global impro 6 - Improvisation and Access

May 23 2019

Holly Stoppit
Image credit: GII

6.) Improvisation and Access: how can improvisational practice be inclusive to all? Speaker: Blessin Varkey

This blog is the sixth 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 group discussion about access and inclusivity.

Blessin Varkey is Founder of The Impro Company in New Deli, he's a researcher in access to impro for people with disabilities and mental health issues.

To begin, we played two simple impro games, “Yes and...” and “One Word Story”

“Yes and...”

  • 2 lines of people face each other

  • the people at the top of either line come together

  • (a) says a simple statement (eg it's raining)

  • (b) says “yes and …” then offers a simple response

  • everyone applauds

  • they go to the end of the line and the next two bein

One Word Story

  • 5 people stand up in a line in front of the others

  • a story premise is harvested from the 'audience'

  • the improvisers each say one word each and they build a story together

I really struggled with these simple games. My inner critic got out his megaphone and I totally froze in the second game. As I mentioned in the blog about Gunter Losel's session, where he demonstrated how improvised material emerges, words are not my favourite medium for impro. Thinking of what Gunter had discovered in his research – the three blocks to creativity being trust, language and space, I feel soothed. I know I am not a freak, I know that without trust, nothing flows for me. 

Here are some things that I use in my practice that help to increase trust:

  • clearly stated boundaires

  • understanding why we're doing the game

  • warm ups – getting into the body, releasing tension

  • pairs or whole group games without an audience – the audience brings pressure to do well, which stifles creativity

  • offering permission to be shit 

None of this had happened before the games, so I was stiff and self conscious and quite frankly, rubbish at improvising!

I have a feeling that Blessin had intended to reflect back on these exercises, through the lens of accessibility, but we never came back to them. Instead, he chose to invite us to share our experiences of inclusion and accessibility from our multiple viewpoints. I've highlighted Blessin's questions so that you can answer them for yourself if you like.

  • What do you do in the field of impro and access?
  • What are some of the challenges you've faced in relation to impro and access?
  • What are some of the solutions you've come up with?
  • Where is the peak point in a one day, 7 day, 3 month workshop? Where do you expect people to get to by this point?
  • What is a safe space?

The group chewed on these questions, pooling our experience for an hour. What came out strongly is the theme of engagement over pre-determined success. Feeling included might not look the same for everyone and we need flexibility in our approach as impro teachers / practitioners to let participants meet the work in their own way. Sometimes saying no to an exercise is success. 

Someone contributed this great quote: “Don't confuse your success with the success of your students!” To me, this is about taking a wide view and not pushing for any particular outcome. If engagement is the goal, then the pressure is off for having to deliver a fixed outcome. When we're present as leaders, we can follow the impulses offered by the group.

Becoming aware of what we're explicitly or implicitly demanding and what we are consciously or unconsciously offering is the first stage to making our work truly inclusive. This had now become a major theme of my conference experience, popping up in the gender debate, racism debate and social policy panel discussion.

Someone spoke about contracting; we can explicitly contract with participants - ask them to state what's OK and what's not OK for them, but even then, we need to make space for them to change their minds throughout the workshop, as the facilitator – you're accountable for making it clear that people can change their minds.

We agreed that there needs to always be an element of choice and there needs to be space to feel, so that people are making choices from an informed, grounded place.

As workshop leaders, we are constantly dancing between risk and safety. Someone said that building a relationship with the group is essential as a precursor to exploring risk. We can then begin to incrementally increase the challenge and risk. 

One practitioner spoke about how they begin their sessions by comparing impro to going to the gym – “you're going to feel a bit uncomfortable at first, but it get's easier the more you do it” – so that the participants can get used to the concept of discomfort as being part of the process. To prepare participants for the inevitable pang of failure, one practitioner encourages their students to celebrate failure early on, as a game. They take it in turns to take a deep bow, exclaiming: 

“I failed!” 

The audience applauds “hoorah!” 

“I made a mistake” 

“Whoop whoop!” 

“I pretended wrong!” 


Some people spoke about the benefits of working with co-facilitators, there are more eyes in the room with which to see the impact we're having. 

Someone else said “It's all about finding the sweet spot” (American improvisers like to say this, I've noticed) – finding exercises that are challenging enough to encourage engagement and easy enough for everyone to be successful.

I spoke about how in my training as a dramatherpist, we learned to start the ending 2/3 of the way through the group life, making space for savouring and integrating new found qualities and it's important to prepare the group for re-entry into the world. Even in a “non-therapeutic” group (everything is potentially therapeutic, in my book) it's important to offer opportunities for people to close down before leaving the space. Improvisation naturally puts us in touch with our vulnerability and it's not always safe to be vulnerable in the world, so in order to offer safety, it's important that endings are clearly acknowledged. Endings don't necessarily have to involve a lot of talking, it could be something as simple as singing a song or playing a favourite game together.

This session didn't pan out quite like I expected, but I feel like I got what I needed. I'm realising my place in all this – as a specialist in holding safe spaces. I'm realising I have something to offer other workshop leaders, I dream of there being more inclusive spaces, where people from all walks of life can play together and learn and grow and heal. Perhaps teaching teachers how to make their spaces more accessible will be my part in making this happen?

So now it was time to get out of my head and into my body, so I went along to an improvised dance workshop with Marisa Godoy.

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