Getting Lost

Have you been feeling weird recently? Like the world doesn’t seem to fit anymore? Is it you? Is it the world? And what is up with everyone else?

I’ve been looking around at the chaos, confusion, conflict and sporadic commitment and wondering: are our hearts really in this anymore?

In what? In anything? Or is there a collective panic we’re trying to keep under wraps? Because I have a sneaking suspicion, I am not alone.

I’m not really sure what I was doing before the pandemic; I do know I was busy. I remember that much. Too busy to notice, I didn’t really know what I was doing. I had invested everything in a cultural myth that progress is of paramount importance. It’s a priority. More, more, more, please. Forward momentum.

As long as I was going onward, I was getting there. That I didn’t know where there was or whether it was worth arriving at, was beyond me, and so I bumbled on, assuming the pay-off would eventually come if I kept at it long enough.

I suppose it’s like an improv scene where we just keep adding more and more, cramming it full of stuff, until the scenario is so unrealistic we’ve lost any sense of grounding.

And yet somehow we hope with more, we can do whatever it is we need to do. What was it that we needed to do again? Progress.

But this chaotic controlling scene really started thousands of years ago, when an old Ancient Greek guy with a beard initiated by deciding we should care more about our minds than our bodies. Talking heads, we call it in improv when two improvisers stand facing each other thinking and speaking with their mouth-holes.

And so thousands of years ago that rotten seed was planted: we should be logical and rational over being intuitive. Ever since, other thinking guys have chimed in too, to suggest man must command nature and use the resources around him for his own ends. And that all other living things to man must be thought of as a resource.

It is a sobering thought how our most seemingly fundamental sounding modern-day myths in the West, leading us down the sliding slope to mass extinction, are based on the musings of a handful of dead dudes like Plato and Descartes who had deluded ideas about how it all ‘should’ work for the ‘benefit’ of man.

This is our inheritance. And for some reason that seems mindless, we’ve continued to accept it, even though we know deep down it’s no good. It’s rotten to the core.

Plato? He wishes.

I’ve been feeling for a long while something is wrong. I thought it was me because the myth of individualization taught me to do so. I have been throwing everything I have at putting myself right. The thing is, the more and more processing I have done to heal myself, I have still not been able to shift the feeling of being off-kilter. And if anything, my need for progress has slowed to a crawl.

And then it dawned on me what is happening… I am waking up.

“In every generation there are people who fall out of the dominant cultural myth, but today it seems that there are more than ever before. And that’s because our cultural myths are dying. If we cast aside the veil we habitually wear to shield us from our unendurable everydays, and look around with clear and wide-open eyes, it’s not a thriving, vibrant Western civilisation that we’ll see, but rather the consequences of the increasingly rapid disintegration of a morally degenerate guiding mythology. We might be richer but we’re certainly not happier, and the world around us is rapidly going to hell in a hand-basket.”

Sharon Blackie, The Enchanted Life

During Lockdown One, I started taking long walks in the woods. And it was time with trees that began to change me. The magnitude of them helped me feel small. Because we need that. We need to have that individualization awed right out of us. It was like coming home to the world. I felt like one of the doughy people in WALL-E, tipped out of my floaty chair. There was a big, wide expanse I didn’t see. Why didn’t I remember it was here?

By the time Lockdown Three rolled around, I wasn’t allowed to go so far as the woods, so instead, I ran around the streets in a tight radius of my home until I ended up in a large graveyard. This was the closest I could get to a wild space. Squirrels and birds and even foxes scampered about the tombstones. There were some beautiful old trees. Maybe I couldn’t feel as small as when in the woods but I could feel alive. And that was what I craved most of all.

I stood under the fir trees as it snowed. I saw the first of the crocuses. I met robins. And a thought dawned on me: maybe to feel alive isn’t a big exuberant feeling, after all. Maybe to feel alive is to feel small; maybe it is a quiet acceptance. Maybe it is to feel at peace with one’s nature. To feel truly with nature.

“Change begins with individuals, and it begins with imagination. It begins with a different story which succeeds in capturing the imagination more effectively than the now-crumbling old story.”

Sharon Blackie, The Enchanted Life

Around this time, a friend sent me a link to a new course that Katy Schutte was starting: The Mythic Improv Journey. Three words that felt close to my heart. My friend knew that I, like many people during lockdowns, had been finding solace in nature. And this course aimed to harness that. She also knew I’d been feeling lost.

During the year ahead, the course met every six to eight weeks or so to coincide with the agricultural festivals and equinoxes. Katy would tell us about the mythology and traditions surrounding that time of year; we’d share observations of nature and we’d set intentions. We’d also connect through pair work using intuition, and we’d improvise as a whole group inspired by the imagery and stories for that season.

I really came to look forward to the sessions. They were magical to me. I enjoyed check-in much more than I did with other classes as we had more time to devote to it and I enjoyed making meaningful observations about where I was at. It was hard to shake the idea of progress but as time went on I realised that each of us ebbed and flowed. There were seasons where we’d be struggling, like when I shared I’d been having trouble with fatigue, and other times when we could celebrate our joy, like when I was excited to discuss my daily yoga routine.

It all helped me acknowledge, like the moon, how we too waxed and waned. And that comparisons at any given time were futile because we all had a different tide chart to our lives. Constant progress came to seem ridiculous. Of course, it couldn’t work. It doesn’t exist in nature. And we are nature. We are not an exception to the rules, however much we strive to be. We are not machines. We are life.

“It’s the people who I think of as the ‘mythical misfits’, then , who kickstart the transformation of the world, and who begin to imagine more sustainable and meaningful ways of living. Today’s mythical misfits… are rejecting a culture which values neither intuition or imagination, which values neither the living land nor its non-human inhabitants. They’re deserting the stagnant institutions, and creating communities which celebrate life rather than destroying it. When the great blazing bonfire of a culture goes out, what remains are a few individual flames. When those individual flames come together, we can kindle a new fire.”

Sharon Blackie, The Enchanted Life

Reading Sharon Blackie’s The Enchanted Life inspired me in lots of ways but this particular section really made me think about how we come together to improvise, how we bring our own creative spark to meet with the sparks of fellow improvisers. How we honour intuition and imagination. For me, improv has really helped me rekindle these quashed parts of myself.

The Mythic Improv Journey gave us the opportunity to celebrate nature – something more expansive – nature in ourselves but it also gave us the chance to celebrate each other, ritual, and community.

And it is still going on. Now in its second year. We create improv sets that are supportive and that celebrate life and its many stages and cycles. For me, the quality of the improv isn’t a priority here. It is about having fun with storytelling, transforming folklore, and finding light and dark in every season.

I do believe modern myths about individualization, constant progress and continuous growth are crumbling. They are unsustainable. What we have been through in recent years has shone a light on the cracks. How we live is no longer working – not for the whole, not for each of us. We have lost our way.

I am no stranger to losing my way. Even last week I tried to take a train to meet a friend but it was cancelled. So then, was the following one. I realised I’d have to walk. I didn’t know the streets as well as I thought I did. I took a wrong turn and ended up journeying a substantial distance in the opposite direction. It took a while to accept I was lost. I didn’t want to admit it, didn’t want to observe how much ground I’d have to recover, didn’t want to lose face.

Eventually, though, I had to acknowledge it was the only way to get to where I needed to be. I took a turn along another path. It led me to a road I recognised and I then had to walk back. I was frustrated and tired and cold. A man appeared on the pavement ahead who also seemed lost. Was everyone now lost? Had I stumbled into a land of the lost? I became frightened. How long would it take me to find my way?

But the closer I got to where I needed to be, I realised that all I’d really lost was a bit of time and that bit of face that I didn’t know my way as well as I thought I did.

Getting lost takes a toll but it is part of the journey.

We get lost sometimes in scenes, in shows, in life. It’s okay to admit when we are lost, it’s crucial in fact to finding our way. We cannot take a turn if we can’t admit we are lost.

There are times in improv scenes when there’s so much going on, that you can feel your head spin. We can lose sight of what this is really about or why it matters. I used to ignore that instinct and bumble along, hoping we’d eventually find our way. I didn’t want to admit to being lost. But now I just call it out or I accept it and let myself take the turn.

I recently did a scene in rehearsal where my scene partner and I were not only in conflict but also strangers in a transactional scenario. The two characters both had strong points of view and it was hard to see how they’d ever meet in the middle. They had such opposing life philosophies and I knew my character wasn’t going to back down because she was trying to protect her child. It seemed we had a stalemate situation.

Suddenly I had the urge to hug my scene partner and so without further ado, I did. It gave my scene partner the opportunity to present a change in their character’s emotional state too and we instantly knew why this scene mattered. We knew why these two characters were meeting here together. And we knew why they needed each other.

Both characters were lost. Mine was lost in desperation to keep her son from becoming the lost grown-up child in front of her. My scene partner’s character had lost all connection with where he came from, absorbed in a technology that told him what to do so he’d lost touch with his own instincts.

Although the scene ended shortly after the hug, I knew that my character was going to invite my scene partner’s character into her life and they would both find their way because they’d got through the hardest part: admitting they were lost. Their conflict was a cover-up for their fear.

I’ve been lost. I was lost. And I still get lost now.

What I have loved about the Mythic Improv Journey with Katy Schutte is it provides a space where we don’t judge being scared or lost, sometimes in pretty dark places. Instead, we ask: Where are you now? Where do you want to go?

Where are we now? Where do we want to go?

And what stories must we tell to get there?

How Improv Can Help the Very Helpful

Are you a clown, a caretaker or a ninja? This was the question posed.

I pondered it as I put down the pumpkin cheesecake I’d baked for rehearsal in case anyone got hungry.

If I could just have a sign…

I already knew I wanted to be a ninja; it sounded the coolest. But the truth be told, I’d never been particularly cool. I wasn’t really sure how.

“Am I a caretaker?” I asked around the room tentatively.

Was everyone else okay with that?

Some years later and I now realise this original question, of what kind of improviser are you, had confused two theories of improv styles. Ninja had sneaked in stealth-like from Bill Merritt’s theory of Pirate, Robot, Ninja into the types of Clown, Thinker, Caretaker from Katy Schutte’s The Improviser’s Way.

Still, whichever theory was being used, my answer would have been the same: “I want to be the best, so which one’s that?”

What I actually wanted was for everyone to think I was the best to play with. And that is at the fundamental core of what made me a caretaker in the first place. Because once upon a time how other people felt about the experience they were having, how they felt about themselves, and how they felt about me, most specifically, mattered more to me than anything else.

“Caretakers avoid freedom. On paper they are the perfect improviser, doing whatever is needed. And though you’ll get a good solid show every time from a Caretaker, it won’t be a life-changer. Caretakers avoid just fucking around. They want to know what is needed and how they should do it. They don’t take enough risks or ever really surprise themselves.”

Katy Schutte, The Improviser’s Way

I took a risk in improvising. I still surprise myself for doing it at all. But when it came to the improv itself, I craved rules and structure. I wanted someone to tell me: do it like this and you’ll be safe.

And no one could, because it doesn’t work that way. Nothing really does.

If I had stayed embedded in my caretaking ways, I don’t think I would ever really have been able to push into the territory I have with my improv. I would have undoubtedly stayed in groups where I wasn’t happy. Improvising would have felt too much like work.

Caretakers really do have some great skills to offer improv. They are flexible, adaptable, generous and as Katy Schutte puts it, “They see what a show needs and they step in selflessly”.

‘Selfless’ stepping in might sound saint-like. It may really serve the show. But caretakers can get rather caught up in service and forget to express themselves.

Caretakers tend to look after things. Extreme ones look after everything. They may not initiate as much or drive things forward. Instead, they say: “I see what’s going on here and by hook or by crook, I’m going to look after it.”

“Bad caretakers do too much. They see a scene going on and they want to get in there, as a walk-on, as a scene-paint, as another character. Sometimes scenes need it of course, but bad Caretakers overdo it.”

Katy Schutte, The Improviser’s Way

The truth is that when I found out I was a caretaker, I was disappointed because there was a part of me who didn’t want to look after others anymore. A part of me didn’t want to be taming or tame. A part of me resented the implication.

