“Safety does not come first: Goodness, truth and beauty come first.”
Muriel Spark, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

I’ve used this quote for years to express my approach to life. Yet, spending time at the Applied Improvisation Network World Conference 2013, I find myself reflecting on my need for safety. I’m not alone with this: when I’m telling others that I’m playing improv, they often say “I would never dare to”.

photoIf we’re serious about applying more improvisation skills in today’s world of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity – how can we make it safe for people to engage with them?

“There are people who prefer to say ‘Yes,’ and there are people who prefer to say ‘No’. Those who say ‘Yes’ are rewarded by the adventures they have, and those who say ‘No’ are rewarded by the safety they attain.”
Keith Johnstone, Impro

Is there really such a dichotomy between adventure and safety? I think it would be dangerous. It would stigmatize those that care for safety as those that stand in the way of progress. And I feel it here at the AIN conference: choosing not to engage with spaces and activities that don’t feel safe for me earns me concerned looks from risk-loving extroverts.

Now here’s a radical thought: What if we can only effectively and sustainably engage in adventure, progress and a VUCA world if we take good care of ourselves, our mates and our safety?

No mountain climber would start an expedition without plenty of preparation, suitable equipment and companions (s)he trusts. In fact, it’s foolish and potentially life-threatening not to.

Defining “Applied Improvisation”, AIN President Paul Z Jackson mentions three characteristics:

  1. Safe
  2. Beyond the theatre
  3. Don’t let the fun obscure the learning

So how can we help people feel safe enough to try something new (like improv or changing the world)? As a facilitator, I like to think about: building connections and trust between people, being clear about the ‘container’ (purpose, schedule, process…) and gradually letting go and giving space for engagement and emergence. There are certainly many ways to do this, and I invite you to pitch in with your ideas.

Without safety and boundaries, we won’t get to ‘YES and’.
Without ‘YES and’, will we find goodness, truth and beauty?

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2 thoughts on “Safety and the Theatre

  • 7 October 2013 at 18:10
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    Thank you for these insigths! I really think that safety is one of the key elements of succesful improv/applied improv experience.

    I have found one procedure to be very efficient in making attendees feel safe in the group. In the beginnig of the group, be it for only a couple of hours or a regular, semester long thing, we agree on the rules under which we work. The most important rule that I will include there if the group doesn’t, is the principle of voluntariness. To participate in the exercises is voluntary and one doesn’t have to explain themselves for dropping out. This gives the participants the responsibility of their own wellbeing. There is also value in having someone to observe the activities without participating and the whole group may benefit from the observers insights.

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  • 8 October 2013 at 22:15
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    I would say: reading a book would help! :)
    http://www.amazon.de/From-Workplace-Playspace-Innovating-Engagement/dp/0470467223/ref=sr_1_fkmr0_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1381266726&sr=8-1-fkmr0&keywords=from+workplace+tp+playspace

    Pamela Meyer describes impro happening when there is an interplay between four spaces:
    generative space (results), timeful sapce (experience of flow), provocotave space (crossing boundaries) and safe space (Feeling comfortable, knowing the others will one look good).

    She describes these in a very nice way. Highly recommend!

    So: there is no impro without safety – but also not without experiencing flow, results and juming into risk with letting things go, dying small deaths…

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