How Improv Makes You Brave

We live in a time of such rapid change that strengthening the ability to create and innovate under pressure is now an important life skill. Technology advances beyond all recognition within a single lifetime. We are, in many ways, improvising on the stage of life these days — responding in real time to an evolving social landscape, creating and performing new roles for ourselves as conditions change — and things are not going to settle down any time soon. In fact, the mind and skill set of the improviser is essential to our capacity to not only keep pace with our ever-shifting social landscape, but to make the most of what emerges.

Alan Alda — who recently authored a fantastic book about using improv games and exercises to train scientists, researchers, and medical professionals to communicate more effectively — skyped in for a live conversation at the Applied Improvisation Network World Conference conference at the 2017 University of Irvine-California. When asked how we in the field of Applied Improvisation can have more impact in a frightened and frightening world, he said “be brave. Reach into the darkness and connect with everyone you can. Be brave. Improv makes you brave.”
 Everyone who gives improv a chance recognizes this truth. Improv grows our creative courage. The rules that make it possible for people to tell a story together in real time with neither script, nor director, nor agreed-upon outcome are guidelines for engaging with uncertainty in real life situations.

Improv games and exercises require a kind of surrender to the unknown that can be uncomfortable. Learning to shift out of anxiety and self-protectiveness and into a deeper connection to the other players is a brave choice because we cannot know how it is all going to come out. Some defenses that help us feel safe in social situations but get in the way of spontaneity will have to be sacrificed, and that choice is both thrilling and threatening. The choice to lean into the discomfort and fear produces a sometimes subtle, but always empowering, cognitive and emotional shift that strengthens psychological resilience. This becomes an internal skill set that can be relied upon when our backs are against the wall, when under pressure, when the old ideas no longer hold up and we have to try something new without knowing where it will lead.

“Three concurrent, intertwined transitions — demographic, economic, environmental — are what historians of the future will remember when they look back on our age. They are transforming everything from geopolitics to the structure of families. And they pose problems on a scale that humans have little experience with. As Harvard University biologist E.O. Wilson puts it, we are about to pass through ‘the bottleneck,’ a period of maximum stress on natural resources and human ingenuity.” George Musser, “The Climax Of Humanity” Scientific American

Ivey Business Journal recognizes improvisation as the ideal model for what we need right now, with its emphasis on “flexibility and agility in the face of ambiguity and time pressure. Consider jazz musicians, who jam, or work collaboratively to co-create music in real time. This stands in contrast to the orchestral musician working from a musical score with a conductor ensuring the pieces fit together. Or consider the theatre improviser who doesn’t have a script but creates the storyline with the other improvisers. The improvisers have learned to deal with diversity, ambiguity, interconnectedness and flux. In short, they are masters at dealing with complexity, and in being able to do so provide four key lessons that can be applied to business.”

As essential as improvisation is to the needs of the moment, it connotes an uncomfortable collision with the unknown, with uncertainty, and that can trigger a sense of danger. A naturally-occurring anxiety rises up when we are faced with the blank page, the untouched canvas — or for an improviser, the empty stage — which can shut down spontaneity and narrow our cognitive focus to the threats, rather than the opportunities, of the moment. The antidote to viewing the unknown through a lens of threat and fear is spontaneity — the psychological/emotional state of curiosity and expansiveness, the energy that drives discovery and expands mental and emotional awareness. Improvisers learn how to power through uncertainty by riding a wave of spontaneity into that empty space, through commitment to a process and to one’s partners more than to any particular outcome. This fosters a kind of creative courage that can only develop through direct experience, and translates into other real life situations.

Improv makes you brave. And we need to be brave now. There is important work to do to. And as the pace of change accelerates and the time between cause and effect becomes ever shorter, we need not only courage to think and act in new ways but skills that prepare us to manage and make the most out of unexpected developments. What is special about improvisation is its promise of imaginative idea generation combined with radical support. The social environment produced through improv games and exercises is uniquely suited to learning in today’s networked, complex and ever-changing world. It provides a direct experience with the unexpected and unpredictable- which can easily shut down the most intrepid thinker-while at the same time providing a way to navigate and create our way through it.
 There are problems to solve to relieve suffering caused by climate change and war, and in situations personal, social and global. None of it is easy. But it helps to know we are in it together. And that we can learn how to be brave.

Jude Treder-Wolff, LCSW, CGP, MT is a consultant/trainer, writer/performer, an approved provider of Continuing Education for Licensed Clinical Social Workers in NYS. She is host/creator of (mostly) TRUE THINGS, a game wrapped in a storytelling show that features true stories-with a twist-told by people from all walks of life, ages and backgrounds.