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.

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Thoughts on Status in Improvised Theater

The introduction of the notion of “status” was transformational for improvised theater. Keith Johnstone’s conceptual innovation took the art of improvised theater into even deeper territory in the 1960’s. Adding the idea of status focused improvisers more fully upon a person/character’s behavior and intention. It allowed them to meditate on what are the ‘key’ actions that could make a human relationship flourish or wither. Status was a ‘Stanislavskian’ leap in developing improvised theater.

In classes, we typically start the discussion by having a pow wow about what everyone’s thoughts are when they hear the word “Status”. Most classes go to socio-economic and archetypal classifications: Rich, big cars, the boss. Then we usually start expanding on the notion by having people consider what the essentials are in talking about “high” and “low” status. This again is steeped in artifacts and appearance: suit and tie is high, scruffy dirty is low, Ferrari vs. Dodge Dart and so on. Largely, it stays close to the land of the stereotypical.

The conversation takes an interesting turn when it comes to using behaviors and intentions as the barometer for measuring how status is gained and lost by making a game out of them. I feel like this is one of the more important passages of thought for people to pass through on their journey through the world of improvised theater. In the laboratory of status games, we are asked to briefly detach ourselves emotionally from our typical actions and behavior. Essentially, we are allowed to have an active meditation on the mechanics of human choices in social situations and life in general.

This is also why, through many discussions with students, it helps to distinguish between ‘socio-economic’ status and ‘interactional’ status. Our interactions with others let us gain and lose status within minutes. Any of us can go from being on top to being made low by a turn of phrase or an ill-timed grimace. Clifford Geertz, an anthropologist, talked about much the same in his book The Interpretation of Cultures (1973), when he asked the question ‘when is a wink just a wink?’ to spur the analysis of symbolic actions. Exploring the meanings of symbolic actions (and the mistaken interpretations of them) is a big staple of both literature and comedy, and in our own lives it’s one of the key experiences that helps us grow to be more empathetic and balanced.

Through using the laboratory of status exercises and games in improvised theater, we are allowing ourselves to walk backward and forward through those experiences; thus adding miles to the odometer of our understandings of ourselves and others, through experiencing winning and losing, pride and hubris, and everything else on the journey to the top or the bottom. We are also fine-tuning our own abilities to get the most out of the relationships and interactions in our own lives. This is such an important set of skills to maintain, lest we lose our humanity and passions to the world we see on screens. If you turn yours off, you’ll elevate the status of the real world.

Roadblocks to Connection: “Sorry” and “Worry”

One of the first big ideas I introduce to new students is how “Sorry” and “Worry” are the biggest enemies to good improvisation. I do this because it’s the first thing that I consistently see operating in beginning improv classes filled with new students. It’s our default as humans when facing a new social landscape. It’s all hinged on our desire to connect and be social. We do incredible things as people to preserve and maintain that channel and potential for connection.

Some people starve themselves thinking that, if they were thinner, people would like them. Some people buy lots of things thinking that, if they have stuff, people will like them. Many homosexuals spend years hiding their identities just to insure that people will like them, while others commit suicide because they cannot bear the threat of losing their social connections. Suffice it to say, connection is one of the prime motivators in the human world. So the thought of isolation, rejection or being found ‘unworthy’ is a terror we all share to some degree.

When we let this terror grip us, we fall to our baser instincts for self-preservation. If we have no faith in ‘us’, than it’s gonna be about ‘me’. This brings us back to the Sorry/Worry discussion. ‘Sorry’ is a focus on the past. It is the fear that something you’ve done will get you voted off the island; thrown out of the group; talked about in the break room. It distracts you. ‘Worry’ is focus on the future. It is the fear that you will fail, be wrong, or otherwise embarrass yourself which could possibly lead to getting voted off the island; thrown out of the group or talked about in the break room. It prevents you from taking action. Both of these fear-based thought processes draw your attention and focus from what’s going on in front of you. When we’re drawn away from the here and now, we miss details, nuances and sometimes the entire point of what is happening.

