An NPR announcer dubbed the 18-35 year old set “Generation C;” C stands for connected. Or it could be communication. For the first time in human history there is an entire demographic who is linked to one another 24/7 through social media and cell phone technology. One wonders how we ever survived when we would need to wait for days to get a message to one another. I suspect there are few of the Generation C folks who have participated in a phone tree. Remember when your church steering committee needed to reach everyone in the congregation? Phone trees allowed me to telephone three people and be assured that a phone call would go out to everyone eventually. Those were the days when we spoke on the telephone instead of texting in the middle of a concert.
As a teacher of improvisation, I’m aware of the need people have to show up together in the same room and interact in a positive way. I observe a longing to have a reason to play together, tell stories. Those of us who teach recognize that this social urge extends beyond play. People want guidance in how to behave. Improvisation status games teach the consequences of raising yourself above others, shared control games teach cooperation and value people over ideas.
Here, I believe, improv teachers can assert themselves as moral guides. In order to improvise collectively we simply must learn to exercise our “muscles of affirmation.” This means I learn to leave my sarcastic, negative self-centered persona at the door in favor of that part of me which is moderately cheerful, optimistic and ready to support the ideas of others. I’ve observed that each of us has this capacity: to be kind, useful and nonjudgmental. We just need some practice (and support) leading with this side of our character. I tell my students that sarcasm and criticism is poison in improv. There is no payoff in going there. Why not strengthen our compassionate selves?
The leader of an improv exercise can both model and teach this good-natured way of being together. Every improv class session is an opportunity to foster this social norm. I’m convinced that one of the reasons students leave an improv workshop with a “feel good” sense is because we create an environment of good will. You have to love this culture and stand ready to defend it. Improvising is so much more than a technique for finding innovative solutions, it is a way of learning how to be human together in the best possible light. So much becomes possible when competition is supplanted by true cooperation. Teach this.