How does one use embodiment in online rooms?

Session at Applied Improvisation Network conference

(update: Literatur on Emodiment also in online rooms,  WriteUp of the session; and a video of the session – see this post)

My friend and collaborator Christian and I will be presenting a session at the Applied Improvisation Network’s annual conference next Sunday 27 August. To me it is a kind of dream come true. This will be the third time I attempt to attend the AIN conference in some way. The last two attempts failed because for various reasons I was unable to make the trip. This year, though, Christian and I solved half the problem.

We will be attending the conference from the comfort of our home offices.

He is in Austria, I am in South Africa and we will meet together online and on screen to present a conference session in California!

I say half the problem, because, while we get to present and interact for an hour, we still do not get to attend and connect with all the other wonderful contributors and players. Next time!

Our topic: How does one use embodiment in online rooms?

Over the past two years Christian and I have been offering online pig catching sessions and learned a number of important principles for doing embodied exercises online. I have colleagues who do not believe it can be done and when I challenge them, they say: “I am sure something essential gets lost.”

Well, we have found that there is a unique kind of intimacy that develops online when people play together – a kind distinctly different in quality than when you work with someone offline. Part of the reason is because you see yourself on the screen interacting and this creates a certain vulnerability that adds to the connection.

To engage the imagination through the body  requires some innovation when working online.  We found ways to use the unique feature of online rooms to access the imagination and people’s creativity in fresh and unexpected ways.

We have discovered how to contain the work when there is no physical room within which to contain activities and relationships.

We have found out how to bridge the divides between participants and build playfulness and connection in new ways.

All these insights will be shared at the conference on Sunday morning and I look forward to sharing some of the principles here in a blog or two soon.

For the curious, here is our conference abstract:

An important aspect of Applied Improvisation is using and perceiving the body: your own and those of others in the room. It therefore seems logical, that “room” is a physical construct, a place with enough space to move and also to rest.

In a connected world “rooms” in the World Wide Web are part of the reality of more and more people: 3,6 Billion people have direct access to the internet, which is about half of the world population. Especially in Europe (over 70 percent of the population) and North America (nearly 90 percent) using the Internet is a part of daily life. An important aspect in the still growing numbers of direct users is mobile access to the internet via smart devices.

Internet “rooms” are used more and more often to learn together, to plan projects and them into action step by step. Topics are not only “tech related” – they are also about facilitating, coaching, developing various kinds of people, individually and in groups. Live online tools are often used in these contexts. They enable participants to hear and see each other. Nonverbal communication is a key aspect of Applied Improvisation. It is also a key aspect of live online rooms.

In our contribution we will summarize studies on using embodiment in settings enabled  by technology. We will present different improvisation methods that can be used in online settings highlighting its effects on collaboration and interaction on one hand and  and on personal development on the other.

Facilitators

Dr. Petro Janse van Vuuren, petro@playingmantis.net, Playing Mantis and Drama for Life, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa. Applied drama researcher and practitioner, coach and consultant.

Christian F. Freisleben, christian.freisleben@improflair.at, Halftime: St. Pölten University of Applied Sciences (Didactics in Higher Education, E-Learning); teacher, trainer, journalist in the fields of education, health care and social affairs

[1] Http://www.internetworldstats.com/stats.htm (14. 11. 2016)

Improvisation class 1 – The power of vulnerability

Basic human contact – the meeting of eyes, the exchanging of words – is to the psyche what oxygen is to the brain. If you’re feeling abandoned by the world, interact with anyone you can.
Martha Beck – oh Mrs Beck, how wise you are. For it is in human interaction where life happens.

This blog is the first in a series of 8 to follow after each workshop in the Level One Improvisation Course. It will serve as a space and platform to say things you may have thought of on the way home from class, to share thoughts relating to our course ,that occur when you are at work and also for you to cement the concepts we practised in your mind.

Last week we were a large, brave group embarking on a “Survival of the authentic and the vulnerable” journey. A journey that fosters courage to be yourself in a safe space. I think it’s important to just commend you right here for taking that bold step into the unknown and engaging with themes and activities that may fall well outside of your daily path.

