global impro 9 - Future/Unknown

May 23 2019

Holly Stoppit
Image credit: GII

9.) Future/Unknown, Interdisciplinary- panel discussion

This blog is the eighth 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 the future / unknown.

Speakers: Koray Bülent Tarhan, Mel McCree, Ralf Wetzel, Patti Stiles, Phelim McDermott, Kat Koppett, Tina Davidson

Mel McCree is a senior lecturer in Early Childhood Studies at Bath Spa University, England, and Director of Free Range Creativity. Her background is in environmental education, outdoor arts, play and learning. As a mostly outdoor practitioner, Mel asked; what if the space and the species around us were not a backdrop to our events, but actually participants?

Patti Stiles, who presented the seminar on The Snake Eating It's Tail confided that it's a bit strange for improvisers to be thinking about the future– improvisers are all about the present – so what can we change now that will have an impact on the future?

Ralf Wetzel joined Vlerick Business School as a Professor of Organization and Management after extensive experience in management and organization research and after being a head of a joint research and consulting group in Switzerland. He asked “how do we [the impro community] feel about becoming a normal commodity?”

Phelim McDermott spoke about how impro encourages us to develop sensitivity to atmospheres and power structures. He spoke about the wafts of criticism he's been picking up about the panel discussions at this event. People had been complaining about the power dynamic, with the panelists up on a raised stage, behind a table and using microphones, whilst we, the listeners sat in cabaret style around tables, meaning that there was a lot of space between the panelists and the back of the audience.

I'd noticed that the audience did not seem particularly engaged during the panel discussions and that the tone of most of the discussions had been individuals on the panel and on the floor, promoting their own ideas, without much scope for learning, shifting, collaboration or discovery. I just thought that was just the nature of panel discussions...

Phelim asked us “is there another shape you'd prefer?”

Together, we improvisers got up and rearranged the space, getting rid of the tables and creating one big, open circle. Two women decided to turn their chairs so that their backs were facing into the circle. The discussion continued.

Mel put forward that the future is a construct and urged us to pay attention to the here and now. "But how do we pay attention?" She asked.

Someone said; “I want to hear about the protest” referring to the two women with their backs to the circle.

One of the women said something like “I don't want to sit in a circle, I've been forced to sit in circles before and I don't want to sit in one now. I am exercising my right to say no.”

The other woman said something like: “We always make a circle, it's boring, there's nothing new about it.”

I was curious about the roles that these women were taking in the group. When we introduce the unexpected, there is always fall out, unconscious behaviours come to the surface. They were clearly having a reaction to the disruption and I was intrigued about the impact it would have on the group. Thinking back to the discussions on access and inclusion, I remember thinking who is holding this space? Did it even need holding? Perhaps all these women were asking for, was the respect to choose how they connected with the event. They were still here, still listening, still contributing, just with their backs to the circle. The group seemed satisfied with the explanations and the attention moved on. 

Perhaps it was seeing how the "protesting" women's choices were accepted by the group, that allowed another member of the audience to stand up and let loose a cry from the heart; “When I think of the future, I feel anger and depression.” She proceeded to speak about climate change, implicating all of us in the responsibility of searching for solutions. Phelim tearfully thanked her for her emotion, explaining that her expressing her feelings lets him feel his.

We're living in a pivotal time in history, can improvisation play a part in saving the world?

Patti brought us all back to the purpose of theatre, “Theatre questions life on stage.” She reminded us that “it's a privilege to have the gift of theatre making” and as improvisers, we're “the odd people in the village who do that thing.” It's our job to rock the boat.

Mel suggested that we start by using our processes on ourselves, “disrupt business as usual in ourselves” to begin to heal “the violence of industrial culture.” She recommends that we “re-sensitise so we can re-make relationships that have snapped [with ourselves, with each other and with nature]”

Is it possible, that improvisation is the answer to everything? One person in the circle proposes maybe not. He said something along the lines of: If you need a nail driving into a wall and you have a hammer and a screw driver – you choose the hammer. But if you only have a screwdriver, you improvise, you do the best you can to repurpose the screw driver. But what if you only have a piece of string? You can't drive in a nail with a piece of string. He argued – what if not everything can be solved with improvisation? What about if we sometimes need to make a plan and stick to it?

This theme was returned to the following day in the Open Space, as a story which went something like: Once upon a time, there was a man who tried to hammer in a nail with a piece of string. He tried and he tried, but he couldn't get it in, so we went to see the shaman. The shaman said, ”roll the string into a ball and go to the river and dip it in the water. Then climb the highest mountain and wait until the water freezes and voila, you can use your string to hammer in the nail. 

It's true, improvisation can do a lot. It can help us learn to:

  • deal with the unexpected

  • be more creative in our responses to things

  • make do with what we've got

  • collaborate with others

  • celebrate each others gifts and talents

  • listen to ourselves and each other

  • invite other people into our private crazy worlds

  • develop empathy

  • discover our incredible capacities as humans

  • say yes to the gifts that appear before us

  • access our unconscious

  • be courageous

  • be seen

  • be heard

  • be accepted

Whether or not improvisation can save the world remains to be seen. I noticed a whole lot of improvisation happening during Extinction Rebellion, both in the organisation of the event and as a form of protest. The flexible approach of the organisers and protestors allowed them to cause massive amounts of disruption, shutting down central London for a week, attracting the attention of the whole world. The willingness of the arrestables to say “Yes and...” to arrest, in the name of Mother Earth, put great strain on the police, which got XR a direct line to the government, which is what they were after. Improvisation played a big part in getting the powers that be to listen, demonstrating the power of peaceful, non violent, colourful, creative play.

I have huge hope. I feel we're collectively entering a more conscious period of history, things are changing.

And if I'm wrong, and if doesn't work, and if we're headed towards the apocalypse, then surely improvisation is going to be our best tool?

It's now halfway through the conference and there's still two days of Open Space to go. As you can see, I'd had a lot of big thoughts, learning and experiences passing through me in these two days. But instead of taking a pause to digest any of this, which is what I think I needed, I dragged myself along to see an improvisation experiment, using Mooli Lehad's 6 part story technique.

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