Sunday, November 8, 2015

Turning around the crazies

This was the third call to the Stanford University IT Computer helpline.  Isabella, my technical rep this round had been on the phone with me for just under three hours.  The issue was Stanford’s new Encryption software that is required of all users who have a sunet ID for the University’s email server.  As the world continues to go mad the pressure to secure our cyber identities goes up.  Stanford tries to stay ahead of the curve in Security precautions and programs that protect us from any kind of cyber terror.  While I don’t spend much time worrying about my data being secure (perhaps I should) I do always obey commands to update software and security protocols.  For reasons unknown installing the new encryption program on my MacBook laptop had become a nightmare.  The rep who was helping me continued to try new things to make the process go successfully.  Both of us began to take long, deep breaths attempting to still the rising anger and frustration that only a dysfunctional Apple device can provoke.  “All morning, I’ve spent all morning trying to make this procedure work.”  Each time we would go around the circle of downloads, proffering of logins and 24 character passwords, followed by the same set of questions asked and answered.  Nothing was working.  My devices manager continued to read “Non Compliant” no matter what we tried. 

I was fuming and felt ready to pop off expressing my most profound annoyance at this personal inconvenience.  You know that moment when your blood rises, and you just want to let expletives fly!  But something different happened: instead of giving in to that impulse to vent my mind did a 360 degree turn.  I changed what I was noticing, and I began thinking about the gift of our technology. I began reflecting about what was right about this moment while we were attempting to solve the security issue. So, changing my voice I exclaimed to Isabella:  “Despite this glitch, aren’t we lucky to have this amazing technology?  Isn’t the Internet a miracle?  Aren’t we blessed to have computers and the ability to connect and find the world’s bounty of information and knowledge?"  As I spoke I could sense immediately Isabella’s mood and voice change.  “Yes,” she declared cheerfully, “it is a miracle.  All that Stanford provides us with is such a great gift.”  We both clearly began to feel better and our former annoyance had been replaced by wonder.  Of course, the technical problem didn't disappear, but our relationship to it had made a dramatic shift.

I hope I can remember this “technique” if you can call it that.  When I feel ready to burst with anger and frustration instead of giving in to that useless emotion I should turn my mind to a catalogue of what I am receiving at that moment.  What are the everyday wonders and miracles that sustain us and console us and enrich our lives? 

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

The Four Friends and Teamwork

Bhutan is a tiny country with a big heart.  One of their claims to world fame is the adoption of the concept of “Gross National Happiness” as the governmental measure of all things good.  The quality of life is prized over material wealth.  When I visited this cultural paradise in 2011 I kept noticing an image that was everywhere.  It’s the picture of “The Four Harmonious Friends” and it’s a symbol of the importance of cooperation.  I brought home a hand painted thanka with this image because I wanted to be reminded of this story. The values represented in the image are of key importance to the Bhutanese. It is often seen in Buddhist iconography as shown here.

The story of the four friends recounts how working together can produce not only harmony but also sustenance. Their combined forces allow them to obtain a continual supply of food. The peacock on top first found a seed and planted it in the earth.  The rabbit watered it, the monkey fertilized it and the elephant guarded it. When the fruit was ripe the tree was so high that no one could not reach the top on his own. The four animals made a tower by climbing on one another’s backs, and plucked the fruit from the high branches.  Then they shared the bounty.

Teamwork leverages both individual gifts as well as acts of cooperation.  As an improv teacher I am often called upon to help cultivate and develop teams.
It is often a focus in the study and practice of improvisation. In their recent bestseller Team Genius, Rich Karlgaard and Michael Malone’s make the scientific claim that teams with diversity are more likely to perform successfully.  The quality most needed in our changeable world is that of maneuverability. In their words: “Maneuverability is the capacity to turn, even reverse direction, quickly, to deal competently with whatever new change—technology, market opportunity, or competition—has just burst onto the scene, and to do so without losing internal cohesion and breaking up.” (p. 70)  

Improv teaches maneuverability.  Scenes and stories happen in real time and actors must be alert to new directions; they must change on the dime in order to make sense out of the moment.  There is no time to stop and have a committee meeting to vote on some possible future.  Improvisers create the future in real time, using their individual gifts and talents while pulling together to “get to the top of the tree to pluck the fruit.” 

