Recently I had the pleasure of seeing an “A-ha!” moment in one of my dear friends and colleagues as it relates to teaching in improv. We’ve been friends for close to five years, and have performed with the same troupe for the same amount of time. To preface this moment, let me give a little background on how I lead our troupe workshops.
I always have us begin and end in a circle. There are multiple reasons for this, but the most important I feel is that it puts us all on the same page; altogether, and united. King Arthur knew what he was about with his roundtable.
So after we’re in a circle, and the workshop is about to be concluded, and we just spent two hours working on whatever was the focus, I ask everyone to close their eyes and think about three things that they learned. While they’re thinking I will calmly review the steps of the workshop for them; what we talked about, what was lecture and what was the application, some of the standout moments, etc. I do this, again, for many reasons, but the primary one to share now is that in most learning environments, after the lesson is done, everyone breaks and shoots off in a million directions, all thoughts focused on what is next to come. But what happened to what was just addressed? When will be the next time either the teachers or students of that particular moment go back and ponder on what they actually gained, or perhaps lost, from the ordeal? What key and vital inspirations were revealed? What was potentially lost when upon completion the next immediate thoughts were, “What do I have to do next?”
If we are ever honestly going to learn, I believe we first have to spend some time where we’re at, and with what we just received. Only then can we more assuredly make proper changes in the futures to come.
So, with our improv troupe, we spend time in the circle, reminiscing on what we learned. And learning isn’t restricted to just new information. Perhaps something we already knew was supported and beautified. Maybe our curiosity was aroused, and we have questions. There might have been a moment watching someone else where we thought, “Ooh, I like that!” Or, “Hmmm, I don’t think that was [insert observation here].” Maybe our perspective shifted. And maybe, what we gained was something new. However learning comes to us, by taking the time to write it upon our hearts and minds ensures our increased success the next time.
Then I ask everyone in the circle to share one of the things they learned with the group. This is powerful for, again, multiple reasons. One, I as the teacher get to see what was retained and what “wasn’t.” Two, they, as participants, get to vocalize their comment, which cements it and makes it more tangible for them. Three, we all get to learn together as we see what is important to our fellow friends and performers. And last, we get to learn the valuable lesson that we don’t all need to take something different away from an experience. All we need is to acknowledge what made a difference to us.
Many times in this circle multiple people will share the same exact thing. This is more than ok, it is incredible! What is most important, I always share, is that what you learned is personal to you. It’s yours, and you learned it. That’s what matters.
Now knowing this, I’ll share the moment I had with my friend. She had the opportunity to teach a workshop all on her own. She is a phenomenal improviser, and her skills are not only finely tuned, but they are growing. She’s expressed a desire to start teaching more, and I am more than happy to oblige.
I wasn’t able to attend this particular workshop, but she chose to include ending in the circle, reviewing what was learned. When I next saw her, we were in an informal place, where we were hanging out with friends and as friends. I took a moment to ask how the workshop went, and she shared something with me that made me smile.
Now while I don’t remember it word for word, I do recall some specifics as well as the general expression she used. She said, “You know Bryce when we go around [in the circle] and share what we learned, and you would share what you learned as the instructor, I always thought you were a pretentious asshole. You’re the teacher! What could you be learning, and why would you rub it in our faces as the instructor? But after I taught that class, and we reviewed what we learned, suddenly I understood. I got it. I learned so much by teaching, and I had no idea.”
This made me smile because I understood exactly what she meant. As a student, it can be difficult to imagine the teacher gaining anything beneficial from a standard workshop. But my experience has taught me the exact opposite.
When I was going through my colored belts in karate as a teenager, my instructor required us to achieve a certain amount of teaching hours to advance. I had no idea then what this was doing for me. It wasn’t until I was in my higher belts, close to achieving my black belt, that the significance of what she’d provided us hit me. This was when my martial arts education began to soar. I not only learned the material for my next belt, but I gained a much deeper understanding of what I’d already learned.
I had another growing experience with this many years later when I was asked by my high school drama teacher to coach their improv team, which was an after-school affair. This was around the year 2014. Up to that point I’d been involved in improv for around five years, not all of it sequential, though. I was a regular player on a troupe in Utah, but most of my experience came from falling down and having to figure out how to pick myself back up. I was a patchwork quilt of comedy, but warm and wanting more. When she asked me to coach, I immediately said yes as I was so excited.
I was competent enough to believe I could teach high school students, but I wasn’t prepared for the absolute education I was about to receive.
At the end of that first year, I could see a dramatic improvement in my own abilities that opened my eyes and excited me in powerful ways. For years, up to that point, I had felt stagnant and frustrated with my improv abilities, unable to understand what I needed to do to get better. Little did I know that all I had to do was be willing to share what I already had with others.
In the capacity of an instructor, I was now forced to ask questions that didn’t apply to me. I needed to explain things or show things in ways that my students would be able to understand and follow. I needed to not only think outside the box, but be willing to morph it, or break it if needs be, to offer something meaningful and of value. By doing this, by focusing on others and not on myself, my own skills and proficiency doubled and still continues to grow.
I still teach improv at my old high school. I still participate in martial arts at the same dojo. And I’m still learning and growing as long as I admit that I’m still a student.
When I earned my black belt, I was over the moon. When I humbled my pride and returned years later to continue my education and go past the black belt, it was then that my mentor taught me the value of taking time to realize what I’ve learned. It was also the moment when he showed me that the real adventure of martial arts begins after the black belt. This is a lesson I recognize as existing everywhere, not just in the dojo. When I returned to that dojo, the first things we covered were the white belt grabs. A black belt restudying white belt grabs…goodness, the irony.
We didn’t engage in the white belts grabs as a white belt, though. We were black belts, building on the already sturdy foundation we had, and taking the basics and allowing them to show us how magnificent they truly are. Those white belts techniques taught me that we are never ever done learning. Even the most basic method will blossom more and more if we can invite it into our lives as our experience grows with it.
With improv, the very nature of its form is change and perspective. It needs to be molded, morphed, and changed. When we stand in the circle, as a group, we are opening ourselves up to something much higher than the individual. But the individual benefits the most. When we take time to revisit what we did and learn from it, we don’t take steps backward. We soar forward. When we apply ourselves to teaching, which requires us to think about others, our very souls swell with improvement.
Once something has been learned, it is never finished.
Oh, quite the contrary.
For you who reads this, think about what you know. Or even what you profess to know. Now, I challenge you to share that with another vocally. You will see, during that conversation, if you’re willing to, just how deep your knowledge goes. You will discover the holes that your mind on its own is unable to see. You will be privy to a grander opportunity than ever there could be solely on your own.
I challenge you to extend beyond your own mind. To think what you’ll uncover!