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Creative Courage: Improv and Freedom To Flail, Fail, Flop and Flounder


by Jude Treder-Wolff
    Friday nights at 6 p.m. The Pit-NYC offers a free, drop-in improv jam they call Happy Hour. It has all the "you've-had-a-hard-week-just-have-some-fun" ethos of any conventional Happy Hour, minus the alcohol and the self-pity. Everyone puts their name in a jar. The host pulls 2 names. Those two people get up on stage. A suggestion is offered from the audience. Lights go out. A Beat. Lights go up. The scene begins, then unfolds through a series of offers and responses. Two minutes - lights out. Scene over. New names. New scene. And so on. This "anything goes" and anyone-is-welcome improv event is unpredictable enough to induce tension but warm and supportive at the same time; it provides exhilerating relief from the stresses of the week, the intensity of the city just a few feet away, and the thinking thinking thinking self that can never work it all out but never lets up.
   What makes this a kind of spiritual process is the faith required to do it. Faith that the people who show up will keep the agreements that make improv work, e.g. accept all offers, respect your partner and make them look good; choose moving the scene forward over ego; contribute and let go of control over outcomes. In this context, faith is freedom.
    Freedom to flail. The structured world of work, business and community trains us to be so structured in our thinking that many people feel extremely uncomfortable and self-conscious in any situation that might remotely involve "flailing." And there are everyday situations that feed our discomfort with not-knowing - the ridiculous ego needs of people we must deal with every day, systems we must navigate set up by institutions that take forever to change, colleagues who willfully crush others' chances out of rank self-interest, the eyes of others on our children's behavior ready to pounce on our parenting skills, to name a few. And yet the creative mind -with all it's rich potential to come up with an idea that blows away the competition or sparks the best behavior in the kids, - revels in flailing, as long as we can stay with it long enough to have some fun. To flail we have to put aside self-conscious pondering and competition. The two-minute limit of the short-form improv leaves enough time to enjoy some time in the spotlight but not get carried away with ourselves.
    Freedom to fail. With the nonstop competitive business world and the demands of family life in the Age of Complexity we are under constant pressure to perform. We don't often feel there is room for failure and are often unfairly harsh with ourselves when things do not work out as we hoped or planned. Improv blows past the fear of failure by making it part of the whole experience. In feeling the freedom to fail, we learn to flow with it as part of the creative process. Innovators, inventive thinkers, and entrepeneurs with this attitude make the most out of every "failure" - usually by looking honestly at what does not work and searching to understand why.
   Freedom to Flop. Being in a scene that goes nowhere. Standing silent and blank onstage while others make offers we cannot work with simply because we have shut down. Being self-conscious and really feeling it. In a 2-minute scene for which we have a split-second warm-up, these can happen easily and often - something to be genuinely happy about. To find a place in life where it is okay to look hapless, have a brain freeze and then just move on is an amazing thing. This is the closest we can get to full-on acceptance of our flawed self because it happens in front of a group of people who will applaud the effort. And who want your support when it happens to them.
   Freedom To Flounder. Creative thoughts and truly innovative breakthroughs can come in a stream of consciousness that is one of the most exciting and spiritual experiences a person can have in this life. But floundering is often what puts the "break" in "breakthrough."What breaks apart during a "floundering" phase of anything new - a new role or phase in life, a new project, idea or plan - is usually structured thinking that is obsolete but laid into our minds much like the grain in wood. It feels natural to follow the familiar, and to go in new directions feels wrong, fearful, even shame-inducing. So we flounder in order to break things up. We learn to tolerate the discomfort through the group's acceptance. We discover the scene by being in it, just as we are. Just as we discover the gifts hidden within mistakes and missteps by accepting and mining them for meaning.
   The Happy Hour-style improv jam can be a release of the tensions of the week and it does indeed bring about feelings of joy. The peeople who show up - always true at the Happy Hour events I attend - will remind you that showing up in life is a creative choice. They will be grateful for your openness and humanity.  They will thank you for playing.
About CrAzYToWn: How do you know that nice, helpful guy in the next cubicle is a psychopath? You don’t. In Crazytown, real-life therapist/performer Jude Treder-Wolff takes you down the rabbit hole of belief that led to her being blind-sided by reality. It’s a comic take on an over-eager therapist getting over herself (when nothing else seemed to be working). And these days, when our phones are smarter than we are, and we can meet, fall in love, shop for a ring and get some counseling with someone and never meet them in person – it’s a cautionary tale about how authentic a completely fake person can be. Click here for information about upcoming performances.

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