The workshop’s theme was “Play”, but as we progressed I realised it was more about vulnerability. We don’t always see the force hidden inside this gentle word.

First up was “What I need  to say”
This is a simple exercise where participants pair up and each person is afforded an opportunity to state what they need to say to be fully present. In other words… thoughts keep us from being present. Either thoughts of the past or thoughts of the future. This exercise helps bring us into the light and into the present moment. The packing power of the exercise lies in the fact that our partner repeats our exact words back to us and vice versa… So not only can you say what you need to say, but you are ensured that someone is listening.

Then we paired up again and played “ Super Hero Stories” . In this game we ask our partners to tell us 2 things. 1. The story of their name…it’s origin and meaning and 2. Why they joined the class. We as the partners have to listen carefully to what the other person says as we will need to not only repeat the information, but we’ll introduce our partner to the rest of the class…and in addition to this we will add a superhero characteristic to our partner… We make them look good. This is FUNDAMENTAL in becoming a good improviser and a happy human. Focus not on yourself, but on your partner, and make them look good.

Next up was “Name Circle”. In this exercise participants stand in a circle.  One player makes eye contact with another player and walks toward them.  That person must then make eye contact with another player and walk towards them.  This is a great game to learn everyone’s names and react in the moment.

After this we played a set of games all relating to each other… “ 123” , “I failed” and “123 sentences”.

In 1 2 3 participants pair up again and one after the other count to 3. Person A starts by saying 1, Person B then follows with 2 and person A ends with 3… sounds easy, but not so simple… some of us tried to establish the pattern, some of us were rushed and forgot the sequence.. and then to add to the challenge, the nr 1 was replaced with a sound and a move. So now person A make a sound and a move and person B responds with 2, person A ends with 3 and then person B starts with the sound and move. Then more layers were added. We ended up with no numbers, only sounds and moves. This games teaches us to stay put in the moment, to challenge old habits and to focus on our partners.

Inevitably , everyone made a mistake. This brought us to the next FUNDAMENTAL in improvisation… there are no mistakes. Mistakes are embraced and celebrated by accepting them and then building on them. Here Burgert taught us the “circus bow”. In this game participants each get a chance to step forward, say “I failed” and bow.  After each bow the rest of the participants give a warm round of applause.

Lastly we played “ 123 sentences” , a wonderful game for teaching us to listen and respond in the moment without planning.

And this is only the beginning. Improvisation is a new language that will help you to connect with yourself, others and your own unique creativity.
Looking forward to seeing you at the next class.

Luci

Ps.  Check out this TED Talks by Brene Brown about the Power of Vulnerability


 

Improvisation class 5 – Stories

By Luci and Burgert

The focus of last nights class was story.
As the participants trickled in and we moved our chairs into the habitual circle De Wet shed a little natural light on his story by telling us about his drumming days with a band called Jesse Jordan. I googled “Jesse Jordan Band” this morning…they are on Wikipedia. I am impressed. On their album “Flipside” ( were you still with them when they released this one De Wet?) there is a song titled “ There goes my mind”. This track title has inspired this morning’s blog.

As mentioned, the theme for last night was “ Story” . Normally when people think of stories or re telling stories they make an effort to alert their mind that mental files will need to be pulled up ASAP and that no dawdling or “ absentmindedness will be tolerated. The internal judges stand at the gates like rodeo cowboys ready to bring in that wild idea before it sees the light of day…

This process is not conducive to the spirit of Improvisation. As you step onto the stage with someone… say these words…” There goes my mind”, and then, you play…

Herewith a short list with descriptions of games we played:

Todododo – a word association game with a rhythm.
Word association – simple word associations around the circle
Random sentences – One player thinks of 4 random sentences that another must relate together in a story.
Automatic story – one player has to ask yes/no questions about the storyline of an unknown story that the other player has in mind. What the questioning player doesn’t know is that the person answering the questions is only saying yes to questions starting with a vowel and no to questions starting with a consonant.
What happens next? – In this game one player stands in the middle of the circle and acts out a story that the rest of the group make up one sentence at a time. After each sentence the player asks “What happens next?”
Voices from the grave – 3 Players tell a story of how they all died at the same place at the same time.

