On Improv and Obfuscation

Published by ShawnKinley on

Earth From Mars


Student Post

On Improv and Obfuscation


The Basic Fault is the bad feeling, the somatic reaction, psychological upset, confusion and negative belief about the self that results from needs not met in infancy. It is the primal wound that is the foundation and reason for the psychological, behavioral and somatic patterns that interrupt aliveness and wellbeing. The Basic Fault is a lie about the Self that is held deeply in the body and the psyche. It is also the root of upsets in the present. Everyone has a Basic Fault.  

Agency is one of the patterns that IBP identifies for coping with the Basic Fault. The infant adopts a coping strategy of abandoning Core Self in an effort to meet the caretaker’s needs. The child reduces breathing, numbs its self- awareness and focuses on the needs of the mother (or primary caretaker) in an effort to influence the mother to better meet the child’s needs. As an adult, Agency takes the form of abandoning one’s self and taking responsibility for another’s wellbeing.”

-Jack Rosenberg

In Rosenberg’s thinking, we are injured by being alive. Unable to read each other’s minds, as infants we inevitably suffer the pain of feeling unseen, unheard, and uncared for. This injury varies greatly in extent and quality from person to person, but in receiving the injury a little part of us shuts down. Agency is Rosenberg and company’s label for one way of coping with this injury. The infant tries to take care of the caretaker, and in doing so abandons itself. Adults in Agency feel a need to ensure other people are taken care of. The need, however, does not come only from empathy; it also comes from the primal terror of abandonment. It is compulsive.

Inadvertently, Agency comes with a status exchange. The person in Agency feels, “I have to help you.” They are helpers, even when the other person does not want or need help. Agency leads people to disrespect others’ boundaries. In an earnestly developed arrogance, those in Agency decide that other people need help, and they will deliver this help.

So, in this paradigm, the way to get out of Agency is to get to the root injury. To heal, the person in Agency addresses their own feelings of abandonment first. Then, they are able to help people in a more authentic way, and do so because the situation calls for it, instead of out of a compulsive need. They respect others’ boundaries (by helping authentically when the situation and other actually call for it) and their own boundaries (by not putting themselves in unnecessary physical or emotional danger and burning out).

Some quick digressions:

  • Improvisation is not therapy. It can be therapeutic, a skilled drama therapist may use it as part of their toolbox, but we should not confuse the two.
  • -I’m sure an actual therapist trained in IBP would be able to find a bunch of problems with the way I interpreted it here. I’m not a therapist and this is not therapeutic advice; for this piece of writing I merely intend to use it as a metaphor.
  • -There was a study done in the ‘60s when people did psychedelics during therapy. It proved very effective, but one of the interesting results was that people’s trips were entirely based on their therapy (e.g. Freudians revisited childhood traumas, Jungians met archetypes, etc.). What appeared to matter was the belief in the metaphor used in therapy more so than the specific metaphor in resolving their problems.

I wouldn’t apply this idea to improvisation therapeutically, but I think the metaphor is useful. Some performers get on stage and feel a compulsive need to give the audience a good time. It is inauthentic. A performer’s fear of the audience abandoning them pushes a performer to

  1.  killing vulnerability with gags or
  2.  over-emoting, eliminating the distance between the actor’s ego and the character they play.

At times, improvisers kill scenes with gags to assure the audience there is nothing to worry about. The same way a joke can defuse a tense situation, an improviser can pathologically gag to assure the audience any risk of failure doesn’t matter because this is all a big joke. Audiences might laugh, but the audience can even feel pressure to laugh because they feel like the performer needs to hear it. It is not a pathetic laugh, but a laugh for the pathetic.

Over-emoting, being ‘authentic’ instead of authentic, can also come from fear of the audience’s abandonment. If the audience is bored, or disengaged, an actor can over-commit to show the audience this is ‘real’ theatre. (I blame Stanislavski’s worst students in America for disseminating the bizarre idea that you should act like you have lost touch with reality). This leads to performances that are scary for the audience. They fear for the actor’s ego being damaged (e.g. crying because their feelings are hurt instead of playing a character), because it seems the performer is unwell. An audience wants to see a performer in actual emotional danger as much as they want to see stage light fall and injure someone.

Of course, in both cases the audience craves what the performer wants to deliver. The audience wants to laugh, the audience wants to be taken to real emotional moments, but if the performer is compelling them from the fear of abandonment, it is unlikely to happen.

It is important, too, for teachers not to believe they can intimate this is why performers are over-committing or killing scenes for laughs. A teacher believing they know why someone is acting the way they do can come from Agency as well. Improvisation teachers are not therapists. As teachers, all we can do is watch the audience, the performer, and their reactions to each other. Our goal is to help performers recognize the signals they are sending and receiving, especially those they have missed. It is up to the performer to figure it out.

When performers can sit comfortably in their own skin, they become truly capable to play freely in front of an audience and visit emotional places. When a teacher is not compulsively trying to coach students, then teachers can coach moments of genuine epiphany out of their students (I have had many such moments with Shawn as a teacher). Paradoxically, working from a place of genuine safety is required to explore real risk.

Categories: Paul


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