Performing or experiencing?

Viv is fond of saying that “facilitation is a performance art.” When I first heard it, I wasn’t quite sure what she meant, but now I do. It means you can’t rely on a set formula, you need to comfortable operating at the edge of your comfort zone, edging into uncertainty and practising. Another friend, Cathy Salit, explains how we perform our way into things. A child learning to walk doesn’t know how to walk, he/she has to fake/blunder/explore their way into it… they “perform” walking before they do it.

Also, as a facilitator you are somewhat on stage; even when you are trying to stay out of people’s way, your presence or attitude has an impact. There is always at least an element of performance.

Some people, quite understandably, are uncomfortable with notion of facilitation as a performance. For them, it carries an implication of inauthenticity and/or a loss of self in an attempt to impress others. That’s not what I intend, so maybe some other word than performance might suit.

This came to mind when reading Peter Brugman’s article, Stop Focusing on Your Performance. I actually agree with most of what he says.

Are you trying to look good? Do you want to impress others or win something? Are you looking for acceptance, approval, accolades, wild thunderous applause? Is it painful when you don’t get those things? You’re probably performing… If you’re experiencing, on the other hand, you’re exploring what something feels like. Trying to see what would happen if…

I might use different labels because I think you can perform from a place of experience.

At the weekend, I did an awesome workshop with Steve Roe of Hoopla Impro. It was a terrific reminder of the paradox of improv: that when you try to be funny/effective* you generally fail. When you let go of trying, you often succeed. Some of the best scenes the group created required players to connect to their own true experiences in a scene. Here’s a for instance.

Two people were in a scene of mother talking with rebellious teenage daughter. The daughter was revealing recent shocking escapades, and the mother was being censorious. Then the daughter did something that made everyone laugh. Including the person playing mum. That player smothered the laughter and tried to play censorious. Steve side-coached to back track and say something to the daughter that reflected her actual amusement.

The scene changed direction completely and hilariously. The predictable mother-daughter dynamic was upended and the audience loved it.

It reminds me of what Rob Poynton says about what makes improv funny: it’s not so much that the dialogue or action is funny; it’s more that audience responds with delight to seeing something genuine and spontaneous going on between human beings. The players are there, building on their responses to each other rather than trying to invent a script.

Another improv teacher, it might have been Nick Byrne, says that the setups for improv scenes are fake, and everyone knows they are fake. But the people are real people and their reactions to each other are real. That real stuff can be the lifeblood of a great scene.

I think that welcoming play is probably about understanding the real human stuff that is happening under the nominal umbrella of a ritual exercise or game.

I probably haven’t explained that brilliantly. It’s about a performance/experience that can’t be fully captured in words.

* Another day I might write about being funny ist not really the mark of great improv, but as a crude marker for connecting to the audience, it has its uses.

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