I’d grown rather bored with how well I could take care of things. All the things. Everybody else’s things.

For a long time, I couldn’t help myself… because I was too busy helping other people. Or I thought I was. All the other people.

What I know now is that when you are a person who can already take care of yourself, it’s actually pretty annoying when someone else keeps trying to anticipate your every need and take care of you. Caretaking looks kind. It looks thoughtful. But I say this with all the love in my heart for my past and recovering caretaking self: caretaking can be controlling.

“Caretaking looks like a much friendlier act than it is. It requires incompetency on the part of the person being taken care of. We rescue “victims” – people who we believe are not capable of being responsible for themselves. The victims actually are capable of taking care of themselves, even though we and they don’t admit it.”

Melody Beattie, Codependent No More

I’ve had to train myself quite hard at acknowledging other people’s capabilities. When I feel I might be being invited to a rescue, I remind myself that the person in question is a grown-ass grown-up and they’ve been on Earth long enough now to know how to handle themselves.

Beyond the beacons of distress, in improv, we caretakers can find the people we are drawn to help most are the clowns. Their wild, carefree showboating sets our nerves a tingle. We can feel we have to interpret them or harness their chaotic energy. We can feel the instinct to tame them. And when that doesn’t work, there’s another instinct; the one to follow behind their most destructive behaviour with a mop.

When we really lose ourselves in rescuer roles, we see clowns everywhere, like we’ve stepped into an exhausting haunted fairground where it is our assignment to exorcise every damn tent.

That is not our job. Let the clowns be clowns. Let them be.

Some clowns doing their clown thing. Just look at them being all clown.

But it’s not just clowning that can set us off. Anything that feels dangerously uncomfortable can, including deep dives into emotional territory, unsettling power dynamics or intense relationships. If it feels out of control, extreme caretaking says – reign it in.

The clown says: let me be wild. The caretaker says: careful now. And the thinker says: don’t forget, my massive brain is also here.

Improv has really helped me to understand how I caretake, how I reach out to help even when it isn’t asked for, and how I hustle. And improv has helped me to start to change those habits in scenes and also in real life. Improv is a safe space to practice doing things differently.

“How wild it was to let it be.”

Cheryl Strayed, Wild

When you close your eyes and think of a helpful person, what do you see? What about a nice person? A kind person? A good person? A worthy person? A caring person?

Trying to live up to those ridiculous ideals in our heads will more often than not lead to failure. You might even be forced to go around sacrificing every darn part of you in order to uphold this image that validates your existence. So do yourself a favour and start telling a different story about yourself. It probably won’t happen overnight. It didn’t for me. But I started making a conscious effort to catch myself whenever I thought of myself as a ‘helpful’ person. I would catch myself and replace the thought with a more firm: I am a person. Sometimes I am helpful. Sometimes I am not. Sometimes I am good. Sometimes now, because of my new story, I am a frickin’ badass.

Sometimes I’m even a ninja in improv. Foremost now I’m an improviser. Sometimes I caretake. Sometimes I clown. Sometimes I think.

Sometimes I’m even quite good at it.

Improv has taught me I am not responsible for everything, that I must trust my own instincts and resist the urge to caretake consistently. I love to watch typical caretaker types mess about or play mean. There’s so much power to be found in being carefree.

I was once given this advice in improv as an antidote to my helpful improvising… from time to time, go wild.

In The Improviser’s Way, the wonderful creative force that is Katy Schutte lists some other experiments for type caretaker improvisers. Here are some of my favourites of her notes:

  • Fuck around.
  • Strike an unusual pose.
  • Be an object or animal that can’t speak.
  • Make your scene partner laugh.
  • Say a line that has no reference to anything.
  • Do a scene with noises instead of words.
  • Break the rules.
  • Be selfish.

I think one of the funniest, most fun and most memorable things I’ve done in improv was to lead a chorus of operatic chickens. It was gibberish. It broke the brief we’d been given, and came out of a hive-mind move to all sink to the floor and play chickens during a story song. I saw my chance to lead the chorus this way and took it before anyone else could. It did feel selfish. It almost felt like cheating too. It was so easy to do. But I loved doing it and it became an infamous hit.

In her wholehearted book Untamed: Stop People Pleasing, Start Living, Glennon Doyle tells us the story of Tabitha, a cheetah at the zoo trained to chase a toy and then return to her cage.

“Tabitha. She was born into captivity. The only visible order she’s ever known includes cages and dirty pink bunnies and weak, bored applause. Tabitha never knew the wild. Yet Tabitha knew the wild. It was in her. She sensed the pressing of the unseen order like a relentless hunch. Perhaps for us, as for Tabitha, the deepest truth is not what we can see but what we can imagine. Perhaps imagination is not where we go to escape reality but where we go to remember it. Perhaps when we want to know the original plan for our lives, families, world, we should consult not what’s in front of us but what’s inside us. Imagination is how personal and worldwide revolutions begin.”

Glennon Doyle, Untamed: Stop People Pleasing, Start Living

Those who have been trained to take care of others really have so much to offer the world and also the world of improv: our acute awareness, our sensitivity, our mix of bird’s eye view and attention to detail POV, our honed listening skills, our ability to identify the needs of a show and to give our scene partners the gifts they need to shine.

And our imagination.

Perhaps clowns are as bothersome to us because sometimes we’d like to be more like them. Perhaps we’d like to wear the bright clashing colours with abandon and let ourselves be random and run free. Perhaps we’d like to wear noisy shoes and express our emotions decidedly on our faces. Perhaps we’d even like a red nose every now and again or to be crammed into a tiny clown car.

Here’s the secret, dear helpful improviser, you can. And you can start today.

You know that voice you get leaping up inside you sometimes telling you what to say, the one you suspect is ridiculous; yeah, that one – try saying it out loud. Yes, it’s dangerous I know, sometimes that voice will get it wrong but practice in a safe space with improvisers you trust and in time you might even notice that voice is onto something. I think a big difference between caretakers and clowns is clowns don’t police that voice so hard, sometimes they don’t at all. I think that as a caretaker, that can make us a bit grumpy on occasion. But I think those grumps can tell us a lot about how we really feel. As much as we’d like to deny it, we have a clown inside us too and it wants to play big time.

In my early improv days, the ultra-talented Jen Rowe from The Maydays gave me a secret note that read, “Make yourself big and bold. Big characters. Big choices. Big reactions.” I still have that note. I’ve popped it into a box with other special things and looking at it now makes me smile.

I knew she’d seen me. I was rumbled. I was playing it small. For me, caretaking was hiding. I wasn’t really following my fun. I wasn’t yet free.

One way Doyle suggests we get out of the cage of control, out of caretaking and people-pleasing, is to stop using the language of indoctrination. Drop the ‘good’, the ‘should’, the ‘right’ and the ‘wrong’. When you’re inside a show or act, you haven’t got sight of those judgments anyway. You’re biased.

“We are all bilingual. We speak the language of indoctrination, but our native tongue is the language of imagination. When we use the language of indoctrination – with its should and shouldn’t, right and wrong, good and bad – we are activating our minds. That’s not what we’re going for here. Because our minds are polluted by our training. In order to get beyond our training, we need to activate our imaginations. Our minds are excuse makers; our imaginations are storytellers. So instead of asking ourselves what’s right or wrong, we must ask ourselves: What is true and beautiful?”

Glennon Doyle, Untamed: Stop Pleasing, Start Living

What is true and beautiful in improv? What is true and beautiful in your improv? What is true and beautiful in you?

I’d bet money on it being a lot more than you think.

What to Do When Things Turn Toxic

My Little Pony the Movie, 1986

In My Little Pony the Movie, the ponies were plagued by a weird enemy. It was a purple goo that seemed to be unstoppable. Slimy, relentless, ruthless, with no sense of boundaries, it was unclear whether the purple goo killed the My Little Ponies or just took them out of action for a while. During the movie, both were suggested. Maybe it was vague because the writers made it so, or maybe it was vague to a five-year-old’s mind because, well, that purple goo was shit-scary. And at an age I didn’t even know the word shit… maybe.

Even getting a bit of the purple goo on the colourful ponies’ bodies was corrosive. It was to be avoided at all costs. But the goo wasn’t getting the message that it needed to leave the ponies alone. If anything it took the My Little Ponies’ protestations to respect their space as an invitation to dial up its gooey efforts.

They must have defeated it somehow but I don’t remember how. To be honest, I don’t really remember if they did. But what a downer of a movie if they didn’t!

There’s only one line I can recall from that film:

“Home is where you hang your hat.”

I liked that line. I think it was spoken by a gnome. Considering the My Little Ponies’ homes were being flooded with purple goo, he was probably giving sage advice. But also, a touch dismissive of the large-scale emotional trauma watching their homes and friends being destroyed was bound to have been causing the My Little Ponies.

The image of toxic slime also stuck in my impressionable mind, as it did to the My Little Ponies, like a limpet to the bottom of a boat. It had a feeling attached. You might know that feeling. It’s kind of like ‘ick.’

The My Little Ponies could see the toxic purple goo cresting the hills on the horizon but what do we do when the toxicity oozing into our spaces is not as easy to see?

It can be hard to identify there’s a problem. Sometimes it’s just an uncomfortable feeling that something isn’t quite all it seems with a situation. Trust that! You have instincts for a reason. Your body has honed them over a long time to keep you safe.

I would like to practice kindness and generosity towards everyone but to get to the nub of it, that was probably how I’ve got into the messiest toxic situations in the first place – by believing I had to be nice. I’ve come to recognise, that in order to effectively deal with sticky messes caused by toxic dynamics, it is self-compassion that is key. It seems counter-intuitive in some ways, but exercising kindness and understanding towards yourself really does have the power to reduce the impact of toxicity in your life, keep you out of resentment, and encourage you to communicate more clearly with all parties involved.

I’ve been in more than my fair share of toxic situations and my biggest takeaway involves believing wholeheartedly that the only person any of us have any control over is ourselves. Those My Little Ponies weren’t asking for that toxic goo all up in their castles. They did have to find the best way to manage the ick.

The best place to start with toxicity detecting is with how you feel. In my experience, it is the first thing I notice. I get an icky feeling arise in my stomach and I have learned I must pay attention to that. Like a herd animal who suddenly hears a crack in the woods, I have to lift my head and observe what’s going on. What am I doing? What is someone else doing? What is being said?

Sometimes an environment can feel toxic. With one troupe, we used to rehearse in the back room of a pub. There were times guests wouldn’t want to join us because it was so crappy in there. The walls were peeling, the floor warped and it was damp and badly ventilated. It was weird too; it had random pictures on the walls, some cellophane wrapped, and a wide assortment of disregarded stained furniture.

Eventually, one member of our troupe said, “Hey, this place has icky vibes.”

We all agreed it did and had to wonder why it had taken so long for one of us to say it out loud. And we’re talking years!

If places can be hard to call out, it’s surely so much harder with people. Looking honestly at a person can be really tough to do, especially when people deploy evasive tactics. There may be masks involved. There could be a personality clash. There might be a variety of factors.

“Despite how open, peaceful, and loving you attempt to be, people can only meet you as deeply as they’ve met themselves.”

Matt Kahn

The reasons someone is a challenge to connect with can keep us searching for excuses for a long time. And these excuses can blindsight us. A helpful tip I picked up from Lisa A. Romano, a life coach specialising in recovery after narcissistic abuse, is a bit of a language hack but it can help with justifying thoughts. Instead of saying, “This person is very unkind to me because they’ve had a difficult life.” I’ve retrained myself to now say: “This person is very unkind to me. They have had a difficult life.” I then remind myself both those things can be true separately. One does not justify the other. In time, you might even find the second statement will fade when how someone treats you becomes your priority.

“Toxic people are not necessarily uniformly toxic, which also makes it complicated. There are some people who are equal-opportunity tyrants – they treat everyone badly – but most are too smart for that. They have folks they target and others whom they keep close at hand, because, if everyone thinks they’re awful, it can make it difficult to sidle up to the bar… The difficulty raised by this is that different people may have very different experiences of a toxic person.”

