A midwife supports a woman through the vulnerable and awe-inspiring process of birth. Her job is to honor the mother’s process, to provide support, wisdom on the process of birthing, and ultimately supporting the mother’s individual birthing choices. This job is so important for the mother- a vulnerable process… to birth a new being into the world.
I see my job as improvisation teacher very similarly to that of midwife. I feel so honored to support a new improvisor on his/her artistic path. It’s a journey- to birth each improvisor’s unique artistic voice.
It’s a different path to teach in this way. And it is very stealth. Some notable teachers which appear to teach improv in this manner are Armando Diaz, Viola Spolin, and Bill Arnett. It’s a less charismatic way of teaching… it honors the artist, the student. The Midwife Improv Teacher allows and encourages creative choice, provides safety and containment in free expression, and trusts and values the student’s experiential process of learning.
I remember taking a class with Armando Diaz recently at the San Francisco Improv Festival. After the class, I was describing my experience to another improvisor. I remembered Armando’s lessons and exercises/ focus to the class, I remembered the scenes I shared with my fellow class mates, and I remembered feeling great about the work I did on stage. I was struck by my lack of memory regarding Armando, himself. I had a really hard time remembering Armando’s personality, or even him being in the room at times. He seemed very calm. I felt a calm, non-judgmental presence, which allowed me to relax into playing and fully express myself. Unlike other classes with more charismatic teachers, I left getting to know more about myself as an improvisor, and my strengths and areas of improvement. I also studied with Armando in New York when he launched his private classes in the early 2000’s, and recalled a similar experience of Armando’s “ninja-like” disappearing from the class. He would then later reappear unobtrusively with a short, concise, and extremely helpful note.
Some of my favorite improv teachers teach in this midwife manner. Their skills lie in supporting an improvisor’s unique voice and creativity. Often these teachers are less appreciated, unsung heroes so to speak, because they tend to disappear, allowing the student to be the star of their own show. This feminine archetype of midwife- supporting the birth of creativity- is often challenging to market and sell, as it is purely experiential for the improvisor- and thus a different experience for each individual. The improvisor becomes confident in his/her choices as an artist, and does not become dependent on the instructor for their approval or disapproval.
Viola Spolin, the original improv midwife explains the crippling effects of the approval/disapproval syndrome.
“If you have survived by trying to please others, figuring out what they want you to say and how they want you to act – and then doing so with as much skill and originality as possible, your approval/disapproval syndrome is highly active. Approval or disapproval received from others has no doubt become your own and, without conscious realization on your part, is dictating and critiquing the way you do things, creating robotlike behavior in you with almost total loss of any insight. You are not only prevented from having a direct experience, but also blind to what a direct experience is.”
I’ve taken many improv classes with Bill Arnett over the years and consciously integrate much of his midwife teaching style into my own. In one class, Bill said, “Your inspiration is ALWAYS correct.” This statement is powerful. Bill encourages improvisors to trust their impulses, their thoughts, authentic feelings, and continue to practice a radical act of SELF LOVE as an improvisor. To ALWAYS trust your choices and instincts as an artist, thus birthing your own special blend of creativity.
The improvisor becomes acutely aware of his/her strengths, thus building one’s confidence. The birthing process is unique to every woman, as is the process and study of improvisation. The Midwife Improv teacher is aware of this and ultimately is supporting the artist in finding his/her own voice. This brings me to an awesome moment in movie history with a very glamorous midwife teacher sharing some sage advice.
Dorothy: Oh, will you help me? Can you help me?
Glinda, the Good Witch: You don’t need to be helped any longer. You’ve always had the power to go back to Kansas.
Dorothy: I have?
Scarecrow: Then why didn’t you tell her before?
Glinda, the Good Witch: Because she wouldn’t have believed me. She had to learn it for herself.
In this moment, Glinda points Dorothy to her inner wisdom, a wisdom gained through experience. This wise mid-wife compassionately encourages Dorothy to look within, patiently expressing trust and faith in Dorothy’s strengths and her ability to uncover the answer.
Improv teachers, how can you best help your improv students recognize what they already have? How can you help strip them of “shoulds, rights and wrongs, and appropriates” in their improvisation scene? Ultimately helping them recognize their Ruby Slippers… I’d love to hear your thoughts! Please comment below and share YOUR unique wisdom.
Jill Eickmann, MA, MFT is an actor and improv teacher/director in the SF Bay Area. She is the Artistic Director and Co-Founder of Leela, a San Francisco based holistic improvisational theatre company and training center. She also produces for The San Francisco Improv Festival, and SF’s all women’s improv festival, Femprovisor Fest. She blogs at Femprovisor.com.