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

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

11 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.

Improv for Survival

After nearly two years, it felt amazing to put a show in front of a live real-life audience. We had completely lost touch with whether anything we were doing was funny. Had we got to the point where we just made each other laugh? Would it be like a pin drop as we muddled through creating the worlds that interested us but that no one else really understood? What was in store for us on that stage?

I was a different person from who I was when the pandemic started. I was certainly a different improviser. How would an audience react?

We held our breath.

On stage for our first duo real-life performance as Assimilate after two years in-waiting.

It had been a long two years.

It is already becoming harder to remember now what it was like for all the theatres to be closed, to have no stages to stand on, no real audiences to sense. My life had been defined by them and then they were gone, seemingly overnight. It was disorientating, disturbing and traumatic.

And we are constantly being reminded we are not out of the woods yet.

Ironically, the woods are where I have gone to when the claustrophobia of the pandemic has got too much. They have been my sanctuary. And it’s true, I’m not out of the woods yet; I’m still going there. The size and the longevity of the trees reminds me how small I am and I need that sometimes. I need to remember we are all passing through.

I imagine years from now the question will be, “How did you spend the pandemic?” in much the way my grandparents’ generation used to ask each other how they spent the war. The pandemic is a very different thing of course but another big collective happening that has cut across all our lives. It has felt long and we are weary. Sometimes I look around now and think of all the practical things I could have been doing during lockdown but didn’t. I have to remember that I was actually quite busy – surviving.

“It simply divided my life, cut across it like that. So that everything before that was just getting ready, and after that I was in some strange way altered. It took me a long time to go out and live in the world again. I felt “alienated” in the pure sense.”

Katherine Anne Porter on her experience of having influenza in the pandemic of 1918

I tried to be kind to myself during the lockdowns. It was one of the biggest things I learned, a lesson hammered home to me while having Covid-19 and also in the aftermath of the virus. I didn’t know if I’d ever recover my health so I resolved to be kind to myself whatever happened. If ever there was a time for me to learn how to be kind to me, surely it was here.

Separately beamed into the virtual performance space… which just so happens to be in space… a space in space. We’re thinking about that.

During this period we were barely allowed outside. Essential food items, medicine and an hour max exercise a day close-by were the only permitted reasons to leave home. Our worlds had become small and uncertain, uncomfortable and stuck. These were the reasons my duo buddy, Josh Hards and I applied to be part of a university study into virtual improv. After all, there was no indication as to how long any of this would last. And what else were we going to do with time?

For me, exploring the worlds of Virtual Director saved me from the monotony of everyday lockdown life. The software designed by Boyd Branch projected our images from our separate spaces into one virtual arena where we were guided by our director Boyd. You can read more about our engagement with the study here.

Improvising at a distance, and with a time lag, was challenging but at least it did allow us a chance to leave our homes in our imaginations. Some evidence suggests parts of our subconscious minds can’t tell the difference between real and imagined so perhaps this is why I feel I had a busy pandemic. Although we were separated by geography, seeing the image of ourselves placed into the same onscreen environment seemed to have the effect of making us feel we had indeed left the house on some level. We travelled in space and in time. We travelled through the air to create together, or at least visual representations of us did.

Josh and I came to realise, during the study into virtual performance, that to get the best out of online improv we wanted to lean into the things we wouldn’t be able to do in real life. A couple of months before the pandemic started we’d travelled together to Hamburg to do intensive training in sci-fi improv with Project 2, the inspirational duo made up of legends Katy Schutte and Chris Mead. It was because of this adventure that we’d started to plan a new improvised sci-fi show of our own.

We loved science fiction. It was what we’d set out to do in the before time so these strange unpredictable circumstances could play into our remit. After all, improv had now actually become sci-fi.

This meant with some creative thinking we could use improvising online at a distance to our advantage. There were visuals available to us now that could communicate our surroundings and even change our appearances without words. Our experiments with technology were given a huge boost working with Boyd Branch. He introduced us to using filters and we were so excited by them we chose to use one for our first performance. It made us look stylised, like vampiric scruffily drawn avatars and nudged us towards more eerie scenes and characters.

I think this also appealed to us because staring at yourself as you improvise can be quite a barrier to getting into a creative flow state. I suspect it gives the left brain too much to do as it tries to interpret what it’s seeing. In recordings, I would notice how much my eyes darted between my image and my scene partner. It revealed how distracted I’d become. Using a filter at least meant my image was then more of an avatar or puppet that only bore some resemblance to my likeness which created some more distance between my screen representation and me.

The audience for our inaugural online show had been invited into a closed Zoom room. Before they arrived, we spent some time warming up with another duo and they went ‘on’ first. This meant that Josh and I were sat separated, alone, for 20-30 minutes waiting for our turn. This was a completely different experience to sitting together for the same length of time before our live show while watching another act. In real life we still had an energetic connection. Onscreen this wasn’t possible so it had an impact.

Our first online show went into pretty weird territory. There was one scene we still laugh about now where Josh was in a bathtub and I was standing out to the side. I tried to scrub his back at one point but was spun all the way around instead as both the virtual director and I tried to figure out the logistics at the same time. It was a really strange scene but it’s funny how they are the ones that give you legacy laughs.

