The Virtue of Exasperated Teaching

Paul Sills Teaching

The greatest teacher I ever met was Paul Sills, the founding director of Second City. I felt a bit like him last night.

One of the things I do is teach improvisation to business students. We use improvisation to develop professional presence skills. (By the way, I’m not going to be like Alan Alda who uses improvisation to teach scientific concepts, and not give credit where credit is due. My work stands squarely on the shoulders of the work of Paul Sills and of course, his mother Viola Spolin, whose book Improvisation for the Theater is one of the greatest books in the fields of both theater and education ever written. Never have people done such revolutionary work that had such wide and deep cultural and societal impact and received less credit for their genius. I yes, and what they did…in other words I create the new off of their foundation and add my own ideas, but that, of course, was their brilliant intention.)

Good improvisational practice makes one forget oneself. I direct students (as Paul and Viola would) to simply play the game. If one is intently focused on the points of concentration of an exercise one forgets his or her self-image and becomes free. When completely engaged in an action, paradoxically one’s authentic self is revealed. The principles of focusing on “points of concentration” can be applied not only to theater games, but also to pragmatic everyday tasks, including the activities of business practice (including working in teams, making presentations, conducting interviews and so on).

So I don’t do two things that traditional teaching of professional presence skills does. I don’t address specific issues like making eye contact, voice modulation or of course, shallow things like the “firm handshake” and such. I am not running a Dale Carnegie class. I also don’t discuss the students’ “feelings” with them. Feel anxious?—play the game! Think you are an introvert who has a hard time reaching out to people?—play the game! I am not a therapist. I am leading an experiential workshop with a learning objective of developing necessary business and life skills.

Yet in week-eight of a fifteen-week course, this particular group of students has some members who are still asking questions related to how they are supposed to deal with their self images (my only answer is to simply focus on the point of concentration of the exercise) and worthless concerns like “What do I do with my hands?” and “How can I be more confident?” (my only answer is to simply focus on the point of concentration.) My job is to devise sometimes elaborate points of concentration and direct and encourage them to train on those points with laser-like focus.

This crew has tougher nuts to crack than some other groups, but the difficulty is not ultimately their fault. They’ve been indoctrinated by an educational experience in this area that has often not considered these concepts in sufficient depth.

So last night, (and I realize this after the fact) I channeled Paul Sills. I, like Paul, am not an authoritarian teacher. I engage in an educational process in democratic relation to the students. So I expressed my frustration to them. And that frustration was similar to Paul’s I believe. It was a frustration that people would choose the prisons of pseudo-personal psychology and false societal demands as to how to behave (that aren’t effective for achieving personal goals anyway) instead of freedom. It was a frustration that people would want to be directed explicitly as to what to do in a certain situation instead of take a free opportunity to create—always. It was a frustration that people didn’t understand that you use the rational mind to consider strategies of ways to mediate the world (analytical thought to approach your points of concentration) so you can activate your spontaneity, creativity, authenticity and soul in the moment.

In retrospect, that frustration was an excellent teaching strategy. A student said it would take years to learn this. She is wrong. Do it—don’t resist it and the experience will teach it all to you, dammit! Of course, all the blocks people have are based on irrational fears that have been unaddressed and even nurtured by the traditional educational system. Exasperation is respectful to the student (You are more than able and should be able to do it!), and disrespectful to the fear itself and the teaching that has tolerated it for so long (Why are you honoring concepts and attitudes that are at best ignorant and at worst are designed to oppress you and keep you down?!?!!?!).

Paul told me about improvisational exercises once freeing (for a moment) a catatonic patient who began stroking a pretend cat in an exercise. I read an article where Second City is doing improvisation classes with Parkinson’s patients at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. Neurologists say that improvisation is an excellent therapeutic brain and body exercise for the patients.

Students please stop fighting me with ideas from 16 years of schooling and do it the right way. Today! We don’t have a time to value all of the faulty attitudes that are tying you up in artificial knots of your own and failed history’s making.

The exasperation worked last night as it has in earlier weeks in the course. The students broke through and they did good improvisational work. But they didn’t understand why. And they will backslide again. Viola Spolin wrote that anyone can improvise. Paul told me that anyone can do good improvisational work but only the really talented professional can do it consistently.

My goal is to get this group to do it consistently at a solid amateur level. They are not preparing for a life on the stage after all. Their consistency can be evidenced in just applying solid improvisational principles to their daily work.

Ironically, the exasperation expresses my true belief that they can accomplish that goal, just as Paul Sills showed me that respect to be a pro years ago. Paul knew that teaching people did not involve coddling them, but challenging them and imploring them to do their best and celebrating and reinforcing their best qualities when they succeed.

Copyright 2016 Richard Thomas

Here’s a postscript—an exchange on Facebook after this piece was posted.

XXXXXXXXXX I was the group target of his exasperation once. Not pretty.

26 mins · Like

Richard Thomas If you read the whole piece, XXXXXXXX, you’ll see my take on why his approach was so good. I’m sure you will probably disagree. But I see Paul as one of the great artists of the 20th century. Nio hyperbole there—he and Viola and David Shepherd revolutionized theater and education. It happened partially because he was so fierce in his vision. He saw the unseen like great artists do. I sure you see it differently and I respect your view—but this is mine. And I am not saying this to you personally—AT ALL—but he didn’t like mediocrity. And I think the world could use more of that.

Copyright 2015 Richard Thomas

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