One Word Suggestion: Freedom
After 8 years of trying, last week I finally broke into prison. We went in hoping to help inmates find some joy and arm themselves with tools for survival on the outside. I don't know if we succeeded.
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This week's word is: Freedom
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This podcast is intentionally short and sweet, so don't expect too much from the notes. We will, of course, share links and details of things discussed in individual episodes as appropriate - and that's about it.
The main thing to know is every episode of this show starts with a one word suggestion, and there's no reason it shouldn't come from you.
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I’m your host Eran Thomson, and to kick off the new year, I’m taking a break from tradition and suggesting my own word for this episode, and that word is “Freedom.”
One of the things I love about improv is the freedom it provides. Freedom to play, to explore, to grow, to connect with new people, to connect with ourselves, and to experiment - and that it gives us permission to fail gloriously and succeed hilariously. And with that freedom comes all sorts of side benefits that go well beyond simply being funny.
And it is for these reasons that I’ve always thought it would be wonderful to teach improv to inmates. It has been a long-time goal of mine and after nearly 8 years of trying, last week we finally broke into prison.
I’m not allowed to say where or with who, but I can tell you it was one of the most, if not the most, challenging experiences I’ve had since founding LMA back in 2012.
Once we completed our induction and got through all the gates we ran a full day of workshops for groups of male prisoners aged 16-22. Each group had 15 inmates and 3 guards. No two groups were the same, and while we weren’t told who was in for what, we do know the charges for people in our groups included things like terrorism, larceny, gang-related activities, and worse.
My hope was that in addition to bringing some levity to their otherwise dull days, we might impart some useful communication and other soft skills they could use to aid in their own transformation out of jail and back into society.
I don’t know if we succeeded.
If laughter was the only metric by which to measure success, then we killed. Err… did really well. But it wasn’t easy. Keeping and holding their attention took some real alpha male antics on my part, and as soon as we tried to instil any insights, they’d either ignore us, interrupt us, or ask us to start the next exercise.
The tension and posturing were omnipresent. And while they didn’t seem interested in learning how improv could help them, once we got going they were eager to laugh and play.
David Evans, one of LMA’s first teachers calls improv “unstructured adult playtime” and given that these young men live in a world driven by routine, rules, and loads of structure, it’s no wonder they just wanted to revel in every bit of creative freedom they could.
Processing any type of learning in that environment is always going to be hard. There’s so much surface stuff in the way. Defences are up from go and vulnerability is not an option for these guys.
Yet there is irony in the fact that while many of them portrayed a level of toughness, bravado, street smarts, and constant wise-crackery, when it came time to jump into the unknown world of an improv exercise, many of them were afraid.
Or perhaps just shy. I know you can't judge a book by its cover, or an alleged criminal by their appearance, but a lot of these guys just seemed too young, too timid, too soft, and even too innocent to be in jail.
When I questioned a guard about this, they agreed. Many of the inmates were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, with the wrong person - usually their older brother. It happens so often they have a name for it: Big Brother syndrome. I’d guess at least half our students were caught up in the system before they even understood what it meant to be a part of it.
If you know anything about improv, it’s probably “Yes, and.” It’s arguably the cornerstone of all improv, and one of the first things we teach. Given the rampant ADD that seemed to afflict every participant in our workshops, we decided to simplify our approach and start by having them go around in a circle and simply say a “Yes, and” statement.
It went something like this:
Yes, and it’s hot in this room.
Yes, and I want to leave this hot room.
Yes, and I want to go home.
Yes and I also want to go home.
Yes, and I want to go home too.
Yes, and I’ll never get out of here.
Yes, and you’re never going home.
This got a lot of laughs, but my heart was broken.
Even when they do get out, they don't enjoy their freedom for very long, if at all. There’s an 85% recidivism rate. Sadly for many of these young men jail is a better option than whatever awaits them at home, if they even have a home to return to.
Some of them we were told, spend their first day of freedom waiting to smash a shop front window or throw a stolen bicycle into the street as soon as a police car drives by. Two days later they’re back behind bars with their bros, eating bad food and picking up more bad habits.
Michelle Obama writes in her book Becoming that “failure is a feeling long before it becomes an actual result.” And even though we use improv to teach people to embrace failure, to see it as an opportunity for growth and learning, to evolve and excel, in this case, failure just felt like failure.
I went into prison hoping to help the people inside find some joy and arm themselves with tools for survival on the outside. The feedback we got has been great, but the emotional hangover is still with me.
You’ve seen the scene in movies a million times. A lonely prisoner watching, waving goodbye through the gates as their visitor steps out into the free world. But as I watched this scene unfold in real life, it was clear we were far from a happy ending.
Despite my short stint inside, I’m still a firm believer in the power of improv to improve people’s lives, and I’m thrilled LMA was able to, hopefully, make some sort of a meaningful impact in this manner. But please don’t commit crimes just to attend one of our workshops. Our regular term classes and corporate training programs offer lots more creative – and literal – freedom.
In fact, on the outside improvisers of all levels typically discover newfound confidence, tune into their authentic selves, get better at thinking on their feet, collaborating, learning to listen and understanding other people’s point of view, and a whole slew of other wonderful things that are perhaps less about comedy and more about personal growth.
Our improv theatre classes, children’s camps, and corporate training programs work off unique curriculums that not only give people more exposure to improv as a dramatic art form, but also set them up with the life skills future generations will need to help create meaningful change in the world. Not to mention great entertainment. I like to think of what we do as an investment in all our futures.
And because of that, and because of the many students, teachers, clients and amazing people who have been a part of our community or touched by LMA over the years, I have hope. Optimism that in a world where little brothers can end up in jail for things their big brothers did, that a little bit of improv can help things get a little bit better.
As we passed the final gate of the prison, we saw a young man being escorted out. He cheerily waved goodbye to our handler and told us he was being released today and that he’d just become a father. I couldn’t help wondering if he’d be back. After all, the odds are against him.
Our handler was hopeful, “who knows?” she said, “Becoming a parent can change a man.”
So as we head into 2020, I encourage you to take a moment to appreciate your own ability to change, and your freedom. To choose how you want to live. And the kind of person you want to be. To go where you want, when you want. To walk through any door. Enjoy any meal. And maybe take an improv class or book a workshop for your team.
It’s a great way to kick off the new year and set yourself up for success.
And celebrate your freedom.
The ideas, observations, and perspectives shared here are mine alone.
I’d love to hear yours in the comments, or better yet in a review.
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