Improvision into the future

It’s been a while since I blogged in this space. It is a pity; I love reflecting back on the work I do, particularly with regard to the improv workshops I run. Last week I worked with a tiny group of four IT specialists and we practiced the basic rules and concepts of improv before delving into some narrative games to cultivate active listening and empathy. It was lovely, uplifting work and I could see the benefits of it while we were doing it.

But, the truth is that while I know how important this work is, and how liberating, I still want to tackle the elephant in the room; racism. We deal with these notions every single day in our daily lives, on social media, in the news, at schools, at the shops and in public spaces. The one place it isn’t being dealt with in any open way is in the workplace, and in the corporate environment. Of course, lip service is paid, and BEE is thrown around, but structural and endemic racism and white privilege are not spoken about or even acknowledged. This is really very serious.

When I work with mixed race and gender groups I am aware of how so much is taken for granted by white, male voices; how much space and opinion they take up. Less so, but still vocal are the white women. Black men are next in line and then, at the end of the scale are black women. It is important that I am understood. This is not about personality, or ‘culture’ (that fabulous excuse for everything), or even corporate hierarchy. It is about who thinks they can do what they do. It is still a white man’s world, even though he is complaining loudly that it isn’t. He is still the voice in the room.

I want to work with these white men and women. I want to help them understand what structural racism, inherited racism, white privilege and white ignorance is all about. Because the reality is, unless they start doing this work, understanding who they are, they are going to come up against some seriously awkward and dangerous situations pretty soon. It is a challenge, because these are the very people who refuse to admit that there is a problem. They refuse to dispense with the notion that white males are being victimised or targeted. I want to unpack this notion that white people have had to work so hard for what they have. I want to manage the unrealistic expectations that white men have because they do not ever compare themselves to black people. I want to help them understand, acknowledge, accept, and then agree to do things differently. Like listen instead of tell, walk around in someone else’s shoes, accept collective responsibility for the past. It is huge, and scary, and ugly and messy. But it has to be done. I want to try and do this. Are you brave enough to contact me for us to try and start this work? Do you know of somebody in a company who would take the chance of going there?


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Engen Phambili 2012

This year I decided to create a musical for my yearly industrial theatre project. Music and singing is a huge winner with our audience. So, here are one or two pics from Engen Smile – The Musical. My amazing cast are Ntombi Makhutshi, Daneel van der Walt, Larissa Hughes, Richard Tafane and Aphiwe Mensiwa.


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Recognition, thanks, honouring.

I am at the airport, waiting to fly home from a rather extraordinary time in the North (Pretoria, Brits, Potchefstroom) doing something really exciting for a client, and I want to write about it before I lose the amazing magic of the work we did.

I was asked whether I could come up with a way to train up a very particular group of workers who work in the service industry. They are women who work for a catering company that services a few private hospitals. To be honest, the importance of their job far outweighs its rewards, particularly financially. I imagine they are earning pretty much the minimum wage, on average. Yet, they have direct contact with the patients. They have huge responsibility. The scope of their daily duties is really wide. And, most importantly, they are scored every month by a survey company that does random calling to ask service related questions. It’s a tough, relatively thankless job.

I wasn’t sure what I could offer them. I specialise improvisation in the corporate sector, and in industrial theatre, used to deliver a specific message. Neither of these two options seemed like what they needed. And then it came to me. More than anything else, these women needed to be recognised in some way. They needed to be seen and thanked, not challenged, tested or trained.

And that’s exactly what I proposed. And it was phenomenal. I watched suspicious, negative, tired faces turn into faces of joy and delight. I watched the truth of the thank you sink in, and I saw as women relaxed and told their stories. I watched six times, on six different occasions, a change take place, without ever calling for it, or naming it, or demanding it. It was transformationnal.

What I heard and saw and was part of has changed me forever. It has turned me into an unofficial HR campaigner. It has reinforced my belief that people are a company’s greatest asset. It has powered my knowledge in team work. It has absolutely confirmed that most people are committed to their work, even in the most trying circumstances, and that acknowledgement and thanks does not have to be grand, or expensive or ridiculous, but heartfelt.

