The Whole Cortex Lights Up
Four Days in Berlin at the Applied Improvisation Network Conference
"More weight! More Weight" The instructor was struggling to get the words out - which slightly contradicted what he was saying" I lifted my feet totally off the floor, channelling my whole weight through his body - in contact improv, this is apparently called "flying". I knew nothing of contact improvisation before I went to this conference. It's basically improvised dance. You have a partner and you try to keep one part of your body in contact with your partner at all times. One partner leads, and one follows, but you can switch leader at various points. Because this is physical contact and movement, and therefore sometimes awkward and embarrassing and sometimes strenuous and even painful, at any point you can excuse yourself and sit out the next dance. We got to one exercise which involved laying on top of your partner with as much weight as they could stand and I could feel my current partner - a very willowy German woman in her twenties - getting more and more nervous, so when the explanation of the exercise and the tutor said "make sure you have a partner that's about your size" I suggested that we swap. In the end I ended up laying on the instructor before finally picking him up by standing back to back with him and hooking my arms through his. A thought went through my mind very similar to when I was diving from a "high" platform into the Aegean a few weeks ago "this is brilliant, but I'm not sure I'll be able to walk tomorrow." Well, it was brilliant - and the next day? Still walking.
I didn't know exactly what to expect from the conference. I'd read about it in a book - a weird way to find out about things these days. The book was a critical biography of one of the founding fathers of improvisation, Keith Johnstone. When I read that there was a conference on applied improvisation in, relatively, nearby Berlin, I pulled out my credit card and booked a flight.
Day One: I signed up for the only workshop that still had places not really paying too much attention to what the content more than - "it's improv, I'm sure it will be fine,". Then it dawned on me that I'd signed up for a musical workshop - run by professional musicians. Oh shit, shit, shit! And if you want, you can bring your own instrument. Instrument? The only instrument I have is my tenor horn (as someone once called it, an "E flat thing") that I used to play desultorily in a brass band when I was a kid. I brought it with me, the logistics of which resulted in me having to bring a completely different set of luggage (now I have more sympathy for musicians). And in the end, I didn't get it out and play it, I did have a very charming conversation with a beautiful barista in the cafe just around the corner from my flat. She seemed utterly fascinated that I was walking around with a musical instrument in a case (now I have more jealousy for musicians).
Where was I? Yes - the musical improvisation workshop. It was absolutely fascinating. Some things that I got out of it:
You can do a lot of musical improvising with no instruments at all e.g. we did an exercise where everybody tried to make the most interesting noises that they could with a single sheet of paper.
If you do have instruments, you soon start to feel the dynamics of how compositions might work - you see the point of a rhythm section, the value/importance of having some kind of drone/bass and you also start to feel how a melodic line can pull an accompaniment along with it - and how awesome it sounds when it does.
Day Two: The conference proper kicked off. Paul Z Jackson opened and did a wonderful little exercise where he asked people to partner up and have one partner try to draw something while the other partner held their drawing hand supportively, and then again have them draw something while the other partner tried to be obstructive. He also got the very multi-national audience to say "good morning" in their native language. If you thought about it, quite a moving thing to do on German reunification day in the centre of Berlin. In the process he managed to talk about the war and work in a holocaust joke that was in good taste - no small feat.
At one of the talks, I saw Dani Meinl demonstrating a kind of movement called "Body Bliss". She did demonstrated a position called "flying fish" on a chair, which was absolutely the opposite of "sitting up properly". I was intrigued. Something gave me the idea that I would have the most fun going to the workshops that were the least powerpointy and involved the most leaning over a chair and sticking your bum in the air pretending to be a cat. And I was right. I went along at the end of the day to her Dani's half-hour taster class in Body Bliss. Having been to a lot of Astanga classes where you secretly suspect the teachers would like to be able to hit you with sticks, it was refeshing to be told to move as we wanted to move. We also did some humming, which was supposed to rattle the little bones in our bodies with its resonance (oh fuck off with "where's the science"? it felt good) and then we stood in a circle and swayed together and said the first word that came into our heads that captured the experience (mine was "rain" - you can take the man out of Yorkshire...).
Day Three: I went workshop crazy. On the back of the positive experience of the "body bliss" workshop I tried to go to as many physical improv workshops as I could, starting with "Tango and Leadership" from a company called Genderworks. A basic idea - in Tango, someone has to lead. What does that feel like? What does it feel like for the person being led? We took partners and walked around the room to some gentle tango music. I first partnered up with a very tall German lady who was very tolerant of my indecision. Then we swapped around and I partnered with a French woman who was very unhappy that she wasn't partnering with someone who could speak French (I could speak enough French to understand her moaning). I'm not sure why she was so bothered though. Her English was perfectly fine and certainly up to the job of criticising my first fumblings at Tango - "Why don't you LEAD? BE A MAN!!!".
