What I hope to accomplish in this work is to build a roadmap of not just philosophy, but behavior based in actions that will slowly turn our individual and collective heads toward something more civilized. Something more aspirationally American. In many respects, we are the best place to aspire to what I propose.
I hope to give perspectives that can be used at all ages and for everyone who believes in our better personal, familial, communal, and global selves. I say all ages because you are never too young to understand that you are part of something bigger than yourself. The principles of kindness, fairness and compassion are rarely lost on a child. Often the “why” is not well explained. More importantly, the lessons can be avoided for the sake of expediency and comfort. Few children love all aspects of the learning process. In fact, for far too many, we have turned school into a kind of “day prison” and learning a necessary chore to be opted out of if possible. They have become numbers characterized by the numbers they put on paper and the speed with which they move though an impersonal system. Let me be clear. This is no indictment against teachers individually. Theirs is the highest calling. They choose this path because nurturing and caring are in their nature. But even the best teacher is not much better than the system and the resources that are working within.
If a nation is its people, then the young are the bricks we need to build our future. Teachers are the makers of the mortar that will hold those bricks together. Our society is, was, and will always be dependent on literacy. We have gone from the “The 3 R’s” to “STEM”, but what should always hold as much influence in the process as what they learn is how they learn. How they express knowing. How they share ideas with one another. How they express and process differences in ideas will go a great distance to build the mortar that will define the character of a society.
Moreover, the way we teach them to engage ideas will define how they go into the world beyond the classroom. This may be the case for the whole of their lives. If learning is seen as a chore and the concept of difference as something that they engage only when it has utility, then we are handicapping our most precious resources. We will be building a generation of Americans that misunderstand the most fundamental tenants of this national experiment. We will learn this lesson one way or another. I choose the light of the arts to teach.
Some people change when they see the light, others when they feel the heat.
The Arts as a vehicle
(For critical thinking and social emotional learning. Bring these concepts into the conversation as often as possible)
The arts and how we utilize them are one of the best material ways to access where we on the curve of human development and engagement. I have found that theater; specifically improvisation, has given me a doorway into others humanity and motivation. Anyone who has ever take an improv class knows that “It’s not about you”. If you want to do your own thing, do standup. If you want to see a world bigger than the one you brought to the table, do improvisation.
There is a process of learning to become a talented and giving improviser. Talent goes only so far as others are willing to validate it. Gifts mean nothing if there is no one to give and share them with. The same thing is true for how we express ourselves as a society.
Therefore, the theory and tenants of improvisation are critical to the expression of the American idea in my work. In the most basic level improv classes, you learn the “rules”.
It took me years to realize they did not just make for good stage play, but good life-play. The problem is that not enough people are taught the rules. The funny thing (not funny) is that many of these rules speak to the way we wish people to be. The speak to a sense of connectedness and compassion that I believe most people desire. At least, in their heart of hearts. We want our children to be these people and we think that they will just become them by telling them to do it. When they stray off the path, we, sometimes reinsert the lesson. In my work I use many improvisation theories and games to help people better understand the interconnected nature that is, put simply, who we are. Human beings are a social and interconnected species. I am always surprised by how groups react to going through even a short process. For so many, it feels like they believe they have been given permission to express ideas and feelings that have swirled around inside them for far too long. The process of building a community built in a basic kind of safety is a powerful motivator.
As I mentioned earlier, I started my life in performance as an improviser. Once I was able to get past the fear and ego attached to the process, I was able to open myself up the basic principles that govern being a true practitioner of the form. As anyone who had ever taken an improv class knows, the principle of “yes and” rules all. Hearing the offer given and building on it. Supporting your fellow players offers for the sake of telling single story that is built on the strength of multiple people adding to the mix. It is a story that could not exist if only told by one or two. The venerated improv guru Del Close called it the “Group Mind” and any improviser who has committed to the form can share dozens of stories about moments on stage where something exploded into being on the strength of a simple offer and a few “yes ands”.
For many novices who have gone to see many professional and semi-professional troupes, there is often an astonishment to how these people can weave wonder on the spot. I have said more time than I can count, it is not that we are smarter than the average person. Thought many of us ego-soaked monkeys like to think we are. We have a few tricks of the trade that we learn from familiarity with our fellow players, but none of those are all that impressive on their own. Put simply, we are trained. From this training comes the ability to see better a world bigger than our own. We learn to bring our perspective gifts to a proposal bigger than ourselves. We learn to make room for other ideas and insights through listening (most of us). Ultimately, we trust one another (most of the time) to not leave a fellow player hanging.
What you see on the start is the outward expression of training. Hours and hours spent in rehearsal spaces laughing too loud and joyfully yelling at one another. The trial and error of working a form until the theory sublimates to muscle and bone. In this process you learn about your fellow players. They become your friends, partners, confidants, lovers and sometimes rivals. The key is they become these things through a process of leaning and growing with one another. If you are doing it right, ego and presumption fades into the other. And if, for only a moment you are something bigger than you ever though you could be, because it was given to you by others.
In those moments on stage, I often have little memory of what I did or what I was doing. I only remember it felt amazing. I remember people saying after the fact how incredible it all was. I was awed and humbled at the gifts that others allowed me to discover. All of that started in rehearsal with gameplay.
Improvisation is based on the theory that theater can be an especially effective vehicle to open up discussions on topics that are otherwise difficult to approach. This can be said of all the arts, but for now, let’s focus on my thing.
Theater for the exploration and enacting of social activism and civic engagement is an effective model. For years there have been people and programs effecting major changes in the lives of many.
As early as the mid 1960’s in Brazil, Augusto Boal used a method he later called “Theater of the Oppressed” to give those effected by the repressive dictatorship voice, perspective and in many cases closure over the national pain and human disrespect imposed on their own people by the government. In his groundbreaking book “Theater of the Oppressed”, he outlines his theory and many games and their applications. His overarching objective is to engage people social change through participating in theatre and discussion. More recently in the US, groups like Boston’s’ “Urban Improv” use a model of improvised scenes and game play to assist young people in gaining vital perspective on the complicated issues that they face on a daily basis. Theirs is an ideal tool for representing the same situation from different points of view and for eliciting honest and profound audience reflections. These are just a couple models that take on this approach. Some other names they may be known by are “Playback Theater,” Forum Theater,” or any number of other names. The forms are centuries old. Its roots can be found in the Italian form called Commedia Del’ Arte.
Theater provides the necessary distance to say certain things you may not be able to say otherwise, because they are sensitive or difficult to approach. Art can give perspective. It can give clarity. It is one of the few cultural makers that every human culture has in common. I believe it has the power to save us all. If that seems like high flung rhetoric; try to imagine life without art.
I believe that art is one of the most critical tools to help people process and move past the most emotionally wrenching part of any idea. We live in a society that is too often defined by sharp contrasts and an inability to see beyond our own point of view. Trauma has taken hold in the mainstream of the dialogue. In fact, much of the national dialogue about the topics most profoundly human have become paralyzed by fragility and trauma. Unless we find deeper, more creative ways to deal with the very differences that make up the foundation of the American experiment, we will surely be consumed by them.
I, for one, choose to stride into the best parts of the American idea. I choose to build an alloy from all the raw materials that make up this all too human soil. I choose to work the American crucible and forge something more magnificent that anything I could have ever created on my own.
I commit to the hard dialogue and the alien point of view. I commit to not always being right. I commit to putting right and wrong as much out of the human equation as I morally can. They generally only serve my purpose. I commit to the sweat and discomfort of this process. In this, possibly the most “comfortable” place the world has ever known. For if I don’t, I truly am a waste of human potential.