Ben Notes: The Total Artist

Lee Breuer

Lee Breuer

When I was in my second year at The Yale School of Drama, our acting class had an intensive with avant gard stage director and creator, Lee Breuer. He was the stage celebrity of the moment, having made ripples around the the world with his production of Gospel at Colonus, and was working then on his musical The Warrior Ant. He had the kind of restless, rebel energy I related to, appearing before us with a shaved head and dressed in blue jeans with paint on them and an old white t-shirt. He looked like he was taking a break from renovating the basement of the building we were in. Plus, he shared an artistic lineage with my mother, the dancer, choreographer and teacher Barbara Dilley. So I felt especially close to him.

“What is an actor?” he asked this group of 16 actors, bent on fame and fortune, convinced the world was their oyster, brimming with world-class conservatory training. We were stumped. “Come on people!”, he bellowed, “what is an actor?!”

The Gospel at Colonus

The Gospel at Colonus

Someone, I forget who, it might have been me, but maybe not, ventured . . . “Um, someone who . . . who interprets dramatic text, under the direction of . . . of . . . a director?”

“NO!” he nearly screamed. “An actor is a total artist who has something to say!” And I felt a gentle dagger land inside me, warming me, killing something old and useless, planting something new and terrifying, changing me forever.

Me in  a dreamer examines his pillow  at Yale, around the time I met Lee.

Me in a dreamer examines his pillow at Yale, around the time I met Lee.

Over the next 30 years, the implication of those words have guided nearly everything I have done as a theater artist. In my brief, six-year stint as a struggling New York actor, I designed a theater group called The Total Artist Group (or TAG - nifty, right?). It was based on the empowerment of actors to be more authoritative in their creativity as they worked together in an ensemble over time. TAG was to be a company which partnered with clothing shops and furniture stores to advertise their products in our productions. Even then, I was thinking of innovative ways to solve the age-old money problem. But TAG never left the page, and just after I had finished writing it all down, I left New York.

In my life as an acting teacher, my bottom line has been to give my students the tools and the support to make their own creative choices, within the boundaries described by the script and in partnership with a director. And it is this concept of the actor as the total artist which has led to the creation of Bright Invention, and my commitment to long form improvisation.

After years of performing scripts and working with directors, I finally found scripted acting limiting and repetitive. The actor in a play is asked to repeat a performance again and again over the life of the run. Deviations from the rehearsed performance are not allowed; indeed, they can be catastrophic, since a well directed play is a well-oiled machine with many parts depending on all the others to work the same way each night. I came to understand that there is no greater version of the actor as total artist than actor as improviser. The actor/improviser is both author and actor. In my teaching I have named the four virtues of the actor, and no one needs them more than the actor/improviser: Courage, Empathy, Creativity and Faith.

With Tim Moyer in InterAct’s production of  Three in the Back, Two in the Head

With Tim Moyer in InterAct’s production of Three in the Back, Two in the Head

I also came to understand that my commitment to the actor as total artist was threatening to some in the theatre community, in which actors are expected (generally) to be compliant, agreeable, and to have no other priorities personally or professionally that supersede the production they have been cast in. It began to feel to me that theatres felt they were doing me a favor I should be grateful for by casting me in a play. I am sure I lost two significant jobs in part because of my stubborn refusal to be the kind of actor I was expected to be (People’s Light & Theatre) , and to pass along the requisite expectations of compliant acting to my students (Villanova University). You see, being a total artist means you get to be “difficult” when your spirit is offended by activities in the room, or you know you need to explore in a certain way, even if the authority in the room resists it.

Improvising with Joshua Boden in  the Deep End , our two-hander.

Improvising with Joshua Boden in the Deep End, our two-hander.

The truth is, this paradigm of the compliant actor is driven more by capitalism, and less by any ill will anyone has for actors. I learned that plays are products sold to audiences, and that the priority for the producing entity is to keep production costs down. Total artists are expensive. They ask you to slow down. They meander off in unexpected ways to see what’s out there. They engage in challenging discussions and they demand to be heard. Total artists are have been known to say “no” occasionally - a heresy in the professional theatre. Compliant actors are efficient. They do what they are told, are easy to work with, don’t ask too many questions and say “yes” nearly automatically.

Ironically, the kind of acting I am invested in now requires saying “yes” - all the time, and to everything. What makes that “yes” so easy to come by is that it allows for the creation of an original performance, co-created by the improvisers on stage in that moment, emanating from the totality of who they are. That “yes” creates the most authentic performative expression of me that I have ever experienced, and paradoxically, I must share it utterly with my stage partner.

During the time Lee Breuer was in residence with us at Yale, I was working on a solo clown multi-media performance piece called The Birth of Benjamin Lloyd. I was dressed in a giant diaper and (as I recall - the memory is bit dim now) I did a kind of stand up routine mixed in with some movement and dance. It finished with a video of my mother (who Lee knew well) and I playing together on a stage in New York City when I was six or so, accompanied by Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On? and me doing some wordless movement. I was very nervous about the piece, as it represented the first time I had ever performed in anything I had created, and it dealt with some vulnerable territory.

