I’m standing in a sunlit room, barefoot on a lush carpet, surrounded by rolling whiteboards, half empty coffee cups, and my fellow teammates. We’ve just been told to, as a group, “Become a toaster.” The catch? No talking. We have to coordinate silently to organize our bodies into some commonly envisioned representation of a toaster.
I look at my teammates – teacher, administrator, social service provider, facilitator, all strangers gathered together for this educational design training intensive – and think “How the heck are we gonna do this?” And then, “Why are we doing this?!”
I’m at an ISKME (Institute for the Study of Knowledge Management in Education) Action Collab Training. These folks have developed a framework that “is a collaborative approach to problem-solving that melds human-centered design thinking concepts and improvisation techniques to unlock a group’s creativity and innovative capacity.” And I get to spend two whole days learning about it!
Many things drew me here – but the emphasis on Theater Techniques, especially the practice and framework of group improvisation, enticed me to stay. In my own facilitation practice, I draw heavily on these same frameworks, practices, and techniques – not just because I love them, but because I have found them to be profoundly productive and even transformative.
This is what we are here to discuss today: the power of Theatrical practices and frameworks to cultivate courage, innovation, and cooperation in any group of collaborators.
A Caveat – Narrowing the Lens
When it comes to lessons from the world of Theatre there is just So Darn Much we could talk about.
We could discuss theatre as a site of cultural norm and narrative re/production (and the subversions thereof) through guerilla street performances; or the Theatrical Troupe as an example of a robust organizational model which has survived and adapted through centuries of change; or the lessons Stage Managers can impart to entrepreneurs wrangling ego-driven collaborators in a high stakes multi-stakeholder project with a tight deadline and shoestring budget!
We will talk about all these things – and more – but today, we’re going to narrow down and look at just two practices in Theatre, specifically the Stanislavski System and the Tenets of Improvisation.
I – like many of my fellow actors in the current America Theatrical Tradition – was trained primarily in the Stanislavski System. This technique can be summed up as: a systematic method of physical actions which produce emotions through their embodiment.
Want to be able to ‘spontaneously’ break into tears onstage every night? Develop a gesture or a stance that evokes the memory of a moment in which you were moved to tears – associate that memory with your movement, and BOOM! The emotion becomes realistically embodied on stage.
This collecting and curating of emotions and embodiments, and the cross referencing and cataloging that an experienced actor develops, is the most crucial asset of the Stanislavski Actor. The more emotions you experience, the more embodiments you observe, the more textured and realistic your portrayals of characters will be. Essentially, the better a student you are of your fellow humans, the better your performance of Humanity will be.
Tenets of Improvisation
Actors may receive training in many kinds of systems – indeed the diversity of performance training techniques is exactly as staggering as the diversity of humanity – but all Actors must practice their training. They must practice in a variety of circumstances, and with different groups in different contexts, if they are to hone their skills.
One of the best, and most prevalent, ways to do this is to engage in collaborative improvisation. The ISKME Action Collab folks are all over this, and include the Tenets of Improv as a core component of their process. They define these tenets as:
- Let go of your agenda.
- Listen in order to receive.
- Build on what you receive.
- Make your partner look brilliant.
- You can’t be wrong.
- Keep moving forward.
For ISKME, these tenets form the backbone of the framework their activities sit within – they are guidelines for participation that channel group energy toward trust, openness, and generative collaboration. For Actors (and many other genres of Performer) these tenets function very similarly, with the added benefit of being a controlled environment to test out their ‘spontaneous’ embodiments of emotion.
So, how exactly do these practices and frameworks cultivate courage, innovation and cooperation in any group of collaborators?
Building a Multi-Tool of Skills
Participants in the above techniques are building a complex set of physical, emotional, and social skills, which apply across a variety of life contexts beyond the Proscenium. The core skills we are flexing when we apply and practice these techniques are Observation, Applied Empathy, Bravery, Radical Creativity, and Cooperative Collaboration. Let’s take them one at a time.
An actor’s training is, at its core, observation. Practicing portrayal of realistic characters requires detailed observation of Humanity and how we interrelate and respond to stimuli and environments. This is why many exercises – both in the Stanislavski System and in Improvisation – flex the skills of acute observation.
My favorite example is ‘Walk that Walk’ in which the practitioner spends time in a crowded public space, watching the walking patterns of individuals and mimicking them as realistically and spontaneously as possible. Similarly, the Improv exercise ‘Vacations’ requires intense listening skills, as the two participants build a fictional but realistic story as they ‘reminisce’ about their vacation together.
