Archive for the ‘improv theory’ Category

In improv lingo “going into the cave” means taking a risk or taking on the thing that scares you.

In an scene, if your character comes up to a cave where there’s a lion, you’ve got a choice. You can stay safe outside the cave or go into the cave and find out what happens.  Perhaps you get eaten by the lion. That would be terrible in real life but is wonderful in improvisation because now you have the opportunity to find out “what comes next?” — do you survive in the lion’s stomach like Jonah in the whale?  Or move on to the afterlife and explore Heaven or Hell or some alternative?  Are you absorbed into the lion’s consciousness?  Or reincarnated as a lion?  In the world of imagination, there are limitless possibilities IF we are willing to go into the cave.

I’ve found that the practice of going into the cave through improvisational play has helped me be more brave when I have  a real life cave to enter.  There’s plenty of research as well as anecdotal evidence of how children work things out through play, I believe it holds true for our whole lives if we are willing to continue to play.

LP is circling in on asking about my mom. That’s  a cave for me.

My mom, Joan, died when I was 16.  I’ve had many years now to grieve, mourn, miss her, come to peace with life without her and go through that cycle again when life events stir up my desire to share great happiness or have her love and support in difficult times.  Becoming a mother certainly has stirred that pot many times.  Overall my experience has been that being a mom reconnects me with her spirit and reminds me of her in positive ways. And…I know that at some point, LP will want to know where her other grandmother is (and ImprovDad’s father as well but that is his story to tell).

We have photos of my mom.  LP has a few things that my mom made for me when I was young including  a cat pillow my mom made that we call the “Mama’s Mama Cat.” I’ve told LP stories  (especially during some rough times in the middle of the night) that start “When I was a little girl and having a hard time, my Mama would…” These objects and stories are for me, a sweet spirit connection between my mom and my daughter.

A few weeks ago, when I picked her up at preschool, LP asked “When will Joan pick you up?”

For a moment I couldn’t breathe.  I was surprised at the question and not sure how to answer.  My heart sank and all my fears about not knowing what to say bubbled up inside. Hello cave.  LP has only recently started the questions about death with all the innocence of 4 years old and ImprovDad and I are walking that line of answering her questions openly (hopefully with ease) while not giving her more information than she’s ready for.

In the moment I gave her an honest but somewhat evasive answer along the lines of “I’m a big person and mamas don’t usually pick up big people.” As I took the time to reflect on the interaction and let the sadness be present, I realized the other side of going into this cave.  Although it is sad for me both because I miss my mom and because it leads to LP’s awareness that ImprovDad & I will someday die as will she, I can look forward to sharing more about my mom with LP and there is a lot of joy in that thought.  LP’s awakening to who is missing in her life, is an opportunity.

Yesterday LP asked “Will Joan look more like you?”  (She’s overheard people comment many times at how much I look like my mom.) It is the first time that she has asked about my mom that I greeted her questions with a genuine smile.  And I said something along the lines of “I do look more like my mom as I get older.” It was all she needed in that moment and her attention shifted to the next thing.

I know that over the years we will have many different kinds of interactions both around her growing understanding of death and about my mom in specific.  Allowing my internal state to shift has made that cave not so scary.

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I wrote this one back in November and never hit “publish”…so here it is now:

As a new improvisor, I remember being awed by how quickly experienced improvisors created stories and brought them to life. They were just so fast. I certainly could never do that.

As I became more experienced in working with stories and re-engaged with the joy of making things up, I started to learn how quickly my own brain worked to create stories AND how one of the many challenges of co-creation is to simultaneously allow stories to blossom in our imaginations and to discard them in response to what someone else says or does.

I became fascinated with the process, with how we are storied creatures. This is what humans do; we tell stories. We are made for it. Our brains are wired for it. If someone asks you to use the words cow, spoon and river in a sentence, you’ll do it by creating a very brief story. I immediately see a cow floating down a river with a spoon around her neck. That’s what my imagination offers me. I’m  curious about that image…I’ll have to see where that story goes.

As a drama therapist with and interest in narrative therapy, I’ve had many opportunities to explore how stories function — both to hurt and to heal — in people’s lives, including my own. Again and again, I’ve reawakened to that early improv-based discovery — we create stories fast.  Improv has helped me become more aware of the process and also the rate at which we discard our imagination’s offerings because they are not good enough, funny enough or some other reason. (Really? A cow on a raft on a river? That makes no sense, there’s no story there.)

As a parent, sometimes my story-ing is wonderful and helpful at imagining what might be going on in LP’s world.  Other times it gets in the way.  When I don’t realize that I’ve created a story about her experience and am missing her expressing her actual experience, we are often bound for a clash or a visit to tantrumville.  Truly, nothing sets off my girl like the phrase “I know…” even if it is something I do know is true for her.  She is sensitive to that turn of the phrase and I think the meaning underneath it — that I already have a story about her that explains it all.

A recent life example:  LP had her first dentist visit last week.  She was a trooper and for the most part pretty curious and engaged. Until the tooth polishing. She tried to climb out of the chair so fast it was hard to catch her.  After a bit of coaxing (and  a promise of a red balloon), LP was willing to lie on top of me on the chair.  The dental hygienist said (and I echoed) “It’ll go real fast” and LP fought her hands away protesting.  It took some work to help calm her down and then LP said, “NO. Not fast, slow.”

Oh. Yes. That is her telling her story, expressing her needs. I would want it to go fast so of course that was the story I told myself about what LP wanted. However, LP is different she wants it to go slow. And with the dental hygienist going slowly she was able to have every tooth polished and when it was over, she seemed quite proud about that.

Our innate story ability is a beautiful, amazing thing AND as parents who have such influence over our little people’s worlds it is important to take moments to check-in and see if the story we have about them matches their reality.

