Patricia Ryan Madson: The Meaning of Life and Joining the Chain of Givers
You are Perfect Just As You Are
In a good improv class you can discover a new sense of confidence. This happens over time as you and your classmates experiment doing things, creating stuff, making mistakes, picking each other up and moving forward together. What begins to happen is a growing understanding that you are okay. This is an ordinary okay. Playing games together brings out the body knowledge that when the chips are down you have what is needed. John Tarrant’s said it perfectly: “What if you already have what you need?” Experiencing this truth is fundamental to an improv education.
When we begin to succeed at solving problems on the fly, when we discover that a useful word emerges when you need it we begin to develop “reality confidence”—that is, we discover that we can rely on the world around us. I learn that when I merge my intelligence with all the incoming data and offers to solve a problem or come up with a useful idea. Improvising when the stakes are low (in a class, for example) creates confidence in our ability to act “in the real world.”
Beyond the discovery that we can act “on the fly” is the body knowledge that there is always something to work with. Each of us has a light within. The Japanese poet Linji said it well with this koan:
There is a solitary brightness without a fixed shape or form
It knows how to listen to the teachings.
It knows how to understand the teachings.
It knows how to teach.
That solitary brightness is you.
That “solitary brightness is you.” Shine your light. No one else can. Trust the light. You are perfect just as you are.
FINDING THE RIGHT IMPROV TEACHER
Teaching Kindness – Improv, a Venue for Values
On a cool December night, the line outside of the Noh Stage Theater was long waiting to get in to see Awkward Dinner Party, an unusual long form improvisation format with a three-person cast. The lady standing behind me struck up a conversation. She wanted to sing the praises of Lisa Rowland, one of the principals of the improv show-- “She is really brilliant as a teacher and more importantly I admire her as a person. I mean, she is just so good, so kind and so positive. Lisa is an amazing teacher, and an awesome human being.” I nodded agreement, mentioning that she had been one of my students at Stanford. We were both fans.
Lisa comes from the crucible of the Stanford Improvisers, a group I founded in 1991. They have the reputation of being “the nicest group to play with.” I was always pleased and flattered by that appellation. More important than being funny, is being kind, nice, easy and thoughtful to play with. Yup, the SIMPS were the nicest group at any tournament.
At the heart of our work as improv teachers is the possibility to change the world. We do this both by modeling the behaviors we want to teach as well as finding ways both indirect and direct to teach them. Whether we acknowledge it or not all teaching is value laden, so why not teach the virtues our society needs? Everyone wants to have more positive social and interpersonal interactions, but they don’t know how. Many of us are stuck in old patterns of reacting. Improv provides a canvas upon which we can teach people how to listen better and be kinder to each other.
I teach a workshop called: “Working with difficult people.” Everyone shows up for this. And, then there’s a bit of bait and switch. Once in the room I tell everyone that the only difficult person they can change is themselves.
It’s easy to see that selfishness and self-interest is at the root of many of our social problems. Everyone wants a more satisfying life. How does kindness fit into this? Improv can be both a metaphor and a tool to discover a kinder version of youself.
As a tool the games can be used to lift others up or cut each other down. If you study comedy, you’ll soon discover that the quickest way to get a laugh is to put someone else down. “Hay, there, fellow, that’s a nice dog you’ve got there. That’s no dog, that’s my wife.” 🤣🤣🤣 (a double put down.)
I once taught an offsite workshop to a group of middle managers at a famous tech company in Silicon Valley. Team building was the subject of our work together. The leader had warned me that they were unable to agree on anything. And, it seems that improv was the only workshop that they did not reject. They thought it would be fun at least.
On the Saturday morning of our off-site workshop we all showed up at the fancy hotel conference room, replete with the obligatory deluxe breakfast buffet. After the mingling about and swilling down coffee and smoked salmon on bagels we got the workshop going. “If you’d please join me now in a circle we can “let the games” begin. I often start with a simple game called “Sound Ball” where we pretend to throw a sound (miming the action of throwing a ball). The person that it is thrown to mimes catching the ball and repeats the sound that was thrown. Then the receiver throws a new sound to someone else, etc. and the throwing and catching continues. It’s a very simple game but brings up lots of issues typically. As we played, I side-coached. I’d suggest: “Become a good catcher.” Pay more attention to receiving than to sending something creative. It’s common for folks to think ahead to come up with an interesting sound when it came their turn. This act of “choosing a good sound” commonly interferes with the attention needed to catch or field the balls. So, from time to time in the game I’d cheerfully make suggestions about shifting one’s attention from self to the others in the circle.
Half an hour in, at a break, the man who had hired me to lead the workshop took me aside to give me some instructions: (I’ll never forget his words.) “Nix on all that good advice, lets get on with the fun and games.” He simply wanted to do improv games so that they could make jokes and one-up each other. They were actually skillful at putting each other down. Cooperation seemed like some distant dream. (Think our current political divide.) Since he was the boss I pulled back on the “good advice” part of my teaching. Sad really. Improv could help a situation like this. In my introduction class I remind us that sarcasm, which is a common form of “clever exchange” is a kind of poison in an improv world. Its function is a put down. It can create comedy, but rarely good-will. I once saw a bumper sticker that read: : “Tact is for people not witty enough to be sarcastic. Sarcasm is for people not intelligent enough to be tactful.” If we encourage or foster sarcasm, we are in danger of giving them strategies for cruelty.
