This Wednesday I led a Street Training session at the South London Gallery. A practice developed by the artist Lottie Child, Street Training discovers and encourages different ways of being joyful and creative on the streets.
I came on some sessions this summer, where we walked on railings, used the bells from chained bicycles as an orchestra, hid in bushes and made human arches for pedestrians to walk through. I quickly became interested in how improvisation fed in to the principles Lottie was investigating; her living Street Training bibliography – a box of key texts, films and magazines – includes a copy of Impro. So I jumped at the chance to take this session, the first in a series with a group of teenagers living in Peckham.
I put together some games and exercises focused on collaboration and agreement, some of them tailored to face ‘out’ – at the environment, real physical space and objects – and introduced them to the dozen or so young people there. We then went freeform into the streets and estates, where I was looking to see if these impro principles guided certain patterns of behaviour.
What I learned
This group quickly let me know when their interest was waning: with in-jokes, rough and tumble play or simply by wandering off.
This made big demands on my attention and energy, but all in all I found this refreshing and really useful. My suspicion is that many times where the kids’ attention wandered, an older group would be doing the same, but are conditioned not to show it – at least, not at the earlier stages.
They were comfortable messing about, breaking taboos, touching and getting inside each others’ space.
For the purposes of impro, this is great; I’d say it’s great generally. It fits with Keith Johnstone’s insight that you start creative, and find that faculty stripped away by education (1). Johnstone is in fact critical of much of the civilising apparatus of society, which feeds a precarious and fragile egoic perspective, where failure must be avoided and elaborate social personas are needed to protect us from the judgments of others. We can’t fail, and failure is in the eye of our beholders.
There was still lots of blocking and avoidance going on. Only certain behaviours accepted.
I get the most insight from this through returning to Johnstone’s view, unpacked from a simplified ‘school blunts creativity’ to (hopefully) the truer rendition as ‘all social expectations constrain us in all manner of ways, including what we term creativity’. Teenage life may be one where we can disregard the social judgments of adults and authority figures, getting a kick from offence or daring, but the social judgments of peers? That’s a whole other thing. Consequently, acting edgy or knowing was a commonplace during the session, whereas exposing weakness or vulnerability was very infrequent. I suspect the opposite pattern would hold in other groups, eg those that hold values of pacifism, openness and revelation (2).
The point is that whichever social environments we evolve in are reproduced within us as a social persona: it is this that is problematic for genuine expression. I would be really excited to explore these avoided areas with this group, hopefully later this year. To me improvisation is an emancipatory practice, and its joy comes from opening up possibilities and being truly free in action and thought. I believe that it achieves this via its medium of play, so the trick is to ensure that the fun never gets sacrificed in order to address the important, as this would be self-defeating.
We had fun.
Which was great. At the start of the session I felt uncertain that everyone would be prepared to participate; this was an unknown quality to most of the group and I was a stranger to them. By session end, we had duelled in slow motion, worked together to get up and down safely onto garage roofs, and staged a record-breaking sprint, complete with medal ceremony.
Did Improv translate to the street?
I’m really happy with how things went. First sessions of anything have some work to do – to clarify what the practise is meant to be about, to allow participants to test the edges and figure out for themselves what they want from it. We seemed to do this pretty smoothly, and gave the group opportunities to safely interact, ways to reveal in a playful context, at your own pace. Even if the improvisation techniques only served to warm-up, connect and encourage a playful, safe mindset, then that’s a big success. Many improvisers argue that this is really all there is to improvisation in any case: be in a good state and the rest follows.
I’m still thinking about how the games we played, of rehearsal room origin, translate into the wider world. I wholeheartedly want to avoid enforcing ways of playing that are counterintuitive and unnatural, that introduce a ‘thinking step’ to an otherwise effortless process of play. So I didn’t push it when the first thing suggested out in the streets was to just play a big hide and seek, even though on its face this bears little relationship to the ethos of building ideas and finding new ways of interacting by focusing on your partners. Hide and seek it was! We just kept adding stuff to it: relationships, agendas, specialist hunting weaponry, whatever excited us to introduce.
In this way, and others, I saw enough glimpses to reassure me that, used with the right lightness of touch, the techniques and philosophies of impro do port across.
So thank you to Lottie and the South London Gallery, and all the young people who Street Trained with me. I hope to see you all again soon.
South London Gallery
(1) ideas similar to those currently promoted by education advisor Ken Robinson.
(2) And in fact, I’ve heard evidence second hand that this is the case.