Wednesday, 03 August 2011 16:11

The Power of Play: Improvisation As A Catalyst Featured

Written by  Meghan Duffy, Ph.D.

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Improv's Angels
Neva Boyd, Viola Spolin, and Josephine Raciti Forsberg played significant roles in the development of the art of American improvisation.  These three women, all first-generation Americans, believed in the power of play and the importance of focusing on the processes involved in learning and creativity, and devised a pedagogy that demonstrated the power of a focus on process rather than end-result. They all drew on the important theories of their time and place in history. Boyd’s contributions grew out of early twentieth century social and educational reform; Spolin’s work grew out of a necessity to communicate across ethnic and cultural barriers when she was a drama supervisor for the Chicago branch of the WPA’s Recreational Project; Forsberg’s approach was rooted in the Human Potential Movement, a movement that supported individuals in their quests to reach their fullest potentials. If these three women were developing their theories and approaches today, they could look to the advances in neuroscience and cognitive psychology to support their observations.  Science can now provide us with deeper insight into the brain processes involved in improvisation.  Through play, through improvisation, we are transformed and transported in so many ways.

Like Boyd, Spolin, and Forsberg, I witnessed the transformative power of directed play, the ways in which games build community through collaboration, and the ways in which games support the development of the “self.” In 2006, I began teaching improvisation at The City College of the City University of New York. I knew what improvisation had done for me in terms of actor/performance training and “self” development. I knew what improvisation was from inside of “me.” I was quite unprepared for the transformations I would observe in my students. As I watched them “play” in each class, sometimes doing very well and sometimes struggling, I came to understand why Boyd, Spolin, and Forsberg dedicated much of their lives to promoting the benefits of play and improvisation, and to creating a pedagogy focused on process. It works for the students and the teacher/leader alike.

Viola SpolinInitially, I used the “Spolin Games” filtered through my experiences as a student in Forsberg’s Players Workshop and as an improv comedy performer. In each class, I noted particular behavioral patterns, resistances, and successes demonstrated by my students and searched Improvisation for Theater for games that addressed the issues and achievements that I was witnessing. Most of the students’ reliance on old patterns of behavior and schemas was based in their fear of “not knowing” what I, as the teacher, wanted, or if they were doing it right. Many of them were looking to me as the authority figure who would tell them how to play the game. In keeping with the Boyd/Spolin/Forsberg pedagogical approach, I did not oblige. “There is no right way,” I would tell them. “In improvisation, there is only the process of solving the problem of the game.” For some of the students, this response was inadequate. For others, it was liberating.

The process of solving the problem, the point of concentration, presented in an improv game is paramount in supporting the development of new behaviors and attitudes because it keeps the players focused on something outside of themselves and engaged in the process. With this in mind, I use the following side coaching phrase: “It’s not about you.” I also use Forsberg’s advice: “If you take care of the other player, you will be taken care of.” This simple idea often takes several classes to grasp and to believe. As Forsberg’s student, I had learned how to respond to side coaching as a player and how and when side coaching was used. As a teacher, I learned its value.

Like Forsberg, as I continued developing my pedagogy, I began infusing my approach to teaching improvisation with other concepts about which I was learning from my research on the art of American improvisation, as well as from other improvisation technique classes I was taking and other actor training programs in which I had participated, such as Anne Bogart’s Viewpoints, David Mamet and Bill Macy’s Practical Aesthetic,  and Michael Chekhov training. In addition, I began looking at improvisation and the exercises I was using through the lenses of psychological, cognitive, and creativity theories. Perhaps one of the most enlightening concepts for me, and one that now greatly informs my pedagogy, is the intolerance/tolerance of ambiguity. Ambiguity is ever-present in improvisation, as it is in life. Improvisation can serve as a tool to help individuals learn to endure situations that are characterized by uncertainty and to feel confident that they can solve ill-defined problems. When an individual can tolerate ambiguity, she can experience the present moment and respond in the “Now,” as opposed to running from the threat that “not knowing” can pose.

When I began working on this dissertation, The Roots of American Improvisation: Play, Process, and Pedagogy, Forsberg gave me a copy of Something from Nothing, her informal notes on the exercises she was using as part of her curriculum. I began experimenting with some of the exercises that she had either not used when I had been her student or that I had simply forgotten over the past two and half decades. I also began putting more focus on “mirroring,” which she believes is the key to improvisation. Furthermore, in researching the theories that influenced Forsberg’s work, my perspective on human behavior was transformed. I knew that she had been a Transactional Analysis (TA) group therapy leader, had been studying psychology, and had participated in Erhard Seminar Training (EST).  I learned, first hand, that Forsberg wanted all her students to move toward emotional health and to learn to take care of their “selves.” In digging deeper into TA, EST, and the Human Potential Movement, I discovered Humanistic Psychology with its emphasis on the health rather than the pathology of the individual. When I read the work of Abraham Maslow and Rollo May, I understood exactly how improvisation leads to personal transformation.

