Impro, Politics, and the “Egg Test”

Here it is, Easter Sunday. A week ago today, I was walking off of a plane from Europe back into Portland, Oregon (where I live). From March 11th through March 19th, the Berlin International Impro Festival created one of the most moving and thought-provoking festivals that I have ever been privileged to be a part of.  The theme of this years’ festival was “Borders, Limits, and Liberty”.

The Cover to the Program

Die Gorillas, a long-standing professional improv troupe in Berlin, has been hosting the festival since 2001. They were very aware of the risk they were taking with choosing a political theme. Germany has become intimately familiar with the flight of refugees from Africa and the Middle East. It is a daily topic in Europe in general, considering how many countries are now hosting tens to hundreds of thousands of refugees.

Several members of ImproBeirut were in attendance, and they were asked to facilitate the creation of shows that embraced and explored the realities, imaginings, and possibilities of the refugee situation. They were the perfect choice for this, considering some of the work they had done with theater and conflict before. The days of rehearsal with them would lead to the shows titled “A Place to Be”. The process focused on looking at similarities and differences amongst the cast first (25 people from 13 different countries). It then turned to listening and connecting with the stories told by several refugees who came to a rehearsal to share their stories.

The Centerpiece Show

The show itself would use a format called a “Superscene”; wherein 4 players are asked to ‘direct’ a story/performance in four parts that the other performers will improvise with their guidance. In between the parts, the audience was asked to decide which story was least “honest”, vote it out, and eliminate it for the rest of the show. Each of the ‘directors’ were given a recent news article about the European refugee situation to inspire their piece.

In the show I was a part of, the scenes bounced between the mundane, profound, ridiculous, moving, and intense. My favorite of the improvised stories was inspired by a news article about a Swiss family that had somewhat adopted a little refugee boy who had been separated from his parents at sea. The arc of the family integrating him and his own reticence created a compelling narrative inhabited by very realistic characters. It existed in this sweet space between the players who seemed to know the importance and fragility of this story without knowing it’s end. This made the third of four chapters incredibly intense when a social worker showed up to take him to his real parents after nearly 2 years of being with that family. The character of the mother was intense and fraught with distress, yelling and crying. The social worker merely stood and reiterated “I’m sorry, but he will be coming with me today”.

In the fourth scene, it was the family together speaking fondly of the boy and what he meant and brought, a picture of him hanging on the wall. In the dreamlike way of long form improvisation, the picture of the boy melted into a scene of the boy with his real father calling him away from the window to go to the playground. Another moment of improvised magic happened. It’s a magic that only seems to come from the aesthetic of these international ensemble-building festivals.

The Refugees

Much of the intensity of the performances came from hearing the stories from the people who had made the journey and we’re living in a camp at the outskirts of Berlin. One of them saw his brother shot and then ran for his life, undertook a harrowing journey through Pakistan and over the sea only to get to Berlin and discover that his fortunes were as stark at the end of his journey. He now lives in a camp where there are 200 people for every bathroom. The lines can be from 20-40 minutes long. The camps also have a hierarchy and social strata depending on how many of one ethnic group or another are in the camp, if you have a visa or not, or sometimes if you are of an upper class.

For people who practice improvisation, we know that it can go a long way in building bridges between strangers. The nature of my research was about investigating the premium outcome of this process that performers call “Group Mind”. That research was a big part of developing Spontaneous Village, an approach to building community for refugees with improvised theater.

While in Berlin, myself and several others went off to connect with refugees who were meeting at a church for coffee and German lessons. For about 30-40 minutes, we played improv games with whoever would join. Sometimes we explained in French, sometimes in English, sometimes in Arabic. For some, this may seem like a maddening proposition to bounce between all of these languages, but the outcome is always worth it. When language starts to fade and the game becomes the source of connection, tensions eased and smiles and laughter began to arrive. For the dislocated and dispossessed, those moments of play are sunshine for the soul. Even those who were shy and only watched began to get closer and get infected with smiles and giggles of their own. To me, this is a global lesson. If we put forward some effort to understand each other and set some simple rules and goals, we can connect and discover what we all have to offer.

The Berlin International Improv Festival has been doing that very thing for 15 years, and in that church in that moment, it was happening again. Not for professionals flown in from across the globe, but for the desperate who fled for their lives and the hopeful seeking a better chance who marched through the cold of a European winter to get there.

Of Conflict and the “Egg Test”

One of the highlights of this festival for me was being on a panel for a discussion of mixing politics and improvised theater.  Video of that panel discussion will be forthcoming I have been told.

