A couple of weeks ago, my son and I attended Pleasant Hill Library’s 11:15 AM Friday storytime with Patrick. This storytime is so popular that the library has to move it to a wide open space between a bank of computers and the young adult section to accommodate the crowd.
On this particular Friday, Patrick decided to start with a classic: “Old MacDonald Had a Farm”. Off to a rocking good start, he proceeded to forget some words, which resulted in several false starts and chord checks and the audience helping him by singing out the correct lyrics. Then his guitar string broke. Patrick announced it was “going to be one of those days.” (Indeed: I heard that another of Patrick’s guitar strings snapped at the 1:15 PM session.) What ensued was a silly and spontaneous storytime that included audience requests, full-body singing and storytelling, and 5-string guitar strumming.
A few weeks before, when we were at a Wednesday storytime with Elaine, she forgot the words to a song. It stumped her for a few beats, as she stood with her hand on her hip saying, “no seriously, guys, I can’t remember the words.” She then proceeded to improvise an entirely new song about dinosaurs in the sunshine. Had she not confessed, we never would’ve known what she performed was made up on the spot.
Both of these moments were delightful to behold. We watched our librarians’ creative genius shine, and we witnessed the ease with which they flowed along, tapping into their senses of humor and adventure. I will always remember these particular storytimes because they were so beautifully–and skillfully–improvised.
Live audiences, and especially those filled with kids, are loose cannons. And improvisation, as our librarians can attest, is the lifeboat of performing, teaching and facilitating. While the definition of improvise includes the phrase “created without preparation”, there is a skill set we can all develop that strengthens our improv muscles.
At its foundation, improvising is all about being present in the moment. To be a good improviser, one has to be attentive to the present moment and to her collaborators. A good improviser is an active listener. A good improviser lifts up his collaborators, takes what is being offered and builds upon it using a simple formula: “Yes, and…” and “show, don’t tell.”
A real-life “yes, and…” and “show, don’t tell” example?
Me: Let’s go to IKEA on a Saturday afternoon.
Husband: Yes, and we can take naps on the beds while the floor throbs underneath us like an earthquake of elephants [lays head on hands while bouncing up and down].
Me: Yes, and we will dream we are on pogo sticks in Africa [mimes holding pogo stick while bouncing up and down; husband swings arm like an elephant trunk].
Husband: Yes, and then we can buy IKEA pogo sticks to go with our Swedish meatballs.
Me: Yes, and they will both require assembly [mimes assembling meatballs with an Allen wrench].
Or, take the television show Whose Line is it Anyway? where contestants are given some loose parameters within which to create a skit on the spot. A moderator delivers the parameter such as “You are a singing dentist in an earthquake” or less specific one such as “Sing a song about pancakes”, and the collaborators use movement and dialog to flesh out a scene on the spot. Whose Line is hysterically LOL funny. Improv, when done well (i.e. any Wayne Brady freestyling), is truly brilliant. The art of improv is also awe-inspiring once you understand what, and how, the improvisers are creating together.
One of the best gifts I ever gave myself was a four-week course called The Joy of Improv at the People’s Improv Theater (The PIT) in New York City, a low-stakes improv class without the looming “end of class” live performance. I signed up for it because my 14-year-old dog, Hemi, had just died and I was feeling unmoored. I needed to try something on that would fill the Hemi-sized hole in my heart. As an introvert, improvising, because it asks us to plunge into the uncontrolled, scares the pants off me (though as a teacher, improvising was always my fail-safe). So I spent a month immersed in a community of 12 strangers who asked me to engage with them presently and attentively using my whole body and mind. It scared the pants off me (figuratively and in improv actuality–in one memorable scene I was in a bathtub) and I loved it. It was so freeing and so much fun.
Improv is a life philosophy on so many levels, and it is such a useful, positive skill set to teach to, and model for, our children.
Improvisation is now finding its way into business. In fact in my improv class, one of the participants was there because he wanted a job at a particular advertising agency and they needed to make sure he knew how to “yes, and…” (a skill absolutely essential to fruitful group brainstorming) before they hired him. There is a group called Applied Improvisation Network (AIN), that according to its website “uses the principles, tools, practices, skills and mind-sets developed in comedy, jazz and theatre and utilizes them for non-theatrical or performance purposes.” And here’s why such a network exists, according to the AIN:
Applied improvisation exemplifies that creativity happens collaboratively by using the principle of short turn taking between individuals in the group. In an atmosphere of positive purpose, everyone is encouraged to contribute. Fear, suspicion and anxiety are replaced with focus, creativity and sense of collaboration. This approach allows individuals, groups and organizations to release their creative potential and overtime increase their confidence.
