Facilitating for engagement in isolated communities


April 24th, 2013

There are ways to facilitate meetings and events of all sorts that encourage participation and engagement. This week, while working in Papua New Guinea and helping community leaders learn how to facilitate in isolated communities, I’ve come to understand the following.

Facilitation can help the redistribution of power dynamics in a community

Many standard meeting processes, especially those used in communities, are based on the one-to-many model: speaker to talk to the masses and then take questions; discussions in large plenary groups where women, youth and children’s voices are drowned out by male community leaders; well-intentioned NGOs bringing in pre-determined agendas of what they think is important. Using processes that reduce the opportunity for the ‘usual suspects’ to grandstand can contribute to the redistribution of power and provide a voice to those previously silenced. These processes include World Cafe, Open Space and sociometry.

Poor literacy amongst participants is no reason to abandon participation and engagement

It’s often used as an excuse – community members are generally illiterate, therefore facilitation won’t work. It’s true, many facilitation process are not appropriate if there’s poor literacy. But that’s no excuse – it’s up to us to redesign those processes so as they are friendlier for illiterate people. Examples include using smiley faces for prioritising, sociometry again, small group discussions, graphic facilitation, music and found objects. It’s just not good enough to default to one-to-many processes simply because it’s easier.

Use everything

With a big nod to  Rob Poynton, this has never been truer than when working in isolated rural communities. Don’t assume anything. Meetings might take place under a mango tree. It requires a big dose of letting go and noticing what is actually available to support participation and engagement.

Today I was demonstrating Open Space in a building with no walls. That led to a dilemma as to where or how to organise the agenda ‘wall’. Right in front of me was a chain link fence. I just wasn’t seeing it. When my brain finally decided to see what was actually there, instead of focusing on the walls that weren’t there, I saw the fence as the ideal agenda ‘wall’. Duh!

Storytelling can reveal the unspeakable

When people have little or no power, and are suffering terrible deprivations – physical and sexual abuse, discrimination and gender-based violence – storytelling can be a window to safely explore and share their experiences – as long as those listening are open to hearing. This listening activity encourages deep listening and is drawn from Playback Theatre. In groups of five, one person tells a short personal, true story. The others in the group are given one of the following to listen for: the story in three sentences; the essence of the story; a metaphor or image ; and what’s not said. Good listeners can listen for all of these at the same time. This activity trains us to listen with intention.

And I was reminded how a troupe of travelling Playback Theatre performers could do wonders by visiting isolated communities; hearing their stories and playing back those stories thus building connections across the community. I’ve written about that before. If I ever had access to vast amounts of philanthropic funds, this is what I’d do.

We don’t have to ‘dumb down’ facilitation 

Just because people live in isolated communities, may be illiterate, and have little or no access to modern resources, are not reasons to drop our standards of facilitation. People are people, with all the same feelings, emotions, needs and wants as someone living in the most modern of cities.

Still learning about facilitation


September 12th, 2011

Here’s what I learnt about facilitating thanks to Melbourne Playback Theatre Group‘s weekend workshop.

You have to keep doing something long enough to notice what’s going on for you
Taking an activity beyond what might be considered reasonable can have enormous payoffs. We would do a seemingly straightforward activity for a while, and just as I started thinking to myself, “Well, that’s enough – I’m getting sick of this now” we would have to keep going. And it was usually after this point that something really interesting happened.

Small moves are more interesting
We assume that large, bold moves are more interesting to those watching us. The opposite is true. It’s the small shifts that create interest and delight.

Leading/following is different to initiating/responding
There’s lots to explore here, and is probably a whole blog post of its own.

We can expand our comfort zone
Most of what we do is in our mid range (aka comfort zone). Being aware of your own mid range provides a way of exploring the edges. A simple activity like walking around the room can reveal patterns and habits and preferences. Noticing these and then making small shifts towards the edges can help expand our comfort zone. One way to become more present is to play at the edges of our habits.

It’s impossible not to be influenced by the people around us
We are influenced by others all the time, maybe we just don’t notice it.

