Stepping in

October 11th, 2013

photo.PNGCreativity is not the clever rearranging of the known – Viola Spolin


Which raises the question of discovery – how do we find what we don’t know?

We go on adventures. Some of us go on BIG adventures, climbing mountains or cycling across Europe. Some of us prefer smaller adventures, like punting or trying a new food.

No matter what the scope, the common bit is doing something we’ve not done before. It’s also true for our work – just doing what we have always done is not an adventure. Adventures in learning requires us to take some risks, risks that we don’t know what’s going to happen, risks that we might be wrong, or unsure, or uncomfortable. Viola Spolin knew this when she was teaching people about improvisation. She would invent a game so that people could discover the ‘learning moment’ for themselves. She would invite her students to step into their fear, and while venturing into the world of improvisation games, make their own discoveries and have fun. Who wouldn’t want that?

Remembering to learn from who, and what, is already out there

July 31st, 2013

I really loved this list of Reminders for Every Improviser by Andel Sudik. I was expecting more of the same so it was a nice surprise to read  things like:

“The things that you don’t like about yourself are probably what made you so good in the first place, and they are definitely what make you memorable and interesting.”


“If you love improv, take some time off from it. You’re not going to miss your “one big shot” or a “really important show.” The world won’t stop; people won’t forget you; you won’t lose your “buzz.” 

It seems to me this is true of just about anything – and really relevant for any of us working for ourselves.

All of which got me thinking about improvisers facilitating. I’ve learnt a lot about facilitating from improvisers (and birdwatching and mountain biking and – well,you get the picture). I wonder what improvisers (or anyone) can learn from facilitators?


Invocations – shifting resignation to empowerment

September 27th, 2012

Sounds heavy doesn’t it? Or some sort of pseudo-psychobabble puffery. It’s not though. It’s a playful way to tap deeply into what we already know but may not have the words, or awareness, to express.

It’s another gem of a process I’ve learned from improvisation in general, and Rebecca Stockley and Matt Smith in particular. Another of my improvisation gurus, Simo Routarinne, introduced me to invocations a couple of years back. I was impressed then, and now am super keen to use it.

Here’s how it works. You start with an inanimate object. Anything really – a hat, a salt shaker, a cup,a book…

There’s four rounds. In groups of say four people, you can throw comments in at each round. It’s okay to talk over each other, to jump in. The idea is to keep the comments coming. There’s no need to incorporate other people’s ideas, although that might happen. Anyone can move on to the next round whenever they choose. Once one person moves on, everyone else moves on too. Whether they’re ready or not.

Basically you invoke the object as follows:

It is…

You are…

Thou art…

I am…

You can discover things about yourself through objects. You can also do an invocation on fear, age, stress or something else you are wrestling with.

And for people completely out of touch with their calling, here’s another one that Rebecca and Matt mashed up. It too is powerful. In fact, I think I like it even more. Rebecca and Matt demonstrated this as a pair. I think it could also be done in small groups, or individually. It’s a way of using improvisation to go deep with people – or with yourself.

Let’s say the subject is ‘talent’, and I’m using this on myself. Here’s the script for the Nipon Invocation:

My (talent) is…

To serve my (talent) I…

My (talent) has served me by…

The trouble I have caused my (talent) is…

Viv, I am your (talent) and I…

Facilitation tips for improvisers

September 27th, 2012

One of the ongoing themes around applied improvisation is the use of language, and recognising that improvisation has its own jargon. This jargon may sometimes be unhelpful when introducing people to the principles and practices of improvisation. I’m forever grateful to friends such as Izzy Gesell, and Simo Routarinne who helped school me in the jargon and language of improv.

There’s also jargon around facilitation. One of my big insights at this year’s Applied Improvisation Network Conference in San Francisco was about how to explain some facilitation concepts to improvisers, especially those who are mainly theatre improvisers, and maybe unaware of some of the traps of taking what works well on the theatre stage onto the corporate or conference stage.

I have learnt a lot about facilitating from performers – about being present, about noticing, accepting offers, about staging, about emotional movement, about pace and timing, about status (oh yes, status) and owning the ‘stage’.

Here’s what I can offer performers about facilitating.

