One of the things that I do when I bring improv into the world of social work and/or academia is an exercise that I now call “The Drawing Exercise.” I learned it from the wonderful Jess Grant (in a group rehearsal with a bunch of very awesome people).
The exercise goes like this:
The premise is that the group works to create a picture together: line-by-line, person-by-person. Individuals take turns, but there’s no given order to the turn-taking. This is a silent exercise. The group is given one marker and a large sheet of paper on an easel (or on the wall). The instructions given are minimal.
- draw ONLY one line or mark at a time
- no talking
- make your mark and then wait, facing the group, until someone takes the marker from you
- the final drawing should appear drawn by one hand.
- find your ending; when the group feels the picture is complete, you agree to this (non-verbally) and stop drawing
The group stands back about two meters from the paper, forming a semi-circle facing it. The facilitator makes a single mark on the paper, then stands by it with the marker in their hand until someone in the group (“A”) takes it from them. “A” proceeds to make another mark on the paper, and once again steps away from it with the marker in hand and stands until someone else continues the activity. The process continues until the group feels their picture is complete.
There are a ton of great things within this exercise, but for now I’m going to talk about making one mark at a time.
As an improvisational exercise, having to make one mark at a time is meant to induce the process of making room for the ideas of others. It’s intended to point to how it feels to do this kind of sharing, and to point to the experience of creating together and/or “having to” create together.
The technique of making one mark at a time also ensures that people take turns, and in doing this, give up some control, while making the concept of having control or personal power, visible.
Allowing for the ideas of others is an improvisational technique; not just allowing, but necessitating/obliging/enforcing. We’re forced to make room for the ideas of others, forced to “hear” those ideas because they are then “in the world/on the paper.”
We can’t ignore the reality that has been created because it is visible, concrete. In this way, it’s training for the improviser: to begin to say “yes” to, to work with, to engage with and accept, the marks of others.
The mark begs our consideration, as does our fellow players’ existence. Their words, their stories, their body language: these are all changing the space, shifting the flow of the air in the room, altering the shape of our body when we sit down or shake their hand or pull our gun (hahaha Michael Scott).
As an improviser, this is what we learn to do. We learn to actively consider the existence of others; their ideas, their postures, their words, their silences. We actively consider the existence of others and ourselves.
As we’re forced to consider the marks of others, it makes us reflect on how we feel about it, how we react to it. It helps us to hear the voices of others, to consider their marks, and to consider them in the context of what was drawn before and what will come after, as part of a whole process of creating together.
Sometimes this is exciting and sometimes this is shitty. But it’s usually an awakening. So I’m really thankful for improv and the way it does.
Cathy Paton is an Arts Facilitator who has worked in Canada and internationally with many groups, exploring movement, improv, and communication. Trained in long-form improvisation, modern dance, life/art performance method, and red-nosed clown, she is currently working on a PhD project that looks at how we can change our ways of relating through the art of improvisation. Cathy has a background in social work, and is always looking at ways of combining the arts with ways of being together.