Friday, May 16, 2014

Taking an Improv Class

Tonight, I made good on my long-held goal to try to take an improv class. This refers, to anyone who does not know, to a method of improvisational acting that can actually be quite fun whether or not you like acting. I had experienced improv a little bit in summer camps I had been in as a kid and always loved it, craved it even, but it was so short. I always wanted to do it again but never had the chance.

I met someone who runs very affordable improv classes in the Portland area during an event on First Friday in Portland, and decided to go for it. My chemical sensitivities, as those who know me know, have made it difficult if not impossible for me to go into most buildings for the last seven years, but I made a promise to myself to try to start challenging it and finding a way to be part of the world again after seven years of isolation. I finally moved into Portland and had the transportation to be able to get there. The rest I figured I would just try to figure out.

Dealing with the Sensory Challenges of the Class

The class is located near the Mill Creek area of South Portland. I took the SMCC bus at 615 and discovered it was quite a bit further from Mill Creek than I realized, but no matter. I found the building easily enough but had a difficult time figuring out how to get in. Once in, I was confronted with a very large and unwieldy building and no idea where to go. I tried to center myself, but got quickly overwhelmed, especially when the carpeted part of one area smelled more than the linoleum and I was afraid after so much effort, I wouldn't be able to stay. Three or four senior citizens who I asked directions of later (I got good asking directions from all the cities I moved to, ha) I finally found the elevator and the right room.

I could do nothing but sit on the floor and try to center myself for several minutes when I first got there. I was so overwhelmed and not sure if it was something I could tolerate or not. I tried to lose myself in the songs on the radio for a few minutes and calm down. The guy who ran the class was very understanding, which helped, and told me I could join when I felt able. I felt calmer after a few minutes and sat down in time for the introductions.

The lighting is a bit of a problem. Unfortunately, I am having to deal with the fact and discovery that sensory processing disorder is not limited to just one sense. After seven years of centering my life around avoiding fragrances and chemicals, I am now finding that there are other things I have to contend with that are unfortunately just as bad. For example, having too many people in too small of a space can be just as overwhelming from an auditory/noise point of view, to the point where I just shut down and feel a primal need to escape that eclipses all other feelings (At Salt today during the intermission, at the Jewish museum after the services during the oneg in that small room with like 50 people, and to a lesser but still intense extent when I tried to go into the Flatbread restaurant when someone I knew was playing music there - I'm now beginning to recognize when I'm at the tipping point and just leaving without trying to push myself into meltdown mode or judging myself, which is frustrating but good.) One other trigger apparently is fluorescent lights. You don't really run into fluorescent lights that much when the only places you ever go are natural food stores or other hippie type places, but yeah apparently they're a thing. A thing that overwhelms. I had heard of fluorescent lights as being a common Aspie sensory trigger, of course, but I never really had the opportunity to find out for myself until recently how bad they are for me. I think the onset of the stress from college and of my chemical sensitivities must have made all my other senses about 10x more acute, because I can think of no explanation for how else I survived college with sensitivities this intense.

So, the room had fluorescent lights. I figured I could tolerate it for as long as it took to do introductions, and we turned one of them off afterwards. I relaxed instantly , to a degree, when it was off, it's amazing how fast and how much it makes my body feel like it's under attack. We still had one on, which was still some strain but tolerable as long as I was not under it and stayed in the side of the room without it. People were very understanding, which was nice. Several of the older woman echoed my opinion about the lights.

So, the fragrance/chemical level was "there's definitely something here but I think I can tolerate it if properly engaged with something outside of myself" and the lights were iffy but I did my best to try and ended up succeeding.

The Improv Class Itself

This is probably the only activity I have done lately that has had an equal number of young and older people. All of my activities have been pretty much all older people or in the case of the open mic mostly but not all younger people. I found it very amusing how people, probably without realizing it, segregated themselves according to age. There were 10 or so people, and the four or so young people were sitting on the left hand side of the room together. The four or so older people, probably in their 50s or 60s, were next. The one person who might have seemed like he was in between those two age groups was after that. Fascinating how people do that.