Simplicity is very compelling
The tendency is to over-complicate. Keeping it simple is as important as it’s ever been. Simplicity is harder to achieve than complicated.

Body warm-up  is as important as a mental warm-up
Athletes know this. Actors know this. What about facilitators, leaders, managers, speakers – anyone who has to stand up in front of a group?

And I also learnt a bunch of new activities:

  • School of Fish: a basis for exploring connection, movement, leading and following, pace, style, non-verbal communication.
  • Gift Box: an indirect way of introducing “yes, and…”
  • Viewpoints: Wow! Just wow! It’s about tempo, duration, spatial relationships, kinesthetic response and repetition
  • Pass the Zap: three new variations (which is helping to break my own habits with this game)
  • Body warm-up: using physical stretches to warm-up and find your preferred status body position
  • Helsinki warm-up: Finding your still moment in front of  a group
  • Focus on a point: a way to surface patterns and play with breaking them

Disruptive facilitation #5 – It’s just a silly game


April 28th, 2010

For the past few days I’ve been facilitating a workshop with my friend Johnnie Moore. Apart from the obvious joys of co-facilitating, we’ve been drawing on our shared passion for improv and using a range of improv games with our participants. And let me be really clear – this is not an improv game here or there to illustrate a point, or explore some abstract concept (and yes, improv games are good for that too). This has been wall-to-wall improv games. We’d decide on an opening game (or offer) and then see where that took us. From that there would emerge another game. Sometimes we’d be stuck. Sometimes the game wouldn’t work so well. Sometimes we’d be surprised. The simplest game (group counting, for example) would surface the richest insights.

At one point today, we had demonstrated a game with a small group in front of the rest. It was Three-Headed Expert. It was okay, a bit flat and we both noticed. We broke the larger group into smaller groups and asked them to play the game. They got it. They understood the concept of ‘being average’, they laughed and they debriefed without us having to do anything. All the while this was happening we were wringing our hands, wondering what to do to ‘rescue’ the situation. We didn’t have to. All we had to do was notice what was happening and trust that a bunch of intelligent human beings could play a silly game and make sense of it without any prompting from us.

Well, from me. This is my learning edge – to stop interpreting for others.

This demonstrated again that we really do “act our way into a new way of thinking, rather than thinking our way into a new way of acting.” I’m often anxious when facilitating that people will ‘get it’ – that it’s some failure on my part if they don’t. Johnnie reminded me of Viola Spolin’s response: “If they don’t get it, just play another game.”

Yay to that.

Living an improvised life


February 1st, 2010

The third and final day of our Playback Theatre Summer Intensive Workshop presented by Melbourne Playback Theatre Company brought together a number of disparate threads – and brought to mind some of the key lessons I’ve learnt over the years from improv theatre in its various forms. Lessons learnt and still being practiced in that unending journey towards mastery. Here’s what I was reminded of this weekend.

Your body knows before your brain
I catch myself over thinking. I can see others thinking too, coming up with an idea or a plan before doing anything. Hesitating. Rejecting the first idea because it’s not ‘good’ enough. Trust. It comes back to trusting that the movement in your body will spark something in your mind. I can’t tell you how often I have proven this to be true. Not knowing what I’ll say or do, just moving into the performance space, whether that be on the stage or in a workshop, and trusting that whatever I need will surface when I need it. Would I do this all the time, or in every situation? No. But I can train myself to do it on those occasions when that’s what’s needed. When more thinking, or more planning, will not add an iota of value.

Start anywhere, and just start!
When faced with not knowing, complexity and no right answer, where is the best place to start? That question has no answer. It’s nonsensical. Start anywhere and see where it leads. If it leads to a dead-end, try something else. The trick is to just start, and to start anywhere.

Strong offers are worth their weight
A strong offer is clear, it’s robust, it’s obvious, it’s easy to respond to. A weak offer, like a hint, doesn’t support your partner or others, and it’s ambiguous. Support each other by making and responding to strong offers.

