The Boundary Line

People playing with my hair during scenes can give me the heebeegeebees. Not everyone knows that. This week I’ve been playing with new people so when I’ve been asked to contribute to boundary chats, I’ve let the group know my hair is off-limits. I’ve said: no playing with my hair, please.

I realised it isn’t something I tend to bring up with my regular playmates. So I wondered why now?

When I am playing with new people I have different boundaries because boundaries change. They are different with different people. I have very different boundaries with new people, to the people I trust, to the people I know I can’t.

Generally, physical boundary conversations feel easier to me. They tend to be clear: “don’t jump on my back”, “don’t touch my face”, “no whispering in my ear”. Largely, less ambiguity is usually involved in setting a physical boundary. I know I don’t enjoy people messing my hair about and so it is reasonably easy for me to state this line.

However, beyond physical boundaries are other types, often messier ones – harder to say, harder to hear – with more feelings and tension attached. I’m not convinced by the up-top discussions around these yet. And before you yell “Boundary hater!” let me explain.

I’m on board with a boundary. If it were a train, I’d have my ticket to ride. And if I couldn’t get my hands on paid passage I’d be one of those stowaways like on Snow-piercer, huddled up in the back of the train, festering in my own filth and croaking the word “boundaries” at anyone who tried to put their junk on my bunk.

“Daring to set boundaries is about having the courage to love ourselves, even when we risk disappointing others.”

Brene Brown

I’m also on the boat with loving myself. If it was a cruise ship, I’d resign to live on there all year round gorging myself on all-inclusive self-love scones.

So what’s my issue with boundaries in improv?

I’m a real advocate for boundaries in improv. If they were a plane, I’m at the boarding gate well before it opens with my bags packed (by myself), ready to take up my seat and to start eating my well-defined Toblerone.

That’s a lot of onboard analogies.

It sure is. That is how much I am on the rocket ship to boundary holding improv. All in.

What I’m not yet convinced by is emotional boundary discussions at the top of improv sessions. And please hear me out. You know I’ve got on a lot of transportation to get this far.

I don’t think we’ve got these up top emotional boundary discussions quite right yet. They’re a nice idea. They’re the start of something. That’s good. But we’re making a lot of assumptions in holding them and some of them could be quite compromising ones.

We are assuming everyone can respect a boundary, we are assuming everyone wants to respect a boundary, we are assuming everyone knows what a boundary sounds like and we are assuming everyone has a firm grasp on how to set an appropriate boundary. And quite frankly, I, for one, am still learning.

For very many of us, boundary setting is a work in progress. We’re doing our best but we’re not all the way there yet. The pressure to speak up and answer the invitation to set a boundary may not even be in everyone’s best interest.

Setting a boundary around an inconvenience might feel easier to say than exposing a wound. This might sound something like: “I had trouble getting the shopping upstairs so nothing about stairs, please.” Now I realise I am in no position to judge those stairs not to be traumatic. I’ve walked up some staircases in my time that took a long while to recover from. But sometimes a boundary chat becomes a chance to tell us about a bad day and maybe the better time for this is check-in or afterwards in the pub.

And I don’t know about you but all I’m thinking now is how great it could be to do a scene sitting on a staircase and I’m feeling a jerk about that thought.

Another boundary-setting issue might be to contribute a wide topic. It saves us going into compromising specifics but it can lead to walking on eggshells or worse. This contribution to the boundary conversation might sound like: “no family dynamics” or “nothing about death”. There’s no denying these feel like the terrain of trauma but they are also wide areas when it comes to improvisation. A wide canyon of the tabooed territory is created that the other improvisers will likely find it very difficult not to fall into.

I’ve seen the off-the-table topic turn up in the improv on numerous occasions now. If anything, I’ve observed mentioning it, seems to put it on the table, and buffet style. It’s harder for me to think of times the topic hasn’t worked its wormy way into a scene, to be honest. And nobody really knows what to do when it does. We carry on hoping it has gone unnoticed. Or we realise later and expel an expletive to ourselves.

