Improv as Sacred Space for Seeking Growth & Freedom!

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.  

-Viktor Frankl, Austrian neurologist, psychiatrist,  Holocaust survivor, and author of “Man’s Search for Meaning”.

This quote speaks to the sacred space for divine play that emerges when improv activities are taught with an emphasis on the process. (Unlike improv comedy, where the emphasis is on the performance.)

In the simple, yet often profound activity called, “The Gift”  one person gives an invisible present to another and it is the other person who defines what the gift is.  For example, let’s say my partner in this activity is Liz Korabek-Emerson, (we co-teach unique classes in mindfulness and improv called Stronger Together and you might see us around town putting up posters for PILL classes).

In this activity Liz would reach out to me with a knowing smile and say something like, “Beth, I have something for you”.  And I would have a knowing smile back to her as I await the gift. We don’t know what the gift is, but we do know that I will think of something and she will support me. It is a rich moment of trust, creativity, and divine play. For me, this IS growth and freedom!

And truth be told, IN that moment, I might feel anxious and uncertain. Okay, I would feel a little anxious, I’m pretty sure.  Because  in my mind or the ego part of my mind, there lies the possibility of rejection or failure.  Yet those worries are fleeting because no matter what I say,

Oh Liz, thank you for this spoonful of dirt

Oh Liz, thank you for this diamond necklace

Oh Liz, thank you for this cup of delicious coffee

…no matter what I say, Liz is going to support me. A sacred space for divine play emerges when improv activities are taught with an emphasis on the process! Click To Tweet

You are so welcome, Beth.  I thought this spoonful of dirt from my garden would help you start your indoor herbs.

You are so welcome, Beth. When I saw the necklace I thought how beautiful it would look on you.

You are so welcome, Beth. I thought a nice fresh cup of coffee would taste good to you right now.

I am supported, safe and even loved.  WOW, right?

And if you were in this PILL improv class watching, you might feel the beauty of this moment and take joy in whatever we say, because somehow you are with us in this sacred space.  It is indeed, divine play!

If this sounds like fun and you want to get a taste of improv taught this way, check out the Improv for Everyone (single sessions), Discover PILL, and Stronger Together classes coming up soon.  Or if you are interested in the world of Medical Improv check out latest Who, What & Where!

Loved Krista Tippett’s Interview w/ Brene Brown

Courage is contagious. Every time we choose courage, we make everyone around us a little better and the world a little braver. . –Brene Brown

If you liked Brene Brown’s well-known TED Talk on vulnerability you will probably like her new book, “Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone”.  It is a great book and speaks to the sometimes daunting, yet very worth it pursuit of authenticity.

I enjoy many of the guests on Tippett’s On Being Podcast series and this one with Brene Brown is exceptionally good.  I listen to the unedited version and loved hearing these two very smart women discuss personal growth, human behavior, and spirituality.

Here’s a quick excerpt to tempt you.

Ms. Tippett: You make this — just the way you make this observation — I think the way you make it is so helpful. You said, “It’s partly because we are neuro-biologically hardwired for belonging and connection. We’re hardwired to want it, and need it so much, that the first thing we do is sacrifice ourselves and who we are to achieve it.

Ms. Brown: The irony, right? Yeah, we’re desperate for it. I think if you look at — if you look from the lens of neuro-biology or even evolutionary biology: as a social species, to not be wanted and to not belong to the tribe or the clan or the group meant death. We are wired for this. It is — John Cacioppo of the University of Chicago, who does this incredible work on loneliness, says that the only real biological advantage we have over most other species is our connection, our belonging; our ability to collaborate, plan, be in relationship with in special ways. And so that desperate need to belong is not a neurosis; or it’s not an ego-driven thing. That need to belong and be a part of something greater than us is who we are in our DNA.

Ms. Tippett: I love that also, in fact, the genius — the source of the genius of our species — that’s the implication of it.

Ms. Brown: That’s it. It is. Yet what we do to ensure that we’re accepted and fit in ensures that we have no sense of belonging.

Ms. Tippett: So you use this language of “true belonging.” So talk about what are the qualities of true belonging, as opposed to those many things we do that feel like belonging but, as you say, are a hollow substitute for true belonging. What is that?

Let me know if you listen and what you think!

Applied Improv & Trust! Glorious, Glorious Trust!

One of the differences between applied improv and improv comedy is that we take the focus off of performing and put it on the process of play.  One of the most fundamental and powerful parts of that process involves trust!

What does trust mean to you?

For me, it means feeling safe, respected, even loved,  along with a sense of ease in my body, mind, and soul.  Trusting someone means I can count on them to do what they say, give me a break for my imperfections, own their own part in a conflict, accept me, even celebrate me as I am…things like that. I’ve had some betrayals in life and don’t take these things for granted.  Insecurities and sensitivities are part of who I am.  Join the club, right?

Taking improv classes has been really helpful to me in exploring trust and having fun doing it.  The very principles of play support trusting relationships.  They do vary from teacher to teacher a little bit.  At Portsmouth Improv Learning Lab, fondly referred to as PILL, we follow these principles and in parenthesis, (their relevance to trust).

