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. To begin the serious work of dismantling racist structures in society, we have to be able to see them as real, and creating imaginary realities through improv is a way to examine difficult truths.
The work of anti-racism begins with recognizing the reality of structural racism so we can do the hard work of change. 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. 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. The emphasis is on positive, full-throttle endorsement of what others express, and a willingness to build on it.