I was standing in a circle with a group of children in India’s southernmost state. I made eye contact with one of the kids across the circle, clapped in her direction, and called out, “Zip!” She in turn made eye contact with another child, clapped toward him, and yelled, “Zap!” And he clapped toward another child and called out, “Zop!” And thus the pattern continued, bouncing randomly across the circle like a pinball: “Zip!” “Zap!” “Zop!” “Zip!” “Zap!” “Zop!” …

While vacationing in India during December 2007, I taught short improvisation workshops to two groups of Indian children in Tamil Nadu. One group consisted of 13 kids at a neighborhood Christmas party in Ranipet, and the other was a group of 40 kids who’d been orphaned by the 2004 tsunami, at an orphanage near Chennai (formerly Madras).

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The two workshops had far more in common than not, so in what follows I will usually not distinguish between the two. And I’ll avoid the “They taught me more than I taught them” cliché.

Instead, I want to describe the experience and riff on a few tangents.The children’s first language was Tamil, which I do not speak, though many of the kids could speak and/or understand some English.

My stepmom Asha was an invaluable help as a co-teacher and translator despite the fact that she has never studied improvisation. Tamil is Asha’s first language. Plus she is an early childhood educator who ran an orphanage in India for many years before she met my father a few years after my mom’s death.

Here’s a quick but necessary detour regarding terminology.

First, let me take a moment to define what I mean by improvisation. I am talking about theatrical and/or comedic improvisation by an ensemble. A group of people, doing theatre together, and making it all up as they go. A quick and easy reference point is the television show Whose Line Is It Anyway?

But if you want a clearer idea of the type of improvisation we’re discussing, check out Viola Spolin’s seminal work on the topic, Improvisation for the Theater. The work of Chicago’s legendary Second City comedy theatre, where I studied and where I teach improvisation, is based on the work of Viola Spolin, whose work was in turn based on the work of Neva Boyd.

Also I’d like to coin a term: “workplay.”

Improvisation is, in a lot of ways, play. It is about letting go of preconceived notions and inhibitions, giving up personal control, and going where the thing (the game, the exercise, the scene, the song) takes you.

But improvisation is also, in a lot of ways, work. To improvise well takes, for most people, years of discipline, study, observation, classes, and practice. (I will dispense with the obvious question of what constitutes good improvisation—the best I can do at the moment is to allude to the late Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s view on hard-core pornography: “It’s hard to define, but I know it when I see it.”)

I didn’t know what to expect from teaching improvisation to children in India. I knew that, in theory, these games should transfer well to Indian kids. After all, Spolin developed many of these games in Chicago during the 1950s and 1960s specifically as a tool to help Chicago’s immigrant children—she found that the games could unlock children’s creative capacities across boundaries of race and culture.

What surprised me the most in India was how quickly the children got “into” the improvisation. Within one minute, these kids—many of whom had just moments earlier been too shy to even make eye contact with me—grasped what we were doing and were playing the opening game with full commitment and laughing hysterically. To my surprise, this happened more quickly than it usually happens when I work with American kids. Usually with American kids it takes me a class session or two before they really throw themselves into it. This discrepancy is even more surprising given the language barrier I faced in the India workshops.

The improvisational games we played were Zip-Zap-Zop, Pass the Clap, and Red Ball. I had purposely chosen games that were not very language-dependent—games that were more physical and rhythmic in nature. Also, I only used games that could be played in a circle so that I could be in communication with all of the kids at all times.

After the workshops, I drew a speculation that, the more I think about it, seems plausible. And let me make my intent clear: I’m not drawing any conclusions here. I’m simply using my experiences as a jumping-off point for speculation.

(Most) children in America are bombarded with ready-made images by television, movies, magazines, video games, and the internet.

On the other hand, these types of media reach a much smaller proportion of Indian children, so Indian children are largely forced to form their own images (i.e. to imagine).

One thing that struck me in India was how often I saw kids—and not just poorer children—playing games either with no props, or with found props. Even the neighborhood kids in Ranipet—these were fairly well-to-do kids—spent their evenings playing a game in the street involving several slate-like pieces of stone that they would pile up, plus a rock that they would throw.

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Of course, western-style media are reaching a growing number of Indians every year—especially economically upwardly mobile Indians—but still those media are nowhere nearly as pervasive in India as in the United States.

Could it be then that American children are losing their ability to imagine, while Indian children are honing theirs?

I think that this phenomenon, if it exists, bodes poorly for the future of the United States as a nation trying to remain a world leader.

Think of the great innovators in human history—one of the traits that most of them share is a highly developed sense of imagination. Witness Einstein’s famous assertion that the theory of relativity came to him when he daydreamed of being in a streetcar that moved away from a clocktower at the speed of light.

While it may not be realistic to think that we can reduce the preponderance of any of these offending media (and it’s debatable whether we should anyway), I believe that training in the workplay of improvisation can provide the necessary stimulation of the ability to imagine.