In my experience teaching improvisation, the heart of a majority of problems students encounter are situated in fear whose continuum is situated between our two perpetrators; sorry and worry. People can be putting out the best offers, acting and stage presence possible, and their scene partners, gripped by worry or distracted by sorry, are unable to connect with them to use those things to create the scene in concert with their partners. They are just not mentally ‘there’ for them, but instead are enthralled by the possibility of failure or looking back on failure. The best improvisers tend to be those that can fail, learn and move on to connect back up with their partners. The tighter you hold onto failure, the harder it is to hold onto anything else.

The Evolution of Language

Robin Dunbar is amazing. I just finished his book Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language, and it was an eye-opening, insightful and compelling read. The main points of the book are that language evolved as a result of the pressure to keep and maintain social ties in larger primate groups. Once that begins to happen, personal information becomes a means of trade not only for identifying bad behavior but also in lauding good behavior. This certainly supports why praise and blame are such powerful social motivators.

Dunbar and his graduate students did a lot of eavesdropping in order to get to the heart of what people talk about, in order to get to the why. From this field evidence, he begins to weave in the narratives of biological anthropology, archeology and neuro-linguistics to get to the heart of the matter. His propositions are compelling in regards to human group sizes, social cohesion and even how the very same knowledge has come upon abuse by individuals in the modern media.

Considering we’re in the middle of the age of facebook, I think the explosion of digital social networking is a confirmation on a certain level of Dunbar’s theorizing in the book. Although, it would require some neurological studies to nail down whether or not the endorphins released during touching or talking are activated by “facebooking”. That would certainly be an Orwellian consideration on some level. This book has definitely revealed another amazing layer of human interaction for me.

In regards to improvisation, it’s compelling to note why learners and performers have a natural tendency to talk about things or people who are not in their scene. According to Dunbar, that’s how we can win favor with people we’re unfamiliar with. It’s our way to triangulate the values, knowledge and concerns of the person we’re interacting with in order to find out how we can bond.

There was another tidbit that I found fascinating. It was how the different genders communicated. In mixed social interaction, women talk about themselves only about 1/3 of the time, whereas men talk about themselves about 2/3 of the time. Dunbar proposes that this is because the genders have different goals in the evolutionary scheme of things. Women seek to create networks to share knowledge and seek aid in birth and child rearing. Men are advertising their availability and potency in order to find mates. For men, language has become a display like the tail feathers of a peacock. For women, language is the glue for their communities. With a little reflection, there might be some insight into dating in this paragraph.

A Tool for Understanding Humor and Empathy

If you were stuck on a desert island with only one other person, would you rather be on an island with someone who was far too serious and seemed to have no interest in or understanding of ‘you’, or would you rather be with someone who has an engaged interest in your shared fate and has some personality to help keep the boredom away? Many of us would probably choose the latter. Unless you tend towards the misanthropic, you would probably prefer to share the company of someone who is understanding and fun. Humor and empathy are two big facets of human life that bond us all, and the one requires the other to some degree.

It is nearly impossible to escape the gaffs of life, and experiencing these myriad failures gives one context to understand the experience of others undergoing similar circumstances. It is this same empathetic knowledge that allows us to see the idiosyncrasies of our experience through new eyes, and one of the things that emerge is laughter. Rooted in the rhythmic hooting of earlier primates, laughter can be considered something of an ancient inheritance. There is precedence for laughter among other species like rats. Our laughter, depending on how it is performed, connotes many things; joy, exasperation, derision, surprise, embarrassment. It is our ability to consider context and discern intention behind human actions that enables us to effectively understand which laugh is the one we’re hearing and seeing.

