Following the follower

Regular readers will know I’m a big fan of improv and one of my early teachers was Gary Schwartz. You’re not likely to meet a more passionate character and you certainly will never encounter a performer who can mime being a French poodle quite so remarkably.

Gary was a student of Viola Spolin one of the pioneers of improv theatre, and I first met him when he shared some of the games she used to train actors. These often revolve around the paradoxical idea of following the follower. For instance, people form pairs of A and B. A starts making some simple physical movements. B has to mirror A – following along, moving their arms, legs etc to keep up with A. Periodically, the teacher calls switch – which means the roles are reversed and A has to follow B.

The interesting bit is when the teacher calls switch so rapidly that neither A nor B remember who is leading and who is following. But they find they are still moving. And the direction now is just to follow the follower.

There are variations where two people have to make up a story watching each others faces and attempting to speak simultaneously, matching syllable for syllable.

Sounds crazy? You should try it.

Gary’s just written a provocative blog post comparing the notion of following-the-follower with the somewhat more revered improv principle of “Yes, And”. He argues – and I think I agree with him – that Yes, And may often be a great idea but can actually trap us in logical, next-steps, storytelling mode.

I think the follow-the-follower games are probably weirder to play but might actually be more powerful at creating spontaneous collaboration. When I’ve used them, some people come away with their thinking about leadership somewhat disrupted.

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