Impro in Brazil: Attunement and Anarchy

I introduced “status” to my Impro for Leading, Collaborating, and Creating class this week, and I assigned Daniel Pink’s chapter on “Attunement” from To Sell is Human: The Surprising Truth about Moving Others as a way to connect status to terminology that would resonate with my engineer, education, business, and social science students as much as with my theatre students. Lucky me, the chapter was available in Portuguese! I wrote a post for my blog in 2014 about Pink’s “Attunement” chapter and how it connects to Johnstone’s “status work,” and I think this is a good time to re-post (see below). I also introduced a few new Spolin exercises as a way for students to practice attuning to others (e.g., “Give and Take” warm-up, “Three Changes”). I cannot post any photos from “Three Changes,” however, because when I asked my students to partner up, turn away from partner, and change 3 things about their appearance, when they turned back to face their partners and observe/name the changes that were made, my students (mostly the theatre majors) made drastic changes that, in some cases, revealed a lot of skin! Don’t get me wrong, Brazilians are very body conscious—plastic surgery is big business here—and staying in shape is important, but my theatre students at UFMG don’t let aspects of their bodies that might be judged as “less-than-perfect” by others inhibit their freedom to express themselves fully. They have very positive attitudes about their bodies. So, here in Belo Horizonte at UFMG, “Three Changes” produced a very different visual experience than back home!

I did post a few photos below of my students playing the status endowment exercise using a deck of playing cards. After the exercise, when they lined up according to their assumed status positions (they cannot look at their cards until the very end), Tiago, who is a professional clown, found himself at the bottom of the pecking order with a “2” playing card. When asked to describe his experience, he said that he was treated so poorly by those higher up the chain, that he eventually joined other low-low-status players who found freedom by owning their status through disobedience and anarchy—stealing food, drinks, clowning around, etc. Essentially, they created their own carnival, subverting the status quo by not caring!

Saturday, September 7, was Brazil’s Independence Day, “Sete de Setembro,” so my advanced Impro System class did not meet. Instead, Dale and I were treated to an overnight trip to a modern villa high up in the mountains above the town of Rio Acima, complete with lap pool and sauna. A little taste of Brazilian paradise!

Dale and I also moved yesterday to a lovely private guest cottage closer to the college and only a few blocks from Mineirão stadium, home to the Cruzeiro club, one of two main Belo Horizonte soccer teams. The owners are wonderful. Eda is a mosaic tile artist and her work is all around the cottage and main house for us to enjoy. Oscar is a retired UFMG physics professor who now spends most of his time in a lab. His area of expertise is in chaos theory and he worked with some of the pioneers (e.g., Lorenz, Feigenbaum) in that field at Princeton and elsewhere. I am looking forward to conversations with Oscar about chaos theory and how it relates to impro. In the interim, I am reading a book he recommended, Chaos: Making a New Science by James Gleick.

“Status Work and Attunement” by Theresa Robbins Dudeck

(Blog post first published in 2014)

I am about halfway through Daniel H. Pink’s new book To Sell is Human: The Surprising Truth about Moving Others,” a book recommended to me by my friend and founder of the Employee Engagement Nework, David Zinger, and I just had to write about the chapter on “attunement” and its correlations to impro and, particularly, to status work. First of all, Pink’s thesis is that we are all in sales, that is, we are all selling something (ideas, services, or products) and trying to move others whether it be in the workplace or in everyday life. Pink also advocates applying impro methods to negotiations and recommends the work and books of Johnstone, Spolin, Patricia Ryan Madson, among others. This is one of my favorite quotes in Pink’s book: “If improvisational theater has a Lenin – a well-spoken revolutionary who provides a movement its intellectual underpinnings – that person is Johnstone” (204). When I told Keith about this, he replied with, “Trotsky more like.” Okay, I’d have to brush up on my Marxism and Russian politics to fully grasp that one, so I will leave it for now.

Pink describes “attunement” as “the ability to bring one’s actions and outlook into harmony with other people and with the context you’re in” (70). Effectively attuning yourself to others—social psychologists call it “perspective-taking”—requires the application of several principles that those of us trained in Keith’s status work will immediately grasp. One is to “increase your power by reducing it.” Studies have shown that people with a lot of power are not always the best at moving others in today’s markets. Customers now have a ton of information at their finger-tips, and the more informed the customer is, the more likely he/she doesn’t need some high-status salesperson telling them what to do, what to buy, or how to think. Instead, they want someone who is responsive to their needs, their perspectives, and they want someone they can trust. When working on status with students, I often remind them that effective “high-status” people are not jerks. High-status people are usually the ones who have the ability to move and inspire others towards desired goals and outcomes, and sometimes they must lower their status (reduce their power) to get on the same wavelength and/or to get inside the mind of the person they are trying to move.

Being able to observe and interpret status transactions, or what Keith calls “the kinetic dance,” is also a valuable skill and something I work on with my impro, acting, and directing students. I have all of my students, at least once, do a “kinetic dance observation.” Basically, they spy on a group of people in a social situation and try to determine their relationship and status levels (i.e., pecking-order) simply by watching the physical behavior as it unfolds. Pink calls the ability to observe and quickly interpret the dynamics of any group “social cartography” and he says it is vital to negotiations. Some people are born social cartographers and can intuitively assess any situation but I have seen students develop this skill through status work.

Finally, Pink says “strategic mimicry,” that is, consciously syncing up your behavior with others, is also a crucial component in attunement and, consequently, in moving others. It is in our DNA to trust those who are more like us. Keith says that if you go into an audition and attempt to physically match status with those behind the table, you’re more likely to get the job because you seem like “one of them.” Watching a scene in which two actors effectively stay at the same status level or see-saw slightly above or below the other is lovely. It looks like authentic human interaction and the kinetic dance flows. Again, students can practice status techniques and, in turn, use these techniques on stage and off not to manipulate or coerce but rather to tune in, to tap into someone else’s way of thinking and feeling, and to move others in positive directions.

(Photos by Dale Dudeck)

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