Saturday, October 3, 2015

The Healthy Improviser

Staying Healthy
for the Professional Improviser

I’ve been watching improv actors make magic for over thirty years.  One of the deep joys of living in the Bay Area is having access to a remarkable array of Improvisational Theatre groups.  I’ve been the lucky audience for several thousand performances of “one of a kind” plays created out of shear grit and magic on the spot.  I’ve watched a number of groups come and go, form and dissolve; reform and spring back like the Phoenix.  Among them were Pulp Playhouse, True Fiction Magazine, Three for All,  San Francisco Improv Playhouse, Awkward Dinner Party and two decades of BATS shows to name a few. 

The community of artists who perform this work are both saints and crazies in my opinion.  Their talent and courage (and endurance over time) astonishes me.  I’ve been a theater person for half a decade.  I taught acting at Stanford University, spent summers doing stock with the Colorado Shakespeare Festival, the Nebraska Repertory Theatre and several raucous southern Outdoor Drama productions.  I have not, however, trod the boards of the improv stage.  It’s far too scary for me, I tell my students. I’m okay with a script.  I like knowing when the show’s over. 

However, I teach improv and like to think that my long years experience in the classroom, if not on stage, allows me a voice.  What’s on my mind is the mental/spiritual health of the men and women who are professional improv actors.  I am writing this as a love letter to these courageous players in the hope that this advice might make sense.  You know who you are.  You have been gifting me and my students for decades.

When you improvise a performance you are using 120% of your humanity.  Becoming characters that live and breathe and struggle and die and change and love and mourn  (all in front of a paying audience) takes a gigantic human toll.  I’m guessing that when the lights go down after a successful show (or even a mediocre or lousy one) each of you is both exhilarated and exhausted.   To improvise means that you are using the whole self-- body, mind and spirit.  You are using your deep database of knowledge of literature, story, character, locale, vocal technique and social psychology.  It’s a miracle, when you really consider what is happening, especially in a long form show, but to a lesser extent, in short form improv as well.  I can’t think of any other human activity that uses ALL of our human capacity at the same time as this art does.  Even Olympic athletes, while using 100% of their physical and mental ability are not creating the scene and story on the spot before an audience.  I think professional improv actors are Gods and Goddesses, or at least Superheroes.  They are doing so much more than even great actors are called upon to do.  

So, my advice is this:  You must take time off from this work in order to regenerate.  Even if your physical health is excellent your soul and spirit/mind need time to refuel.  Improv actors need alone time, preferably in nature away from family and social requirements.  They need to ingest new nourishment.  They need to read stories and books of literature and poetry.  They need to see movies and television dramas of quality as well as those of dubious worth.  They need to take in images, characters, cultures and genres to stoke up their arsenal of fiction.  They benefit from travel both domestic and foreign.  They need time in which they are not required to perform and put out.  They need spaciousness, rest and as Michael Harris suggests: they need absence—real time and space in which they are not required to do anything.  I’m convinced that a week of this kind of regenerative space can produce large payoffs in terms of mental and physical health. 

I’m sure this all sounds like a good idea, but when will you ever find that open week?  It won’t fall in your lap . . . unless you so exhaust yourself that you become unwell and are quarantined.  Instead, those of you who give so much of your life on the improv stage (and in classes which also are high calorie life events) you must set aside the time.  Put it on your calendar as you would a work assignment.  And, then execute that week of refreshment. 

In addition to finding genuine sabbatical time (as mentioned above) it is also important to find “mini-vacations” in which you cultivate alone time, with your cell phones turned off.  Perhaps you can spend a free afternoon alone in a great science or art museum just wandering the galleries and soaking up the beauty and wonder of art and nature.  Or you can walk in the park slowly without an agenda, possibly people watching.  I have stressed the value of alone time.  The kind of regeneration I’m advocating happens more rarely when you are with a partner or spouse.  Find time to be alone.  Read a fine book.  Munch an apple.  Savor a cup of tea. 

