Bill Hulet Editor

Here's the thing. A lot of important Guelph issues are really complex. And to understand them we need more than "sound bites" and knee-jerk ideology. The Guelph Back-Grounder is a place where people can read the background information that explains why things are the way they are, and, the complex issues that people have to negotiate if they want to make Guelph a better city. No anger, just the facts.

Tuesday, November 9, 2021

Will Improv Fix Capitalism, or, is it a Revival of Sacred Clowning?

A couple weeks ago, I spent a few days reading a Master's thesis that's been published as a book titled Fun at Work. It's by a Guelphite named Lauren Stein. After reading it and thinking, I decided to ask Ms. Stein for an interview on short notice. She called me up and we did it.

The result was something that goes quite beyond what I originally envisioned as "just" a book review with a local author and instead talks about something that has become a minor social movement. One, I think, that says something about the human spirit and how it responds to the regimentation of modern life. 


Lauren Stein, photo by Gili Getz, and the cover of her book.

My apologies about the sound quality of the following interview. It's obviously been heavily edited. That's because we did a sort of impromptu interview, which means that I didn't have any time to do research or come up with questions. The result was a lot of me blathering on trying to figure out what I wanted to ask her. Most of that had to be removed to put Ms. Stein back on the centre of the stage. 

Moreover, I've been doing all my interviews through a telephone because of the pandemic. Usually this works pretty good, but in this case I found that there were significantly different sound levels between her voice and mine, which means I had to amplify about half of the result. And in places that resulted in a lot of static. I decided not to filter that out because the result would have probably been her sounding like she was at the bottom of a swimming pool. The result isn't perfect, but I think people will be able to clearly hear almost everything---which is what I think most important.

I started out trying to put a label on the subject of the thesis. It's a report---using informal language---of a workshop that Stein held for employees of a tech company in Toronto. She doesn't reveal the name of the actual business and instead calls it "beet root". (I assume she was making a reference to one of the most iconic technology giants, "apple".) 

A group of what I assume were managers, engineers, designers, programmers, etc, were invited to do a broad range of exercises. There were things that people did on their own, like journaling, but the focus was on spontaneous "improvised" group activity. These involved going through a variety of special exercises aimed at helping participants overcome their tendency to be self-conscious. Here's a YouTube video that shows several different exercises. 

The goal that Stein wanted the group to work towards was to create an impromptu "play". The idea is that the group will learn to work together as a group where each individual has learned to non-judgmentally work with the others and do so in a way that encourages experimentation and thinking "outside of the box". 

Here's an example of a improvised skit from a comedy club. 

When I asked about what she was doing and introduced the term "industrial psychology", I was wondering why a business like "beet root" would sponsor a workshop like this. After some research, I was left with the impression that modern high-tech firms tend to see the people that work for them as being their primary capital investment. That's because if your business is creating new, incredibly complex machines and processes, the most important asset you have is the creativity of the people doing the research and engineering. To that end, anything that helps those people do their jobs better can be useful. In addition, anything that helps keep your key staff happy at their jobs is going to help reduce staff turnover---which is tremendously important if you are always at risk of your best staff moving to another corporation. And, of course, making your workplace more "fun" is ultimately going to cost a lot less than simply increasing employee pay.

As a general rule, this sort of thing is not an option for people who's skills aren't in similar "high demand". And if you are an educated professional it's sometimes easy to forget that there are a whole class of "underlings" who exist to clean the floors, build the widgets, deliver them, and, provide the coffee and meals that support the "super-men" who write the programs and market the products. Having spent most of my work life as an "underling" (albeit unionized and as such better off than most of my fellow "low lifes"), I'm acutely aware of how rarely the "softer ways" of modern management have yet to "trickle down" to the lower decks. As a result, I can be a bit of a "grump" when I hear about touchy feely workshops for my "betters".

Just because capitalism has created class warfare doesn't mean that absolutely everything has to be poisoned by it. Giving workshops for our tech over-lords and their minions doesn't mean that there isn't anything of value to the content. But it is important to remember to acknowledge that class warfare does exist and point it out when possible. Consider my less-than-gracious comments with Ms. Stein as being somewhat similar to the "land acknowledgements" that start a lot of public meetings today. It's an attempt to publicly point out that I haven't forgotten about the way capitalism poisons the way people interact with one another. 