I'm probably never going to put this on my CV but the role I found most comfortable - if not totally seductive - was the role of being led and being allowed to occasionally resist and rebel. And what of leading? Leading is hard! Especially if you're leading a blindfolded member of your team as well as a resistant partner - yes this workshop involved partially blindfolded Tango threesomes. I felt so ashamed when the blindfolded member of my team thanked me for doing a good job. At one point I had waltzed (tangoed?) her straight through a chair.
Next? Action Theater with Sten Rudstrom. This I think was my favourite workshop because it was a series of simple activities that took you in just an hour to a liberating crazy place. Starting off very "radio 4 VHF for schools" we moved in some way that illustrated the idea of elemental things - like trees, rocks, water, fire. Then we paired up and took it in turns getting our partners to "shift", first from one action to another, then from one action with sounds to another, then from one pose with speech to another. It was mayhem. Afterwards I described it to someone as like a combination between an improv class and a mosh pit. And it took a while to notice how euphorically high I was from it. Which made it quite difficult to sit still through the next workshop - which was good, but power-pointy.
And then, finally, to round off the day, a singing workshop. In about quarter of an hour we were doing vocal improvisations in small groups. That day I did make the effort to stay for the evening events which included more singing improvisations.
OK - that's pretty much telling the story of the whole day. Here are some thoughts that came into my mind in a non-linear fashion.
- Improv that involves physical movement literally gets you out of yourself
- Telling people is fine, but showing them in a way that lets them get the feeling is so much better. I wouldn't be able to get what it felt like to try to lead a hypercritical Frenchwoman from a million powerpoints. I got it in 10 seconds from actually doing it
- Move!!! Do stuff!!! Don't just read and write about it! ACT OUT.
- As Alan Watts says - physical education is the most important kind. Yeah PE teachers have got a lot to answer for, but you have to understand, they aren't going to answer for it, you've got to sort it out yourself
- There is something tremendously pleasant about being involved in an event where two hundred people are at least to some degree trying to "yes and" each other and give their conversational partners a good time.
Actually that isn't everything - there was an inspirational "fireside chat" by Martin A. Ciesielski about accepting feedback (much of this was from New Yorker improvisers, I don't think they even realised they were shouting) on the organisation of the conference. Some of us (including me) gave him standing ovation at the end. Yeah, there were some "buffet issues" but other than that the fast, loose, relaxed way the conference was organised was an absolute joy.
Day Four: On the final day, there were more workshops in the (some might think) chaotic "Open Space" format. I went to one on the neurology of improvisation - I think it was run by a guy called Mario Mueller. I sat through the whole thing listening intently, even though it was outside in the chilly courtyard. There were a bunch of things came out of this bracing powerpointless chat. Here are some of the things I tweeted about
Almost his whole cortex lit up massively
This is was in a discussion about research by Charles Limb where he put a rapper in and FMRI machine and got him to improvise a rap. It wasn't just the language areas that "lit up" (i.e. got used) it was visual areas and motor areas. The conclusion? Improvisation exercises your brain. It literally reaches the parts that other activities don't.
Flow experiences don't use the parts of the frontal lobe that associate with self
This got re-tweeted a lot. Other experiments showed that when people are improvising they are using certain parts of their frontal lobes - the bits that allow - big-picture high-level planning. But they're not using other bits - the bits that make you feel self-conscious. What you could take away from this is that when you're in the zone as an improviser, you're mimicing some of the brain patterns of flow.
If you want to get out of flow, just reflect on what you're doing.
If you reflect on what you're doing, you have to think about yourself and you start becoming self-conscious.
What a good improviser does is switch between "open" and "closed" modes very quickly.
There was a lot of talk at this conference about "left-brain" and "right-brain". What Mario made clear was that this isn't really about the left-brain and the right-brain doing different kinds of tasks - it's more about different kinds of focus. Right-brain is more diffuse, over-arching. Left-brain is more task focused. These apparently match the "open" and "closed" modes of creativity that John Cleese talks about. Mario, gave the example of a small bird. It needs to focus on catching worms - a focused task. But at the same time it needs to avoid being eaten (a diffuse task, because danger could come in all sorts of guises).
What improv practices is the skill of managing the switching between both - the open view and the closed view. I asked if this would explain why improvisers who are good at the hat game (a game where two improvisers play a scene while wearing a big floppy hat - the aim of the game is to take the hat). Mario said that he thought that it would - good improvisers would ask their opponents questions - which would make them go into a "closed view" and while they're doing that they're vulnerable to having their hat snatched. Good improvisers would also try to take an open view until they saw a chance to snatch the hat.
And then, before I knew it, I was connecting with my full seventeen stone on top of my brave contact improv instructor. I have to say. I had a ball. I'm going to keep up with AIN people here in London and I would dearly love to go to the next conference (which I understand is in Texas) next year and as some Ariane Berthoin Antal said when Paul Z Jackson asked eagerly if there was hard and fast scientific proof that improvisation was good for you - "It's good to have hopes and dreams.".