Voices from the grave may sound somber and at times the subject matter does twirl on the dark side but it is a wonderful tool for “co creating” a new reality.
Cindy gave an Oscar worthy performance as the disgruntled blind nurse, whilst Manuela provided a critically praise worthy portrayal of a depressed psycho therapist at the end of her tether. Charl gave, excuse the pun, “life” , to the chirpy car salesman and together these three caused for immense entertainment with the rest of the group…thanks for sharing what’s left when your mind goes…

Key concepts:

Free association: Free associated ideas create the material from which a story can be constructed.
Reincorporation: Reincorporation is the recycling or re-using of ideas or situations from earlier in the story. By reincorporating ideas and situations you make sense of the random ideas generated by free association.
Platform: The who, what and where of a scene. Success of a scene often depends on a solid and clear platform.
Breaking routine: A good story that will engage an audience is a series of routines that are broken creating new routines.

More thoughts on story:

Stories are how we make sense of the world. We link random events together to form stories. This is a great skill, but it also has a dark side. The dark side is that we make up stories about ourselves and others that are not the truth. Then we tell ourselves these stories over and over until we believe them to be true. Here is an example of how this happened on a flight from Dubai to Amsterdam. Last year Luci and I went to Amsterdam to present our Improv cooking for couples workshop at the Applied Improvisation Network conference. During our flight from Dubai there were a few men of Middle Eastern appearance standing around in the open space by the bathroom. They were talking and the one young guy looked somewhat nervous. Luci saw them and started making up a story in her head about the men being terrorists and that they were going to hijack the aeroplane. She became very nervous and couldn’t focus on the movie that we were watching. I saw this and asked her what was going on. She showed me the men and told me what she thought they were up to. I told her that what she just told me was mostly a story and that the likely hood of the men being terrorists was very small. So I asked her what other story she could construct about the men that could also be the truth and that was not so scary. So she made up a story about the nervous looking young man that was on his way to get married and that the other men were there to support him. This story calmed her down and made her smile, and we could enjoy the rest of the movie. Who knows what the real story was. The fact is most of our experiences are only stories that our brains construct by linking random facts together. It is important to be aware of this function of the brain. The brain does this as it does not like uncertainty so it would rather create a story to create some form of certainty. However as soon as we start believing the stories our brains make up we become less present and unable to notice facts that do not support our stories. Being aware of this function of the brain is very useful. Firstly, next time your brain starts to make up a story you can be aware of it and just notice that it is your brain making up a story and stay present to notice the truth of the moment. Secondly, you can use your brain’s ability to make up stories to create very entertaining improvised performances.

See you all next week!

Improvisation class 4 – Characters

Class 4 was about characters – how they walk talk and feel. We started with gibberish games (Emotion gibberish, Gibberish switch and Gibberish Insults). Gibberish helps one to focus more on how a character talks than what they say. How a character talks is just as important if not more important than what the character says. Gibberish also helps you to get out of your head. Next we did Character Walks. These game shows you how your body can think for you to make up a character by just changing something about the way you move. You can change any part of your body, the speed of your movement or how you fill the space around you. It is amazing how the way you carry your body influence your feelings. We ended the class with a gibberish performance game called Cluedo. In the end it is not about getting it right but about making a strong choice and sticking to it.

Key concepts

Gibberish – A made up language of witch the meaning is conveyed by action, expressions, or tone of voice.

Let your body think for you – By just changing something in your body you can come up with a whole character with feelings, wants and passions.

Make a strong choice and stick to it.- It is not always important what you choose but how you choose

Improvisation class 3. Present in every moment

The third class was all about listening, awareness and being in the moment. We started the class with a relaxation exercise to help us become aware of our bodies. Becoming aware of your body is a great way to get out of your head and become present.

Next we played Mirror Mirror. In this game participants partner up and mirror each other’s moves. In the first 2 rounds only one person is in control while the other just follows. In the last round the two participants must give and take the control. This forces you to be present in the moment. Sometimes when there is a high level of trust between participants control totally dissolves and the two players just flow together.

