Remember make believe? As kids, the world is a game. Perhaps, your parents bought you the latest toy for your birthday; but if you were anything like me, nothing was more fun than playing with a box. Why? Because that box provided an endless realm of possibilities! The toy itself had instructions and limitations, but a brown cardboard box, now that was special. That was infinite.
Do you remember playing house? Who was your favorite person to be? It was fun to think about what it would be like to be dad for the day, to maybe pull some characteristics from what I saw on the street or in my home and apply them to my character. At that young age, hiding underneath the kitchen table, pretending it is the only barrier to keep us safe from an alien invasion (or in my case, Shredder) we didn’t question our choices. Not once do I remember asking myself: “But, wait is this really a realistic barrier?” “Am I playing the role as a dad actually would?” “Is my friend doing a good enough job?” No! We were invested! We weren’t judgmental! We were present. And it was fun. (And by the way, we were improvising).
“We are inhibited by our lack of imagination and fear of looking stupid.”
I’m not sure where along the line it happens, but as we grow older, judgment creeps in. We are taught to analyze, to assess, to evaluate, and to fix. Consequently, with that judgment, sometimes our instinctual creativity goes out the window. We look at younger generations playing and longingly think about that time, versus engaging with it in the present.
As Second City alum Susan Messing says, “We are inhibited by our lack of imagination and fear of looking stupid.” Improv is not about being quick witted or funny. It is about being in the moment, letting go of judgment, and being supportive. In the words of Viola Spolin, “Through nonjudgmental play, we can surprise ourselves, open ourselves up to opportunity, and enjoy without fear.”
“Through nonjudgmental play, we can surprise ourselves, open ourselves up to opportunity, and enjoy without fear.”
Often, we hear people ask us about how they can be creative. In moments like this, I turn to Viola Spolin, Jane Addams, and Neva Boyd. These three powerhouses utilized the role of play in their work at the Hull House in Chicago. They saw that when groups of people agreed to a set of rules and then worked together to accomplish a unified goal, they could better understand cooperation, collaboration, and creativity as an ensemble. Within these groups, things like language barriers, social status, and ability took a backseat to the goal at hand. She wrote: “Play involves social values, as does no other behavior. The spirit of play develops social adaptability, ethics, mental and emotional control, and imagination.”
“Play involves social values, as does no other behavior. The spirit of play develops social adaptability, ethics, mental and emotional control, and imagination.”
As well, as facilitating at Second City Works, I also teach numerous improv classes including Teen Improv for anxiety and I will never forget the day one of my students actions surprised the class, but more importantly herself. During an exercise, where students share something about themselves, she stated, “I’m not the type of person who can think on my feet, be a leader, or be the center of attention.” Later in the same class, we revisited a game that we had played in a previous week and she asked if she could lead it. Seemingly without thinking, she re-explained how to play the game to the group, had all eyes on her, and on her feet met the challenge of the game head on. We then had the opportunity to reality check the perceptions she had of herself. Through not only mindful play, but also a room filled with people that she knew we were not judging her. She could rise to the occasion and prove that she could do something she didn’t think she could have before.
If you are wondering about how to motivate change, creativity and mobility in your organization, ask yourself, “Are we stripping ourselves of judgment?” Are we creating a space where people feel comfortable to take chances? Are we open to finding new discoveries in alternative and playful ways? And, if you are worried about time, remember that the time “wasted” on the ideas that just would never work might lead us to the idea that just might. As Viola Spolin said, “That which is not yet known, comes out of that which is not yet here.” We have all the creativity and innovation we need within us. We just need to create an environment to find it.