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“Spontaneity need not be showy or dramatic; it can be subtle, gentle, and unassuming. It can be present in the way one thinks, walks, looks at nature, dances, or hums a tune softly in the shower.”
~Adam Blatner (in Foundations of Psychodrama)

I love the quote above because it embraces the idea that one can be spontaneous is so many different every day ways AND that it isn’t about being big or funny.  The practice of improv provides all kinds of opportunities to cultivate spontaneity. Really it is about the delicious oxymoron of practicing spontaneity.We have a million little opportunities every day to choose to practice spontaneity.  Sometimes that practice can take a lot of effort (sign up for an improv class, get a babysitter, go to class, breath deeply and jump in!) and other times a person’s spontaneity practice might be in holding  a different mindset while taking a walk down the block.

A little more from Adam Blatner:

“…[spontaneity] refers to the readiness to create, the state of mind involved which often involves a more energized bodily state and interpersonal or group involvements.”

I think it is a beautiful idea…to practice readiness to create. Take the pressure off being creative or original or funny or good (whatever that is) and just see what it means for your own self to be ready to create.  I know when I feel the improv flow, I am both alert and relaxed in body and attention.  I  have a mind-body experience that is the state of spontaneity. I am ready to find out what comes next; I am ready to say “yes!”

It can be hard to attain this state while parenting. Add to the mix of other obstacles that get in my way, I also always hold at some level awareness of being responsible for my little person.  Most of the time that responsibility is just assumed; I am not actively thinking about it — it is just a natural part of my role as a parent. Yet holding too much responsibility inhibits my ability to be in the moment.  I am working on taking the time to step back and realize when I am being over-responsible (i.e. focused on things I “need” to do or getting overprotective) and holding myself back from spontaneity practice opportunities. LP is a great role model of spontaneity practice because at 3 and 1/2, she lives in an almost constant state of readiness to say “yes” to her imagination (and “no” to all kinds of other things).

To close, these beautiful thoughts about spontaneity from the great Viola Spolin:

“Through spontaneity we are re-formed into ourselves.  It creates an explosion that for the moment frees us from handed-down frames of reference, memory choked with old facts and information and undigested theories and techniques of other people’s findings. Spontaneity is the moment of personal freedom when we are faced with a reality and see it, explore it and act accordingly.  In this reality the bits and pieces of ourselves function as an organic whole. It is the time of discovery , of experiencing, of creative expression.” (from Improvisation for the Theater)

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I am continually trying to celebrate a failure. To throw my arms up in the air and shout with joy “Again! Again!” or “I love to fail!”

“Mistakes are gifts” and “celebrate failure” are two core improv principles. Over many years of improvising, I’ve experienced these to be truths, in fact to be multifaceted truths. Like all the life and business self-help books proclaim – failure is where we learn. The throwing your arms in the air exercise mentioned above are both used by many improvisors to help “get over” the stuck in failure moment. I find that it helps me get out of the spinning-monkey-mind going on and back into my body, at least for a moment. Sometimes that moment is enough to regain perspective and/or courage to continue.

There’s an interesting article in Nov 2007 New York Times about the mixed message in our culture about mistakes with some research focused on children in school. The heart of it is:

We grow up with a mixed message: making mistakes is a necessary learning tool, but we should avoid them. 

Another aspect is having perspective on what is a mistake? In the collaborative world of improvisation, what seems like a “mistake” to me, might spark another person’s imagination (LP finds all kinds of things amusing or interesting that I wouldn’t have noticed from my adult perspective). Also everyone experiences those uncomfortable or embarrassing or lost moments. That is a rich foundation of the creative group process – creating together that hasroom to incorporate even chunky, gunky, silly, or stupid moments.

If I can approach my challenges with open arms and cry out gleefully “Again! Again!” when I’m stymied or struggling or just plain frustrated, my hope is that LP can embrace her mistakes and challenges more easily. Not necessarily achieve or learn more easily, but at least I can try to help her learn to get out of her own way. I’m not sure how literally I’m going to use it — I am going to experiment with the impact of that added to trying to hold that mindset.

Parenthood is so loaded with opportunities to feel bad about or question our choices and decisions. So is anytime we put ourselves out in the public eye to do something. This past week, I had what felt like FAILURES on both fronts that gnawed at me and kept me up at night. In both cases, I came up with new ideas/ways of thinking.

On the home front, LP has returned to putting everything in her mouth (it has been extreme recently probably because she’s getting her 2nd molars). In frustration, I ended up grabbing things away from her and not giving her the chance to give it up…by the end of the day, doing that even before she made a move to her mouth. One idea is to always, always, always remember to have some really chewy thing to snack on (strip of dried papaya, granola bar, etc) to offer as a replacement. That seems like such an obvious thing to do now that I’ve thought of it (another improv principle – “be obvious!”)

In the public eye was my drop-in Improv Stories group at Habitot last week that I just couldn’t get off the ground. I was overtired (tough night and previous day with LP) and realized big time that as an overtired mom, I need to support myself in the moment with better preparation. Preparation for improv? Yes! Yes! Yes! There are so many challenges in group storytelling, that getting a solid foundation structure so I can relax and trust the improv is crucial.

Since I don’t know the age of the kids in advance (drop-in group for kids up to age 6 – it is such a wide range not to mention not knowing how many) I need to plan a theme to unify the group and give a focus point that the improv stories can spring from. I also need to focus in on what do I want to see emerge in the group – is it physical engagement from the kids? verbal? what about the engagement of the caregivers & parents? My goal of creating stories together is do-able but I need to embrace some additional structure to make that happen. So I’ve been making props over the weekend (I’ve had a fabric seedpod factory going on our dining table)…I’ll see how they work as a unified jumping off place, how the kids engage with them and where the story goes from there.

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