Was anyone else laughing at that moment? We didn’t know.

“Without reactions, laughter and gasps of audience, stand-ups can never be truly complete. There’s something strange about making jokes in a screen, with an awkward silence and occasional, disembodied laugh erupting from somewhere. [Milind] Kapoor says, “It’s a completely different thing to enjoy a band live versus listening to them on YouTube. You want the feedback of laughter. There’s an irreplaceable energy in the room when performing for an audience face-to-face.””

Grace Cyril, New Delhi, Hindustan Times

Given time, comedians performing during lockdown conditions opened up about how tough it was without audience feedback. This resulted, for some, in virtual audiences, like on BBC’s Mock the Week.

“It’s really helped the panellists and the comedians because it was flat without an audience. Now, some of them quite like being able to hear the audience clearly without having to be a few metres away from them.”

Mark MacDonald, UK Operations for BBC News

Our show was largely before those discussions. We had chosen to listen to the observations of previous performers who felt the mixed sounds coming from a virtual audience were distracting. We, therefore, opted on this occasion for performing with them muted. This helped us to discover that not being able to hear any laughter or reactions increased our disconnect. It highlighted to us we were people isolated in separate rooms, cut off from an audience from which we felt a million miles away. Once I turned my camera off after the show I was plunged back into my lonely room in isolation. It was a long night trying to shake off my performance adrenaline – energy that had found no place else to go.

Performing online had its challenges but working with Boyd had given both Josh and me a lot more confidence and enthusiasm for experimenting with improvising onscreen. We brought lots of the things we’d learnt during the study back into our Zoom rehearsal room.

We discovered we could have lots of fun with filters, costumes and props. We also really enjoyed using backgrounds to transport us to different locations. For science-fiction improv, this meant a whole other world of opportunity. We even tried splitting backgrounds and rigging up second screens to the side of us. An early scene we did this way was in a run-down tatty living room and was about a man with a robot second wife, which he had obtained after his first wife had died. It was moving but we realised watching it back I was looking too high up and far forward to meet Josh’s eye-line.

It took some adjustment in our setups to get it right so we could both appear to be looking at one another. Once we had, it created the impression to an audience that we were in the same space. Of course, we weren’t at all so it felt like a neat trick. We judged our scene Inventory to be the most successful using this technique.

Interestingly during that time, we played a lot of people in bunkers. We played people living under authoritarian states. We played people evading oppressive rules and regulations. We played people surviving. We poured out our frustrations into our characters. We lived vicariously through them. I’ve always been fascinated by dystopian story-telling but I think creating these worlds helped me cope with what was happening in real life.

The day-to-day living at this point in the pandemic fed into our art. It was a mash-up of nothing happening and everything happening. It was boring and sensational, dull and horrifying.

“These so-called bleak times are necessary to go through in order to get to a much, much better place.”

David Lynch

Making performance art gave me a reason to get out of bed in the morning. It gave me a community. It gave me a support network that saw me through this time. It gave me something to focus on that wasn’t watching the death count figures rise or obsessively refreshing BBC news. I did those things to start with and then, exhausted, I let them go as my days became occupied with making. And making, as humans have always done in so many forms over our time on this Earth.

I remember once seeing an exquisitely carved figurine in the Oxford Pitt Rivers Museum. The guide told us it would have taken a ridiculous number of hours to make. At a time when people’s lives were shorter, it awed me anyone would devote such a portion of their life to making. It really must have felt a meaningful use of their precious life.

It is easy sometimes to consider making art as trivial. But is it ever really so if it gives us meaning, a reason to carry on through the days with no certainties? I think it would be easy to see the pandemic as this wake-up call to do something important with our lives. But who gets to decide what is important to us but us?

“It is the poets, artists, and musicians that will carry us through the pandemic attacks into a new reality. They are the ones who tell us how to navigate, breathe, feel, think, enjoy, and fully live our lives.”

Erik Pevernagie

Creating and curating onscreen improv was time-consuming but it felt worth our time. Everything about it was like trial and error so we decided to accept that. We agreed the best way for us to perform online was going to be to record our scenes, review them and then share them with an audience. This would allow us to keep a level of control over our art. We were then able to put out into the world the scenes with which we were most proud.

Our method helped us to feel less inhibited in trying new things. We were still learning after all. And some techniques we tried really did not work. Still, there was a lot of debate at the time about whether online improv had to be live to keep the integrity of the art form. We felt a bit sheepish we’d found another way that worked for us but we also felt that unprecedented times called for different ways of doing things.

We had huge amounts of fun using Snap Camera filters but sometimes it was too much for my computer. In one scene where I had giant moving butterfly wings my laptop gave up trying to understand what was going on and I became a sort of inverted shadow butterfly. Of course, that gave us a gift to play with for the improv but it was visually very strange to watch back.

