Beginnings: Laying an Essential Foundation

That one principle of improv has transformed the way I see myself as an a a person.  When I embrace my own mistakes and celebrate them as an opportunity for learning and growth, I am free to learn.  I am no longer internally berating myself--inflicting insults upon an abused psyche.  I am open to new insights and fresh perspectives.

When it's your first improv class and I tell you we'll all be counting aloud as we toss a ball into the air, it's difficult to imagine profound life lessons as an ultimate result.  When you howl with laughter as you forget someone's name and run over to the other circle, there might be a giddy moment, but there is rarely an epiphany.  However, as the ensemble builds, as the principles steep and are practiced and embraced, a  s h i f t  occurs.  Sometimes, this shift is immediate.  Sometimes, it takes a few weeks for the ensemble to gel.  I've taught players who "click in" to a new mindset a full year after beginning their work as an improviser.  No matter how much time has passed, it is the initial foundation and subsequent collective processing of improvisation that allows for a depth of understanding.

Last week, I introduced well over 30 people to improvisational theatre.  Throughout an after-school enrichment class with 5th-9th-graders, a professional development workshop with K-6 teachers, and an after-school class with 2nd-4th-graders, the basic tenet of improv was the core of our work and play: Woo Hoo!  Each session shared the same feeling: initial discomfort with mistakes followed by an jubilant embrace as we said, "Woo Hoo!  I made a mistake!"  Each ensemble made progress toward becoming a cohesive team, and individuals in all three contexts began to relax and take more risks as the class progressed.

Last week's sessions will all lead to very different places.  One might develop seemingly instant trust and commitment to the activities.  One might experience a shift in enrollment and players' ideas about improv...followed by a focus on the principles that will help the ensemble build the trust that is so essential to this form of play.  Another will never meet again as that particular group, but various individual players will take subsequent classes and delve deeper into improvisation.  No matter what the context or eventual path may be, they are all built on a foundation of "failing forward".  We are recovering perfectionists here: bring on the mistakes.

Status--relevant, powerful and transformative

Two teenagers stand in an arena.  Simultaneously full of triumph and pain, they are consoled by the fact that they have beaten their oppressors; they will both live.
Cut to the next scene.  An omnipresent voice tells the two children that the new rule has been revoked.  One must kill the other.  Perhaps the next move is one of desperation.  More likely, it is one of calculating intention.  Katniss opens her hand to offer the poison berries as an answer to their supposed fate of brutality and betrayal.  
In one moment, she has subverted the Capitol's reign of power.  She has asserted her own strength and ability to choose her fate.  She has ignited the flame of rebellion.

Students in upper-elementary and middle school understand Status more keenly than do most adults.  They live constant status transactions every day.  Status, power, and rebellion are the stuff great literature is made of.  Heck--they are the things history and social movements are made of.  As we see our country almost magnetically drawn to the books and film of Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games, we are reminded about the intrigue of these stories.  On a macro level, we can see intense status transactions in the Arab Spring, the fight against Prop 8, immigrant rights, and countless other social movements.  On a micro level, we see such transactions in a parent-child conversation, in the looks and giggles exchanged amongst peers at a table in a classroom, in a basketball game at recess. 

One month ago, I sat in my classroom wondering which way I would take my after-school improv class that afternoon.  If they seemed slightly unfocused or in need of some extra time to mature, I was going to explore one path.  If I felt like everything was in alignment--that they were ready for the maturity involved and that they were able to trust one another on a deep level--I might consider jumping into the tumultuous, terrifying, and vastly rewarding area of Status.

Fifteen minutes passed, and I walked into our auditorium.  As the kids snacked and I heard the way they talked and laughed together, I took a deep breath.  It was time to dive into the deep end.

We began our workshop with warm-ups in which we were reminded about the essential foundation of improv: the principles of Woo Hoo!, Yes...and, and Commitment.  Exquisitely shown through the simple and complex game of Ball*, as well as the Two Circles name game, we began the workshop steeped in the principles that encourage us to think deeply about the applications of these games--to ourselves and to the world around us.  That's when I brought out the cards**.

My Card / My Status
As an introductory experience for understanding the concept of Status, we did the My Card / My Status activity.  Half of the players watched while the other half performed.  I began by explaining that each person's card represented her or his "status", how much power they had in social situations (2 was low and Ace was high).  Some kids seemed pretty confused about the concept, while others nodded their heads knowingly.  I assured them that everyone would understand once we got into the thick of it.

I set them in a group context (the first was a school dance and the next was lunch during school), and let them begin interacting in character.  No one was allowed to look at their own card; they understood their status by the way others treated them.  In a 10-minute scene, the audience had the pleasure and discomfort of seeing a wide range of status-based interactions: pleading invitations to lunch together, laughing at one person for their differences, ignoring people and walking away, excited embraces, and looks of disdain.  Although no one had looked at his or her own card, nearly everyone knew exactly where to place each other as we did the "status line-up" at the end.  The ways that others treat us send us very clear messages about our perceived worth and our role in a social context.

As we debriefed, I was struck by the comment one student said.  With the Ace card, he had the highest status in his group.  Others followed him and showered him with compliments during the scene.  Clearly uncomfortable with all of the attention, he tried to get some space.  However,  his admirers were unrelenting.  When I asked all of the players how it felt to be treated as the status on their card, Antonio explained, "If this is how if feels to be high status, I sure glad I'm usually over there (pointing to the lower end of the status line)."  I'm still thinking about this statement.  Why does he feel "low status"?  How does he feel about being in such a role?  What was particularly uncomfortable for him about playing a high status character?  Does he now have some insight into the experiences of others?  Does he want to change his own social experiences?

Status is Dynamic, Not Static
One of the things that most worries me about teaching Status is exemplified by Antonio's comment.  I never want students to think of themselves as a number.  Their sense of self worth should not be determined by how others treat them, nor should they see themselves as "high" or "low".  Rather, a more sophisticated understanding of Status shows that it is an ever-changing beast.  Status is the way in which we interact with others.  My status is different when I interact with my mother as compared to by interactions with my students or a bank teller.  What's more, status transactions--shifts in status--happen many times within one relationship.  Status transactions may even shift numerous times within one conversation.  That idea is the focus of the next activity.

Status Spectrum Shift
So that the members of our ensemble can think of Status in a variety of terms, I have them envision a Status Spectrum on a scale of 1-5 this time.  They move into pairs, and I tell them they will be playing in parent-child scenes.  They choose who is A and who is B, and I randomly assign A to be the parent and B to be the child.  The parent character begins the scene at the highest status (5), while the child begins at a 1.  Within the context of a scene which begins as a confrontation over the need for the child to clean her/his room, the two characters switch status over the course of the story.  It is a two-minute scene, so by the end of one-minute, both characters will be at a Status Level 3.  They continue to gradually shift in status so that the child is at a 5 and the parent is at a 1 by the end of the two-minute scene.
Then, they switch roles.

As we debriefed the experience, my students talked about how liberating it felt to put their "parent" in their place.  The most powerful message is this: You are not a number.  Your "status" is not stuck in one place.  We engage in a wide array of status transactions--on a micro- and macro-level--every day of our lives.

These concepts transform the ways in which we think about our world, the ways we think about ourselves.  They help us to understand that what IS is not necessarily as it SHOULD BE.  If our ensembles are safe environments for taking risks and engaging with challenging material, we can ignite the fires of meaningful change.

* I've further explored the teaching of "Ball" in the following posts: The First DayPick Me Eyes and Exploring Narrative
**I wrote about using this activity in 2011 in a middle school classroom.  See Introducing Status for a description of that experience.