological lens on rituals and their structure. We spent part of the evening on our feet brainstorming a lesson plan and discussing our motivations and intentions for the activities that would fit best. It was an incredibly fun and engaging 40 minutes of planning while other conference goers partied in the next room.

One of the things I wanted to experiment with was how to get participants to a vulnerable, open, and safe space as quickly as possible. If you’ve read anything I’ve written, you know that I’m totally into Victor Turner’s ideas about creating communitas. In the spirit of that, my notion was to have all the participants do a long introduction of themselves to every other participant. These introductions would be given in their native language, and they were to be structured as follows: I am [name], grandson/daughter of [names of all grandparents], son/daughter of [names of all parents, including steps or fictive kin], brother/sister to [names of all siblings], Father/Mother to [all children if any].

From there, we engaged in some exploring of the workshop space and making eye contact, as well as some body contact. Then we gathered for a favorite circle game of late that is called “Bunny, Bunny, Tooki, Tooki” in my circle. It’s played in a circle and is steeped in rhythmic chanting with the conceit of the game being thrown around the circle requiring groups of 3 proximal participants to chant something different from the rest of the circle. The group commenced with the prescribed rules, and Lieselotte (my Dutch colleague) and I occasionally coached the group to be mindful or focus on particular things. Some of the coaching I remember giving were notes like: “Copy the energy you are receiving”, “Don’t take this too seriously; keep it light, enjoy it”. This game evolved into a large group ceremony whose rules and meanings began to emerge spontaneously. When the group began to fall into the heat of the collaborative play, we no longer coached, and the moment of communitas arrived. Meaning that everyone seemed so intent on the essential actions of the ‘us’ that the idea of coaching or even leading disappeared from my horizon for the time.

The session was only an hour, and it had started late. We had time for a 5 minute debrief on peoples’ experiences, and from what participants shared in terms of their emotional states and perceptions during the warm up, full engagement, and cool downs, it appears that we achieved a certain degree of release and communion. There was some specific discussion about how the long introduction put people into a reflective mood centered on the relationships that informed their lives for good or ill. The vulnerability piece came forward, and a few of the participants reported that it made the person introducing themselves more solid through having to introduce not only themselves but the context that shaped them.

Almost all of the participants reported that they had felt some form of letting go and a feeling of deeper connectedness to the others and the actions while deep in the “Bunny, Bunny, Tooki, Tooki” game. Many had said that hearing the coaching to be light and enjoy it was what led to the falling deeper into the moment of connection. Separating this activity from the solemnity that often accompanies many formal modern religious rituals was one of the key directions that I suspected would help participants get there. This experiment helped to highlight the importance of creating the safe play space for creating deeper connection.

Some more validation arrived a few weeks after the conference. One of the participants, a very successful and revered trainer who joined the workshop late, contacted me to chat. Their motivation was that “they couldn’t stop thinking about the impact of the workshop”. The conversation came around to ‘how did you do that?’, and the only way that I could think to explain it was that, at a point, ‘I’ can no longer be there because there is only space for ‘us’. Me being a coach or leader will ultimately prevent that deeper ‘us’ to emerge because that role anchors us to the normal social world of rules and hierarchy. By Lieselotte and I stopping to coach and lead, we opened the way to creating a ‘liminal’ space where the rules and expectations of normal human existence are relaxed and allowed for that deep connection to emerge. How I did it was by getting out of the way at the right moment and letting my self fade to the background to be a part of ‘us’. Not leading, not following, just accepting what happens and projecting that energy forward with excitement. That is the road to ecstatic experience with groups.

What Connects Us? (Chapter 1, section 1)

In the Ever-Changing Maze: Introduction

In Greek mythology, there is the story of Daedalus constructing a maze for King Minos of Crete in order to hold the Minotaur, a half man-half bull hybrid. The Minotaur was born from a union of Minos’ wife and a bull, which was payback from the gods for Minos’ greed. As far back as ancient Greece, we are introduced to the monstrous follies that arise from greed and hubris. Deadalus, an engineer, architect, inventor, and designer, builds an incredible construct to try to contain this monstrous offspring of human passion and beastly drive, the Minotaur. Later, Theseus (a hero from a village that is compelled to sacrifice children to the Minotaur) would be cast into the maze with the intent of killing this beast. His salvation comes from the actions of Ariadne, who provides him with a skein of thread that aids in finding his way out and the instructions of Daedalus on how to navigate the maze to find the beast. The compassion and cooperation of Ariadne and Daedalus lead them to provide Theseus with what he needs to succeed in order to escape after killing the beast of passion and hunger, which was set to wander and consume those trapped in the maze.