On the ride over, by my request, one of the members of ImproBeirut told me all about their work with using theater tools to resolve conflict between sectarian fighters in Lebanon. One of the fighters would not attend without a live grenade for the first several meetings. Like taming a fox, they coaxed this man to distance himself from the grenade over time until he finally no longer brought it. As expected, the work they did moved the men from being enemies to being sincere friends. When the government heard this news, they tried to minimize it and hide it. Like many countries, the ‘powers that be’ profit from keeping their population embroiled in conflicts over religious and identity-based matters. According to some members, Lebanon is no different.

One of the members of ImproBeirut is persona non-grata in Lebanon because of the activist work that he has been involved in to expose corruption and injustice. The government has actually demanded on several occasions that he provide scripts of what they might say in their performance. The most recent document was about 120 pages of every possible iteration of dialogue that might happen onstage that could be construed as politically offensive. These things are no laughing matter, however. One of them had been detained and beaten by the authorities for his work, both improvised and scripted.

During the discussion, they also shared how the demonization of homosexuality was used as a witch hunt to imprison people. They disclosed that one of the main things they do to try to imprison someone is the “Egg Test”. My informant, being modest, never described the act verbally but instead used mime. Essentially, the authorities insert an egg into a man’s rectum. If it breaks, he is deemed straight and is set free. If it does not, he is a homosexual and is sent to prison. This is the political climate that ImproBeirut performs in. For the most part, they try to avoid controversy. One of the members was ordered by his father to move to Canada, where he now resides, to avoid getting swept into the controversy that led to Lucien’s detention and beating. In Lebanon, the stakes could not be higher on the freest form of expression improvised theater.

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Improv and Disaster Relief

http://anc.yahoo.com/video/heroic-improvisation-having-fun-while-040204960.html

Sometimes in life, you get to see the rewards of a collaboration unfold. In 2012 at the Applied Improvisation Network conference in San Francisco, I sat next to the wonderful Dr. Mary Tysczkiewicz on our way to a day long symposium on science and improv. We had one of the most engaging conversations that has only grown more interesting over the last 2 years. We’ve spent hours on the phone helping her refine and solidify her vision and approach for Heroic Improvisation, which is using the techniques and theories of improvised theater to create a framework for ground-level disaster response from citizens and local government. This video highlights the success of her February 2014 field testing of this approach in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan which struck the Philippines in November 2013. Knowing Mary’s work and seeing a need, I contacted her right after the Typhoon hit and connected her to another colleague, Gabe Mercado, who is a trainer and improviser in the Philippines. Click the link, watch the video and judge for yourself on how their collaboration went. I’m also excited to announce that Mary will be guest blogging about her experience here soon.

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.

What can improvised theater teach us?

Introduction

Improvisation is at the heart of the process of life; from the construction of RNA to a flock of birds to actors creating characters, narrative, and relationships onstage. It is a process that requires focus, intent, communication, connection, and action. From the hard skills of survival to the soft skills of human interaction, making due with who and what is at hand is the most essential of skills for beings to flourish.

Improvised theater, pioneered and expanded in the 20th century by luminaries like Viola Spolin, Keith Johnstone, Paul Sills, and Del Close, is moving away from being the trite little brother of scripted theater to a widely applied toolkit for professional and personal development. What is it that makes these ideas, games, and exercises (that people who teach and train others using improv) so effective at improving collaboration, creativity, communication, and leadership? Why is it that these things cross cultural and social boundaries to connect people using guided imaginative and role play? What are the skills and abilities that get exercised in improvisation? Let’s explore these questions by looking at some of the most basic parts of this practice, and like any practice from meditation to martial arts, the more you do it; the better you become.

Openings for Connection

eye-contact-true-feelingsChristian Swenson, a Seattle-based dance and movement professional who has traveled the world studying movement traditions from many cultures, said in a workshop I attended “The eyes are the spine of the face.” His implication was that a majority of our intentions and inner feelings play outward from our eyes. The most basic forms of connection between humans begin with a meeting of our eyes. From the wide-eyes of terror to the soft eyes of love, we find the building blocks for engaging, understanding, and communicating in the simple act of eye-contact. The eyes are our primary openings for connection. Some of this is evidenced in the fact that blind people tend to be less social than sighted people (click here for facts on ‘social exclusion’ and ‘well-being’ of the blind).

