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Impro in Brazil: Beginnings...

I am in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, teaching/researching IMPRO at UFMG (Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais) on a U.S. Scholar Fulbright from August through December 2019. UFMG is the largest federal university in Brazil and, apparently, quite prestigious (e.g., home to 3 former Brazilian presidents and all undergraduate programs ranking in the top five in the country). Although I'll be quite busy, I will make an effort to post updates (and photos by Dale!) weekly or bi-weekly about this once-in-a-lifetime adventure. Here is my first post. Enjoy!

Over our first 11 days in Belo Horizonte, Dale and I settled in quickly, navigating our way to/through the grocery markets and to the many food buffets (with lots of vegan choices) in our neighborhood of São Luiz. We also went to the Festival Vegano last week and stocked up. More vegans and vegetarians here than I had imagined there would be, given Brazilian’s traditional meat culture. Uber has saved us, and our dollar is strong so an Uber ride to the mall, 4 miles away, cost us R$10,00 (about $2.50!).

Dale and I started a beginner’s Portuguese for Foreigners course at UFMG last week. We have a long, long way to go. Portuguese is not easy. Names, for example, may look familiar but sound completely different (e.g., Edgar is “edge-uh-gahr” with a rolled “r”).

My “Impro for Leading, Collaborating, and Creating” course is on Thursdays, 2:00-5:30. I have approximately 50 students, undergrads and graduates, from theatre and other disciplines. I have two amazing women, Cinara Diniz and Prof. Mariana Muniz, translating for me, which is fantastic because both are improvisers/teachers who have studied with Keith and deeply understand impro theories. With such a large group, I will need to create new ways to reflect/debrief on activities so that all can equally share their voices. The 1-2-4-All reflection structure will be useful (Thank you, Julie Huffaker, for telling me about that liberating structure). At the first class, I introduced the concepts of “psychological safety” (from Amy Edmondson), the right to fail/failing forward (e.g., we played “I Made a Mistake” and “Yes Circle” in the courtyard!), and with “Blind Offers/Justify the Gesture” the idea that, as Seth Godin put it, “Big ideas are little ideas that no one killed too soon.” We had to spend a significant amount of time on the syllabus, given that everything had to be translated into Portuguese.

My more advanced Impro System Lab class is on Saturday mornings, 9:00 to 1:00. I have 24 students of diverse ages, all with improvisation experience. A handful are professional clowns and dancers, so you can imagine how physically connected they are. Again, I started the class with changing their attitude toward failure, playing “I Made a Mistake” again but using superhero names, since many of them know each other. Next, I had them do Spolin’s “Transformation of Objects” in small circles. Immediately this group grasped the concept of allowing the object to transform itself through heightened, exaggerated playing and the room came alive! Then, we moved through Spolin’s basic (and powerful) Mirror series to get players in sync and to introduce the concept of “follow the follower.” Because these students are musical, we attempted a few rounds of Mirror singing before moving into Johnstone’s “One Voice” in pairs and in two large groups. I highly recommend this progression from Spolin’s Mirror series (physical and sound) to Johnstone’s “One Voice” because it takes students from the abstract/physical to the concrete/verbal and introduces “follow the follower” which applies to One Voice and to almost everything else we do in impro. Next, we did “Blind Offers/Justify the Gesture” warm-up and then blind offers in scenes, with two players engaged in a physical activity, making blind offers, while discussing another subject. I then spent almost an hour answering questions about Keith. The students were especially interested in Theatre Machine and those early years at the Royal Court. They were amazed to learn that improvisation was illegal in Britain when Keith was doing it. I talked about the old theatre censorship laws in Britain and how Keith was part of the fight to bring censorship to an end, and so forth. My Brazilian students are kind, curious, present, courageous, and extremely talented. They will challenge me as a teacher, and I am ready for and excited about that challenge!

Finally, we saw our first impro performance in Belo Horizonte at Cine Theatro Brasil. It was called Suspeitos: Um Crime Improvisado (“Suspects: An Improvised Crime”). Mariana sat next to us and translated enough for us to get the gist of the storyline. Cinara was in the show, playing one of the 4 suspects. She is lovely to watch on stage! It was a well-structured format that had more dramatic moments than comedic, and the improvisers worked together like a tight-knit ensemble. As Mariana said, when this troupe first created this format the structure controlled them. Now, 4 years later, this troupe controls the structure. We ended the evening at a very traditional, lovely Italian restaurant, eating and talking until midnight (early for Brazilians!). (Photos by Dale Dudeck)

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