After that we played a series of group awareness exercises. First one person had to go in the middle and make a move and a sound, give the focus to another player, who had to copy the move and sound and then go to the middle and morph into a new move and sound. We played two other variations of this game. In the first everyone copied the person in the middle and at any point anyone could take the lead and change the move and sound into something else. In the second variation we didn’t stay in a circle and anyone could take the lead. These exercises feel awkward and odd when you do them the first time, but if you can let go and really pay attention to what others are doing and once again make them look good (in this case accepting whatever they are doing and do it with them) it is a wonderful experience of connecting with others and being in the moment. Check out this Ted Talks Video about how a crazy nut is turned into the leader of a movement by someone else who made him look good by mirroring his moves.

A good improviser is aware of everyone in the group and can pick up subtle offers. A good improviser is also aware in every moment, knowing when he/she needs to take control and take initiative and when he/she needs to give over control and allow someone else to take the focus.

After the awareness exercises we played Monster talk (Speaking in unison) which is also a great exercise in active listening and the “give and take” principal. We ended the class with Monstertalk scenes.

Key concepts:

Give and take – It’s all about giving up and taking control, and sharing and taking the focus. To do this well, you have to be aware and present so that you know whether the situation requires of you to take or give up control/focus.

Listening and awareness: In Improvisation this is referred to as “being in the moment” .It requires you to be present, pay attention to what is happening around you and to focus. To do this you need to let go, get out of your head and into your body.

Improv Class 2 – Yes and

Yes and is a phrase used to describe the most fundamental practice in improvisation. Yes and means you accept an offer and do something with it. And remember from last week’s class that “everything is an offer even a so called mistake. Not accepting an idea is refered to as a “block” in improv. To illustrate this we played a game called Yes and vs. Yes but. In this game players pair up and plan anything like a road trip or a party. In the first round each participant starts their sentence with “yes but” and a reason why the other person’s idea is not a good idea. In the next round each participant starts their sentence with “yes and” – accepting their partner’s idea and building on it. The difference between accepting and blocking are very evident when you play this game. Blocking results in negative energy and competition that gets stuck in disagreement while accepting leads to positive energy and collaboration that leads to possibility and flow.

The next game we played was Gifts. In this game participants give each other a physical offer in the form of an imaginary gift. The receiver then accepts the gift with appreciation and builds on the offer by saying what it is. By naming the gift, the participant accepts the physical offer by justifying its shape and weight. We also played a game called “blind offers” in which one participant makes a physical offer and then another participant makes sense of the physical movement by saying something.

We ended the class with a game called “One Word Story”. In this game all the players tell a story by adding one word at a time. This is a very difficult game and often the stories that are created aren’t very satisfactory. It takes time for a group to really flow in this game. At first the players get frustrated with each other and try to control the story somehow. The only way to really succeed in telling a story like this is to be present, listen, let go of your own idea and just accept what your fellow players say before you and build on it. It requires a lot of trust in the rest of the group and in yourself. Just always remember to accept your own and others mistakes and make your partners look good.

Improv class 1 – Just play

On my way to the opening class in a series of 8 in Improvisation, I came to the realisation that the current series is the 5th since the inception of these classes last year. I felt so honoured that every time I present a class between 6 and 12 people show up and unquestioningly open themselves to the power of vulnerability by letting down their guard and become fully alive in the present moment.

The theme of the first class was “play”. We started the class with an introductions game called story exchange. After everyone was introduced we played a couple of name games (Name circle, Bang bang and superheroes)to get better acquainted with everyone’s names. We then played Bodyguard. In this game each player picks 2 other players in his/her mind and assign them with the roles of bodyguard and enemy. When the game starts each player must make sure that his/her enemy is always between him/her and his/her enemy. This causes a lot of playful running around and laughter. I remember the first time I played this game I felt the freedom of being a child again. I think what makes this game so much fun and creates so much laughter is the fact that you have a very simple goal that you can never completely attain without moving. Another reason why I think the game is so much fun is because you can see how your movement impacts everyone else and that gives you an exhilarating sense of belonging. The next game we played is called “Bunny bunny”. This game is too wondrously absurd to explain on paper. It requires a constant focus and being present. Our fear for failure is often what prevents us from being present. That is why we say in improvisation there is no such thing as a failure or a mistake. In improv everything is an offer, even a so called “mistake”. An exercise that I use to illustrate this is very aptly called “I failed” or also known as Circus bow. In the game every participant is given a chance to make a large bow and say anything along the lines of, “I failed” or “I made a mistake”. The rest of the group then gives a big round of applause…as though this failure was a beautifully constructed success.