Dr Ramani S. Durvasula, “Don’t You Know Who I Am?” How to Stay Sane in an Era of Narcissism, Entitlement, and Incivility

You can’t always trust word-of-mouth to identify toxic behaviour. Not everyone will experience a person the same. This is made even harder if you have experienced the undermining of your reality through gaslighting. You can feel unsure of your instincts, so a good rule of thumb is to observe behaviour as you see it. Observed behaviour, along with how you feel, can build a more realistic picture of a situation or pattern. Words spoken can be very deceptive, most especially when they originate from the person exhibiting toxic behaviour.

Toxicity is not a one-off incident that might be caused by an unsettling life event or change in environment. It is repeated damaging behaviour. It is a cycle. I have found that as I become less reactive and manage to gain some distance from toxic behaviour it becomes easier to observe the traits as they reoccur and a situation I once thought I played a significant part in creating, turns out to be very little to do with me as I watch the person go on to repeat the pattern with others.

Here are some signs of toxicity suggested by WebMD:

  • You feel like you’re being manipulated into something you don’t want to do.
  • You’re constantly confused by the person’s behavior.
  • You feel like you deserve an apology that never comes.
  • You always have to defend yourself to this person.
  • You never feel fully comfortable around them.
  • You continually feel bad about yourself in their presence.

Unfortunately, as in all corners of society, people who display toxic behaviour patterns appear in improv communities. To argue that improv is somehow immune as it is such a darn-nice-people sport would be naïve and also dangerous fantasy thinking. The ground of improv is just as vulnerable to toxicity, as any other community space.

Maybe even more so.

Improv contains a lot of empathetic, kind, accommodating, vulnerable hearts. And this is a beautiful thing. But it also exposes it to frenzied feasting if a fox, with a hankering for empathy, gets into the hen house.

In the Americas, there is a cryptid – a mysterious hidden monster – that is blamed for killing livestock. It is said to suck the lifeblood out of its prey. It’s called Chupacabra – goat sucker – and sightings of it have been possibly explained as a wild dog with mange. Chupacabra’s skin is said to have a fluorescent glow like it’s toxic. This could be because of the incessant scratching that comes with the mange mites embedded under its skin.

If Chupacabra is a creature with an affliction, surely we must pity it. Having contracted mange is not the creature’s fault and it is a horribly uncomfortable condition for the animal to endure.

True, but try telling that to the goat.

“I acknowledge that many roads lead to the “reasons” why people are antagonistic, narcissistic, difficult, and abusive and that they have backstories too. But the bottom line is that, when someone abuses you, it hurts, and, over time, it takes a permanent toll. No, “toxic” is not a nice word. But these are not nice patterns. Nobody should be relegated to the status of human punching bag. Nobody.”

Dr Ramani S. Durvasula, “Don’t You Know Who I Am?” How to Stay Sane in an Era of Narcissism, Entitlement, and Incivility

I’ve learned it’s very important to give yourself permission to feel upset by toxic situations and dynamics, regardless of the reasons behind the behaviour. If you don’t allow yourself to feel the hurt and anger, you yourself can get stuck. Priding yourself on being an accommodating, kind person makes it even more likely you may put the needs of others before your own need to pay attention to uncomfortable feelings.

In Brené Brown’s book Rising Strong, she talks about a rumble she had with the premise: people are doing their best. When I first read this, I, like Brené, went through a stage of scoffing “Well, that’s not true.” But over time I’ve realised this way of thinking is oddly liberating. Initially, I felt it justified abusive behaviour but the more I’ve thought about it, the more I realise it does not. What it does, is help us to accept what is. It shuts down fantasy thinking.

“All I know is that my life is better when I assume that people are doing their best. It keeps me out of judgement and let’s me focus on what is, and not what should or could be.”

Steve, quoted by Brené Brown in Rising Strong

If you assume everyone is trying their best, it allows you to be discerning. You let go of judgment and perfectionism. You give yourself permission to choose how to handle a situation as it is.

“Toxic behaviour tends to be associated with traits congruent with narcissistic, antagonistic, psychopathic, dysregulated, and passive-aggressive personality styles. These are personality styles that often cause more harm to the people around them than any other personality or mental health/illness patterns we observe. The people with these personality patterns may not be experiencing discomfort, but the people around them likely are. This is not a “moral” judgement. Nor is it an indictment of people who engage in these patterns; this is an indictment of these patterns. They are invalidating, they are deceptive, and they are damaging.”

Dr Ramani S. Durvasula, “Don’t You Know Who I Am?” How to Stay Sane in an Era of Narcissism, Entitlement, and Incivility

Consider another hidden monster: Mothman – a ‘flying man’ spotted first in a small town in America. The people in that town came to think of Mothman as the harbinger of doom, when in actuality it seems very likely that Mothman was an owl. The owl was an unusual breed, probably a bit wet from the rain, sleeping rough in an abandoned toxic factory, not the most eloquent runner, but trying its best to survive.

People who display toxic tendencies are trying to survive. Unfortunately for everyone, they have a way of doing it that hurts others and transmits pain. For me, understanding more about personality differences, disorders and disturbances has been a life-saver. I think it has actually reduced a lot of my social anxiety because I know what to listen out for and that other people’s behaviour is most often about their internal struggles and not about me.

“Anyone a certain age will always remember the story of Charlie Brown and the football. Lucy (the toxic invalidating friend) repeatedly asks the empathetic and yearning Charlie Brown to play football, and she invariably pulls the football away as he goes in for the kick, leading him to fall flat on his back. Each time, he approaches it thinking it will be different – and each and every time, she pulls the ball away. A relationship with a toxic person leaves you feeling like Charlie Brown. You keep going in, thinking that this time it will be different, that this time Lucy will not pull the ball. The first time she did it, it was time for him to be cautious; the second time she did it, it was time to never play ball again. That eternal hope that it will change is what keeps these relationships going (and keeps the Charlie Browns of the world repeatedly falling on their backs).”

Dr. Ramani S. Durvasula, “Don’t You Know Who I Am?” How to Stay Sane in an Era of Narcissism, Entitlement, and Incivility

I’ve come to recognise that if I do not learn to draw the line with toxic situations, I actually become an invalidating friend to myself. I centre the toxic behaviour and become increasingly more invisible as I ignore my own needs. My self-trust takes a nosedive.

Dr. Ramani S. Durvasula has an incredibly helpful YouTube channel offering advice and information as to the psychological tendencies, patterns and dynamics surrounding people with narcissistic traits. She has also written a brilliant book called “Don’t You Know Who I Am?” How to Stay Sane in an Era of Narcissism, Entitlement, and Incivility. In it, she considers how toxic and narcissistic behaviour is on the rise, fuelled by present-day cultures, like social media. In 2018 the Oxford Dictionaries chose “toxic” as their word of the year and “narcissism” has become a buzzword for our times, quite often used now to reflect on the behaviour of world leaders.

Towards the of Dr Ramani S. Durvasula’s insightful and invaluable book is a super useful section entitled A Simple Survival Guide, which gives you strategies for dealing with toxic situations. Here is a flavour…

  • manage expectations
  • maintain boundaries
  • shore up supports
  • recognize they will not change
  • take care of yourself/ practice self love
  • don’t engage
  • get mental health assistance
  • learn to let go
  • stop defending yourself
  • hold on tight to your own reality
  • do the things that you value

Doing something you value helps you refocus and get some distance. It can be an effective antidote to ruminating. And I have found practising improv can particularly assist with stopping spiralling thoughts and running dialogues over in your head. To make a scene successful, you have to be all in. For this reason I have found it very hard when doing improv has actually put me in the shoes of Charlie Brown. I’ve been lying on my back on the grass in my life more times than I care to count. And sadly, I have also been down there as a result of my practice of improv. In order to do my best, most connected improvisation, I’ve come to understand that I have to do it away from toxic dynamics and behaviours. I have had to not participate in jams at times. I have had to pull out of a course. And I have had to opt out of doing a showcase once because I recognised I would be putting myself into harm’s way, like a My Little Pony jumping into a paddling pool of purple goo.

As improv is generally such a vulnerable-making, trust-requiring, and empathy-breeding arena, toxic behaviour can feel all the more hurtful. We take risks in rehearsal, in class and on the stage when we show up to be seen. The culture created by the ethos of improv dictates we should be up for anything at any time which can conflict with our instincts.

Although improvisation can be a fun, fast, spontaneous sport, that shouldn’t mean your practice of it needs to lack boundaries. The only way to get better at creating them and holding them seems to be to practice. And practising having boundaries is the best way I have found to prove my true commitment to myself. It’s the way to increase that self-trust. I do not regret removing myself from toxic situations one bit. And although it was tough to do, if it had been easier, it wouldn’t have meant so much to me.

“Compassionate people ask for what they need. They say no when they need to, and when they say yes, they mean it. They’re compassionate because their boundaries keep them out of resentment.”

Brené Brown, Rising Strong

If I don’t stick to my boundaries surrounding toxic behaviours, I get resentful. I then start acting in ways that don’t feel like me. I get bristly. It doesn’t feel good and I’m more easily sucked into ego games I have no genuine desire to play. When we drop our boundaries in the face of someone else’s discomfort, we confirm their superiority over our inferiority. We send a signal to our inner world that our needs come last. And that leads to resentment.

Boundaries are not so much about changing the behaviour of others as we might initially assume is the intention of their design. Most often, they are instead about our relationship with ourselves. What will we do to get distance from invalidating, damaging, toxic behaviour? How do we prioritise our own needs? What short-term discomfort will we suffer in order to extract ourselves from long-term goo cycles?

“I assumed that people weren’t doing their best so I judged them and constantly fought being disappointed, which was easier than setting boundaries. Boundaries are hard when you want to be liked and when you are a pleaser hellbent on being easy, fun, and flexible.”

Brené Brown, Rising Strong

When you strive to be an inclusive, tolerant and kind person, this can come into conflict with making the tough decisions about how to handle toxic situations but it is very important we give ourselves permission to be discerning. If you feel that being around an individual (or group) is making you feel crappy, you don’t have to be around that person. We do all have that choice.

With every toxic situation, dynamic and environment we cut away from our lives, we create space. That can feel scary but it’s surprising how quickly a vacuum fills with other opportunities. And ones with the potential to be life-affirming, joyous and fulfilling. So pay attention to the ick. Honour your instincts. Set boundaries. And if you have to, distance yourself. Make home where you hang your hat – with you. Give yourself permission to choose. And choose your sweet self.

Critics and How to Face Them: Part 2 – Outer

Have you ever let a critic stop you in your tracks? Have you held a criticism close to your heart? Have you soaked up that critique, ruminated, let it speak to you in ways you wish it hadn’t? Well, allow me to let you in on a secret… You are not alone.

In Part One of this exploration into handling criticism, we met our inner critics. A gang of misguided villains trying to keep us safely in line through critical messages. They lie waiting for a weak spot. Think Pinky and The Brain – two caged mice looking for an opportunity each night to gain power:

Pinky: Gee, Brain, what do you want to do tonight?

Brain: The same thing we do every night, Pinky – TRY TO TAKE OVER THE WORLD!

Pinky and The Brain, Animaniacs

Only the inner critics’ world is you. You are their world.

Having inner critics can make receiving criticism from the outer world all the more destructive. In the past, I’ve let criticism stop me in my tracks. I’ve abandoned projects. I’ve abandoned talents. I’ve even abandoned practising skills that brought me joy. And I did that because someone beyond my borders said something critical that I drew in close to my heart and let soak into my vital organs.

At times like this, it is worth remembering that whether you do a good thing, a bad thing, or an exceptionally great thing, critics still criticise.

The truth is, people have all kinds of complex reasons for criticising. Often their agenda is hidden from your view. I know this to be true because I have been unnecessarily critical. Over-spilling with inner criticism and frustrated with the world, I’ve criticised because it brought me some relief to project that pain outwards.

“The outer critic projects onto others the same processes of perfectionism and endangerment that the inner critic uses against the self.”

Peter Walker

When we listen to an inner perfectionist, whose standards are unrealistically high, we will measure the outside world and find it wanting. And that goes too for our own contributions.

