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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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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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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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A perfect Intro to Improv

I did a bite size one hour intro to improv with a delicious team of young, energetic finance/business people yesterday. It was fantastic. What a responsive group. They worked hard in that hour and managed to pull off fantastic things. Listening to everyone in the debriefing afterwards gave me strong clues that the idea of the positive, the ‘yes’, the listening, sharing and taking forward, had all taken hold. They (and I) were inspired afterwards. I left with such positive energy.

Then, on the plane home, I sat next to a woman, and her subordinate sat across the aisle from her, making it not only possible but unavoidable for me to hear their entire two hour interaction. Her ‘everything’ was exactly how not to be. Her style, energy, intentions and constant default to negative were so destructive.

I couldn’t help but make a few ‘notes to self’.

1. An improvisation experience tries to open the door to a different culture of communicating. the key words are fun, response ability, positivity.

2. We want to be able to trust people enough so that we can be vulnerable, make mistakes, take risks. We don’t want a culture of blame and passing the buck.

3. Negative conversations are dangerous. People spend so much time complaining when they talk to each other; often slagging off a third party, the competition, the boss, someone else in the team. Mostly, a culture of ‘what does she say about me?’ then pervades. People also spend so much time putting each other down.

4. In business, people often play cruel status games, where they are constantly on the lookout for the opportunity to hurt, crush, belittle or dismiss. I propose the opposite; the learning of habits that help us look for the moment to sincerely compliment, encourage, offer support, work together.

I got off the plane exhausted but happy. This woman’s subordinate got off the plane in a state of paranoid anxiety. The woman got off the plane expecting disappointment.

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Great look at improv rules

My friend and colleague Jon Keevy has written a fabulous article on the rules of improv.

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I have connected with Charlie Beall, an MBA student at UCT’s Graduate School of Business and become his ‘research project’. He is looking at the effectiveness of introducing the skills of  improvisation into the business environment. Effectively, what this means is that he has set up a series of workshops for me, with incredibly diverse groups of people, and he is participating and doing follow-up interviews which I will then have access to. It’s a wonderful way of getting the work I do ‘out there’ and it really helps to have someone passionately behind it.

Charlie’s classmates were our first guinea pigs last Friday, and I have to admit to being quite taken with them. They were young, exciting and dynamic, and responded to the work with a wonderful gung-ho attitude.

On Saturday morning we worked with a tiny group of Sanlam people whose jos during the week are incredibly stressful. this group were quite shy in the beginning, but gradually warmed up and ended up doing amazing and creative things, full of generosity and fun.

Today I am working with a small on-line media company this morning, and some UCT academics this afternoon – two totally diverse groups. It will be so interesting to see if they receive the work any differently. Exciting stuff.

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Brilliant Gibberish

In South Africa we have 11 official ways of not understanding each other. We are specialists in using language, culture, education, society, class, history, in fact whatever we can think of, to excuse a total lack of communication. And it’s true; we do all approach things from very divergent and extreme places.

This is why I am totally in love with Gibberish. For those of you who can’t remember making up words and speaking nonsense to childhood friends, that’s what Gibberish is. It is actual, made up language, where the words are not from a known existing one. Bersti falgashon elepensy lunses.

We always do a bit of Gibberish in the improvisation workshops that I run. We play games where Gibberish is the only language allowed. After the initial fear, and usual sound effects instead of words, participants start to get the idea. It’s not what you say but how you say it, in the most literal sense of the word. A person’s intention comes across through all the clues that we miss when we concentrate on the words. We read body language and facial expressions. We listen to voice quality, inflection and tone. We use more parts of ourselves. We respond as if we had understood everything, because, somehow we have. When we are speaking in Gibberish we work doubly hard to make sure we have been absolutely clear. The most powerful part of working in Gibberish is being able to cross the language barrier for people who so often are forced to communicate in a language that is not their mother tongue. Communication is much faster and freer. And it is devoid of the usual status differences that fluency, or the lack of it, generally creates. Because we are improvising, making it up as we go along, we really have to hear and feel what somebody else is saying. We have to listen differently; listen for intention and meaning. We have to be there differently; without expectation or preconception.

We also have fun differently when we are playing in Gibberish. We laugh with each other. Our play is more innocent and our responses are more sincere. It’s hard to lie in Gibberish, or to read between the lines. There are no lines. It’s a whole new, much more open and friendly world.

Today I was rehearsing in the same hotel where I ran the improv workshops last week. I saw one of the cleaners who had participated in one of the sessions. When he saw me his face lit up. And he announced his joy at seeing me in a rush of Gibberish! What an absolutely delightful, affirming and delicious moment.

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