Lee came and saw it. Afterwards he bounded up on stage and was unexpectedly over the top effusive in his praise for it. Like, he couldn’t get the words out for how excited he was by it. He saw something it would take me many more years to see. He saw my total artist.

Ben Notes: What Improv Teaches us about Community

Bright Invention ensemble members Shea Sonsky and Kiersten Adams at the Steel City Improv Theater getting ready for the post-show jam with amazing Pittsburgh improvisors!

Bright Invention ensemble members Shea Sonsky and Kiersten Adams at the Steel City Improv Theater getting ready for the post-show jam with amazing Pittsburgh improvisors!

Off we go!

Off we go!

It’s Saturday morning and I’m recovering from driving 10 hours over the past 24. Members of my ensemble Bright Invention and I went to perform at the Steel City Improv Festival in Pittsburgh PA. The four of us tumbled into my cranky Subaru Outback Thursday bright and early and enjoyed the middle of the Keystone State as we passed through farmland, exits to the state capital, and finally, five hours later, the rolling hills approaching Pittsburgh. We napped (well, some did - I was driving), told stories and bad jokes, played I Spy and Would You Rather. We stopped at a couple of the fine rest stops along the way and indulged in bad food.

Kiersten and Shea chillin’ pre-show.

Kiersten and Shea chillin’ pre-show.

Our hotel was a corporate behemoth in the middle of downtown Pittsburgh - an art deco relic that had once been a Federal Reserve branch. In the basement, next to the fitness center, giant safes with lapped plates of thick steel stood open and empty. Our rooms were bland but we felt like Important People. We were staying in hotel! And - the festival organizers had left us bags of SWAG at the front desk! The Steel City Improv Festival is a CLASS ACT.

At six on Thursday we Ubered to the Steel City Improv Theatre, and each of us fell in love with Pittsburgh a little. The gorgeous pre-fall weather helped, and the slanting warm sunlight. But I was captivated by the swelling hills on all sides and the blend of mid-century rust belt grandeur with multi-cultural hipness. At the theatre we were met by shiny, happy Pittburghians in Steel City Improv yellow tees, who showed us around the very cool, funky yet well-appointed theater and green room where there was - yes - more SWAG. We hung out in the green room, took selfies, warmed up a bit, felt giddy, tried to calm down, met other improvisers, drank soda and water, ate more bad food, watched the theater fill up, and - before we knew it, the act before us was coming off stage.

The green room was actually . . . GREEN!

The green room was actually . . . GREEN!

Our set was a 30 minute '“mono scene”, which means we picked a location from an audience suggestion and the the entire scene occurred in that location in near continuous time, with the the same characters coming and going, and new ones popping up now and then. We used “pop-out monologues” to introduce new characters by speaking in character directly to the audience then entering. The word our audience gave us was “haberdashery”, so our set took place . . . in a haberdashery. There were two generations of hat makers, new ideas competing with old ideas, visitors from Minnesota, neighbors from the Caribbean, and laughter and enjoyment from the audience. It was that particular improv blend of thrilling and terrifying. Afterward, we had a group hug and agreed that we had done well.

Over the course of the next 2 - 3 hours, we went and got some good food, were interviewed by a local journalist, watched the other teams perform, and then, in what might have been the coolest part of the evening, we hung out with improvisers from Pittsburgh and Detroit, ate pizza, drink libations and participated in an improv jam with them in which this cheerful group of 47 (we counted) were divided into three teams, and each team took a turn delighting the others with 20 minutes of montage improv.

During this heady time people we didn’t know came up to us and told us how much they liked our set. We sat with improvisers from Pittsburgh and chatted, laughed, and connected. We discovered that we do indeed know what we’re doing, that we’re actually good at it, and that we are part of a tribe much bigger than our little ensemble, filled with others who also good at it, who love to share, say yes, and build stories together.

It was close to 1 AM when we all collapsed in our beds back in the hotel, tired, happy, and full.

We call this one, taken at a rest stop on the PA Turnpike, the “Album Cover.”

We call this one, taken at a rest stop on the PA Turnpike, the “Album Cover.”

When I created the organization now called Bright Invention I knew two things needed to be a part of it: improvisation and ensemble. As much as I loved being a scripted actor, I was keenly sensitive to the way I made these deep bonds with the casts I was in, and then those casts evaporated when the show closed, and I was left feeling bereft and lonely. I have been on a lifetime search for long-term, reliable human connection (aren’t we all, really?) Being in plays was in some ways an exercise in repetitive heartbreak, so I was determined to create an ensemble which was together over time, regardless of the vicissitudes of each person’s professional life, through the personal ups and downs we all navigate. In this way, our commitment to each other went beyond each individual’s “talent” or creative achievement. The economics of our work are irrelevant to our connection to each other. We are invested in each other’s complete wellbeing, and our rehearsals are sometimes group support for one or another’s trouble. In Bright Invention, we have helped each other with mental health resources, housing leads, creative dilemmas with outside projects, relationship woes, parenting challenges, and the list goes on. Some of us refer to us as “family” and mean it. For others, we are dependable group of talented collaborators. Each of us makes the bond to the group that is right for us. We come and go, and the ensemble changes its configuration each year.