An improv class is a place to build trust and safety. We learn to eschew the easy laugh that comes from blocking an offer
Over time improv can turn a group of normal, selfish bozos into a team of agreeable, cooperative, resourceful bozos. Self interest is normal. With improv games we can make interest in one’s fellows into something that is attractive, productive and doable.
What are some strategies for teaching kindness?
1. Status games that focus on raising the status of the other person
2. Games that focus on “thank you” and “I’m sorry” (Do as a circle)
a. “Thanks to whom are we here today”
3. Random Acts of Kindness Stories
4. Any game can be debriefed with instructions that focus on ‘taking care of the other person.”
5. Teambuilding games ( the A B C game—sharing control)
6. Ball Games can be debriefed to suggest that we “focus on being a good receiver, smile to make others feel good and never correct.”
Have a discussion about how self interest is normal, and how shifting the attention to your partner produces good will and cooperation.
Kindness can also be manifest in the kinds of characters that we play in scenes. Suggest that characters can have high moral standards. Good stories often have villains or “bad guys.” But don’t confuse this with just being stubborn or argumentative. Keep your humanity. Chose to play heroes. We all love heroes. The best heroes aren’t the superhero brand, but ordinary folks.
“Soon enough, nobody will remember life before the Internet. What does this unavoidable fact mean?”
Michael Harris, The End of Absence (2014)
The Yelp of Yesterday
Harris’ profound book is a wake-up call to those of us “of a certain age.” He points out that at 77 I fall into a demographic that has lived as an adult through both a life with and without the Internet. “If we’re the last people in history to know life before the Internet, we are also the only ones who will ever speak, as it were, both languages. We are the only fluent translators of Before and After.”
The story of my midlife trip around the world, without a phone, seems more important in the light of his observation. No one born today or hereafter can ever take a trip around the world without a phone . . . even if they don’t carry one themselves. So it falls to me to tell the story of what that was like.
I arrived on a night bus from the Phuket airport to the coast side town. I spent my fortieth birthday alone on Kata Beach in Thailand. There were no birthday greetings since I was 3000 miles from home and there was no telephone service of any kind or post office in the beachfront town where I had rented a thatched cottage by the beach. Facebook wasn’t even a twinkle in someone’s eye and there was no such thing as Wi-fi anywhere. Anywhere. On that December 3 day, I watched a sunset break over the ocean so pink and peach and lavender spectacular that I can still remember it. My diary noted that the only person I had spoken to all day was a waiter who brought me grilled fish. I did a small watercolor painting in my journal to commemorate that sunset.
The year was 1982 and I was six months into a trip around the world. I was alone, carrying one small brown suitcase and I was without a phone. It was as close to paradise as I can imagine. The place was actually called Shangri-la, if you can believe it. I was surrounded by solitude, nature and what Michael Harris calls “absence.”
I’m not here as a crusader about the “good old days” to compare the magic of traveling without Yelp or a GPS. Recounting the trip does point out that attention was a more natural exercise without the constant distraction of our devices.
When I wanted to know something, I would ask someone or if the question was factual I would go to a library and stand in front of long rows of wooden drawers filled with cream colored index cards: the card catalogue. These cards, which were carefully indexed by subject, name or author, were just the first step in acquiring what was needed to answer a question. Once a likely book was identified there was the issue of getting the book. Perhaps it was in the stacks above or it may have been housed in another library. I might need to fill out a request for an interlibrary loan, wait two weeks and then return to have a look at the book. When I was able to get my hands on the book then I needed to read it, cull the information, formulate an answer to my query and jot down the findings on some 3 X 5 note cards that I kept in a little green tin box. Research.
No future generation will ever go through this procedure. It would have seemed like science fiction to imagine typing a question onto a computer screen or speaking the question out loud and having the answer appear instantly. Research. Really?
Actual humans were the Yelp of yesterday. As I traveled the world and wanted to know a good place to crash or a reliable bus route or the best local fish I would ask someone I met on the road. Strangers became the links to places, goods and services. I kept a tiny notebook in which I would record recommendations gathered along the way. In Nepal it was the Kathmandu Guest House or K. C.’S Restaurant and on Bali it was Murni’s Restaurant where I’d go to get the scoop on travel tips. I learned to trust the network of travelers I met. On the road to Pokhara I met someone who had just come from there and had a suggestion for a good place to sleep.
The key life skill that was needed was the ability to pay attention to reality, to stay alert to all that was happening and to the people I met and the advice I gathered. Attention became my best friend and the biggest challenge as I traveled.
From my diary of December 5, 1982
“I realized that traveling well takes real alertness, attention, mindfulness and a high degree of tolerance and flexibility. I'm gaining these skills. Spacing out is not allowed. In transit I must stay clear. That's probably why traveling is such real work. There is no time to go slack.”