Snap Camera wasn’t consistent and we’d both sigh when suddenly a yellow circle would appear on the screen that meant it had stopped working. However, we were able to do some extremely fun things with it when my computer did keep up. Some of my favourite things were when Josh and I played Ken and Barbie comparing each other’s kitchens, when we played a series of monsters for our Halloween special and when we became sock puppets – a sock puppet mum talking to her ungrateful son who was off to sock puppet (presumably) university. I also completely cracked up laughing during a scene we called Berries where Josh had a head distorting filter that gave him a wide mouth and tiny forehead. A number of these scenes can be viewed on our Assimilate page.

Because of the technology involved in online improv, this actually enabled Josh and me to expand our minds further into the characters we could play and the rich worlds we could build. There were many things missing from our tool belt but there was still fun to be found. Boyd Branch’s study gave us a strong start to our adventures. I think it made us braver.

Our explorations with Boyd also led us – Assimilate – to ‘meeting’ The Sudden Knot who performed on the same bill as us in that first online performance. They were also experimenting with this new mode of improvisation so we teamed up with Desi and Johan from Belgium/Bulgaria for some double-duoing. It could have been a surreal double-duo-date but we had improv to do… so it got even more surreal.

It was strange to be improvising at such a distance without having met in real life but it was also a thrill to play with a new fresh dynamic. The four of us created dark horror stories with a fairy-tale flavour. We released Gingerbread and Wake Up and Smell the Coral. If you watch to the end of Wake Up and Smell the Coral you will see Lobby the Lobster (one of my lockdown knits) makes a cameo. The idea for this came from taking an online class with Carla Keen entitled ‘We Can All Be Hedy Lamar’. It was about experimenting with techniques for online performance and some of Carla Keen’s ideas were great for feeding back into rehearsals. Using objects and toys was one such suggestion. Also voicing people in images was another that proved great fun to play with.

Lobby the Lobster was made a star regardless of his backwards sewn-on arm. You can still be loved despite your imperfections. Maybe even, because of them. Lobby is not in full agreement.

Assimilate and The Sudden Knot then received an invite from Boyd to all come back together as a group for more fun with his virtual software. He’d developed it further by then so we were able to push the boundaries yet again with zooming in and using real-life backgrounds. From these experiments, we created a compilation of scenes that embodied an off-the-wall retro children’s show: Through The Cardboard Castle. It was incredibly fun to make together and is really quite bananas, and probably somewhat disorientating. I think it’s testimony to how we may have been going a bit stir crazy at that point.

I do though feel Through the Cardboard Castle is rather a good tribute to this really weird time in all our lives. It sits beside our dystopian worlds rather well. They form an archive of a kind, a memory of this other world in which we found ourselves and created ways to survive… by creating art about survival.

There are times when being kind to yourself has to come first. And so I found a way to keep doing what I loved doing, even if that was in a way I had never done before. What we managed to create defied anything I could have predicted in those early days of resisting improv onscreen. I discovered online improv could be really fun. It just took thinking of it in a different way and searching for new things with which to play. I started to think of it less as the improv I knew and loved, and more as online spontaneous stretching of improv muscles.

Maybe that wasn’t going on a t-shirt.

Assimilate doing our best Mulder and Scully impression. The truth is out there… maybe… we’ll look properly when they let us back outside.

Suggest This

You get up onto the stage. You’re raring to go. You’re improvising, or running a jam or hosting a show. You ask for a suggestion. Someone calls back from the audience. You feel grateful someone is saying something. You feel you owe them. But the suggestion is gross. It’s smutty. It’s sexual. It’s unpleasant. It’s about shit or bums or willies or dildos or bondage or brothels. It isn’t the suggestion you want to do, or you want your troupe mates to do, or you want the willing participants at your jam to do.

But you take it because you feel you must.

Perhaps you are operating under the mythology the quickest, loudest audience member is always right. Perhaps you are operating under the mythology you owe this voice for speaking. Perhaps you are operating under the mythology that this character in the crowd must speak for all the others. Perhaps you are operating under the mythology that you, or the people on the stage with you, can turn the suggestion around, weaving it skilfully into comedy gold. You will be heroes! “How did they do it?” people will say. “They’re geniuses!”

But will they? Or will they say you took a shitty suggestion and made it mildly less awful?

I’ve seen this shift attempted time and time again. And on more than one occasion I’ve seen audience members walk out. It’s a big risk. And we’re taking rather a lot of those already.

The truth of the matter is we do get to choose. We don’t have to take the first suggestion. We don’t owe this unfiltered loud-mouth anything. I have watched so many super talented improvisers spiral down in a scene, song or show because they took a shitty suggestion and tried to ‘improv improve’ it. I’ve been in those scenes, those songs, those shows myself. And it has not felt good.

It is easy to forget in the moment that we have agency.

“There are a few schools of thought on how and what suggestion(s) one should get from the audience in order to begin an improv show. Some believe that you should take the very first suggestion you hear to prove to the audience that you’re improvising; you’re not seen to choose and there is very little time to plan. The thing is, after a certain amount of shows, there is only so much inspiration you can glean from “dildo”, “spatula” and “under the sea”. I used to argue that it was important to take the first suggestion and that it was a challenge to do something interesting with it, even if it was “brothel” for the four-hundredth time. The performers being delighted and inspired by the suggestion makes for a better show.”

