Improv-ing: social change learnings from improv protocols

The other evening I went along to a drop-in improv class at Second City in Chicago. I’m tempted to say I haven’t improv-ed in a long time, but Rachel – the teacher – reminded us that it just isn’t true. Sure, I haven’t done an improvised sketch with a group of other improvisers for more than five years – well, with people who call themselves improvisers, or in an context where we call what we are doing improvising. Yet, every moment in life we are improvising. I’m improvising now as I type. I was improvising when I said hello to my sister a few minutes ago. I had no script. I just spoke. I just typed. I have my mantra:  Life – and thus social change, which is changing how we live together – is a collective creative process. I could also say that life/social change (as Rachel did) is one long improvisation sketch. We are all improvisers. Which is why, some of the standard protocols for improvisation are valuable in life and social change.

This is by no means a new connection to make. Check out, for example, this article in Waging Non-Violence by Ken Butigan, Improvising a New World. And over the years, I’ve received different emails with principles set out to make this point. I continually think it is a very helpful connection to make, thus I’m writing it about it now – to add to the stocklist. The following improv protocols really stuck out to me the other night:

  • Humble ourselves:  We like to think we’re clever and we like to show people we’re clever. In an improv skit, it is so tempting to get caught up in saying the funny thing, the clever thing that makes everyone laugh. Usually, if that’s what you are trying to do it won’t work. Often it won’t work, because you decide what you think that is – and you  get attached to your idea. Which means you try to get it in there somehow. Even when it doesn’t really sit with what’ going on in the scene. You are trying to make the scene all about you and your ideas. Another way to try and get attention to yourself is to make sure you have lots to say or have something dramatic to do. No standing on stage with one or no words – that’s NOT A BIG ENOUGH PART for you. Never mind that the tree is a part of the story as it is, and it is the part that you’ve landed in – no,  you want A BIGGER PART. Moral – get over it, get over ourselves. Drop our egos, embrace humility.
  • Give gifts: Ahh, I love this idea. In improv everyone is encouraged to be up there with the other players ready to give gifts. The idea isn’t to make it hard or challenging for fellow players, it is to make it easy and fun. If it is easy and fun for you, it is easy and fun for the audience, too. Do things like make it clear what you are offering up. Name it – say there is a rat on the desk rather than leaving it open and fuzzy by saying – “Oh, I see something on the desk” Then other players can latch onto the rat and work with it. Or sometimes giving a gift means giving someone an assist when they are struggling. So, when you see someone looking stuck with what to say/do next,  you jump in and help out. At the heart of gift giving is the question: “How can I contribute in way that is energizing, restorative, regenerative?” Sometimes this might mean being the one who has the initiative to end a scene when it really needs to be ended. In improv, you really are all in this together and for it to work well, everyone needs to really believe this and act on it. Go on! Give gifts.
  • Be present (your greatest gift): Well, the above practices aren’t easily done if you aren’t present. That is, if you aren’t listening to and observing what is going on in the moment. Instead, for example, you might be trying to think of what the next clever line might be – and in fact not at all hear what the person talking is saying. Then you come out with something that totally does not make sense. Some gift, you’ve given. The other players end up struggling to follow on. It is like throwing a stink-bomb into the room – not a very nice gift, is it? Smelly and suffocating. Who wants that? Or, another player might need a hand and is trying to let you know this through eye contact, only you aren’t paying any attention, and thus keep missing the cue they are giving you. Not really useful to other, are we, if we aren’t keeping aware of what’s going on.
  • Trust and surrender: This is my theme for the year, so of course this stands out to me. In improv you say what you say/ do what you do and just roll with it. No time or space to think too much about what you do and certainly no time to think about what you’ve done. Because, if you are looking forward or looking back than you aren’t present. Being present requires trust and surrendering to the moment and the process. Trusting that when the protocols are in place and being practiced, it’ll all flow. Who knows what form it will take – just go with the essence of the process, the play. What you are also trusting is the web of relationships among all of you – the players – that this web will hold all of us in a nurturing way. No one is trying to throw anyone out there to get eaten by sharks. When it doesn’t flow – well, no worries, we are all still safe!

Sigh. Just thinking about it, I feel peaceful and excited – improv is fun and delicious. So expansive and playful.  Including the stumbles and falls – because there will always be stumbles and falls! Will you feel awkward or embarrassed? Sure. Sometimes. But, who cares? Feel it, make a face, maybe even laugh at ourselves and then let it go, so we can be in the moment. Ohhh, Yum!!!

Protocols for life and the way we live. Protocols for being in the creative process that is how we change the way we are living. Maybe we should stop getting so caught up in this seriousness of having to IMPROVE things and focus more on the joy that can come from  IMPROV-ING things….from improv-ing who we are and how we live together.

Reflection questions: In what ways do humility, gift-giving, being present and trust & surrender resonate with you, as protocols for day to day living (including in your work relationships)?  How do you tend to practice these protocols? What blocks you from practicing them? What encourages you to practice them?

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4 Responses to Improv-ing: social change learnings from improv protocols

  1. Hi Veena
    Interesting post, I didn’t know any of this about improv. Well… I don’t really know anything about it!
    I think I’m a bit naff at being present. I’m hoping mindfulness practice will help (what’s not helping is feeling I have too much to do to practice mindfulness!). Action Learning helps me to be present, practicing active listening and trying to observe visual signals when someone is talking or thinking. I think when I’m not in a situation when I’m required or committed to being present I just get a bit bored with what’s going on around me, so I drift in to the thoughts in my own head. I reckon as long as I’m not neglecting someone else’s feelings that’s probably OK. But I’ve no doubt that I do neglect people’s feelings sometimes. What comes naturally to some people others have to really work at.
    Great to hear that you feel peaceful and excited – two lovely feelings 🙂

  2. Hi Lorna! Thanks for this comment/sharing. Question for you: What conditions require you to be present or incline you to commit to being present? best. veena

  3. Lorna Prescott says:

    Hi Veena
    I’ve been thinking about your question (for nearly a month!). I am finding that mindfulness practice is helping me to think about things I can do, and am trying to do, to be more present. I’m becoming increasingly conscious that my attachment to my phone, with it’s easy access to email and twitter, is an impediment to being present. So I am trying to put it out of sight, and even out of reach, more often when I’m with one or a few people.
    Maybe I should also try more to step back and ‘watch’ the idea type thoughts which explode all over my head when I’m in conversations, and in doing so be more present and therefore responsive to other people’s ideas. A bit of a challenge, as the ideas tumble out of my mouth mere seconds after they have popped in to my head!
    I think I am more inclined to commit to being present if I know that I only have to listen to something/someone for up to around 10 or 15 minutes. When faced with the prospect of someone talking for 30 minutes or more, with 25 boring powerpoint slides I completely withdraw from being present. Especially if the person happens to be an older, white, man (with some exceptions). We see and hear too much of them. The anticipation of hearing something different helps me to be present. Perhaps I should actively focus on what I can hear that is different, which challenges – things which disrupt excite me 🙂

    • Lorna! Thank you so much for sharing your experience in working with mindfulness. I love that you are wanting to cast your phone aside more often – I have a bee in my bonnet about people texting, constantly giving attention to their phones whilst in conversation. I, too, am working with shifting from being reactive to responsive – i find that simply taking a deep breath helps on than front. Only, I often forget to do that and the thoughts roll out uncensored! Interesting to me that you feel you tend to tune-out certain types of people – I suspect we all do that. You have me wondering if the thing to do is to use the opportunity to ask questions of such people, to see if we can open up our connection with them? What do you think? Best. Veena

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