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How improv could save the planet

Posted by Lizzy Mace on Jun 1, 2016 in Environment, Improv

A few weeks ago I flippantly posted the following statement on Twitter:

Almost instantly, several of my equally flippant friends posted the equally flippant reply “Climate change?”, to which my first response was a wry smile and a mental note to specify personal problems not global problems. But of course it didn’t end there. I couldn’t stop my improv brain running off and trying to find a way to justify these two seemingly incompatible ideas. And perhaps part of the problem of climate change is that many of us don’t see it as a personal problem, when in fact that’s exactly what it is?

So, here are six improv lessons that we can apply to climate change:

1. Accepting reality

It might seem odd to suggest that people who make things up are better at accepting reality, but hear me out. In each improvised scene, we have to fully accept the reality we’ve created together, the reality of the world we are in, even if we don’t like it.

An improviser who denies the reality being created is said to be “blocking” the scene. Often what lurks behind the habit is a feeling of discomfort with the offer that someone has made. “I don’t want to play the office creep”. They undermine the scene, and the potential for creating something beautiful together unravels. Hello, climate change deniers!

If climate change deniers had more practice with accepting realities that they are not comfortable with, well, they wouldn’t be climate change deniers. Boom. Suddenly we all accept the reality we’ve created together. We’re all on board and the scene can take off.

2. Taking responsibility

In every scene we need to take responsibility for what we do. We know that we’re all playing a part in what happens, even if just a small one. And at the same time, we know that everyone else is equally responsible for their part. Every action we take or offer we make contributes to the whole. If we all stand around doing nothing, because we think it’s someone else’s responsibility, then the scene cannot move forward. Oh hi, thank you for joining us, climate action deniers.

Those who think there’s no point doing anything, that small actions don’t make a difference, or that it’s someone else’s responsibility, might benefit from taking some improv classes. Because if improv teaches us anything it’s that if we each take small actions, if we each add our voice, we can create a new reality together.

3. Letting go of old ideas

A bad habit in improv is to wait until you have an idea before stepping onstage. Worse is to cling to that idea and try to impose it on the scene no matter what else is happening around you. Worse still is to have one idea that worked once that you keep trying to repeat even when it’s not working anymore. Oh well, hello there, old school capitalism!

A more experienced improviser learns to let go of their ideas of what a scene should be, and listen to what it is. To tune in to what’s happening and listen to the intuitive part of themselves that can sense what’s not working, and let go of that idea to make way for a new one.

It often seems like business and the media are trying to impose their idea of what the world should be like, how it should work, what used to work until the consequences became clear. Perhaps if they were more in touch with their instincts, they might recognise that something’s not working, the idea isn’t relevant anymore, the moment for it has passed and another approach is needed now.

4. Committing to change

So what happens at that point in a scene where something needs to change? Patti Stiles calls this the “advance moment”, where we need to do something different to move the story forward, to progress. Often we get stuck here. We pull back or shy away, afraid that we’ll make the “wrong” choice, or that we’ll be unable to deal with what might happen next. We seek comfort in our established patterns. Oh hello political leaders who U-turn on their environmental pledges!

Making big changes is scary. Improv teaches us to be bold and commit to our choices even though we are scared. It gets us all more comfortable with breaking through that fear of change, working through the discomfort of shedding an old pattern and stepping into the unknown. Because we know that we depend on each other’s boldness. And we know that if we step in and do something big, something beautiful just might happen. And that actually making any new choice, at that “advance moment”, is the right choice.

Scientists are pretty clear that we need to make urgent, drastic, and sweeping changes now if we are to mitigate the effects of climate change in the next few decades, and to stand any chance of coming out the other end. If our elected leaders were more able to deal with fear of change and uncertainty, perhaps they’d be making them already.

5. Collaborating not competing

If every improviser onstage is competing for something, if we are guarded because we don’t trust each other, and if we belittle each other’s choices because we don’t respect them, there is no scene, there is no story, there is no progress. Neo-liberalism insists that competition is the driving force behind human nature and progress, but the truth is that humans wouldn’t have thrived if we hadn’t learnt how to collaborate within our tribes. What we must acknowledge now is that we are all the same tribe. We must all collaborate. Not only must we each take responsibility for ourselves, but we must also take care of each other.

Improv demonstrates that collaboration – based on trust, respect and compassion – is absolutely necessary to progress. If we don’t work together in a scene, we are all affected. And is there any situation that truly affects every single person on the planet, other than climate change? In improv, as with climate change, we really are all in this together.

6. Using everything

The most amazing improvisers to watch are those who use everything. Every line becomes an essential part of the plot, even an accidental moment gets incorporated into the story, no offers are wasted. If something is created at the start of a scene, it must be used by the end.

Good evening and welcome, zero-waste circular economy, we’re so glad you’re here!

Do you have any other ideas on how improv could save the planet? Tweet me @LizzyMace

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