Reflecting on the spread of the Improv Meme

Of late, I find myself teaching and coaching high and low throughout Portland. Some days I go from teaching college improv, to coaching middle schoolers, to coaching professional performers, to coaching organizations. As a scholar on the subject and a fanatic, I’ve developed a tendency to help the young and new to the art connect it to their lives, or, more importantly how it can connect ‘their’ lives.

It is not at all necessary for someone to shoot for a stage career in improv (and as many of us know, not a lucrative path to take), but everyone can benefit from becoming a better listener, noticer, supporter, and initiator. One thing that has been causing me to reflect is how a majority of American youth that I work with are so steeped in the put down. I would love to look into the reasons/causes of this phenomenon. Is it brain development? Is it western industrial culture? Is it socialization? Is it a blend of these? My training leads me to believe in the blend because there is no simple magic bullet when it comes to dealing in human behaviors. We are affected by and affect the systems and contexts that we encounter and inhabit.

If there’s one thing improv training can do, it is to help us explore and master that reality of human existence. If we can accept that we are vulnerable and can find strength in finding an emotional center in our lives, we can move from that center to create connection and embark on challenging journeys toward discovering what our experiences and connections have to offer in terms of satisfaction and growth. The habits of listening, noticing, supporting, and initiating (the keys of collaboration and cooperation) are our birthright as humans.

So, as I write this, teach that, and perform something else, I get to proselytize and advocate for all of the things I hope to see emergent in the generations coming up. In my mind, our scions lived by a similar code of cooperation and collaboration (more often than not), and when I read about riots, and occupy, and protests, and disaster response, and happenings; I like to think that I am seeing the stirrings of a long slumber. The defectors who have stopped listening, stopped noticing, stopped supporting, and stopped initiating are beginning to be recognized for who they are (even if they are ourselves). The beauty of this realization can even be explored through the lens of improv in that mistakes are opportunities to notice ‘the now’. With an edit, or with an agreement, or with an embellishment; we can change our course and emerge from the dark underworld of tragedy and separation to the sunny skies of comedy and connection.

A Quote on Play and Evolution

My childhood play took me to extremes, and all of them, I now understand, were a fun way to test the social realities into which one is born. Surely this is a most important evolutionary function of play—finding out what is fun and fair or not fair on the field of life.

– Jaak Panksepp from the American Journal of Play, Winter 2010

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.

Cooperation precedes life

The existence of cooperating pairs of molecules in prelife is very plausible. Indeed, replication of a single strand of RNA can be thought of this way: one strand of RNA builds a complimentary strand, and so on. Thus cooperation is older than life itself.

Martin A. Nowak in his book Supercooperators.

We Can Be Heroes

In years past, a passage by Vicki Noble, a healer of sorts, really had struck a chord with me. It had to do with her approach to cancer. In the passage, she said that she didn’t focus so much on attacking the offending cells. Instead, her energies were trained on awakening, enlivening and empowering the healthy cells. She used this as a metaphor for engaging in the work of building peace in communities and the world at large.

This is something that comes to my mind a lot in the research and writing that I do. Of course, my lens makes me see improv as a hammer that can hit any social skill/social awareness nail. That aside, I’ve been considering what are the particular notions that we play with in improv that can really help enliven individuals to being more courageous and effective. That word “courageous” is what led me to think of heroes and heroism. There is a lot of great work out there on these subjects. Instantly, my mind goes to the great work of Joseph Campbell and all of the folks who have been inspired by and built on his work. I’m spending some time now becoming more familiar with his canon, but before I jumped into that, I wanted to experiment a little with the notion in a workshop.

Recently, I did a pro-bono workshop for the local Comedysportz cast focused on discovering what kind of hero people are and having them more fully engage in an active exploration of what that could mean for their lives. I based it on an anthropology article that I had blogged about before.

