Collaborative > Competitive

When I teach the introductory level of improv, I tell people that improv is better when it’s collaborative, not competitive.

This continues to ring true for me as I persist in my own improv journey. Every time I embark on a project that’s competitive in nature, I end up getting my heart broken. Not always by the competition, but certainly by the lack of collaboration.

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Improv, Road Trips and Mental Health

A few people have been asking me about a conference I attended last weekend in Chicago. It was the inaugural “Yes And Mental Health” conference and it was the first of its kind. Though it seems specialists have been using improv as a tool in helping folks with mental health issues for some time now, this was the first conference that melded these worlds together. The conference itself seemed predominantly for psychologists and people working in mental health, however there were tremendous benefits to attending for people like me, who are just improv instructors. (Not just an improv instructor, but like, there aren’t any credentials after my signature, is all I’m saying. Although I suppose I could put my Bachelor’s Degree in Social Science up there, but I’m neither pretentious nor desperate, so let’s get on with it.)

Back in April, I co-organized an event for the benefit of women in the comedy community in Toronto with my buds Alicia Douglas and Candace Meeks. The idea was that if other women in the comedy had gone through some of the garbage that we had gone through, it might be a good thing to have somewhere to talk about it, and to use some other skills like mindfulness and even improv itself to help us in dealing with said garbage.

Fast forward to last weekend, where in an effort to gain more knowledge and information about using mental health and wellness techniques for our own future workshops, we ended up in Chicago and were privy to exceptionally interesting lectures and fantastic performances all geared towards combining improv, mental health and wellbeing.

“The root of improvisation is in social change.” Rachael Mason

The weekend kicked off with a panel with notable improvisers such as Rachael Mason and Jimmy Carrane as well as some of the therapists who would be running the workshops over the weekend. Unfortunately, we missed the majority of this discussion due to it taking a long-ass time to get from Toronto to Chicago, but what I did get from this is that improv itself was used as a tool to help actors get in touch with the truth of their characters; while places using improv for entertainment like The Second City began also with a view of social change, using satire as subversion.

The next day, Mason talked about ways to correct racist and prejudiced behaviour as improv teachers and discussed the notion of creating “brave spaces” where every idea has the right to be explored. And though this means difficult subjects may come to light in class, it is there where improv teachers need to be as brave and judgement-less as their students in order for them to do the same. 

Improv has the power to provide very similar releases to what people sometimes experience through therapy; the main difference is that improv cannot provide the after-care. And that’s where a lot of people were talking about bridging the two fields and taking that conversation much more seriously going forward.  

We talked about the healing power of improv in a lecture by MSW Assael Romanelli. This was a bit more complicated to summarize but his work has proven that what happens when people play improv can generate growth in individuals; socially and personally. Anyone who’s done an improv program can probably say like “yeah, no shit!” to that, but he had some really cool actual brain- science to back it up. 

We learned about Therapeutic Improv from Azizi Marshall, a Drama Therapist. She taught us some games that can help encourage playfulness, expressiveness, creativity and interpersonal trust in individuals. (followed up, of course, with this notion that anything beyond these games would necessitate the leadership of a trained therapist or social worker.)

We watched an improv troupe comprised entirely of therapists, another entirely of people aged 50+ and then, watched a musical troupe have their set dissected by therapists in the form of a podcast. This opened up my view of who improv can belong to; because I often see it as a pursuit by mostly 20-30 year old actor/comedians, but these groups broke down those barriers (and analyzed the shit outta them!)

We learned the improv games that work very well when teaching improv people with Autism Spectrum Disorder and learned of the incredible strides in communicating some individuals can make in the playful and judgement-free zone of an improv class.

We took a musical impov workshop with Stephanie McCullough, which was fun and incredibly therapeutic. This was pretty groundbreaking for me because I typically see musical improv as a series of people either trying to outshine each other with the quality of their voice or their ability to rhyme. This was neither; it was musical and personal and political and I loved all of it.

Some of the workshops were running simultaneously, so sadly we weren’t able to take in every single one we would have liked. (I’m bummed I missed out on Margot Escott’s Play for Play’s Sake, but I’m hoping to find out about it on her podcast.

The whole weekend was an incredible re-set; remembering that improv is so much more than competition to. Remembering how it has helped me through some pretty crappy experiences of my own. Learning how I can apply certain learnings and techniques to make me a better improv teacher. Meeting new people who also see improv as being as powerful as I do. Sharing the experience with two of my best buddies who I also happen to admire the crap out of given their knowledge and experience with this craft.  Oh, and also, deep dish pizza.

I’m happy to talk to his in more detail with people individually, but right now, I’m inspired. We need a venue for our next workshop, and I can’t wait to get back in the classroom with my Level As.

