Global Impro 5- Policy and social practice

May 23 2019

Holly Stoppit
Image credit: GII

5.) Policy and social practice – a panel discussion

This blog is the fifth of a series of blogs, charting my experience as a Theatre Bristol agent at the Global Improvisation Initiative Symposium, May 2019. If you'd like to get a little context, start here. Otherwise, welcome to a panel discussion on policy and social practice.

It's day two at the Global Improvisation conference, I'm well rested and ready for another day of extracting learning, I started with a panel discussion on policy and social practice, moderated by Mark Hunter 

Introducing the speakers [from GII programme notes]

  • Victoria Worsley studied movement and performance with Monika Pagneux and Philippe Gaulier in Paris and gained a degree from Oxford University. She worked widely as an actor, theatre maker and movement director for twenty years. Having discovered the Feldenkrais Method via Monika Pagneux, she trained as professional practitioner in Lewes 2003-7. 
  • Ayrin Ersöz is a dancer, choreographer, and scholar whose research focuses on the connections of dance to political ideologies and systems within historical and contemporary societies. She has been awarded a Fulbright Research Fellowship to conduct research at Rutgers University, USA. As a Fulbright Fellow, Ayrin engaged in a qualitative research project that explored the role that Islam plays in young female Muslim college students’ perceptions of dance as an art form and their participation in dance as a recreational and/or artistic expression. 
  • Johan Siebers is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Middlesex University. His main research interests are in process philosophy, philosophy of communication and rhetoric, critical theory and utopian thought. 
  • Oluwadamilola Apotieri-Abdulai is the CEO of Playback Nigeria and a member of the board of Centre for Playback Theatre (USA). He is a confidence coach and communication skills trainer dedicated to bringing effective change to individuals and organizations through theatre and improv. He is Nigeria’s first Applied Drama practitioner and Playback Theatre practitioner and a member of the International Playback Theatre Network (USA), Drama for Life Africa Network, Applied Improvisation Network (USA) and an alumnus of the Centre for Playback Theatre (USA) where he trained in Playback Theatre core course and conducting. 
  • Susanna Howard is a writer, actor and theatre maker who founded pioneering arts & literature charity Living Words in 2007. Living Words run residencies in care homes, using their Listen Out Loud methodology to work one-to-one with people experiencing a dementia, plus care home staff and relatives. In response to the work that comes from these residencies Living Words create anthologies, songs, events and performances to challenge assumptions and tackle stigma around dementia, language and communication. 

After the panel had introduced themselves, Johan started off by stating that “we need impro now more than ever before”. He argued that we're living in a world of “surveillance and control” and impro can help us “escape the gaze of the machine”. He sees impro as a disruptive practice, in that everyone within an impro scene has a voice. He thinks impro practices should, in this way, inform all institutions to help us reconnect with democracy as opposed to “the winner takes it all” mentally that is our current norm. Johan says; “The revolution, if it will happen, will be improvised.”

Susanna asked “What is the opposite of control?” This is a question that I noticed floating around the conference in various different rooms. For me the opposite of control is freedom, but in my experience, I need structure in order to fully surrender to freedom. In the absence of structure, my inner critic / internal kill-joy machine goes into overdrive.

Damilola spoke about his work in Nigeria, and the element of psychosocial support that appears in all his improvisation work. He works with people who have been through trauma, refugees and internationally displaced people. Understanding psychosocial support to be a key element of his role as an improvisation teacher and performer, informs his practice. He spoke of the importance of listening in improvisation and how learning how to listen has a profound effect on the participants.

Victoria sees links between theatrical improvisation and Feldenkris, the awareness through movement practice she has trained in. (I attended her workshop in the afternoon, so if you're interested in this subject, there's more coming up.) Victoria spoke about spontaneity in both forms and asked; how do you know your responses are spontaneous? She also asked; 

“Where are the spaces for “no plan” and “no goal?””

“Where are the spaces for connection?”

“Where is the space for play?”

Poignant questions which I am also exploring in my own work and life.

Ayrin spoke about mega narratives and micro narratives, how common themes play out on various scales simultaneously. Which ones can we affect? Which ones affect us?

Mark spoke about impro as a resistant act, encouraging us to adopt a dialogical approach to life, as opposed to a didactic one (i.e discussion as opposed to instruction). Impro could be seen as conversation towards new ideas, he proposes.

Susanna added a note of caution, explaining that we don't have to do massive political actions to make an impact on society, as artists, we impact people and it's people who change the world. So our work is intrinsically political. That being said, she then incited a call to action “Let's do a workshop with world leaders!” I love this idea and I've been thinking about it a lot lately. Imagine getting our world leaders in one room, gasking them to take off their shoes and sit on the floor, surround them with soft fabrics and gentle music and encourage them to play together. Then let's see if they think war is the answer!

Susanna added; “If you don't have the power to change a structure, you improvise.”

Victoria spoke about reducing intensity, which is what Feldenkris allows you to explore. Victoria spoke about the recent climate change protests and how the Extinction Rebellion activists were all trained to de-escalate conflict, so that they could enter into dialogue with the powers that be. Victoria explains that when we approach life with our own level of intensity, we can't help but fall into our habitual patterns. Feldenkris teaches us to become aware of the level of intensity with which we approach life, which gives us options to try something else. Changing our intensity opens us up to other possibilities.

Johan explains there's a skill to becoming an improviser, he says “just doing what comes naturally” will only reveal our habitual behaviour. Awareness brings choice. This takes me back to previous thoughts on negative bias during the gender and racism debates.

Johan also added that impro puts us in touch with our own autonomy and helps us respect the autonomy of others and we can only have a dialogue if we respect each other's autonomy.

Mark explained that we're living in a hyper-individualistic society where the individual is sovereign. Impro takes us out of that paradigm. 

Phelim McDermott spoke about a book by Peter Block, a writer, who focusses on community. Phelim explains that Peter Block describes community is “a group that can hold dissent”. I agree with that concept and coming back to my last blog, I think we can only experience the power of a diverse community in this way, if the improvisation group leaders are able to hold a potentially volatile space.

With the call to action ringing in my ears, I marched over to a seminar on Improvisation and access.

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