The practice of stepping inside the story of a character and their world, literally every night, hones a practitioners ability to empathize across differences. Successful practitioners apply these empathizing skills so effectively that they bring their fellow actors and the entire audience with them. They invite participants so fully into that moment that they are transported to an entirely different reality, and become invested in the lives and decisions of the fictional characters being portrayed by these practitioners.
The skills used in applying empathy – deep listening, imagination, connection, vulnerability, and compassion – are essential capacities for the performer.
In the Stanislavski System, the actor is literally building an embodied experience from the blocks of your soul and self – the moment your cat died, your team won, your first heart-break. Revisiting every powerfully emotional moment of one’s history – and seeking out as many other emotional experiences as possible – takes profound personal bravery. Digging around in our library of experiences requires that we face our demons, scars, and moments of exultation. And we do this not just occasionally, but every time we go to work. After all, the show must go on! Five nights a week and twice on Saturdays!
Improvisation requires yet another kind of bravery – the courage to perform without a script. Standing up in front of a group and putting yourself on the line with absolutely no rehearsal and little direction or structure is a deeply brave act – as the Tenets of Improv acknowledge, when they remind us that “You Can’t Be Wrong” and to “Keep Moving Forward.”
Actors suspend reality in our performance of character and place. In service to the scene, we create imagined states so powerful we can transport a black box audience to sunlit meadows to urban tenements, to battlefields, with nothing but our consciously applied physical presence. This requires a radically creative approach to portraying ideas. Actors flex radical creativity as we practice portraying the variety of ideas – emotions, context, narrative, and pathos – required to create those imagined states.
In Improvisation, we inhabit a space where we are granted permission to co-create our experience. In fact, we’re required to do it over and over again, in small, rapid-fire moments which require our creativity to be nimble and flexible.
Theatre is inherently a group endeavor (yes, even solo shows stand on the shoulders of many stakeholders). You cannot do it alone – it cannot be successful without participants. As such, it is an emergent form of art – and the results are often much greater than the sum of its parts.
You develop and practice all the above skills within the context of a group – therefore many of the techniques of the Stanislavski System and Improvisation are oriented toward cooperative collaboration.
Why Are We Doing This Again?
I started training for the stage formally at age 5 – I had to do SOMETHING with this much energy and fabulousness. As I grew into the practice – eventually becoming a triple threat, and crossing the ‘color line’ to don stage blacks – I saw more every day how well Shakespeare captured it when he said “All the world’s a stage.”
It’s not that we’re constantly in character, or that life is but a series of facades – rather, it’s the simple fact that the skills we hone for the Stage are relevant in all walks of life.
Observation, Applied Empathy, Bravery, Radical Creativity and Cooperative Collaboration are skills that have many obvious application to the daily life of any individual. Keener listening skills will help us be a better co-worker, spouse, or friend. Flexing empathy keeps us involved in democratic processes, make us better neighbors, and even re-frame how we experience paying taxes. Bravery is helpful when facing challenges of the heart, questions of ethics, or daunting tasks. Honing your capacity for radical creativity is the best defense against the only constant we will experience in this life: change. And collaborating cooperatively is a skill humans have been flexing – for better or for worse, in every context we can imagine on this earth – since the advent of our species.
Applying these skills in groups – which is where we all spend the majority of our time, whether in a family unit, a workplace, a church, or a neighborhood – not only increases our own skills and capacities, but increases the group’s ability to come together to co-create their experience and achieve their collective goals.
In my work with groups, I find this repeatedly to be true. In the Action Collab Process, I see those findings reiterated – and codified into an innovative process that moves groups closer together, and closer to their goals.
The Facilitator shouts “Go!” and my group stares at each other for a frozen moment before springing into action. I immediately go to my knees, and raise my hands to be the ‘bread.’ Another two folks join hands to become the ‘slot’, and the last ones become the sides of the toaster. Following cues – I think – from the eye movements of one of them, I ‘pop’ up like a piece of toast. And we all break into relieved giggles. Somehow, without talking, having known each other for only 5 minutes, we took the instructions “Silently become a toaster” …and did it. In less than 30 seconds!
I sit back on my heels and smile, imagining how much we could accomplish if we applied these seemingly silly but powerfully productive techniques to all of life’s problems.
Want to learn more about ISKME’s Action Collab Process, or their signature conference, the Big Ideas Fest? Check out their website for news, events, and upcoming trainings.