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 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.

Improvisation class 1 Gifts, Acceptance and Gratitude

Last night another group of brave souls embarked on their journey into the “spur of the moment” …the magical world of Improvisation – a world filled with mystery, secure uncertainty and spontaneity. The class got under way with a game called “the story of my name”. In this exercise everyone is afforded a chance to tell the story behind their name. This game introduced some fundamental principles of improvisation , namely 1. ) listening and 2.) Creating a story without planning.

This was followed by a name game in which you have to say someone else’s name in the circle and walk towards them, the named person must then say someone else’s name and walk towards them before the first person reaches them. When people play this game for the first time they are often anxious about making a mistake. This anxiety usually results in a perceived failure. Our fear for failure is often what causes us to fail. In improvisation we do away with failures and mistakes. They simply seize to exist in our world. Everything that happens is seen as an offer that can be used. This is encapsulated in the phrase “make your partner look good”.

To elaborate on this improvisation fundamental we played a game called “Circus Bow”. In the game every participant gets a chance to make a large bow and say anything in the line 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.

For the next exercise everyone paired up with another participant and counted to 3, each time alternating who counts next. After a while the number one is replaced with a sound. Then 2 is replaced with a move and 3 is replaced with a word. After the game Mayah commented that what made it difficult was that you have to listen and remember to speak at the same time. That is very true about improvisation. In improvisation you always need to balance opposites – listening and speaking, being aware of yourself and being aware of others, taking control and giving up control. The only way to do this is by being present and doing whatever is required in the particular moment.

The next exercise called “mirror mirror” built on this idea. Participants paired up again. One participant moved while the other participant mirrored every movement. Then they switch. Whoever was leading now follows and vice versa and in the third round both lead and follow at the same time. The aim of the game is to move exactly at the same time – in sync. The only way to do this is if you are really focused on the other person and aware of yourself at the same time. Pierre also mentioned that you need to be very playful about it. The best part of this exercise is when you don’t know who is leading. It’s as if you are both thinking exactly the same thing. In improvisation we call this a group mind.

The next improvisation fundamental was accepting offers and building on them. In improvisation this is described by the phrase “yes and”. It means that any offer that is presented is accepted and built on. The opposite of this is called “blocking”. The phrase we often use in life to block other peoples’ offers is “yes but”. To practice “yes and” everyone paired up with someone else and planned a vacation. In the first round all had to respond to their partner’s idea with a sentence that started with “yes but” and a reason why the suggestion wasn’t a good idea and then give another idea. After that everyone had the same task but instead of starting the sentence with “yes but”, the participants had to start their sentences with “yes and” – accepting the other player’s idea and building on it. When you accept you bond with your partner, you create wonderful new ideas and you build positive energy. When you block, you get frustrated, nothing creative results and you build negative energy. Why is it that we more often block than except in life? Some reasons that came out of the group are: ego, fear and laziness.

The last game for the evening was “Yes lets!” In this game any one can make a suggestion like “Lets read a book” or “Let’s sit on a pyramid and 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. Antoinette made a comment about what a huge gift it is to have your ideas accepted like that. So this game was like a big Christmas party, everyone just showering each other with gifts. This is absolutely the spirit of improvisation – giving, accepting and gratitude. What a great way to end our first class. Thank you for everyone’s participation and I’m really looking forward to next week.

Improv class 2.5 – What do you really want?