I am going to keep the ‘how’ of this project a secret, because I am definitely going to be doing it again, with other groups and teams and members of the mostly invisible. And, I will push hard for the bosses to go there. And I know for sure it will make a huge difference. If you read this, and are inspired, contact me. Let’s talk.

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What Debsalem at The Homestead said

Here is a testimonial from Debsalem, social worker at The Homestead. For more about what I did, read the post below.

Megan is an absolute pleasure and joy to interact with- from making arrangements via facebook throught to implementing the plan in person. She is enthusiastic, efficient, creative, professional and heart centered.

On the day, she arrived respectfully early and calmly greeted us all with smiling eyes. We went to the workshop space and arranged the room to create an open space. We stood in a circle and Megan introduced herself by sharing what she does and establishing a humble, comfortable and honouring atmosphere in which the boys felt free to express themselves. She was very present during the session and sensitively adapted what she was doing to respond to the boys in the most benefficial manner.

It was fun and fabulous. They laughed a lot and many name Megan’s group as the highlight of their holiday programme.

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Versatile improv work

As part of my pro-bono work I was asked to come and spend some time at The Homestead, a shelter for boy street children, and play some improv games with them. I was a little reluctant and unsure. I had no idea how much of the stuff they would respond to and what kind of concentration they would have. I arrived yesterday afternoon and found a motley crew of mostly teenage boys colouring in mandalas, an inspired project introduced by Debsalem, their whacky and awesome social worker.

I shouldn’t have worried. We gathered in the room after pushing furniture aside, and played and played. Yes, there were concentration lapses, language hiccups, and moments of frustration, and self-consciousness but hey, they were a bunch of twelve teenage boys and their social workers. I chose easy, fun games, lying games, physical games. Once they got the hang of it they started being creative. After about 40 minutes (about the length of a school period I guess) they were pretty much done.  When they were asked what they enjoyed about it one of the younger boys said he just loved laughing. And I guess that’s a big deal for street kids.

After doing a little debrief with Debsalem in her sanctuary of an office, she walked me to my car. Three of the boys were outside, washing her car. She turned to me with a huge smile and said, “they must have loved the session. Whenever they love anything they thank me by spontaneously washing my car!”

I left with a huge smile on my face. I realised that these boys had helped me overcome certain insecurities I had had about their access to this work. It really is positive, amazing stuff, for anybody. You just have to say yes!

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Up and Running

We all flew off to Bloemfontein this week to perform our first two shows of our Phambili road show. There are always a few nerves and glitches on the first day, but I must say that it went off brilliantly. I know this because of how the audience responded. They loved it. And so did the client. All is good.

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The Client

I must confess to feeling rather grotty this morning. I am down with flu. Luckily I am not the one performing today and my gorgeous cast are all well. I just have to sit it out while the client come to a dress rehearsal in our rehearsal room. I am excited and always a little nervous. There are no real surprises, the client saw a stagger through last week and they know the script, but it’s always exciting for them to see how it has developed and become more of a product. I still have to get bits and pieces of props and costumes, but mostly we are in place to go.

We fly to Bloemfontein on Monday, do a tech and sound and lights that afternoon, and perform our first show next Tuesday. After that the show happens without me, as it travels the country. I really am so lucky. I love what I do.

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Industrial theatre part 2

I had an incredible flash yesterday and I wanted to put it down and explain it. It was about why Industrial Theatre is so successful at communicating a message. Industrial theatre is all about understanding your audience, and creating work for them. It is about giving a particular (and very specific, in most cases) group of people exactly what they want to see. Characters are created with them in mind. The audience is mirrored on stage in terms of content, culture, language, aspiration and most importantly humour. Once the client’s message and brief is understood, it’s a case of finding the best way to put it across to the audience, making the performance inclusive in a way that traditional theatre often isn’t. Traditional theatre has developed a bit of a reputation (definitely in this country) for being rather elitist and inaccessible and most theatre makers perpetuate this by creating work that challenges and confounds. You have to be a ‘theatre buff’ to ‘get it’. I am; and I love it, but it is hard to grow that special audience. With industrial theatre you work the other way around. First find out everything you can about the audience and then make the show for and about them. Knowing your audience is what brings about success. Granted, it is an audience that doesn’t choose to arrive. It is a given that they will be there (unlike traditional theatre where most often an audience has to be found, coerced, nagged and dragged) so half the battle is won. But keeping their interest, and creating a connection is the sole focus of the work. And there is nothing more rewarding than when this works. I’m ready to get to rehearsals today!