I believe we come together for live performance for several reasons, but one we don’t talk about enough and lift up for celebration is the mere fact of being in a room together with people we haven’t met before and sharing an experience. Improv capitalizes on this aspect of live performance in that it relies on audience participation and is spontaneously created. Community is created at improv shows through the immediacy of the performance. Knowing we are making it up right in front of you pulls you into the shared present moment more (I submit) than if you were watching us present something we had carefully rehearsed over weeks.

Happy improvisers after a good set . . .

Happy improvisers after a good set . . .

So now I’ll really go out on a limb. I believe that this spontaneous connecting through shared, safe and joyful experience is an essential requirement for our human wellbeing. I believe that if we don’t get it, we get sick. And yes, I mean that literally. And I believe that we now live in The Age of Isolation, making our efforts to create opportunities for this kind of connecting urgent and acute.

Most improv groups exist over time, as ensembles. They are usually called “teams” or “groups” but I like “ensemble”. To me, it emphasizes the togetherness. And not just improv groups. Many young performing artists are forming collectives of various kinds through which they devise all kinds of new and exciting shows. My Advanced Improv class has a core group of students that have been meeting with me to study improv for over two years. They have created their own ensemble and it is vital and important to them. Ensembles recognize that the performing artist seeks compensation in a variety of ways - not just money. We seek the compensation of dependable, safe and creative community. For that, many of us will make the time to connect each week, work on projects, or drive out and back to Pittsburgh for 30 minutes on stage.

For us, community isn’t a nice abstract concept to cultivate through neighborhood associations and alumni groups. It is at the center of our creative process and a pillar of our emotional and psychological wellbeing. We learn not to take it for granted, and that it only gives as good as it gets. My community shows up for me when I show up for them. The inevitable comings and goings help keep us fresh, welcoming and inclusive. The creative life can be so lonely, and it’s full of rejection, uncertainty, and hardship. But when we share it with each other, indeed, when we create joyfully out of it, our journey through this creative life ceases to be a desperate solo, and instead becomes an extraordinary chorus sung among friends.

Short videos of Bright Invention members playing in the improv jam post show at the Steel City Improv Festival, including Ben walking a murderous platypus and getting busted, Kiersten and her artist lover, Shea telling her son to stop eating other people’s dandruff, and Eric working on someone’s teeth . . .

Ben Notes: Are you a human being? Or a human doing?

I don’t remember who said it. I don’t even remember where I was when I heard it. But I know this. I was in a bad place. I was looking for solace, or maybe a way to understand why I felt so sad, so stressed out.

Some of my clients playing . . .

Some of my clients playing . . .

“Ben,” my angel said, “it sounds like you’re a human doing, not a human being.”

And thus began a slow unpacking and examination of how I exist in the world, and why. It’s taken a few therapists and years in the recovery movement but if I could distill it, my ”human-doingness” comes from this: I never felt I was good enough and so had to work extra hard to get the emotional support others seemed to receive effortlessly. And like all of the scars we bear from our origin stories, this one is a paradox, with both positive and negative attributes. On the upside, I became an over-achiever, a leader and maker of events, art, and classes. On the downside, I felt like if I didn’t, I would be a neglected shade plant in the corner, ignored and starving for sustenance.

About to play with my improv ensemble . . .

About to play with my improv ensemble . . .

A “human doing” is a person who lives under the sword of Damocles, constantly responding to the “or else”: I have to do this, or else that will occur. It’s a life lived under continual threat. And since it’s a condition developed in childhood, usually in response to what the child perceives as a survival strategy, as we age we lose awareness of it and it simply becomes our experience of living, as unconscious as the air we breath and every bit as consequential. It leads to codependent relationship problems (“I have to do ______ or else she won’t _______”), tyrannical leadership styles (“Do _______ or else I will make sure _______ happens”), and a generally transactional behavior pattern (“Let’s do this, so that that will happen.”)

Besides the pernicious and exhausting stress of living with the constant “or else”, something more subtle but more problematic happens. When I am a human doing, I am never where I am. I exist in a perpetually self-created anxious future. The thing I am doing I do not for its own value or experience, but in order to manage an event that doesn’t exist because it hasn’t happened yet. And because it doesn’t exist, it is a future event I create in my own anxious imagination. A human doing finds it difficult to enjoy an experience for its own sake, without attempting to know what the consequence will be in the future - a knowledge which is fundamentally unknowable.

