Free Play 1 – The Sources

As promised a couple of weeks ago, I’m taking a look at Stephen Nachmanovitch’s Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art to see how it integrates with my current understanding of creativity, spontaneity and collaboration. It was one of my first encounters with the subject a decade ago, and I want to see how I relate to it now and deepen my understanding and practice.

Section 1: “The Sources” talks about creativity, what it “is” and where it “comes from.” He describes the goal of the improviser as “moment-to-moment nonstop flow.” The process looks something like: allow yourself to be in the moment, relax and let one moment flow into the next, sculpting your art in real time, daring to express your inmost nature. In that way you can free yourself to create for the sheer joy of the act itself, and ultimately “disappear” in the absolute immersion of the work.

Sure, sounds simple enough, but how, right? Well, there are lots of techniques and practices that aim toward this. But there’s no easy “spontaneous creativity” switch inside a person that they can throw and let it out. It’s a process, a wax-on, wax-off journey that develops the skill by practicing it until it becomes as natural as breathing.

There are two ways, in my experience, to develop this skill. The first is the “deep end of the pool” approach, where you cannonball into the water with the courageous, vulnerable expectation of creative input RIGHT NOW, with no chance to plan or prepare. I was part of an improvisational songwriting collective called Ink Brethren for about a year, where we did just that–writing as much as a dozen songs on the spot in one take, then listening to them played back to see what we’d done. This shows the participants that they really do have something to share that emerges when they let go of expectations, and emphasizes the immediate nature of improvisation: the art happens in real time, with no takebacks or revisions. As Nachmanovitch puts it, time becomes a sculpting medium for the work, as much as space is for the stonecutter. It’s exciting to do, and gratifying to see the results. The big pitfall is that the shock can be too much for some participants, bringing out anxiety or causing them to turtle up and contribute a cautious minimum, or nothing at all.

The other method is what I’ll call the “toe in the water” approach. In this scenario the creator is led step by step into the ritual space of spontaneous art-making. What’s needed is an icebreaker for the creative mind–exercises that get you over the shock of “be creative now!” and lead everyone to a complimentary creative wavelength. Free Play references an improv warmup by Keith Johnstone where the players stride around the room, point to objects and loudly call them by the wrong name (“car!” to a coatrack, “octopus!” to a chair), thus clearing people’s heads of conventional associations so they can create something new. Willem Larsen developed warmups for the roleplaying game Polaris, and he and I have since had extensive conversations developing this concept of Fluency for broader application. This process gets us eventually to the same place as Ink Brethren, but serves to guide everyone into a space where they are ready to make art, spontaneously, together, as well as “get the sillies out” so we can focus our energy. But it does require more effort and discipline to facilitate and participate.

Both of these approaches require bucket-loads of trust! Todd Fadel, the founder/facilitator of Ink Brethren, made it work by making it absolutely clear that it was a safe place free of judgment, that any input you gave would be accepted and celebrated.  You have to feel safe to get dangerous. And the Fluency model requires all participants to enter in with a deep respect for the process and each other, to trust that this path will lead to intimate creativity, and commit to not disturbing that intimacy with “just anything.” In fact, Nachmanovitch makes it plain that improvisation is NOT doing “just anything,” but rather expressing what is in our inmost self by clearing away distractions, static and fear.

A final thought: it strikes me that storyjamming is a medium uniquely suited to bringing out the vulnerable expression of improvisation. Because we play through a fictional mask, we can arrive at meaningful and authentic statements without aiming at them, simply through playing characters within a certain structure. And we can voice things that might otherwise be choked back from doubt and fear, because “our characters” can become a Muse (another Free Play technique) to enable fearless speaking of the truth inside us. That excites me quite a bit.



2 Responses to “Free Play 1 – The Sources”

  1. 1 Willem
    January 30, 2010 at 4:53 pm

    Regarding your last comment, I’ve always really valued that pregnant possibility in storyjamming too; of it not focusing on you, but on the shared vivid dream we all find together. Not something that you invent; but something that you discover, together, something real and sovereign unto itself, not an android born of us for our pleasure, but a living, breathing, independent never-before-seen bird of flashing colors and song.

    I don’t know if Joe remembers, but long ago on his “Buried without Ceremony” blog (http://buriedwithoutceremony.com/) I wrote how it chilled me a bit to make story and cast away; I think stories (at least when they die) deserve funerals too. I think if we honor them, they will honor us, by showing their faces more and more richly, by singing to us, as we sing to them, in our courtship hunt for a story-bride whose love and understanding will save us from the wreck of the modern world.

    So goes the antique, anachronistic rant of the animist, I suppose.

  2. 2 Joel
    February 1, 2010 at 9:37 am

    Hi, Willem.

    He who binds himself a joy
    Does the winged life destroy.
    But he who kisses the joy as it flies
    Lives in eternity’s sun rise.

    That poem by William Blake is quoted as a chapter heading in Free Play. I feel there’s a strong, even aching tension between the desire to preserve a thing of beauty and the need to let it breathe. Todd of the Ink Brethren says he considers all his art disposable, yet he does record, repeat and share it, keeping it alive for himself and those around him. All the Brethren’s songs were recorded and most of them are online, for instance.

    I guess it’s a matter of holding to a song, a story, a poem, lightly, realizing that if we squeeze too tight we’ll break it, like an overproduced or over-written, calculated Disney version of an ancient and living thing. We can honor stories as they appear in the moment, while realizing that some of them will flare to life then evaporate.

    Thanks for illuminating that angle!

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