In improv training, the first activities to be introduced usually involve standing in a circle and playing a game that requires a lot of eye-contact. It is a first phase of warming people up to more intensive communication. The hominid march toward bigger brains and more complex cognition started here according to Stephen Mithen in his book The Prehistory of the Mind: the Cognitive Origins of Art and Science. According to Mithen, the domestication of fire in early hominid history resulted in early hominids sitting in a circle to enjoy the warmth and benefits of the fire, which inevitably meant that our ancestors found themselves regularly face to face looking into each others’ eyes. This stimulated the development of the neocortex where the bulk of our social intelligence is centered and necessitated the cognitive skills required to have a “Theory of Mind“. More recent research has uncovered a neuron system in our brains called “mirror neurons” that many researchers believe are integral in learning and developing a sense of empathy. Eye contact is one of the key signals that we are engaging on a deeper level of connection…Listening.

Listening is the other opening that allows us to connect with others. Being able to stop and listen opens us up for a lot of important data about our surroundings to filter in: bird calls, approaching cars, music, crying, cars honking, whispers, that strange sound the engine is making in your car, that your kids are a little too quiet right now, the meaning behind what someone is saying. Listening has always been a valuable skill. It can be the difference between missing the point and getting the point of what someone is saying. For our ancestors, it was a way to find game, locate water, track herds of animals, follow birds, or note changes in wind direction. Mind you, the ability to hear does not always mean that someone has good listening skills. Listening is the ability to focus and follow the things we’re hearing in order to get the point, find the source of the sound, be affected by what’s transpiring right now. Listening keeps us in the present and connected to what is going on.

Improv-based training is rife with exercises that allow us to work our listening muscles (sometimes in conjunction with our observation skills). For instance, there is an exercise where one player must repeat verbatim what they just heard from the other player before they can utter their contribution to the scene/conversation. There is another simpler exercise that requires both people to have a conversation, but the speakers must try to speak the same words at the same time. This tends to slow the speakers down and make them very aware of how much more involved listening is when you cannot simply listen to respond but, instead, must hang on every word uttered so that you can utter it too. The understanding with many of these listening exercises is that listening is a muscle (or a group of muscles) that can be strengthened through regular practice. It’s also very important in regards to the next section.

Doing these things regularly helps us grow and exercise our understanding of people by allowing us to deepen and expand on our own theories of the minds of others. It may also have the potential to strengthen one of the key brain systems that helps us learn, communicate, and empathize. Regular play with people, helps you learn how their minds work. This knowledge helps us develop trust by learning how others are like or unlike ourselves. More importantly, playing also helps people discover how their minds work together. It fosters occasions for innovation, and the chance to find and feel the space of innovation for a particular group. It would seem that improv training starts building the habits of connection where our ancestors started, face to face in a circle listening to what the community and the natural world had to offer.

Putting Out the ‘Welcome’ Mat

MyWelcomeMatsThe next phase of improv-based training is introducing the notion of agreement, of “Yes”. To agree, to say “yes”, is an act of vulnerability. It is an expression of trust to some degree. It’s essence is that, on some level, the person who is ‘agreeing’ is validating and welcoming the ideas or presence of the other. Historically, humans have not been very good when it comes to ‘others’. Xenophobia, the fear of the new and different, is a distinct part of the primate psyche. It comes from a want for security and stability. Keith Johnstone, one of the big idea men in the world of improv, is often quoted in regards to this. These words come from his famous book Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre “There are people who say ‘yes’, and there are people who say ‘no’. The people who say ‘yes’ are rewarded by the adventures they have, and the people who say ‘no’ are rewarded by the security they attain.”

Johnstone’s approach to improvisation was informed by the disciplines of psychology and anthropology, and his contributions to the art in the 1970’s still have great impact on the world of improvisation even today. When people are taught about ‘agreement’ during arts or applied improv training, they are asked to recognize that this is not an uncritical approach to agreeing with anything that’s said or done. Rather, they are trained to use it as a way of noticing, appreciating, and acknowledging the things that are unfolding in the moment during any sort of interaction; whether that’s a scene onstage, an interaction between a boss and an employee, a teacher and a student, a mediator and parties in conflict, or creatives meeting to design or develop anything. This approach has even been used for homeless youth outreach to teach pro-social skills. It’s a skill that is key to establishing and encouraging authenticity and honesty in communication, as well as generating, expanding and exploring ideas.