During the first few years of improvising, I received my fair share of unsolicited criticism. Some of it was fair. Most of it was unnecessary. With this skill – improv – I was thankfully intent on continuing to learn regardless, but I would say next to none of that criticism really helped me improve. Some of it slowed me down. Lots of the criticism wasn’t even really about me, but a need to criticise. I watched some of my harshest critics, criticise others too, and often. Sometimes, seemingly indiscriminately. Other times, when someone else actually did an exceptionally great thing.

“Don’t be distracted by criticism. Remember, the only taste of success some people have is when they take a bite out of you.”

Zig Ziglar

Being an improv fledgling, I got through that criticism of my skill largely by reminding myself frequently I didn’t have to be good. I just had to be there. My belief in the value of being brave enough to step on that stage, kept me risking being seen and judged. In this way, I managed to develop a growth mindset about improv. I could make mistakes. I could learn. So I made the decision that I would celebrate that moment I stepped onto the stage. Instead of hanging everything on the feedback I received or whether it turned out to be a successful improv. The credit I bestowed upon myself would be for being there doing my thing.

“There is only one way to avoid criticism: do nothing, say nothing, and be nothing.”

Aristotle

Daring to do anything in this life, exposes you to criticism. There’s no way to be brave with your efforts and avoid attracting the attention of critics. We might be in luck and fly under their radar for a while, but no one escapes them forever. And criticism of our creative projects can cut all the deeper because authentic creativity is about expressing ourselves. That criticism can cut to the bone.

“The motive behind criticism often determines its validity. Those who care criticize where necessary. Those who envy criticize the moment they think that they have found a weak spot.”

Criss Jami

Because of the high stakes of creative expression, being in an improv group that decides to give feedback to each other can be dangerous. For me, if you’re inside the creative work, it’s very hard to be objective. It is often far more effective to get someone from outside, like an experienced coach, to provide ideas on how you could improve your act. Offering feedback is a skill in itself, and one best given by someone trained to bestow helpful notes.

In my improv duo with the wonderful Josh Hards, we have a process where after a scene run in rehearsals, we will recap what we did and what worked for us. We will talk about what we intended with certain moves as that helps us understand each other’s intentions, but we don’t give notes on each other’s contributions. For us, it’s about taking responsibility for our own improv while understanding one another. We developed this practice using the advice of Jules Munns. By putting connection and creativity at the heart of our practice, the need for perfectionism and criticism wanes.

Brené Brown in her book Dare to Lead explores being clear about your core values as a way of diluting the sting of criticism. The two values you hold most highly in your life will probably be quite different from those of the next person. It means therefore that their criticism may not be as relevant to you, as you have other ideas about what makes life worth living and art worth making. If you are holding your values close, there’s also less room in your hands to hold onto criticism.

“The arena, paricularly during dark moments when we’re trying to be really brave, can be confusing and overwhelming: distractions, noise, a rapidly blinking Exit sign that promises immediate relief from the discomfort, and the cynics in the stands. In these tough matches, when the critics are being extra loud and rowdy, it’s easy to start hustling – to try to prove, perfect, perform, and please. God knows these are my four big p’s. We can either hustle to show the crowd that we deserve to be there, or we can let them scare us off. Either way, it’s easy to let them get in our heads and hijack our efforts.

In these moments when we start putting other voices in front of our own, we forget what made us go into the arena in the first place, the reason we’re there. We forget our values. Or, frequently, we don’t even know what they are of how to name them. If we do not have clarity of values, if we don’t have anywhere else to look or focus, if we don’t have that light up above to remind us why we’re there, the cynics and the critics can bring us to our knees.”

Brené Brown, Dare to Lead

The concept of the arena is integral in Brené Brown’s book Rising Strong. Brown reminds us the arena is any moment or place where we have shown up and dared to be seen. Risking being awkward in a new improv team is an arena, directing a new show is an arena, starting an improv school is an arena. Handling a tough leadership inclusion moment without getting defensive puts us in the arena. Working hard to grow the community you care for, making mistakes, learning from them, is definitely an arena.

“If you are not in the arena getting your ass kicked on occasion, I am not interested in or open to your feedback. There are a million cheap seats in the world today filled with people who will never be brave with their own lives, but will spend every ounce of energy they have hurling advice and judgement at those of us trying to dare greatly. Their only contributions are criticism, cynicism, and fear-mongering. If you’re criticizing from a place where you’re not also putting yourself on the line, I’m not interested in your feedback.

We have to avoid the cheap-seats feedback and stay armour-free. The research participants who do both of those well have one hack in common: Get clear on whose opinions of you matter.

Brené Brown, Dare to Lead

Brené Brown suggests writing the people whose opinions of you matter on a one-inch by one-inch piece of paper. It must be small enough to only capture the very core. She calls these people ‘The Square Squad’ and the suggestion she makes is that the credentials for these people are those that love you not despite your vulnerabilities and imperfections but because of them. They shouldn’t just be a ‘yes’ gang but people who pull you up when you need an integrity checking.

My Square Squad is now made up exclusively of people who have dared greatly; who have made mistakes, owned them, and stood back up to try again. They know what it feels like first-hand to be in the arena and they help me to deal with the feedback that does need listening to, in order for me to live within my values.

“We need to seek feedback from those people [the Square Squad]. And even if it’s really hard to hear, we must bring it in and hold it until we learn from it. This is what research taught me:

Don’t grab hurtful comments and pull them close to you by rereading them and ruminating on them. Don’t play with them by rehearsing your badass comeback. And whatever you do, don’t pull hatefulness close to your heart.

Let what’s unproductive and hurtful drop at the feet of your unarmored self. And no matter how much your self-doubt wants to scoop up the criticism and snuggle with negativity so it can confirm it’s worst fears, or how eager the shame gremlins are to use the hurt to fortify your armour, take a deep breathe and find the strength to leave what’s mean-spirited on the ground. You don’t even need to stomp it or kick it away. Cruelty is cheap, easy, and chickenshit. It doesn’t deserve your energy or engagement. Just step over the comments and keep daring, always remembering that armour is too heavy a price to pay to engage with cheap-seat feedback.

If we shield ourselves from all feedback, we stop growing. If we engage with all feedback, regardless of the quality and intention, it hurts too much, and we ultimately armour up by pretending it doesn’t hurt or, worse yet, we’ll disconnect from vulnerability and emotion so fully that we stop feeling hurt.”

Brené Brown, Dare to Lead

To avoid becoming overwhelmed and abandoning our efforts entirely, we must learn which voices to listen to and when. This is all the more important when tackling territory where power structures exist. If we take any opinion, particularly the loudest, we risk listening to those who do not have a stake in the discussion. Marginalised and oppressed voices can go unheard and are sometimes silenced altogether. It’s a common defence tactic to criticise in order to project shame and blame outward. This distraction can keep a critic safe behind a ‘better than’ mask.

“Criticism often arises from fear or feelings of unworthiness. Criticism shifts the spotlight off us and unto someone or something else. Suddenly we feel safer. And better than.”

Brené Brown, Dare to Lead

Arguably, no place is as tempting to engage with noisy cheap-seat feedback as on social media. Defensive comments, criticism, and the re-centering of narratives are rampant. Reactive statements are in no short supply. And reactive words encourage more reactive words. Numerous times, I’ve typed a draft rant, only to later delete it once I’ve given myself time to move out of a reactive state. I call up Inner Gandalf again who stands on that bridge in the face of the cheap-seat criticism shouting, “This Shalt Not Pass!”

If you want to help your Inner Gandalf (or equivalent), ‘unfollow’ the more persistent of cheap-seat critics on social media. Even consider blocking them. You take away their power if you don’t fuel their fires by accepting their invitation to react.

Your life doesn’t need cheap-seat associate critics. It needs contributors and connections.

Remember, you decide who to listen to, how to do your thing and what values you hold close while doing it. For some people, whatever you do, it will never be enough so let that criticism from the cheap seats fall at your feet. Only pick up what is valuable, constructive, and encourages you to grow and develop better practices. Chat it over with your Square Squad. Get your Caring Committee of Inner Nurturers on the case. Try out different ways of speaking to your inner critics and don’t let them convince you all your outer ones are right. Let your values be your guide.

Celebrate that moment you step into the arena. Hear that inner crowd roar. You’re there doing it! Congratulate you.

How to Belong

Something wasn’t working. We tried to ignore it. It was the elephant in the room – a now gigantic beast wearing a tiny bowler hat and a monocle. The well-dressed Nellie was waving, pulling faces and doing parlour tricks. No one wanted to look him in that enlarged eye so we carried on regardless.

Personally, I did what I’ve always done where performing room-elephants are involved. I tried to clean up the mess, attempted to assemble some sense of order and hoped I could nudge us all in a positive direction. Did it work?

Hell, no. The elephant just brought in a unicycle.

And then a hula hoop.

And then a flaming sword. Was he really going to swallow that?

I couldn’t hang around to watch. I’d seen enough. This time I trusted my gut. And I called it. I left a troupe.

It was a small sad thing. Something that needed doing but I still felt it pretty hard. Part of me didn’t really want to leave but a bigger part of me knew I couldn’t stay without betraying myself so there was no other option. Not anymore.

The fortress of being on the inside of a group can be so comforting but this situation required of me to walk into the wilderness. And sure, we can ignore the call of the wild but it’ll keep on calling. You can bet your gym membership on that.

“I won’t sugarcoat this: standing on the precipice of the wilderness is bone-chilling. Because belonging is so primal, so necessary, the threat of losing your tribe or going alone feels so terrifying as to keep most of us distanced from the wilderness our whole lives. Human approval is one of our most treasured idols, and the offering we must lay at its hungry feet is keeping others comfortable. I’m convinced discomfort is the great deterrent of our generation. Protecting the status quo against our internal convictions is obviously a luxury of the privileged, because the underdogs and outliers and marginalized have no choice but to experience the daily wilderness. But choosing the wily outpost over the security of the city gates takes a true act of courage. That first step will take your breath away.”

Jen Hatmaker

I’ve never been great at leaving things. At eight I agonized over resigning from Recorder Club. Did I enjoy it? I couldn’t tell you but I do remember the tortured decision-making process of leaving and how it took a long time to pluck up the courage to tell my music teacher. When I finally did the deed, she didn’t seem fussed, which I found confusing. Didn’t she know what I’d been through?

Leaving requires putting my need to leave above other people’s expectations of me to stay. It requires facing boredom or silence or the next space. It requires valuing my time. And these are things I’m still learning how to do.

I could hear myself saying I needed to leave the troupe and I knew that meant I could either talk about it forever, hoping it would magically improve, when I knew deep down it would not, or I could leave before the performing elephant brought out his glockenspiel.

This time I chose the latter.

It can be great to be in a troupe but it can also be hard work: group dynamics; commitment; loyalty; navigating all the different needs, goals and expectations people bring; differing attitudes towards performing, feedback and rehearsals; varying priorities, judgements, criticisms and excuses. Being in some troupes might help you feel like you fit in for a while but there’s a big difference between fitting in and really belonging.

“You are only free when you realize you belong no place – you belong every place – no place at all. The price is high. The reward is great.”

Maya Angelou, Interview between Bill Moyers and Maya Angelou, 1973

Brené Brown discovered these words spoken by Maya Angelou and they unsettled her. She was confused. She didn’t know what they meant. To her, the feeling of fitting into a group was so desirable she couldn’t accept what it might mean not to. Belonging was the mountaintop she’d been striving for all her life. How could someone she admired so very much give advice that made so little sense to her?

This is the starting place for Brené Brown’s Braving the Wilderness. It’s a book that has left a lasting impression on me. Her previous books Daring Greatly, Rising Strong and The Gifts of Imperfection get a lot of attention and they should; they’re brilliant. But there is something about Braving the Wilderness that still haunts me. I think about it often. I think about it when I’m feeling lonely. I think about it when I’m reading angry comments on Facebook. I think about it when I catch myself self-sacrificing.

Why do I think about it so much? Because at the heart of the book is a message, an exploration, a concept that I can’t shake off. It is a book that engages with the differences between fitting in and belonging. In our desperation to fit in we change our tastes, we change our opinions, we change our image, we change our masks.