The theme of last week’s class was “what do you really want?” We started the class with a relaxation exercise followed by a warm up game called “Bunny bunny”. This game so excited me that I hurt my back. Luckily Mike had a few amateur chiropractor tricks up his sleeve. After getting all my vertebrae lined up again we did an Augusto Boal exercise called “Character walks”. In this exercise everyone walks around in the workshop space and becomes aware of their bodies. You identify the part of your body that you lead with and then accentuate it until you become a caricature of yourself. This makes you very aware of what stress and emotion you carry in your body. After that you shake off the character and go into a neutral walk. ( a walk without animation) Then for several rounds you focus on different parts of your body and do something different with that part of your body when you walk. As the teacher I would then ask different questions about the characters while everyone is walking. It is amazing how you will feel like a whole different person when you just walk differently. And answering questions like “what do you feel”, “where are you going?”, “what is your job?”, “what makes you angry?”, “what makes you happy?” and “what is the one thing that drives you?” are very easy. This is a great way to come up with a very strong character for a scene by just walking differently. After this exercise we played a game that I learned from Jet Eveleth at the IO Theatre called “Secret wants”. In this game two players do a scene. Before they start a secret want is given to each player. For example in the scene by Luci and Sonwabo, Luci wanted to be left alone and Sonwabo wanted Luci to be his friend. The secret wants made each character’s behaviour motivated, creating very strong characters. And because of the contrasting wants it resulted in a very interesting scene. Knowing what your character wants in an improv scene is very important because it makes the character well defined and motivates everything that he does. Sometimes when I tell players they should play strong characters they think it means a weird crazy character, but it is quite the opposite. A weird crazy character’s behaviour is often random and unmotivated. A strong character knows what he wants.

So what is the application of this improv wisdom in real life? If you want a strong personal character know what you want. And how do you know what you want? Look at your behaviour and write down the activities that take up most of your time and then ask yourself why you do this until you get to the core value behind these activities. If your time is filled with activities that you really don’t like such as a job that you hate, ask yourself how you can be true to your core value by doing something different that you do like. Or if the activity is something that you really can’t change, knowing why you do it will help you change the way you feel about it. Like my sister and business partner, Petro, says “Know your values, know your value.”
PS This week practise launching yourself into your core being…but mind your back.

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Improv Class 2.4 – Why do you do what you do?

The theme of the class before this one was “Be affected by what you hear.” We played a game in which one player started a scene with a random opening line. The other character then had to have a strong emotional reaction toward this line (see the previous blog). So I started this class with the question “what was it like to have a strong emotional reaction towards a random opening line?” Ruan said that it was hard for him to have a strong reaction towards a statement that he didn’t really care about. He felt that his response wasn’t authentic. Naomi told a story about her sister who received a birthday gift from a colleague. The colleague told her how she searched everywhere for this gift and how special it was. The gift was some weird ceramic chime. Not something that Naomi’s sister really liked and would normally have a strong feeling about. So how could she accept the gift in a way that would still validate the effort that her colleague went through and still be authentic? So she responded by saying “wow, thank you so much. How did you know I liked ceramics?” She accepted the gift and was affected by it in a way that validated her colleague while still being authentic because she really did like ceramics. This story is a perfect example of how you can be affected by what you hear and still be authentic.

Ruan and Naomi’s comments reminded me of two improv games so I combined them for the next exercise. The first is the Gifts game that I learned from Megan of Improvision. In this game a player hands an imaginary gift to the person next to them. The person receiving the gift, names the gift and over accepts it by saying how it is the one thing they’ve always wanted. In the other game an emotion is picked, such as anger. An imaginary box is then sent around the circle and every time the box is opened the player must react in the identified emotion but stronger than the previous person’s reaction. Until the reaction is so strong that the person dies or the box is completely destroyed. In my combined game we identified an emotion and then passed around gifts having a stronger and stronger reaction in the chosen emotion. The question that came up was, “how do I have a strong authentic reaction if what I receive really doesn’t matter to me?” The answer is simple; you play a character to who it would matter. For example, Mike received a gift that looked like a tray, so he made it a Wimbledon trophy and played a tennis player who won the tournament. In the example he also gave the object a specific characteristic that made it more valuable to his character. This is a great way to come up with strong characters in a scene – you pick any emotion and then react strongly in that emotion toward the opening line of your fellow player. Then you just play a character that justifies that reaction. Boom you have a strong character that has a strong motivation.

