Wednesday, February 22, 2017

To all teachers of improvisation: some advice

Teaching Improv

“We teach what we most need to learn.”
Jonathan Livingston Seagull by J Bach

In an interview with Hiromachi Kimura, a Japanese improviser and graduate researcher he asked me: “What’s most important when you teach improv?”  Immediately I said  “You must model what you teach.  You need to be improvising as you teach others to do so.  That is, you simply cannot come into a classroom and “execute your syllabus” or “give your lecture.”  You need to be wild-eyed awake.  (Almost like a man just let out of jail) but focused on what needs to be done now. 

Of course you “have some plan” (I’ll teach the necessity of listening well, of attention to the present moment, etc.) but when you show up to lead the lesson you have to be fully awake to everything that is going on . . . the climate in the room, the acoustics and most especially to who is in the room, their expressions, their names, the complete gestalt.  And then you must teach from this reality, not from any premeditated idea of how the lesson should go.

You have to notice everything that is going on, and then you need to follow your impulses and try things.  You have to make mistakes and correct them as you go. You have to show yourself human in the presence of the assembled students.  Your own vulnerability is one of your greatest teaching assets.  Allow yourself to be surprised and even be thrown off guard.

In the spring of 2013 Dan Klein invited me to give a guest lecture at Stanford.  (Well, it’s never really a ‘lecture’ when you teach improv but you share some improv experiences.)  The class was an experiment to see just how large a class you could handle to teach the basic improv experience.  I think there were 90 students in the cavernous room where we billeted that day. The venue was a full court gymnasium with forty-foot ceilings and a basketball court floor.  Imagine the acoustics. We were kindly provided with stacks of metal folding chairs that we all pulled out and arranged and rearranged as we moved from one activity to another. (Improv learning always happens all over the place and rarely in tidy rows of students facing the instructor and a chalkboard.)

To speak with 90 students siting on metal folding chairs in a cavernous room was already a challenge.  After playing a listening game in partners I reassembled the group into a series of seating rows in an oval.  I tried to get all of us as close together as practical so that my voice could actually be heard. I was standing in front telling a story about how True Fiction Magazine (a top end professional improv troupe) would routinely practice repeating long stories back to each other, verbatim, to stretch their memory muscles, when a four inch dragonfly lit on my left arm.  And sat there. It was unexpected and I stopped mid sentence to observe the insect. For what seemed an eternity we all starred in silence at the wonder of this creature and its audacity to interrupt my lecture.  It was a stunning moment. 

A year later a student from that class, a journalist, wrote me a note thanking me for my teaching and he mentioned the incident with the dragonfly.  He reflected that my stopping everything to attend to that little winged fellow taught him more about the value of attention than any encyclopedia or power point.

We must be improvising when we teach.  It’s the only way.  We must trust reality and respond to it freshly.  We must allow insight/inspiration to come through us.  We must model what it is to change course, make discoveries, make mistakes, learn things as we go. When you are teaching/speaking from this vantage point you are alive and open to inspiration.  So, go ahead and make your lesson plan, but then tuck it away in favor of showing up and being there 100%. Remember that you already have what you need.