Relearning the fundamentals

I love improv, partly because every time I take part in an improv game I learn things. And very often that’s a relearning of some fundamentals.

On Friday night, Remy Bertrand hosted the monthly Applied Improv Network gathering in London. Towards the end we played a game I’ve done before a few times. A small team has to play people in an ad agency. You have to invent and then perform a TV ad for a product suggested by the audience.

The main twist is that in devising the idea, you must accept and applaud any and every idea put forward by your fellow players. You don’t get to evaluate or criticise or knock ideas, you have to accept them and celebrate.

This is a big twist for most of us, but it can mean you get an ad out surprisingly fast.

The fascinating thing here is not this rule, but seeing how you and the other players respond to it.

First, it turns out to be very difficult to stick to it. I’ve played the game a few times but I quickly forget how strong is the desire to take control of the scene, immediately evaluate the emerging idea and – unconsciously – block offer people’s offers. Whilst deluding yourself that you’re taking care of getting the outcome, you actually negate the whole notion of collective creativity.

Both playing the scene and watching others, it struck me how I and others often failed to observe the direction to celebrate each idea. What often happens is instead of celebrating, we instead try to top it. So instead of pausing to accept and acknowledge a suggestion like “Let’s set it in Germany!” we just rush to “And let’s wear lederhosen”. Building ideas is fine, but it’s fascinating how easy it is to fail to really acknowledge the offer.

Watching the scenes being created, it becomes really striking that what on one level might be an energetic brainstorm is, on another, a fight for dominance and control.

For me, this sparked some more thinking about why I’m wary of so much brainstorming. Because in championing ideas, I think it allows us to ignore relationships. But relationships are definitely there, and often they’re being kind of trashed. The game I’m describing is – like all improv games – apparently silly… but in its silliness reveals some really fundamental things about how we’re playing our lives.

After a few rounds, I became more aware of my inner control freak and tried much less hard. And (re)discovered that what had been a tense game suddenly became a whole let easier, and funnier.

My mantra for this year is “Notice more, change less”; less as an idea for others to follow and more for me to apply myself. Friday night was, amongst other things, a timely reminder of how easy it is to move to changing instead of noticing.

6 thoughts on “Relearning the fundamentals

  1. Charles Edward Frith

    Sometimes I don’t mind taking control just to kick start a group through the process and am equally happy to say, if the result isn’t pleasing to all then let’s start again.

    But I think I want to learn more about this and I get the feeling agit prop might be interesting to examine too.

    Reply
  2. Simon

    Very inspiring – something I need to do more consciously is to embrace the ideas of others that can then built upon positively yet organically. A great mantra indeed

    Reply
  3. Matt Moore

    JM – There’s a point here I’d like to riff on for a moment (which is different from the central point that you are making so apologies).

    When we do brainstorming, we often talk about not taking it personally but we always seem to. Our ideas are parts of us – no matter how much we try to pretend that we are dispassionate.

    There does however seem to be a time effect. Someone pitching into a freshly-baked idea of mine (even if it is only half-baked) makes me quite defensive. But that criticism becomes much less wounding as the idea cools.

    We need to be recognised for what we say – and then a pause needs to occur before we’re told that it may not that great after all.

    There’s a speed limit.

    Also: natural human behaviour is to be competitive – to “top” others. Could you run a game with the rule that purpose of your suggestion is to make the previous person’s suggestion look as good as possible?

    Reply
  4. Viv McWaters

    Great description of the beauty of doing improv – and the benefits that brings. Rarely do we get a chance to step back and see ourselves in action, and to see ourselves reflected in the actions of others. I love the way Improv also provides an opportunity to do the same thing over and over, like trying on new clothes, helping us get comfortable with new ways of acting (literally). And how pervasive is the rhetoric to celebrate? As you described it’s so easy to skip the celebration and move straight on to the ‘next important thing’. The message for me in this post is to stop, and consciously celebrate all the small and big achievements. Thanks.

    Reply
  5. Johnnie Moore

    Great comments. Actually, Matt, one of the other big improv principles is “make your partner look good” – and loads of the games help to bring this idea out!

    Reply
  6. Robert Poynton

    I particularly like your observation about ledershosen. As it were. I am fascinated by how hard I feel I have to work (“ought” to work as my inner voice puts it) at just about everything and you are right to point out the difference between celebrating something that is already there and adding something new. Adding IS great, but very quickly you have too much to sensibly work with – something we see not just in improv, but in the workplace, all the time.

    Reply

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