I am massaging my jawbones, thrusting by body forward and shouting an emphatic “Ah”. Then I am on the floor, hoisting my left arm up and down mechanically while grunting. Every few seconds somebody jumps in and joins with a repetitive movement justified by a plausible industrial buzz. The time is 7.20 pm, the place Rathmines town hall and the evening class I signed up for: Drama and Acting.
Today’s project; a warm-up and opening of the vocal passages followed by the creation of a giant 20-person-linked machine, which becomes progressively more complex as new members join it, is proving highly successful. Beyond the layers of mechanics, the ghost in the machine is concentrating hard.
Since we twenty odd locals – many of international origin – joined the class, we have been engaged in weekly displays of prepostrous behaviour. In week one we were asked to select a partner and decide which one of us would be the bossy one and which the submissive. The bossy boots was to lead their partner on daily adventures of their invention employing only the language of command. I partnered Sherry, a lady twice my age and thrice my grace. I was the boss and she my subservient. I led her around, making her jog by my side, pass me over her food in my favourite restaurant, and finally, bury a cat which I found lying on the roadside on the way home.
The predominant focus of these classes has been on improvisation, which Julie Poland, a business-coach blogger describes as “art with a strong foundation in science”. She is right, because to improvise is to create but also to reflect the maxims that guide successful interaction. Whether that interaction be with music, movement or other people, the key is to recognise patterns and to glide around them, using instinct as your guide.
My formal introduction to improvisation happened last summer, when I was studying as part of an international programme at the University of Bayreuth in Germany. I was only there for four weeks, but by the end of it, I was a proficient waffler in the German langauge and able to jump into a situation at just the right time to alleviate a waning scene. On the final night, there was to be an international farewell celebration and the drama group was to perform a selection of its improvisation-themed antics. “Kate”, said Thomas, the drama student and Bayreuth- local who had run the workshops, “We’re going to get you up to perform the object-imrov by yourself, mm kay?” “mm, WAS?” I replied, slipping firmly back into Kate Katharina Ferguson. ” I don’t vanna”.
He was having none of it, and stymied by my stiflingly sweet self, I couldn’t even make a scene. Ten minutes later, 150 people are watching in a dimmed performance area as I am called up to represent the drama group. Super-cool Teutonic Thomas explains the premise of the game to an eager audience. “Kate is an alien and this is her first visit to our world. She will be given an object and has to use the communication and motor skills indigenous to her own planet to make sense of it. Kate does not know what object she will be handed”. He motions to me to come forward.
From behind his back, he produces: a deodrant can. No biggie, sure don’t I love the attention. That’s it. Secretly, haven’t I always wanted to be an extrovert, and sure, haven’t I been waiting patiently for years and years for the chance to emerge with a can of deodrant and be… extrovert.
There is no option but to stop being Kate Katharina Ferguson. I detach myself in miliseconds and begin to make noises I consider eastern -European-sounding. With gestures of varying intrigue and reservation, I manipulate the cylidrical object in my possession. I have never commanded this much sustained attention in my life. The more I move the more I lose myself in the moment and when Thomas’ clap comes, signalling the end to my performance, I feel Kate Katharina gradually regain possession of body and mind as I shuffle a little awkwardly to the edge of the crowd and make mortified eye contact with my friends. Yonder though, the feeling of delight.
As somebody who is damned if I’ll shout to be heard, improvisation is an ideal way to command but not demand attention. Like the sensation of intoxication, improvisation interferes pleasantly with the inhibitory areas of the brain, which usually remind you not to order Sherry to bury an imaginary cat, regardless of how much it would amuse you.
So forget the psychobabble – sometimes trying to be something you’re not is the greatest favour you can do yourself. What do you think?