Our Freedom Lies In How We Take Care Of Each Other — and other gifts of improv training for teens

There is an improvisation exercise called Emotional Squares, used to explore the range of feelings a person can have about the same situation. Four distinct emotional states — happy, sad, fearful, angry — are written on pieces of paper and placed in a square on the floor. A player is given a situation that involves a turning point in life, e.g. graduation, starting a new job, moving to a bigger place. The player’s partner chooses one of the emotions as a starting point, and the player improvises a monologue about the situation from that emotional perspective until the partner calls “change” at which point the player moves clock-wise to the next emotion. The monologue shifts to this new emotional state — keeping the same flow of ideas going — until the partner calls “change” again. After making the rounds to each emotional state in clock-wise fashion, the partner begins to call out “change” to specific emotions- e.g. “change, fear” followed by “change, happy” — in a collaborative way that expands the flow of ideas even more.

Martha Kahan, a social worker specializing in Social-Emotional Learning with teens for over 25 years found this exercise “an opportunity to ‘try on’ a variety of feelings using different perspectives.” The exercise is highly interactive, and depends upon players being committed to each others’ emotional safety. “Getting feedback from peers makes it a rich and meaningful experience that expands students emotional literacy. And my students always say that even when exploring difficult topics, they always have fun.”

The freedom to feel and express a range of thoughts arising from different emotional perspectives in a group turns on a person’s ability to trust the other people involved. Improviser and educator Elana Fishbein — who performs and teaches at The Magnet Theater in NYC and will offer an improv intensive for teens in July 2019, describes “the outward-facing responsibility to create freedom” that is woven into the principles of improvisation. “We define freedom as ‘the ability for someone to feel respected and safe, so that they can be themselves.’ If I am most concerned with your freedom — if everyone takes that responsibility to create freedom together — we are going to be ok. The best way for me to ensure that I’ll be respected is for me to treat others with respect.”

That “outward-facing responsibility” to support others as they take emotional and creative risks cultivates confidence that is interwoven with accountability for the impact of our behavior on others. The internal “self-assessors”— typically attuned to questions of “how am I doing?” “how do I get your applause or approval?” — are given a different agenda: Did I show up for the other people playing with us? Did I contribute? “Some of the most successful players in improv are the ones that can support anyone. I’ve had students from the age of 12 to 18 and worked with them for that long,” reports Fishbein, who has an M.A. in Educational Theater and B.A. in Drama. “I’ve seen them go from a space of being nervous, trying hard to be funny — and having maybe a 25% success rate in scenes — to being calm, supportive and always elevating the ideas of others and they wind up with a 95% success rate in scenes.”

When fun, interesting collaboration occurs on the spot, teens have an immediate and direct experience of how it feels to be part of a working group, a model for how to create and contribute to a healthy social environment. Improv immediately drops peoples’ defenses,” says Fishbein, and this expands the psychological space to discover strengths and gifts as well as face fears, self-doubts and complex emotional struggles. “Improv is about how we behave. When we create characters through improvisation, its not about how wealthy they are, what they look like, but about how they behave,” Fishbein explains. “So improv is a way to examine behavior in a safe way, in a more metaphorical way, that gets to the truth about things in a way that feels playful rather than wrought with emotion. When we mess up, when we make mistakes, there is something really powerful about being able to laugh together and talk about it rather than being defensive. Its about being able to own our mistakes and flaws rather than hide in shame.”

Adolescents need these direct experiences of emotional expression and connection because their first language is feelings — which can come in a flood-like sense of immediacy and intensity. Teens are working through brain changes that render them vulnerable to emotional overload as well as to their approval rating with peers, which makes friendship both a priority and a risk. Add to that the unique 21st century issue of digital dependence, which can reduce the capacity for healthy face-to-face interaction and emotional literacy skills learned through real time experiences become even more a priority.

“At the end of the Emotional Squares exercise I use a writing extension to give students the chance to reflect on learning process and help them internalize it,” says Martha Kahan. “I give them time in the room to journal about the experience, and clarify they have the choice to share what they wrote with the group if they want to.” When information rides in on waves of emotion the learning is more likely to be remembered and available when under stress in real life, especially if there is time and opportunity for this kind of reflection. When those emotions are things like hilarity, hope, enthusiasm, and joy — which improv is uniquely effective to generate — it signals the cognitive brain to pay attention to the information. Both group feedback and expressive self-reflection reinforce the new neural networks.

Additional benefits of improvisation for teens include:

Improvisation training links social-emotional experiences with creativity and the “reward” chemistry of the brain.
“Functional brain imaging studies suggest that the responses of teens to emotionally loaded images and situations are heightened relative to younger children and adults,” according to researchers. “The brain changes underlying these patterns involve brain centers and signaling molecules that are part of the reward system with which the brain motivates behavior.” These different parts of the brain are activated in response to positive, supportive emotional experiences that a person is actively involved in creating.

Improvisation is healthy risk-taking.
Teen’s brains have a heightened sensitivity to reward feedback especially from their peers, according to research published in Current Directions In Psychological Science, one of the reasons they are more prone to risky behavior when they hang out together. The creative and emotional risks taken in improvisation hijack teens’ natural desires to impact one another and dedicates them to collaborative thinking and problem-solving skills.

Elana Fishbein will facilitate TEEN IMPROV at The Magnet Theater Training Center, July 15–19, 2019. The course will focus on developing group mind, creating unique characters, and exploring the most important tenet of improv (and life), “Yes And!” It will require students to take creative risks, tap into new forms of self-expression, and operate as a member of a supportive ensemble. Participants will walk away with a fundamental understanding of long-form improvisation and the skills to perform grounded, hilarious, improv scenes. This class will culminate with a final performance for friends and family. Open to students ages 12–18. Click here to read more or register

LCSW, CGP, MT & Certified Practitioner of Applied Improvisation, consultant/trainer and writer/performer. www.lifestage.org, www.mostlytruethings.com

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