Play with new formats

I love going to improv shows where a new format is being tried. I can imagine the buzz of creating a new format using the constraints of the theatre, and of performance. I can also imagine it could become boring doing the same format over and over (even when the content is improvised!) The same is true of facilitating. Play with formats, try out new approaches, remembering the constraints of the form. You’ll stay engaged and your audience will love you for it. In particular, try breaking out of the ‘sage on the stage’ format. Try sitting in a circle; try using the whole space, allocating different parts for different processes; use a walk and talk format; use the walls; use the floors; use your imagination. See the constraints – the room’s not quite right, the number of people is too large, the amount of time is not enough – as an offer. Accept, and move forward.

Learn about the bones of facilitation

To be able to break the rules, you first need to know the rules. There’s an underlying architecture to different performance types, just as there’s an underlying architecture to facilitation approaches. If you go to improv classes to learn or hone your improv skills, also consider facilitation classes to hone your facilitation skills. The combo is pretty irrisistable, and the skills are so complementary. For example, you can learn the skills of giving instructions to a group, of asking debrief questions, the role of intention in selecting activities, how to traverse the ‘groan zone’ and how to make the best use of your improvisational skills.

Status is your best friend

Trust me on this one, most facilitators know nothing of status. Bringing a deep understanding of status from improvisation to facilitation is probably your greatest advantage. You can use status in facilitating to establish authority with a group, to build relationships, to diffuse status attacks, to encourage participants to do things they would not normally want to do, and to get out of all sorts of sticky situations. For example, I will often use high status body and voice early on in a workshop, and when I want people to do an activity switch to low status body language combined with high status voice. Seems to work every time!

Let them do the work

On the stage, you’re doing all the work. After all, the audience are there to see you perform, they want their money’s worth. This is the biggest trap for facilitators – doing all the work on behalf of the group. This is one of the hardest lessons to learn. When facilitating, it’s important not to be the centre of attention. In improv terms, you are the chorus for the main players – the participants. You might kick things off by giving some instructions, by having an overall arc of experience designed for the participants, but they are in charge of what happens. They will create their own ‘show’.

And remember it’s theatre, but not in the theatre

Facilitating is performance. I can’t tell you how grateful I am to have stumbled into improvisation and discovered the principles and practices that now are integral to my approach to facilitating. There are so many gems to bring out of the theatre context and share with the world – especially around staging, design, participant experience, and being changed by the experience. A trip to the theatre, attending a facilitated event – both are a diversion, not business as usual. We can use what we know about the experience of the theatre to enhance the experience of a conference or event.

Why this matters

Coming together is highly valued. We can stay connected, build relationships, plan how we will change the world, hear and read what people think, through our devices. Yet it’s still not the same as being physically present with others. There is something about being in the same time and space that creates a different sort of magic. We can combine our skills in improvisation and facilitation to create that magic.

Your turn. What facilitation tips would you suggest for improvisers?

Collecting insights

September 26th, 2012

There was a lot happening at the Applied Improvisation Network Conference in San Francisco. As well as the pre-planned sessions, and the open space offerings, the one-on-one and small group conversations, and the serendipitous moments, there was the Twitter and Facebook back channel, photos being posted on Flickr, videos being made, drawings made, and people blogging. I tried to capture a small slice of the whole conference using Storify. It was the perfect opportunity for me to try this platform for myself. You can see for yourself here.

Let the games begin

September 17th, 2012

The Olympics are over for another four years. But it’s not those sort of games I’m referring to. Not sporty, competitive games. Nor video games. And no, not board games either.

These games are for fun. They are active, playful, not too energetic (though they can be), not too competitive (though they can be that too). Easy to learn, easy to play, and best of all – fun! They will make you laugh, they will make you smile, they will make you feel good.

If games do all that, why don’t we play them more often? Good question. As adults, the opportunities to play games are few and far between. Plus it’s seen as childish. Well, to that I say bollocks!

So I’m delighted that my friend Genevieve Roberts has taken the initiative to start an Improv Play Gaming Group on the SurfCoast. Yay!

Genevieve says, “As a theatre practitioner and wellness facilitator I have seen Improvisation Games achieve great things, while people have fun. I’m currently doing a Master of Wellness and I’ve been researching Improvisation as a process which intrinsically supports wellness. Benefits of playing improv games include FUN!, creativity, resilience, flexible responsiveness, laughter, collaboration, and more. But most of all, fun.”

Every Thursday evening 7.30 pm – 9.30 pm

Anglesea Performing Arts 1 Macmillan Street Anglesea Victoria Australia

Can’t wait to play.

