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The Improviser's Mind Set - imaginative thinking for solving unimaginable problems

"If the future is uncertain, best learn how to improvise. Find out how by looking at how actors and jazz musicians do it." Mary Crossan, Organizational Dynamics

   The scene is an improvisation training intensive with Gary Austin, founder and original director of the Groundlings improvisation group in LA. Just being around him fills me with an uncomfortable combination of awe and anxiety, but at the moment anxiety is winning as I recognize his intensity matches his brilliance. My emotions are focused on one thing: getting through a scene without embarrassing myself, nothing more. I approach my scene partner, whose only instruction from Mr. Austin is to sit at a table. My instruction is to open the scene with a single line that informs my partner who we are to one another.  I walk towards my partner holding an imaginary note pad and ask "Are you ready to order or do you need a little more time?" 
   "I'm ready to order," he responds, "but what I'd really like is for you to sit down and have dinner with me." 
   "Sorry I'm working," I respond. "I won't be able to sit down for dinner while I'm working." 
"Oh come on, just sit down and have dinner with me." he insists. I insist right back. "Sorry, I'll get in trouble if I sit down on the job." That's when Gary Austin jumps in.
  "He's made you an offer. You have to take it," he says. 
I freeze. My already anxious brain just received another heavy dose of adrenaline from the added pressure of having what I thought was a perfectly correct response to my scene partner called into question. I could not make sense of this.
  "But I can't sit down and have dinner with him if I'm a waitress doing my shift," I argue.
Mr. Austin persists. "You made an offer that he is a customer in a restaurant and you are a waitress. He accepted that offer. That's called a 'yes.' The 'and' is that he wants you to break the rules and sit down with him. Now you have to accept his offer."
   My brain is overloaded with competing impulses: Cry. Sit down. Leave the room. That's about it. To sit down and somehow "make it work" when a waitress simply would not do something like that is not one of those impulses. 
  "But I thought I was creating the characters. And a waitress can't just sit down with a customer," I say, trying to sound reasonable because I really believe I can win this and that I am correct.
  "But your partner made an offer. That changes what you started out with. Now you have to accept the offer or you are not improvising. You are blocking," I am told with increasing intensity by Mr. Austin. Whoa. I am the problem here? Yes, as it turns out, but not consciously. Not purposefully. More that the internal structures of my thinking just below the level of awareness kicked into "default mode" which is what usually happens when anxiety, fear or stress kicks the amygdala into a high gear. The mental structures of "waitresses do not sit down with customers" and "This is what I thought at the start of this whole thing so I'm sticking to it even though now I think I didn't get it at all" were all I had to work with in this frame of mind. I feel wounded and highly defensive. At the same time, I know that while this beyond my cognitive grasp at the moment, something about what I am being asked to do is important - and dramatic enough that it threaten established mental habits in a big way. I believe that Gary Austin is there to coach and assist, not hurt nor humiliate. Intuitively I know I have to jump into this or my defensive default settings will settle right back in, but it is still very difficult to stay in this moment. 
    Mr. Austin takes over for my partner. "I'd like you to have dinner with me. The hell with what your boss says. The hell with what other customers say. That's what I"d like you to do."
     It is so uncomfortable, but clearly I have to do something against my ingrained impulse. And these defenses are not really working very well, since the assumption that I can avoid embarrassment has shattered into a million pieces anyway. So I sit down.
    "Okay. I'd love to have dinner with you," I say, breaking into a completely fake smile. 
    "Maybe I'll get fired and then I can finally break out of this dead end job." And I swear - even though it sounds made up this is completely true - those words did not occur to me until I sat down and took the role. When I accepted this crazy offer and jumped into the situation, an entirely new idea popped in organically. 
  "Yeah, maybe you'll do something you never thought about doing before" Mr. Austin says. "You're going to love being free." 
  And that was the end of the scene. But it was not the end of the learning. The most potent learning was almost immediate: when I broke out of both the mental and physical position of "waitress" as I had always understood it, novel ideas broke into consciousness and an emotional shift took place. From there the scene had potential. It could branch out into even more unpredictable directions and through that interaction even more creative ideas would spring. 
  The other powerful learning was that extreme discomfort and confusion are often a
necessary and unavoidable dimension of breaking through defenses and getting free of the stultifying barriers drawn by habit.
  Guy Claxton, author of the book Live and Learn: An Introduction To The Psychology of Growth and Change In Everyday Life noted that one of the biggest barriers to learning is our resistance to let go of the 4C’s – the desire to be consistent, comfortable, competent and confident." Mary Crossan et al in The Ivey Business Journal takes Claxton's work and builds on it, urging business leaders to learn about and train their people in the principles of improvisation. This team of researchers propose that "we add a fifth to the list – the desire for control. Protecting and preserving these five C’s is a huge barrier to individual growth and change."

Improvisation takes these on with "4 Cs" of its own:

  • Commitment
  • Creativity
  • Cognitive Shifts
  • Collaboration
 The improviser's mind set is developed by engaging in a creative process with other people, trying new things based on mutual agreement, and then reflecting on the experience to stabilize the cognitive shifts that have taken place. Because the uncertainty and tensions of change are also core aspects of the creative process, the improviser's mind and skill set is a powerful approach to engagement with the tensions of change.
    Improvisation is this kind of experiment in which we do a thing at the same time we are figuring out how what thing is. But we are also figuring out many different ways to describe or define a thing and problem-solving on the fly. We respond to offers we cannot predict in advance, many of which mean that we throw out conventional ideas about what is supposed to happen, including who we are and what we are allowed to do. And through the experience of shifting from the familiar, ingrained habits and perspectives into radically different ones, we strengthen skills that translate into real-world problem-solving. This is very important for adults who have to figure out a rapidly-changing world while trying to function in it, and maybe even more for important for kids who have some global problems to deal with going forward.
    "In a complex world, cultivating problem-solving repertoire is an essential key to learning and the future," writes educator Kenneth Wesson in BrainWorld magazine. "It is far better for a child to learn how to solve a problem five different ways, than to solve the same problem five different times. When we teach our students to think in these ways, we're teaching them how to learn in new and creative ways."
    Living in the networked world has all the features of an improvisation in that we are thinking up new social foundations at the same time we are trying them out. Like actors with neither scripts nor direction who discover the story they are telling at the same time they are performing it, we are improvising our responses to the pressures and opportunities of life in this crazy, brave, new world by interacting with them. Unlike a scripted piece of theater, in improvisation the interactions advance the story, just as the very nature of complex systems in the culture –economic, educational, social systems among others - means that interactions are driving the consequences. But the time between action and result grows shorter as technology engineers yet another bypass around the old structures, and the space between choice and consequence gets smaller.  This makes places high value on the ability to learn, adapt and think creatively.
     The psychological set-point of the improviser is readiness. In life and in art, this readiness is a form of power, wielded through full-throttle engagement with the present moment that shoves aside the mental agonies and preoccupations over what will happen next and how we will get through the problems we face. It is an ongoing commitment to self-responsibility and collaboration with others. And in that commitment lies freedom from the need to control and the limiting perspective that blocks awareness of possible new directions our energy can take.

Jude Treder-Wolff, LCSW, RMT, CGP is a trainer/consultant and writer/performer. She created and hosts (mostly) TRUE THINGS a storytelling slam with a twist.


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