Outside My Comfort Zone
I spent most of the last week in Dorset with The Maydays and some fifty-odd other improvisers for their fifth residential improv festival. It’s a hell of a thing! For me it felt like an especially big deal for a number of reasons that may seem quite trivial: I don’t like being away from home, or rather, I really like being at home with my other half, our cat and all of our things. It’s also where the people I know are, and the routines that make me feel comfortable and that gently circumscribe my life with familiarity. I’m not… great with strangers.
I find it very difficult to make the transition from stranger to person. Frequently other people help with this, by introducing someone or being in a group activity in which interaction is unavoidable; if it can be avoided, I’ll avoid it. There are degrees of knowing people too – generally I can babble quite happily if we have a shared interest, or if I’m in a position of responsibility (like being in charge of a workshop), or playing a role such as compere. Since I’m perfectly content to just slope off and spend time (hide) on my own reading or something (avoiding human interaction) it’s easy for me to do so.
Last week I knew I was going somewhere that was likely to be a little odd (the place is a kind of spiritual retreat) with a lot of people I didn’t know. I knew a few: Lloydie (one of ours), two of The Maydays quite well (Heather & Joe) – though not especially socially (see previous workshops and avoidance of personal interaction…) and another two (Jules and Katy) having met them a couple of times. It wasn’t looking promising. Nonetheless, I went. Travelling anxiety subsided once I was on a train and further when I’d actually arrived and been shown my hidey-hole. Then came the horror of meetings. Sure, there’s got to be some adjustment – it took Wednesday night and into Thursday afternoon before I stopped wanting to run away and go home.
Beginning To Adapt
The first afternoon session (of the four per day) was ‘Meisner’ – I signed up because I didn’t know what the word meant (it’s some guy’s name); I also had a decision making process that selected it. It turned out to be about intimacy and observation, making connections with people. In this context that’s connection for improv of course. We were odd-numbered so I ended up being paired with Steve Roe who was running the workshop. I’d heard of him in relation to Hoopla and the London scene so was quite excited anyway, and getting paired meant that we did all of the demonstrations and all of the exercises. He’s a delightful facilitator and teacher and I enjoyed the workshop enormously. It sounds very strange to tell it now, but it was essentially an hour and a half of looking closely at another person and describing them, beginning with general clothing to appearance, habits and feelings.
It works through repetition, eye contact and physical intimacy. For example, we started with “you have a black and red jumper” “I have a black and red jumper” “you have a black and red jumper” “I have a black and red jumper” and extended to “your smile quirks down before going up” “you have a darker patch of skin on your forehead” “I do have a darker patch of skin on my forehead” (something I was once very sensitive about – thanks teenage friends) to “you are confident” “I am laughing” “you are sad” “you are disappointed”.
It sounds weird but it is strangely hilarious and very personal. I’m fairly good at not making initial judgements about people (they’re all robot monsters) and this was an incredible way to meet someone. It forced and imposed an intimacy with a stranger that I would never have contemplated and served to ground me in the reality of being with people, especially Steve, and I think fixed me for the week. There were moments when I felt that peculiar liquid juddering tension in my jaw that I know is indicative of some emotional state I can’t quite describe or access. It was moving, perhaps because I was permitting myself to open up and accept where I was and what I was doing. That sense of approachability and connectedness allowed me to deal with the people and fully take part in the festival.
There were other emotional challenges that I discovered throughout the week – singing and Shakespeare both moved me in ways that I found unexpected. Partly it’s the beauty and surprise of the language and the way you express yourself when given freedom to expand without conscious control or direction. It made for an exciting week of extending myself into other people’s lives.
On the last day we only had two workshop slots. I started with part two of Shakespeare which was magnificent – people said such stunning things, surprising themselves and everyone else. For my part I adore improvised Shakespeare, the language, the floweriness and emotional content feels intense and intensely satisfying. To follow that I signed up for ‘Animal Vegetable Mineral’: a workshop in which you could play anything but a human. Sounds great! But not enough people signed up… so I had to join the other already full groups. I chose John Cremer‘s ‘Soul Searching’. I hadn’t been able to get in any of the others and this one sounded appealing; I also liked the diminishment of choice and having to be there – gives it that lovely sense of ‘fate’ (a concept I do not believe in). This turned out well since it gave the group an even number of participants which was probably essential.
I’m a little fuzzy on the very beginning of the workshop, but we were mixed into pairs and asked to briefly describe the hardest part of the week for ourselves. For me it was meeting strangers and engaging with them; for others it was the challenge of Shakespeare or singing or just performing at all. Then we did super-short scenes with our partner based on them – they were uniformly hilarious. For my fears the scene was simply being greeted and then seized and hugged, while nervously shifting out of the way. My partner’s was the start of the Shakespeare class with me speaking in iambic pentameter “everyone can do it – except you”. Subtle… Funny though, for their truthfulness and the escalation. It was rather lovely to see everyone’s fears on display like that – they’re good things to laugh at.