Katy Schutte, The Improviser’s Way

Why waste your precious efforts trying to crawl up out of a sewer pit, when you could put all that energy into starting out from ground level and reach far greater heights?

When we take a shitty, sleazy, sucky suggestion, we communicate to the audience that we are ok with that. Moreover, we are ok performing for them a shitty, sleazy, sucky show. The non-shitty, sleazy, sucky audience members lose some respect for us and the audience member who made the shitty, sleazy, sucky suggestion receives the message that we approve or we will at the least enable their behaviour.

When learning stand-up, they teach you about how to handle hecklers. These are loud-mouth people in the crowd who will likely be tanked up and trying to impress their friends. Desperate to out-funny the funny person on stage, they want to rail-road things. They want attention. The longing for it propels them to open their mouths and push air out in any obscene way.

We get these in improv too. I was at a show once where an audience member kept yelling the word ‘twat’ for every suggestion. The first time people laughed. The second time was mildly amusing. By the third time, we were all bored. Except for the twat-caller, who not reading the room, just kept going.

In stand-up, there’s a technique for this kind of disruption. When the heckler calls out, ask them to repeat what they said. Chances are the second time it won’t get the reaction it did the first. The element of surprise is gone. You can even ask them to repeat it again because you still didn’t quite hear them. Now they are just a person in the crowd repeating a shitty, sleazy, sucky remark that no one is laughing at anymore. There’s no medicine quite like having to repeat your own bullshit until you feel like an idiot.

Ain’t that the truth?

Interestingly I saw something similar to this in an improv context recently. The suggestion asked for was related to a flaw and a nationality was called out. The audience reacted with a murmur mixed with grumbles and the suggestion taker asked the person to repeat themselves. The suggester did not restate the suggestion, presumably being influenced then by the reaction of the crowd. I was excited because I thought, yes, this is how it could be done!

It makes sense in the context of what I’ve learned in stand-up, that this moment of opening up to suggestions from the audience will sometimes inevitably lead to the problematic suggestions bolting out like a frenzied beast of burden. We could treat these comments like a sort of nervous expulsion of hot air to be politely swatted away. There is a much better suggestion to come if we ride it out.

A noisy beast of burden making an icky suggestion to draw attention to themselves – “Get down from there; you’re making a scene… bad!”

A suggestion can really set the tone for the whole night. It can have an impact on the stage as a safe space, for ourselves, our fellow improvisers and new people stepping into the improv space. Even the audience members are part of this exchange because they have to sit through whatever we go along with, so how do we get it right?

Sometimes what is a sucky suggestion to me may not be to you so it’s good to talk to the other people involved in your troupe, show or night. Also, consider at an appropriate time chatting to the audience to see what is cool with them. I was at an intensive recently when a brilliant young woman called out from the audience whenever she wanted a suggestion changed. I was so grateful because I didn’t want to see a scene start out with murdered children or people killing bunnies either.

Have a think about how you take suggestions too. It can be the difference between a cringefest and a great show.

Here are some suggestions… for ways to get suggestions.

1. Be discerning about choosing a suggestion – it’s a place to start but ask yourself the question, is it where we want to start? Would we want to see that if we were in the audience? You don’t have to be cavalier about it. The show isn’t about boosting your ego. If the answer is no. Don’t take it. Ask for a couple of other suggestions. Take one of those instead. Remember the wise words of Katy Schutte: “The performers being delighted and inspired by the suggestion makes for a better show.”

2. Be specific about what you are asking for – some shows ask for specific things to minimise the risk of a problematic suggestion. The Showstoppers asks for locations and musicals. The Maydays, in their show Happily Never After, ask for a profession of one of your grandparents. It gives them a suggestion that has the right era vibes to play with their gothic feel show and who’s going to suggest something sleazy about their grandparents? Not I!

3. Use predetermined words/phrases – one way to collect a suggestion is by already having a bank of words or phrases that would be appropriate for your show. Impromptu Shakespeare has lots of Shakespearean themes written on ping pong balls, like ‘twins’, ‘betrayal’ and ‘kiss’. When entering the theatre, the audience members are all given a word branded ping pong ball. The audience is then invited to throw their ping pong ball into the ‘bard’s britches’ as one of the players dances about in stretchy pants. It’s a fun silly start and captured balls are then used as suggestions. Ping pong balls. Just to be clear.

4. Run it through a third party like a suggestion generator – In their show making up musicals, Do the Thing run two suggestions through their musician who merges them to give them the title of a musical for that show. This gives them a chance to get a unique idea but with a level of player control.

5. Collect suggestions in advance – this may be asking the audience to write ideas down. Austentacious collect titles of unseen Austen novels from the audience prior to the start of the show. Of course, I am not privy to what they do with them in the in-between time but they can at least agree as a troupe to throw aside a suggestion that isn’t appropriate… even if that has to happen at the moment of the reveal. I have seen the Maydays do this in their show Confessions where audience members write their misdemeanours on slips of paper and put them in a vessel before the troupe comes onstage. If a suggestion is that problematic crushing it up and casting it aside saves us all.

