I love improv, partly because every time I take part in an improv game I learn things. And very often that’s a relearning of some fundamentals.
On Friday night, Remy Bertrand hosted the monthly Applied Improv Network gathering in London. Towards the end we played a game I’ve done before a few times. A small team has to play people in an ad agency. You have to invent and then perform a TV ad for a product suggested by the audience.
The main twist is that in devising the idea, you must accept and applaud any and every idea put forward by your fellow players. You don’t get to evaluate or criticise or knock ideas, you have to accept them and celebrate.
This is a big twist for most of us, but it can mean you get an ad out surprisingly fast.
The fascinating thing here is not this rule, but seeing how you and the other players respond to it.
First, it turns out to be very difficult to stick to it. I’ve played the game a few times but I quickly forget how strong is the desire to take control of the scene, immediately evaluate the emerging idea and – unconsciously – block offer people’s offers. Whilst deluding yourself that you’re taking care of getting the outcome, you actually negate the whole notion of collective creativity.
Both playing the scene and watching others, it struck me how I and others often failed to observe the direction to celebrate each idea. What often happens is instead of celebrating, we instead try to top it. So instead of pausing to accept and acknowledge a suggestion like “Let’s set it in Germany!” we just rush to “And let’s wear lederhosen”. Building ideas is fine, but it’s fascinating how easy it is to fail to really acknowledge the offer.
Watching the scenes being created, it becomes really striking that what on one level might be an energetic brainstorm is, on another, a fight for dominance and control.
For me, this sparked some more thinking about why I’m wary of so much brainstorming. Because in championing ideas, I think it allows us to ignore relationships. But relationships are definitely there, and often they’re being kind of trashed. The game I’m describing is – like all improv games – apparently silly… but in its silliness reveals some really fundamental things about how we’re playing our lives.
After a few rounds, I became more aware of my inner control freak and tried much less hard. And (re)discovered that what had been a tense game suddenly became a whole let easier, and funnier.
My mantra for this year is “Notice more, change less”; less as an idea for others to follow and more for me to apply myself. Friday night was, amongst other things, a timely reminder of how easy it is to move to changing instead of noticing.