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.


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


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 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?

Improvisation class 3 – Make your partner look good.

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 a series of mirroring exercises. First just one person creating a sound and a move which is mirrored by another player, then everyone mirror’s the person. Finally everyone is mirroring everyone. It takes a lot of awareness of the other players to adapt to whatever they are doing. Mirroring your partner is a great way to make your partner look good. 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.

Luci commented about how it was easier to just follow the men in the group than the woman. Is this because the men made louder noises and bigger movements? Or is it because of social conditioning? 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 focus.

After the mirroring exercise we played a game called “Gifts”. In this game a player gives another an imaginary gift without having to know what it is. The one receiving the gift must say what it is and accept it like it is the one thing they’ve always wanted. This game illustrates how physical gestures can also be offers. The one receiving the gift accepts the physical offer and builds on it by saying what it is. By accepting the gift with so much enthusiasm he/she also make his/her partner look good.

The last game for the evening was “Blind offers”. In this game one player starts with a physical movement, another player then enters and says something that accepts the first player’s movement and justifies it. The first then replies in a way that builds on the second player’s comment. eg. First player makes a physical movement that looks like someone scrubbing a floor. The second player enters and says, “John the deck better be spotless before we set out on our voyage.” The first replies, “Ai ai Captain!” Antoinette made a very important statement after the class. She commented on how difficult it was for her to come up with a response to the first player’s movement. She realised that the reason for the difficulty was that she thought that she needed to say something funny. She realised however that if she just focused on the other player and tried to make them look good, it’s much easier to come up with something good. Jacques also mentioned that it was much easier to just go on and start making a physical movement because he knew his partner will accept it and build on it.

So how often do we do this in real life? How often are we focused on making our partners look good rather on just making ourselves look good? How often do we block others in an attempt to make ourselves look good?

Improvisation Class 2 – Listening and awareness

The theme for last night’s Improvisation class was listening and awareness.
Listening and awareness is fundamental for improvisation. Like I mentioned in the previous class, everything is an offer in improvisation and the more offers you can become aware of, the more you have to work with. Mayah remarked on how MacGyver is a good example of this. The character could always get himself out of life threatening situations by just using whatever he could find in his immediate surroundings. A quote from Mr MacGyver Season 2: ” I say we trust our instincts, go with our gut. You can’t program that. That’s our edge.” That’s why I always say Improvisation skills are crucial, because it could save your life.

We started the class with a classic Keith Johnstone exercise, that I call “change 3 things”. Participants pair up and observe one another. They then turn back to back and change 3 things about their appearance, like loosen one button or role up a sleeve. They then turn back to each other and try to identify the changes. I repeat this with 6 changes and then 10 changes.
The more challenging the game gets the more participants become aware of the other person.

The next exercise we played is an Augusto Boal walking exercise that I call “Stop go”. In this game all the participants walk around spreading themselves evenly across the space. When I clap they must stop and when I clap again they must walk. I do this for a while and then I tell them that they have to stop and go together without me clapping. In the first round everyone just had to focus on my clap, but for the second round you had to be aware of everyone else. Instead of being individuals just walking around being controlled from the outside, they now became a self organising system
– Everyone aware of everyone else, giving and taking control amongst themselves.

The next exercise we did is also an Augusto Boal exercise that I learned from Adrian Jackson. He calls it a “group meditation”. In this exercise everyone stands in a circle and observe one other person in the circle. Any movement the other person makes must be copied and accentuated a bit. It’s not long before everyone is jumping up and down and waving their arms recklessly. Then I tell them to, instead of accentuating the other person’s movement, to tone down the movement, ie. make it a little smaller. Astonishingly, before along, everyone is standing motionless. Pierre commented on how much energy was created by just building a little on the other person’s movement. This is a very good example of the “yes and” principle that we discussed last week.

We ended the class with 2 focus games. In the first we passed around imaginary balls and in the second we created 3 different patterns that we had to continue without dropping any pattern. In both these games you have to constantly switch between focusing on one person and being aware of everyone else. Later it starts happening simultaneously and you go into a state of flow. This state is very playful and you start losing yourself in the activity, becoming less self conscious and more aware.

I’d love to hear your comments.
Thank you for everyone’s participation. I look forward to next week.

Improv Class 2.6 – Who is the hero in your story?

In his book “A million miles in a thousand years” Don Miller distils the essence of a good story as “a character that wants something and overcomes conflict to get it”. In the previous class we focused on creating a strong character (a character that knows what he/she wants). Now to write this character into a good story he/she needs to overcome some kind of conflict to get what he/she wants. In her article, “A Story structure for change and growth”, (click here to download article) Petro Janse van Vuuren identifies 4 essential characters that make up a good story. The first is the protagonist (hero/main character) of the story – the character that wants something. The second is the antagonist (nemesis/villain). The antagonist is in direct conflict of the protagonist and doesn’t want the protagonist to get what they want. A third character is the mentor (guide/guardian angel). The mentor helps and guides the protagonist to get what they want. The last character is the contagonist (obstacle/ tempter). The role of the contagonist is to distract the protagonist from achieving what he/she really wants. The contagonist is not in direct conflict with the protagonist like the antagonist. The contagonist tests the protagonist, to see if he/she is worthy of getting what he/she wants.

In Monday night’s class we played a new game that I made up based on these 4 characters. I call this game “The 4 roles game”. In the game 4 players are each given one of the 4 different characters. Three scenes are played. The first scene is between the protagonist and the mentor. In this scene what the protagonist wants must be clearly defined. In the next scene the protagonist meets the contagonist, who tries to distract the protagonist from achieving his/her goal. In the last scene the protagonist faces the antagonist and must overcome him/her to get what he/she wants. Here is an example from last night’s class. Ruan played a dancer who wanted to win the Olympic dance medal. Luci played the mentor who taught him to dance from his heart. In the next scene Ruan is distracted by his girlfriend (contagonist) played by Minki who wants him to copy other dance styles in his dancing. In the last scene Ruan is faced with his arch nemesis (antagonist) Juan-Philip, 3 times dance world champion played by Olaf. In order to beat him Ruan remembers the words of his mentor, reminding him to dance from his heart. His own authentic dance style overwhelms Juan-Philip and he wins the Olympic dance medal. WOW, what a beautiful story, made up right there on the spot because everyone knew what role they had to play.

So what role are you playing in your own life? Are you the hero? Or are you your own antagonist, preventing yourself from getting what you really want? Or are you the hero but find yourself lured and occupied by the distractions of a contagonist in your life? Or don’t you know what you really want so you are not really living a good story? Are you experiencing life as a series of random events? (If you want to read more about knowing what you want read my previous blog “what do you really want?”)
You are the author of your own life story and you have the power to cast the other roles in your life. Think of someone who you have cast as an antagonist in your life. Maybe you want to quit your job and start your own business but your father or your husband doesn’t want you to for whatever reason. You can cast them as an antagonist who is preventing you from getting what you want. However you can cast them as a contagonist who is helping you to know if you are ready for this big step. Or you can even cast them as a mentor that is guiding you to make an informed decision. The way you cast them will determine how you will react towards them and the influence they will have on you. In this story the antagonist isn’t really your father or your husband. The real antagonist is being stuck in a job that is not allowing you to live out your passion.

Understanding that all 4 roles are essential for a good story will help you to recognize and accept conflict, temptation and support in your life so that you can be the hero of your own life story and get what you really want out of life.

If you want to know more about how to become the hero of your own life story attend our Personal Success Story workshop.

Click on the following links for a Personal success Story workshop in your area.
Western Cape

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