After introductions, there were several activities in a circle in the room. I was okay as long as I was on the right side of the room. They were mostly done with partners. One involved mirroring the other's body movements to some degree, which I was not good at as I seem to have trouble imitating movements in others. The next involved using numbers to stand in for words to express emotions. One person would say "1," the other would say 2, the other would say three, and so on. Following that were activities where you actually got to use words, which was far more enjoyable.

I had not that much idea what to expect, but what I found fascinating was this. In his introduction about improv and in his instructions about the exercises we were doing, the teacher in essence provided the beginnings of a road map to answer all of the existential and very real angst I have experienced and described in the last two months (I have experienced it all my life but only began to really ask the right questions in the last 2 months).

From the very beginning, he instructed us to express emotions in our exchanges. He instructed us to express and exchange emotions with others. Even when we had no words, we were to do this. That was where we started. Seriously. Expressing emotions to others. I'm standing there thinking to myself "I've spent the last week intensely writing about trying to figure out the process of expressing and receiving emotions from others and then I happen upon an improv class that's TEACHING it? Omg!"
What's this about the universe leading you to where you need to be?

I need to bring more paper next time... but here is one quote I wrote down that I wanted to reflect on. "If you try to figure out the best possible thing to say, if you're in your head evaluating all the options for maximum effectiveness instead of in the moment, you miss out on it [ the moment]. If you trust yourself, and say whatever comes to mind, a connection will be possible." (Paraphrased).
How relevant that is to me, since a large part of the reason I feel like I can't connect with anyone is that I am so much in my mind with my anxiety about what to say and I am not able to pick up on the moment. People often don't believe me when I say this because I talk a lot. I am told I do not come across as unconfident. But I only talk a lot because I have too much anxiety to be quiet. Well , and because I have a lot on my mind and an intense desire to connect.  But the sense of anxiety keeps me from truly connecting. Trusting myself and being as Margie puts it in my center would probably enable me to feel the connection, if I could find a way to do that.

He said something about how sometimes when people don't know what to do, they retreat, which is something I'd like to touch on more and explore more.

Apparently, the tagline for improv is "Yes, and." In other words, you first validate and support what your improv partner is trying to do and then you build upon it. So, you validate and add a sentence. Conversations or scenes are built in this way.

I can think of no better way to describe what I have been so desperately trying to get other people in my life to do other than to describe it as "Yes, and." Marshall Rosenberg in his book Nonviolent Communication describes a way of communication that centers around validating and then adding to what was said as well. But "Yes, and" is such a succinct way to put it. People in my life usually forget the "Yes" part and either don't add on or add on something that feels completely invalidating or rejecting of what I have said. "Yes, and" is a wonderful lesson.

Improv as he explained it is not just an "acting" exercise. It could be and is an instruction manual for how to communicate in life. Why it is relegating to an "acting" class I have no idea. What a backwards society we are in - we have all these rules for how to "act" in our daily life, and when I finally find an environment where it's socially sanctioned to act silly or say whatever is on your mind, it's called "an acting class." Hello??? What is ACTING about saying what is on your mind? What is real about acting and pretending to not say what is on your mind? Humans are messed up.

I was not the only one to make this observation, apparently. One of the other woman asked something like "Is this marriage counseling or improv?" with a laugh.