The story and the symbol of the labyrinth is one of the earliest concepts to be introduced to us in young adulthood. You can walk one, or the outline of one, practically anywhere in the world. They’ve even got portable labyrinths now. C.G. Jung suggested the labyrinth is a symbol of our ‘unconscious mind’; that obscure place in our psyche that is a repository for socially unacceptable ideas, wishes or desires, traumatic memories, and painful emotions put out of mind by the mechanism of psychological repression, or more broadly, a place and process in our minds that we cannot directly access with our conscious mind (at least according to Freudian thought). However, Jung made the claim that the labyrinth was really a modern realization of the more ancient concept of the underworld.

For anyone who can access this blog, a visceral understanding of the world as it was when humans were fully embracing and believing in the underworld is not possible. It is a concept that started getting watered down and eventually put out of most human cultures as they urbanized. The underworld in animist traditions is the place where mysteries lie and turbulent forces beyond understanding play out as the above world (where we live) is born, lives, dies, and then returns to the underworld. It was more of a place out of sight and beyond understanding where everything comes from and returns to than the more colorful and horrifying version of Christian hell. The underworld was inextricably married to our world in the ancient mind, as opposed to what the labyrinth and maze often imply; something built by human hands that inspires fear, loneliness, confusion, and separation (with a thin slice of mystery). However, as humans urbanized, they needed a symbol that was closer to the everyday experience of urban living: walls, halls, and doors. The maze and labyrinth were an easier analog to understand for urbanites, who were in the process of writing and reading history and myth.

The notion of walking through an environment that was solely constructed by human hands and ingenuity had been around for several thousand years when the Greeks were perfecting their civilization. In 1000 B.C., they were building on the ideas that flowed up from the Sumerians (2000 B.C.) who were the ancient peoples of modern day Iraq, and the Sumerians undoubtedly took some of what they knew from the Harrapan Civilization (6000 B.C.) that existed in the IndusValley in what is now modern day India. The human species has been around for roughly 200,000 years. Approximately 10,000 years of that has been involved in the transition from tribal living as foragers and hunters living dispersed across the landscape to urban living supported by an agrarian system in a high-density environment. Today, over half of the world’s population lives in cities, and that ratio is growing to favor urban living over rural living as time goes by (which, by default, means more food consumers and less food producers). We are all marching deeper into the labyrinth that we have built under the direction of elites and kings. We may well be marching to the center of something that is consuming and destroying us.

Human beings are astute. They are generally very good at figuring things out, including each other. This skill is a great thing for us when used to heal and nurture. Sometimes, it is misguided and used against us for the purposes of manipulation, through sowing doubt and encouraging fear. I think that the story of the Labyrinth and the Minotaur is a lesson and a warning from our earliest urbanite ancestors: ‘No matter how clever we are, no matter how much we invent and build; there is still a beast of passion and hunger at our core’. Urban elites throw those who oppose them to the confusion and uncertainty of the Labyrinth to be consumed by the bestial nature of those who dwell in the confusion. These days in the U.S., we call it prison.

All the while, the elites, and those who directly serve them, remain safe with a clear understanding of what the Labyrinth is and how to use it. An elite person in any society is someone who holds considerable political, economic, social or intellectual sway over significant portions of that society. Oftentimes, these people may hold sway over multiple domains. The urban setting, and the specialization it allows for individuals, is fertile soil for growing elites who govern, utilize, and profit off of those who dwell within and around cities, and in our globalized world, their reach and influence has increased to cover the globe.

Civil engineering, planning, and architecture are major facets of urban living that play a distinct role in making people feel safe or uneasy. The builders of our world are working with almost 10,000 years of accumulated civil design and architectural knowledge. Spaces in our modern cities can be and are purposely engineered to facilitate or hinder human commerce and comfort. Couple this with the other maze that has arisen from urban life, the labyrinth of information we are bombarded with, and you have all the tools at your disposal to enhance or worsen the circumstances and understanding of those who are inside or dependent on the systems that are integral to urban living.