But to belong… now that’s different. That’s surely the golden ticket. That’s what we were striving for all along.

I know about fitting in. Over the years, I got more adept in its requirements. It started for me in the same base training camp it does for many of us: my family of origin. A place, in which, I was constantly baffled and confused by proceedings. My mother would often smooth out my forehead telling me I would get frown lines. Of course, I was frowning; nothing made sense.

“Even in the context of suffering – poverty, violence, human rights violations – not belonging in our families is still one of the most dangerous hurts. That’s because it has the power to break our heart, our spirit, and our sense of self-worth. It broke all three in me. And when those things break, there are only three outcomes, something I’ve borne witness to in my life and in my work:

1. You live in constant pain and seek relief by numbing and/or inflicting it on others;

2. You deny your pain, and your denial ensures that you pass it on to those around you and down to your children; or

3. You find the courage to own the pain and develop a level of empathy and compassion for yourself and others that allows you to spot hurt in the world in a unique way.”

Brené Brown, Braving the Wilderness

I know I will not be alone in this alienating feeling and the drive it can cause to fit in. For many, like me, the festive holidays are a reminder of how much we have had to sacrifice ourselves.

Recognising now that I am not alone is better but it can still feel lonely. Despite who else is also sacrificing themselves to fit in, the process of ‘fitting in’ is one you go through alone, with no real company but your true authentic self prodding away, from under a blanket, trying to get your attention: “Ahem, I’m still here you know. I CAN hear you.”

This means you may succeed in fitting into a particular group but there’s still that nagging feeling that things are not right with the world.

A great many books have been written on, and songs sung for, and films made about, this feeling. And for a really good reason. It is human to want to belong and we know when we get caught up in chasing that need, we can sacrifice near everything, including the people who do see our true selves and accept us as we ourselves do not.

“Belonging is the innate human desire to be part of something larger than us. Because this yearning is so primal, we often try to acquire it by fitting in and by seeking approval, which are not only hollow substitutes for belonging, but often barriers to it. Because true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.”

Brené Brown, Braving the Wilderness

Belonging is a primal instinct. One that historically we needed in order to evolve. As hunter-gatherer folk, we survived better in groups so being part of a band of fellows was the difference between life and death. Abraham Maslow put the need for belonging just above needs that secure safety concerning resources. It’s now generally acknowledged that a sense of belonging is linked to good physical health. It is therefore not a surprise that shame surrounding not belonging can be some of the most damaging and also most keenly hidden.

Unfortunately, we don’t get to belong by hiding under a blanket of lies, or even by screaming: “Include me!” It doesn’t work either of those ways.

It’s a sobering statement but the only down-in-the-dirt way to belong is to accept yourself. I always hoped hard if I could belong, I could learn to love myself through others’ accepting eyes. But that’s not the way around it happens. Instead, we struggle to see those accepting eyes because we can’t see what they see. We can think they are deluded or mistaken or fools.

If we strive to belong without self-acceptance that is what leads to inauthentic and sometimes even destructive behaviour. It can also keep us clinging to a group that doesn’t suit our authentic selves. As you accept yourself more and more you are inclined to show more and more of your true self. And in doing this it makes it more obvious when a group is not sitting right with you.

Self-acceptance can prompt us to leave the table when love and respect are not being served.

“Be easy on yourself. Have fun. Only hang around people that are positive and make you feel good. Anybody who doesn’t make you feel good, kick them to the curb. And the earlier you start in your life the better. The minute anybody makes you feel weird and non-included or not supported, you know, either beat it or tell them to beat it.”

Amy Poehler

By increasing my levels of self-acceptance I’m finding it so much easier to make the calls about the rooms I want to be in, the people I want to be around and the groups I want to leave. I know if the chips were down, and no one seemed to want me, I will still want me. I will always be on my own team. I’ll be my own squad. I’ll be my own personal cheerleader shaking my pom-poms to form the letters of my name and doing a back-flip into a flying splits.

Well, why not? It’s my metaphor.

“True belonging is not passive. It’s not the belonging that comes with just joining a group. It’s not fitting in or pretending or selling out because it’s safer. It’s a practice that requires us to be vulnerable, get uncomfortable, and learn how to be present with people without sacrificing who we are. We want true belonging, but it takes tremendous courage to knowingly walk into hard moments.”

Brené Brown, Braving the Wilderness

Last night I watched Hidden Figures. A brilliant film about the extraordinary African-American women who worked as mathematicians at Nasa during the space race. The film focuses on Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson. Three incredible human-beings who displayed such courage in the face of extreme predjudice. I’d love to ask them how they kept walking into those predominantly white and also segregated spaces at Nasa. I want to know what drove them, what kept them going, what gave them that determination. Did they know they belonged there, or anywhere or to themselves?

I acknowledge that there are lots of ways I can walk into a room and be accepted as others cannot. This will affect how I connect with the issue of belonging. My experiences shape my reflections. There are many things I have not had to experience.

I used to believe in order to belong I had to pay a toll. When I joined an improv community a few years ago I had some uncomfortable moments. I wanted to keep showing up even when I felt challenging feelings. What I realise looking back now was that I actually didn’t need to prove myself deserving of the right to belong in the eyes of others. What I really needed to do was feel deserving to my own eyes and to do that I needed to accept myself. I did that by walking into those hard moments. Putting in that work wasn’t a requirement placed there by others but it enabled me to say “I belong here.” And it was accepting myself through saying that which led to the increasing sense of belonging.

My journey to feeling accepted had to start with me. I started to feel proud of myself for the courage it took me. I decided I deserved to belong and I wasn’t going to let anyone take that away from me anymore, especially not me.

That was how I started to belong to myself.

I included me in the equation. The more I included me, the more I showed up as my authentic self, the more I seemed to be included. I also have less of an issue with scarcity. I see there is enough space to go around. And everyone gets to choose which space feels right for them and where they want to position themselves.

Hard moments do involve turning up. Sometimes they also involve walking away. I’ve often known I wanted out, way before I leave a situation. My gut has said “time to move on” but I’ve ignored it to keep on flogging. I’ve waited it out until a blow-up or a conflagration just so I can be completely sure.

Cheryl Strayed instead tells us to leave because we want to leave.

“Wanting to leave is enough.”

Cheryl Strayed, Brave Enough

It seems counter-intuitive that the more I practice not fitting in, the more I seem to have done so. But that isn’t really about fitting in. It’s about letting go of the need to fit in. Its about self-acceptance. It’s about belonging. And whenever my sense of belonging starts to wane, instead of worrying about whether others are accepting me, I try to remember to ask: am I accepting me – imperfections, perceived imperfections and all?

Brené Brown did come around to understand her idol’s words. She went through the emotional rumble as Brown often does. She got there. And she wrote about it in her fascinating book Braving the Wilderness.

Maya Angelou was an incredibly courageous inspirational writer and activist. She also performed too. In the interview in 1973 with Bill Moyers, Maya Angelou’s final remarks went as follows:

Moyers: Do you belong anywhere?

Angelou: I haven’t yet.

Moyers: Do you belong to anyone?

Angelou: More and more. I mean, I belong to myself. I’m very proud of that. I am very concerned about how I look at Maya. I like Maya very much. I like the humour and courage very much. And when I find myself acting in a way that isn’t… that doesn’t please me – then I have to deal with that.

Interview between Bill Moyers and Maya Angelou, 1973

Critics and How to Face Them: Part 1 – Inner

‘Tis the season for trying new things! But how often do we start something with the gusto of New Year energy, only to be swiftly met with a barrage of discouraging voices?

The mere whiff of New Year enthusiasm brings my inner critics to the yard like it’s two-for-one on stop-me smoothies.

“What’s going on here?” “A downward dog? They need a lot of looking after.” “Kale schmael.” “The Artist’s Way Out, more like.”

Ergo, “You’re going to fall, so why try?” “Who do you think you are?” “You’re going to die.”

Thanks, gang!

We are frenemies of old. They usually hang around on street corners in my mind, clicking their fingers, waiting it out for an ambush. Getting caught between the push and pull of their messy chorus can be compromising. They are like a pointing song gone horribly wrong.

In the past, I thought these voices were me. It turns out, they are not.

When we are little, we get imprinted with lots of voices that are not us. Where do they come from? Parents, family members, teachers, coaches… The way we are spoken to when young people is very important, and we soak it up. Before the age of seven, we are like a sponge – a sponge in a hypnotic trance.

Much gets imprinted on us during these formative years. Some ways we are spoken to become our inner critics.

It is because they are such a time-old bunch of bastards, we can find it hard to see them for what they truly are. Not you.

About a year ago, I did an excellent workshop with Maria Peters on the inner critic. I’d highly recommend taking it if you get the opportunity. Peters explained how our inner critics are designed to keep us safe. We are hardwired to avoid social rejection. In ancient times, social rejection would likely lead to exile. And exile meant certain death.

In modern times it is more likely to lead to increased time with your PlayStation… but we’re still wired the certain-death way.

And even though we’ve created more things to occupy ourselves when alone, it doesn’t mean we’ve staved off loneliness. During the pandemic, periods of lockdowns, isolation and shielding have highlighted to us how much mixing is key to our mental well-being. We are some of the most sociable creatures on this planet.

Over Christmas, I had to isolate myself and by day eight on my own, I was feeling really down. I hadn’t noticed the gradual descent in my mood but what was abundantly clear on my release was what an extraordinary difference having a cup of tea and a chat with a friend made. I leaped from ‘everything is awful and hopeless’, to singing Disney songs around the house.

No, I don’t think there was anything in that tea but a herbal teabag. It’s powerful stuff this socialising.

The look of exile might have changed but the consequences may not be so very different. Our bodies understand that isolation is still dangerous.

It’s possible that part of the thrill of performing on stage is dancing with the risk of social rejection. Seen through this lens, improv becomes an extreme sport. The physical risk may be further removed (although improv injuries do happen), but the historical need to please the crowd is still present within us.

Because of this, on stage, our inner critics can really get in the way, particularly in improv where we want to fall into creative flow states and not be pestered by an inner scaredy-cat.

Sometimes I feel like the practice of improvising is a sneaky attempt to outrun my inner critics. Things happen at lightning-fast speed, so my street corner gang hasn’t always got their act together in time before it’s all over. They’re still getting their backs off the wall when “Scene!” is called. This leaves the harsh voices to ambush me afterward, in order to get their fill, by detailing all the “stupid” things I’ve done and said.

After a show, we might practice Millican’s Law. This is a rule created by comedian Sarah Millican whereby regardless of how a gig has gone down, she stops thinking about it after 11am the following morning. It’s done. It’s over. No more inner critic consequences chatter. She draws a line.

Maria Peters also has some great techniques for taking attention away from your inner critic. One such suggestion was to focus on breath work and on observing facts. You may have heard of the 5-4-3-2-1 grounding exercise. Here is a description of the technique as taken from the University of Rochester Medical Centre website:

“Before starting this exercise, pay attention to your breathing. Slow, deep, long breaths can help you maintain a sense of calm or help you return to a calmer state. Once you find your breath, go through the following steps to help ground yourself:

5: Acknowledge FIVE things you see around you. It could be a pen, a spot on the ceiling, anything in your surroundings.

4: Acknowledge FOUR things you can touch around you. It could be your hair, a pillow, or the ground under your feet.

3: Acknowledge THREE things you hear. This could be any external sound. If you can hear your belly rumbling that counts! Focus on things you can hear outside of your body.

2: Acknowledge TWO things you can smell. Maybe you are in your office and smell pencil, or maybe you are in your bedroom and smell a pillow. If you need to take a brief walk, do, to find a scent. You could smell soap in your bathroom, or nature outside.

1: Acknowledge ONE thing you can taste. What does the inside of your mouth taste like—gum, coffee, or the sandwich from lunch?”

University of Rochester Medical Centre

I mean, who, given the opportunity, doesn’t want to smell pencil?

Once we’ve slowed down, it can become easier to notice the critics as separate from ourselves.