3 tips for science communications

August 16th, 2012

It’s National Science Week here in Australia. I’m quite fond of science and scientists: I’m married to a scientist; I even studied science once; I dabbled in science communications; I failed to get a Churchill Fellowship to explore science communications; and I love just about anything to do with space exploration. I’m a big fan of science fiction and I’ve been known to read New Scientist at the hairdressers (I bring my own). (Credentials. Tick.)

It dismays me how scientists – so full of passion and creativity – sometimes make the wondrous mundane, and the story of their work stripped of emotion. It’s no surprise to me that many scientists I know have a hobby in the creative arts – music, painting, photography, art. Most scientists I know are also human, with all the emotions that humans possess. They want, just like the rest of us, to love and be loved, for compassion, for connection and for their stories to be heard.

The structures and protocols of science communications provides both a shield and a barrier – a shield from criticism by outsiders, and a barrier to sharing knowledge and meaning. It’s left to the media stars of science communications – like Prof Brian Cox – to do the heavy lifting.

So what about the everyday scientist? The ones spending hours at the bench; the ones analysing mountains of data, how can they share their story, their piece of the puzzle, their contribution (maybe not even with the big wide world, just with friends and family)?

Improvised theatre appears to be the antithesis of science. Science is all controlled and documented, improvised theatre is spontaneous and ephemeral. Yet science is full of spontaneity, surprises, and serendipity. Ask any scientist. And improvised theatre is full of structure. Ask any improviser.

So I’d like to offer these communication tips from improvised theatre to any scientists out there wanting to share their story. And we want to hear your story, your struggle and your delight.

Be average
I know, I know. Science is all about excellence. And yes, it is. But not to the rest of us. We mere mortals have no idea what you’re doing. We don’t know the importance, we don’t know where it will lead. You don’t have to impress us like you might think you have to impress your peers. To us what you are doing is already extraordinary.

Story is not a dirty word
Ever had the advice to just stick to the facts? Don’t embellish, strip out the emotion blah blah blah. It’s all rubbish. Stories, and storytelling, is part of our human DNA. Then I hear things like, “I don’t know where to start, or what to say.” (See be average above). Here’s an approach that’s pretty universal for structuring stories.

1. Establish where and when your story takes place.

2. Describe the normal state of affairs.

3. Tell us what the catalyst for change was – the need, the want, the search for understanding…

4. What happened, and what were the consequences.

5. What happened after that, and what were the consequences.

6. Depending on your story you might repeat this step a number of times.

7. The resolution – what happened in the end (or what do you hope will happen).

8. And finally, how are things different (or will they be different).

In other words, this is known as a Story Spine. In more general terms it looks like this…

1. Once upon a time…

2. Every day…

3. But one day…

4. 5. 6. Because of that…

7. Until finally…

8. And ever since then…

Improvisers use this framework all the time to ‘make up’ stories on the spot. It makes improvisers look much cleverer than they really are! It’s the structure of The Story Spine that is the brilliance.

Colour – Advance
There’s a thing called The Curse of Knowledge. It reminds us, whenever we become an expert at something, that it’s just about impossible to remember what it’s like to be a novice. And when scientists devote their lives to something, like scientific research, they gather LOTS of information. What, then to share, and what to leave out, when communicating? After all, communication is not a solitary activity – it involves someone receiving your message, no matter what medium you use to send it.

Colour – Advance is a really useful way of testing your message. It works really well with someone who is not familiar with your work. You invite them to listen to, or read, something you want to communicate. They can give two instructions only:

1. Colour. This means provide more detail, go to greater depth.

2. Advance. Move the story forward. I want to know what happens next.

Notice what they want more of, and where they want the story to move forward. Adjust accordingly.

Happy Science Week everyone.

Capturing the essence of improv

July 22nd, 2012

This is a fantastic summary of highlights and insights from AIN Downunder: Thriving In Uncertainty from April Seymore.

Tom Salinsky’s improv wisdom

July 2nd, 2012

I’m at Improvention in Canberra – a festival of improvisers from all over Australasia, and a smattering from elsewhere. There’s shows, and competitions, and workshops, and serious discussions, and partying, and lots of coffee and other beverages. I feel like an imposter. There, glad I got that off my chest. And that’s all I’m going to say about my own personal demons. Back to Improvention.

Today there was a chat with Tom Salinsky from The Spontaneity Shop in London. I’m not a huge fan of the “Sage on the Stage” approach, but Tom brought enough humour, humility and sage advice to make it work even for me. Tom (right) was interviewed by Steve Kimmens.

