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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
It's a match made in heaven:
What? Longform improv and sushi!
When? First Saturdays at 8 pm beginning Saturday March 2nd!
Madame Saito's Tokio Headhouse Sushi
122 Lombard St
Philadelphia, PA 19147
Sushi and improv . . . they go together like . . . well, they just go together! Especially now as Bright Invention launches our downtown shows upstairs in the Tokio Ballroom at Mademe Saito's!
Come at 7 for drinks and sushi downstairs, then come up to the ballroom for our special brand of intimate, immersive improvisation!
Easy to remember dates: first Saturdays! Easy to locate venue: just off of Headhouse Square in Society Hill, Philadelphia!
Sushi + improv = joy!
World class Japanese cusine
Our hour-long show begins at 8 pm
Dinner and a show - what's not to love?
Click the button below to reserve show tickets. Restaurant reservations please call: (215) 815-8266
9 improvisers. 6 hours of #improv. 6 special guests. Many cookies/donuts/pringles. And . . . we shattered our goal! $1,025 raised for The William Way LGBT Community Center! Thank you to Arch Street Meetinghouse for being such generous hosts, lots of audience dropping in throughout the day, and our amazing Inventors! Improvathon 2019 has come to an end with great success!
Here’s a slide show! Click on the image to go to the next one!
For Philly Theater Week 2019 we are presenting THE IMPROVATHON! to raise money for the William Way LGBT Community Center. On Saturday February 9th at Arch Street Quaker Meeting House, we will begin improvising at 10 am and won’t stop until we have raised $500 for William Way!
Saturday, February 9th, 10 am - ???
Arch Street Meetinghouse, 320 Arch Street, Philadelphia, PA. 19106
Here is our schedule of Special Guests!
10 am - 11 am. Tara Demmy! Tara Demmy is a comedian, theatre artist, and teacher straddling both Philly and DC. She trained at the Upright Citizens Brigade NYC, Philly Improv Theater, and completed her Lecoq training at Helikos: International School of Theater Creation in Italy. She is a proud company member of Tribe of Fools where she performed in Fishtown – A Hipster Noir, Antihero, Zombies with Guns, and Shut Your Wormhole. She is a writer and performer with ManiPedi Sketch Comedy. Tara received her masters from
Villanova University and is currently pursing her PhD in Theatre and Performance Studies at University of Maryland. tarademmy.com
11 am - 12 noon. Michelle Pauls! Michelle Pauls is a theatre artist, artist educator and mom. She has worked for many years in the Philadelphia area doing theatre, film work, cabaret singing and improv! In fact, she was one of the founding members of Bright Invention. She also teaches theatre and the like in the college setting. www.michellepauls.com
12 noon - 1 pm. Ed Miller! Ed Miller is an actor, director, and writer from the Philadelphia area. He has worked with the Arden Theatre, Theatre Exile, Swim Pony, The IRC, and Secret Room Theatre. Ed spent 3 years living and teaching in South Korea where he also made time to act, direct, and serve on the board of Seoul Players. He was a founding member of SCI: Seoul City Improv and graced the TV screens for young "English-hungry" Koreans on such programs as "Story Time", "T-Girl!", and "Cooking with Red Hood”. Ed is a current proud member of Tongue and Groove Spontaneous Theatre.
1 pm - 2 pm. Brian Anthony Wilson! Brian has been on numerous Philly stages, feature films like The Postman, Creed and Limitless; and TV shows The Wire, Hack and Law and Order.
2 pm - 3 pm. Sharon Geller! Sharon Geller is a comedic actress who has appeared on Saturday Night Live 4 times. In addition to performing in the national touring company of the off-Broadway show “Old Jews Telling Jokes,” Sharon does radio and TV commercials and teaches improv at the Walnut Street Theatre. She trained with Chicago City Limits. www.sharongeller.com.
3 pm - 4 pm. Joy Wier! Joy Suzanne Weir has been an improviser for the last seven years. She is a company member of Tongue & Groove Spontaneous Theatre. Some of her favorite scripted roles include Leonardo's Wife in Philadelphia Artists Collective's performance of Blood Wedding and Blackberry in Simpatico Theatre Project's Watership Down. She has also been a teaching artist for various companies including Bright Invention's sister company, White Pines Productions. She is very excited, and a little scared, to be part of the Improvathon. Let's get weird.
Each hour will feature:
fun with our special guest!
a spoof of a popular film or TV genre!
Bright Invention’s long form The Sun and its Planets!
The Arch Street Meetinghouse, 320 Arch Street Philadelphia. Site of THE IMPROVATHON!
Free parking - enter on 4th street between Arch and Market!
Complimentary light refreshments served.
Stop by any time; see some, leave, and return; BRING FRIENDS!
Donations for William Way accepted in person with cash, check or online through Facebook Donate button located here: donate online.
The Improvathon is a part of Philly Theater Week! Please check out all the other amazing shows being presented - click here!
Bright Invention will be part of another great event the very next day! Rehearsing Improv: It’s not an Oxymoron! Co- presented with Tongue & Groove Spontaneous Theatre, this is a fun and free “peek behind the scene” to see how improvisers create shows! Click here for tickets!
Bright Invention's Creative Corporate Training program uses innovative "scenario-based" training, employing structured improvisations, games and exercises to support extraordinary communication, customer service and teamwork!
Come to this free event and see us do our thing in person! Bring a friend whose awesome organization thrives on outstanding person-to-person interaction.
Monday October 22nd.
Chamber of Commerce for Greater Philadelphia -
Mars Drinks Conference Center, Engagement Room,
200 S. Broad St, Suite 700, Philadelphia, PA 19102
Social time 2:30 - 3 pm
Demo 3 - 3:45 pm