Making it up as we go along

By David Parkinson

Pear blossoms

Pear blossoms

This past weekend I had the privilege of attending an advocacy summit hosted by the Sunshine Coast Conservation Association a Camp Byng down in Roberts Creek. This event brought together about 50 people from up and down the Sunshine Coast and as far afield as Reid Island to share stories and learn how to become more effective in creating social change, especially in the area of conserving our natural surroundings.

A theme underlying many of the discussions at this event was the ever-present question of how to involve more members of the general public. I don’t think we got closer to any brilliant insights on this score, but somehow we’re going to have to find ways to engage more of the folks who feel more at home on the sidelines, or the ones who are tuned out of the important things going on around the region. How to do it?

And somehow, while I was thinking about that, something I had seen recently popped into my head. Maybe we need to treat political and social engagement more like a freewheeling group activity; more like improvisational theatre. This touches on the frustration that I expressed a while ago about blocked brainstorming, and points towards some principles we might adopt when trying to get something good happening with a group of people.

Here are seven principles of improv:

  1. “Yes and…” Fully accepting the reality that is presenting, and the adding a NEW piece of information – that is what allows it to be adaptive, move forward and stay generative. Each performer (agent) interacts with what is offered and offer a unique contribution.
  2. Make everyone else look good. That means you do not have to be defending or justifying yourself or your position – others who will do that for you and you do that for others. Without the burden of defensiveness or competition, everyone is free to create. Complex characters can form that enable unpredictable complex actions and direction to emerge.
  3. Be changed by what is said and what happens. At each moment, new information in an invitation for you to have a new reaction, or for your character to experience a new aspect of them. Change inspires new ideas, and that naturally unfolds what’s next. You adapt as one structure dissipates and re-organizes into a new structure that expands, yet includes, what was before.
  4. Co-create a shared “agenda.” This principle involves the recognition that even the best-laid plans are abandoned in the moment, and to serve the reality of what is right there in front of you. You are co-creating the agenda in real-time. In order to keep the play going, you respond to the moment and an “agenda” co-emerges that is more inclusive than anything that could have been planned. It is no consensus, which reduces. It is co-creative, which expands.
  5. Mistakes are invitations. In improv, mistakes are embraced – they are the stimulating anomalies that invite the performers into a new level of creativity. By using improv techniques such as justifying any mistake can be transformed into surprising plot point or dialogue that never would have happened in following a conventional pattern. In improv, justifying creates order out of chaos. Mistakes break patterns and allow new ones to emerge.
  6. Keep the energy going. No matter what is given, or what happens, you accept it and keep the energy gong. Unlike in everyday life, where people stop to analyze, criticize or negate, in improv you keep moving. A mistake happens – let it go move on. The unexpected emerges – use it to move on. Someone forgot something important – justify it and move on. You’re lost or confused –make something up and trust the process. Just keep moving. The system is not static – it is alive and dynamic.
  7. Serve the good of the whole. Always carry the question, “How can I best serve this situation?” and then you have a better sense of when to run in and when to stay back, when to take focus and when to give it, how to best support your fellow performers and how to best support the scene. By focusing away from how you will look into serving the larger good – the aliveness of the system – you have more creative impulses and resources available to you at any moment. And the choices you make are more in alignment with the higher levels of creative integration that form a coherent play.

What I like most about these principles is that they apply equally well to any social occasion, from a dinner party to a meeting; and they apply equally well to an ongoing social institution like an organization or coalition of individuals or groups. We often get so hung up on the outcome that we lose sight of the process. We forget about people’s need to be rewarded for the energy they put into the things they do; and when people sit in tedious meetings full of people ignoring one another or putting each other down, when the common goal is sacrificed to personal agendas; when people march inflexibly in one direction, ignoring the ever-changing dynamic in the room; then it is hard to stay plugged in and engaged.

Human society evolved around common work and around shared pleasure and story-telling. People are still hungry for this, but unfortunately the great story-teller of our culture is the television and (to a lesser but growing extent) the internet. These technologies connect us together, but isolate us physically. If we’re going to compete with these technologies, we need to create events and venues where people’s feel able to get involved right away, without having to know the ground rules or be an expert. Where whatever happens is the right thing for that moment, and anyone can jump in and play a part.

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Post facto

March 2010
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