The last game for the evening was “Yes lets!” In this game any one can make a suggestion like, “Lets play soccer” or “Let’s howl at the moon”. The others then respond very excitedly with the words, “Yes lets!” and mime doing what was suggested with enthusiasm. It’s amazing how much fun this game is if you really commit to it. It is not very often that people accept our ideas with so much enthusiasm and not just say they support it but also do it right away. This is absolutely the spirit of improvisation – contributing and appreciating. What a great way to end our first class. Thank you for everyone’s participation.

Improv class 7 – Physicalization

Physicalization is the method used by improv players to create imaginary locations, objects, and events. The best way to help the audience and your fellow players see the objects and environments that you create is if you, yourself, create those imaginary environments.

We started the class with a warm-up game called “Sound ball” or “Morph ball” as I like to call it. In this game participants pass imaginary balls accompanied with a sound to one another. The one catching the ball receives it with the same characteristic (wait, size, consistency ect)) as the one passing it and then morphs it into a new ball with different characteristics.

I then took the class on a guided fantasy into their imaginations. The adventure began on the beach, moved to a second-hand store, into a forest, into a castle with a table with delicious food, into a room with paintings of significant events, into a room with a person on a throne and finally into a garden. It is amazing to see how your imagination and your past experiences along with your current state of mind work together to create this dream like experience. Stephan saw King Arthur and Luci saw BA Baracus who demanded to know why she was so afraid…

In the following exercise we passed imaginary objects to each other. It was funny to see how the rat turned into a hatching egg.

For the next exercise everyone had to reach under their chairs and pull out an object without thinking beforehand what it was going to be. They had to discover something and then explore it until they got an emotional reaction from it. It is easier said than done not to think ahead and just let go and discover something. However ,when you allow yourself to discover, your discovery is much more interesting and your emotional reaction far more authentic. The essence of improvisation is making discoveries in the moment. This means you have to trust yourself and let go of the need to plan ahead. When you plan ahead you are not open to all the possibilities that are present in the moment.

Next we played an environment exercise. For this exercise a location is determined and then one by one each character must enter the location and use all the objects that all the previous players used and then add another object. It is important to remember where each object was placed. A good way to practice your physicalization is to notice in everyday life how you hold different objects. Doing this will help you to be more present in your day to day actions. We picked a band practise room and a dance studio for our locations. I really enjoyed the characters that everyone used in the environment. When you explore in a character you find a lot more fascinating things to do with the object. Choosing a character and acting and reacting from that character are probably one of the most important improv practices. For me it is also one of the best applications of improv in everyday life. Who you are, is more important than what you do, because who you are determines what you do. Therefore it is more important to figure out who you are than what it is that you are suppose to do.

For the final exercise we played two person scenes where the first player had to establish an environment through physicalization (the where of the scene). The second player had to establish the relationship between the characters (the who of the scene). The scenes were lovely, thanks for everyone’s participation.

Comments?

Improvisation class 6 – Status


We started the class with 2 name games, namely Bang bang and George. What I love about George is how the clapping is like the principles of improv. At first it is really difficult to get the clap sequence right, but after some practice you don’t even think about it anymore. It becomes a structure around which you can just improvise. After George we played “What are you doing?”. This game stretches your mind and shows how much you actually think with your body.

For the first status exercise I gave everyone a number that only they could see and told them to play a gibberish scene on a pirate ship. They had to exhibit their own status and try to figure out the status of the other players. It was interesting to note that how much you speak has no influence on your status. Someone who speaks a lot can be a babbling fool or on the flip side…one who barks orders at everyone else. Someone who is silent can feel they don’t have anything worth saying or by adjusting the energy behind that very silence, command the attention of others. It all depends on how you talk or stay silent. It is also fascinating to see how people with different status interact with their environment – players with high status move around a lot like they own the space, while low status players only occupy small spaces.