6. Use something else for a suggestion – you may also consider going down another route entirely for your suggestions. In the raunchy Unbridled, directed by Heather Urquhart, a horse is selected from a chart, by an audience member. I am in a troupe that create a show based on the format Tomes, taught to us and directed by Chris Mead. In this show, an audience member selects a book from our previously not-inspected collection of vintage fantasy novels. We then read the back of the book and look at the cover to generate suggestions for the show.

It’s fun to get creative with suggestions. In rehearsal sometimes we go a bit silly and ask for obscure things. We’ve asked for angles before – like 90 degrees – noises, percentages and a month back it was Cuban leaders. Ok, that was quite a specific week but we did discover how little we knew about Cuban history.

Suggestions can be more than an exercise in engaging the noisiest, least filtered person in the room. They can be a fun way to kick your show off to a flying start. They don’t have to be a drop-kick. Unless you want to do that with the shitty, sleazy, sucky suggestion as you cast it aside.

The Real World Return

I look around Beaconsfield Services – a sprawling hexagon like building crammed with fast food outlets and bright moving screens. Outside it’s pissing it down with rain. The pitch-black void of the world is butting up against the tear-smeared windows. This is purgatory, the no-man’s-land between the improv mothership and that dirty rascal reality. On the way to the toilets, whole walls are covered with masses of different patterned mobile phone covers. People are ordering Macdonald’s on huge vertical boxes a metre away from the counter. At the coffee place, customers are in stasis all staring down at their hand-held devices. Why is nobody improvising?

I stand trying to signal to Josh across the forecourt. He’s up on an inside balcony bit and I’m trying to get him to turn around and see that Ric is behind him. Maybe he already knows. So I change tactics and do a series of communications like long-distance charades that I hope explain Kathy’s location and why I’m here. Nope, don’t think he’s getting that either. The connection has weakened. There’s too much ‘real world’ in between us. We’re improvisers thrown to the winds. Is he beckoning me? He looks like he’s making an origami swan in mid-air. It could be a dance.

Between us are masses of people scurrying about like ants, getting themselves sustenance, wandering back and forth to the loos, loitering. Who are they all? Where are they going? Why do they look so unfamiliar? What makes them tick? Have they even heard of improv?

Josh still doesn’t get my hand signals or maybe he does and I don’t get his. Suddenly we are all disconnected. Suddenly nothing makes much sense. We are a paddle of ducks out of our pond. There’s no exercise to do in creating tension, or a game of the scene or song; there’s no sea shanty to sing or spontaneous dinner party to crash or supernatural Shakespearean witch to endow. I want to go all improvised David Mamet on this place and deep dive into a sweary rant:

The motherfucking motorway services with shitty tiled floors and filthy fucking tables. You can see the reeking sweat coating the walls. Who are these fuckers ignoring my hilarious charades? Why aren’t they supporting me? Bunch of goddamn real worlders, that’s who. “Normality”. Fucking “normality”. Who the fucking bloody hell wants fucking over-rated bullshit “normality” when you can make-believe to your heart’s content with deliciously creative people all day long? Give me badass creative improvisers every motherfucking day of the working week… thank you very much.

The Starbucks guy has written Lelo on my cup even though I am still wearing a name badge. One with a gleeful smiley face sticker.

I could use a hug.

It dawns on me why all these people might be looking down at their phones now and not at the grown-ass woman with a smiley face name tag stuck to the front of her cleavage.

Screw normal.

Yesterday I got to play a singing triangle. Who the bloody hell would choose “normal”?

It’s at times like this the rest of the world can feel alien. I can get caught up in stark contrasting ways of thinking. If you weren’t at the retreat, you couldn’t possibly get me, real worlder. I can feel a bit ashamed and misunderstood without actually having told anyone why I’m wearing a name badge. If they knew, they might even think improvising is kind of cool. And it is!

The truth is, improv is my normal and to me it is home. I don’t much like having to walk away from it ever. Having to, sometimes makes me grumpy. Because to me, improv is no less weird than anything else humans do. Humans are the strangest creatures in the animal kingdom. Do you ever just look around and think: this is bonkers! What is all this stuff? Service stations. Roads. Self-serve Macdonald’s. Hand-held information overload. Corporate overlords. Chairs.

Even chairs are pretty weird when you stare at them long enough.

When I immerse myself in other worlds for a while, the return often has me thinking along these lines. It’s like being quite contented living out of a suitcase and then being baffled by the sheer number of clothes suddenly at your disposal when you get back. It can feel overwhelming. I can’t wear all these clothes at once. I must remember: nor should I. I need to ease myself back in and also bear in mind the ones I took with me were my favourites.

During these times of readjustment from the improv mothership to the ‘real’ world, it helps me to feel less alien by reminding myself that improv is no weirder than anything else. It is just another thing that humans do and have been doing for a really long time. And I’m not talking about recent decades. I’m talking of improv as ancient.

“Around the globe, improvisation is performed by hundreds of theatre companies and groups, each with their own theatrical traditions and cultural identity. Improvisation is ancient! It’s linked to the Atellan Farce (300 BCE), to the Basque improvising ladies of the fifteenth century, French farce, or Commedia d’ell Arte (sixteenth century onwards). It connects to storytelling traditions in Ireland, Asia, Latin, America, the Middle East, Nordic countries and Africa, to name a few. Improvisation is present in the work of clowns, troubadours, jesters, bards, street performers, puppeteers, dancers, musicians and more. “

Patti Stiles, Improvise Freely

Going to an improv retreat is really no more bizarre than going on an all-inclusive booze cruise and not getting off the boat. We’re all humans picking out our favourites.

