Bring a Brick

In an improv exercise last week, I talked for a minute about Lego Masters. It wasn’t long enough! I hadn’t mentioned technic bricks. Nor had I referred to unique-parts-usage? And I was only part way through fumbling an explanation of SNOT when the timer rudely interrupted me.

Studs Not On Top, in case you were wondering.

Whether it is with clay, cake, fabric or tiny doll’s house furnishings, I am a sucker for a creative competition reality show. There’s something so delicious to me in witnessing people who are passionate about their pursuit, sharing the joy of creating, and caring so much about it they could burst into tears… and often do.

One of the things I find fascinating about these television programmes, is how they have evolved. When they first started out, they aimed to increase the drama of craft by making it highly competitive. Rivalry was encouraged. Cameras zoomed in on disgruntled faces hoping there would be a punch up over custard.

Then the vibe changed. Show makers got wise to how watchable the contestants are when they care about each other. Now the lens is more likely to focus on the helping that takes place in an hour of need, to capture the hand holding at judgement time, or to witness the widespread welling up when someone has to inevitably wave goodbye.

Whoever wins the contest, these people who love doing this thing so very much, have found other people who also love doing this thing so very much, and because of that, their lives will never be the same again.

It reminds us that regardless of who in your troupe is the best at object work or who gets the loudest laughs in class or with who the audience most often falls in love, you guys found each other to share in this niche art form and that is pretty special.

But for me, Lego Masters isn’t just any creative reality show. It is true enthusiasts do compete for the top prize by exercising their passion – in this case for building with brightly coloured bricks – but unlike most other shows, it is a masterclass in the sharing of creative responsibility.

In Lego Masters they come as a team and they stay as a team. It’s a team of two so there’s little space to hide. If they don’t get along, they have to find a way to make it work. In the first series of Lego Masters USA, one team got off to a very rocky start. They hadn’t built together before and you could tell. Without that previous time negotiating how to share creation, they didn’t understand one another. They were disconnected. They weren’t hearing one another because they hadn’t yet figured out how. It was a steep learning curve, but after a pep talk from Will Arnett, they started to look for the ways they could celebrate each other’s style, instead of running each other down.

It really had me thinking about how building a connection is so vital to creative collaboration. There’s a reason we rehearse improvisation. The time we put into understanding how each other creates can pay such dividends down the line. We also need the ability to create under pressure. If you work with someone a lot, you come to understand their methods, you see where their soft spots are and where they can wobble. You have time to figure out how to support them.

There’s something very satisfying to me in seeing people rallying a flailing team mate, looking for the ways their partner can shine, and forgiving them when they knock over a spaceship that took four hours to construct. Often Lego Masters contestants have been building together for many years, some since childhood. The dynamics are fascinating, many lovable, but a few have made me wince.

No pair had me squirming more than Bilsy and Kale from Lego Masters Australia. On the first challenge, to build a mega-city block, Kale and Bilsy got criticised for not working as a team by judge Brickman. Unfortunately, Kale did not seem to be able to take the feedback on board. He rarely used the term ‘we’ when talking about builds and challenges. He also dominated the creative choices. It was as if Bilsy’s ideas just didn’t feature on his radar. And as Kale didn’t seem to be able to hear him, time and time again we’d witness Bilsy just give up, resolving to dutifully support whatever misguided idea Kale was set on for that episode.

This reminded me so much of the old improv adage: “Bring a brick, not a cathedral.” If a person is going to bring a completely formed idea and make no space for anyone else’s input, they might as well be creating alone. And there are many ways to do that, that won’t involve devaluing someone else.

Across the many episodes of Lego Masters, it’s intriguing to observe how often building separately scuppers a team’s efforts. It can lead to differences in scale, disconnect with the storytelling, or weakness in the strength of a creation. Sound familiar?

In one challenge, teams had to frantically create a tall tower to withstand a vibrating base: a shake plate. They didn’t have much time so quick decisions were needed regarding how to divide their efforts. Many teams chose to work on building up the tower together. One team built a half each and then assembled the two sections as the timer ticked down.

The tower fell at the weakest point. The join.

How we build a scene together in improv is everything. And it’s hard to argue against the brick by brick method. It can be so obvious when it’s not being implemented effectively. Balance is off. We feel askew. We’re not getting the full picture.

I once did an improvised mockumentary style scene in a class. My scene partner and I sat side by side, talking out to the audience, as if to a camera. The exercise was to reminisce together on a past experience we had shared. Maybe my scene partner was nervous but they only used phrases such as: “That thing happened didn’t it? You tell them..” And “Go on, you explain it better.” And “You say what I did.”