When asked why he loves improv, Tom answered what many of us might say: it brings together humour, storytelling and working collaboratively. And, you never get to the end of learning improv.

Ain’t that the truth?

It seems that improv has inspired much of Tom’s life and work, from finding a partner (“Improvisers are nice people. If I was going to marry someone, I’d marry an improviser.” Apparently he did.) to scripting a play he’s taking to the Edinburgh Festival, Coalition. Yes, that’s right – the uses for improvisation even extend to writing a scripted play.

This story really helped illustrate an important aspect of improvisation. Tom told us how he colluded with another student at school for the weekly cross-country race to always come in last. The two of them would make sure they were the last to cross the line and sprint for the finish. Consequently, he never found out how fast he could really run.

Maybe we’re doing this to ourselves all the time, setting up situations where we are guaranteed to fail, thereby never having to actually RISK failure? Live improvisation, on the stage, with that always-present risk of danger and imminent failure, can show an audience that players can actually delight in chaos and failure. And the audience can share in that delight. “A triumphant failure is more satisfying that slinking off the stage.” This for me, is one of the main differences between stand-up routine, where the performance has been honed and crafted, to an improvisation performance where the players and the audience participate in something together, as it is created.

And here’s an interesting point about corporate improvisation workshops. At something like Improvention, we pretty much know what we’re getting into (yep, even me) and we sign up for the opportunity to perform. In corporate workshops it’s fair to say most people prefer not to perform, so more care has to be taken to prepare people. Bridges need to be built so as they can see the connection between what they are learning from improv and how that relates to everyday corporate situation such as presenting, leading meetings, making a sale, negotiating, etc. It seems to me that building a non-judgmental atmosphere and one where it’s okay to fail, indeed expected, is a pretty hard ask when these conditions are generally frowned upon. It’s one thing to suggest holding back on judgment and critical thinking, quite another to actually do it. One thing to suggest it’s okay to make mistakes and fail, quite another to internalise that and really believe it. This is one of the reasons I find applied improv so interesting and useful. It’s one of the few approaches I’ve come across that really builds the capacity to be non judgmental and to really risk failure.

And Tom’s final point is one that I buy into absolutely. He commented that many corporate workshops are about finding out what makes people different. Improv workshops are about finding what we have in common. Hallelujah to that.


Postcards provide a window to the world

June 13th, 2012

Probably not the sort of postcards you’re thinking of.

These postcards are made of people, creating a scene from nothing but a suggestion. We started with Southern Cross Station (Melbourne’s main train station) – people posed themselves as commuters, trains, signs, rubbish, ticket machines, aimless people, newspapers. Ian David, from Melbourne Playback Theatre Company, was leading the activity. He kept asking for something that was missing. He didn’t rush.

We were then invited to do another postcard, this time someone suggested the Serengeti. There were lions, and tourists, and pop-up vans, and acacia trees, and giraffes…you get the picture. And this is where Ian added another element. He asked people in the scene to finish this sentence, from the perspective of their role: “The world works best when…”

So the lion said (for example): “The world works best when there’s lots of prey to eat.”

We were at The Hub, Melbourne at a regular Meetup of The Collaboratory Melbourne, hosted by David Hood of DoingSomethingGood. The Collaboratory is a group of people from diverse fields exploring socially innovative and collaborative solutions to our most pressing social and environmental issues.

Ian and I had been invited to explore creating a culture and practice of collaboration through applied improvisation, and we’d opted for a hands-on experience for the 40 or so people who turned up.

Back to the Postcards. Someone suggested a scene in Damascus. There was a dictator, an arms dealer, a dead body, a photographer, a journalist, a crying child, a communications satellite. Again, Ian invited us to add whatever was missing. And then for the players to complete the statement: “the world works best when…” And then he added yet another element. Those not in the scene could go and take the same pose as one of the characters and also complete the sentence “The world works best when…”

It was extraordinary.

Talk about building connections, creating empathy, providing a visceral experience of what it might be like to be one of the elements in the Postcard. Brilliant.

This is an example of what applied improv can do. We can write about what’s happening in the world, we can talk about it, watch movies, read books – yet without actually putting ourselves into a real scene (which in a lot of cases is completely impractical) this seemingly simple exercise provides an opportunity to step into the shoes of others, to explore their motivations, their emotions, and experience multiple perspectives.

It was emotional, moving and eye-opening.

What else can provide such an experience to a group of people who barely know each other, and in a short amount of time?

This is the power of applied improv.