I would love to report that I have been entirely cured of my human doingness, and that I now live in a swami-like state of pure presence. Ha. What I can report is that I am deeply aware of my own tendencies in this direction, and I know some warning signs. I can fall in to an anxiety spiral about the future and I know what that feels like. When I feel that way I do some breathing exercises, I go to a recovery meeting or talk to a friend about how I’m feeling. I take some medicine that helps too. And I look for opportunities . . . to play.

Playing with people with disabilities . . .

Playing with people with disabilities . . .

Yes, play. What do I mean by play? For me, play is an activity done with others that has no explicit purpose other than the activity itself, and which engenders a shared joyful emotional state. There is a ton of research on play and since I am not a data person or a researcher I will let you go and find it. But I have read a few books and listened to a few podcasts and my takeaway is this: playing is an essential activity in the development of healthy humans, it begins in the year after we are born and continues throughout our childhood. And then for many of us . . . it stops. There are many reasons our playing stops, and it varies from person to person. But one of the most common is that we become “professionals” and enter workplaces driven by projections and outcomes. In other words, workplaces that succeed with a workforce of human doings, who exist to make sure that if they do this, that will happen.

In this light, being a playful person might be seen as an act of rebellion against the demands of professional expectations. But here’s what I know from years of applying improvisation to workplace dilemmas through a program I created called Creative Corporate Training - cultivating a playful mindset in the workplace:

  • leads to innovative thinking

  • deeper problem-solving

  • more productive co-working

  • more efficient teams

  • happier and healthier workers

  • retention of those happier an healthier workers

About to play with some pharma workers . . .

About to play with some pharma workers . . .

Introducing the playful mindset is a gateway to any number of explorations: mindfulness, self-care, conflict management, emotional intelligence, better customer service, and the list goes on. Improvisation is the ideal delivery system for the playful mindset, because in improv all you have is the present moment and the other person. Improv teaches us that we are enough - we have all the wisdom, creativity and courage needed to build joyful connections to others as we work towards common goals.

So take a moment today to just be. Sit quietly somewhere nice and take a few deep breaths. Notice what rises up in your experience - no judgment! If you find yourself obsessively speculating about the next thing, and the next, and the next . . . maybe it’s time to play.

Ben Notes: Five Ways Improv Will Save The World

In case you haven’t memorized it yet, here is the mission of Bright Invention, the organization I run:

Bright Invention uses improvisation to empower people and organizations to unlock their potential.

An improv stage . . .

An improv stage . . .

Quick! I say “improv”! And you see . . .

Members of the Bright Invention Ensemble before a recent show . . .

Members of the Bright Invention Ensemble before a recent show . . .

  • a room full of awkward young people trying to be funny?

  • Colin Mochrie and Wayne Brady doing amazing improv on the TV show Who’s Line Is It Anyway?

  • an enthusiastic facilitator trying to get room full of anxious corporate types to “loosen up and have some fun!”

Yes . . . all of these images are true and real. And . . . improv is so much more. At Bright Invention we feel improv is not simply a way to have some fun (although having fun is an essential feature of it.) We believe improvisation - as it “was invented, in America, by young, mostly middle-class amateurs, performers, and producers who, in the true spirit of the form, were making it up as they went along” is a way to save the world. The quote, by the way, is from Sam Wassoon’s wonderful book Improv Nation.

I see you rolling your eyes. Save the world? you ask. Pu-leeeze . . . so let me just get to it.

Improv reveals your innate empathy, and dampens your innate competition. Wassoon writes “players understood that no improvisational ensemble could sustain an atmosphere of competition…creating spontaneous realities en masse demanded…patience and consideration.” We live in an era of intense competition, exacerbated by what I call “the binary plague”: win/lose, either/or, black/white, liberal/conservative. This zero-sum, win-at-all-costs mindset is breeding paranoia, depression and adherence to the “assumption of scarcity.”

But improv is based on an extraordinary pact of acceptance and trust between players. No one wins, and no one loses. Our only way forward is to find something in our partner’s offer to play with, build on and care for. Slowly we begin to understand that our future (in the scene and in our lives) depends on our ability to empathize and work with others well.

Improv reveals our innate authenticity and power. Ask a friend how they feel in the face of the world’s events, the evening news, or even her own loved ones’ journeys. Oftentimes you will hear, “powerless.” This lack of agency is tied to a deeper condition: it is hard for us to feel fully “ourselves”, or to be confident we even know what “ourself” is. Granted, the self is an evolving and moving target - but we at Bright Invention believe there is such a thing as authenticity: the state of being in creative play with no cover, no apology, no shame. Improv gently washes away the extra nonsense and reveals . . . you! The further you go with improvisation, the more authentically you you become.

