life is a great teacher

I’ve become more and more aware that if you want to improve your skills as an improvisation teacher, you need to pay attention to people are you and the life you are living. Each moment and how you think, feel or respond is a lesson in impro.

For example right now are you focused on the words on this page or are you skimming over these words quickly to see if they are valuable to you? Maybe you are reading them because you feel you should but really you are making a shopping list. The point is - are you present?

Honestly, how often are we really present?

Life teaches us. Moments, choices, their impact. This creates our life narrative.

Life is always walking up to us and saying, "Come on in, the living's fine," and what do we do?  Back off and take its picture.  ~Russell Baker

Being aware of our human condition helps us connect to and be present with what our students are often feeling in their work. If you are unsure of this then try taking a class in something brand new and make notes of what you go through in the process.

My latest lessons are started at a new gym and searching for a new website host provider. Interesting and valuable lessons. I have gone through all the classic feelings fear, avoidance, insecurity and almost a paralytic state of inability to make a choice or take a risk. Yes, I know I am an improviser....but this is life! arrrrrrgggggg!!!!!

It is a great physical reminder for me of what happens before someone steps into the class. The decision making process. The mental to and fro when you are approaching something new. If I make the wrong choice, if I can’t do it, what if...what if... Funny we never say ‘What if I can do it and I like it and it becomes a new way of life?’ Our what if’s are usually focused on the failure, what we fear most.

For the individual who is offering the class or service it’s simply another day at work. Why on earth are you getting so wound up about this, just make a choice it isn’t the end of the world! For the potential client it is a whole set of new experiences AND it is a leap of faith to make a decision to trust and give it a go. Of course it isn’t the end of the world and for most people the decision isn’t as dramatic as I am making it sound, but for is. We should always remember and value that it may simply be another class for you the instructor but for them it is stepping into the new and unexpected. We should never forget the fear and anticipation of the unknown and how that impacts people.

That is why I believe that the first steps in teaching improvisation is not Blocking / Accepting and Yes And. The first step is creating an environment for those students to relax, trust and allow themselves to be in the moment with you. To turn off the sensor, to turn off the judgement meter and allow themselves to be. This will be different for each group. Some groups will connect quickly, some groups may take more time to build the healthy dynamic in which improvisation can then flourish. So for some groups the Blocking / Accepting and Yes And may come quite quickly and it can help build some level of trust. It can put some students firmly into themselves and disconnect them from others. They focus on I must accept, I must not block, I must say yes - then I must add something. A dangerous what I need to do to get this ‘right’ mentality.

I find a more valuable approach is to take time to really get people to focus on their partners. Not just in words, but in action and belief. The deep trust that develops, and the ability for individuals to grow in their improvisation work, that comes from this shift of self focus to partner focus is fantastic. The freedom, the release, the reduction of fear helps the individual grow. In essence by focusing on helping others, they help themselves.

This is particularly valuable in schools. Students coming to your class are dealing with all sorts of social / pack dynamics and the stress of school mentality being focused on the right / wrong. I’ve seen many school impro classes fail as the well meaning instructor started off on the wrong foot. They are unaware of this as they have probably been following a impro rules book or games book. These books often do not talk about the foundations of improvisation they promise a How To Do. This is so they can sell books in our fast food culture. Unfortunately this leaves a massive negative trail. The huge number of people I have encountered who tell me they did impro in school and hated it. When I inquire into why they hated it the reasons all come from self consciousness and fear. There was no trust in the room. No focus on the underlying technique that allows improvisation to soar. There are some people left with real anxiety from negative experiences in an impro class. The teachers are in a difficult position. They can not be experts on everything and many drama teachers have no theatre experience or training. Of course they turn to books for assistance. However, improvisation anchored only in rules and games will give you limited value. It would be similar to teaching people marathon running by telling them to begin alternating their left and right feet in a rapid pattern. They might run but what kind of running is it? You have not engaged important components and skills like breath, stretching and so forth. You have not taught them how to do it you taught them what to do.

It is difficult to put into words how to teach the elements I am speaking of. Believe me, I am trying! Each time I work on my book I hit this issue. Why is it difficult? Well, you need to be aware of each student and their needs. Each of those needs will have their own challenges and impro options an endless list of possibilities. Trying to distill that down is an interesting challenge.

That is why I think it is important to pay attention to your own experiences. If you reflect on improvisation classes and teachers you have had and ask yourself;

How did you feel walking in the first time?

What moments opened you or closed you?

What did your teacher do to inspire release and trust in you and the class?

Those experiences, those lessons will guide you. I know when I pay attention to my life moments and I reflect on my time with Keith Johnstone and the other great teachers I had at Loose Moose Theatre I keep learning and growing.

If you are reading this and thinking you have learned impro and don’t need to learn anymore then maybe you should stop. Not because you mastered it, but because you missed the point.


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