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.

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The Human Brain on Improvised Theater

Here is the text of a 5-minute speech I gave at Ignite Portland 10:

After performing and teaching improvised theater for years, I noticed two things. 1) in the best of performances, many of us would have this incredible feeling of ‘unity of thought and action’ as a side effect during the show, a sort of group mind. We felt a weird bond that held this sense of clarity and connection that was different from our ordinary play. It was a palpable, almost cosmic, sense of union. It was rare but sublime. 2) At the same time, one of the most common comments from students was that ‘learning improv was like therapy’. As an anthropologist, I couldn’t help but wonder exactly what is behind this sense of oneness and personal well-being that was coming out of the process of improvisation for actors and students.

Victor Turner, in his book “From Ritual to Theatre: the Human Seriousness of Play”, talked about a temporary deep sensation of unity, shared identity, and oneness arising out of ritual practice. He called it “Spontaneous Communitas”. Other scholars have called this feeling “Group Flow” and “Absolute Unitary Being”. Turner noted that people have also reported feeling these sensations in a number of collaborative forms of play: sports, theater, music, games. We all have the capacity for this experience. This incredible feeling of oneness is more of a rare state of grace than a guaranteed outcome from some formula of words and actions. “Communitas”, “Group Flow”, and “Absolute Unitary Being” were very similar to what performers had long been referring to as “group mind”; the point in some shows where it feels as if the performers are one brain in sync.

Ritual itself is always performed in order to solve a problem presented by and to the verbal analytic part of our brains. Like many human rituals, improvised theater contains elements of narrative and dramatic rhythm and repetition, it is steeped in the social and cultural knowledge of the participants, and it aims to define the individual as part of some larger group or cause. For instance, the football game reaffirms or puts stress on whether you’re a Duck or a Beaver (college football teams in Oregon). West Side Story reaffirms or stresses whether love or loyalty is what we aspire to. This feeling of oneness is also one of the most common threads in the myths underpinning most religions. Four neuroscientists, (Andrew B. Newberg, Eugene D’Aquili, Charles Laughlin and John McManus) have put in lab time mapping out what happens when that feeling of unity and wholeness comes up in rituals. They point to the behavior of the hippocampus.

The hippocampus is part of the Limbic System, which is highly interconnected with the brain’s pleasure center via the hypothalamus. The rhythm and repetition of ritual behaviors ramp up brain activity. The hippocampus is a sort of traffic cop that regulates brain activity. In the heat of play/ritual, the right hemisphere takes a more dominant role in cognition and can begin to fire in sync with the left hemisphere. This also tends to happen when we dream, meditate, or have an orgasm. If things get too busy, the hippocampus inhibits neural flow until action in the brain settles down. Sometimes during rituals/play, it inhibits flow to the orientation association area. That’s the part of our brain that manages the boundaries of the self and orients that self in space. A reduction in neural flow to this area could explain the sensation of oneness, unity, and universality. It’s like the hippocampus says “Alright, we’re keeping all this traffic out of the self. It needs a rest anyway. It’s always worrying and needing me time.”

Improvised theater is a ritual of play, of sorts, that brings us together into an imaginative examination of the world we live in now or an exploration of what could be. Both play and religion are rivals for being able to bring these feelings of deep momentary union to us. Improv theatre allows us to playfully explore problems and experiment with solutions to a myriad of life’s challenges, and lets us laugh at ourselves in the process. While playing at improv, 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. Improvised theatre is another way to awaken our humanity. This feeling of oneness that arises within us is evidence that our brains are geared to reward us with feelings of pleasure, comfort, and belonging when we fully engage in focused play and religious ritual.

References:

D’Aquili, Eugene & Newberg, Andrew B. The Mystical Mind: Probing the Biology of Religious Experience. 1999. Fortress Press: Minneapolis

Fortier, Brad. Long-Form Improvisation: Collaboration, Comedy and Communion. 2010. Lambert Academic Publishing

Hayden, Brian. Shamans, Sorcerers and Saints: A Prehistory of Religion. 2003. Smithsonian Books: Washington

Newberg, Andrew; D’Aquili, Eugene; Rause, Vince. Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science & the Biology of Belief. 2001. Random House: New York

Rappaport, Roy A. Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity. 1999. Cambridge University Press: New York.

Sutton-Smith, Brian. The Ambiguity of Play. 2001. Harvard University Press: Cambridge

Turner, Victor. From Ritual to Theatre: the Human Seriousness of Play. 1982. PAJ Publications: 2001