Too many things at the same time? Yes, and – needs “space”…

I have been invited as a speaker to “Impro talks symposium” (Zurich, Oktober, 2016) organized by Gunter Lösel (Institute for the performing arts and film at Zurich University of the arts). One workshop was done by the marvelous Dr. Duncan Marwick. He is an expert and practitioner on playback theater, he worked with the participants with different games.

In this blogpost I want to concentrate on the very first game he used. A ball game. I hate ball games. Hate is probably the wrong word: My experience is, that it is very hard for me, to catch balls, I often let them drop, even if I try very hard not to. So for this occasion another word is (mental) overload. I get frustrated very fast and the feeling, that I can’t be a part of this game is getting overwhelming. Often I drift in a set of mind that is dominated by resignation and growing apathy. Of course this results in reducing the chance to catch a ball near or equal zero. I even get the feeling, that I am bad in throwing balls so that other can catch it “properly”. And this feeling often influences my actions.

What is more, I think that I notice that other people in the group get impatient. Even angry about my incompetence – or worse, some even laugh, when I drop a ball just another time. (Which of course is seldom connected to me but it feels like it). And I feel like people stop to throw balls for me.

Why I am describing all this is, that I sometimes hear similar things from people who watch or take part in improvisation activities.

Hold it! Isn’t it just this Christian, who often and often tells how awesome improvisation is, how valuable, how inspiring and energy giving, how it connects and includes people and fosters participation? How it makes people get a better grip in their life, feel and use more self efficacy? How it fosters to cooperate more intense, get loads of fantastic ideas? Yes, and I just used some approaches and tools of applied improv at a conference and some people told me things, very similar or just with the exact words as I used, describing my “ball experiences”.

Someone at this conference even said aloud, it is an issue of not-inclusion: There are people who are (who think and feel, they are) slower. There are people bringing in ideas and words faster, sometimes pushing hard, taking all the room that is there. And some people step back – feel outside the game – they even can’t see any “balls” flying – the noun balls is used here for words, ideas, contributions of any form and given in different ways. They get frustrated and – see my description above…

So what now?

Back to Duncan Maverick ball game: He used “balls” shaped like a small pyramid, very soft and still good to throw and easy to catch. He throws one ball, and participant throw it around in the circle. He introduces a second, a third, a fourth… a ninth ball. And again and again tells (or shows through his actions) us:

  • Yes, there are many balls
  • Yes, you won’t see them all
  • Yes, you won’t have enough time, to sort your mental thinking
  • Yes, you will drop some and it doesn’t matter
  • Perhaps you will catch one but there is a not too small chance, that no one will notice
  • Perhaps you will catch a ball and forget to look at / for other balls that are coming after split seconds
  • Yes you will throw balls at people, who aren’t watching you (or the ball), because they are in someway distracted – so they won’t be able to catch the balls and it is not your fault
  • Yes some people will throw balls to you, even if you are far too late / not at all looking in their direction
  • You will pick up balls you dropped, that are lying around, that were thrown for other people
  • …perhaps you will even run for a ball, lying on the floor, to be the first to take it up and throw it
  • you will throw two or three balls in the room – some will be stranded in the middle of the room, but split seconds after that picked up and brought back in the game

What happens is after three or four rounds with the – for me well known – frustration I start to let go. I start to laugh. I start to be faster.  I even catch a ball. And it is fine but I don’t depend only on this feeling of “success”. I am in the middle of the game. Feeling connected to the other people, together inventing different ways to catch / throw balls, to alter the rules of the game, to play with being near and far, being fast and slow. So it also could be defined as a cooperate research process on ball games, on connectivity, on cooperation, on finding / evolve / connect / merge ideas.

So what was necessary to reach this state of mind, to once again (co)create the improflair?

Duncan Maverick didn’t use any warm ups. He used a room that is big enough. He helped us to shape a circle together. He threw the balls and explained all the times. And he named the frustration. The eagerness to succeed to “properly” throw and catch balls. And told us, there is no “properly” way to do it. That there are infinite variations how to do it. And he kept on telling this, succeeding to plant seeds of joy and laughter and working together – creating a safe place for really anybody.

Of course at this very workshop it also was helpful, everybody knew that Duncan will use unusual methods, performative approaches, will work with “overloading”.

To sum it up, some findings:

  • Methods of Applied Improvisation can be used and are useful in any setting
  • They help to generate lots of ideas in an amazingly short time
  • They foster cooperation and collaboration – between a lot of people in a room, also among people how don’t work together normally, meet for the first time
  • You can use methods of Applied Improvisation without warm ups
  • You can incorporate these methods in “tight” places (e. g. not much time)

And if you do that, some people will feel out of place, mental overloaded, have the feeling they are to “slow” for “that” kind of activities, to less creative. You won’t succeed in including all people. Some even will feel excluded and frustrated.

So if your aim is more inclusion it is important to:

  • Have enough time (and “space” like a good place with enough light…)
  • …explain some concepts of Applied Improvisation at the beginning / in between (say yes and, let your partner shine, follow the follower…)
  • To start with warm ups (using espcially Impulses to really see / here / perceive each other)
  • To build upon the warm ups with very basic methods, where everybody is playing / doing at the same time
  • To slowly increase the pace, the challenge of the methods
  • To do a lot of supportive, encouraging side coaching
  • To integrate debriefing
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