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if improvisation were a toolbox

Updated: Apr 19, 2023

This is the second blog post of the why improvisation is not a toolbox series. In this post, I will stick with the toolbox metaphor and explore its edges to make an argument for buidling awareness, quality and skill.

My jumping off point is today's experience economy - the business of selling memorable experiences to customers - and transformation businesses which charge their customers for the benefit of engaging in 'transformational' activities.

(Applied) improvisation is one of many practices that can be monetized for its transformation potential. To make a sales pitch, I've often said that improvisation training offers such a wide range of activities that they can be applied to pretty much any setting and circumstance. More broadly expressed, as improvisation is a natural way of spontaneous expression, it can be done wherever there is life. Philosophically speaking, all of life is an ongoing improvisation.

When I improvise, I am alive!

This image shows four people on a stage bending fowards in super hero stances.
Feeling alive with my former improv team Five Seven Plus!

Especially in highly structured settings, playing improvisationally will be a breath of fresh air. The potential for having a transformational experience is huge! However, even if a person agrees that what they want and need in their workplace and in their life is more creative freedom, the rules of their companies (and perhaps even their own minds) require explanations that provide certainty of return on investment.

In short: creative improvising has to be good for something.

"By evoking familiar expectations of mechanistic and measurable engineering solutions for ‘creative’ problem solving, the metaphor has itself become a tool which opens the door for creative people who wish to enter and succeed in the industrial workplace." (blog 1)

Toolboxes are straightforward to sell. Toolboxes give their ‘users’ a sense of being good at DIY, especially when the tools are simple to handle, collectible and seem professional!

Ideally, at first the tools are basic. Then there will be training to sharpen and hone the skills of using them. Eventually there will be masterclasses where one can learn how to use them in all sorts of different contexts, embedding the use of these tools as a 'way of life.' In this sense, the metaphor works and does its job of creating a bridge between art and economy.

image by Obsahovka Obsahovka on Pexels

However, capitalism encourages rapid expansion. This means either the sale of lots of tools to lots of people as quickly as possible, or the sale of high value items to wealthy individuals and businesses. For a transformation business, this means that in both cases economical value is determined by perceived efficiency, effectiveness and certainty of success.

For an improvisation business, this means narrowing down the inherent uncertainty and unpredictability of free association, to repeatable and replicable activities which take their participants down a predictable path of "transformational" experiences. (see blog 3)

First, let's focus on issues of quantity, quality and skill.

For better or worse, there is no body of organisation which executes quality control within the improvisation training industry/sector. Anyone who has improvisation tools can go on to make their own versions of training with any target group. Improvisationally, even.

This is also the case in many other experience and transformation trades which advertise:

  • "Get a coaching qualification for 7$,"

  • "become a certified life-guard online," and

  • "reach enlightenment in one weekend."

I love that through the internet it's become possible to disseminate information widely, quickly, and at little cost. Especially during the Covid pandemic lockdowns, I benefited greatly from accessing teachers and education which I otherwise could not have reached.

With this piece, however, I want to advocate for mindful discernment when using and selling toolboxes.

Presenting someone with a blunted tool will not be of much use to them.

A sharp tool in inexperienced hands, however, can become a weapon.

I read a post by someone whose name now eludes me, riffing on Clarissa Pinkola Estés' most famous book title:

"Women who think they're running with wolves, when actually they're running with scissors."

How many inexperienced trainers, facilitators and coaches go into a room full of people using tools they've just picked up in a textbook, weekend course or vlog?

I know from my own experience as a beginning trainer, over a decade ago as a student aged 21, that I would read about an activity in a book or hear about it from a colleague, adapt it to fit the learning outcomes I had decided ahead of time and try it out on unsuspecting participants. I'd use games that I'd never participated in before, not knowing what I was getting myself into, and was surprised when people I had only just met didn't play along the way I'd been told they would.

Often I was lucky, and the activity went well or a tricky situation resolved itself. We'd have a laugh and all learn something along the way. "Build the plane while flying... improvise!"

Other times, I didn't handle things gracefully. Some participants gave me feedback that I didn't practise what I preached and that I myself had to learn the things that I was trying to teach them. Others said nothing and never returned.

impro studio values: show and tell. We share with integrity that of which we embody lived experience. How we do something is integral to what we do.

Find our full set of values on our ethical practice page.

In 2014, I experienced a health crisis, and was lucky to have access to a wide variety of therapeutic modalities, including drama therapy. During this time, I learned that profound 'transformation' required much more than participating in activities and games. Working with people's habits, beliefs and stories comes with a huge responsibility for integrity and care. Especially with 'at risk,' societally marginalised and vulnerable populations.

Five years later, at the annual Applied Improvisation Network conference in 2019, I shared:

"As Applied Improvisation facilitators, we strive to make sure that we are giving our students helpful tools and a safe environment to practice with them. However, this is easier said than done.

Especially when we try to distil decades of wisdom into a half-day long workshop. Despite our best intentions, we sometimes miss the contextual mark and end up transferring perceived coffee mug wisdom and fridge magnet mantras.

This miscommunication can make some people feel disengaged, frustrated, and unable to connect with our practices."

You can watch the full talk here:

It takes time and dedicated practice to really familiarise ourselves with the toolkit we use and develop the discernment to pick which tools are useful in which situations. I mentioned the possibility of a well meant tool turning into a weapon and can't resist making a pun:

A weapon in inexperienced hands can make its wielder a tool.

You're welcome! Holding a weapon (or tool) that we can't handle has the potential to hurt others and ourselves.

For the past couple of years, practising kung fu has been a humbling experience for me. Through taking me to the limits of my physical and mental abilities, it enables me to examine the toolbox metaphor from a martial arts angle. Kung fu can be understood to mean skill acquired through effort. "In its original meaning, kung fu can refer to any [...] study, learning, or practice that requires patience, energy, and time to complete."

To wield any weapon, I first have to learn how to hold a stick and how to defend myself with one. Why? Because most other weapons are sticks with sharp objects attached to them.

Photo by Joey Nicotra on Unsplash

I've also learned that the best way to defend myself is to not use any weapon at all, but to run. Run faster and run longer than my opponent. Running is not a tool.

As long as I am not an experienced fighter, the odds of me using weapons or even basic moves in a fight would almost entirely depend on luck. No matter how powerful I feel while holding a sword, I have to remind myself that I am only a beginner martial artist, to not become overconfident in my abilities and thereby get myself or others into real trouble.

Take a look at this clip from Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, a film depicting mastery, improvisation and hubris amongst kung fu artists.

In an (applied) improvisation workshop we are not fighting to win - we play non-competitive Zip Zap Zop. We are not throwing knives but imaginary energy balls. If we ever throw knives, they are mimed.

The toolbox metaphor might come in handy when wanting to explain or sell a training. It may help us to meet some people where they are. (see blog 3) But when using the toolbox metaphor, it is important to be aware of the skills, understanding and training that are needed to use the tools well and responsibly.

As we continue to explore the toolbox metaphor, it will become more and more clear that there are other reasons for nuance and creativity when we explain what we do. No matter how skilled we think we are in our craft, there is always more to learn and discover about ourselves and the wondrous 'kung fu' of improvisation.

Next post coming soon!

All posts in this series so far:

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