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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. Boydâ€™s contributions grew out of early twentieth century social and educational reform; Spolinâ€™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 WPAâ€™s Recreational Project; Forsbergâ€™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 â€śself.â€ť 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 â€śselfâ€ť development. I knew what improvisation was from inside of â€śme.â€ť I was quite unprepared for the transformations I would observe in my students. As I watched them â€śplayâ€ť 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.
Initially, I used the â€śSpolin Gamesâ€ť filtered through my experiences as a student in Forsbergâ€™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 studentsâ€™ reliance on old patterns of behavior and schemas was based in their fear of â€śnot knowingâ€ť 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. â€śThere is no right way,â€ť I would tell them. â€śIn improvisation, there is only the process of solving the problem of the game.â€ť 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: â€śItâ€™s not about you.â€ť I also use Forsbergâ€™s advice: â€śIf you take care of the other player, you will be taken care of.â€ť This simple idea often takes several classes to grasp and to believe. As Forsbergâ€™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 Bogartâ€™s Viewpoints, David Mamet and Bill Macyâ€™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 â€śNow,â€ť as opposed to running from the threat that â€śnot knowingâ€ť 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 â€śmirroring,â€ť which she believes is the key to improvisation. Furthermore, in researching the theories that influenced Forsbergâ€™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 â€śselves.â€ť 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 Spolinâ€™s â€śExposureâ€ť game. In this game, half the participants stand in the playing area and are side coached to â€śdo nothingâ€ť 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 â€śdoing nothingâ€ť while everyone looks at you seems quite simple, it is deceptively difficult. No one can â€śdo nothing.â€ť When the exercise is completed, I ask all participants to write down their observations, from both the perspective of the â€śdoerâ€ť and of the observer. One of the students observed that she never found a level of comfort while â€śdoing nothingâ€ť and being â€śexposedâ€ť to the rest of the group. However, she reported that while observing the other group, she had an â€śA-haâ€ť moment. She recognized that what she was witnessing were just humans being human.
This studentâ€™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 â€śplayâ€ť serves as a catalyst for collaboration and community. In addition, â€śplayâ€ť 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 â€śselfâ€ť to know the â€śself,â€ť to liberate the â€śself,â€ť and to transform the â€śself,â€ť 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....