Finding the New Thing

The evening’s exercise was a variation on one of Viola Spolin’s classic theatre games, the “space walk.” Our instructor grouped us into trios to begin shaping the space at the center of our circle. The task was to treat the space as a tangible “stuff” and build something together. The challenge was that we could not speak to one another, we could only agree with and amplify one another’s movements. The “lead” in our trio would naturally shift periodically, and it was up to us in the moment to decide who was leading and who was following.

Our group started building low to the ground, laying a foundation. The partner to my left began working the space-stuff upwards, like clay, until together we had shaped a pillar up to chest height. “Perhaps it’s a pedestal,’ I thought. And so, I began to shape a rough blob of space-stuff on top of it, waiting to see what form it demanded to be. As a trio, we worked the stuff, trying to feel out its shape. At some point, lines between leader and follower blurred, and as one group mind, the stuff atop our pedestal took on the shape of a box, guided by our hands. Now, we had a box shape on top of a cylinder shape. 

But what was it?

We stepped back to examine our work, trying to make sense of it, three art critics in a museum of invisible art. Finally, my partner to the right reached out toward the box and opened a door on one of its sides. I smiled in realization, and reached my hand in to take a book out of the Little Free Library we’d silently agreed to build. I opened it and began to read.

The feeling at the end of the exercise was joyful, exhilarating. We stood in the quiet for a few moments longer and just smiled at one another. Look what we just made!

“Cool move to make it a Little Free Library,” I said to my partner.

“Oh, I didn’t know that’s what it was,” she said. “I just knew the box had a door. I didn’t know it was the library until you reached in to grab the book.”

This was one of my “ahah!” moments in improv. It came about a year-and-a-half into my studies. Improvisation is about mutual discovery – finding the new thing in the middle that nobody planned on. Now, it seems like a “duh” moment, but it really was a revelation at the time and the memory of that feeling has stuck with me. I just needed an exercise where the verbal element of improv was removed, and the ego’s need for rightness and cleverness to be removed alongside it. All we had in that moment was the language of the body, and for that we needed to listen even more closely than we would if we’d been speaking.

When I teach improv as a form of mindfulness practice now, this is the feeling I’m hoping to instill and the goal I nudge people to move towards: a deep, bodily listening in service of mutual discovery, of finding the new and unexpected thing that exists in the middle of all our experiences and gifts.

This blog is about achieving mindfulness through play, and about using improv to create stronger communities by teaching those very skills of mutual discovery. It will entail reflections on my own practice and my experiences in teaching and coaching. Possibly the occasional guest post. Maybe a silly video here and there. I hope you’ll follow along and discover with me.

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