Learning and reflection from my first weekend on an Improvisation Skills course.
‘The thing about improvisation is that it’s not about what you say. It’s listening to what other people say. It’s about what you hear.’ Paul Merton
‘If you’re in your head, then you’re not here with me.’ Susan Messing
‘If you stumble, make it part of the dance’ Unknown
I have just spent an engrossing weekend listening, learning, experimenting and playing with The Improvisation Academy at The Poor School near King’s Cross, London. Before I go any further, I want to write a huge thank you to Carole and Keira for so generously giving me the time to fit this experience into the diary.
Most of what we do in life plays out without a script, yet we often believe we should somehow exercise more control over this unscripted life. I was keen to attend this course for many reasons, including to practice being in the moment, and responding more freely to what happens around me. In my work, I prefer to facilitate with as light a structure or agenda as possible – leaving room for things to emerge and grow. On this course, I thought I would experience and learn things that would help me enhance my professional practice, and I was right, but there was much more than that to be experienced.
The two days were packed with activities, reflection and conversation. Time passed a bit like pages in a book being turned – there was a flowing cadence to how we worked and we moved through things without hurrying unduly. Everything was explained clearly as we went along, and as a group we quickly became supportive of one another. A sufficient level of support is essential when uncertainty is close by. I want to respect the confidentiality established in the room over the two days, so I shan’t be going into specific details about the work we did together, and I will share some key points I observed and practiced, and a little of how I felt as the time passed. I will frame these notes with the help of the acrostic we were introduced to as we worked.
Let Go – Having, finding and borrowing the confidence to try something new. At all times we had the option to pass on an activity without anyone questioning why. The pass was used only very occasionally over the weekend. I noticed that activities which came back to me very quickly depleted my ability to improvise, which then bunged up my brain and interrupted flow between me and others – so once or twice, I took a pass midway through an activity.
Inhabit the Moment – The idea of being present, of finding flow. Acknowledging this state is important, and moving into it felt essential in order to do our best work. We talked about, and practised being aware of the challenge you face and the support available, and adjusting the dials to try and gain and sustain flow, while you can.
Freedom within Structure – There is a sense that improvisation is somehow chaos, and while it might be from time to time, it is not founded on, nor does it rely on chaos to succeed. There are principles and signposts you can choose to help you navigate your way through dialogue. A well known principle is the idea of ‘Yes…and’ where you accept someone’s offer and build on it, rather than reject it and start again.
Embrace Uncertainty – The degree to which the group together, and you individually, can alleviate the pressure caused by the uncertainty which inhabits us all, is really important. Over the weekend, I observed three things in particular that helped me.
- There is something so powerful about a smile, an exchange of kindness between people which can represent trust. Looking out for each other.
- The art of listening is crucial. I noticed that when I was listening most carefully, I became more able to engage with the process. The art of listening distracts you from trying to think about what you think you should be saying next. And given that none of us can predict what other people are going to say next, this is a helpful distraction!
- There is something important when improvising about being able to place yourself in the space that exists between you and others, not inside your head. The action is in the interaction. For me this part of the process is very much a work in progress.
Play to Play – Play at work gets a bad rap, probably because when we think of play in a work context, we think of playing to win, which is often a zero sum game. I win, you lose. People think that work and play are opposites, when according to the play theorist Brian Sutton-Smith, the opposite of play is not work, but depression. If we accept what Sutton-Smith puts forward, then I think we need to have play at work. So how about playing to play, and playing to learn as well as, and at times instead of, playing to win.
Accept and Build – I take something you offer me, and I add to it.
Short Turn Taking – Helps to keep the flow going.
Spot Successes – Call them out, and help others to look good.
This was an intensive, and enjoyable two days, focussing primarily on improv skills for life. I was exhausted when I got home on Saturday evening and went to bed at nine thirty for some well earned rest. The second day was energetic and intensive too and though I was awake and alert, I got stuck a few times; I already mentioned I took a pass on a few occasions. There was a lot more to be learned and practiced than I first imagined and I go back again in April for another full weekend – this time to focus on improv for work. I am really looking forward to extending and practicing what I am learning, and based on my experience, I would encourage others interested in bringing more fluidity, flow and freedom to their work, to take a deeper dive into what improvisation has to offer. Great learning, great fun.