Having gotten that out of the way, I can now move on to discuss other notions.


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Lauren mentions "curiosity coaching" which prompted me to ask her about the Unwinding Anxiety app that you can download onto your Apple or Android device. I looked into it because the White Coat, Black Art CBC podcast strongly recommended it. I'm also recommending the program myself after using it for several months during the pandemic. 

It comes from the research by Dr. Judson A. Brewer who has managed to amalgamate Pavlovian conditioning and Buddhist mindfulness practice to help people deal with a wide range of problems such as over-eating, tobacco addiction, and, anxiety disorders (eg: my PTSD). One of his key insights is that bringing a sense of dispassionate curiosity to introspection can help break the stimulus-response-reward chains that bind people to unproductive behaviours such as over eating, smoking, and, fretting.

When I looked at the two YouTube clips that I posted above, it seems clear to me that what improv does for the minds of participants (much like Buddhist mindfulness) is to force them to totally focus on the here-and-now. For example, in the final skit, it requires a significant amount of focus to be able to invent a plot line based on the other actor's improvised lines while at the same time limiting what they say to the arbitrarily set number of words allowed. Brewer's program does much the same thing by asking people to periodically take stock of the sounds they hear, what sensations they feel in their body, etc. The point is to break up the conditioned habit loops in their minds that keep people fretting about mistakes from the past and problems that may arise in the future. That's pretty much what Brewer's program is all about---so I can certainly see how Stein's form of therapy could be effective. 


There is a bigger element at play, however.

Improvisation has been an important part of public performance for a very, very long time. Lauren brings up the example of commedie dell'arte, which was an improvised theatrical art style that became popular starting in the 16th century. But my understanding is that going all the way back to long before Homer, bards improvised their poetry by following basic stories and improvising verse as they told/sang their tales.

I first came across this notion by listening to a CBC Ideas show decades ago. According to it (if memory serves), there existed until very recently bardic traditions in Eastern Europe, Ireland, and, the Middle East where people would apprentice and learn the ability to compose poetry "on the fly" in front of an audience---often while performing music too. I was gobsmacked by this, because I had acted in plays while at high school where I was expected to memorize long pieces of dialogue plus blocking. Having done this, I just assumed that oral traditions involved memorizing tales from past generations. 

But, as the academics pointed out, accurate memorization is much more difficult to do in a preliterate society---simply because there was no written-down text to work from. Moreover, they had direct evidence from their field research that helped them understand that bards couldn't just repeat the same thing over and over again. They had to entertain in order to get paid, and to do that their performances had to fit the mood of the audience. The good ones learned how to adapt to the moment. 

The written works that have come down through history were probably examples of the very best versions that the authors had heard performed. Moreover, before the printing presses it was very common for each person copying a text to do their own form of improvisation by making the odd change themselves. The result was a type of natural selection that moulded and preserved the very best tellings of the our collective ancient stories. 

Incidentally, this process continues. Check out the following performance of a tiny fragment of mankind's oldest story: Gilgamesh and Enkidu. It too is an individual performer's "take" on an old, old story.


There are, of course, fully extant and well-understood forms of improvisational music that are quite mainstream. The best example is jazz, which is often improvised by musicians who have learned to instantly understand the musical chords that their ensemble is working within and can make up new beats and themes on the fly.  


But why is improvisation so important to some people? 

It seems obvious to me that there is a certain joy in life that comes from just being able to do something totally without premeditation and without the direction of another human being. Unfortunately, I suspect that people's opportunities to do this seem to be getting fewer and farther between as our society becomes even more complex and competitive.
I know that the farmers that I knew as a child and young adult had a freedom to do "their own thing" that far exceeded most of what I was allowed during my work life in Guelph. And while it's true that there are now lots of independent business people and "contractors", I don't think this sort of being "self-employed" often comes to much more than being under the thumb of your customers in much the same way as others are at the beck-and-call of bosses. 