It’s a paradox (improv is full of those!). How is it that I become more me by pretending to be all those other imaginary people I make up on the spot? The answer lies at the bracing center of improv’s creative process: in improv the ideas you bring to life, the words you speak, the things you do in partnership with other actors come from you. Without a script, improv relies on who you are to make the stories come to life on stage. And the more you do this, the more you discover that who you are is amazing: smart, funny, decisive, caring. As the mother of improv Viola Spolin wrote, “Through spontaneity we are re-formed into ourselves.”

Improv puts us in the present moment to deal with what is. Ever feel like you’re always re-visiting yesterday, or lost in projections about tomorrow? Take an improv class, and you will be gently returned over and over to the present moment: what is happening right in front of you. Not only that, you will discover skills which allow you to work with what is, to build on it with someone else, and ultimately help its necessary evolution. Improv is a mindfulness training, as we learn to calm our monkey-minds and actually see and hear what the person in front of us just said, and also the way they said it, and then discover that we have a reaction to share with them.

Improv madman and genius Del Close said “Honest discovery, observation, and reaction is better than contrived invention.” The observation he speaks of is the observation of what is actually happening. In this way, there are no mistakes in improv. What happens, happens. And then we play with it. It’s a radical acceptance which we find serves us in all areas of our lives.

Improv makes us relationship experts. My dad is not one who gave fatherly advice very often. But one thing I vividly remember him saying to me is that “the success of anything you do will be based on the quality of the relationships you make.” In this age of digital information, virtual experiences and augmented reality we are paradoxically coming to understand the value of “in real life” interpersonal relations. Deep in our DNA we humans are a tribal species. We crave community and personal connecting. We crave touch, laughter and meaningful exchanges. Improv is not only a way to have those exchanges in our lives, but to joyfully study them, to notice what makes those exchanges thrive and what makes them whither and die.

The madman again: “Every interpersonal situation has a solution in which everyone wins (Del Close).” That sounds nuts, right? But . . . it’s true, and this is why so many improvisers have found our way into the world of applied improvisation, bringing that magic improv mojo to conflict resolution, corporate culture change, and customer service. Improv is a dynamic way to study human interaction and relationship, and in doing so, refine our own ability to navigate tricky relationships and build extraordinary ones.

Improv is the opposite of cynicism. Maybe the greatest threat we face, born of the environmental degradation we must reverse, the political morass we find ourselves in, and the shocking events which pass on our screens before us, is cynicism. Now more than ever we need a populace which believes we can do it, that it’s worth saving, that humans are not irredeemably corrupt, chronically stupid and brutal. I know . . . it’ a hard sell. But seriously - what other choice do we have?

Cynicism is giving up, and it is and always has been the easy way out. The romantic, the optimist, the visionary - these are the ones among us in whom our future lies, and they are exhausted. Improv is based on the most absurd and improbable optimism: that if I just accept whatever you say to me, and then build on it a little, and then you accept whatever I say, and then build on it a little, we can do anything, go anywhere, solve any problem (please note: accept doesn't not necessarily mean agree with!) And in dusty classrooms, theater basements and rec rooms all over our fine nation this truth is revealed every day. Improv is giving birth to a new generation of hope and optimism - and boy do we need it.

Two of my adult improv students in class last week . . .

Two of my adult improv students in class last week . . .

So now that you’re convinced, what next? So glad you asked! Check out The Improv Resource Center and The Improv Network online. Or, search “[your city] improv” and I bet you find some cool stuff to do!

I think “saving the world” occurs one person at a time. Seen in this light, the best hope we have are people who work on improving themselves, and share some joy while they do it. Let’s find our way back to a playful mindset, and save the world one person at a time. 

Ben Notes: summer updates!

Executive Director Benjamin Lloyd

Executive Director Benjamin Lloyd

It’s our first summer without our summer camp, and while we miss our kids don’t think for a minute that we are taking a break! Check out some of the cool stuff we’re working on this summer!


We had our best, and best-attended Improvasushi show last Saturday June 3rd. We even had to add chairs to our audience seating in the Tokio Ballroom! Don't miss our next show Saturday July 13th!

We are proud and excited to announce that we applied and were accepted to two improv festivals!

The Bright Invention Ensemble.

The Bright Invention Ensemble.

In development are two cool partnerships, both involving Dinner with Friends - our shared meal followed by a show:

  • For Project HOME, we envision Dinner with Friends for a blended audience at a Project Home site.

  • For co-working spaces 1776 and WeWork, we imagine the show as a fundraiser for a local nonprofit with discounted tickets for co-working members.

Stand by as Dinner with Friends takes shape!

Creative Corporate Training

Ensemble members Carlo Campbell and Kaitlin Chin performing at a recent CCT workshop.

Ensemble members Carlo Campbell and Kaitlin Chin performing at a recent CCT workshop.

Speaking of WeWork, we are bringing our CCT demo to the WeWork space in Northern Liberties, Tuesday June 18th, 10:30 AM - Noon. This is part of a growing partnership with Throw Like A Woman Consulting. Learn more about this demo by clicking here!

