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Applied Improvisation & Emotional Intelligence Workshop Hand-Out: Understanding The "State of Play"

In his article "Your Brain On Improv: Hacking Creativity" Dave Asprey of writes about the remarkable research done by Dr. Charles Lamb (click here for his TED talk "Your Brain On Improv") into what happens in the brain when musicians improvise, and how that information transfers to other improvisation and creative activity. "During improvisation, the self-monitoring part of the brain (lateral
by Jude Treder-Wolff, LCSW, CGP, MT
prefrontal for you brain hardware hackers out there) is deactivated, while the self-expression part of the brain got activated (medial prefrontal). Literally, that means that to be creative you have to stop picking on yourself while boosting your self-expression abilities."

   When we are able to reduce activity in the self-monitoring part of the brain we are more free to experiment and take risks, to respond creatively to unpredictable and unknowable interactions with others. Improvisation warm-ups games and exercises are designed to reduce the self-monitoring activity  and self-consciousness, refocusing our concern about ourselves and how we are doing to concern about our partners and the success of the game or scene. Spontaneity emerges naturally when we are able to shift focus in this way, what improvisers call the "state of play."
   "We get a taste of the present moment when we go to see a great play, painting, sporting event or other performance. It is the entire premise on which improvisation was founded," writes improviser and author Gary Schwartz in his blog post "What Does It Mean To Improvise?" on "Viola Spolin created some 300 doorways, the form of Theater Games to allow for this most ephemeral, but essential experience - The experience of present time where true creativity is possible."
   The "state of play" in a baseball game is in the readiness of both teams to focus their attention on moment-to-moment action and reaction and in the agreements among the players about how to proceed. There is a phenomenon improvisers sometimes refer to as "group mind" which on a sports team grows through playing together, working out social and emotional issues that arise and learning to communicate through subtle, often nonverbal cues that become commonly understood. In a similar way, Applied Improvisation operates through games and exercises that focus mind and emotion on the present moment and on the agreements between improvisers. "Group mind," or the attunement players develop to one another increases trust and safety which reduces the psychological need for the kinds of self-monitoring we tend to need in many other social situations. 
     It is a kind of paradox that our ability to think for ourselves - especially in high-pressure situations when the tendency to overthink and over-analyze could easily trigger the self-monitoring functions and raise anxiety - is strengthened through close attunement with others in a creative space. But it is true that repeated exposure to the "state of play" and successful interactions in that state of mind develop new confidence in our ability to be creative when under stress in other environments.

Emotional Intelligence grows through these experienes of attundement to others, the state of play, and creative collaboration available through Applied Improvisation. And it is widely regarded as vital to success at work and in life. Research discussed in the article "Why What You Learned In Pre-School Is Crucial At Work" on the New York Times blog The Upshot shows that the greatest job growth is in fields that require strong interpersonal skills and the ability to collaborate with others, both key competencies associated with Emotional Intelligence. 

The games and exercises used in this workshop focused on understanding how we enter the state of play and its relationship to "group mind" and the following competencies, drawn from the Emotional Intelligence Framework. 
Self-awareness: The ability to accurately recognize one’s emotions and thoughts and their influence on behavior. 
Emotional awareness: The ability to recognize, respond to and express one's emotions in healthy ways;
Social awareness: The ability to pick up on the emotions and needs of others, to empathize with others' emotional states in appropriate ways. The ability to pick up on social and emotional cues, nonverbal communications, as well as the emotional tone and shifting dynamics in relationships and groups.
Relationship skills: The ability to establish and maintain healthy and rewarding relationships with diverse individuals and groups. This includes communicating clearly, listening actively, cooperating, resisting inappropriate social pressure, negotiating conflict constructively, and seeking and offering help when needed.
(Some of these descriptions are taken from the Collaborative For Academic Social-Emotional Learning, which has more information about research into this area and what is happening in the field.)

