Tuesday, September 30, 2014

the power of YES

Image by Gunnar Wrobel on Flickr
The note on my calendar for last Saturday read: 3:30 Montreal Improv. A few months ago I had discovered that a local improvisation group offered free workshops, so I scribbled this note on the calendar to remind myself to check one out. I hoped it would be informative and relevant for my research on theatre practice. At the time it sounded like a fun thing to do on a weekend. However, on Saturday morning when those words glared at me from the calendar, the thought of walking into a room filled with strangers and making things up off the top of my head activated the anxiety tarantulas in my stomach and head. I immediately found a bazillion excuses for not going. And just as promptly decided that I would not be held hostage by fear and anxiety.

Dean offered to drive me to the workshop and on the way there, I talked to God about the upcoming nightmare. I was mainly afraid of two things: freezing when it was my time to speak or act and being thrust into a scene which was going places I did not want to go (off-colour). The Spirit reminded me that I had a gift to bring to the people there, and no one else could bring what I brought. That thought calmed my fears to some extent, and I walked up the stairs to the improv theatre, still a bit anxious, but also excited.

There were about 25 people there of various ages, and the instructor started us off in a circle with a simple, invisible ball-tossing exercise. This progressed to an imitation exercise, then storytelling in pairs, and finally, scenes with another person performed in front of the entire group. The facilitators were great: demonstrating the exercises, applauding each small success, laughing at everything that remotely resembled something close to funny, suggesting ideas for improvement, and inserting ideas if people got stuck.

As we went along, the instructor outlined a few basic principles for doing improv:

1. YES and... This is the idea that you never refuse an idea a fellow actor is offering to you. You can take it and run with it, you can morph it into something else, you can toss it back to them with an added twist, but you can't say NO! There were a few times during the workshop when a person did say NO in a scene and the instructor asked them do it again, offering suggestions on how to get the idea of unwillingness across without outright denial. These second attempts were always more interesting and comedic than the NO. The "and" means that you always add something to the idea offered by the other person by either moving the plot along or adding details to the situation. Improv is meant to be exponential with everyone bringing a gift to the party.

2. Giving and Receiving. The first few exercises all had to do with being able to give and receive freely (catching and throwing an invisible ball, exchanging eyebrow lifts, etc.) The instructor said the idea is to create an environment where ideas are accepted and embraced. This meant that we had to watch closely and listen to what was being said. Several times someone would hesitate in the invisible ball toss, unsure if the thrower really meant to give the ball to them. The instructor said that if you think it might be you, it's you! Out of these exercises of giving and receiving came three ideas: 1) be clear in your intention, 2) communicate constantly (eye contact), and 3) commit 100% in your action or response.

3. Mistakes are gifts. One of the reasons we are hesitant to commit to a course of action is because we fear we may make a mistake. The instructor told us to get used to "sucking" and not be afraid to make lots of mistakes, especially at the beginning. He even made a few unintentional missteps in his demonstrations and pointed them out to us without shame; it is just part of the process, he told us. And he added that when you embrace your errors (using a wrong name, stepping out of character, inconsistencies, etc.) you can end up with a more interesting story with lots of cool surprises. Good improv-ers know how to take anything that is thrown at them and make it part of the story, creating complex characters and situations in the process.

Near the end of the workshop, when the time came to do scenes with another person in front of the whole group, everyone was ready to try it. There was no hesitation as the instructor asked for volunteers, people just popped up and walked to the stage. Some of the scenes were hilarious, some very clever, some faltered and needed a bit of help, but all of the short sketches brought us moments that were funny, creative, and unexpected. Each person succeeded! All because they were willing, open, and saying YES and...!

I walked out of the workshop totally thrilled with the experience! After the first 5 minutes my anxiety had totally disappeared, and I felt excited to be a part of a group which was so responsive and alive to what was happening in the moment. We became a small community of YES people and it felt like anything was possible, anything could happen, if we just said YES!

Still buzzing from the experience, I walked outside and, less than 40 feet from the front door of the improv theatre, was stopped by a man on the street, asking for some money to get a shower and a change of clothes at a shelter. Now, normally, I avoid eye contact with strangers. I also find it awkward to encounter people begging on the street so I usually say no politely, smile in their general direction, and hurry on. But after the improv workshop, I was wide open, living in the land of YES. I looked the man straight in the eye and asked him his name. We introduced ourselves, I shook his hand, and asked him where he was from and why he was in Montreal. He told me a bit of his story, I offered some information about a drop-in centre where he could get a good meal and new clothes, and then I gave him a few dollars, not because I felt I had to, but because I had a choice about what to give him, and I decided that a bit of time, a listening ear, some information, a promise to pray for him, and a bit of money was the gift I wanted to leave with him.

The man left and I stood there, surprised by what I had just done. The instructor told us that one of the beautiful things about improv is that the audience gets to witness those delightful moments when performers surprise themselves. They end up doing things they never planned or imagined would happen, all because they put themselves in that vulnerable, wide-open place of YES! This reminded me of the talk I gave just over a week ago on the phrase used often in the Old Testament: "I am the LORD your God who brought you out of the land of [slavery.]"  Too often we have a slave mentality, fearful of being leaderless, paralyzed by options and responsibility. We fear unpredictable circumstances and people because we don't want to lose control. We fear intimacy and keep ourselves at a distance from others. We find refuge in cynicism, doubt, and disbelief because hope and trust are too scary. But hope and trust are what freedom looks like. Freedom is a giant YES to life!

Let me practice trust, freedom, and hope all the days of my life. Let me say YES continuously! Thank you, Montreal Improv, for a very special gift.

In case you are interested, here is more info on Montreal Improv

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