Conditioning & Communication

Children choosing their own outfit are wonderful to watch. Exploration, expression of individuality and choices. Choices made regardless of how people might respond because the response is not the objective, getting dressed is.

I look at pictures of me as a child wearing pants with stripes going one way and a top with stripes going another.  I am smiling, happy, confident and with no awareness of all the fashion rules, I am clearly breaking.  I wasn’t making my choices based on the response of others. The decisions were about what I was feeling now, my expression not a later response.  

I’ve lost some of that freedom. I am aware when I dress, I make choices to get or avoid response. I’ve learned this via conditioning from the words and actions of those around me. For example ‘you don’t wear white to a wedding because you don’t want to steal the Bride’s moment.’  I was 10 when I first heard my Aunt say this and I still won’t wear white to a wedding. 

We do this to each other in improvisation.  Subtle conditioning through words and actions.  We need to be mindful of this conditioning and the impact it can have. 

For example, after a show the backstage area is alive with pats on the back and the sounds of ‘fun show’ ‘that was so fun’ or  ‘you were so funny’.  We condition each other to value the funny first and foremost.

There is nothing wrong with being funny or saying a show was fun or funny, of course not. However, if we use ‘fun/funny’ all the time as a default we run the risk of conditioning players that this is the desired response. We love positive validation and if this is the only validation, we condition players to play for that response.

I see the impact of this conditioning on players when I work with them in the rehearsal room.  They hit huge creative blocks. These blocks are their doubts and fears about not getting the response they feel they have to get.  Laughter.  Roaring laughter.  Of course, if they are creating a comedy show this is the objective and thus important to keep in mind.  I am speaking about groups who go into the room to create something new or to explore an idea. They don’t even know what they are creating and they are already worrying about the response. This conditioned objective stops them from exploring freely. This future fear blocks the present moment.

Like staring at your closet screaming ‘I’ve got nothing to wear!’ When you do. You have lots.  You are so worried about the outcome you can’t make a choice, any choice, in the present moment.  

Furthermore, I question the obsessive and repetitive use of the comments ‘that was fun’ and ‘fun show’. I think it is often lazy communication, words to fill a social awkwardness.  I mean are we really saying what we want to say?  When we say ‘it was a fun show’, what do we mean?  I enjoyed the performance?  I laughed? You have a great turn of phrase? I love how you set each other up for the punch lines? Your skill at the classic double take is amazing? There was so much joy and playfulness on stage? If it was one or more of the above examples, then why don’t we say that? Why are we removing an opportunity to provide the performer with valuable information?  ‘It was fun.’ is vague. ‘I love your sense of timing.’ provides the performer with something they can take away.  It is a much nicer compliment as it values their specific skill.

Ask yourself right now – When I tell someone it was a fun show, what do I really mean by that?  I challenge you the next time you are about to say ‘it was fun’ to stop and think about what you really mean and take the time to really express that. This can help improvisors grow and learn, as they will receive a broader range of responses and information.

Some of you may be discovering a hard truth. You say ‘that was fun’ as a cover when you don’t know what to say, or you don’t like a show and feel you need to say something supportive.  Are lies and misleading truth supportive? Is misleading information useful? Again I challenge you, take the time to find something you can comment on. This can help the performer focus on information and hopefully improve their process and growth. 

We should take time to remember the value of communication and the opportunity presented to share perspective and how actual information can help people grow.   Without the truth, balance and perspective we are slowly conditioning people to aim for one type of response.  Because this is the only response given weight and value to.  Our focus on only the funny is misleading and limiting.

If you are struggling with what to say trying being curious and ask questions.  You could say ‘where did the concept come from?’ or ‘what are you aiming to explore?’ or ‘what was the rehearsal period like?’ Engage in the conversation. You might learn something. Again it broadens the scope of our work and our conversation about our work.

Lets acknowledge and value improvisational skills, techniques and performance.  You could say things like ‘I loved how you held the silence.’ or ‘your generosity on stage is inspiring’ or ‘you really saved that narrative with your reincorporation’ or ‘great physicality’ for example.

In our backstage banter lets value all aspects of our work, be mindful of the power of communication and stop conditioning players to seek only one form of response.

Lets support our individuality and encourage each other to express ourselves and our unique style of improvisation.  A impro world of Iris Apfel’s not Stepford wives.

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