Pass The Clap: Everyone stands in a circle. One player starts by focusing attention on the person to his/her right and "passing" a hand clap. The person passing and the person receiving attempt to clap at the exact same moment. The less time between claps, the more successful they are. That person then "passes" the clap to the right, and so on. 
Play this till the clap really flows nicely around the circle. Then tell the group that players may decide to pass the clap back to the neighbor they got it from. Try it and notice how disruptive this can be.
Focus attention on a partner in an attempt to synchronize movements;
Develop the skill to keep group energy moving around the circle just as it must keep moving in an improvisation scene or real-life situation;
Move the group toward a "state of play";
Emotional Intelligence competencies: 

  • Eye contact and focused attention to the other players promotes self-and-other awareness;
  • Accepting and passing along the "clap" is a parallel process to the way information and energy is received and communicated in interpersonal relationships;
  • Focus on the interaction and what we contribute to it; 

Alien, Tiger Cow 
Team up into groups of 3. There are 3 things a player can be:
  • An alien: hold you index fingers up next to your head, as little antenna`s and say `Bleeb bleeb`, bending inwards into the circle;
  • A cow: bend forward, hold your hands on your stomach and go `Moooo`
  • A tiger: push your right hand forward, imitating a claw and roar.
On count of 3 every player in a team decides to become one of the three choices. The idea is for everyone to become the same, which obviously won`t be the case, the first time. It helps to re-do the game this until the team is in sync. After doing the game in teams of 3, try doing it all together in the larger group.

Cultivate the state of play through a simple, low-stakes game that develops awareness of others;
To experiment with the idea of getting on the same page with others without talking about it;
To reflect on what is noticed and attended to when trying to get on the same page with others through nonverbal interaction;
To generate a positive collaborative energy between partners and in a group;

Emotional Intelligence competencies: 
Emotional awareness
Social awareness
Intuitive thinking

Danish Clap
Players choose a partner then stand face to face. The claps in this game are straight ahead, to the right or to the left. The movement is as follows: Slap thighs, then clap either straight ahead, to the right or to the left. If both players clap the same way, they "high five" and then slap thighs and go again.

To practice getting to convergence with a partner;
To observe subtle or not-so-subtle cues given by a partner that increase the chances of convergence;
To generate a positive collaborative energy between partners and in a group;
To get into a "state of play" and reduce the need for self-protective defenses in the group;

Emotional Intelligence competencies: 
Social awareness
Intuitive sensing
Emotional awareness

What were you aware of in your attempt to synchronize your movements with each partner?
What led to greater success in each of these exercises? How did that learning come about?
What did you feel when you were unable to achieve the objective?
How did these exercises impact your emotional state and the emotional tone of the group?

One Line At A Time Drawing
The premise is that the group works to create a picture together: line-by-line, person-by-person. Individuals take turns, but there’s no given order to the turn-taking. This is a silent exercise. The group is given one marker and a large sheet of paper on an easel (or on the wall). The instructions given are:

  • draw ONLY one line or mark at a time, picking up where the last line ended
  • no talking
  • make your mark and then wait, facing the group, until someone takes the marker from you
  • the final drawing should appear drawn by one hand.
  • when the group feels the picture is complete, you agree to this (non-verbally) and stop drawing
Practice the skills of collaboration;
Experience the process of collaboration without verbal discussion of what will happen next;

Emotional Intelligence competencies: 
Social awareness
Relationship skills

Invocation, (adapted)
This exercise is a classic warm-up for improvisers before performances. In this workshop, it is used as a way to evoke imagination, emotion and group communication and explore relationship through exploring the dimensions of a nonhuman object.
Explore the qualities and characteristics of an object without judgment;
Listen to what others contribute and allow their ideas to inspire new offerings;
Experience dramatic emotional expression;
Focus on recognition of various emotions;

Emotional Intelligence competencies: 
Emotional awareness
Emotional expression
Social awareness
Relationship skills

