Last night, I set out to teach my improv class about failing gleefully.
I manage to demonstrate failure right off the top when I fail to remember (after five separate attempts) how the zombie name game goes. I could say this was a tactical move on my part to show as well as tell, but that would be a lie.
An exercise I do remember how to teach is Invisible Tug of War.
I have the class organise themselves into two competing tug of war teams. I instruct them to pick up the invisible rope.
What then ensues is a series of tugs of war, involving, but not limited to:
- a magical elastic rope that gets longer and longer as both teams pull away from each other in their attempt to win the tug of war
- a tactical play that involves one team letting go of the invisible rope resulting in the other group falling down backwards. Solid comedy gold.
- one person hiding and then rushing in at the last minute to provide extra heave to their team, resulting in a convincing win as the other team topples in response to this gargantuan power surge.
- at one point, a student at the very back of her team picks up the rope before the rest of her team do. Because she’s at the very back, the rest of the team don’t see her and they all pick up the rope but hold it on the opposite side to her. She, without hesitation, jumps over the invisible rope to get back on the same side as her team. Complete physical acceptance of offer and commitment. Awesome.
When we talk about the exercise afterwards, we discuss the following principles:
Noticing the offers right in front of you
In a tug of war situation, you can really only see the person in front of you. If you’re at the front of your team, this means you can only see the leader of the opposite team. If you’re not at the front of your team, this means you can only see the person directly in front of you.
All you can do is react to what you can see directly in front of you. If you start trying to see what is going on everywhere, you miss the offer closest to you and suddenly we have an elastic rope on our hands and no-one is a winner.
Failure is fun
The class notice that it is much more interesting to see an outcome where someone ‘loses’ the tug of war (e.g. when one team let the rope go and the other team accept their offer by falling over) than it is to watch two teams fight for it and the invisible rope get longer and longer.
By one team yielding to the other and being prepared to ‘fail’ at the objective of winning a tug of war, we have a much more interesting thing to watch. More interesting and creative things happen. It’s more fun and it’s more satisfying.
We talk about what would happen if we weren’t so committed to ‘winning’ everything in everyday life.
Would we make more mistakes and take more risks? Would we have more fun? Would we do more creative and innovative things?
This reminds me of two quotes I like about failure and innovation:
Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new. Albert Einstein
If you’re not failing every now and again, it’s a sign you’re not doing anything very innovative. Woody Allen
My own lesson: The Long Weekend
I reflect that the lesson I have just taught using Invisible Tug of War is very similar to one I recently re-learnt while performing The Long Weekend at the New Zealand Improv Festival.
The Long Weekend is an improvised relationship drama about five old friends who go away for a weekend. It is basically an improvised play that is not aiming for comedy and is high risk improv.
I have creative leadership for the show and feel responsible for it. Turns out responsibility is my improv kryptonite. As soon as I feel responsible for improv, I start stepping out of my role of improviser on stage and start focussing on the plot, on what should be happening, which character should meet with whom and when and where. This ‘plotting’ is also being done by other members of the cast, resulting in us and our characters missing offers that are right in front of us on stage, creating the equivalent of an hour long tug of war with one giant invisible elastic rope. Enough invisible elastic rope with which to hang ourselves you might say. I just did.
It takes a fairly bad pre-show run and some fairly well placed feedback to bring this improv behaviour to our attention. Fortunately, we manage to get back to focussing on the person in front of us and letting the story emerge from the relationships, which ends up creating a much more satisfying and truthful show.
Oh, the myriad lessons learned from an invisible piece of rope.