We learn, and connect,  from doing and watching
We learn different things from doing – being in the work – and from watching others do the work. This is true of Playback. The perspective of a player (the actor) is quite different from the perspective of the teller (of a moment or story), and is even different to each and every audience member. Yet we remain connected – the players, the teller, and the audience – through our common experiences, our empathy and our differences.

It’s okay to do nothing
Sometimes, our presence is enough. We don’t need to be doing something, when others know we are there supporting them. Our presence is enough. That’s all.

Our stories reveal a lot more about us than anything else
I might tell you about what I do, where I live, my family, my work – and you will know me through that lens. Yet if I tell you my stories, if I reveal my vulnerabilities, and you can share my laughs and my tears, will you not know me a lot better? Playback Theatre embodies that sharing.

Thanks to Mike McEvoy, Ian David, Glynis Angell, Andrew Gray and Ernie Gruner – all from Melbourne Playback Theatre Company – who  conducted the workshop and contributed to my learning. And thanks too to my fellow participants, who so willingly and generously shared their stories, and themselves.

Celebrating emotions


January 30th, 2010

There seems to be way too few opportunities in my life to really, truly explore emotions – mine, and the those of others.

Today in the Playback Theatre workshop I’m taking we moved on to ‘moments’. In Playback, moments are emotional vignettes – the way someone might be feeling right now, or an experience from their day or week that had strong emotional aspect. The director surfaces the key emotion underpinning the experience and the players, play that emotion back using sound and movement creating a moving tableau, or in playback-speak, an emotion ‘machine’.

And this is one of the reasons I enjoy Playback so much – the opportunity to vicariously experience a range of real emotions, either as a player or even an audience member, and to tap into my own emotional responses. Even complete novices can do this – I think because we’re tapping into the essence of what makes us human. We experience life through our emotional responses. To deny these emotions is to deny our experience, to diminish ourselves.

There’s not so many opportunities to do this as an adult. It seems to be OK for kids to express their emotions in a BIG way – rejoicing in a discovery, railing at unfairness, excited anticipation or disappointment. Think of how children you know express these emotions. Then think how you do. What’s the difference? Why is there a difference? Does it matter?

Another reason I enjoy Playback as a form is that the emotions explored encompass the gamut of human experience, not just the positive ones. This gives Playback an authenticity and grittiness that is almost visceral for the audience. And certainly for the players.

Space, but not the sort you think


January 29th, 2010

Tonight I had space in my head – and it was such a joy. Usually, when I’m with a group I’m facilitating, so my head is full of all sorts of things: watching what’s going on, keeping track of the time, thinking about the next bit, ensuring my mouth is somewhat connected to my brain – you get the picture.

Tonight, I took part in a Playback Theatre workshop run by Melbourne Playback. We did some body and vocal warm ups, we explored shapes, we listened and connected and were playful with movement, sound and stories. It was great fun. It was energising. But more than that it was a relief.

I realised just how full my head is when I’m facilitating. Tonight I emptied my head of all that ‘stuff’ and I even practiced being completely and totally present to what was happening right now, right in front of me, with my partner. I practiced being ordinary, letting go of control, embracing mistakes and accepting offers. And wow! I mean wow! It was so good I could almost feel the dopermine shots in my brain. I should really make time to do this more often.

And here’s my favourite quote of the night (sorry I don’t know the source):

“We act our way into a new way of thinking, we don’t think our way into a new way of acting.”

Playback Theatre Workshop


December 24th, 2009

WooHoo! This is just the ticket. Melbourne Playback Theatre Company is offering a weekend intensive at the end of January. I wrote about Playback Theatre and community building here. I can’t think of a better way to ease into a new year. Wanna join me?

Summer Weekend Intensive

Melbourne Playback Theatre Company is proud to offer a weekend of training in Playback Theatre Practice.

There are 3 workshops over 3 days (with just enough space for your family duties!)

Friday         29 January         7pm to 9.30pm
Saturday    30 January          12.30 to 5pm
Sunday       31 January         12.30 to 5pm

VenueDancehouse , 150 Princes Street, Carlton.