Every time this has happened I’ve been convinced the improvisers were trying their best and that this is largely how our improv brains work. Creativity is about making connections between what is up in our noggin. So even if we get specific about what to avoid, the boundary discussion at the top of class can put ideas in people’s heads, which, with the best of intentions, often spill out during the session. It can appear cruel and other people can come away from the improv feeling guilty they have walked right into the high beams of the said approaching off-the-table topic, potentially upsetting someone.

But are our expectations surrounding this practice setting each other up to fail?

I had a difficult situation in improv where some things I’d told a fellow improviser in confidence kept showing up in scenes. I’ve come to understand that all the stuff was up in that improviser’s thinking space and so it spilt out, everywhere, in a big splattery mess. I know now they will have been trying their best. It hurt at the time though. And so much more so knowing they were violating my trust and my boundaries. But if that stuff hadn’t been up there, to begin with, the situation could have been very different. Even if something in a scene was about a subject that was difficult for me I would have known no one had created that situation to hurt me. It would have been unfortunate but I suspect I would have also felt more agency in how to navigate it in that moment.

The experience convinced me that boundaries surrounding our own wounds are what are essential. Just because we are invited to share does not mean we have to do so in order to belong. The improv space is still for you and your own limits whether you choose to share them preemptively or not. If we don’t share up top, we could think we have no right then to call out anything that feels uncomfortable to us in the moment and this is not true. We still have permission to put a stop to something that pushes too far into the wilderness of our wounds or is just icky, uncomfortable, or compromising for us to play.

“Vulnerability is based on mutuality and requires boundaries and trust. It’s not oversharing, it’s not purging, it’s not indiscriminate disclosure, and it’s not celebrity-style social media information dumps. Vulnerability is about sharing our feelings and our experiences with people who have earned the right to hear them.”

Brene Brown

The key question here is has everyone in your class earned the right to hear your experiences, your deep struggles? Chances are, the answer is no. You’ve probably only just met some of them. Exposing people I don’t know to my wounds in class would be a breach of my own boundaries. I would have to breach my boundaries to tell others how to breach my boundaries.

And that’s too much breaching for my liking.

I want to keep eating those self-love scones at the captain’s table and not have to float about on a cabinet Kate Winslet style.

Boundaries around sharing wounds are so hugely important and need honouring first and foremost. When we feel pressure to over-share we expose ourselves in ways we can then find hard to manage. We can betray ourselves.

Amy Poehler

As painful as it was to have my shadows served up to me to Yes And. I also acknowledge that our darkness can teach us a lot and this is why I also wouldn’t want to pre-limit myself either in the tabooing of certain subject matter. As is often the way, how a subject is dealt with often dictates the impact of improvising around the topic. I have done some pretty dark things in improv that I’ve let affect me but I did them because that was cathartic for me in those moments.

A few years after my father died, I did a scene where I was a character sitting by an imagined father’s graveside talking to ‘him’. The scene had come about because a fellow improviser, who was also my friend, had endowed my character with a dead dad. As soon as the words were out of her mouth she apologised. I said it was ok and I meant it. I continued because I did not feel hurt by the course of this improvisation. I walked in with my eyes open and I had the agency within the scene to check in with my body to see if what I was doing was landing well inside me. In this way, improvising has allowed me to explore parts of myself that were ready to be discovered. It has also helped me take responsibility for them. If I had removed them from the table before the improv, I feel, personally, that I would have been doing myself a disservice.

“If we feel distress, embarrassment, or anger, we think we’ve really blown it. Yet feeling emotional upheaval is not a spiritual faux pas; it’s the place where the warrior learns compassion. It’s where we learn to stop struggling with ourselves. It’s only when we can dwell in these places that scare us that equanimity becomes unshakable.”

Pema Chodron

Sometimes I choose to walk into the places that scare me because there are nuggets of wisdom there for me to discover. However, I don’t want to feel forced there. The difference is choice. It’s agency. It’s owning your improv. It’s knowing the places you can go and the places you can’t. And the places you can’t go right now.

So if we do know we can’t go there right now, why not tell people?