"PHASE 1: It is  (this description is by improviser and blogger Kevin Mullaney)
During the it is phase, the players describe examples of the object. For instance, if the suggestion is "shoe", the players might say things like:
§  It is black and made of leather.
§  It is canvas with a rubber sole.
§  It is jack boot.
§  It is plastic and was made in China.
This is the most objective part of the opening. One goal is to stake out as wide a territory as possible, given the suggestion. For the shoe example, players should describe many different shoes, not just one particular shoe, each with salient details. Players should also yes and each other describing in further detail the examples that their teammates establish.
You are
In the second phase, the players address the object as if it were a person, a friend, a colleague, or a peer. This begins the more subjective part of the invocation where the players describe what the object might mean to them personally. Please note, that not every statement must begin with "You are".
§  You are kept inside the box you came in, and are only brought out for weddings and funerals.
§  You were my companion in gym class for two years, but you now hide away at the back of my closest.
§  When I wear you, jackboot, I feel powerful and strong, and sometimes a little angry.
§  You are practical and comfortable, but I cannot wear you when it's raining.
Thou art
Now the players begin to elevate the shoe. They should now address the shoe as if it were royalty or a spiritual being. Where before the players were talking about what the shoe means to them, they now are addressing greater themes, what the shoe means to society and what it's place in history is. Again, not every statement must begin with "Thou art", however the more poetic the statements, the better.
§  Thou art a symbol of formality, discipline and respect.
§  Thou art meant for Saturday afternoons at the playground.
§  Thou art friend to fascist and communist alike, a vector of violence and mayhem.

§  Thou coverest mine feet, protecting them from the elements.

With each phase, the invocation should gain energy and commitment, starting with a casual conversational tone and building until the players are using their biggest stage voices. The opening finally climaxes when the players say in unison at a near shout, "I am Shoe!"
Just like in this example, there should be runners which appear in all four phases.
It is helpful to imagine a shoe in front of you, that you are describing, then talking to, as if it sits on a pedastal for the first two phases and then rises above you for the Thou Art phase.
Generally each player should contribute three to five lines to each section.
If there is a pause in the rhythm of the piece, that may be a good moment to move to the next phase."

Discuss what images were evoked by exploring the dimensions and functions of an object in this way. What human dynamics parallel what emerged about this object? What was it like to commit to the "Thou Art" expression of a dramatic, emotional thought? What are the connections to Emotional Intelligence? 

Little Voice
This exercise takes what was done in The Invocation into a scene. One player becomes a character in an environment chosen by the group. Another player provides the "little voice" for an inanimate object that begins interacting with the actor as the scene unfolds. Anything can have a voice, e.g. an article of clothing, a hair on the person's head, something in a pocket or on a shelf. The idea is to develop a relationship between these 2 and see what unfolds in their story. If the scene leads up to a transformational moment that would be a natural ending, but the exploration of the relationship, continuous yes...ands to what the other partner offers and development of the dynamic is the most important element.

Develop a dynamic scene through moment-to-moment interaction;
Respond to the offers made by a partner and make the most out of them;
Commit to the emotions expressed and evoked in the scene and make them large;

Emotional Intelligence skills:
Emotional awareness
Social awareness
Relationship skills

Oscar Moment
Two players develop a short, grounded scene that establishes a relationship between them. At any moment, a group member calls out "Oscar moment" and whoever is speaking at that moment must then improvise an Oscar-worthy monologue building on whatever emotion was being expressed. The bigger and more emotive the monologue, the better. Then the scene progresses, until another "Oscar moment" is called.
Develop a dynamic scene through moment-to-moment interaction;
Commit to the emotions expressed and evoked in the scene and make them large;
Recognize and expand upon the depths of a specific emotional state;
Emotional Intelligence skills:
Emotional awareness
Social awareness
Relationship skills

DEBRIEF: With what groups or classes can these exercises be used? 
How can these exercises be adapted for different age groups?
How might the "state of play" mindset impact students' or workers' performance?

Related research: An article in Child Development shows that social-emotional learning programs have a very positive impact on academic, as well as attitudes, social-emotional skills, and behavior among school-age children.  
The Journal of Organizational Development published research showing that "emotional abilities allow people not only to process affect-laden information effectively but also to use this information to successfully navigate the social world of organizations in the pursuit of prosperity." 

Jude Treder-Wolff is a trainer/consultant and writer/performer who facilitates monthly workshops on Applied Improvisation at Lifestage, Inc. She is host and creator of (mostly) TRUE THINGS, a live show that features true stories-with a twist- told by people from all walks of life. Follow her on Twitter



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