If you begin to make a life habit of nourishing your humanity with spaciousness on a regular basis I predict that your on-stage improv life will flourish and grow.  You deserve this and you need this.  I hope some of you will take this to heart.  Let me know how it goes.

by Patricia Ryan Madson 
October  3, 2015

Saturday, September 19, 2015

I Can't Sell Improv

I am lousy at self-promotion.  Although my father was a salesman the gene didn’t get passed on.  I’d be hard pressed to deliver a brochure promising all kinds of benefits if you study or work with me.  I can’t do it, because I have no idea what an individual may actually get out of the study of improv with me.  This is why the final exam paper in my Stanford University undergraduate class was always an open question.  Please write as much as you need to answer:  “What I learned in Drama 103.”   I still have a whole file cabinet full of these essays.  They dazzle me.  But “what do you want them to learn?” might be a fair question.  I hope you won’t think it a cop out when I reply:  “What they learn is up to them.”  Improv is a kind of mirror for what’s going on in a life.  If you are controlling and critical or if you are fair-minded and generous improv will highlight this. 
I’ve been teaching this stuff for over 30 years.   And while my home base is the University classroom, over these decades I’ve also taught workshops and seminars for a wide and diverse group of clients.  Many of these have been in educational venues or for educators (think school administrators) as well as business groups. My corporate clients have included a smattering of the Silicon Valley giant businesses including Apple, Google, Adobe Systems, Sun Microsystem Japan Division as well as think tanks like the Woods Institute,  IDEO, the Packard Foundation and the Banff Centre for Leadership Studies and the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance.
At the risk of sounding arrogant I won’t work for anyone who requires an outline or summation of what the workshop will cover in advance. I’m sorry, improv isn’t like this.  If you want me to teach improvisation, I too must be improvising and modeling the behavior I am trying to impart.  You will just have to trust me.
 Some clients expect that you will deliver “a product” that is definable, measurable and accountable.  And, given how corporations work I suppose this is a reasonable expectation.  Shouldn’t I be able to tell those who hire me what their employees will learn or be able to demonstrate after spending X hours under my guidance?  I can’t do this honestly.  If I do I feel like a snake oil salesman. What I can talk about is my purpose in leading the class, for example I might say: “I’ll be working to create a climate in which the players will feel safe enough to try new things in public.”
I have no idea how to measure creativity, although If I could find a reliable way I’d likely make a fortune.  What seems creative to me may well differ from your observation or definition.  The time honored phrase: “Thinking outside the box” is just the opposite of what I advise.  “Look at the obvious with new eyes or new appreciation,” I suggest.
What brought me to this riff is the issue of “debriefing.”  This is a time honored part of the profile of nearly any seminar or workshop.  According to the Business Bible on high the final 30-40 minutes of any training event must be spent reprising what has been presented and discussing its meaning to the group or to the individual.  In a nutshell a skilled presenter should:
1.     Tell you what he’s going to tell you.
2.     Tell you the information itself.
3.     Tell you what he told you.
In this workshop we are going to study and learn A, B,and C.  Here is A.  Here is B.  Here is C.  And now, to debrief, what we learned was A, B, C.  Got it?  Good.
I suppose this system of information transfer is suitable for some things.  It’s also what we’ve come to expect when we attend trainings.  Usually the content is accompanied by a Power Point with bullet points about A, B and C and their subtopics.  Sometimes if you’re lucky there are also graphics or cartoons to illustrate A or B or C.  (or all three).
An improv class is different.  I like to step into a room with a group of people not knowing what is going to happen.  Then I lead them to try things and we see what happens.  We notice lots of things:  what our partner did or said, for example.  We observe what is happening and what needs to happen and make adjustments. We practice letting go of outcomes or expectations. If we screw up or make a mistake we notice that too, and capitalize on it, if possible.  We might even celebrate this with a whooping cheer of TA-DA!!!
I am not opposed to reflection. It’s just that the time honored notion of formal debriefing just doesn’t fit with this work/play.  Spend those twenty minutes playing another game. 

Patricia Ryan Madson        September 19, 2015
Published also on LinkedIn