Still, sometimes I have wanted to ask: was it ok for me to be weird?

Was I actually being weird? Are we being weird? Maybe. But whose idea of weird? The sensible Victorian authoritarian voice of reason? Spontaneous drama as something weird, art as something weird, creativity as something weird – who makes those rules?

When I was at college a guy looked at my best friend and said she was “good weird”. He looked at me and said, “you’re weird weird”.


My friend and I would laugh about that for years to come. Just what was this guy’s idea of ‘good’ weird and why did he get to decide? Well-behaved weird? Moral weird? Just the right amount of weird with which he was comfortable? That latter seems the most likely.

I know now that what my friend and I were, was creative. We had a connection which we’d worked on since we were 12 and we felt safe enough with each other to create freely and we would too; we would make up whole worlds together, building on thing after thing. We spent as much time as possible cooking up wild ideas about people and places and inanimate objects. We didn’t know what we were doing then… I reckon you know.

Finding people you can be your unlimited creative self with is a gift. Finding a place and a time to do that is a gift too. A gift we give ourselves when we improvise intensively, intensely and/or on retreat.

I look around and know that Beaconsfield Services is not going to provide the space, even though some of my favourite improv people in the world are here with me.

I am grateful we have had a place – a glorious time carved out for The Maydays 13th Annual Improv Retreat. We have seized the opportunity to create, to chatter enthusiastically about creation and to make as many wonderful creative worlds as time would allow. We have laughed. We have been awed. And we have witnessed emotional bravery over and over again. We’ve watched risks being taken. We’ve seen beautifully rich spontaneous scenes brought to life before our eyes. We have grown.

The last night of the improv intensive I cried because I was so happy. To me, that’s a real thing. I’d experienced so much joy and laughter and love – creativity had coursed through me; I’d felt appreciated, seen, heard and alive. That’s a real thing. Over those 48 hours I’d fallen in love as a yeti with an elf, I’d played a rhyming owl and I’d sung as a sexy cat. I was overflowing with gleeful creative wonder. That’s a real thing.

By the time I get up to the Beaconsfield balcony, the others have reassembled and everyone is looking drained. Maybe they are feeling what I am feeling.

Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not at the improv retreat anymore.

Maybe we’re all just really tired. But this debrief is important. It’s part of landing after improv: the chat in the pub, some circle time, a chance to check out and make sure we’re all exiting this intense time of creativity a-ok.

Improv isn’t a light activity. It’s not a surface sport. It’s not a peaceful solitary hobby you can pick up and put down while you’re watching Netflix. It involves crashing worlds together. It involves digging deep. It involves showing up with authenticity and connecting through often messy loud negotiation. It involves guts.

So what can we do to land after lots of improvs, after an intense or intensive improv experience, after a retreat? Here are some things to try.

  1. Connect with your fellow intense/intensive improvisers – chat to the people who were part of your experience. They will get it; at least in part. They may not have been in that sexy cat class but they get what it feels like to have lived it and now to be landing like you are. If there’s a forum, join it. Reach out. Exchange messages, contact details, social media profiles. Set up those group chats. Share your thoughts and feelings. Keep the conversation going if you can.
  2. Accept that no one else will comprehend your glorious journey – they just weren’t there. It’s not that they don’t love and support you. It’s just they don’t fully understand and trying to explain to them how you nailed a chorus while playing a morose mushroom is just not going to mean anything to them. That’s ok. You get it. That is what matters most. And the good folk in your life will be happy you found happy… even as a morose mushroom.
  3. Listen to your body – What does your body need? Fluids. Food. Exercise. More bread? Honour it. You’ve spent some time in your head so let your body know you love it too. This also means sleeping. Slumber will help balance out all that glorious improv energy, the late nights, the early mornings, digesting the massive quantity of bread (this retreat really involved a lot of bread). Get the shut eye that your body is craving. The ‘real world’ (whatever that is) is easier to take on without sleep deprivation.
  4. Give yourself time – I remember one retreat from which I returned feeling emotional. I was so tired but I pushed myself to go out for an impromptu dinner with someone who hadn’t retreated with me. I got upset about the arrangements. And then over dinner itself, my head and heart were still in intensive improv-land and if I wasn’t talking constantly about my experience, I was resenting not talking constantly about my experience. Recognise when it is time to spend some time alone, resting up and smiling to yourself over the fun times.
  5. Check your notes – did you get it all down? Read over your notes and make sure it’s all there. Add in the fun things you played during that session or the things you saw others do. Did anyone make any moves you’d like to emulate? This will be such an inspiring reminder to look at later. I’ve nearly forgotten already what I played. A written record helps jog your memory so you can get all nostalgic through the year/s ahead.
  6. Keep on top of your schedule – with no one telling you when to eat, sleep, drink and improv, it’s easy to let these things slip. Monday I didn’t have dinner until 10.30pm. Today I had two lunches. I need to remind myself to focus on my timings. So acknowledge it is now likely up to you to take charge of what to do when. And if you sit at the dinner table waiting to be served you might be waiting much much longer.
  7. Do something down to earth – there’s all that laundry to get through for starters. I know, boring! But do some things that make you feel like your feet are on the ground. Even intense/intensive improv stars need clean clothes and clean cutlery. Today I did the laundry AND the washing up. Good day. One day, sometime in the future, I might fully unpack.
  8. Let go of regrets – Wondering if the improv you did was everything it could have been? It was. You gave it your best shot. You were learning so some things might not have worked. No worries. You were there and you were doing it. Nothing else matters now. I can get all caught up in thinking of all the things I should have done or said. For me it’s thinking where could I have been bolder, braver, more ‘all in’. But the truth is I was enough. I am enough. I gave it all I had to give at every given moment. Give yourself a break and a pat on the back. If you want to make a note of any ideas that do spring up, pop them in your notebook under ‘try this later’. Then do something else completely different to get out of your head. I find yoga helps me or a walk in the woods.
  9. Give your inner child some love – mine is tugging at my hem saying “Why can’t we stay at the improv retreat all year around?” I hear you, precious. It sucks! Make sure your inner child knows there’s more creative fun to be found and you’re not drawing a line here. Dance a jig, colour something in, sing a song, splash in a puddle, stare at a bug. Speak kindly to the child buzzing about within.
  10. Create your next improv opportunity – you might want to book a class, get some improv pals together or plan to take some exercises you’ve learned to your next rehearsal. You might sign up to the mailing list to be first to hear when the annual intensive rolls around again. Whatever feels good, remind yourself this is not the end of the ride. There is much much improv still to be done.

