Monday night I lead an improv workshop for the kids at a homeless shelter. The experience opened my eyes to the results of being homeless and living a rough life. I don’t know the histories of these kids, but I am sure it’s full of broken promises from family and teachers and friends. The results of these broken promises resulted in a lack of trust. The lack of trust resulted in poor group creativity, but I was able to build some trust in the two hour workshop I ran. I’ll go through that here.
I had a list of exercises documented before I got there, but I quickly realized that we needed to start with something more basic.
I had the kids get in a circle with me. We went around the room and each person said a one word alterative attribute, their name and an action ie "Better Bett." The kids were very shy and didn't put much effort into their physical attribute. Most of the kids as it become their turn would look around and say, "Stop laughing at me."
We played another game where the each kid told another kid about something "crazy" like, "I had worms for breakfast." The game quickly turned into the kid telling the other kid that they turned into an ape or a snake. I realized these kids probably didn't like each other and spent their time making fun of each other. Their was a total lack of trust in the group.
The most basic building block of an improv group, and any group which needs to work together smoothly, is Trust. The price paid clearly shows itself: lack of commitment, doubt, and lack of creativity. We kept going with different games and slowly, after an hour, the kids started getting more relaxed. We played a game called "Talk show with Good, Bad, Crazy Experts." This game was the turning point for the kids. I think because they were set up for success as "Experts" they couldn't be wrong. We all clapped at their statements and they started to smile more and more. The way the game works is one person is the Talk Show Host, three others sit in chairs as the Expert Panelists. A topic is chosen by the audience for example, "Cooking:" (the more simple the better). Then the Talk Show Host asks one question for example, "How do you boil water" and each Expert gets to answer. The first is the Good Expert, for example, "Fill a pot with water. Set it on the eye of the stove. Turn the stove on high"
The second is the Bad Expert for example, "Put the water in the pot. Put the pot in the sun and wait."
The third is the Crazy Expert, for example, "Fill a pot with water. Set it on the eye of the stove. Turn the stove on High. Put your hand inside to verify that the water is heating up."
The kids just loved this game. We kept alternating so each could get a chance to do it. Then we did group picture where everyone had to make a picture with their bodies without talking or directing each other. We ended up with a lot of folks trying to direct and talking. We eventually started doing really well (I was fully involved in this game throwing my body on the floor with the others). They were all laughing and cheering. We did a lot of these. We started with letters, then started spelling words, then moved to objects like houses and airplanes.
Finally we played a game called "Create a Room." We stood in a line and before us was an empty room. We'd each go in by opening the door and go to a spot in the room and start using an object in the room. The kids really got into this. They created a yoga room, a pedicure room, basketball court, pool table, video game console, shark tank and more.
I think trust takes a lot of time to develop, but even within an hour I saw their trust growing. I didn't lecture them until the end. I told them the following, "When you are on stage with your team members you main goal must be to make your team members 'look good.' You can't stop and make fun of them if they make a mistake because you have a paying audience watching you. You've got to keep going. In real life it’s the same way. Always make your team members look good."
Teaching this improv class to these kids who have been through a really rough time and probably have been betrayed by many people over the years showed me the trust gap. Without Trust you can't go out on a limb and try something new. The same is true in all our interactions. First build trust, then your team can be creative.