Level 4 Improv may be my favorite (and the most challenging) level thus far in my improv training, taking us deep into the realm of emotional expression. Many exercises explicitly demand the group to be focusing on ways we can support someone, while they practice their range and depth of expressing certain emotions. Support can be requested, but even as observing without participating, we remain attentive and engaged. We do not enter into the experience with our own ideas; we focus solely on waiting for ways we can offer support. We do not allow ourselves to grow passive, checking out and waiting until someone gets our attention; our attention is rapt and offered, our focus is committed and engaged. This Level 4 ethos strengthens our ability and our bond as improvisers, fine-tuning our instincts to look for ways to offer support to each other.
This hails back to a lesson we learned in Level 2 improv: our aim is not to be the funniest person out there, which is usually anti-supportive. Whether we are tapping out, walking on, or simply creating the scene, ‘yes, and’ wisdom encourages us to use our gifts, strengths, and ideas for the sake of ‘serving the scene’, rather than merely serving ourselves.
I went to Lebanon recently with an organization I helped establish in 2017; we opened a school in the town of Saida at the beginning of October. We had new folks joining us, learning about our work and their potential involvement and support. During the course of our successful, challenging, and celebratory trip, I felt a lot of self-consciousness; a story began to play in my head: I’m not contributing enough. I don’t know enough. I don’t deserve to be here. (Most can relate to feeling Imposter Syndrome at some point in their lives.) Unchecked, this made me want to be noticed, seen, praised, and celebrated -- though it wasn’t emerging in healthy ways, there was a real and normal human need to be acknowledged.
Realizing what was happening, I began to acknowledge myself where I was. I don’t think anyone expected me to have self-consciousness stirring within me. Our new folks expressed a lot of admiration for the work we were all accomplishing together (perhaps even they can relate to the human tendency to want to be impressive, and felt the same self-consciousness within themselves). The more aware I became of my narrative, the better I was able to release it, and aim for serving what was best for the group. I remembered the wisdom learned from crafting the improv scene: the effort to stand out on my own leads to disconnection from the group and failure of the goal, while the effort to support the scene leads to collaboration and success as a team. Just like in improv where we’re encouraged to serve the scene, I was able to release my concern with proving myself impressive and look for opportunities to help the team and the group work shine. I was able to find better, more helpful, less self-serving and less self-conscious ways to engage.
When someone engages with the mindset of ‘supporting the scene/team’ rather than only supporting themselves, we all begin to thrive economically, socially, mentally, emotionally, culturally, and politically. Shifting our gaze from the improv stage into the wider world, important conversations are broadening awareness to the whole team and ecosystem of society, geography, and humanity. One example: I hope we are witnessing and participating in unraveling and dismantling the systems that perpetuate privilege. When we hold our resources and our energy for what is best for the team, the family, the community - we all benefit. When collaboration and support are priorities, we create scenes and situations on and off stage where everyone is working towards a shared goal. We win when we work together, honoring and upholding a good that forgets no one.
Author and community organizer Greg Boyle writes, “Mother Teresa diagnosed the world's ills in this way: we've just "forgotten that we belong to each other." Kinship is what happens to us when we refuse to let that happen.”
May the improv stage nurture this kinship, and continue to shape us into supportive, collaborative scene partners, on and off the stage.
Evey McKellar is a Level 5 Improv student, a writer and UMC clergy. She works for a nonprofit, lives in Dallas, and loves Cane Rosso.