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

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Random Acts of Kindness Introductions Game

Random Acts of Kindness Introductions
The Improv Game created by Nat Tsolak
August, 2015

“Random act of kindness
A random act of kindness is a selfless act performed by a person or people wishing either to assist or to cheer up an individual person or people. The phrase may have been coined by Anne Herbert, who says that she wrote "Practice random kindness and senseless acts of beauty" on a place mat at a Sausalito restaurant in 1982 or 1983.[1][2] Either spontaneous or planned, random acts of kindness are encouraged by various communities.”

One of the perks of being a member of the AIN (Applied Improv Network) is meeting others around the world involved in using improvisation tools to help people.  Nat Tsolak from the UK (London) has a background in both Psychology and business as well as comedy improv.  We have never met, but reading his posts on Facebook I’m sure that we’d be great friends if our paths do breach the big pond someday. 

A few weeks ago I was intrigued by an announcement that he had created a new game that he calls: “Random Acts of Kindness.”  His purpose, he states, in coming up with the game was to find a way to build trust between strangers that didn’t rely on true personal revelations.  And also to give new players a chance to practice making up improvised stories.

So, the basic game, as I understand it, is for a member of the group to introduce another member by telling an improvised story which features their subject having done a “random act of kindness.”   The real value, as I see it, is to speak about someone in a wholly positive light, raising his status by sharing the little known fact.  E. g.  “I’d like to introduce Jason.  Very few people know that he always pays for the guy behind him when he crosses a toll bridge or paid freeway.”  “Meet Selena.  She collects water in a watering can in her shower and everyday waters her neighbor’s flower garden.  With the California drought it has made a difference.”

The idea is to simply endow someone as having done a kind and thoughtful deed that benefits others.  There is no need for the story to be wildly creative or fantastical.  (Although it can be.) The key thing is for us all to see that person (that character) in a positive light.  I think an added benefit is that these ideas fill the room with warm pictures of human actions that help others. 

A development of the game is to have the recipient agree to the story and add a detail from their perspective.  To illustrate this (Jason above) might add:  “Yes, and one day a lady was so charmed by my paying her toll that she rushed to catch up with me, jumped out of the car at a stoplight where we were both stopped and gave me a rose!”

Clearly, this game (as is true for most games) can be used for other purposes.  A lot depends upon what the early examples are.  It’s certainly possible to use the prompt as a way of coming up with the most elaborate and hysterical “act”, and thereby turn the game into a comedy creation session.   For my money, striving to make the endowments into wildly silly actions subverts the game.  Then, participants get the idea that we are trying to create “crazy stuff ” and may miss the point of making their partner look good.  When I teach this I always remind them that simple, ordinary examples of a “random act” are terrific.  We aren’t trying to outdo each other with cleverness.  Our purpose is to make up a story that tells of a positive action someone did.  The person receiving the story about them should feel great!  Maybe that’s the measure of the game. 

I proposed that we could all play this on Facebook.  I can name a friend and tell an imaginary story about them.  If they want to continue the game, the person storied can name someone else and make up a new story. 

What do you think?