We continue our work with West Philadelphia Skills Initiative, and Cooperstein Hospitality. Coming next fall, workshops for The Lebow School of Business at Drexel and Community Associations Institute of New Jersey.

If you know of anyone who might be interested in our improv-inspired, scenario-based workshops, please refer us! We are happy to bring our demo to your site! Here is the CCT website.


Two Carousel Connections students studying improv with us last summer.

Two Carousel Connections students studying improv with us last summer.

We have three classes in the works this summer!

  • We kicked off our Summer Improv Jam last Thursday at Cheltenham Center for the Arts. We have 10 wonderful adult students learning from me and ensemble member Shea Sonsky!

  • On June 26th I will begin teaching an improv class for adults with disabilties at Carousel Connections. This is a continuation of work begun last summer.

  • Also on the 26th, ensemble member Kiersten Adams and I will co-teach at The Village: Hope in Action of Children and Families. This is a new initiative and we are excited to learn more about this extraordinary community!

Shakespeare in the Summer

Our annual co-production with Pulley & Buttonhole Theatre Company is off and running. This year, we tackle our first non-comedy, Macbeth! Working on this production are ensemble members Shea Sonsky, Eric Walker, Benjamin Lloyd and Josh Kirwin.

Don’t miss this fun outdoor production at Abington Art Center, August 5, 6, 7 and 8th at 7 pm! Pay what you can! Show webpage coming soon . . .

Production still of last summer’s  Twelfth Night  featuring ensemble member Kaitlin Chin.

Production still of last summer’s Twelfth Night featuring ensemble member Kaitlin Chin.

Ben Notes: "How do you do that . . . ?"

Benjamin Lloyd and Shea Sonsky in an improv scene at Bright Invention rehearsal

Benjamin Lloyd and Shea Sonsky in an improv scene at Bright Invention rehearsal

One of the most frequent comments we get after our shows is . . . “how do you do that?” Our audiences are interested in which parts of the show we know about in advance and which parts we don’t. So we thought we’d take you behind the curtain for bit, and share a show with you on video.

Most actors rehearse and perform scripts. Improv actors rehearse and perform forms (or formats). A form is a sequence of performed events, and that’s what we practice and memorize - a sequence of events. A script is also a sequence of events, but with a script what happens in those events is predetermined. Not so with improv.

Suzanne Anderson and Kaitlin Chin in an improv scene at Bright Invention rehearsal

Suzanne Anderson and Kaitlin Chin in an improv scene at Bright Invention rehearsal

Our form is a called The Sun and its Planets. It is unique to Bright Invention, and it was developed over a year or so, led by Artistic Director Benjamin Lloyd. It follows one central relationship through three “acts”, as the pair in that relationship evolve and meet some interesting and occasionally hilarious people along the way. That central scene is “the Sun scene”. The other actors who appear around it are “the Planets.”

Here is the Sun and its Planets sequence every member of Bright Invention knows by heart:

  1. Sun scene act 1 (actors A & B)

  2. Dueling monologues (actors C & D)

  3. Sun scene act 2 (actors A & B)

  4. Dueling monologues (actors E & F)

  5. Sun scene act 3 (actors A & B)

  6. Final monologues ( actors ? & ?)

Ideally we have six actors for this form (we can do it with four): two as the Sun scene, and four as the Planets. The content of the form is inspired by a conversation we have with our audience before we begin. We perform this form again and again . . . and we’ve never done the same show twice!

Now here's what we don’t know before we perform The Sun and its Planets:

  • which of us will be the Sun scene and which of us will be the Planets.

  • who the characters will be in the Sun scene, how they are connected, where they are, and what they are working out together.

  • who the Planet characters are, when/if they will appear in the Sun scenes, and what they do or talk about.

  • who will do the first dueling monologues and who will do the second dueling monologues and who they will be and what they will talk about.

Want to learn more? Consider joining us this summer for our Summer Improv Jam on Thursday nights!

Meanwhile - here’s a video of The Sun and its Planets as performed on April 6th, 2019. It features Benjamin Lloyd, Kiersten Adams, Aimee Goldstein, Eric Walker Jr., Shea Sonsky, Bob Stineman and Suzanne Anderson.

Ben Notes: Improv = personal transformation.

Recently I got a letter from an improv student of mine:

“I can't tell you the impact that this class is having on me even in such a short amount of time.  I was moved to tears after class last night as I let the beauty of the experience sink in.  

Your focus on helping us build deeper connection and trust with each other has been so meaningful and powerful for me.  For so much of my life I have felt drained by the surface-level connections that most others in my world have maintained.  I've also experienced much difficulty with connections, as I've lived through a great deal of transitions, challenges, loss, and growth . . .

I greatly appreciate your sensitive and reflective teaching and coaching approaches.  Your passion for this beautiful art form is so evident, and I'm deeply grateful to be a part of this class . . .

