Impro in Brazil: Metamorphosis
At the beginning of October, Dale and I took a two-day trip to the beautiful colonial town of Ouro Preto. While there, we purchased a soapstone Mask (see photo below). Soapstone is a type of “metamorphic” rock composed essentially of talc that makes it relatively soft. People have quarried soapstone for thousands of years. Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro is actually made of soapstone as are some of the streets in Ouro Preto paved during colonial times. Metaphoric rocks are rocks “changed by intense heat or pressure while forming” deep inside the Earth’s crust. The metamorphic process is similar to “soft clay objects…put into a kiln and heated to a very high temperature. They change from being squashy to rock hard. They cannot be changed back to their original form. The material has been changed” (www.americangeosciences.org). It seems metamorphic rocks, such as soapstone, connect to Johnstone’s notion of the “atrophied child,” that is, an adult who is imaginatively stifled (hardened) by their education and/or social upbringing and cultural conditioning. The difference is that unlike metamorphic rocks, adult humans can “soften” again. They can go back, in some form, to their childlike self and rediscover a sense of play, spontaneity, and vulnerability. Impro can guide us to that place.
Over the last 2 weeks, the students in my “Applied Improvisation for Leading, Collaborating, and Creating” class at UFMG presented their final group projects. They demonstrated to me that they have “metamorphosed” from students who basically thought impro was just comedy and/or a rehearsal process into emergent applied impro facilitators who are beginning to deeply understand impro theories and principles and how it all connects to emotional and social intelligence, attunement, innovation, risk, communication, empathy, collaboration, spontaneous creation, and on and on. The final assignment was to create and propose, in groups of five or six, an interactive AI problem-solving or problem-finding workshop for a group, organization, or community that they are currently involved with or may be involved with in the future. Then, in 25 minutes, each group “pitches” their workshop to us, imagining we are potential funders, by sharing workshop objectives, strategies, anecdotes, and facilitating one of the group’s proposed activities.
With such a large class (about 40 doing final projects), I realized that not everyone would be able to present on his or her number one topic. So, about five weeks ago, I had them do the frame game by The Thiagi Group called “Thirty-Five” (introduced to me by Patrick Short) to narrow the topics down to the top 7 ideas. “Thirty-Five” is a design thinking game that can also be used for debriefing. For those who don’t know this activity, here is a simplified explanation. First you pass out 1 blank index card to every student. On a flip chart or PowerPoint you put one big question. My question for the students was: “What kind of AI workshop are you/would you be interested in developing?” Each student wrote down their #1 idea for an AI workshop and then the craziness began! The first of five passing periods where everyone runs around and trades cards multiple times. After each passing period, students pair up, read both cards to each other, and then allocate 7 points between the two cards/ideas (e.g., 5 & 2, 3 & 4, 6 & 1, etc.). They put number on back of card, and then pass again. After all the passing periods, players add up numbers on back of each card. Then, I count backwards from 35 (the highest score an idea could receive) until we get to the top 7 ideas, usually falling between 28 and 26 points; although this group of students evenly scored many of the ideas, so the top 7 ideas came in between 24 and 20. Patrick Short added something to this basic activity that really heightens the enthusiasm, and I do it as well! On passing periods 3, 4, and 5, he adds a directive, e.g., “As you pass cards this time, imagine you are meeting friends you haven’t seen in 20 years!” The students were suddenly laughing, physically engaged, and creating short reunion scenes! The other 2 prompts were something like "Imagine the card you get is a great gift" and then "Imagine you are now meeting your childhood crush." Any prompt will do, as long as it inspires the group!
After we got our top 7 ideas, I had the creator of each idea take their card back and briefly unpack their idea for everyone. Then, others who were drawn to those ideas and/or who had an idea that, perhaps, connected in some way, grouped up. The 7 groups formed quite easily, with a few compromises made here and there. Below, I've described four out of the seven projects that I found particularly interesting. The other three (all great ideas!) were titled: Improvisação Aplicada para Incluir no Mercado de Eventos Pessoas com Síndrome de Down (“applied improvisation to include people with Down Syndrome in event planning”); Improvisação Aplicada para Intercambistas da UFMG (“applied improvisation for exchange students at UFMG”); and Improvisação Aplicada para Desenvolver e Aprimorar a Criatividade de Crianças e Adolescentes nas Escolas (“applied improvisation to develop and enhance children’s creativity in schools”).
