I will readily tell you that I use my acting degree every day, and it's true. Despite how risky a career choice it seemed at the time, my BFA helped me develop skills far beyond the artistic scope I imagined. Some continue to serve me well in a general sense: I'm pretty comfortable with public speaking, I have a damn strong work ethic, and I can (usually) hear criticism without taking it personally. Other skills, like being able to read with expression or project my voice, are especially helpful in a school setting. But if I had to cite one skill set in particular that I use every day, it would be the ability to improvise.
Improvisation, or acting without a script, was a course required of all students in my undergraduate program. The format of the class was straightforward. We learned the rules. We performed within a set of parameters (setting, conflict, goals). Our professor and peers gave us feedback after the scenes were completed. Repeat. Although there were some outlandish and hilarious moments that arose in the studio (a la "Whose Line Is It, Anyway?"), there were many more that were thought-provoking, powerful, even somber. Without predetermined characterizations and scripted lines to hide behind, this acting work was really quite vulnerable. It was just being ourselves, in front of an audience, working with what we were given.
And if that isn't a metaphor for life, I don't know what is!
As I learn more about the Reggio Emilia approach to education, and as I strive to apply its philosophies in my work with children, I realize how often I draw on the very same skills that I did in my improvisation class. A more traditionally American view of early childhood education could be seen as a parallel to scripted acting: My units were one-sided, preplanned, and unchanging, and there was a comfortable sense of security in that. Like improvisation, however, the Reggio Emilia approach offers very little that is fixed. We do work with some givens: Children are competent. Teachers are researchers. Environment is the third teacher. Almost everything else is fluid, evolving as we find our way. And, like improvisation, I find that the somewhat scary feelings of uncertainty and vulnerability are countered by the richness and depth of the experience.
So, what are the rules for improvisation that also make so much sense for me in the classroom? They're beautiful in their simplicity and universality.
1. Be Positive
An improvised scene with negative undertones can certainly be performed, but you provide your partner with so many more options if you remain positive. Indeed, the art of improvisation demands a foundation of openness, a willingness to embrace what is given to you, despite not knowing what may be coming your way. Even when you think you know where the scene is headed, you must be ready to abandon those notions to work with what actually unfolds. It takes courage, and it's an ongoing lesson in mastering your ego.
So often, I think I know the direction of our studies in the classroom. But it can change in the blink of an eye; an inspiring question is posed or a material is used in a novel way, and I see that I have to release my own vision to support what my "partner" (the child) is giving me. I respond, not to the imagined, but to the real person in front of me. And the dance continues.
2. Say, "Yes! AND..."
It's one thing to receive what my partner gives me in an improvised scene. That's a good start. But in order to keep the action moving forward, I also need to build upon it. In improv, the wilder and more imaginative this building is, the better the scene tends to be.
"We're out of Cheerios."
"Yes, and we need Cheerios to survive this Arctic expedition!"
By simply receiving what my partner gave me and building upon it, our co-created scene just became more urgent and complex.
Similarly, in the classroom, it's not enough to passively note the interests of the children. My role as their teacher is to provoke, dig deeper, take it a step further. Keep the scene moving.
"I wonder if the picture in the book is a real place."
"Yes, and I wonder how we could find out. What do we have in our room to help us?"
3. Make Your Partner Look Good
When you're improvising a scene, it's just you and your partner up there, figuring things out together in the moment. The most successful scenes are the ones in which the actors trust and respect each other. When I'm confident that my partner will receive what I give them and support me through the co-creative process, it opens me up to take bigger risks. Our scene has more possibilities, and I feel safe bringing more of my true self to the scene. Likewise, I have a responsibility to shine a positive light on my partner's efforts, to give them the same consideration and, ultimately, best serve our shared work.
As teachers, we have so many partners: The children. Our colleagues. The families in our community. Making sure that all of these partners "look good" can mean a myraid of things in a variety of contexts. But when trust and respect are at the root of these relationships, we are all free to do our very best, whatever that may look like. Creating a climate that nurtures these feelings is paramount to our success.
When I'm feeling stuck in the classroom, I often reflect on these improvisation guidelines. How can I find the positivity? How can I say, "Yes, AND...?" How can I make my partner look good?