Adam Blatner

Words and Images from the Mind of Adam Blatner

Improvisation and the Burden of Shame

Originally posted on March 2, 2008

Hypothesis: A key element in improvisation is the willingness—even a bit of an expectation—to make mistakes, with a fair degree of confidence that when these mistakes are made, they can be coped with in a number of ways:
– joked about, with gentle, self-forgiving, self-deprecating humor
exaggerated pride, consciously denied (“well, that was just what I planned,” etc.)
– used as the basis for another more accurate or constructive respons
– compensated for by emphasizing other elements, such as style
– addressing the more fundamental assumption that we’re all friends and we’re just playing
– and so forth.
However, this willingness to take risks, go to the edge of what one knows, and experience being clumsy and “beginner’s mind” in front of others, all requires the tempering of the burden of shame.

It occurred to me, reading about germs and how sometimes they can be good for you, that there’s a physical-medical analogy: A few hundred years ago (and still today in many parts of the world) most people carried around a burden of parasites—blood parasites, worms in the gastro-intestinal tract, fleas—it just came with the environment. Indeed, for 95% of human history, 95% of humans lived with the equivalent of, say, a pound of parasites.
Digression: The First and Shortest Poem was titled,


Had ‘em.         (;-)

Anyway, in contrast, modern “civilization” with modern sewage, food purification, standing-water drainage, etc., has reduced this burden of parasites to less than an ounce, figuratively speaking. As a result, people are growing taller, they have more energy for activities, girls are experiencing puberty at younger ages, and, in short, in civilized countries that energy has been freed up for good health.

What if we have lived with a heavy load of shame and guilt, and that it, like worms, has kept us inhibited? More in the previous centuries, people needed to conserve our psychic energy, and stick to well-trodden paths, behaving in what all considered to be “the right way.” There wasn’t much need for innovation back then, but rather more of a need for stability.

However, once stability or security is relatively established, there’s room to play, explore, improvise. I suspect that people raised with a lot of “you’ve got to do it right” thinking have more trouble shifting gears into the true spirit of improvisational play.

Play in general varies from being more structured to more un-structured. There are different points of balance, depending on the game. There’s some room for a bit of improvisation and creativity even in fairly highly structured games—but not much. In other games that are more un-structured, like imaginative make-believe, there’s more room for creative thinking. However, there are some forms of creative drama—such as TheatreSports—where the edge is pushed: Creative responses are the goal, and improvisation is itself the point of the game. This is a relatively new skill, and what strikes me is, in my observation, many if not most people hang back, avoid these challenges. I wonder if that may begin to shift with a younger generation, but also I think it will help to talk about the desirability of cultivating this set of skills.

Returning to an analysis of the skill of improvisation. (Because of my background as a psychodramatist, an approach in which the cultivation of spontaneity is prized, I am especially interested in this dynamic. Also, in my background are other activities that invite improvisation, including square and folk dancing, doodling-art, improvisational singing, and so forth.)

The idea that the real focus in improvisation should be on making mistakes and coping with them, turning them into something interesting. If nothing else, we learn from each mistake—but the point is not to be overwhelmed with embarrassment, to not give in to the temptation to be inhibited, give up, withdraw. Just keep movin’ on in your movin’ on. It seemed to me that this emphasis on directly confronting the problem of mistake-making might be helpful in promoting spontaneity. What do you think?

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