This landing calls to mind the improv shiver. After we play an intense scenario, an emotional deep dive, a character with strong motives, and “scene” is called, we have the impulse to shake it off.

Look everyone, it wasn’t me; I’m shaking if it off now.

Or, in a class about using the breath to inspire improv, I learned a new one from Jennifer Jordan. You look into the eyes of your scene partner/s and you clap your hands together once so it stings. The improv wake-up.

You can shake it off, you can clap it out, but for me, I don’t think it’s ever going to be easy to leave the improv mothership.

At times like this, the ‘real world’ doesn’t feel like my real world.

But we can’t go backwards. There’s more fun to come so keep on improv trucking. I’ve spent a lot of my life living in a different time zone – the past or the future. But life isn’t there. It’s now. Right now. Now you get the gift of finding what to love about this moment.

Now is also the chance to keep the creative energy flowing. Don’t stop. Take all this beautiful intense intensive improv learning and let it bleed into your ‘real world’ improv. Whether you improvise once a week, once a month or once a year, take all that creative curiosity and apply it to your motherfucking badass wonderful real life.

“Success is liking yourself, liking what you do and liking how you do it.”

Maya Angelou

So stay ‘real’: inside keep rolling around like a sexy cat, doing jazz hands like a triangle, and falling in love with your ‘real’ like a yeti with an elf. What else are you going to do with this one precious life?

Visit one of the three Starbucks at Oxford Services? Maybe. Or maybe…

… a lot more badass motherfucking improv.

We would like to apologise for all the motherfucking swearing in this blog post. Please blame David Mamet, and also Chris Mead, for teaching Improvised Mamet.

Hybrid Improv Forms

They could be called the world’s most lovable hybrid – just look at that furry face! They have the playful, shed-less temperament of a poodle, mixed with the fun features of an [insert other dog breed]. And those poodles have been busy. There’s the eskapoo, the schoodle, the bassetoodle, the jack-a-poo, the rottle, the saint berdoodle, the pomapoo, the shih-poo, the poochon, the whoodle, the schnoodle and the Irish doodle.

And we’re just getting started.

There’s the yorkipoo, the groodle, the sheepadoodle, the cavapoo, the Bernedoodle, the doxiedoodle, the bossi-poo, the papi-poo, the poo-shi, the pyredoodle, the borderdoodle, the pugapoo, the poogle, and the scoodle.

Are we done here? Not even close.

As numerous, well-haired and well-named as they are, the doodle clan has competition. There are plenty of other hybrid’s up for the top title: the liger, the mule, the beefalo, the guineafowl, the zeedonk, the grapefruit.

Even the humble peppermint is a hybrid of spearmint and watermint which added together makes ‘pepper’… for some unsatisfactory reason.

Glorious hybrids are everywhere so why shouldn’t improv have some hybrid action?

I had a suspicion I was in store for an improv-form-hybrid treat, when I signed up for a session on Forgotten Forms with the legendary John Hildreth. Now, if there’s one bit of improv learning I go gooey-eyed over, it’s forms. It’s embarrassing; I swoon. I love a form. I’d want to bathe in forms. Combine a form with bath salts from Holland and Barrett, and I’m there.

What do you mean it wouldn’t be easy to stage?

There’s something about being given a structure to work within that feels invigorating to me. I used to think this was because I am a geek, but now I’m thinking there may be more to it. I’d like to take you on a scenic route which leads us back to more about this brilliant workshop. It’s just a very slight detour into some considerations about creativity.