It has taken me decades of releasing tons of physical tension to feel comfortable in my body, and similarly releasing my previously self-loathing inner critic to feel worthy and comfortable in my soul.  For years I would stand on a stage to sing, stiff as a board, feeling trapped in my body's tension, feeling so alone, and unable to see an audience as anything but cruel judges waiting to pounce.  

But in just these two weeks, being able to be up on a stage again with such a focus of presence and connection to another person, no longer feeling alone, and also sharing in such supportive community has moved me so deeply.  I didn't experience this depth of connection in my last improv class and haven't in my choir, even though I enjoy those groups.  We just don't really know each other and haven't spent time connecting even energetically in such ways.  So this class has really been powerful for me.  

I wanted to share this with you because I know how much it can matter when we humans know we're making a difference in someone's life.  We may never know the full extent of our legacies, but, just as in improv, it sure is affirming when others reciprocate, accept, and add to our life's offerings.

Thank you for sharing yourself and your work.  What you're doing and how you're doing it really matters.  I look forward to continuing.”

Members of a Bright Invention improv class doing an exercise called First Crossing.

Members of a Bright Invention improv class doing an exercise called First Crossing.

So . . . blushing, of course. And I share this at the risk of having readers think I am just tooting my own horn through someone else’s heartfelt letter (which the writer gave me permission to share.) But my desire is rather to explore just how meaningful and important the work of the creativity teacher is - everywhere and of all disciplines - in our hard and sometimes unforgiving world.

One of my many gripes about teaching acting in colleges and universities is their incessant and ignorant demand for “quantifiable outcomes”, “data points” and “metrics of achievement” for classes in creativity - like acting. There are none. These concepts work nicely next to test scores, grades and objectively measurable achievements. You either completed the lab assignment or you didn’t. You either know how to write literary analysis in French, or you don’t. You can either execute the quantum equations or you can’t. So at the ends of classes like these, the teacher can rack up scores and percentages and give the university the data it desires. But not in an acting class. Nope. Never.

Improv class group scene.

Improv class group scene.

How do you “score” the achievement of the shy young man who could barely be heard when speaking on the first day of class, and who got through a scene from Death of a Salesman from beginning to end with clarity and confidence at the end of class? What data point measures the lightbulb that goes off when the woman realizes, through games and exercises, that she might just be enough exactly as she is, and that all her effort to “be better” is just wasted energy getting in her own way? How am I supposed to record the measurable outcome of my student’s letter above in numbers and data which will objectively prove the transformational value of that experience?

Beyond the calcified and stale rooms of the academy, there are larger cultural issues at work here.

  1. We are living in the age of the “binary plague.” We have fetishized either/or outcomes: win/lose, straight/gay, male/female, liberal/conservative, with me/against me, yes/no. What a horrible cancer this is upon the vulnerable nuance, mystery and mutability of our human experience. The binary plagues forces false choices upon us, forces us into oppositional camps, leads us into conflict with each other. Nowhere is it more awful than in our current political discourse. But in the personal realm, we are seeing new movements growing which reject old and harmful binary patterns: the world of sexuality and sexual identity is undergoing a glorious revolution with the awarenesses that our experience of gender, attraction and eros are all on continuums. New initiatives in interpersonal coaching and workshops are highlighting emotional intelligence, sensitive listening and flexible strategies which honor the pliable and beautifully inconsistent species we are.

  2. We favor “logos” over “eros” in popular culture generally. From Wikipedia: “Logos became a technical term in Western philosophy beginning with Heraclitus (c.  535 – c.  475 BC), who used the term for a principle of order and knowledge. Logos is the logic behind an argument. Logos tries to persuade an audience using logical arguments and supportive evidence.” I use "eros” in a Jungian sense: “Jung considers logos to be a masculine principle, while eros is a feminine principle. According to Jung, ‘woman's psychology is founded on the principle of Eros, the great binder and loosener, whereas from ancient times the ruling principle ascribed to man is Logos. The concept of Eros could be expressed in modern terms as psychic relatedness, and that of Logos as objective interest’” (Wikipedia). So my critique is in some sense a critique of patriarchy, which relies on logos - legalistic, argumentative reasoning - to at best bring enlightenment, and at worst dominate and oppress. Eros is not concerned with winning and losing. Instead it meditates on and explores relatedness, connections, patterns, feelings and sensations. Logos loves data. Eros loves intuition. And it’s not either/or - see binary plague above. Our task is to apply these two powerful approaches to experience in appropriate ways. But all too often, eros is marginalized and logos celebrated in the data-driven, consumer frenzied, capitalist culture we live in. Logos is good for selling things, eros is good for connecting people.

Me and Joshua Boden performing our show The Deep End in Staunton, Virginia.

Me and Joshua Boden performing our show The Deep End in Staunton, Virginia.