“Consider how self-critical attitudes developed inside you, perhaps when you were younger. When you’re mindful of your inner dialogue, you might notice there’s something familiar about the words, tone or attitude in the self-criticism. Does it remind you of anyone — a parent, sibling, relative, teacher, coach? By listening to yourself, you can hear the dogmatism, harshness and absurdity in much of what the inner critic has to say. Stepping back from the criticism to observe it can stop reinforcing it and help you dis-identify from it: In other words, you may hear it, but you don’t need to be it. This kind of calm witnessing can make the voice of your inner critic less intense and more reasonable.”

Rick Hanson

Psychologist Rick Hanson suggests once we practice observing our inner critics, we might then try turning them into cartoonish characters to undermine their messages.

“You might also try regarding the inner critic as something that lacks credibility. Imagine it as a ridiculous character, like a silly cartoon villain. Place it “over there” in your mind, outside the core of your being — like that annoying person in a meeting who is always critical but whom everybody tunes out after a while.”

Rick Hanson

I often feel I don’t just have one inner critic but a gang. They are a noisy bunch. It is hard sometimes to hear anything else over the cacophony.

A study conducted by Jay Earley, Ph.D. and Bonnie Weiss, LCSW suggests there might be something to my inner critic gang idea. They identified seven types of inner critic: an Inner Controller, a Taskmaster, an Underminer, a Destroyer, a Guilt Tripper, a Conformist and a Perfectionist. You might want to picture these guys as naff cartoon villains. Perhaps spandex is involved.

Inner Controller – This critic tries to control your impulses: eating, drinking, sexual activity, etc. It is polarized with an Indulger –addict who it fears can get out of control at any moment. It tends to be harsh and shaming in an effort to protect you from yourself. It is motivated to try to make you a good person who is accepted and functions well in society.

Taskmaster – This critic wants you to work hard and be successful. It fears that you may be mediocre or lazy and will be judged a failure if it does not push you to keep going. Its pushing often activates a procrastinator or a rebel that fights against its harsh dictates.

Underminer – This critic tries to undermine your self confidence and self esteem so that you won’t take risks. It makes direct attacks on your self worth so that you will stay small and not take chances where you could be hurt or rejected. It is afraid of your being too big or too visible and not being able to tolerate judgment or failure.

Destroyer – It makes pervasive attacks on your fundamental self worth. It shames you and makes you feel inherently flawed and not entitled to basic understanding or respect. This most debilitating critic, comes from early life deprivation or trauma. It is motivated by a belief that it is safer not to exist.

Guilt-Tripper – This critic is stuck in the past. It is unable to forgive you for wrongs you have done or people you have hurt. It is concerned about relationships and holds you to standards of behavior prescribed by your community, culture and family. It tries to protect you from repeating past mistakes by making sure you never forget or feel free.

Conformist – This critic tries to get you to fit into a certain mould based on standards held by society, your culture or your family. It wants you to be liked and admired and to protect you from being abandoned, shamed or rejected. The Conformist fears that the Rebel or the Free Spirit in you would act in ways that are unacceptable. So it keeps you from being in touch with and expressing your true nature.

Perfectionist – This critic tries to get you to do things perfectly. It sets high standards for the things you produce, and has difficulty saying something is complete and letting it go out to represent your best work. It tries to make sure that you fit in and that you will not be judged or rejected. Its expectations probably reflect those of people who have been important to you in the past.

Jay Earley, Ph.D. and Bonnie Weiss, LCSW

What do all these guys have in common? Other than being not you.

They’re trying to help. They think they know what’s best for us. Just like the supervillain thinks they know what’s best for the world.

How do we convince them otherwise? Rick Hanson believes one way to tackle these critics is to demonstrate to them how their messages are outdated. For each criticism, try coming up with at least three examples of times the message has been wrong. So if, for example, the criticism is “You never finish anything”, I might remind this critic that during lockdown I knitted a hammerhead shark of surprisingly large proportions, that I now have an obscure online diploma in monster hunting, and my books are organised by category and author.

If the critic revises their comment to “…anything useful”, then…

… …No revisions!

Another suggestion from Hanson is to boost your inner nurturers. It’s a numbers game.

Inner critics < Inner nurturers = more inner fun times

Inner nurturers? What are they all about? Cute bunnies?

If you like! I’m going to suggest the bunny from the film Harvey. Maybe you don’t need an Inner Donnie Darko rabbit. Unless you already have one, and then these two can go head-to-head in mortal combat.

Harvey was a film released in 1950, based on a play by Mary Chase, in which the affable central character Elwood, played by James Stewart, has an invisible giant bunny rabbit who accompanies him in his day-to-day life-giving advice and encouragement. Elwood explains that Harvey is a Pooka, a shape-shifting spirit from Celtic folklore. Harvey is generally rather a good example of an inner nurturer, but unlike Elwood (James Stewart), you may choose not to have lengthy discussions with your inner nurturers in public. Your call.

James Stewart in the film Harvey (1950).
© 1950 Universal International Pictures

“It may sound silly, but you could imagine a “caring committee” inside yourself with different characters who represent various kinds of support and wisdom. My committee includes my wife and kids, a tough-but-kind rock-climbing guide, several close friends, and even some fictional characters, such as Gandalf from The Lord of the Rings, Spock from Star Trek, and the fairy godmother from the story of Sleeping Beauty. Who’s on your own caring committee?”

Rick Hanson

I’m glad to hear someone else has an Inner Gandalf. Mine often says, “This Too Shall Pass!” in a booming voice to remind me feeling crappy doesn’t last forever. Everything shifts. Even his more famous catchphrase.

The idea of assembling a caring committee speaks to me. I imagine this motley crew working out how best to keep me away from the inner critic cartoon-villain street gang who they suspect, quite rightly, are not a good influence.

If you spend too much time with the inner critic villains raising Hell, this can spill out in unsightly ways. They aren’t always a contained bunch. In part 2 of Critics and How to Face Them we will explore the relationship between inner and outer criticism. How do external critics team up with your inner ones and what can we do about it?

The Attention Game

The art form of improvised performance can sometimes feel like walking a tightrope between seeing and being seen, hearing and being heard, getting attention and giving attention. When I get out of balance I start to wobble. I start to shake. Sometimes I fall.

I get this wobble sometimes when I’ve done a well-received thing. I exhale. Can I rest now? I’ve proved my worth, demonstrated my mustard, exhibited my toucan. The job is done.

I even experienced it with this blog. Lots of lovely people gave me positive feedback and I thought, Huzzah! I can do it. I’ve got something to say and people are listening. How amazing! I wasn’t expecting that. And then I froze up and thought, what the earth am I going to say next?

…Oh my goodness; I have to keep going! But how?

A while back, in a showcase, I even got out of balance mid-improv. It was a tag-out song and as soon as I was tagged out, I stood on the side watching the play. I’d set up something fun for my teammates. I then found myself resolving, ‘Well, that’s that sorted,’ and settling onto my back foot, metaphorically dusting my hands off and resting on my laurels.

I learned the tag-out song technique in a class on Game of the Song from the incredible Heather Urquhart and Joe Samuel. In the exercise, two people start on stage. They begin the scene. In the wings waiting are the rest of the team. When a player-in-waiting notices something interesting, they run in, tag someone out, slot themselves in as the same character and heighten that thing.

It’s fast. It’s frenzied. It’s very fun.

While leaning into my back foot I watched the action fly. I knew there was a beat I should have taken. I felt it open up. It was my moment to head in again but I found my feet didn’t move. I was resting against the wall.

What was I doing this for? I was missing out. I was denying myself the fun of getting in there because I didn’t want to mess up having made a half-decent start; I was worrying more about how I was being received than where the fun was at.

When the next opportune moment rolled around I couldn’t let it pass me by again so I pushed my feet forward.

Was what I did any good? I’ve really no idea. Had I been giving my full attention or worrying about messing up? I’d been worrying about messing up.

A tag-out song should be a brilliant exercise in giving attention. It dawned on me, I was prioritising the attention I was receiving as opposed to the attention I was giving. And that doesn’t make for maximising fun times.

Afterward, people in the audience said our tag song did look super fun. One person even said they’d decided to try musical improv now from watching how fun we made it look. This meant a lot to me – yum, validation. I was part of a team but only I knew the secret that I’d held myself back and this made me feel like a fraud.

“When we keep trying to get attention and that gets out of balance we cut off our own oxygen supply inwardly.”

Mark Nepo

Mark Nepo talks about the difference between getting attention and giving attention on Elizabeth Gilbert’s podcast – Magic Lessons. He gives advice to a poet who has failed to get onto an MFA program and is wondering whether to give up entirely on this thing she loves doing. Nepo says that it is the giving of our attention that must drive us. He suggests that instead of asking from where we are getting attention, we need to instead ask: what am I giving attention to?

As well as exploring our motives behind why we improvise, I think this question can be a beautiful one for scene work. In an improv scene, it can be really easy to get caught up in worrying about what you are bringing, what you are doing, and for what you are getting noticed. But if we flip it and look instead at what we are giving attention to, we can serve the scene better. If we ask what is my character noticing? What are they looking at? What do they care about in relation to what is coming up? If we focus instead on where we are giving attention we can create something deeper. What are we noticing about what our scene partner is doing? What subtleties are we picking up on? What is the sub-text? What is going unsaid?

What are we giving our attention to? And why does it matter to us?

Joseph Gordon-Levitt gave a TED talk where he spoke about how craving attention stifles his creativity. He explores how when he is acting he is totally focused on the scene. He recognises this is needed for his craft. He has also noticed that through many repetitions he’s developed a pattern that enhances his skill. When action is called, he enters a trance-like state of creative flow. I think many improvisers can probably identify with this. I experienced it recently in a show. It felt like my creative brain took over and left me for dust. Afterward, my memory of the show was a blur. What I could remember was in a jumbled order. It was like a montage of snapshots in my head. The area of the brain forming long-term memories was probably taking a back seat.

The show went extremely well but beforehand I’d been apprehensive. It was a new show and we hadn’t improvised in front of a live audience for a long time due to the pandemic. I had no idea by that point whether we would be funny or interesting to real people sitting out there in rows waiting to be entertained. Because of my fear of not being funny enough – about what attention I might get on stage – I found myself hoping the other acts might be a bit less funny. I really liked the other people. I wanted them to succeed but I also had a voice in me that was there because I was performing later, and I didn’t want the competition to be too high in case I didn’t do a ‘good improv’. I wanted others to succeed as long as I did. And we don’t get to make that deal in improv. Or in life.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt also talks about how if he looks at his fellow actors as his competition for attention he misses out on ways to collaborate. Sometimes we see improvisers getting on stage with a competitive vibe. They’re looking for ways to ‘win’ at improv. Sometimes we are those improvisers. If I walk into a scene with the aim of ‘winning’ at improv at the expense of a scene partner, I know something isn’t right. I have to give some attention to why that is happening and what to do about it. The competitive voice is not the voice I want to listen to. I want to be thinking: who here do I want to give attention to? Who here do I want to create with?

I was working with a group where I never really got the feeling I was doing anything half-decent. I kept trying. I’d bring in exercises I’d learned in classes or that had brought me tremendous joy with other people. They didn’t zing. I couldn’t work out what I was doing wrong. I kept trying. I then was prompted by a friend to think less about whether or not that group thought I was any good but whether I was enjoying the improv. I realised I wasn’t. I realised whenever the opportunity to work with the group came around I wanted to find an excuse. I rarely ever feel this reluctance to improvise. It made me realise I’d been so focused on what they thought of my improv, I had neglected to notice what I felt about theirs. I realised I didn’t fit in with the style the group was aiming for and I needed to opt-out of working with them.

Giving my attention to what was really going on allowed me to see what I needed to do clearly. This was compounded to me in a scene where I felt disconnected but was getting lots of laughs. My scene partner was playing an authoritarian character and was closed off emotionally. Despite the laughs I was getting, my character suddenly said, “I just want to go home.” This is what we refer to sometimes as ‘the improviser talking‘ as opposed to the character. I know I can get laughs from riding tension but the attention I was receiving from the on-lookers wasn’t enough in this instance to mask how I felt. I knew something wasn’t working.

