This has been a wonderful week of discovery and development — two of my favorite activities!
On Saturday I co-led the second of three classes at the East Side Institute “What’s So Funny? All of Us!” with social therapist, theatre director and methodologist, Mary Fridley. We are exploring the role that humor plays in our lives and our emotional development.
In the world in which we live people often “lose their sense of humor”. Yet human beings have an enormous capacity to create joy with each other, often in the face of great adversity. Here’s an interesting and thought provoking quote from the great philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein:
Humor is not a mood but a way of looking at the world. So if it is correct to say that humor was stamped out in Nazi Germany, that does not mean that people were not in good spirits, or anything of that sort, but something much deeper and more important.
This very giving group of students shared that much of the time they feel humorless; we were able to give people an opportunity to see and experience that social activity creates joy and humor. In our culture we are taught that there are “funny people” but our species creates humor socially. We asked the participants to create a list of things they found funny and things that are not funny at all, where they felt no humor could be found. We then engaged in performance games in which the participants experienced that the source of humor was the activity of people creating together.
The games we played were the “multi-headed expert” game – five people stand closely together and speak one word at a time as though they share one brain in their five heads. I interviewed our “experts” on some of the topics that people felt couldn’t possible be the source of humor. They created delightfully ridiculous experts on very serious topics. We then had people perform an improvised scene with me, directed by Mary. Once again we were able to create humor from difficult scenarios such as one character telling the other that they have just discovered they have a chronic illness.
On Monday I had the opportunity to take this work into an hour long exploration of clowning with a most talented colleague, Jeff Smithson, a former hospital clown and longtime trainer with Performance of A Lifetime. Jeff and I are interested in discovering if we can use clowning and improv to help people develop in a variety of settings. Jeff directed me and helped my clown come into the world. As Jeff directed me in the basics of clowning I learned the value of the clown’s connection to the “other” (the audience).I also had a chance to watch him clown, I found this quite emotional; I discovered the deep human level that we connect to the silent clown. We connect to our humanity. That’s an experience we hope to share with many others.
Jeff had me come into a space with two chairs, one a “happy chair” and the other a “sad chair”. Simply by touching the chairs I’d either be happy or sad, with growing intensity. Sitting in the chairs would bring on great intensity of feelings — hapy or sad — depending on which chair I sat in. This was a marvelous exercise and experience. I’m looking forward to seeing what we can create with further exploration.
Later that day I had a coaching session with a graduate of the NYC Stern School of Business. This student is having a difficult time relaxing during interviews — she suffers from nervousness. As a very analytical individual she tries to have all her answers ready before the question is posed to her — part of her training in behavioral interviewing techniques. Although I appreciate and respect being prepared, it was clear that her focus on preparation has taken away from her ability to be present and spontaneous during the formal interviewing process. I identified a few things that some basic improvisational skills could remedy including making eye contact and remembering that the interviewer and she are creating a performed, improvisational conversation.
It occured to me that the experience of improv is exactly what she needed to discover that she could, indeed, handle not knowing where a conversation would lead. We played a one-word-at-a-time-story game. It was wonderful to watch her delight at discovering the fun in creating something unknown and pointlessly silly. She made a discovery that she could be spontaneous and creative!
Discovery and creativity — how joyful and developmental!