Part of the workshop involved people telling stories of heroic things that they’ve done in life; not so much as a chance to brag as much as a way to help them see their own potential for heroism. This had an interesting effect on many of the people in the workshop. One participant remarked that it was so different from general conversation in life for her because she rarely spoke of herself in terms of being heroic. She felt that it was rare in her circle that people would make such an accounting of their helpful or heroic deeds.

Another colleague of mine actually applies similar work through her job at FEMA. I had the pleasure of connecting with Mary Tyszkiewicz and got to see her speak about her own brainchild called Heroic Improvisation. Soon after her talk, she was hired on by FEMA to help realize some of their new goals of creating teams of volunteer first responders using these techniques.

Carlos-Arredondo-boston-marathon-hero-1My mind wanders on how to expand this work to bolster the ‘healthy cells’ that walk around us every day because I believe we could all use reminders that we are capable of being remarkable in terms of helping one another. This seems important when we appear to live in times where partisan tensions and income inequality reign supreme. In the wake of the tragedy of the Boston Marathon, it was heartening to see that most of the people that walk around us every day are primed to be heroes when circumstances call. My big hope is that those heroic qualities will filter up the chain of power in time to deal with the impending challenges of our new millennium.

A particular quote always crops up in my mind in regards to what I would consider true heroism in the human scheme. It was written by Shadi Fader in the “Fool” edition of the magazine Parabola (2001):

“A fool’s strength lies in the very qualities that separate him from the conventional image of the heroic: humility and the willingness to support others rather than seeking power or glory directly”

That quote was in reference to the journey of Frodo Baggins in the Lord of the Rings. On that fictional journey, there was no promised reward, but it was undertaken all the same because the alternative was darkness and suffering. Our world could definitely be helped by asking that question more often: Will this result in more suffering for us all?

If the answer is ‘yes’ to the suffering of the many, and one acts to stop or avoid that outcome; that is a hero. If one acts to advance or support that outcome to cause the suffering of many; that is a villain. The unfortunate part of these dilemmas in the real world is that these situations are rarely that black and white, but with more data, the issues can be nailed down to which shade of grey they may be.

In the world of improvised theater, everything emerges from shades of grey to become black and white, and this happens through the heroic process of being present, listening, agreeing and appreciating ideas, and supporting our fellows. It’s a process that is in play in every healthy community. In my mind, it is our default setting when we are not threatened. Improv training can help us retain our composure when the going gets rough and remember these ideals in a crisis. It can bolster the healthy cells against the cancer of fear and doubt. One more reason to keep spreading the ideas of improvisation to the world…to fill it with heroes. Villains beware!!

A Culture of Play

A Culture of Play
Support independent publishing: Buy this book on Lulu.

This new book is a collection of my research and writings on improvisation. Some of the chapters are familiar, but there are several new unpublished works in these pages. Please take a look at the link. There is a preview. Happy New Year and Enjoy!!! Now I can sleep for a little while.

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.

Upcoming series: “What Connects Us?”

The Internet, Smart Phones, Facebook, Twitter, Spotify, Foursquare, Xbox, YouTube, Skype, Email, the Googleverse, international flights, highways, trains, cars: in a world more ‘connected’ than at any point in history, the human race seems to act or ‘is portrayed as’ more disjointed, factionalized, fragmented, and anonymous than ever before. For most of us in the developed world, the speed at which we can “connect” is near to instantaneous, as is the speed at which we can be alienated. In this paradox of modern western developed life (that is dragging the rest of the globe along with it), I believe one question deserves much reflection and meditation, “What Connects Us?” In the asking, it brings into scope numerous and multi-layered issues involving the other side of this coin ‘What Separates Us?’ It is impossible to answer one without addressing the other. This blog series will be a tour de force that uses insights and examples from history, anthropology, neuroscience, and the arts to question and explore our world and discover ‘What Connects Us?’

 

Beginning this September 2012, I will post a blog a month dealing with the 10 ideas that follow in a search to find the answers. In the meantime, I’ve got a lot of reading to do.