Blocking and Conflict in my Life

There was something about the concept of blocking which I have not the energy to go into in depth. Something about saying something invalidating or difficult to your improv partner so as to block their ability to finish the scene. So if you have two people with a very good flow, back and forth, and one says something to block the flow, that is considered blocking. I asked, how would you define it? What are you supposed to do with it? And why bother learning about it? The answer, that a good improv person can work around all blocks. As to why, he left that unclear. But I realized after we did an exercise about it that 95% of all my interactions with other people, especially those I am closest with, in my daily life are blocked. In other words, the method we were being instructed to use was one I had intimate experience with. It was a little triggering, but interesting. It gave me a word or concept to understand a little why I feel so shut out from people in all my interactions. When I talk, people never follow me to where I am going. They just don't. My ideal interaction would be a mutual flow of energy and conversation back and forth, but it never happens. Instead I am relegated to asking questions at the end of lectures which are invariably praised, but do not provide opportunity for meaningful discussion... throwing monologues of sort at people not knowing any other way to connect... being usually met with silence, or passive criticism. It drives me insane. I don't care what the topic is. I just want to find a way to exchange energy back and forth with people. I care not the method as long as my sensory needs are being met. This is very difficult to find a way to do or to express the need of to people. That is frustrating to say the least.

I realized, however, that due to all of my sensitivities, the people in my life may have unconsciously felt like they were being "blocked", as when someone complains "I can't do XXXXX because of XXXXX" enough times, it probably makes you feel frustrated and less likely to have empathy for their situation. Perhaps the people in my life and I have just gotten so stuck in our roles that resulted from this primary experience that we are unable to get out of them. If I can find a way to be competent in the world, to be functional in the world, truly competent in my own way but with whatever accommodations I may need (and find a way to ask for them and receive them without shame), and I can do this without the help of those who have long since become weary of my asking, then I may have a far safer basis from which to communicate with them. I may find that their flow of ideas and energy open up a lot more when they're not feeling attacked by my needs. Finding that space in the middle may be impossible, but it is worth trying. Or as Courtney said, the best way sometimes to get someone to talk is to leave the space (silence) for them to do so. Not true all the time, but I need also to find a way to be more concise or leave more space if I expect others to contribute to the conversation.

All the people were quite nice and friendly. I loved the exercises where we were given a premise and then instructed to build a conversation (or scene) around it. One was "Talk about a trip you were just on" and one was "You met a really strange guy named Murray. Discuss." Basically what I end up spending all my time doing, wandering around Portland trying to start conversations with people, was being sanctioned as an exercise. Very cool. In improv, there is no "doing it wrong." It is fully sanctioned to be silly, feel silly, and say whatever is on your mind. Our conversation about the trip involved going to the moon and eating cheese, which was my idea and quite fun. I was embarrassed at first after. I said to my partner, embarrassed "I don't know where all those ideas came from." She said "No, that's what you're supposed to do! That was good." An activity where my intensity, weirdness and creativity is actually sanctioned? My, my.

The "strange guy named Murray" was particularly interesting. My partner was a guy who seemed about my age. We probably had the only Deadhead Murray. I was quite surprised that this guy my age was able to follow my lead and could come up with Dead songs that this imaginary guy liked to play on his guitar. He said he knew it from the radio, but the radio plays like exactly one Dead song. I heard it on WFNK earlier, Touch of Grey. We must both have hippie parents. Very cool.

The activity he ended on where a question was asked (how, why) and three people gave one word of an answer had me laughing hysterically and I only wished it could have lasted far longer. It's like... being part of something. A shared experience. A shared, creative, collaborative experience that builds on itself and uses humor to connect. I could have asked for nothing better, no better way to connect. It did not last very long and I really wanted to do it for more than just 5 minutes but it was really cool.

So... How to sum this up? This improv acting class ended up being a class where people could practice what it means to be human. I can think of no better application of Greenspan's circles of communication autism therapy than this. But its applications are not limited to autism, they affect everyone who is human. I am nervous about my ability to tolerate the building and the lights, but I am definitely going to try again, because what choice do I have? I need emotional connection - defined here as simply being emotionally present with another person and having some sort of exchange of energy - more than I need anything else in the world, and this promises to offer it.

Stay tuned... Oh, and the girl that gave me a ride back was awesome and that was really cool too.
I sat on a bench on the Eastern Prom for 90 minutes thinking afterwards, as is elucidated in my other blog entry from tonight.

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