Improv is an antidote for many cultural irritants, including these ones. Endless conflict is the kiss of death for improv, which relentlessly drives towards agreement, cooperation and collaboration. So it rejects the binary plague right at the outset. It’s never you or me - it’s always us, building the story together. Which places us at the center of eros - it’s all about relationships, listening, connecting, sharing. When we sink into a learning experience based on those attributes, personal transformation is possible - like the one my student describes in the letter.

Bright Invention uses improvisation to empower individuals and organizations to unlock their potential (that’s actually our official mission statement.) My student’s letter is a heartfelt example of one way we are walking the walk. In my eleven years of improvising and twenty-plus years of teaching acting, I have witnessed such transformation over and over. It’s why I keep doing this - in spite of the uncertainty and cultural resistance. And it’s not because I’m some altruistic guru. I keep doing it because I need it. I am replenished, buoyed, transformed every time I enter the classroom, rehearsal space, performance.

And occasionally, I get inspiring letters like this one.

Ben Notes: The Commedia Connection.

Ben for web.jpg

With this post I launch “Letters from Ben”, the replacement for the monthly newsletter we used to generate. At the beginning of each month I will post a rumination of sorts about the work Bright Invention is doing some area. My goal is to create a personal connection to you through writing. I hope you like it. Feel free to comment and ask questions!

As some of you know, Bright Invention is an extension of a strange collision of concerns of mine. On the one hand, a concern for the extraordinary genius of the actor; how we are descended from a lineage of celebrities, vagabonds, eccentrics and seers beginning with tribal shamen, who were healers as well as performers. On the other hand, an interest in the economic pressures on the modern American performing artist; how commercial forces dehumanize this most human of all artists, turning us into things which are bought and sold, and capitalizing on our ambition and vulnerability for profit.

Antonio Fava

Antonio Fava

Recently, in preparing our show we are calling Improvasushi!, I began to understand that what I am interested in doing is a 21st century version of the Renaissance Italian theater known as commedia dell’arte. And the more I explored this connection, the more excited I became. I studied commedia for two extraordinary weeks in 2006 with the acknowledged master of the form, Antonio Fava. I was entranced, not only by Fava’s energetic and elaborate teaching style, but by the boldness and creativity of commedia itself. You can read about this experience more fully in my personal blog here. For Fava, commedia the performance style cannot be understood without understanding commedia the economic entity. “Commedia dell arte means ‘professional theatre!’” Fava would bellow. And he explained that these companies (and they called themselves companies) were the first western example of professional actors.

A commedia company arrives

A commedia company arrives

I left that experience regarding the commedia actor as heroic: perfecting the performance of stock characters within unscripted plots - the shows were enormous structured improvisations - and at the same time, being occasionally persecuted by prelates and nobility, suspicious of these actors with bawdy senses of humor, and smarting from the satire they put on display. The shows, Fava explained, were not only un-scripted, they were calibrated and adapted to the specific audiences they were being performed for. They were breathtakingly immediate and personal to the people watching on that day (always in the day of course - no electricity.) I found myself moved and inspired.

Our ensemble Bright Invention practices and performs long form improvisation. What’s that, you ask? Well, good luck finding a succinct definition, and if you do please let me know. Here’s a short Medium article about long form improv which also has some useful links. And here’s my little snapshot:

  • Short form improv is what most people think of when you say “improv”: short, absurd and silly scenes and sketches based on audience suggestions.

  • If short form uses clever ideas to generate laughs, long form explores deep relationships to reveal shared humanity. Long form is based in realism, short form is not.

  • Long form is often funny, but it doesn’t have to be. Once improvisation is freed from the requirement to be funny, entire galaxies of experience open up.

  • Long form is “long” because the relationships between characters developed in shows continue through the entire show. This is seldom the case in short form.

  • Short form is often a means to an end, the end being scripted sketch comedy based on improv. Long form is the end itself.

But our ensemble is also dedicated to “expanding the genre” and it is in this vein that we will begin to merge our work with some of the traditions and approaches of the commedia companies. We will begin to include rehearsed performance in our improvised long form shows. As with the commedia companies our shows will begin and end with rehearsed music and song. And we will soon begin to develop lazzi - rehearsed, solo set pieces sometimes comic, sometimes not, performed by individual members of the ensemble, and inserted into our shows. What these little solos are, and how they appear in our shows remains to be seen. But what I am sure of is that they will showcase the remarkable range of talent in our ensemble, from music and singing, to spoken word poetry, to dance and circus performance, to clown and physical comedy.

Some of us, exhausted, after the IMPROVATHON!

Some of us, exhausted, after the IMPROVATHON!

What we won’t borrow from commedia are the masks and precisely organized performances of stock characters. But we do strive to have the same sense of immediate and personal audience connection that commedia companies thrived on. And, as with these extraordinary Renaissance ensembles, we are determined to explore new paradigms to support the economic needs of the modern American actor through our corporate training work.

Stay tuned!