For the next exercise I stuck a number on each person’s forehead representing their status, 1 being the lowest and 10 the highest and told them to play a scene in a castle. The aim of the game is to discover your own status by the way others react towards you. It was interesting to see how those with low status bond with each other, while those with high status often find themselves in conflict.

For the last part of the class we played silent 2 person scenes using different statuses. The silent, scenes forces players to show and not tell. It also helps players to pay more attention to what the other player is doing and react more truthfully. I instructed the players to naturally switch their status during the scene. This switch made for attention-grabbing interactions. It builds on the idea of breaking routines that we played with in the previous class about story (read more about story here). Changing the status hierarchy in a scene is a great way to break a routine and creates great story. People love stories in which the underdog triumphs or where the oppressed is liberated and the oppressor taken from power.

More thoughts on status:
In all human interaction there is some form of status interaction taking place. In everything you are saying or doing you are either heightening or lowering your status, however subtle it might be. People usually have a natural preferred status that they play. Whether it is high or low, it is usually a form of defence mechanism. People who prefer high status very often want to keep others at a distance while those who play low status may be people pleasers. High or low status isn’t inherently good or bad, but understanding how to use status in your interactions with people is a very useful social skill.

Please share some of your thoughts on status.

Improv Class 5 – Make up your own story

Story was the focus of this week’s class. We started the class with an exercise from Imago Relationship Therapy. In this exercise each participant gets the opportunity to say in a few sentences what they need to say to be fully present. One of the others must then mirror that persons exact words back to them. The exercise is not so much about saying what you need to say to be present, but being listened to fully without judgement. When we listen to people like this we help them to become fully present. In essence what we are doing is accepting them and showing them that they are welcome and worth being listened to.

The next exercise was a game call Todododo in which we had to make word associations keeping a rhythm. This illustrates how much easier it is to come up with ideas if you stop trying so hard. This is why in Improv we say “be average”. If you stop trying to be perfect and get everything right , it helps to lower anxiety and your brain can relax and function better so that your creativity can surface. After that we played another word association game in which we just made associations around the circle. This game illustrated how our minds automatically make links between random words. In the next game everyone paired up with one other person. The one had to come up with 4 unrelated sentences that the other had to connect together to create a story. Relating random events together is what makes a story. At first it sounds like a difficult task but as I mentioned earlier the brain does it automatically. Our brains are wired that way. Relating events together and making up stories is how we make sense of the world.

Then we played Automatic Story. In this game one player has to ask yes/no questions about the storyline of an unknown story that the other player has in mind. What the questioning player doesn’t know is that the person answering the questions is only saying yes to questions starting with a vowel and no to questions starting with a consonant. The person asking the questions is therefore making up the story without knowing it. This game illustrates how easy it is to make up our own stories. Isn’t it interesting how in life we also often think that someone else is in control of our tale, while we are actually the authors of our own life stories?

The next game that we played was What happens next? In this game one player stands in the middle of the circle and acts out a story that the rest of the group make up one sentence at a time. After each sentence the player asks “What happens next?” To improvise a good story in a group there are 4 important guidelines-

• Free association: Free associated ideas create the material from which a story can be constructed.

• Reincorporation: Reincorporation is the recycling or re-using of ideas or situations from earlier in the story. By reincorporating ideas and situations you make sense of the random ideas generated by free association.

• Platform: The who, what and where of a scene. Success of a scene often depends on a solid and clear platform.

• Breaking routine: A good story that will engage an audience is a series of routines that are broken creating new routines.

I believe that if we want our lives to be good stories we must become aware of routines that are limiting us and break them and create new routines. And when the new routine starts to limit us we must break it again. Routines can be anything from a mindset, to a hab it to a physical space. The harder it is to break the routine, the higher the risk and the better the potential for a really good story.

As a footnote: Sandra Lee Schubert co – facilitated a writing program for 10 years where participants would weekly share immensely personal pieces of some aspects of their lives. In a conversation, her co-facilitators asked why they had to be so personal. She asked, “ Why not? “There is a deep, deep desire to be heard. People want to stake their claim in the landscape of story. Intimacies are shared because we want to take the power back. Why should someone else define your story?