One of the exercises that I use in all my first day improvisation classes is Spolin’s “Exposure” game. In this game, half the participants stand in the playing area and are side coached to “do nothing” while the other half become the audience-observers. Each group has the opportunity to play both parts in this game. Although solving the problem of standing there “doing nothing” while everyone looks at you seems quite simple, it is deceptively difficult. No one can “do nothing.” When the exercise is completed, I ask all participants to write down their observations, from both the perspective of the “doer” and of the observer. One of the students observed that she never found a level of comfort while “doing nothing” and being “exposed” to the rest of the group. However, she reported that while observing the other group, she had an “A-ha” moment. She recognized that what she was witnessing were just humans being human.

This student’s recognition of humans being human, or individuals simply behaving in an authentic way, epitomizes the art of American improvisation. At the core of improvisation as it developed in the United States is a belief that we can learn to interact with one another as collaborators. Foundational to improvisation is the belief that “play” serves as a catalyst for collaboration and community. In addition, “play” can also serve as the royal road, or at least provide a path, to self-actualization. Neva Boyd, Viola Spolin, and Josephine Raciti Forsberg believe that through the process of playing, we learn who we are. One way of describing the art of American improvisation is to say that it is the art of using the “self” to know the “self,” to liberate the “self,” and to transform the “self,” all through the process of learning to play with others.

This blog serves as a catalyst for exploring, highlighting, and announcing a-ha moments, transformative experiences, and discoveries as teachers and students of the art of improvisation.  Let's play....

Last modified on Thursday, 04 August 2011 13:39

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  • Comment Link Gary S Monday, 26 September 2011 11:36 posted by Gary S

    I am glad to see the true spirit of what Viola Spolin created is reflected in your blog.
    I studied for 15 years with Viola Spolin and I agree that it is sad the concepts she laid down is disappearing with the onslaught of Improv Comedy.
    There are some good articles and a paper by Boyd at my website,
    I hope some day to meet up with other Spolin teachers and restart the movement.

  • Comment Link Pedro Morillo Jr. Friday, 12 August 2011 11:24 posted by Pedro Morillo Jr.

    I used to be tense but willing to try new things before i took improv with professor Duffy. After experiencing what Professor Duffy teaches, i learned to be free and flow with my senses and awareness. I learned a lot from professor Duffy, not only did she teach me to be the best improvisational actor that i can be, but she also taught me history of acting going from Meisner to Stanislavsky. I also took the teachings that i learned in class and brought them into my real life. I became more aware of my surroundings in my everyday life as well after this course. I learned how play off what i hear and see from whomever i am involved with and learned how to maneuver myself in circumstances as well. If anyone is to think twice about taking an improv course with Professor Duffy, you'll regret passing on a great life long teaching. PS: Its a heck of a lot more fun than what ever else you do in your life! :)

  • Comment Link Dan Dilmaghani Tuesday, 09 August 2011 16:39 posted by Dan Dilmaghani

    I like the part about solving the problem! That part gets me every time.

  • Comment Link pmorel Tuesday, 09 August 2011 15:58 posted by pmorel

    The journey of an actor is one filled with new adventure as well as learning experiences not only about the character which they are currently playing, but learning about them self (the actors) as individuals. Improvisation is a course which in my opinion every actor should take. It is a tool which helps the individual become aware of everything around them, but at the same time understands their inner self and their place within the social group. Having taken a course in Improv with Professor Duffy, I learned how this exciting tool benefits both the person as well as the community around them. The tactic of not focusing so much on the problem, but on the solution and the journey one takes to achieve such a solution was very impressive to me. For as actors and playwright we sometimes forget the process and journeys our characters must undergo in order to grow and become complete, and tend to focus more on the problems causing this one to moves the story and those within it. Even when the conflict might appear interesting at first, it is the road to the solution what concern people in the end. Improv helped me understand that a character might be interesting at times for the problems it might face, but it is the journey that character undergoes to solve such obstacles what makes it a great and accessible character.

  • Comment Link Marianne Minas Saturday, 06 August 2011 12:17 posted by Marianne Minas

    As a case manager for individuals who were both mentally ill and homeless, I utilized some of these tools. "Play" frees people to be themselves and to interact with others in order to problem solve. Enjoyed reading your blog.

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