Impro in Brazil: Making the Evolving Work Visible

“Art does not reproduce the visible; rather, it makes visible” ~ Paul Klee, c. 1910

Dale and I went to the wonderful “Paul Klee: Equilíbrio Instável” (Unstable Balance) exhibit this week at the Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil in Belo Horizonte. Klee (1879-1940), a Swiss classic modern artist, was self-taught and theorized and experimented his entire life. So Klee never had one dominant form of artistic expression, he had many. The art of his youth, which reminds me a lot of Keith Johnstone’s childhood art, was inspired by nature, scenes/characters from his imagination, and his contempt of bourgeois and traditional social behavior and roles. Influenced by Wassily Kandinsky as a young man, Klee moved toward abstraction with a focus on the construction/architecture essential to nature rather than to exterior forms. As an art teacher at the famed Bauhaus in Weimar, his knowledge of nature linked to geometric theories he was investigating, inspired what he taught and created: “He played with the shapes, bending, projecting, distorting, and twisting them” (“Equilíbrio Instável”).

In my biography on Johnstone, I often compare his "ideal" classroom to “a scientific laboratory” for investigating “the nature of spontaneous creation” (Dudeck 107). Klee and Johnstone investigated, in the classroom, what they were curious about—the laws of nature, scientific theories, keen observations of behavior, music (yes, both are musicians!), etc. Improvisation training should always be a continuation of this exploration, never a doctrinaire, one-size-fits-all approach. The impro classroom (and any creative space!) should be a place for questioning, experimentation, testing, decoding, and transformation; a place to unpack theories but also to incorporate and practice the tried-and-tested ones. Both Klee and Johnstone understood this need for balance: balance between structure and surprise, between internal and external expression, between reality and abstraction, between reproducing the visible (what has been done before) and making visible—in fresh ways and in new contexts—the work as it evolves.

As I prep my courses here in Brazil each week, I keep this in mind, i.e., the classroom as laboratory and the need for balance. My lesson plans are always dependent on the students and what they are interested in exploring. It is not as easy to determine my student’s interests in my Thursday “Impro for Leading, Creating, and Collaborating” because the class is huge, about 50 students now. But even with this large group, I can tell what is enthusing them and what isn’t, and I’m willing to change direction or scrap an entire lesson plan in the moment if necessary. This past week, we worked on effective collaboration and building strong teams. We began class outside in the courtyard in 96°F (36°C) weather (and today, Brazil just moved into spring!). I had them play “Bobsled.” I learned this very large group activity from Patrick Short at CSz Portland who learned it from William Hall at BATS. Basically, teams of 5 or 6 form a bobsled, with a leader in front and all others lined up behind connecting with their hands on the shoulders of player in front of them. The bobsleds begin by moving through the space, avoiding crashing into other bobsleds, getting a feel of the terrain and needs of the group before they are coached to do the following things: (1) “Mudança”/ Change (player in front moves to back of bobsled); (2) “Rotação” / Rotate (entire bobsled changes direction, changing who is in front leading); (3) “Troca” / Switch (players 2 and 4 switch positions); (4) “Câmbio” / Trade (Patrick Short added this rule in which player in #3 position is traded to #3 position on a different bobsled!); and (5) “Sozinhos” / On Your Own.

Facilitation is so important with this activity, and the bobsleds must “keep moving” as new rules get added (so that they can sense how things progress in a VUCA world), something we did not stress at the beginning. Still, once the bobsleds got going and all rules were known, the activity did what it was supposed to do. It simulated taking turns leading, suddenly going in new directions, taking on additional tasks, seeing the work from a new perspective, adjusting quickly when you lose/add a team member, and dealing with the unexpected, especially when you are own your own (e.g., when you get traded but are in limbo until another team has an opening!). Cinara, my translator, side-coached at the start to “feel free to explore the terrain.” With this playful, physical group, that direction sent bobsleds through caves, into tunnels, downhill, up cliffs, and so forth. I loved what they came up with and may add “explore the terrain” in the future, but I will only give this direction after all other rules have been incorporated, including “on their own,” because, by then, they are operating like a team and can more adeptly handle the additional challenges. In the debrief, two things surprised me: (1) no one ever really panicked, they just fixed problems as they came up; and (2) before any rule was given but the bobsleds were on the move, the leaders attuned to the needs of their players and made sure to adjust the speed and navigation accordingly. Also, when they were “on their own,” leaders were careful not to shout “trade” until they heard another team leader shout “trade” so that a position would be open for their #3!

I’ve said this before, my students and the people I have met here in Belo Horizonte are deeply passionate and curious. I know Brazil has its problems, especially now under this current president, but the Brazilian spirit is strong and unique. Being friendly, intimate, and generous seems embedded in their culture. Although the country is primarily Catholic, perhaps the strong presence of African-derived religions like Candomblé and Umbanda has something to do with it. Or perhaps it is because Brazil is an ethnic and racial melting pot. Or maybe it is simply their joy for life, exercise, soccer, music, açai and other delicious fruit! I promise to continue my research and report back. Meanwhile, the rest of Thursday’s class focused on the importance of psychological safety in collaborative innovation and responsive listening (a.k.a. whole body listening), a skill all teachers must continually practice.

My Saturday Impro System class continued to explore master-servant techniques, because this is what is enthusing the group at the moment. I will write more about the master-servant work we are exploring in my next blog post. We took a group photo at the end of class because Cinara had t-shirts made for everyone (see photo below). The t-shirts represent my process—Johnstone’s Impro System augmented with a layer of Spolin—underpinned by the ideology and critical pedagogy of Brazil’s own—Boal and Freire. I’ve always seen Johnstone as a Freirean teacher fighting the “banking concept” of education. Creating a classroom that is open to experimentation, balanced between structure and surprise, and evolving according to the needs of the group is very Freirean and Johnstonian and perhaps Kleeian!

In closing this week’s blog, I must admit that when I first entered the Klee exhibit, I did not appreciate the simplicity of some of his art. It looked too easy, effortless, and I almost dismissed it as something anyone could do. But going further into the exhibit—and chronologically further into his life—reading every info label and sitting through a 50-minute beautiful documentary, I got a greater sense of the hidden structure and the underpinning theories that inspired his creations, and I thought, “This is like impro!” When improvisation looks effortless, it is because the players have a firmly embedded structure supporting the developing action, they’ve embodied the principles, and they have spent hours and hours in the impro classroom/laboratory! And the performance, an extension of the classroom, is simply making visible the work as it continues to evolve.

(Photos by Dale Dudeck)

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