Second, John switched us around again and we talked about the part of the week where we succeeded, that we overcame that fear or worry. Again, we did scenes of them afterwards: for me it was Meisner (as above) and we swiftly escalated from “you have a t-shirt” to “I like you” and then on to “you’re a real person and I like you”. My partner’s was the liberating experience of finally stepping out from back stage and being confident enough to perform “you can be both kinds of people”. It was already proving to be a rather more moving experience than I had anticipated, and I could feel the relief and joy in the room as the scenes were played out.
Making It Real
We were swapped round again and asked first to think about why we had those fears – what was it that made us hold back, to remain within the magic circle that stopped us from acting. Then we talked about them with our partner. I’m not going to reveal what my partner shared with me, because I don’t have their permission and I’m writing about me. Suffice to say that what they said shocked me. I realised I had a choice to either find something I could use to account for my feelings, or I could just bite the bullet and say what was real. I shared that I hold myself back from others because ultimately I feel that having been abused as a teenager I’m terrified that I’m going to repeat and pass on that harm. The best way to protect others from it is to avoid that contact. I’m immensely grateful to my partner for their support, generosity and comfort during this exercise.
For a moment I honestly thought we were going to do scenes off that, but no. We remained with our partners and John spoke for a while about how people get trapped by beliefs and conditionings that are placed upon us by family, education, culture – all without our consent, sometimes without that intention and without regard for what our futures might be. I’m inclined to agree – we’re told what we should be doing, what we’re bad at and that we ought to do such and such, whether we care about them or not. I sweated blood to get my GCSE Maths because it was made to feel vital, but I’ve never done more with it than figure out the dimensions of a room. Often it’s one person in particular who has made us feel this way, one person’s actions or inactions that has branded itself on our minds and made us feel that fear.
Jesus Fuck Why Am I Here?
This is when the workshop really skewed into something utterly different from anything I’ve ever done before. It’s quite possible that I’ve got this bit mixed up and in the wrong order. John asked us to look into our partner’s eyes and recognise the hurt, the pain that’s in their eyes. And you can, you really can see it there, just where the eyelids fold down over the eyes and in the colour. John asked us if we could identify that person who placed such fear in us. At this point we were sitting down in our pairs, mostly cross-legged only inches apart. I think that’s when I felt everything twisting around me, a freakish surreality and I realised my hands were shaking. I guess this was about an hour into the workshop.
Next we formed a standing arc a fair way back from the stage area. John talked about how people fail us and how actions are revisited upon the next generation – that the people who hurt us may well have been hurt themselves. We so rarely know their stories – be they teachers, family, friends or strangers. We don’t know what happened to them, we don’t know what they felt or thought. The exercise was for the pairs to come to the front and sit down and say just a few simple things – addressing their partner as if they were the person who had hurt them:
“You are X, you were my Y. You did your best, but I don’t have to listen to you any more”
Our partner’s role was to accept this and simply say “thank you”.
I’ve rarely had such a visceral reaction to a suggestion before and for a moment I thought I was going to throw up, or burst into tears or just refuse to take part and leave the room. But I didn’t do any of those things – we watched in silence as several other pairs went first. The naked emotion on people’s faces as they named family members, old school “mates”, teachers was heart-breaking. I didn’t want to be last (or first), and when we felt we were next we went ahead and did it. It was one of the hardest things I’ve done. I think I went second, so I was addressed first and given the power to accept my partner’s statement. Saying “thank you” and (at least temporarily) releasing them from that burden almost stopped me breathing. I’ll admit I wasn’t doing a great job of remembering to breathe anyway and John did keep reminding everyone to breathe, which sounds absurd, but it was necessary.
The Hardest Thing in Life Is That Other People Are Real
Then it was my turn and right up until I spoke I didn’t know what I was going to say, but I said “You’re Ric, you were my friend. You did your best, but I don’t have to listen to you anymore.” What I wanted to say was “you were my abuser” but I’d grasped, despite my head furiously disagreeing that the point was to accept people as people, instead of just demonising them. I was pretty shaky by the time my partner said “thank you” and we returned to our place in the arc. That’s when the shock of it kicked in and I felt that liquid shuddering up the side of my face and I started crying. I wasn’t the only one… but it’s probably the first time I’ve cried at all in many years. Again, I’m grateful for the arm round my shoulders – I don’t think I could have gotten through that without someone to touch.
Everybody did it. As a final exercise we sat in a circle and spent thirty seconds each in silence while everyone else told us what qualities they saw in us. That reduced (that’s not the right word – enabled?) plenty of people to tears again.
It was an extraordinary experience, liberating I think, not just for the confronting and dismissing the people who hurt us, but for being able to recognise and celebrate those transcendent moments where we overcame our fears and felt that bright joy of success or belonging. John’s point was not that we had now fixed ourselves, but that we are now open to stepping past those boundaries we’ve ended up with – the experience and memory of having done so shows that we can be free of the past and its constraints. I’m not sure what else I can say about the event right now, but it felt deep and powerful. I’m grateful for the opportunity to do something I never imagined I could do.