PILL Principles of Improv 

  • “Yes and…” (This golden rule of improv ensures that players share responsibility for co-creating scenes and stories.  I learn that I can count on i.e. trust my partner!) 
  • Support your partner (I help others devlop trust as I am trustworthy.  I gain insight and experience into what trust looks and feels like.)
  • You have everything you need (Here I learn to trust myself to offer something of value while trusting my partner will make it work.)
  • Celebrate “mistakes” (It’s ok to be human!  YAY! I’m OK, you’re OK, we’re OK!)
  • Avoid questions (This one is a little harder to explain, but deep inside, there are times that I and others will ask questions to avoid fully participating in a relationship.  Avoiding them, for some people, means trusting themselves and others.)
  • Feel free to make things up (Actors already know this, but some people who are new to improv need permission to get out of their heads.  The pressure of being right or knowing something can be set aside.  I make something up trusting my partner will run with it giving me feedback that trusting is safe).
  • Observers play an important role (This gives people new to improv the freedom to not take a risk if they don’t feel safe. I learn to trust the teacher here and have control where I may need it. AND I can be helpful by watching and sharing insights.)

Despite difficulties broken trust situations have caused for me, these experiences have taught me to place a high value on trust and helped me to be sensitive to what others are experiencing.  It is part of how I continue to grow as a person.  And as a teacher to be more effective in creating a safe environment for students to take risks, play, and grow together.

You don’t have to have trust issues to enjoy or learn from PILL.  I don’t always feel trusting, but when I do it is indeed a glorious feeling.  Do you have experiences with trust in taking or teaching applied improv? What would you add?

Check upcoming PILL classes and open house.

Do You Nurture Your Playful Spirit?

I remember my father’s playful side.  Not often, but once in a while it came out! One example that comes to mind is when I was 12 or so and there was a hail storm going on outside.  He called to me exclaiming there were huge hailstones I should see!  So, I ran to the front door he was holding open and peeked onto the front lawn.  I immediately knew what he was talking about.  There were two big clumps of ice    sitting there….easily 10 times bigger than what I could see falling from the sky.

“WOW”, I said, excited to share this wondrous event with him.

A second later I noticed their shape and an instant after that I knew he had fooled me! Click To Tweet

There sat two ice cubes in the grass and behind me my father was trying not to laugh.  I love this memory of him.  Even thinking of it, I smile. In that moment of playfulness we were connected in a special way.  It felt safe, loving, and trusting,…even though I was being tricked.

And while sitting here working on this post at Profile Coffee Shop in Portsmouth, NH where they have all sorts of albums on display, another funny memory is triggered.  When my son was 10 or so, we often had music going on and we both enjoyed a wide variety; from Broadway hits, to Folk music, to Disco.  BUT, I had a Patsy Cline CD that he could not stand.  He would groan, beg for me to turn it off, or even do so himself. Then there was a spell of not listening to it. I couldn’t find it and forgot about it until reaching into the bookcase where he had carefully hidden it!  It was funny then and it is now thinking of it.  (So I just emailed him a photo of the album.  I bet he’ll smile too).

Play is integral in PILL classes and the more I teach and get feedback, the more obvious it is that people are grateful for opportunities to laugh and play together.  My friend and colleague, Liz Korabek-Emerson and I were talking about our class that combines mindfulness and improv.  We have come to realize that our success in this venture, (in addition to being commited and caring teachers), is that we are playful together.

What Sparks Your Playful Spirit?

Play is an important human experience and contributes to our health and wellbeing. Even neuroscience tells us that it is important for our brain!

Don’t miss the beautiful pics of dog and fawn in Neuroscientist, Jaak Panksepp’s TED Tx about the science of emotions and play!

So what can we do to nurture our playful spirit? Why not take a minute and reflect on our own human experience.  Do you enjoy playing with your children?  What about watching horses frolicking, a silly dog, a funny movie?  Take a moment to think of something that makes you smile.  How does it feel in this space of divine play when you experience, watch it, remember it happening? Connection? Presence? Safety? Joy?  Love?

For me, it is all of these in these moments with my dad and son and at PILL.  And the memories are powerful too! Seeking out experiences that make us laugh and smile is like eating healthy, exercising, and meditating.  Good for the body, mind, and soul, don’t you think?

Alan Alda Has a Passion for Using Improv to Help Scientists Communicate better!

There's something about improv that opens you up to another person.-Alan Alda Click To Tweet

Building trust, developing empathy, and practicing communication skills are going on all the time in the divine play of applied improvisation activities!  Improv techniques have the potential to help us in all interactions!  One pioneer in applying improvisation is well-known and loved actor, Alan Alda! This is a great interview with him and Dan Rather that includes a couple of fun clips of students improvising, even some gibberish! And pretty nice to hear them talk so lovingly and respectfully of their wives.  I’d say, grab a cup of tea and enjoy this interview!

Stay tuned to PILL-Portsmouth Improv Learning Lab for classes open to everyone!


Brene Brown Suggests “Show Up for Collective Moments of Joy & Pain”!

Professor, Brene Brown, PhD, LMSW is well known for her TED Talk, research, and writing on courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy. In her latest book,  “Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone”, she makes the case that we are in a spiritual crisis and that “…the key to building a true belonging practice is maintaining our belief in inextricable human connection is to show up for collective moments of joy and pain”!

The idea of collective moments of joy is exactly what seems to be happening in PILL improv play and mindfulness exercises.  Playing, laughing, and meditating together builds trust and a sense of ease with others. As a teacher, (and I bet colleague Liz Korabek-Emerson would agree) this divine play is beautiful to watch!

Brown’s book is an enaging read with a call to action for each of us and she has a zero BS mindset.  There is so much chaos, fragmentation and sadly, violence in our world today that making it a priority to connect w/ compassion seems crucial.

“…true belonging is not something we negotiate or accomplish with others; it’s a daily practice that demands integrity and authenticity.”—Brene Brown