It is fun sometimes to get attention for being a bold character or a show-off but I want to give my attention to the emotional core of a scene and to do that I have to connect. I can make people laugh; I can get attention, but making the audience feel something for my characters is important to me. I feel I owe my characters that much. I’m giving them a moment in the spotlights. The least I can do is make it matter. The least I can do is give attention to my characters.

That may seem a somewhat abstract premise. However, if you think of your characters as real people, it may make more sense. I was once endowed with being a pompous bishop in an improvised Dickens show. It threw me because Dickens doesn’t write a lot about religion so I got stuck in my head thinking the audience would think it unauthentic. I was aware people were finding my character funny but I hated the character and refused to give him my attention. In the middle of the show, I had to deliver a kind of mantra for the character. I had no real idea about what the bishop’s voice even sounded like by that point so I opened my mouth and a completely different voice popped out. I felt really stupid – what must the audience have thought? I was so embarrassed I disconnected from the character entirely, refusing to bring him back on stage again. I was much more caught up in worrying about the attention I was getting, than giving my attention to the core of the character and his interactions with my fellow players. I could have found his humanity if I’d just been looking for it but I was focusing elsewhere. I was focusing on myself. And metaphorically, I wasn’t even there!

We are living in a world where we are increasingly encouraged to focus on the attention we are (or aren’t) getting and to feel shame surrounding that. Shame sells. As Joseph Gordon-Levitt discusses in his talk for TED, social media is training its users to crave getting attention. Attention is their commodity. They have to train their users to want it and to give it freely and, of course, in ever-increasing quantities. Most of us use social media. Most of us are part of this trade. This can worm its way into our psyches even away from the screen. We are being trained to need attention but do we ever feel truly seen?

If we go through life focused on where we are getting attention we can veer off our track. We can get caught up chasing the things that do not interest us, the things we do not love: the people, the jobs, the careers, the hobbies, the communities. We can end up being bounced about by what drives others, without stopping to ask: what drives me? About what am I passionate? To what do I most want to give my attention?

What I’ve come to realise is that when I give attention without getting anything back, I become resentful. But when I get it and do not give, I feel a fraud. At the very least I miss things. At the worst it can kill my creativity.

It’s easy to think when you do something half-decent, you don’t have to step forward again. It’s easy to think if you’re not receiving attention for something you love doing, it is time to give up. But to balance on the tightrope, we need to honour what we are choosing to give our attention to. So if you are resting with your back against the wall, try asking not what attention you are getting; ask instead what you are giving your attention to. That’s where your real-life lies. Regardless of whether anyone is watching.

…So get back in there and give it all you got!

10 Ways to be More Tree in Improv

Cissbury Ring, Findon

When was the last time you sat with a tree? Maybe it was yesterday, maybe last week. Maybe it was last month or year. Time spent with trees is good for our health.

I went for a walk with my friend and her tiny son the other day and while we were walking through a copse, he quite suddenly ran up to one of the trees and hugged it. To my jaded adult eyes, I didn’t see much to single this tree out from the rest of them, but nevertheless, I joined him. I figured the tiny human probably knew the tree needed a hug. Or maybe I misunderstood, and it was instead the need of the tiny human being satisfied. The bark was comforting to hold onto. We were clinging to life-saving stability in a chaotic world.

I sometimes get a stress response I call ‘being a bucket of bees’. When I feel those fuzzy fellas buzzing throughout my body, I know it’s time to head to the woods. The magnitude of trees helps my challenges feel little, like a speck in a wide, wild world. The age of trees reminds me not to hold on too long to that which no longer serves me.

“Don’t sweat the small stuff,” the trees say to me and if I make the time to stop and listen, the slow stable satisfying energy of the woods drives the bees right out of me.

Forest bathing, or shinrin-yoku, is a term that was coined in Japan in the 1980s. It was created to champion the effects of time spent with trees on human health in response to the rising cases of tech burnout. It also had designs for protecting the country’s forests.

The human eye can perceive more shades of green than any other colour due to having adapted over the many, many years we lived in lush forests and jungles. There was an evolutionary benefit to being able to detect different greens when foraging and also in avoiding becoming prey. For me, time spent amongst trees feels like coming home, and our evolutionary story could well explain that sensation.

As part of our Beltane improv celebrations this year, I played a ‘mother tree’ in the forest, quite happy with their lot. Playing plant life is one of my favourite things to do in improv. I’ve certainly played a few out-of-control plants in my time, including triffids and Little Shop of Horrors style horticulture. Rampaging foliage can be very fun but recently I’ve found my portrayals of plant life want to be more peaceful. The wisdom I feel oozing from the green world is wide and broad and stable.

There’s a lot we can learn from trees. Generally, trees like to be around other trees. Trees like company. Some trees manage with solitude but most species of tree, don’t generally do so well single. Trees on their own are more likely to get sick. They are more susceptible to insect attacks because they haven’t got other trees around them to warn them of danger. They need a network.

One of my favourite group warm-up games is ‘I Am Tree’. Players get to make connections, support each other, build on each other’s ideas and stand tall together. It feels tree-like to me.

And the game starts with a tree.

One person enters the centre of the circle and proudly exclaims, “I am tree.” Another steps forward, “I am branch.” Another, “I am bark.” The ‘tree’ chooses which of the two associations will lead the next round. “I choose bark.”

Bark then repeats, “I am bark.” And we begin again: “I am squeak.”, “I am chirp.”

See what they did there? “I choose squeak.”

“I am squeak” …And so on.

This could be a great warm-up to kick off your tree-inspired improv practice.

There’s a lot more to trees than meets the eye. People have known trees are amazing for a long time but the ‘modern world’ decided at some point it had trees figured out and so started to cultivate them for economic gain. The ‘modern world’ started creating forests that were by design and tended to include only one type of tree, sometimes two. Trees don’t like that. But we didn’t stop to notice because the modern world can be like that.

The modern world people thought trees must want to grow fast because the modern world people want everything quickly. Surely trees must feel the same?

They do not.

Trees like to grow slowly. They like to be around lots of different trees. They like to feed each other, and they particularly look out for their kin. Trees know their own saplings. To use our human words: trees have families. They have friendships too. They support each other. They’re connected.

“In mature forests, trees and plants communicate and interact with each other through vast underground web of fungi which connect the trees and plants. Resources are shared through this network – carbon, water and nutrients – so helping the whole system of trees and plants to flourish.”

Sharon Blackie, If Woman Rose Rooted

I’ve been trying to get to know a tree. I had been, for a long while, walking or jogging around this hawthorn in a radius which felt good to me. Without knowing what I was doing, I made this tree my touch tree and since recognizing this I’ve been consciously returning to meet regularly with this tree.

Hawthorn in Summer

If you’re lost in the woods, it’s recommended you identify a touch tree. This is a tree that stands out from the rest, preferably taller. As you explore your surroundings and carry out your survival, you can keep coming back to touch this particular tree, so you don’t stray too far from your original location. Straying too far is how people can get lost for good. A touch tree can help you get found.

And so it is that this beautiful Hawthorn has become my touch tree. Whenever I feel lost in a metaphorical wood, I visit this beautiful living being who helps me remember how to feel grounded.

The more I’ve visited the tree, the more I’ve become painfully aware that I don’t have the right words for engagement. This tree is not an ‘it’.

Living. Breathing. Surviving, striving and thriving. Alive.

Not an ‘it’.

But what other words do I have?

I tried out ‘He’ but that didn’t feel right at all.

I gave Hawthorn a name. Hawthorn.

It seemed the best I could do. But I was so aware it was my name based on human identification. How do we engage with nature when all our words for ‘it’ set us apart, separate us and give us ownership we just should not have? Don’t have. But often assume.

Hawthorn in Autumn

Words woefully failed me. So much language surrounding nature is presumptuous and reductive. This tree is my equivalent. Another life. And I have no doubt, that Hawthorn is much wiser than I. Hawthorn knows how to be a tree. Better, I am quite sure, than I know how to be a human.

So how can we lessen this divide? How can we learn from the green world? How can we be more tree? What might a tree tell us about how to improvise? Here are 10 ways to be more tree in your improv:

  1. Play plant life – I’ve been lucky enough to play a fair few triffids in improv. I think I watched that film wanting the triffids to win, to be honest. But plant life doesn’t have to be vengeful to be interesting. Try playing the spirit of an old oak tree, a pungent spruce or a resourceful elm.
  2. Slow down – practice growing slow and steady with some slow burn improv. One of my favourite exercises in this is to agree to no speaking for the first minute of a scene. Experiment with what happens during this minute. What emotions arise? Can you sense how your character feels about the other character/s? You may even decide to do a whole scene without words.
  3. Get connected by establishing your own network of giving and receiving gifts – The more connected you are with a fellow improviser, the more in tune you are. This means you will become more aware of subtleties that alert you to what’s going on between characters on stage. Body language, tone of voice, a flicker in the eyes; this is how we awe the audience with our unscripted performance by getting ahead of them.
  4. Make space – Some species of tree do an amazing thing called crown shyness. If you look up at a canopy, you may see that trees have grown in such a way whereby the tops of them leave space for their neighbouring trees. Think open umbrellas in a crowd where no two umbrellas are touching. Practice crown shyness in improv by making space for your scene partner to grow. If you find yourself without much space, use what you have purposefully. I did a scene recently where my scene partner was talking a mile a minute. There was hardly any space for my character, so I decided to deliberately pair back my speech to very little. It made my character really sinister, as my long silences heightened the tension.
  5. Get grounded – trees are of course great at digging deep. A strong and stable root system makes all the difference. Getting grounded in a scene might be as simple as planting your feet to avoid what I’ve heard Jules Munns refer to as the improviser’s shuffle. Another thing to get grounded is to give yourself some object work to do. It can really help locate you in the world you are inhabiting. If, like my brain, yours also worries about doing too many things at once, make the action simple. See if you can find something repetitive. You may even find it soothing. In rehearsal, we sometimes play a scene doing object work with our eyes closed. We don’t say what the object work is prior to the scene, it’s like our little secret, as only those watching can see what both people are doing. This is something we learned from Jonathan Pitts in his exceptionally brilliant workshop on strength in vulnerability.
  6. All together – do some group scenes where you all make an effort to nurture each other with endowments and gifts. What can you tell each other about your characters? What can you build when you are all giving? Try out scenarios like being in a press-gang or at the AGM for an unusual interest group.
  7. Feed your improv family – it can be really easy to get caught up in promoting your own shows and troupes. But don’t forget to support others in your community. You might feel someone else is just a sapling, but saplings can grow really quickly under the right conditions. Today’s sapling is tomorrow’s mighty oak. So support your local community. Trees send nutrients to saplings, veterans, and even to fallen trees and stumps. Let’s all help each other to grow taller.
  8. Embrace diversity – trees love to be around different types of trees. The healthiest forests are varied and rich with many species. Everyone has something to bring to the mix. Diversity shouldn’t be a tick-box exercise. It’s an opportunity. The more perspectives you have, the broader your storytelling can become. And you will likely appeal to a wider audience.
  9. Find a ‘touch tree’ – Identify something in a scene you can return to when you start to get lost. For me, this is often how my character feels about the character/s they are with. If I can get back to how they feel about someone else and why it matters, I can usually find a way through even the densest of scenes.
  10. Give yourself time – it can be so tempting to rush. But a lesser-known secret in performance is the audience will wait. I particularly find myself rushing in musical improv. The more I practice, the more I realise there is time. Pause. Breathe. In. Out. Follow your breath into your words. Make. Every. Word. Count. For a super exercise in this, try ‘Seven Words or Fewer’ as taught by Chris Mead. Limit each line per person to no more than seven words. It gives you the time to play with pauses and is a great discipline for making every contribution count.

I once attended an interactive session at The Old Market in Brighton. It was all themed around woodland and as part of the activities, you got to experience, through virtual reality, moving along the sustaining systems of a tree. Shooting up through the tree as rainwater was such an extraordinary experience. Its impact was immense. I still remember vividly how it felt.