In the Greek myth of the labyrinth, only a tool given out of empathy and compassion provides a way out of the maze of confusion for someone to escape to clarity and safety. The Minotaur was killed and the maze was rendered safe only through providing support to the hero, Theseus. Only a courageous person with their wits about them can actually recognize and use the tools and assistance presented to them to find their way out of a threatening and confusing environment. In the end, cooperation, collaboration, and empathy (the facets of our lives that training in improvisation can enhance), led everyone back to safety. Another more contemporary mythic example of collaboration, cooperation and empathy as a means towards the end of great suffering would be the twisting journey of Frodo in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.

Tolkien’s master work is likely a more relevant example because it was influenced by the rise of the industrial age. Sam and Frodo’s journey through the twisting lands of the east in Middle Earth bear a resemblance to the mysterious loneliness and separation that is suggested by the maze-like path to their goal. The element that brings Tolkien’s tale into the modern urban experience is the element of surveillance. The “all-seeing eye” is constantly watching in search and hunger for the crux of its power, the one ring. This ring allows it’s bearer to become invisible, to disappear, yet when this power is used, it alerts all those who seek and crave the power of the ring. In a sense, this ring element coupled with how the “seeing stones” are used in the narrative of the Lord of the Rings play into an analogy of how information is valued and controlled.

If someone has the power to fall off the grid while intending to destroy a system that benefits from domination, suppression, and misinformation, you can bet your bottom dollar that that person will become public enemy number one. Sauron, the all-seeing eye of Tolkien’s books, uses misinformation to sow doubt and discord among the kingdoms of men in order to prevent them from effectively uniting. It is interesting to note that the ‘seeing stones’ of Tolkien appear to be a magical analog of edited television, at least in the films. It is only through a selfless group of unlikely heroes, who vow to bring an end to this system, that the impossible is accomplished. How do they accomplish this? Through finding ways to collaborate, cooperate, and restore a sense of empathy, sympathy and allegiance amongst themselves and in the world.

This mythology of collaboration and cooperation that runs through inspiring pieces of fact and fiction belies what is valued by humans. These behaviors are our legacy. They may have even been part of a shared inheritance among mammals. Have you ever felt moved at the sight of people succeeding at something through cooperation? Have you ever given money to the victims of a disaster? Has a tear rolled down your cheek when a good Samaritan appears and lends help when it was needed? For many of us, this is our truth.

Our brains even shift into high gear when we engage in intense collaborative events like religious rituals, sports, music, games, and theatre. When our brains are in that high gear, we feel a deep connection to all those around us and the world at large. These are biological rewards for exercising our empathy through cooperation and collaboration.

However, there are some of us who collaborate on manipulating others for personal gain. It so happens that when the human intellect is missing the check of a sense of empathy that we get disorders like narcissistic personality disorder, socio and psycho-paths. Every culture and society on the planet has individuals who have these disorders, and they leave wrecked lives in their wake. In one study by psychologist Robert Hare, 4% of a sample of 203 corporate professionals met the clinical criteria for being described as psychopaths. The percentage of psychopaths generally is considered to be approximately 1% of the total human population. If that is indeed true, there are approximately 70 million psychopaths wandering the world. This is certainly a number that makes one pause.

In taking a look at the people who have a weighted hand in shaping the direction of culture through wealth, we see that certain elites, like King Minos and Sauron of fiction and any number of historic and contemporary individuals from the real world, know that building an obscure and difficult to navigate environment for those they wish to control (as well as defend and obscure themselves and their manipulations) works very well, for it was born from their own unsympathetic, unappreciative greed. The political, social and cultural tensions of the ancient Greeks had similarities to our modern tensions, and Tolkien modernized the themes. It would seem that human society and culture has been wrestling with the a very real understanding that systems of ensconced power pass a threshold into a dangerous oblivion when they become divorced from the well-being of humanity in general, and when that happens, it is a necessary but difficult thing to dismantle or escape them through immigration, war, or revolution. We no longer have the luxury that our ancestors had of moving to new territory to find a promised land. Globalization has largely brought an end to new frontiers on the surface of the earth.

So why recount these stories of Theseus and Frodo? What does this have to do with ‘What Connects Us’? What does it have to do with improvisation or anthropology? How is this relevant to the challenges we face today? Many of the answers to these questions lie in looking at the contrast between the lives humans led before the advent of cities, and the lives we’ve come to lead in cities. The different contexts require different approaches to different challenges, and they also provide different degrees of opportunities for those who wish to meddle with the social contract in each setting. There always have been, and I speculate that there always will be individuals who profit from creating confusion. However, how these people are dealt with in each context is important to note.

