Playing The Long Game: Applying Improv Tools To The Work Of Anti-Racism

There is a kind of magic that happens when improvisers co-create an imagined reality so seamlessly it seems hard to believe it is happening on the spot. Players achieve this by agreeing to a set of practices — radical acceptance of what others offer, unwavering support of one another, emotional engagement as the gateway to rational story-making, elevating others’ ideas, to name a few — that are uniquely effective ways to get on the same page with other people not only in the creative space of an improv scene but in real-life human interactions. And in this cultural moment, as outrage, pain and a call to action in response to George Floyd’s murder by police shines a bright light on the racism and injustice baked into our social structures and institutions, these tools are invaluable. “In regards to conversations around race, our own biases sometimes makes it challenging to see things from a different perspective,” explains trainer, facilitator, and “creativity catalyst” Gary Ware, owner of Breakthrough Play, a company that uses applied improvisation and play as learning tools to help individuals and teams connect on a deeper level. “Applied improvisation gives people language and a framework to move past those biases so we are more willing to be changed by the conversations.”

“Game” in improv refers to the dynamic that develops among the characters in a story. “The game is any pattern that emerges within a scene that the improvisers may follow while exploring the relationship between the characters,” is one of a few definitions included in an article on the topic on Vulture.com. Looking at human dynamics is what makes improv a captivating way to explore the truth about relationships, status, and systems.

The work of anti-racism begins with recognizing that structural racism exists. For that to happen we have to elevate black voices and black stories with the same energy, interest and enthusiasm that improvisers bring to their fellow players in any scene. The emphasis on positive, full-throttle endorsement of what others express, and the willingness to build on others’ ideas that makes improvisation possible is a useful approach for this important work. Improv warm-ups are designed to help produce a psychological shift out of defensive, self-protective thinking into curiosity and radical acceptance that expands the field of awareness, a natural by-product of which are the social-emotional conditions for examining difficult truths in a group.

The improv model applied to the work of anti-racism starts with what Ware describes as “listening to understand:

It’s all about accepting and building:

Yes I hear your story, and I’m happy to elevate it.

Yes Black lives do matter, and this is how we can support them.

Understanding that just because someone else’s reality doesn’t align with your reality doesn’t make it any less true.”

Structural racism is a reality that is often invisible to those who benefit from it until it is specifically pointed out. Listening to understand can reveal disturbing, uncomfortable truths about the daily experiences of black people navigating within these systems and the unearned comfort and privilege that being white affords. Improv exercises are a way to experience that kind of psychological discomfort and strengthen the capacity to tolerate it.

The skills improvisers deploy to make creative magic and produce a dynamic story together without knowing what it will be ahead of time, are positive, useful tools for maintaining the focused attention and sustained awareness necessary for structural changes to take place over the long term. Gary Ware made this video with some clear ideas for how improv principles can guide white people to grow into being better allies of the black community. There is magic involved, so you have to watch it all the way through.

Conversations about race can be uncomfortable. The daily pressures, pain and anxiety black people have to manage are largely unseen by white people until attention is paid. In an improv setting, the emphasis on “rapport and empathy create a space for transformation to happen,” Ware explains. “They allow the participants to practice these challenging conversations in a low-stakes environment, so they are more likely to demonstrate this behavior outside of the class.” Improv skills are driven by a powerful sense of play combined with respect for others that makes these interactions not only positive, but potentially joyful.

In this talk “Creating Inclusive Environments Through Play” Ware describes the impact of play on the capacity for groups to do hard things.

Black stories matter, and if white people “listen to understand,” we might see what will be asked of us to create an anti-racist society. Ware describes his own father’s experience as a black man who others always described as an “extremely hard worker” but few knew the context of why that was true. “When you listen to understand you learn that he grew up in Oklahoma in the 60’s where there was still a good deal of discrimination. As a black man his mom expressed that he had to work harder than most to afford the opportunities as the white people in the area. In his home only top grades were accepted. Their view was if you were Black and had grades that were in the middle of the pack you will get looked over.”

The reality that a black person has to work harder to have access to the same opportunities a white person enjoys is a wrong that will take a sustained group effort to correct. The improv model helps frame a guideline for thinking about this. For improv to work, all players must be willing to “serve the good of the whole,” explains Ware. “Its the We > Me principle. That improv element reminds me of this quote by Tom Webster, ‘When a system is bias fairness doesn’t fix it, fairness only maintains it. Only unfairness in the opposite direction can rebalance an imbalanced system.’”

Some actions white people can take right now in daily life include:

Favor black-owned businesses;

Read black-authored books of all genres;

Click through to websites and articles that deconstruct the realities of racism, and absorb, comment on and share them to keep the conversation alive;

Vote for representatives who bring black voices to the decision-making table;

There is so much work to do now, to keep the current sense of urgency about dismantling racist social structures alive. Improv is a model for the emotional commitment that galvanizes the energy of a group, and applied improvisation groups can help focus that energy on the serious work we need to do.

Nothing this important is easy. Changing perceptions, shifting priorities, and seeing the world in a different way is hard work. But the creative immediacy of the improv experience lends a kind of magic to the learning experience that can fuel and sustain the long game ahead.

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

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