We also got the opportunity to sense the world as a frog and a bird. As a frog, I managed to get stuck somehow but due to being unable to get my virtual frog legs to move, I spent the time looking around at how the frog sensed the world, and how it perceived vibrations. Frogs have always made me feel uneasy but this experience enabled me to understand how a frog must see me. It gave me that chance to see the world with new senses. Frogs have unsettled me much less since because I understand them better.

Perceiving through a fresh perspective has the profound power to create empathy and compassion, not just for the members of our own species but for other species too. Playing a range of life through improv can encourage us to understand how other life lives. It can prompt us to care more for the other living things around us.

This time of year is perfect for being more tree in your improv, for reviving interest in trees and for celebrating plant life. Earth Day, Beltane, and the move from spring to summer are all upon us again. Blossom is about, bluebells are blanketing woodlands and the many shades of green are out in full force here in England.

This post contains images of some of my favourite trees. Consider finding some favourite trees of your own and sitting with them. Listen and learn. Connect. I’m in a group where we share our encounters with trees and plant life. When one person shares, it reminds others to do so too. We have created a feed of pics documenting personal encounters with nature. We do this together, which brings me much joy.

I’d recommend finding and feeding your community. It’s encouraging to know you’re not alone in your loves.

We are also not alone in life. Life is everywhere. Try playing it all and see what blossoms.

The Lightning Tree at Patching

10 Ways to Own Your Own Scene

Do you ever get an offer and just think, my goodness, what the earth do I do with this? I was recently endowed as a prostitute. It wasn’t what I was expecting. It threw me to be honest. Maybe reading this statement threw you. It’s that moment, isn’t it? The moment when you think: woah, where did that come from? And where the heck is this going?

Regardless of the curve ball, I had already chosen high status for my character so I committed to not dropping my point of view. My scene partner then held me responsible for the losing of his erection. Wow. My boss moves weren’t doing it for him apparently. I was doing improvised prostitution wrong.

Turning around a scene from within isn’t always easy, especially when your scene partner has an idea where they want things to go. So what options did I have in this situation? Did I have to accept the cards I’d been given?

Not the credit cards, no.

In improv we do, to an extent, have to accept the cards we are dealt. That’s the foundation of our craft. Accepting them is the first step. Once they are in our hands, how we choose to play them is up to us. Although, that doesn’t mean our moves are always going to be well received. Some people don’t like it when you lay a trump card.

I want to think of improv as a collaborative effort. I don’t enjoy it as much when it’s a competitive sport but I acknowledge that everybody gets to choose their own improv style. Accepting others play differently is necessary.

“You don’t have a right to the cards you believe you should have been dealt. You have an obligation to play the hell out of the ones you are holding.”

Cheryl Strayed, Brave Enough

In order to own our own scene, it’s important to know you don’t have to hold to every rule you’ve been told makes ‘good’ improv. You get to decide. You can get up from the game table if compromising improv is all that’s being served.

On this topic, I’d really recommend reading Patti Stiles’ book Improvise Freely. It has helped me feel so much more confident regarding my instincts. Before I started to explore how I could own my own scene, scenes owned me. That put me in a tricky position. A scene partner could decide where a scene went and I had to follow, dutifully. Sometimes with a mop.

I was once, to my detriment, a fully paid-up member of the “Yes, And” club.

I have since revoked my membership.

I did a show recently where my duo partner’s character asked mine to marry him. I knew how my character would answer. I said “No.” The laugh from the audience was so big we cut the scene and moved on. It felt great.

Even if we’d continued with that scene there would have been two strong viewpoints to take forward. This thinking was inspired by Patti Stiles’ advice in an interview she gave for The Art of Yes. A far less progressive answer to the marriage proposal would have been to say “Maybe” and then have to spend the rest of the scene debating the decision. If I’d said “Yes”, perhaps we could have discussed the flower arrangement or where our mothers would sit in the church.

“No.” in this context, felt the more interesting answer.

Afterward, an experienced improviser in the audience came up and commented with surprise, at my lack of “Yes, And”. I explained how Yes, And was about accepting an offer. Not actually having to say “Yes, And”.

Holding people to account for not using Yes, And literally, doesn’t give them credit for being accountable for their own decisions onstage. If we want improv to move forward into the territory of equality, we have to let go of this firm grip on literal “Yes, And”.

“When I was first starting my improv education in the GTA (Greater Toronto Area), I thought yes meant I had to actually say yes to everyone’s ideas – even if that idea made me uncomforatble. This led to many times where I felt incredibly used and unsafe. I later learned that our role isn’t literally to say yes to everything, it’s just to accept the offer and continue to move forward together.”

Hayley Kellett, Improv & Consent: Why “Yes, And” Doesn’t Always Mean Yes, quoted in Improvise Freely

Floating the ‘rules’ in order to do what works for you, and your character, can feel scary but Stiles demonstrates how the ‘rules’ are made up anyway and don’t work so well when used universally. They won’t make sense in every situation. We can say “No.” We can time out. We can leave the stage.

I was in a class once where my scene partner threw something critical at me about my character’s mother. I rolled over and did a “Yes, And”. Liz Peters (from The Maydays) – who was teaching the class – stopped the scene and asked me, “Is that really what you wanted to say?” “No,” I said a little scared. “Well, say what you want to say. He’s out of order.” Thanks, Liz.

It’s a brave move, to go up against “Yes, And” but it can also be an inspiring one. It can feel like taking on the boy’s club. That’s a big thing to buck against but heck, if we want to own our improv we have to. All of us. Every one.

“Simplistic rules reduce awareness and replace it with conditioned behaviour. When we condition improvisers, we replace possibility and perception with predictive responses. This leaves improvisors vulnerable to others who are using this rigid rule to control and manipulate scenes. Empower improvisers to question, to be free thinkers. Give them the tools – not rules.”

Patti Styles, Improvise Freely

Here are 10 potential tools to explore in your improv to take responsibility for your improv and also yourself. We can sit in a space of feeling offended by someone else’s offers or we can do something about them so let’s see what we can do to take back our power.

  1. Look out for yourself before your scene: – We can get taught the scene is sacrosanct. It is not. It is just an improv scene. You are far more important. Do what you need to do to take responsibility for your emotional landscape even if that means disappointing others. No one else is going to know what’s going on for you fully so you have to put yourself before the scene. We need to take responsibility for ourselves because we all have different limits.
  2. Know your boundaries: – Explore your edges so you can be clear about what lines are important to draw in order for you to not betray yourself. If you are new to thinking about boundaries, start by noticing how your body feels. If you start to feel icky during a scene you might be coming up against a boundary. Consider what boundaries you need to have in place to honour your time, your energy and your emotional well-being. Once you recognise where your own boundaries are, then follows the need to communicate them clearly to others.
  3. Have the hard conversations: – If you’ve reached your limit, it might well be the time to reach out and have a hard conversation about that. Sometimes hard conversations can reveal to you that you are not the only one who feels a certain way, that you are not alone and that other people are falling over themselves to improve a situation. Sometimes, however, you discover that there are some people who don’t want to have hard conversations. Both ways you learn and you can choose the people you want to stick around. Recently some of the guys I improvise with have been asking how I felt about the status choices they made in scenes. I love this! It opens up a conversation where we can discuss together what character dynamics feel appropriate to put in front of an audience. We can also establish together our collective limits.
  4. Accept the reality but pick your offers: – Offers can take on multiple forms. They might be physical, environmental, emotional, verbal or status related. You don’t have to respond to every part of an offer to move things forward. You can accept the reality the offer has created but only take part of the offer forward. Patti Stiles in her book Improvise Freely describes a time she accepted a sleazy line but focused on the accompanying gesture and what else it might mean. She effectively turned a lewd crotch scratch into grounds for a divorce. If you want to know just how she made that happen, I recommend you read her book.
  5. Boss your character: – No one knows your character as well as you do. You know what they think and feel. You know what they want to say. You also know what will change them. By giving your character license to behave the way they need to you can practice giving yourself the same license. I once had someone come up and tell me what I ‘should’ have done in a scene that had been highly praised by a teacher. I dutifully thanked this guy but I told him my character wouldn’t have done what he suggested as it wasn’t in her motivation. The guy looked like I’d slapped him in the face. This is your permission to own your creation, own your character, own your improv. Let someone else do them… or be annoyed. Whatever!
  6. Encourage saying and hearing no: – Hurt surrounding the word “No” is not uncommon. Especially for improvisers. We have a cult to avoid it. But “Yes, And” is a ‘rule’ for beginners that got out of hand. It far outgrew its original purpose, like an unattractive marrow that could have once been a tasty contained courgette (zucchini). No one should be manipulated into saying yes to something they really don’t want to do, especially not in service of a rule that was invented to get beginners to loosen up and agree with each other. “Yes, And” is no sword to die by. Say “No” when you need to and inspire others to do the same.
  7. Be discerning about the suggestions you choose: – I recently witnessed excellent boundary assertion regarding suggestions. At the time when a suggestion was taken that was upsetting and/or potentially triggering, an aware person in the room would call out and ask for it to be changed. One such change was from bunny hunters to bunny rescuers. It led to an awesome song that had the audience swaying and singing along together with their hands up on top of their heads like rabbit ears. Bunny hunters would have of course led to a completely different song and likely not provided the warm feels the audience lapped up.
  8. Introduce the ‘time out’: – Sometimes you’re going to get into a scene which you really don’t want to be in. Maybe it is creeping you out. Maybe someone has landed you in it. Maybe you have said something that is leading you down a path that’s just too dark. I’ve lost count of how many times something has fallen out of my mouth in an improv scene, I wanted to scoop right back in again. It happens and it is how we navigate it that counts. We need to know, that ‘timeout’ is an option. I’ve seen pros like Kaci Beeler and Roy Janick from Parallelogramophonograph call ‘timeout’ in online shows. They’ve stopped for a moment and reset something. It’s a bold move – it’s the brave move – and it has enabled them to create the best show for them and their audience. Chances are if we as improvisers feel uncomfortable with the direction things are heading, people in the audience will too.
  9. Practice using ‘new choice’: – You may have heard of the improv game ‘New Choice’. It’s a game where during a scene someone says a line and then immediately someone else calls out “New choice!” and the first person has to say their last line again differently. “New choice!” does not have to be confined to an exercise. Try practicing “New choice!” throughout rehearsals, throughout shows, introduce it to an audience at the start of a jam with a game so that if anything really icky comes up later and you need to call “New choice!”, everyone knows what it means.
  10. Agree gestures pre-performance to indicate that you are uncomfortable: – With your regular playmates consider creating a way of signaling that an improviser is uncomfortable from within a scene. This seems even more essential now that we are navigating so many different comfort zones as a by-product of the pandemic. We are getting more used to elbow shakes and air hugs and no-contact high fives. We are becoming accustomed to asking what someone’s boundaries are physically so why not set up some signals that make it easier to notice on stage when someone really isn’t comfortable? This could provide an antidote to the danger of instead establishing a push-pull game of the scene with someone else’s genuine discomfort.
  11. Normalise leaving a scene: – We are taught never to leave our scene partners on stage alone. Why? Because we were told this as beginners to encourage us to support each other. Sometimes powerful improv moves are made when someone is left alone on stage. Sometimes it sends a message. Leave a scene if you have to. Get out of there. Don’t rip yourself apart to please an audience who won’t all know this ‘doctrine’. I have definitely been in scenes that in hindsight I wish I’d left.

I’ve played my share of uncomfortable scenes. As I have grown more confident in improv through practicing the craft, I have come to understand how my trust for others only goes so far as the trust in myself to cope with what others might do.

Jonathan Pitts gave some excellent advice once in a workshop I took with him on vulnerability in improv. He said, “If someone is not being open with you on stage, you can choose to close. If they are not connecting, it is not your fault.”

My experiences have taught me that we can’t control anyone else, not in life or in improv. The only person we have any control over is ourselves. We can own our responses. We can own our offers. We can own how we choose to play.

We can own our own improv and our boss moves can encourage others to do the same.

This post follows on from The Boundary Line – a previous post concerning boundaries in improv. To read more about boundary discussions click here. For more on the topic of taking suggestions, try our post Suggest This that can be read here.

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.