When I was a Manager in Education I was asked to run a session at a conference. I could choose what it was about – within reason. The history of the Groodle (Golden Retriever meets Poodle…) probably would not have gone down well with the Principal. The senior management team may have been expecting me to do a session about my specialism of Literacy but I had other ideas. I’d become fascinated by a metaphorical beast called Creativity. What an elusive and complex creature!

While planning the session, I found research into the optimum conditions for boosting creativity. I decided to set up some activity stations around the room so people could explore when they felt the most creative. There was a station where you assembled a jigsaw, another where you listened to the music of Johan Sebastian Bach and another where you made complex origami animals. All the activities were designed to accompany the main mission which was to come up with as many creative uses as possible for a brick.

Yes, a brick. Bear with me… before running off to play Eight Things.

It was fascinating to see the lists people created. It also really highlighted differences in creative thinking. My boss seemed to only manage to think of 3 uses which I was so intrigued by. Was something holding her creativity back? Or was she so captivated staring at the wonders of that brick?

Talking of staring at bricks, I went to the Royal Academy Summer Show once. One of the pieces displayed in the art gallery, a stone’s throw (a brick’s throw, if you’d rather) from Damian Hirst’s fly tank, was… a brick. It was with some other bricks. Together, they were arranged to make a bigger brick shape in the middle of the gallery floor. There was a plaque sitting by the multi-brick’s side. This was a piece of art.

I have to say, I had just been expressing my mystification with half an apple attached to half a pear (a rather quick hybrid), suspended from the ceiling, so the multi-brick made me feel I’d peaked too soon. But my architect companion explained to me just how special bricks were, about how they had been designed to be just the right size and weight to balance in the human hand so as to enable them to be laid correctly.

Wow… so is this a date?

There’s some evidence that listening to Bach can boost your creativity. Why not give it a try at rehearsals for entering and editing a scene?

As part of my session I handed out Jeffrey Baumgarter’s list of 10 Steps for Boosting Your Creativity. Number 1 is listen to the music of J. S. Bach. If you fancy an experiment try putting on some Bach in the background at improv practice. Does it make you feel more creative or just produce some really weird scenes?

Number 4 on his list, which is particularly interesting when considering forms, addresses the benefits of restrictions.

“If you are stuck for an idea, open a dictionary, randomly select a word and then try to formulate ideas incorporating this word. You’d be surprised how well this works. The concept is based on a simple but little known truth: Freedom inhibits creativity. There are nothing like restrictions to get you thinking.”

Jeffery Baumgartner

I wonder if this could be why structures in improv, work so well. This may also be one reason we enjoy getting a suggestion from the audience. Not only does it demonstrate to the audience we are making it up on the spot, that it is their show, but also in it reigns us. When we can do anything in improv, it feels a giddy rush of possibilities. Where do we start? Anywhere? Overwhelm! I’m just going to have a sit down on one of these chairs for a bit.

In providing restrictions, which you’d think would be limiting, a form can perversely be less inhibiting to our creativity.

John Hildreth’s session was an unbelievably satisfying session for creativity and for a forms fan. He was teaching us not one, but two forms! Yes, two! And that actually meant three forms because there was the third form that was a mash up of the former two. Through the doodle lens, it was as if he was teaching us how to be a poodle, how to be a schnauzer, and how to be a schnoodle!

You can imagine, I was close to fainting.

This beautiful beast of a hybrid, the LaRond-ommando, combined the La Ronde with a Commando. I had done a La Ronde before but had not met a Commando. The Commando is defined by a specific edit whereby the editor draws attention to the scene being edited by saying, for example, “In this scene, we saw two people eating in a restaurant… “

The second part of the edit is then to elicit a new suggestion from the audience. So this might look like: “In this scene, we saw two people eating in a restaurant; where else might we see food around people?” The answer might be anything from food substitute pouches on an international space station, to a packet sandwich eaten by the roadside, to duck pond (who invited that guy, right?). This then becomes the suggestion for the next scene. Duck pond it is.

In the LaRond-ommando this edit happens in a timely fashion in between La Ronde style runs. A La Ronde is like a relay of improv scenes where you, for the most part, keep the same character. Think a grand Park Bench, without the bench.

You get lots of time in John Hildreth’s class to play with the balance of these forms under his expert guidance. It was a fabulous bunch of people in the class and John was such a supportive teacher and really encouraging. Plus I got to play a sporty dinosaur.

If you have the opportunity to do this session with John Hildreth, I highly recommend you seize it. He gave us really helpful tips in how to get the most out of the LaRond-ommando. He even mentioned the possibility of swapping out the La Ronde part for another form.

My mind was spinning Catherine wheels.

Ever since the session, I’ve been thinking about what other forms might be interesting to smoosh together. A Deconstruction and a Living Room… A Deconstruction Room? A Harold and a Monoscene… A Mono-rold? A Slacker and a Mockumentary… A Slackermentary? An Armando and a Pretty Flower… A Pretty Armando?

Siri, cancel my schedule; I know what I’m doing with the rest of the day.