Sunday, 23 May 2010

A tale of two egos

Where we learn that ego is a bit like cholesterol, there's a good and a bad one.

One evening, without much premeditation, we ended-up discussing the young history of our performing company around a large table. This was the first time we would talk rather than practice on a Friday night in the year since the company was born.

Performance practice was research and development for me and every one around the table had their own motives for talking part, but we all loved the work. Running the performing company was mainly my job and I had complain that I could do with more help. We reflected in no particular order on what had been achieved so fare. Twelve months with ups and downs.

It turned out that the best performances we gave were the first one, a year ago, and the last one, just a couple of weeks earlier. The company was in a constant state of flux as people were coming and leaving all the time. The work would be best served by long term commitment but, in London, something that doesn't pay your rent is not a priority for long. And the advantage of sitting on a global nexus of travellers tracks has its in-build inconvenient. The merits of our artistic output was acknowledge as fragile still, and something that could stop fresh talent from joining or staying with us.

But something new had happen during that last show. A new way of being together, a new pleasure, and we were trying to get to the bottom of it. For me it was the first time for a long time that I simply felt like one of the boys. That I didn't feel the urge to save everyone and everything. To cut a long story short it turned out that almost none of us was judging the output at the time. No one was afraid of seeing the all thing fail. This is something I'm teaching day in day out in my classes. But one thing is to teach it, and another is to experience it collectively, in the round.

There's this thing we call ego that makes us blind and deaf to other people ideas on-stage. That makes us stick to tested formula and well-known tracks. That turns us into control freaks and produces the biggest cliché in our desperate search for originality. We agree around that table, on that evening, that this form of ego was born out of fear, and the mother of all fear, the fear of rejection, the fear of not being loved. But with no ego at all we wouldn't get out of bed. So there's a good ego too. The one that set us in motion in the first place, the one that make us thing that we can stumble upon something true and original if we just keep trying.

So what kind of yoghurt or margarine can help us reduce “bad ego”? The closest thing I found for that is the oh so simple mirror game, where two people simply mirror each other in a bid to achieve perfect synchronisation. I've been playing and teaching this game for years now, and the results has never stopped to amaze me. I think the company is at its best when it came muster this effortless power of synchronisation on stage. It doesn't necessarily look like everyone is talking and moving as one on the outside. But inside everyone is immersed in the same waters. It's leadership without a leader. Religion without gods. Discipline without rules. The cheer pleasure there is in experiencing our collective mind in motion.
Picture from Wikimedia - source:

Sunday, 15 March 2009

Permission giving

Improvised comedy is about great performance. When it’s well done nothing is funnier, but it’s all too easy for performers to start playing against, rather than with, each other. I started teaching improvisation because I couldn’t find a class where collective performance was valued over individual brilliance from the very start. The instance is preached by many and applied by few. There’s a good reason for that since tapping into our collaborative instincts is much harder than tapping into our competitive one.

Ego stands in the way of collaboration. You need enough of it to get up and go. But too much will make you sabotage the work (allowing you to fail in the re insuring knowledge that you didn’t try your best) or turn you into a control freak (look mate I think I know what to do next better than you do), or both. Ego is a distraction that can stop us from listening. Our power of cognition is finite, and listening is 95% of the job.

At an early stage of the training, most improvisers look for their teacher’s approval. It is a natural phase during which learners don’t feel fluent enough to trust their own judgement (although they have been improvising since birth, which should qualify them as expert, but that’s another story…). This need for reassurance disappears with time, as participants learn to own their experience and stop having to include their teacher in the permission-giving process.

I suspect that the decision to personally take part and, more importantly, to really commit to the games is the product of a non-conscious risk to reward ratio analyse. The risk is to loose face, something potentially lethal in our ancestors’ world. The reward is social success, in one form or another. If and only if the non-consciously perceived ration is positive (reasonably low risk for reasonably high reward) do we "take a chance".

Our decision to commit to a task in public might depend on a non-conscious risk to reward computation:

- A positive ratio would produce a good "gut feeling" conductive to disinhibition.

- A negative ratio would produce a bad "gut feeling" conductive to inhibition.

shaman picture source: wikimedia

Monday, 2 June 2008

Processes v people?

When I remember my favourite teachers from school days, I don’t picture them reading their course out of a book. They made eye contact with the class, put their point into perspective and left some time for us to react and reflect. Some of them even used emotional triggers, as in storytelling, to facilitate the learning process. This requires self-awareness, openness and the capacity to "fall into the present".

Organisations need management processes for measurability, security, consistency etc. But processes without "people skills" become excuses to escape the present, like the sheet of paper isolating boring speakers from their bored audiences.

About academia's relationship with improvisation see: Keep 'em guessing from the Times Higher Education website...

Picture source: wikimedia

Wednesday, 23 April 2008

Going the extra yard

I’ve just done a gig in North America for a consulting firm. It was a gathering of brilliant minds and I was probably the stupidest guy in the room – which was very refreshing.

I flown back with BA and 90% of the staff onboard was great (helpful, friendly and so patient they should all be decorated). The 10% left was assigned to my area… We had those comfy combo-seats facing each-other where you can really spread your legs all the way. But by doing so, thanks to some brain dead design, I was blocking access to a couple of seats in the middle area. My stewardess expressed her discomfort by stamping generously and repeatedly on my feet.

With a little practice in improvisation she would have kindly asked me to keep my legs for myself before take-off and I would have been charmed and obliged. In this particular case, she just resented me and made sure I was resenting her. A waste of resentment if you ask me.

Picture credit: wikimedia

Friday, 18 April 2008

Theatre doesn't have to be boring

Yesterday I saw Dr Faustus at the Landor Theatre in London. John Wright directed three magnificent actors in an interpretation of Marlowe that envisages Lucifer and Belsebuth as two burlesque artistes giving Faustus a cheap ride for his soul. Bold, surprising, moving and impeccably delivered. I expected nothing less from the man teaching such inspired workshops at the Wright School. When a great director conspires with a great cast, the result is a great night out. Catch it if you can!

Transformation is a mark of good theatre. Those three actors took us on an emotional journey that transformed both them and us, the audience. It wasn’t exactly the same people that walked in and out of this theatre. I swear!

Fionnuala Dorrity as Lucifer. Picture Credit: Third Party

Wednesday, 16 April 2008


Today I had a talk with the people organising the training for P&O cruises. I recently cross the English Channel on one of their ferry and the service was absolutely brilliant. The staff was both relaxed and helpful and it was as if they were sharing a special experience with us passengers (yes, I love boats).

So I wanted to know how the company managed to motivate their people so well. The gentleman I talked to at P&O told me how their efforts to better their customer service led them to reform their management style – knowing that they wouldn’t change frontline staff attitude and leave the rest untouched.

He pointed me to Fish, the training programme that helped them do just that. I though I never heard that name before (most Human Resources publications send me to sleep in about 3 seconds) but I remember now that Cathy Rose Salit, a fellow improviser from New York, mentioned them to me.

Fish looks very interesting (went on their website and got the book), and some of their key principles remind me of what we are doing at imprology with the Far Games, although they only mention improvisation once on their website. Anyone out there with first hand experience with Fish willing to share the knowledge?

Picture credit: wikimedia