The Fragile Muse

Learning basic human skills through improvisation

One of the articles in Play & Humor (IC#13)
Originally published in Spring 1986 on page 24
Copyright (c)1986, 1997 by Context Institute

Roberta Maguire teaches at the Northwest School and the Cornish Institute in Seattle. She has taught and performed improvisational theater all over the U.S., and is a co-founder and performer with None Of The Above and Seattle Improv. The following article first appeared in New Horizons For Learning, Winter 1986 (PO Box 51 140, Seattle, WA 98115), and is reprinted with permission.

EVERYONE HAS GATHERED in the school theater to watch students from improvisational theater class perform. Tom, one of the performers, is near failing in most of his classes. Another, Jenny, has always been aloof and not only incapable of performing but probably in need of therapy.

Tom and Jenny, along with ten other performers, ask the audience for scene suggestions; places, objects, relationships. Using these suggestions, they improvise scenes about family problems, teenage love, the pitfalls of communism and capitalism, life in other dimensions, the right and wrong way to ask your parents for things, and how to behave when your airliner is about to crash.

They create the cockpit of the plane together and simultaneously lean to the left and right as the plane veers through the air. The audience is delighted to see their suggestions acted out right before their eyes, and yet their response is the inevitable, "You guys didn’t really make that up, did you?" No one, they invariably assume, could think that fast or respond quickly enough to create it all together.

People are likewise amazed to see Tom and Jenny perform; they are intelligent, sensitive, witty, and often outrageous. No one thought they were that smart. But something in this process has triggered an inner spark and reached them in a way that no other teaching method has done before.

In addition, the performance has created a bond between performers and audience that is joyous and immediate, one that harkens back to our tribal beginnings when everyone was a part of the performance.

There is a tremendous difference between the way students behave on stage when we start the class in the fall and the way they behave six months later.

At the start they are uncomfortable, mentally blocked and defensive; they don’t listen or respond to each other. Like most of us, they want to stay personally safe, but this unhappily keeps the work shallow and chases the muse away. Six months later they have dropped much of their defensiveness, they respond to each other, they have self-control (they must perform no matter how bad they feel), and they are able to make improvised scenes look scripted because they are rapidly taking in information, choosing a response, and acting upon it. By this rapid, supportive process, they make each other look good. They have developed trust (a rare commodity at any age), and trust leads to depth and substance. To perform like this, they must stay conscious and open from moment to moment, and they must cooperate.

There are many levels of learning going on simultaneously during that six-month training period before we start performing and touring. Students are, first of all, learning to "think up ideas." In this way they learn that knowledge sometimes goes from the inside out, rather than always coming from the outside in. I also let them know that some of the ideas and characters they create are not necessarily reflections of their own personality, but rather some form of our collective unconscious speaking through them. In this way they can feel less responsible for what comes through them and be freer to let it out. (Paradoxically, I also let them know that we are ultimately responsible for what we put on stage.)

Secondly, students are learning to perceive events with all their faculties: intuitive, intellectual, spatial, physical, emotional, social. Sometimes things go so fast that they don’t have time to "think," and ideas pop out and get accidentally juxtaposed. That’s when the really exciting, risky, unexpected creations appear.

Thirdly, in our class we do serious work as well as comedic, so it doesn’t become too joke-oriented. I do think class should be fun, but comedy and tragedy are often combined. Within a playful, supportive atmosphere we’ve done scenes about abortion, suicide, drug addiction, divorce, and the whole gamut of human interaction. It is so freeing to deal with these topics out in the open. I have often seen them make room for each other’s madness as well as each other’s joys and strengths. They always surprise me with their maturity and depth of understanding on serious personal topics, as well as the clarity with which they perceive adult behavior.

Fourthly, I encourage them to not just show the sad side of these interactions, but to develop a point of view, an artistic eye for shaping experiences, an ironic distance so that we can help each other laugh in an endearing way about our pain. They are often quicker to grasp these concepts than adults because they are still flexible and open-minded. This is one of the best reasons for giving them the opportunity to develop this creative aspect of themselves early on, before it has atrophied or become too rigid.

Lastly, in addition to the individual creativity this type of work inspires, the socializing aspect is unbeatable for developing sensitivity and cooperation skills. Students learn to take care of each other on stage; their job is to make the other person look good. In this way they stop doing monologues and start relating and responding. In any group, the IQ of the group itself is invariably lower than any of the individuals in it. What I am trying to do is to get a group to behave intelligently.

We all use improvisation every day of our lives to take in information about each other and make choices about our response, yet few of us bring this process to consciousness. We are, instead, largely the effect of habits developed unconsciously in early life. Improvising brings these behaviors to consciousness if it is properly taught, and is no less complex and fascinating.

Through our work in class we ask some pretty profound questions about our lives: How do we relate to each other? What cues and signals do we use? How do we create things together? What sources do we draw upon? How do people with different backgrounds, attitudes and desires ever get along and become sources of inspiration rather than conflict?

The principles which are at the heart of good improvising are a microcosm of everything we are as human beings. The kinds of listening, risking and cooperating involved are the very skills we most need to develop for survival and a joyous, high-quality life.