Many exercises, activities and games use in applied improvisation are designed to encourage risk taking, playfulness and to be in the moment. Consequently participants will find that they are having fun whilst also developing or challenging their existing mind-set.
Improvisation–and its friend, mindfulness–are finding their way into education. Before I moved West and became a mama, I used to teach freshman composition at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, The City University of New York. My last two years there, I worked with a fellow adjunct and the director of the writing program to develop and pilot an intensive freshman composition summer class called Early Start, designed to help new incoming students get a leg up on the coming school year. The Early Start class was four hours a day, four days a week for six weeks, twice the classroom time of a regular comp class (once it became institutionalized, it was only three hours a day, four days a week for six weeks–I actually missed that extra hour). The beauty of having such intense face time with students is both academic and interpersonal continuity. That amount of continuity at the collegiate level, especially at a big New York City commuter school, is a gift.
We were asked to foster a learning community in the Early Start class to help the students build natural supports over the summer that would extend into the school year. I brought my improv experience into the classroom to do just this, because of its effectiveness and because I had the time to do it. My students ate it up: Silly movement and silly games in freshman comp? Yes, please! We learned each other’s names by pairing silly alliterated adjectives with our first names and creating silly companion movements (I’d call myself Jiggly Julie with a full body wiggle, for example). We learned to make eye contact with each other by playing Zip Zap Zop, a game where we passed lightning fast verbal zips zaps and zops across our circle. We learned to say yes to each other (because, as I told them, you will spend your whole life hearing so many nos) by giving each other permission to switch places in our circle. We did calming meditative writing exercises to get us listening and to keep us present, and to keep us listening in the present. We all had a remarkable bond when the six weeks was over. Those were some of my best classes because of both our memorable experiences and the remarkable writerly progress the students made in the safe space of our learning community. Silly bonds us, and the present anchors us, in such beautiful ways.
Improvisation is also finding its way into libraries. And not just in storytime performances. In a brief Google search I found a 2009 ALA conference paper titled “Improvisational Theater as a Tool for Enhancing Cooperation in Academic Libraries”, which talked about how the principles of improv can be applied to library practice. I also discovered a consultant whose company is called Fully Engaged Libraries that facilitates short- and long-term improv skill-building workshops with libraries. Clearly, as library practice shifts in the Digital Age, collaboration becomes more valuable and more essential, and practicing the principles of improvisation on macro and micro levels becomes more useful and more important.
This reminds me of something Patrick said when we sat down to talk about the elusive library brand.
This is a really traditional model of what storytime was: Parents would drop their kids off and not even be present for storytime and the kids would be expected to sit criss cross applesauce and listen to a story silently. That is not storytime in the 21st century. Storytime now is all about call and response and everyone singing together and there’s collective movement that can be done with any caregiver.
I like the idea where I am riding my bike to work, I get hit by a bus, and I’m not there, and the families all step up and do storytime without me. That is sort of an ideal–well, maybe not for me, I just got hit by a bus–but it’s an ideal picture that we’re facilitators and we’re conveners but the actual meat and activity of our programs are actually just the community that shows up for it. Now our programs are designed not just by the staff who are designing these programs and rolling them out, but it’s actually a constant collaboration literally involving thousands of people.
Our community of roughly 34,000 will be in a constant collaboration to envision and build a new library–physically, virtually, programmatically–that is, at its most fundamental, flexible and adaptable so that it can grow with the community and respond to its needs. Think about it: Our new library will be a space that can improvise as needed and in which the magic of improvisation happens.
Sounds like the Pleasant Hill community will be needing to hit the improv gym (ask a librarian to point you to a local class), so our leaders, librarians and citizens can engage with each other presently and attentively, take what collaborators offer and build upon it. The citizens of Pleasant Hill can “yes, and…” their way to the best library this side of the Caldecott Tunnel.
Insert collective bicep curl here.
Originally published: April 1, 2016