Sinta Danca: Improvisação Aplicada ao Ensino de Dança para Surdos (“feel dance: improvisation applied to teaching deaf dancers”). With two dance majors in the group who have worked with deaf and hearing-impaired dancers before, this project, like most of the others, was personal. At the heart of the proposal was a decoding of the relationship between dance and sound in an effort to democratize access to dance. Applying impro, the group proposed teaching dance using sensory skills other than hearing and tools like rhythm, spatial perception, and awareness of self in relation to others. They demonstrated by asking ten volunteers to participate in a sort of “Diamond Dance” with no music. Basically, this exercise gives you the experience of what it might feel like to be in a school of fish, with a different leader in front each time the school swims in a different direction. If done well, it is quite beautiful. And this group did it extremely well!
Improvisação Aplicada para Mediadores em Espaços Museológicos (“improvisation applied to mediators in museum spaces”): Two students in this group work as mediators/guides at UFMG’s art museum. One of the two will actually propose this project for her entrance to a graduate program in museum studies! The activity they demonstrated was “Swedish Story” but they adapted it so that one person tells the story and an entire group “interrupts” with random 1-word offers that the storyteller must incorporate seamlessly, just like guides at museums do when taking a group of children through an exhibit.
ImproColab: Improvisação Aplicada para o Serviço Público (“applied improvisation for public servants”): This group actually interviewed public servants working in the administration offices of UFMG. One interviewee said that being a public servant was “her dream” but she didn’t feel challenged enough so it proves difficult to stay motivated. Most of those interviewed said they felt a failure of communication and cooperation at work. So, this project’s objectives are to build bridges and communication skills using impro.
Gentileza Move: Improvisação Aplicada para Transporte Público (“kindness moves: improvisation applied to public transportation”). This project was amazing! They took inspiration from Cláudio Thebas’ initiative “Play Monday” (http://www.playmonday.com.br/) whose motto is: “We can't stop the wars nor end the poverty, but we can change at least an instant.” Thebas is a writer, clown, and member of Jogando no Quintal, a São Paulo-based impro group which I write about in Keith Johnstone: A Critical Biography (2013) because one of the founders of this group, Marcio Ballas, studied with Keith in Calgary in 2011. I love how these connections keep happening. So, Gentileza Move’s goal was to create a positive exchange with strangers, an “urban kindness” that could happen during daily mechanical routines like crossing the street or waiting for the bus. They tested their ideas and created a video which they have allowed me to share with you: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1-uZqHgaeqJP82rCPcN7jf18U6fiQNsJo/view
As you will see, they all went to a nearby bus stop (the public transportation here is called MOVE) with big umbrellas and gently approached strangers getting off the bus and/or crossing the street and asked them if they would like to “Have a Ride,” that is, an escort across the intersection, under the umbrella. Most people said, “Yes,” and as they were walking across, the improviser would ask, “What’s NOT wrong with your life?” This is another activity introduced to me by Patrick Short who got it from Matt Weinstein that I often use as a warm-up to get students to understand that they do not need to offer the best, most clever idea, but rather what is most obvious. I want my students to practice generating ideas, not stressing over coming up with the right idea or the most original idea, as traditional education encourages. So, the question, “What’s NOT wrong with your life?” eliminates the need to “get it right,” dissolves fear, and opens the door for real, honest conversations and collaborations to happen. And this proved true with the strangers at the intersection. After being asked “What’s not wrong with your life?” under the shade of the umbrella, one stranger said, “I can walk!” Another said, “My children!” Several sincerely thanked the improvisers for giving them an opportunity to reflect on something positive in their busy, mechanical lives. During feedback, I reminded the group of the Umbrella Revolution sit-in street protests that happened in Hong Kong in 2014. Students protesting would use umbrellas to protect themselves from pepper spray. But the project my students proposed was more of an “Umbrella Revolution for Kindness!” They liked that.
Finally, the umbrella is such a strong symbolic choice. An umbrella protects from rain or sun but it also brings people together in a bubble of space, physically connecting them, and allowing for a brief human exchange— something many of us “atrophied children” desperately need in these uncertain times. Taking a ride under an umbrella can be an invitation to soften our hardened exterior and allow someone else in; permission to be vulnerable yet safe, if only for a moment.