The 10 Ideas:

  • I’m a______, You’re a_______ (Our differing approaches to identity and ambiguity through character)
  • Understanding the balance of ‘Showing and Telling’ (empathy and communication)
  • The commons (social responsibility and the mindset of generosity)
  • The agony and the ecstasy (I feel better if you feel worse vs. I feel better if you feel better; the status-ego tango)
  • My Land, Your Land, Our Land, THE Land (What to do when the natural world that is no longer ‘Fit & Well’?)
  • In the Ever-Changing Maze (Urbanism, Public Relations and the Advent of the Elite Freeloader: causes and symptoms of ‘Hedging, Blocking, and Distracting’)
  • The more people there are; the less one person matters (The changing value of social connections in high human density and low human density environments)
  • On zombies and the finiteness of protein (When we run out of food, we look really tasty: dietary improvisation isn’t always pretty)
  • Yes, and… (a simple tool from the arts with broad applications and outcomes)
  • A lesson from Improvisation: What does this story need to succeed? Serve that Purpose, or ‘save the world; kill your ‘self

Improvisation and the Evolution of Memes

[This is a segment of an article in development]

Variation, one of the essential parts of the theory of evolution, is all about mistakes. Selection is about those mistakes being discarded or used. In improvisation, whether a mistake is useful or should be passed on depends on the social and contextual environment of the current or past play situation within a single performance. In biology, when a mutation/mistake serves to improve things for a particular organism in a particular context, it is selected for and becomes normalized through replication/reproduction/reuse. In improv it would be reincorporation and further exploration/integration of the themes and/or ideas in a single performance. A mutation/mistake that does not serve to improve things, is selected out, diminishes, disappears. The same could be said in an improvised piece of theater.

Effective impro players behave like cellular RNA through taking pieces of behavior, dialogue, and mime to knit together a meaningful and entertaining performance with form, substance, function, and some kick. However, when talking about active/ongoing processes like evolution and improvised performances, there are also issues of generations over time and changes in context/environment that occur due to the degree of dynamism in a context/environment. The biological processes of genetic mutation, selection, and reproduction are echoed in human interaction with memes, which is an idea pioneered by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene (1976). Memes are also acted upon by the abundance or scarcity of interaction, as well as the quality and depth of interaction. Learning how to improvise theater is one way to observe and experiment with the process of meme flow, in regards to relationships and identity, and become an engaged and aware producer and consumer in that system of memes.

In personal relationships, I would consider emotions, compatibility, and history as the context/environment that relationship and identity memes inhabit. This applies to developing character relationships in an improvisation; especially when being able to understand, react to, and embody emotions, as well as recognize chemistry, and rapidly develop/imply a history are parts of the program in any kind of improv training. These are the variables that are mutable, which can fluctuate between being easy to adapt to or difficult depending on how dynamic the forces are affecting the relationship between the three factors: emotion, compatibility, and history.

Fear is to Comfort as Famine is to Feast. These are the extremes that cause all the turbulence in a natural system/human relationship. As you would guess, most of the time we’re somewhere in the bell part of the curve and don’t pay much heed to our routine. I think the processes of evolution and extinction come into play as adversaries in times of stress and abundance. Stress is a top-down force of change (rapid extreme environmental variability or a depletion of energy sustaining resources for an organism or dealing with emotional extremes and self-centeredness in any relationship, professional and/or private), and abundance being a bottom-up force of change (Easily acquired energy for an organism or strong cooperation/collaboration in a human relationship), which is what Kieth Sawyer has asserted about improvised theater with his notion of collaborative emergence.

One could also extrapolate this thinking to the technological advancement of plant and animal domestication as ‘collaboratively emerging’ from the meme flow of our ancestors. This may also suggest that prevailing social and cultural forces would affect the rate of flow, variability, scarcity, interaction and abundance of memes, depending on the levels of fear or comfort present in any particular cultural system (where fear is an inhibitor and comfort is an enabler).

%d bloggers like this: