a matter of opinion

Sorry I have been amiss in blogging. I’ve just returned home from a wonderful 6 week tour. Many a great adventure, wonderful shows and fantastic people. I love impro festivals. I love the diversity of ideas, training, beliefs, skills and people. I am always interested in what can happen when we are thrown into the impro blender and mixed together. whirrrrrr!

Festivals are such great experiences filled with many memorable moments that I will treasure. The joys are immense. In all honesty though, I often leave feeling a little empty. I feel like I have had a great feast of treats but I miss out on some of the meat and veggies. By it’s nature our work is positive and accepting and as a result our gatherings are fuelled with the same energy. Which I love!!! But are we losing out on something? In all our happy acceptance where is our critical impro eye. We know there are private discussions about the shows and what people liked and disliked. These discussions are hidden behind closed doors, in dark corners of the pub or in sacred circles. Why do we fear hearing people’s opinions, having an opinion and voicing that opinion?

In a recent explorative workshop with a group of skilled experienced improvisers, who I knew quite well, I felt torn. An experiment took place and we were all asked to give feedback. In all honesty the impro experiment I observed made me feel quite uncomfortable for various reasons. The feedback people were giving was very supportive. I liked this.... I thought this was interesting..... and so on. All very valuable feedback and I believe this was their honest response, but it was not mine. My honest, authentic response was not a positive one. So, in a world of Yes And and acceptance....do I speak up or shut up?

My personal opinion is that if I do not speak up then I am doing a great disservice to everyone in the workshop. In essence by not speaking honestly I am being dishonest in my silence. If someone is exploring an idea and asking for honest point of view from the participants, then how will they gain the most out of the exploration if we are not honest. If the room is filled with all Yes people, where is the counterpoint? Contrast is good, different opinions and perspectives are good. I was also asked for my honesty. I’ve also taught explorative workshops or rehearsals and have craved hearing what people were thinking and feeling. The workshop/rehearsal stalls because people will not voice what they are thinking and feeling. It is agony.

So, I spoke up. Immediately I felt a shift in the room energy. Was it what I was saying? How I was saying it? Or the shock that it wasn’t the normal expected supportive impro speak? I don’t know. I do know my intention was to give them the honest feedback they asked, and to trust my impro peers to know it was simply my point of view, my opinion. No value judgement comes with it. I am just as supportive of the experiment and contributing just as much to the process by adding in a different perspective.

Later I asked, one of the girls who ran the workshop, if my speaking up was too harsh or negative and if was she fine with my honest opinion. She said it was my statement that prompted them to try it differently and as a result the next scene yielded work that was closer to what they were hoping for. She thanked me for my honesty.

So, if I sat and said nothing then would that discovery have been made? Perhaps at some other time, who knows. I’m not claiming that I had some great wisdom or insight. I am focusing on the battle in my brain to speak up and be honest or shut up and be, what is viewed as, the supportive improviser.

Am I being more supportive by holding back?

It has been a duality that has plagued me since leaving Loose Moose Theatre. At Loose Moose we were encouraged to speak our point of view, to have and voice a perspective. Everyone’s opinion mattered. An opinion, however, did not dictate the value of the work. We could agree to disagree, we could debate or discuss and then step out on stage together with complete trust. No wounds, bruised egos or residual negative energy. If anything this openness, expression, passion and variety of opinion built a greater trust. We didn’t fall into a sugar coma of everyone is great and everything we do is great. We were authentic with our points of view, honest in sharing, and accepting of others opinions. We did not rely on the compliments of other improvisers to value the work or make us feel good. We did not assume anything negative in someone contributing a counter point of view. If someone told me in notes “Patti, you weren’t needed in that scene”, I would not take that as a personal statement about the quality of my work. In their opinion the scene was fine without me. Their opinion shines a different light, a different perspective and I can reflect on that. Why did I go in? Was it honestly about the scene or about me wanting to play? In their opinion I get the gift of reflection and an opportunity to learn. If they had said, ‘Well done taking a risk going into that scene.” Would I question my choice? Probably not, I would just take the compliment.

In notes after a show you might hear Keith Johnstone say “Well that was crap.” When I share this with other improvisers, who have not worked intensely with Keith, they are horrified at his judgmental tone. “How can he be so negative?” “You should never call impro crap it is a value judgement of the work.” I can understand their point of view. I don’t think they can understand mine as mine comes from the experiences I had and without living that experience it may be hard to grasp. Keith’s words never felt like a value judgement. It was his honest opinion. In my goal to learn and grow as an improviser I want to know my teachers honest perspective. I want his opinion, I want to learn. Underneath all of this is the trust he built. I knew from the many, many hours of working with Keith, his private chats, his notes, his supportive nature, the surprising things he would do to provide that support, his philosophy and his work that his opinion was offered as just that. Although I have an amazing amount of respect for Keith and his is an extraordinary teacher I do not bow down in front of everything he has said as if he was some great deity. Why? Because he would encourage us to have opinions, he would challenge us to speak up, to put work on stage that we wanted to create. He created an environment where open discussion about opinion was valued. This is how we were trained.

For years, and perhaps this is still true, players from Calgary were viewed as being overly opinionated and negative of other peoples work. Yes, we are an opinionated lot no arguing that. But negative? Hmmm, some people yes I think this is true. However some of this negative label I think is in response to hearing an opinion that isn’t an immediate compliment of the work. If it isn’t a compliment, it must be a negative. Sometimes it is just a statement of opinion which may not be a compliment or a criticism it is just a observation in the form of a statement. Many groups do not have any system for objectively looking at the work. They do not give notes, do not have a director with strong view point, there are no discussions of what did and did not work. They focus only on positive reinforcement. Positive reinforcement is great, constant positive reinforcement without balance can be misleading and dangerous. Mistakes help us learn. If we are avoiding talking about our mistakes because the conversation is viewed as negative then we remove an opportunity to learn.

So in an environment with no critical eye any non positive will be viewed as a negative instead of just a point of view.

It feels like the impro community has wrapped itself in the shield of acceptance and positive response. I think both of these are invaluable and very important in our work. I also think open honest discussion, without judgement or trying to win the discussion, is vital.

In order to offer up ones opinions in a group and to know someone is just sharing their honest point of view without judgement takes trust and open communication. There needs to be shared culture, and understanding.

Time and time again I see a lack of honesty and trust in groups. I see people performing their impro identity on and off stage. The Yes And... positive energy becomes a mask, a shield and it is not authentic. They are not actually supporting each others ideas. Face to face it is all compliments and pats on the back. Then, when opportunity strikes, they are critical and negative behind peoples backs. I see groups in creative stagnation because no one will openly dare to question or have an opinion because it may be taken as a negative statement. Yet we all have opinions, so the lack of open communication allows these contrasting thoughts to fester. This builds all sorts of group conflicts.

We know that for improvisation to flourish we have to accept failure. In our hesitation to communicate openly are we not still protecting ourselves from a form of failure? If all the post show notes have to be positive are we not still afraid of hearing when it didn’t work? If people need to be complimented and hear time and time again when they did good, are we still afraid of failing?

Am I making my partner look good by not sharing me authentic, honest opinion?
Am I helping the work, exploration or discovery by not trusting them with my honest opinion?
Am I staying silent because I am afraid that others will judge me?

In our inability to be honest about our work are we being more harmful than helpful to each other?

Improvisers should have opinions, likes, dislikes, aims, goals, perspective.
Improvisers should debate and discuss the work to share, learn and be challenged.

Underlying all of this is a level of maturity, respect and open communication that needs to be present. Perhaps that is actually what this blog is about. It isn’t what we are or are not saying but questioning the nature of the culture we have built. Is our supportive accepting nature an act, a cover up, an easy way out or a lie? Can we find balance? Can we view contrasting opinions shared with respect and honesty as supportive?

It is important to not that there is a fine line between having an opinion and making a judgment.

We should not fear people’s opinions. We should fear any restriction on free speech of our opinions. We all have opinions. We know what we like and don’t like. To deny that is pointless. Voicing an opinion does not make it a judgment.

A judgment is an opinion stated as fact. I might be passionate about my opinions, but I do not think they are fact. As a teacher I have a duty to my students to voice my opinions and to make it clear they are only my opinions. As a teacher I have a duty to stimulate the minds of my students so they will question for themselves, form their own opinions, and not follow my opinions blindly.

Opinions help us question, explore and challenge our work. The audience clearly has opinions. They will find things clever, stupid, amazing and crap. Should we ignore this reality? To deny this reality just denies us a source of learning. If we are open to their opinions, and look at it as information, we have so much to learn. If we view it as judgment we will fear it and deny it.

Strong opinions can lead to great discoveries. Look at Keith Johnstone and Del Close. Two highly opinionated men men with very strong views about the work they wanted to see and create. They were not afraid of voicing, exploring and challenging their opinions.

Thank goodness for THAT!

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