I have begun to realise there are certain skills I take for granted; skills I have acquired over the years which come as second nature to me. Only last week, I was forced to re-plan a session just moments before I delivered it, having been misinformed about the make-up of the group, the set-up of the session and the ability levels and needs within the group. I found myself still deciding on my new route as I introduced myself to the participants. With a background in Applied Theatre, Teaching and Acting, this is nothing unusual to me. Nor is it something that worries me.
Anyone who teaches an Arts subject will tell you: expect the unexpected. No matter how meticulously you might plan a lesson, one of the joys of creativity is the process of exploration. No two groups are likely to respond to a given stimulus the same way, meaning plans can change minute by minute. Training sessions with adults are no different. Each individual will bring his or her own perspective to whatever it is we are working on, meaning the journey varies every time it is navigated.
These are the tweaks and adaptations anyone in my line of work would anticipate. The more dramatic changes, like the ones I had to make last week, I first experienced in prison. I really ought to be careful how I say that. My Applied Theatre specialism at the University of Manchester was with TiPP which stands for Theatre in Prison and Probation (http://www.tipp.org.uk) and my first practice was in Barton Moss, a secure unit in Salford.
On the first day of a week-long residency, around forty minutes into the morning session, one youngster was hauled out by an officer after he tried to throw a chair at another participant. This unsettled a number of the boys taking part, and within minutes we had hit a wall of resistance. We were faced with a dilemma: to plough on with our carefully planned session, steering the group towards our desired outcome, or to rethink on the spot, addressing the diverse needs of the group in the present moment and hoping to re-engage the majority with the tasks set.
One of the most valuable lessons any Actor can learn, is the art of improvisation. Some love it, others are filled with dread at the mere mention of it, but all must learn to do it. To improvise is to perform without a script, which can be crucial when things go slightly off-plan (as they always will at some point) on-stage.
The beauty of improvisation, is that it does not just serve the Actor during performances. It is a skill that most people will need to call upon many times in their personal and professional lives. Quick-thinking can be a saviour in more ways than one, and everybody is capable of improvisation. Of that, I am certain. The single crucial ingredient is confidence and self-belief.
The answer is: we can’t.
It is only when people panic that their minds fog up, their ideas seem to vanish and any clarity of thought disappears completely.
The fact is, our improvised approaches may not always produce outstanding results. They might sometimes lead us away from our intended goal. It is possible they will result in an entirely different outcome from the one we had hoped for. That said, when we find ourselves in a situation where the planned route is no longer viable, it is far better to improvise and deviate, than to stubbornly push on. The latter would be akin to walking up a down escalator, trying to run against a strong wind or swimming into the current where the only likely outcome is a feeling of exhaustion and defeat.
Remember, in improvisation, there is no script to begin with. If a script hasn’t even been written, there can be no such thing as a wrong line. In other words, it is impossible to fail.
So, next time you find yourself in a situation that isn’t going quite the way you planned it, take a deep breath, think for a moment and improvise. Tell yourself you can, believe that you know how and trust that you will do a good job – nine times out of ten, you will.