Of course, if you feel comfortable doing so, tell people. I am not suggesting you must sit in silence with it burning a hole in you but I would caution that by letting your fellow improvisers know information just before the improv you do risk popping ideas in their heads. And I think we all need to be aware of that possibility.

What I am saying is that you are not obliged to open up to those who have not earned your trust even if they are improvisers. We need boundaries concerning our kryptonite not because we are armoured people, but because everyone is at different points on their journey. And acknowledging that allows me to honour where I am.

Brene Brown says to think of trust like a marble jar. You add and subtract marbles accordingly. Every relationship you have has a jar. With my regular troupe mates, the jars are brimming with trust marbles so my boundaries with them are different. I will generally be more open at check-in with them because I know I am safe to be. But even then it is up to me how much I choose to disclose.

One of my troupe mates said in check-in the other week that they were having a difficult day and didn’t want to go into it. I said, “Was there anything we should avoid improvising about?”, painfully aware as it left my lips, that if there was, them stating it, would be opening that door they’d just said they wanted to keep closed. I quickly corrected myself. I felt the discomfort of butting up against the clear boundary set in check-in through trying to establish boundaries for the improv.

A boundary can be kindness in disguise… the disguise of a badass fence. Tulips can so be badass.

Ideally, what I’d like to see up-top of improv sessions is the empowerment of our agency within scenes, encouragement for checking in with your body about what is ok and what is not in the moment, and a reminder of the license to leave a scene, time-out or throw away the ‘rules’ of improv when we need to. I don’t think it is always possible to preempt where your boundaries will be until you come up against them. I think we need to be considering how we communicate we have come up against a boundary from within a scene.

Instead of asking people to open themselves up to reveal where to shove a knife, we could explore how to empower people to take responsibility for their own boundaries in improv, to give them the tools to manage themselves when they meet one of their boundaries, to move a scene into different territory, to select which offers to respond to, and to not “Yes And” when the answer should be no.

“Take students in an ecstatic, highly suggestible state, add social responsibility through group dynamics, sprinkle with rules and doctrine, stir in hierarchy, add a dash of authority, serve with tyrants, egoists, predators or narcissists and you have a recipe for disaster. We should be deeply concerned about rigid, rules-based teaching of Yes And and the Pavlovian response it creates. Yes And has been, and continues to have the potential to be, used as a tool of manipulation and control. Improvisers are trapped in scenes and forced into situations they aren’t comfortable with. They’re trained to feel they must go along with it regardless, all under the guise of Yes And. Any rule that restricts choices provides perpetrators with an opportunity. Another reason why it is vital to give improvisers the power of the tools, not the restrictions of the rules.”

Patti Stiles, Improvise Freely

In her book Improvise Freely, Patti Stiles gives a brilliant example of how she turned around a scene where her own empowered offer was dropped in favour of a crude lewd response using the phrase “Yes And”. Because her own way of accepting that response took the scene in a different direction than the one her scene partner wanted things to go, he afterwards accused her of not using Yes And. Patti reminds us that Yes And is one exercise in acceptance. It is not a literal rule to die by.

I’ve knelt at the altar of Yes And.

I’ve ripped myself apart for Yes And.

I’ve thrown myself on the Yes And pyre.

It did not feel good.

We don’t often realise where our boundaries are until the moment our bodies let us know. So let’s keep the discussion around boundaries in improv going and reconsider how we manage up-top disclosures. We could make lists of all the things we don’t want to improvise about. Chances are they’d be long.

For me, taking responsibility for myself in my scenes meant taking responsibility for my improv and ultimately taking responsibility for myself. We make many choices in a scene about what to focus on. It’s not always easy to move a scene to somewhere else but it seems surprising how little we consider that as an option. We don’t teach it because it feels ‘bad improv’ and potentially controlling. But I would personally much rather my scene partner took the scene elsewhere than raked themselves through the emotional coals for the sake of fitting into the scene.

Sometimes you’ve got to move the scene into safer waters. No one needs to face their personal Jaws for their improv unless they choose to board that boat of their own accord.

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