“Well, improv is really the foundations of all success and happiness. It’s such an overwhelmingly positive and life-affirming and confidence-building and friend-creating thing.”
I love the phrase life-affirming. Friendship and confidence are great. Success and happiness are whatever. But life-affirming? That’s an idea I can get behind.
In my article, I describe an improvisational ethos as an alternative to traditional classroom practice. I write about teaching high school English in the piece, but I’m thinking about education in general. I never suggest that traditional schooling is death-affirming. But I never suggest that it isn’t, either.
Classrooms ought to be life-affirming places. There’s few places where people might gather in affirmation of each other. Maybe church. Maybe music. Maybe improv. Certainly not most jobs. The marketplace is about people making more money than other people. Accumulating wealth is not the same as affirming life.
Of course, classrooms, churches, music, and improv are often not life-affirming places. Most of my time spent in the places mentioned above has been painful in one way or another. People are so good at being mean to other people. Negating each other. Trying to claim power over each other. That’s not affirmational. I always come back to it in these blogs – improv, if nothing else, gives us practice in affirming each other. And I continue to be captured by how strange it is to exist in places where people gather in affirmation of each other.
I memorized Garden of Love by William Blake when I was a sophomore in college. That was almost twenty years ago. The poem stays with me. It’s short. Three stanza’s. Let me think through them with you. Here:
“I went to the Garden of Love / And saw what I never had seen / A Chapel was built in the midst / Where I used to play on the green.”
The speaker returns to a green place where they played as a child. A religious structure, a Chapel, surprises them. Keep reading:
“And the gates of this Chapel were shut / And Thou shalt not. writ over the door: / So I turn’d to the Garden of Love / That so many sweet flowers bore.”
The Chapel is a negation to the speaker. The gate is shut. “Thou shalt not.” Nothing affirmational about that. And the Chapel is unlike the Garden of Love. The only capitalized ideas in the poem. One more stanza:
“And I saw it was filled with graves / And tomb-stone where flowers should be: / And Priests in black gowns, were walking their rounds / And binding with briars, my joys & desires.”
There was death where there should have been life. Because the Chapel and the Priests bound the speaker’s joys and desires. Religiosity exists as a negation of the Garden of Love, of the speaker’s life.
The poem seems relevant to me as I think about my writing about improv as an affirmation of life.
Indulge me one super scholarly quote. Lots of words. Sometimes big thoughts need lots of words. Here’s Elizabeth Grosz (2017) writing about her concept of incorporeality:
“the direction or trajectory that orients a movement of concepts or thought, that constitutes the possibility of a process of understanding, that enables the creation of a philosophy or a work of art as an emergence from and an entwinement with a material order, planets, stars, constellations, nebulae, and so on, beyond us, and a world of objects, things, processes, and events that constitute materiality on earth, with the emergence and evolution of life in its growing complexity” (p. 250).
Did you make it through that quote? It’s a doozy. I think I’ve used it in one of these blogs before. But check that last phrase one more time. Life in its growing complexity. I read the passage this way: How can we orientate ourselves to an entanglement with the universe that embraces and encourages complex life?
Yes, schools, churches, music, improv often serve to bind with briars our joys and desires. Priests with black gowns. Musicians with black gowns. Improv directors with black gowns. Teachers with black gowns. And all that’s left to show are tombstones. A Chapel built in the midst, where we ought to be playing in the green. But I’ve found a unique potential in the spaces I’ve mentioned above to do something else.
Look, so many of the things I’m doing these days are about people practicing the work of being in affirmation to each other. In affirmation of what I understand as life in it’s growing complexity. In other words, I don’t know what you are and what you are becoming. But I’m going to challenge myself to be in affirmation of you as you do so. And I’m going to challenge others to imagine how to cultivate their capacity to affirm each other. In church. In music or improv or art or whatever. This list is my own. I don’t know where you seek affirmational spaces. But I know one place nearly everybody in this country spends time.
Grosz, E. (2017). The incorporeal: Ontology, ethics, and the limits of materialism. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.
Hinds, J. (2018). “Improv Is a Way of Life for Jackson, Who’s at Detroit Improv Festival.” Detroit Free Press, 8 Aug. 2018, www.freep.com/story/entertainment/2018/08/08/brooklyn-nine-nine-marc-evan-jackson-detroitimprov-fest/925503002/