What I Learned about Improv from a 1-Year-Old

I was in Brighton the other weekend visiting my brother and his family. Following a deliberately catastrophic night out drinking, we spent some relaxing time on the Saturday morning with their youngest daughter, my niece, Orla, who is a little over one year old.

Orla is currently learning to walk. At the time of writing she can manage about five steps at a time. Not bad, eh? We played an endlessly joyful game in which she would be helped to a standing position a few feet away from her dad. She would then totter towards him, collapse, then he would pick her up, plonk her in his lap and she’d slide down his legs. She’d then scamper away on all fours. Every stage in this process would be encouraged by the grown-ups: “Woooh!” Yeeah!” “Aaaah!” She never got bored. You’ve seldom seen a happier baby.

How amazing to learn something new by being supported by people who help you find the joy in what you do. I found myself envying Orla.

We joked about what it would be like if Orla were learning the way grown ups learn. “Her technique’s all over the place.” “She’s got a long way to go before she can seriously expect to impress anyone with her walking skills.” “Her progress shows what great teachers we are.” “She needs to show more commitment.” “She needs to aspire to be one of the great walkers.”

When we turn into “adults”, we are expected to have the basics covered – walking, talking, feeding ourselves, going to the toilet unassisted. After that, learning new things becomes a serious business, a chore, work. We are supposed to be motivated not by the joy of the thing itself but by the utility of the task, the desire to compete, to impress others, to gain acceptance or to chase a distant objective.

Not every lesson can be a carefree romp with people telling you how great  you are all the time – obviously the rewards from analysing technique and putting legwork into improvement towards specific self-generated goals are often greater than can be got from pure unguided playfulness –  but I think it is important never to lose sight of how all learning begins: the pleasure of the thing itself. It’s surprisingly easy to forget that. Unless we can find joy in a task irrespective of success or failure at it, why do it?

I think this is especially true of learning improv – for two reasons. Firstly, by definition everything we do we are doing for the first time, so failure must remain a joyful possibility. An improviser who relies too heavily on their tried-and-tested skills isn’t improvising as much as they could be, and risk-free improv is a contradiction in terms. Secondly, I believe that basic improv skills are as fundamental to human development as those a baby learns: breathing, controlling our bodies, being present and attentive, empathetic and supportive, playing creatively, following ideas, communicating emotions and saying yes. Modern society drills these skills out of us as we get older, and adult teaching methods are insufficient to drill them back into us.

How to Learn
1. Stagger.
2. Tumble.
3. Giggle.
4. Repeat.

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One Comment on “What I Learned about Improv from a 1-Year-Old”

  1. I use the toddler learning to walk story in a lot of my work. Any new skill needs constant support and encouragement; not criticism -especially self criticism. Nice story


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