Improvised theater comes from this mix of humor and acting out a mosaic of real and imagined lives and locales through dialogue, body language, singing, and mime. It is fairly easy to take a class in improvisational theater, or ‘improv’ for short. People from many walks of life take a beginner’s class; high-school counselors, retirees, actors, writers, cooks, nurses, high schoolers, lawyers, etc. It is here that people get introduced to the driving ideas behind the mechanics of improvised theater. Much of early training is focused on understanding and internalizing the idea of “Yes, and”. In every book on improvised theater and its applications since Jeffrey Sweet’s Something Wonderful Right Away, there is a section devoted to understanding this idea. The notion of “yes and” is what can turn the desert island scenario from a negative experience to a positive one infused with active engagement rather than passive disengagement.

To take things a step deeper, there is recent research that suggests that we all have (to a greater or lesser degree) a neural system in place that functions as a means for learning and understanding human intention and human emotion. These networked brain cells are called “Mirror Neurons”. These are neurons that fire in the same way whether you are doing something or watching something being done. Basically what this research is suggesting is, if you raise your arm and I see it, my brain fires all of the same neurons that it would fire if I were raising my arm. The same follows for seeing emotions and body language.

Improvised theater (and the exercises used to teach it) is uniquely designed to enhance a person’s practice and understanding of human intention and emotion. Like all theater, students are coached to become more outwardly emotional in order to communicate a character’s inner life. To do this effectively, it takes a detailed understanding of human emotion and intention; and the performance skills to enact behavior that is appropriate or inappropriate depending on which avenue will help create a nice story with some entertainment value. One researcher of mirror neurons even suggested that actors are mirror neuron experts because of their ability to make people ‘feel’ simply through performance.

As opposed to scripted theater, improvised theater requires this seeing, understanding, responding process to happen in the present moment rather than over weeks of rehearsal and direction. It is the immediacy of this process that I think results in a sort of exercising and strengthening of the mirror neuron system that helps us connect to and understand our fellows. What we do with that knowledge and understanding is another matter. For improvisers, “yes, and..” is a way of saying ‘I understand what you have said or done, and what I say and do will add to the importance and effect of your words/actions’. The catch is that it is expressed through their performance. For our brains, “yes, and..” is the recognition of an action and its context, and from that we intuit intention and desire by overlaying our own map of experience over the viewed action. This process of affirming and embellishing the choices and ideas of our fellows is the engine that helps improvisers develop fun and engaging scenes from little to nothing. It is this idea that has a sort of transformative and uplifting effect on people who get involved in improvised theater, whether to become performers or just as an avenue for personal development.

Long form improvisation, a form that takes a few inputs in the beginning to develop an entirely improvised play, pushes things even further in the cognitive realm. Because long-form shows, like the Harold, commonly follow a structure similar to the phases of ritual (separation, transition, incorporation) they sometimes elicit a socio-emotional state of unity and one-mindedness amongst the performers. This cognitive state has been researched in other ritual settings, and they propose that in these states of heightened cognitive arousal the brain shifts into high gear. It goes from the two hemispheres firing alternately to the two sides firing simultaneously. This usually only happens in instances of orgasm, REM sleep, zen and yogic meditation and ecstasy states . This experience is the defining moment between a passive interest in improv to a dedication or addiction to the activity.This kind of state is what usually bounds our longest and most intimate friendships and relationships. Another scholar even proposes that this facet of homo sapien cognition and experience helped us survive the last ice age and was the foundation for religious thought.

Laughter, like yawns, is one of the most infectious behaviors in humans. Our ability to laugh appears in infants, and it is a signal of a normal and healthy developing brain. It is a sign that we can see beyond the surface of appearance and delve deeper into the tapestry of meaning by noting the idiosyncrasies of concepts and behavior. It is also a signal that we have developed a mode for judging meaning from context through measuring it against our experience. That very experience also connects us empathetically in real time to the experience of others; allowing us to viscerally experience the tragedies and triumphs of the people we observe in life, whether we know them or not. The training one receives in studying improvisation is generally a good exercise to help us strengthen and develop our ability to communicate, create, problem-solve, collaborate and imagine. These are the skills that need fostering in order to meet the challenges we face in the future.

(originally published in 2009 on teachstreet.com)