Thanks so much to the organizers and everyone responsible for putting on the inaugural Yes And Mental Health Conference on a wonderful conference & all the best keeping this momentum going!

What Does Your Partner Want?

A very important question in improv, and in life, I guess, but let’s stick to improv for now.

We put a lot of pressure on ourselves, as improvisers, to be funny. We think that because we are performing comedy we need to sling jokes constantly. When we don’t get the laughs we think we should be getting, we can resort to some desperate tactics. Ah, the goofy face / elaborate physicality manoeuvre is one I know better than I would like. Sometimes, beginner improvisers don’t know what to do, so they’ll tend to trod into taboo territory; much like beginner stand-up comedians, in search of a reaction, any reaction. Mostly, I think young as well as experienced improvisers often forget this one very important detail:

You’re not alone out there.

You aren’t. There’s at least one other person on stage with you, sharing the burden with you and maybe, just maybe, that person doesn’t want to be playing with someone in desperate search for something funny. Likely, they just need you to look at them. Pay attention to them. Discover the scene and inevitably the funny together.

I recently took a workshop with beloved improv guru Keith Johnstone, who had us play and observe an exercise between two improvisers, that completely blew my mind. In it, the improvisers would perform a scene, but the scene would stop as soon as one of the improvisers felt they didn’t like the offer given to them. For the untrained eye, this might seem antithetic to the “Yes And” principle, and in many ways, can be seen as such. But this exercise transcended “yes and.” It forced you, the performer, to look at your partner, and get a feeling for what they did or did not want you to do or say.

We’re talking group mind. We’re talking body language. We’re talking sociology.  It’s the power of observation. And most of all people, it’s not always about YOU!

Look at your partner; are they over 40? Hell, 30? Ask yourself; do they really want to play the role of mom or dad… again?

See your partner; is it a woman? Maybe she doesn’t want to enter a scene in which you, a man, make use of your position of power and status to get her to do something morally questionable, because maybe that’s the kind of thing she’s had to deal with over and over again in her life offstage.

Really look at your partner. It’s likely they want the same thing as you. To have fun.

Play being conscious of your partner instead of sticking inside your own head searching for ways to make the audience laugh. The answers will reveal themselves when you look at your partner, see that little gleam in their eye and know in that moment, it’s playtime.

 

Writer’s Guilt

I’m finally over my cold and into updating you about my leave status so far. So, step 1: got over cold. Step two, moved about 1/3 of the stuff from my place in Toronto to the new house, including my desk (finally.) I’ve ordered a new chair, which I will pick-up tomorrow as my Toronto office chair has been ripped to shits by my cat, whom I cherish and love… also, who I’ve just been reunited with, since she’s been staying with “grandma” for the past month & change (since DCM) because we were worried the move would stress her out. She has cat anxiety. It’s a thing.

And then I get asked whether or not I’ve written anything yet.

And I feel like I’ve let myself down.

The answer to that questions is… well, I just got my desk in today and hey, don’t rush me, I’ve been sick. That being said, I’ve been writing my morning pages (almost) every morning lately, and though Julia Cameron herself has written that technically those don’t count as writing, I feel like since I’m writing words down on paper, it totally counts for something.

Oh also, I’ve been performing in shows, I even had a paid gig for kids at the library. I’ve been having meetings with creative people; setting out plans for future projects and collaborations. I’ve been trying to catch up on personal administrative things.

And one day, I tried to enjoy the summer. I went to the beach.

But until I have something to show you, I will feel guilty.

Against Some Odds

Tonight I had a really bad cold (still do, actually) and still, I kept my friend-date, and my class to teach, then gunned it across town to do a show with a new crew, the realized I left my phone at a convenience store and managed to get it back without issue and/or theft.

I’m tired. But I don’t really like to rest.

Summer Colds & Night Owls

It’s late on a Monday night – or early, Tuesday morning I guess. If I had to work tomorrow morning, I would be freaking out because I’m not tired at the moment, which means I wouldn’t get the necessary amount of sleep required for me to not be a zombie in the morning and for the rest of the day.

I slept a bunch this morning and took another nap this afternoon to get over this summer cold I’m not entirely convinced wasn’t passed onto my by an actual doctor.

This happens to me every time I allow my body to rest. My mom says the same thing used to happen to her when she was teaching. The first chance the body has to rest, the immune system shuts down and I’m down for the count for a good couple days.  Save a few obligatory shows where I wreck my voice shrieking like a scared child.

But I won’t be calling in sick tomorrow because I can sleep in.

If I had a full-time job where they would just let me sleep in until whenever I wanted and say, start work at 11am and work the full day from then, I would be such a great and punctual little employee.

The 9-5 life is difficult for night owls.

Hoot.