All the details ended up being my own creation and I felt sad about that. It might seem like generosity in storytelling to keep surrendering the narrative but, to be on the receiving end, it can also feel like passing the buck. Sometimes we want our scene partners to make all the big decisions so we don’t have to. I’ve definitely done this. Other times, we want to drive everything so we can say we’ve got it. I’ve done this too. However, all the fun lies in the no man’s land between each scenario.

When I first fell in love with improv I was on my beginners course and our lesson was being covered by Maydays founding legend John Cremer. He had us doing longform scenes where we were tasked to do some ongoing object work. Crucially, we weren’t allowed to talk about what we were doing. I stood at an imaginary sink washing up. My scene partner entered and said, “You missed a bit.”

John sent him off immediately to come back in and try again. When the scene finally got going my scene partner must have been doing a lot of the talking. John again stopped the scene. He said, “For every line you say, she has to say a line.” What me, I thought? Yes, me. I was she.

What came out of me next shook me to my core. With the space that opened up, thanks to John’s side-coaching, I was able to build a character, a world and find an emotional truth to tie everything together. I was able to dig deep and locate relevant experiences from my own life to develop the relationship. We built the scene. One brick from me. One brick from my scene partner. It was a defining moment, when I realised what this art form had to offer. You never know what you will awaken in someone else, or yourself, when given the space.

An exercise in practicing balance in scenes is to take turns in saying a line. Try also restricting the word count each person has with which to play. You can experiment with the number of words but make sure you each have the same number. This can really help you focus, inspire you to make every word matter and encourage a level playing field. Getting a feel for the balancing act can then become muscle memory.

Not every scene will be about sharing words precisely between you. Some offers will be physical and emotional. Words can be a starting point for levelling things out. You might then try adding in more choices. Instead of using a turn for words, a player might make a strong physical offer or move somewhere else in the space. How does this effect the balance?

At the heart of sharing, is also taking joint responsibility. If we are building something equally together, it is our responsibility to make it everything we jointly want it to be. It’s easy to find yourself leaning out when things feel risky or getting caught in the blame game.

I was involved in creating a show where confidence in our creation started to wane. I’m not sure who lost faith first but I noticed a fellow player leaning out and it made me want to. It felt easier to blame that person, instead of looking honestly at my part in proceedings. But blaming them was far less constructive than looking at how I could do differently.

“John Wooden, the legendary basketball coach, says you aren’t a failure until you start to blame. What he means is that you can still be in the process of learning from your mistakes until you deny them.”

Carol S. Dweck, Mindset: The New Psychology Of Success

In Lego Masters Australia, Kale and Bilsy built the scene from the movie Titanic where Jack and Rose are at the front of the ship ‘flying’. Because they were building separately their scale was wrong. The figures of Jack and Rose were enormous compared to the boat and in Kale’s mind the blame sat squarely with the ship. And most particularly, Bilsy, who’d built it.

Struggling to accept failures can be due to a fixed mindset and we can all have fixed mindsets over different things. In her fascinating book Mindset, Carol Dweck suggests that those who are open to even unflattering information about their current abilities, have the potential to learn and develop because they have a growth mindset. They acknowledge that talent takes time and practice and there are lessons to be found when not everything goes perfectly to plan.

Whether it’s a scene or a song, I now know I’d rather be all in with my fellow collaborators than be leaning out planning my escape route. I have learned this through experiencing how it feels to do both. I recognise that as hard as it might be, I’d rather go down with our ship – the one we built together, each of us in equal parts. I’d rather be part of our collective orchestra, squeaking out those final wet notes as an ensemble. Much more so, than clinging to a wardrobe in the icy waves alone.

One thing it helps me to always keep in mind when practising in improv is that this thing we are creating belongs to both of us, to all of us. It’s our scene. It’s our show. If it works as it should, you can’t take any of us out of it because our ideas are so enmeshed. We make space for each other. It might feel like being helpful but it just isn’t as fun when we bring our own cathedral we made earlier and plonk it down expecting others to pay worship.

Improv is a sharing game. It’s a team sport and practicing it gives us the opportunity to become better team players. In the best scenes it is hard to see the join between each person’s ideas. We build strong together in improv by each placing creative bricks. We recognise and grow each other’s ideas. We build them up.

We will only be able to construct the tallest improv towers by doing it together. Brick by brick by brick by brick…

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