Improvisation (and the social skills and ethics that it imparts in regards to enhancing our capacities for empathy, collaboration, cooperation, and creativity) enters into the conversation as the skein of thread that gives us a hope to navigate the labyrinth of confusion with the tools that our ancestors relied on daily to succeed, survive, and thrive; their relationships and the social networks that arose from them. The skill-set that is enhanced by improvisation is the gift of light “when all other lights go out”. When people are introduced to and practice methodically the process of listening, appreciating and acknowledging what they’ve heard, and supporting that with an idea that they think would improve and enhance the initial idea (the essentials of improvising drama); it kick starts a transformative process that leads away from self absorption toward cohesion with others. Improvisation is a fairly low-impact means for exploring ideas and experiences in concert with people rather than in competition.

Unlike meditation, which can elicit the same cognitive state, it is an active, collaborative practice that has the potential to bring insight and peace into our lives through experimenting with social interactions in a sort of laboratory of play. It can be a way to knock down walls and create straight corridors through the maze of social distraction and confusion that we are generally surrounded by in the urban experience. For dozens of millenia before humans began their march towards towns and cities, our ancestors gathered together in ceremonies where they explored mysteries, sought knowledge, and found catharsis through the narratives and performances of shamans. These men and women were experts, not only of the workings of the natural world they all relied on for survival, but also of the social group they served. Much of the effectiveness of a shaman had to do with their abilities to read and understand their audience in order to create the occasions and experiences for emotional and psychological catharsis.

Today, this is realized in the practice of improvisation in psychodrama specifically as a mode for therapy, but it is also applied at large in artistic classes and organizational training to enhance the performance of a variety of groups of people from a myriad of backgrounds. So it stands to reason that through the unlikely emergence of a refined approach to improvising theater that we have, in fact, come around full circle to rediscover a secular way to commune through making new myths together and realizing that these skills allow us to make connections with nearly everyone we meet. It has been suggested by other anthropologists that this is something akin to our original state of being, pre-urbanism. It’s important that we know our roots and our history because they both have a lot to do with what connects us.

Stay tuned for the next part of this ongoing series where we’ll explore the differences between tribal living and urban living and how the differences shape our lives, expectations, and concerns (as well as compare with the ethos of improvisation)…

References

De Wall, Frans. Good Natured: The Origins of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals. Pp. 40-83 & 163-203. Cambridge: HarvardUniversity Press. 1996.

Flusty, Steven. “Building Paranoia”. Architecture of Fear. Ellin, Nan, ed. Princeton Architectural Press: New York. 1997.

Fortier, Brad. “The Brain on Improvised Theater” speech: Ignite Portland 10. 2012.

Newberg, Andrew, M.D. et al. Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science & the Biology of Belief.  Pp. 54-97. Random House: New York. 2001.

Sorenson, E. Richard. “Preconquest Consciousness” in Tribal Epistemologies: Essays in the Philosophy of Anthropology. Helmut Wautischer, ed. Ashgate Publications Ltd. 1998.

Winkelman, Michael. “Shamanism as Psychobiological Structures of Consciousness, Cognition and Healing”. Curare 22 (1999) 2: 121-128.

The Power of ‘Yes’

Currently, I’m doing some contract work with the United Way here in Portland. One of my tasks is to visit funded organizations and initiatives and talk to the people there to get their stories.

Today took me out to an organization called JOIN that does outreach for the homeless to get them up on their feet and back into the game. One of the biggest hurdles to coming off the street is building a sense of self-worth back up. Both of the people who shared their stories of coming off the street, told me that it was the most renewing thing to have people approach them and validate and appreciate their situations. It was the first time in years for these folks, but that simple act of having someone finally say ‘Yes, come in, and we’d like to help you’. The program does this out on the streets, largely. For the long-term homeless, there are incredible trust issues that need to be dealt with before they can make headway towards stability. They don’t trust because they’ve been denied so often.

In the world of improvisation, we know that appreciating, validating, and “yes”ing is how relationships and stories are built. The reason it works so well in improv is because it works well in life. Saying ‘yes’ to a homeless person is the most vulnerable thing for privileged person to do, but one of the people I talked to today told me, when they were at their lowest, two different people reached out to help and validate his need. He told me that those gestures awakened hope in him and gave him the strength to press on and work towards change.

That’s the deep power of yes. It builds trust between people. It affirms the value of a developing relationship, and it inspires us to do our best for ourselves and ultimately for others.