Beyond the issue of being directed by another human being, a lot of folks find what they do for a living has become more in common with engineering and science than the arts. Fewer and fewer people do much problem solving or making repairs from scratch anymore. Instead, they just plug in expensive diagnostic tools to find out which module to replace. Engineers and scientists do have opportunities for creativity, but they are also working under the rigid discipline of numbers and facts.

Even things that used to allow people a certain degree of pride have ceased to do so. Traditional crafts like making furniture have become replaced by factories that churn out tables, chairs, sofas and ottomans by the acre. It's also hard for people like carpenters and masons to take pride in their work because they are under the gun of having to work faster and faster to keep costs under control. Similarly, the finely-grained legal liability rules that govern a lot of workplaces have often resulted in more "people-centred" jobs also being reduced to rote. People end up so defined by their jobs that they are forbidden to help people simply because "it isn't in their job description".

If you can't be spontaneous in your work life, it seems that most people need to find some other way of doing it. I can certainly see how someone who feels they have no ability left to be spontaneous while at work would love to have an opportunity to really play when on their own time. And I can certainly see how this sort of therapy can be of real use to people---even if they they have no diagnosis of a pathology. 


The Zen teacher I mentioned with regard to clowning and "plunges" was the late Bernie Glassman. I couldn't find much on line about his clowning, other than some pictures of him wearing a rubber nose. It does however raise the issue of sacred clowning and it's relationship to the modern improvisation movement.

I looked at Stein's blog where she describes her experience clowning on the TTC. In passing, she mentions that she attended a workshop led by Patch Adams MD, who is also famous for using clowning during his medical practice.  (There was a movie extremely loosely based on his life that starred Robin Williams.) That's an interesting reference, because he is also someone who's practice seems to be a modern re-invention of a very old practice.

I suspect that most of my readers don't know this, but humans have a long history of using humour to teach traditional wisdom, and, to heal both individuals and society as a whole. Here's a drawing of one example from the Hopi First Nation from the American South West.

Copyleft registered image by Neil David Sr. c/o Wiki Media Commons

The Wikipedia says about the role of clowns for the Pueblo peoples:

Their function can help defuse community tensions by providing their own humorous interpretation of the tribe's popular culture, by reinforcing taboos, and by communicating traditions. A 1656 case of a young Hopi man impersonating the resident Franciscan priest at Awat'ovi is thought to be a historic instance of Pueblo clowning.

Europe also has a tradition of clowns as important bearers of cultural wisdom, both religious and secular.

The most famous sacred clown in Western Europe was probably Saint Francis of Assisi, who was famous for doing outrageous acts that were pointed comments about the society he inhabited. For example, when he found that the inhabitants of a city were indifferent to his preaching, he went out and gave a sermon to the fish in a nearby body of water. (Pious people often miss the obvious point by arguing that the fish actually listened to the sermon. Alas, comedians have always been afflicted by people who don't get the joke---.) 

Eastern Christianity had a much more well-developed culture of "fool saints" and they became something of a minor stock character in Russian literature. The best example is probably Saint Basil the Blessed who used to go around naked summer and winter, and who did outrageous things like shoplift for the poor. 

Saint Basil at prayer, copyleft image c/o Wikimedia commons.

But what exactly is the point of sacred clowning? 

I suppose the best way to think of it is to say it allows people to "speak truth to power" without alienating the audience. In a modern context the equivalent are the comedy news programs that help expose casual viewers to important issues of the day---often in greater depth than on offer from professional, mainstream journalism.  For example, consider the following. I was just trying to find a funny example to share with you and ended up learning something in much greater detail than I expected.

Just consider the above news item. It is an absolutely deadly serious issue. People are dying because of the nonsense that FaceBook is spreading around the world. And it's pretty clear that the tech over lords are far more concerned about making money than how many uneducated, atomized people end up dying because of the propaganda artificial intelligences spew into their minds. This could be depressing as Hell---which would induce most people to just change the channel and try to forget all about it. But John Oliver and his researchers are able to make their points while keeping us laughing. That's the value of the clown or court jester, and it should be recognized as tremendously valuable.


Moreover I say unto you, the Climate Emergency must be dealt with!

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