Almost 20 years ago I was a part of pioneering something and I had no idea I was doing that. Gathered under the creative eye of Rob Winslow at The Union Theatre in Peterborough Ontario, a small cast of us put on a weekly improvised soap opera called “The Cactus Hotel: A Western Philosophy” (My God! Here is the brochure for it!) Every Sunday night all summer we improvised a one hour show that advanced the story of a number of characters who found themselves in an imaginary world that owed its existence to the marriage of the Hotel California, Baghdad Cafe, and Trent University’s Cultural Studies department. I now know that what we were doing was a improvised longform that was funny, tender and explored vast emotional and philosophical terrain and character development.
This past week I was in Portland, Oregon at the annual conference of the Applied Improvisation Network, and when I told that story, long time improvisers were surprised and delighted that such a thing was going on in small town Onatrio in 1991. I felt grateful, looking back 18 years to have been a part of that, and I realized this week, just how much of what I know about invitation owes its origins to that summer.
Unless engaging in deep play with a group of 125 giggling, creative and talented extroverts is your idea of a good time, the Applied Improvisational Network is not for you! But show up there ready to learn, eager to test yourself and curious about what is on offer (and willing to offer as much as you get back) and show up to it with Viv McWaters, Geoff Brown and Ann Patillo in your gang, and you have the makings of the most delightful professional development I have ever done for myself.
The gathering was spread over three days at an incredible venue – Edgefield – which itself is an improvisation in action. Once a former poor house, where homeless were rounded up and housed so they could have the dignity of working for no pay, the plae is now an artful quirky and eccentric resort complex with 15 pubs on site and some good restaurants to boot. The owner’s vision was to have people live a pub crawl and then crash in a bed and do it all over again the next day. ‘Twas the perfect venue.
Over the two days we heard from a couple of keynotes including the incomparable Armando Diaz, and the very amazing Nick Owen. Nick should be the standard for keynote presenters. Given that my tolerance for sitting in rows of chairs listening to someone speak at me is zero, the fact that Nick kept me there for there for two hours is unbelievable.
Keynotes aside, there were two days of workshops and breakouts which varied in quality and usefulness to me. My bias was to be there for high play, and so I gravitated towards those sessions that seemed to let me do that. I spent my time the first two days working with Polarity Management and improv, learning about biomimicry and improv with Belina Raffy, exploring Turkish traditional storytelling and its application for improv with Koray Tharhan and Zaynep Tarhan from Istanbul, doing an incredible micro-fiction writing session with denzil meyers, and getting a great grounding in basic improv design with Kat Koppet and again with Gary Hirsch and Julie Huffaker from On Your Feet.
I got to play a little, joining Koray, Zaynep, and Geoff onstage at the Portland Centre for the Performing Arts where we played music for an improv show featuring Special Project Lab and other local improvisers.
On the last day we opened space and a whole slew of other sessions appeared. I dove into music improvisation with Patrick, convened a session with Viv, Ann and Geoff on designing a conference that we are doing in Melbourne and had the most incredible session of contact improvisation with Munir Rashid.
Contact improv is new to me and involves very powerful experiences of working with partners to explore where our bodies want to take us. It is part dance, part martial arts (sticky hands, Tai chi, and aikido are all familiar here) and part real-time non-verbal coaching. It can be as minimal as touching one hand to another and seeing where the movement takes us all the way to rolling around on the floor, lifting one another up and down and discovering how bodies move together. Done with a skillful partner it is an incredible experience of being mentored, led, encouraged and trusted and it can take you well beyond your edge.
Being taught and hosted by Munir was one of the highlights of the entire gathering for me. He is a master teacher and practitioner of this discipline, having devoted 12 years of his life to this. He is able to stand on the edges of safety, intimacy and trust and name the container that will hold the emotional and physical energy of the practice and he is as good a teacher of physical movement as any martial arts master I have ever learned from. I am certain that in lesser hands my experience of contact improv could have been confusing and emotionally challenging. As it was I came out of the session with a strong sense of blissful fearlessness.
Improv of course is all about living the life of invitation in every second. It is about making offers and accepting offers. It is about building on the best of others and contributing something to help them look good. It is a world that works when generosity and attention are activated. And it is instantly accessible. Stories, metaphors, teaching are all at hand. Simply start somewhere and follow it anywhere and see if you don’t surprise yourself. It is in short a new form of old practices I have been doing for a while, but today I am renewed and aligned and excited to see how else we can explore and practice.
Any of you thinking of attending an Art of Hosting with me in the future will be subject to all of this learning I am doing! Expect more games, exercises and improvisational play to explore hosting, harvesting, facilitation, design and collaboration.
It gets fun from here!