To say “yes” or ‘agree’ or ‘acknowledge others’, is to create an opening for discovery and building something that did not exist before. It is like a new connection between neurons creating a pathway for a novel idea. It is the basis for combining the proverbial chocolate with the proverbial peanut-butter (If those things can even be considered proverbial). In some recent research that was published in Psychology Today, it was found that the word “no” can have a distinct impact on our ability to reason, communicate, and think logically. In general, negativity can hamper our ability to succeed in life, work, and relationships. Improv training is focused on the practice of saying yes and being positive, and both of those skills, when exercised regularly, lead to more resilience. Accepting things like our own mistakes helps us reserve our mental energies for bigger challenges than maintaining our own bruised egos. Matt Smith, a well respected improv teacher and trainer, has even implored people to adopt a “Failure Bow” in order to accept the mistake and move on. Working on our skills of agreement puts the welcome mat out for growth in our professional and personal lives through fostering more authentic relationships with a constructive approach to communication.

Big or Small

We’ll finish with discussing another important facet of improv-based training. That is the notion of “Status”. This big idea was brought to the art by Keith Johnstone inspired by reading Desmond Morris’ books The Naked Ape and The Human Zoo. These books fascinated Johnstone in the way they viewed human interaction in terms of dominance and submission. He was very careful to separate his ideas of status from socio-economic notions of status by stating, “Status is a misleading concept unless one understands it as something that one does. One can have a low social status and still play high and vice-versa.” In improv-based training, the introduction of status concepts and exercises are generally applied to developing leadership and communication skills, and it is focused on how people gain or lose face or pass power back and forth over the course of an interaction. This is usually observed, and eventually brought into mindful control, by bringing attention to the verbal and physical moves that parties make in a conversation. Understanding how to view and engage with Johnstone’s approach to “status” gives people entry into understanding how we influence and affect others, but also how others influence and affect us.

One scholar, Henk Stultiens, describes four basic ways that people move status in an interaction: raise your own, lower your own, raise the other, lower the other. These moves can be achieved by complimenting or cutting at someone, or complimenting or cutting yourself verbally. They can also be exhibited physically by behaving in ways that diminish or elevate a person’s presence or appearance. However, the finer points of these approaches should be judged in their proper cultural contexts. What may be considered a ‘high status’ move in the American milieu may be seen as ‘low status’ in the Japanese milieu, and vice-versa. The underlying implications of looking at human interaction in regards to dominance and submission are astonishing. In essence, it is training people to go from being moved by sub-conscious and unconscious behaviors that help or hinder our communication to becoming conscious of what actions and words actually do to affect the outcomes of social interactions. Becoming versed in the language of status is to become versed in the intricacies of what humans do to make themselves or each other seem big or small, happy or sad, praised or blamed.

Of Presence and Absence

So what have we learned about what improv teaches? It teaches us to reconnect and look back into each other for support, connection, and creation. It teaches us to be present. Through the eyes, we tie back into systems that have evolved to make us successful through the long march of time and change. When we face one another, it is easier to discern intention and work toward authentic and deeper ways of relating. This is a no-brainer for some, but it is a new discovery for others who spend large quantities of time in front of screens with minds absent from the world around them. The universality of being able to look, listen, and interpret emotional cues from peoples’ expressions is the groundwork to building communication across language and cultural boundaries.

The approach of being able to find common ground through discovering things that we can agree upon, acknowledge, and appreciate in the ideas of others (even if it is only part of the idea that is agreed with) will take one leaps and bounds toward accomplishing forward movement and achievement of goals and the finding of solutions. The ability to foster a welcoming atmosphere is something that is valuable and sought after the world over in business because it is both a driver for commerce and productivity, but it is also sought after in the human realm for reasons of simple comfort and belonging. That, I believe is the most important of reasons, AND the very thing that has been selected for in the long slog of human evolution because groups that are high-functioning and pro-social are most likely to be creative and solve challenging problems that hinder the group’s success.

Knowing where you stand in the pecking order of a group and understanding your own role is very important in that very same process. Also, being able to know what it takes to step up and command a new role is the sign of a resilient and self-sustaining group. To have a clear understanding of when to bow and when to stand (and also when to break with those traditions) has informed all of human history if we look at the repeated rise and fall of human civilizations. Understanding systems of social power and control through working with status leads to incredible insight into how relationships, groups, and organizations grow and diminish.

To engage in the practice of improvisation is to engage in becoming present in our world as it is right now. It is an active meditation on human existence and human interaction, and it is also an introduction to the revitalizing and connecting power of imaginative play. It is a modality for experimenting with different approaches to managing communication and relationships in a low impact setting. No performance is necessary to glean the benefits of improvisation. A little training and a fun group of cohorts is all you need to begin down the road of this amazing practice. Improvisation is like yoga or martial arts for your mind, but the only pain you’ll leave with is from laughter.

Improvisation and Trance: an Experiment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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