The application of this improv wisdom in real life is very valuable. Sometimes we have very strong reactions towards certain situations and offers from other people. These reactions may be positive or negative. A good way of becoming more self aware is to ask yourself, “why do I have such a strong reaction about this?” and “why does it matter to me?” These questions can lead you towards understanding what you value and really want in life – the theme for my next blog.

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Improv class 2.1 – Present yourself

After the completion of my second 6 week “introduction to improv” class, participants expressed their interest in a level 2 class. This really excited me, and last Monday we all boarded a train on a new journey. The library where I usually taught the class flooded, so we had the class in Pane E Vino, a very cosy Italian restaurant across the street from where I live. The warm fireplace set the stage for everyone’s creativity to ignite.

The theme for the first class was presence and awareness. I started the class with a relaxing exercise to help everyone get rid of all the thoughts of the day that held them captive from the present moment. An easy way to help you become present is to listen attentively to all the sounds that you can hear around you. Another way is to focus on your body by becoming aware of your breathing and the life inside of your body. For the most of the class we played a game I call Pattern circle, a very simple game with a lot of learning. I think we could have played that one game for a whole day. We ended the class with a game called Monster talk. In this game 3 players play one character and have to talk in unison. It’s exactly like the lyrics in that song by The Supremes that Phil Collins made famous, You can’t hurry love… it’s a game of give and take. You have to talk slowly and give and take the control. And of course you have to be present, aware and really listen to each other. Hmmm… sounds a lot like love doesn’t it? So yes doing improv can even help you in your relationships.

Last night was the second workshop of my level 2 improv class. Again we started with a relaxing exercise to get everyone present and aware. Being present, aware and in that state of stillness free from thought is crucial for improvisation, since creative ideas don’t come from thought. Recently I listened to a talk by Eckhard Tolle called “The Journey within”. In his talk he says that creativity doesn’t come from thought but from a place of stillness. I tested this theory by asking my wife, who is the most creative person I know ,what happens just before she gets a creative idea. After a brief moment of silence she said in her metaphoric way of speaking, “There is stillness. It’s like the wind dies down and there is this moment of utter quiet and then the creative ideas come like a cloud burst. First just one large drop falls into the dry sand then it is followed by this shower of creativity.” “What is the wind?” I asked. “Its thoughts” she replies. I concluded that Eckhard is right. A creative idea isn’t a thought that you manufacture in your mind by trying really hard. In last night’s class Liezel also commented that you need to trust your own creativity. That is also very true. All people are creative; we just lose it over time. The good news is we can reclaim it. The first step is to be still, and trust. Improv helps one to do this.

We also played Freeze tag last night. In this game 2 people start a scene. At any moment anyone else can say freeze and tap out one of the players. He/she then takes that player’s position and starts a new scene in a completely new context justifying the position. For a second round I said freeze and told them who should go in and replace another player. This way they didn’t have time to think about what they wanted to do. They just had to trust themselves and see what arises. Everyone commented that it was easier to come up with something good if they didn’t have time to think about it. I really enjoyed Olaf and Minki’s scene that went from a hair dresser to a convict sitting in an electric chair.

The next step is to trust the other player that they will take your creativity and do something with it – accept it and build on it (“yes and” it). I believe that the reason why we are afraid to trust our own creativity is because we are so use to other people rejecting our creativity and not accepting it. We all know how much rejection hurts. For most people it is not worth taking that risk anymore, so they label themselves as uncreative to protect themselves from rejection.

We ended the class with a game of “Whose line is it anyway?” In this game 2 players each get 2 random sentences written on a piece of paper. At anytime during the scene they have to read one of the sentences and incorporate it into the scene. Everyone played this game extraordinary well, accepting the offers and incorporating it. Each scene was worthy to be performed in front of a paying audience. Thanks for everyone’s participation, I enjoyed it tremendously.

Now it’s your turn. Become still. Focus on the sounds around you. Become aware of your breathing. Write down in a comment below what arises.

Now it’s your turn. Become still. Focus on the sounds around you. Become aware of your breathing. Write down in a comment below what arises.

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