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Rehearsing for an Industrial Theatre job

It’s Monday morning and it’s the second week of rehearsals for is a 35 minute play. I am amped. This play has been ‘commissioned’ by a corporate client, and it will be performed on a road show, around the country, with its message being mainly about service delivery. This is my seventh year of working with and for this client; proof that live performance is an incredibly successful way of communicating to this target audience. It is the best way of delivering this ‘training’ to a huge crowd of people who don’t have access to, or the vocabulary for other training methods. And the best part of it is that it is funny. I am absolutely certain that the best and most memorable learning takes place while you are laughing.

So, I’m off to get ready. In this day of teeny, underfunded traditional theatre shows I have the extraordinary privilege of working with a cast of five. Yes, the message is terribly specific, and the info can be boring sometimes, but we’ll do our best to hide it in fun. I have a cast of Cape Town’s top actors. We love each other and really enjoy the process, and the work. I’m off to another delightful day in the rehearsal room. Let me know if you’d like to put your nose in to see what we’re doing and how we do it.

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Improvisation and The Proteas

I was having a chinwag with Brett from TheatreSports on Monday night. He is the most passionate, dedicated and positive Proteas supporter, and we were discussing the game on Sunday between England and SA. Brett managed to put a positive spin on the shocking situation, saying that Sunday’s game was a good time for the Proteas to be shocked out of any complacency, and to make sure they rallied, took it seriously and got properly prepared for the competition. He still believes that a South Africa India final is on the cards. The thing about Brett is his commitment and faith.

When I was reminded of what a loyal and enthusiastic and believing fan Brett is I had a complete flash of what was wrong with the Proteas in general, and with the captain Graeme Smith in particular, and I want to help!

You see, for almost twenty years I have been teaching and imparting the rules and philosophy of improvisation. Aside from saying yes to every offer, the essence of teamwork is developed and practiced. A wonderful space is created which allows for the taking of risks secure in the knowledge that there are other people out there (your team) to support you and even save you and make you look brilliant. And mostly, its about commitment and trust. It’s real trust, free of blame, inspired by the knowledge that the parts that make up the team are brilliant and that the whole is even greater than the parts.

The reason why this improv stuff would be fantastic for a sports team is that so much of the game scenario is similar to improv. When a game starts there is no way to predict an outcome, or even what will happen next. Cricket or TheatreSports; it’s the same. Everyone has practiced the rules and their skills, and each member of the team knows what they need to do; but they don’t know the ‘how’ of any game. Without a failsafe plan A, a contingency plan B, and an emergency plan C, improvisation becomes the best way of doing things! It’s about quickly assessing the situation, having all the trust, taking risks, being supportive, having total commitment and positivity. It is what prevents a team from becoming negative, defensive and afraid. It is the difference between responsibility and response ability.

It is also the best way for everybody to love what they do, and share that love with their fellow players and the spectators. It allows for moments of unplanned brilliance. It opens the door to the art of possibility. It creates a team who fundamentally, truly believe that they can win.

I am not seeing that with Graeme and his team. It feels like they are an old fashioned collection of men, with old rules of engagement, old fears, old names hanging like albatrosses around necks (Brett warned me not to say the word), and lacking in the brilliant vision of winning. And it makes me nervous. Then I look for someone or something to blame. Then I’m in the downward spiral of the negative, alienating and fearful. I believe that is the worst place to be if you want to shine. For me, I see them breathing sighs of disbelief relief when they somehow manage to win, and acceptance when they lose. It should be the complete opposite. They should feel like they were always meant to win, and should be entirely disbelieving when they lose; as if it were almost totally impossible to consider.

If anyone has a contact to the cricket team let me know. When they get back I want to teach the boys to improvise

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