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Rut-Busting Inspiration From The “Mother Of Improv” For Anyone Who Needs A Shake-Up


By Liz Joynt Sandberg, Creative Ensemble

It’s easy to get stuck in a rut…and not just the bad kind. We get used to doing things a certain way, because hey, that way works! It gets the job done! Ask any skier–ruts can help us all stay on track and move forward. And they (almost) never lead to crashing into trees.

On the other hand, ruts only serve us when we’re traveling predictable paths. Sometimes, our lives demand that we move toward that tree, that we head into the woods to explore new territory and forge new paths. The problem is that for many of us, after so much rut-routing, we’re a little rusty at (and sometimes a lot fearful of) charting a new course into the unknown.

Viola Spolin, often referred to as the mother of improvisation, knew this need for rut-busting well. As a young woman in the Works Progress Administration during The Great Depression, Spolin discovered a need to help refugee children access creative expression that could cross cultural and economic barriers. Her familiar ways of teaching weren’t cutting it. In short, she needed to get out of her rut to discover a new way forward. She invented a series of play-based exercises designed to give people an opportunity to make new discoveries through creative expression, and WHAM (don’t worry, not a tree), improvisation was born.

Sometimes, our lives demand that we move toward that tree, that we head into the woods to explore new territory and forge new paths.

But the truly remarkable and relevant thing that Spolin really did (other than help tons of refugee children) was to give us the re-creatable hallmarks of rut-busting innovation. Her philosophies apply not just to theater artists, but to all of us who are looking to shake up our predictable, serviceable approaches to the problems we face everyday in pursuit of radical, transformational thinking.

Ready to get off the beaten path and into the woods? Let’s see what Spolin has to offer by way of advice:

Creativity is not the clever rearranging of the known.

The first thing we’ve got to expect is that it’s going to be…well, unexpected. We’re going to feel different, think different, and maybe even act different. We can’t expect an innovative process that leads to new ideas to feel like the same old, same old. It’s going to be new, and it very well might feel weird.

The unknown is where we go to find new things and intuition is how we find them.

Spolin defines intuition as the ability to sense or know immediately without deliberate reasoning. Man, that sounds really scary! But it stands to reason that your usual way of, uh, “reasoning” won’t lead you somewhere new (scary or not). To enter an intuitive frame of mind, we have to trust ourselves and our spontaneous reactions. Nothing kills intuitive thinking faster than doubt. Don’t worry; there’s always time later for evaluation.

Through spontaneity we are re-formed into ourselves. It creates an explosion that for the moment frees us from handed-down frames of reference, memory choked with old facts and information and undigested theories and techniques of other people’s findings. Spontaneity is the moment of personal freedom when we are faced with reality, and see it, explore it and act accordingly. In this reality the bits and pieces of ourselves function as an organic whole. It is the time of discovery, of experiencing, of creative expression.

There was a time when the ruts we travel in each day were just being forged. Remember that? None of us are too far gone into routine to shake things up and bring our whole, present selves to our work. Spolin refers to this spontaneous experiencing of situations as “play” in participation and “problem solving” in function–it’s both! It makes us who we are, and it makes working really fun! Want to explode into innovative, uniquely “you” work? Get rid of judgement, and get into spontaneous discovery and experience.

It is highly possible that what is called ‘talented behavior’ is simply a greater individual capacity for experiencing. From this point of view, it is in the increasing of the individual capacity for experiencing that the untold potentiality of a personality can be evoked.

Spolin’s work proves time and time again that being our whole, spontaneous, playful selves while solving problems is what makes us unique and necessary. That’s it! What a relief! Want to explore and explode your potential? Essentially all you have to do is show up and pay attention.

Didn’t think you’d find the key to breaking out of ruts and breaking through to new ideas in the teachings of a social worker-turned-theater artist? Well, it seems like you’re already on your way to forging new paths! Look at you, ya spontaneous discoverer! Relax, be present, and just watch out for trees.

Become others-focused to see another POV,  Build real connections with empathy,  I have passive listeners instead of active participants,  innovation


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