I am sitting in a closet with black velvet curtains drawn. It has a small light, chair and tiny desk, yet it is unapologetically a closet.
The high school teaching crew wanted me out of the way but within earshot because I am their required adult presence for a theater workshop for kids ages 5-12.
It was fun to be a fly on the wall and observe. It was a welcome opportunity to go looking for elements from theater camp and improv that you and I can take right into daily personal and professional life.
I noticed 3 effective methods during my morning shift from 9 to noon:
1) whole body introductions with active listening;
2) inviting centered breathing as a way to assist focus; and
3) using improvisation “yes/and” skills to have more connected conversations.
Whole Body Introductions
First, the group got in a standing circle, facing each other. The moods and energy in the circle lifted as the volume came up on the background music — the 1982 hit by Survivor, Eye of the Tiger.
One workshop leader demonstrated how they would learn each other’s names and connect with each other right away. There was no over-explaining.
Each person said or sang their name with ‘an action’ they chose to share. Picture, for example, one exuberant face with jump as one child said her name. Then, picture another child showing a non-committal shoulder shrug and a big smile as he said his name. You get the picture.
More active listening and expression unfolded in a few more rounds with specific, yet easy-to-follow instructions for each round.
To me, the group looked like they had heard, seen and connected with each other as a result of these introductions.
A bit later, I noticed a group just outside my curtain in a centering practice. Some articulate 17-year old told her small group, “acting requires focus, so let’s slow ourselves down now and focus in on our breath….”
Wait, what? These kids know about using their own breathing as a path to centering and finding focus? Yes, they do.
My daughter, who was one of the high school student teachers, stopped into my closet space to check on me.
I told her excitedly, “They sound like they are having so much fun! Hey did you design that small group centering thing about focusing in on your breath as a way to get grounded?”
I’ve coached her in this so I had the audacity to imagine I was her original source on the power of the breathing pause and making your breath the boss, right? Wrong.
“No I did not design the field of acting,” she said, “Breathing techniques are not new, mom. It’s acting.” Then, she acknowledged, “Kids are such great learners. They know how to engage.”
My observation of what happened when the leader invited the kids to focus on their breathing was that they seemed to be almost immediately more relaxed and present with one another. Fascinating neurobiology in action. They settled down their nervous systems together.
Short-Form Improv Games to Practice Committed Conversations
Then a Grandstreet theater teacher walked through the workshop space to check on how things were going and he stopped at the closet talk with me.
I found out among his many talents, Dee teaches improvisation. I asked him about possible connections with theater and my work as a group facilitator. It turns out there is a whole world of cross-pollination. For one example, there is theater for social change. For other examples it could fit well in meetings to help people build currency and rapport with one another, spur innovation, or just have a good laugh together.
I asked Dee if he might be available to come lead an hour of improv practice with groups I work with who are practicing active listening with one another on their paths toward better organizational health or lively intergovernmental work that can be carried out successfully. What might that look like, I asked him.
Dee described an example exercise where a participant receives just one line, a clue about who her scene partner is and what that person is experiencing or doing. Then then it’s improvisation go time.
He said it requires you practice the give and take of dialog and of saying “yes” to whatever comes up, always yes. One of my gurus Eckhart Tolle might call that “getting friendly with what is.”
Dee pointed out you don’t have to say yes to all ideas but you do find ways to engage and say various versions of “yes/and” and relate honestly with that person – essentially generating the next moves.
For example, as you practice you learn non-judgmental listening with empathy for the good of the whole. As in, you don’t block someone to make your own point or ‘be right.’ You find a way to say “yes” to create or allow something to emerge in the conversation that wouldn’t have otherwise happened had you shut a person down with no. This is not about being a pushover or not having principles by the way, it’s about accepting what is at the moment.
It was fun to notice elements from this theater camp that I knew, felt and sensed before so many years of conditioning took hold in my adulthood. Thinking, feeling, sensing are three different intelligences. We can increase our own literacy with these and bring some lessons from theater camp and improv right into daily personal and professional life.
Introductions: Do we know how to say hello to others and notice how we are personally feeling while we check on how others are feeling?
Centering: Do we know how to pause, find composure and breathe?
Improv: Do we trust ourselves and each other to participate and look for, as Alan Seale says, “what wants to happen”? Are we willing to be silly with each other now and then?
Consider trying some of your own professional variations on these facilitation practices when you sense they may fit the needs of the group:
- Whole body introductions with active listening;
- Inviting centered breathing as a way to assist focus;
- Using improvisation “yes/and” skills to have more connected conversations.
- See if there’s something worth learning from acting school and taking it into your own work world. There was for me.
A bit about me: I work primarily with government clients and their partners as a professional coach or third party facilitator in navigating conflict, change and learning opportunities of all kinds. Find me and more of my long-time work mates at http://www.triangleassociates.com