“Investigating Story”

The great pleasure in Playback Theatre is seeing a story retold and transformed.
In this workshop we will continue our investigation of what it is to tell and re-tell stories, and how it is to hear stories from different perspectives. As part of this we will explore physical storytelling and non-linear narrative.
Whether part of your professional development or personal creative exploration, these workshops are designed to:

  • Improve your listening skills.
  • Play with ways of communicating.
  • Discover and harness your natural storyteller.
  • Explore ways of telling and composing story.
  • Practice performance and presentation skills.
  • Learn the Playback Theatre form.

Your facilitators are Glynis Angell, Ian David and Mike McEvoy.

Cost: Full – $250 / Concession – $220
Enquiries: Phone (03) 9690 9253  or email: mike@melbourneplayback.com.au
Places are limited to 14 participants- book early!

Download flyer and registration form

Community building with Playback Theatre


November 23rd, 2009

We cannot hold a torch to light another’s path without brightening our own. Ben Sweetland

Colour BurstMy introduction to improvisation was via Playback Theatre. Playback is a form that uses real stories – moments and stories from the audience – as a basis for the enactment. The players use deep listening skills and metaphor to play back the stories capturing the emotion, and sometimes the sub-text. It can be funny or moving or tragic. Anything really. It’s great fun, and a privilege, to perform.

The folk from TrueStory Theatre were at the Applied Improv Conference and provided a great platform for us – newcomers and old hands alike – to explore playback.

One comment that stayed with me was from Christopher Ellinger, who said that “the purpose of playback is community building”. Improv is not usually associated with community building, so maybe this requires some exploration.

It’s described by TrueStory Theatre like this:

The mission of True Story Theater is to promote social healing by listening deeply to people’s stories and transforming them spontaneously into theater. Our events create a respectful atmosphere where every voice can be heard and any story told — however ordinary or extraordinary, difficult or joyful. True Story Theater offers audiences fresh perspectives, deeper connections, and a renewed appreciation for our common humanity.

I’m reminded of my own experiences learning playback and performing. We built community amongst our dispirate troupe of newbies grappling with the form by turning up each Tuesday evening and telling our own stories: there was the woman minister dealing with the hierarchy and expectations of the Church and her family; the daughter of social workers who had grown up in institutions; the male beautician who went on to become a regular playback performer; the young couple just starting an organic fruit and vegie business. Oh, and I was there too, just starting out on my own in business – and exploring improv for the first time.

We’d share moments from our week, and stories that grew and developed. It was like living in a real-life melodrama serial. And all the while we’d practice listening – listening for the essence of the story, a metaphor, what’s not said and how it could be restated as three sentences. We’d practice each of these in turn, and then we’d practice listening for all four at once. It was the most authentic listening training I’ve ever done. We’d practice playing back, taking on different roles and using different forms. We’d practice accepting offers, and moving the action on. We’d practice speaking up and shutting up. We’d practice making our partner look good. And we’d practice giving, because that’s what playback is all about – the teller giving their story to the players, and the players reshaping it and giving it back. That’s why I also think the essence of playback is community building – it creates shared stories. Your story becomes my story. It creates shared understanding – I can empathise with your experience. And it creates a shared experience, that bonds us and builds connection.

Playback is another manifestation of the power of conversation, telling stories and human connection. And it’s great fun!

Will I? Won’t I?


July 13th, 2009

There’s a really cool performance piece that is a part of Playback Theatre. Two players physically enact an internal dilemma, or conflict. Naturally, it’s called Conflicts. Melbourne Playback Theatre Company

It’s great fun to watch because most of us can relate to an internal dilemma: small or big. Will I eat this piece of cake or not? Should I stay in bed a little longer or get up and go to the gym? Will I buy this house, marry this person?

It’s great fun to play as well – finding arguments to support the position you’re playing.

So here’s (just) one of my current internal conflicts. I’m self-employed. I usually get enough work. At the moment I don’t have a lot of work coming up. Should I get out there and chase work? Or should be grateful for the space to write that book?

What internal conflicts are you struggling with?