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?