This is an instruction our red nose (a.k.a. clowning) teacher often gives to us. Listen. As a mediator, I thought I had thrown myself deep into active listening. Our red nose practice, however, is asking me to go deeper. So, too, is our improv theater practice. The past few years, I’ve been practicing the art of listening so that I can support other people to feel heard and understood. I’ve been working with listening as unilateral reflection: I am listening to you. Now, I’m experiencing listening as part of the art of collaboration more widely. I’m being asked to listen as a means of guiding me in what I do or say next. I’m being asked to listen to understand others, the wider environment, the collective rhythm and my individual beat. I’m being asked to listen and then respond to what I’m hearing through body, heart, mind, silence and stillness. Listening is becoming this multi-sensory, multi-directional and multi-dimensional experience.
The clown, the red nose, the wise fool and the improv theater player are observers. In an improv workshop the other day, we did an exercise where we stood in a circle and had to count to ten collectively. One person, one number. If more than one person started to say the next number, we had to go back to one. Thus, the most important listening was in the silence. What was happening when we were all quiet? What were we sensing from each other? What was going on in our selves? I remember so many moments where I felt my heart racing in the silence “Do I jump in with the next number or not?” I listened. I waited. I let the urge to speak rise. Sometimes I let it fall without taking action. Sometimes, I spoke. Sometimes I interrupted someone and we had to start from the beginning. Sometimes, I was simply the next number in our collective counting.
In our red nose workshop last night, we performed in pairs. The general idea was to create a story together. This involves being interested in our environment rather than trying to be interesting. I now understand that the audience is going to get interested in us by watching us get interested in what’s around us – especially each other. We listened to our environment and one another. We listened to ourselves. What was moving within? What wanted to emerge in response to a combination of internal and external sensations and cues?
This kind of listening is more than unilateral reflection from one person to another. I observed my performance partner, Corinna. I observed myself and I would move in a way that responded to both my rhythm and her rhythm. This created in turn, another rhythm. In one moment, for example, Corinna looked into the distance. I followed her gaze and together we stared out at who-knows-what. The audience chuckled. Our joint creativity (engagement in bringing things into being) was most interesting to the audience when we were in this kind of dance, being led by our interest in one another.
I think the audience becomes most interested when they feel like they are simply watching two people dance and connect with each other, rather than feeling like they are watching a performance created for them as an audience. I certainly felt this when I was in the audience, watching fellow red noses Lisa and Ines. The scene we performed in pairs was called Bus Stop. I’ll call their characters Lucia and Fran. Fran came in and sat down, waiting for the bus. Eventually, Lucia walked to the bus stop, blowing bubbles along the way. Through her bubble-making, Lucia forged a connection with Fran and their dance began.
We watched Fran and Lucia start out fascinated and delighted by each other, both enjoying a rummage through Fran’s bag. We watched them enter into conflict as Lucia began to get possessive of Fran’s belongings. We watched Fran’s discomfort when Lucia decided it was okay to sit on her lap. Eventually, Fran found herself being led off to who-knows-where, literally entangled (courtesy of a knotted necklace) with Lucia.
I went through a range of emotions watching Fran and Lucia. I delighted in their playful friendliness. I shared Fran’s frustration as Lucia became possessive. I giggled every time Lucia interrupted both the playfulness and the tension to look at her watch. I was wrapped up in their story.
Likewise, as a performer, I enjoyed our story most when I went deep into listening mode. That was when I really stepped into the character of the moment – this person sitting at a bus stop with another person. I listened for what was I feeling in relation to what Corinna’s character was doing or how she seemed to be feeling. I became interested in what was going on between us, rather than trying to entertain the audience. I became wrapped up in our story.
All these experiences have got me wondering: How well am I listening? How often am I moving through my day not really listening to my self, to others, to our immediate surroundings? What cues am I missing? What connections am I avoiding, crushing or simply bypassing? What would happen if I were to start practicing this deeper form of listening in day-to-day to life, including collaborative projects?