After all, in improvisation we have no props, no costumes, no set-pieces—just the players and a space. We don’t even need a stage. I recently improvised with my “doubleplay” group (a trio that improvises a one-act play along with improvised musical underscore) on a street corner in Chicago as part of a theatre festival—we simply laid down a tarp and went to work.

While the benefits of improvisation have not been rigorously studied and documented, they are well-known anecdotally to most of us who perform and teach this art form. They include improved self-confidence, public speaking skills, listening and observation skills, creative thinking capacity, and ability to deal with unpredictable and changing circumstances.

And now my belief in the transferability of the benefits of this workplay across cultures has been strengthened.
In India, children use “Uncle” and “Aunty” as a term of respect and/or affection for adults, whether those adults are actually related to them or not.

On the morning of December 26th, as I went for my morning walk through the Ranipet neighborhood with my host’s German Shepherd, one of the boys from the previous night’s workshop was riding his bicycle toward us. As he approached, he yelled, “Uncle! Zip!” As he passed, I replied, “Zap!” And as he sped away behind us, he yelled into the skies, “Zop!”

To shoot, or not to shoot?

I thought long and hard about whether to have photos taken during the workshops. My uncle and aunt, the Suresh’s, who along with my stepmom arranged the workshops, would have probably gladly taken photographs if I’d asked.

On the one hand, I really wanted photos to document the experience. But on the other hand, I wanted the workshops to be about the children and about the workplay of improvisation, not about the admittedly tempting “photo op.”

In the end, I decided against having photos taken.

But in retrospect, I think I made the wrong decision.

The workshop at the neighborhood Christmas party would have been ideal for a couple of reasons: (1) There were only 13 kids there, an ideal number for photographing in an improvisation class; (2) Since it was Christmas day, the kids were all dressed up—the boys with their American-looking pants and shirts and the girls in their traditional brightly-colored salwars and frocks and jewelry.

The workshop at the orphanage could have resulted in beautiful photographs of the 40 children in a huge circle, all working as a team.

And in retrospect I think that photos could have been taken without sacrificing the quality of what we were doing. I could have sent copies of the photos to the children, and they probably would have enjoyed them tremendously.

And photos would have made a great addition to this essay.

I thought and journaled a lot about the decision “to shoot or not to shoot” even after the workshops were completed. One could argue that such processing was pointless since the decision was irreversible at that point. But I actually think that process was useful.

Because I have a feeling that someday, somehow, I will be back in India, teaching improvisation to children again.

 

 

IMPROV GAMES

Zip-Zap-Zop

All players stand in a circle. One person claps toward another person (anywhere in the circle) while simultaneously making eye contact and saying “Zip!” The person who received that clap then claps toward another person while simultaneously making eye contact and saying “Zap!” The person who received the “Zap!” claps toward another person while simultaneously making eye contact and saying “Zop!” Then that player claps toward somebody else, with eye contact, and says “Zip!” And the pattern continues: “Zip!” “Zap!” “Zop!” “Zip!” “Zap!” “Zop!”

This game teaches communication through eye contact, gets the energy flowing, and provides good practice with maintaining focus, since the focus can come to any player at any time. It also helps the ensemble discover a sense of group rhythm.

Pass the Clap

Classic warm-up game in which everyone stands in a circle. One player starts by turning to her right neighbor and making eye contact, and the two players clap simultaneously. Then the person who received that clap turns to the person to his right, and those two players make eye contact and clap simultaneously. The game is played until the clap really flows nicely and rhythmically around the circle. Players may then decide to pass the clap back to the neighbor they got it from, and so on with other possible variations. Emphasis should be on maintaining the beat. Groups will naturally want to accelerate the beat, but increases in speed should not come at the expense of an even, rhythmic beat that the group can maintain.

This game provides the same basic benefits as “Zip-Zap-Zop.”

Red Ball

All players stand in a circle. One player makes eye contact with any other player, and says “Red ball” while tossing an imaginary red ball to the second player. The second player catches the imaginary red ball and says “Thank you, red ball.” The second player then makes eye contact with any other player and says “Red ball” while tossing the imaginary ball to that player, and that receiving player says “Thank you, red ball” while catching the ball. Once the group develops a steady rhythm with the “red ball”, the director can start a different-colored ball (e.g., “Green Ball”), which will also be tossed across the circle. Eventually three or four different-colored balls are simultaneously being tossed across the circle and caught.

This game also provides many of the same basic benefits as “Zip-Zap-Zop” and “Pass the Clap.” It provides an additional benefit of teaching the player to maintain multiple points of focus since, at any time, any one of the three balls may be tossed to a given player, from any one of three different players anywhere in the circle. I usually point out to my students that this skill comes into play when one is improvising a scene with several other players—any one of them can throw the focus to you at any time, so you have to be able to pay attention to all of them at the same time.

 

Ranjit Souri (rjsouri [at] gmail [dot] com) teaches classes in improvisation, comedy writing, and creative non-fiction in Chicago.
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