March 26

Improv and Vulnerability

Vulnerability is a gift. 

Though when you go looking for its dictionary definition, you may find something less appealing. No need to go Googling, I have done the research for you…

Vulnerability is defined as “openness to attack or hurt, either physically or in other ways; susceptibility.”

Ouch.

When a word is primarily defined by attack and hurt, it certainly seems like less of a gift worth peddling or prizing. However, if you were to read on to the second portion of the definition, you will find: 

“willingness to show emotion or to allow one’s weakness to be seen or known; willingness to risk being hurt or attacked”

Oh man, we can’t seem to shake those words hurt and attack. We get it, vulnerability, you aren’t easy. But that phrase, “willingness to show emotion” is a bit more friendly. Or is it?

Vulnerability is a buzzword of modern times. Its commonality in our daily discourse has risen steeply since the mid-20th century. Never have our emotions and stark honesty been so fashionable than now, specifically living in this post-pandemic world of pantless Zoom meetings and a steady stream of adversity. No longer could most of us hide the harsh realities of our struggles, nor did we have the energy to do so. Hence, we have shown our weakness. We are vulnerable. 

So what can we do with that?

Vulnerability in Improv

The foundational tenet of improvisation is “yes, and.” We say yes to our scene partner to move the scene forward. We accept the reality they offer and we “and” that reality with our own addendum. We collaborate moment to moment, in real time, building something that could not have existed without these people, in this place, with these ideas. It is the very spirit of vulnerability to say yes without thinking, judging, or planning out your next move. 

Is moving forward without planning really opening yourself to attack? It can feel that way if you are a person who is used to having all the control. Maybe in your everyday life that is you, as the boss, the parent, or the primary holder of the remote. Letting go can feel uncomfortable, even dangerous. When we improvise, we accept saying yes to whatever our partner offers, and we offer our ideas, knowing that when we do, they belong to the ensemble. 

Vulnerability in Creativity

Ask anyone who has sat down alone and written anything (present company included!), and they will tell you it is lonely and sometimes difficult. Creating anything, whether it is a drawing, a story, or a client proposal, takes exposure. Being open to your feelings and ideas is necessary to organizing them into something new. Imagine doing that with a partner or with a group. On the challenging side, it means you must be vulnerable to others, despite not knowing exactly how things will turn out. On the comforting side, you are able to share the moment of creation with others, knowing that no matter how it turns out, you didn’t do it alone. 

At the start of many improv shows, the host may remind the audience that what they are about to see has never happened before, will never happen again, and is indeed unique to this very moment. What they may not name specifically is that the one-in-a-trillion quality of the moment is due to vulnerability. The creation of the art shared on an improv stage is dependent on the willingness of each person in the room to surrender to the next moment. And the next and the next, without planning exactly what will happen independently. Instead, the vulnerability is fully interdependent, giving and taking until a story is told.

Vulnerability in Relationships

Being open and honest with your partner in romantic relationships is a given to fostering trust and closeness. Now consider vulnerability in other relationships. How do you foster trust with family, with co-workers, with the insurance company agent you waited 45 minutes to speak to on the phone? Vulnerability is valuable in all situations.

Self-disclosure is the foot-in-the-door of vulnerability. When you display a picture on your desk at work of your last family vacation, you share a piece of yourself with your colleagues, trusting them to know more about you and your obsession with the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Specific details about yourself, even those shared with that insurance agent over the phone, identify you as a unique human, creating connection.

On the improv stage or in the classroom, we practice self-disclosure through games and exercises that use our life experiences to create stories with our ensemble. Unlike scripted theatre, we are the character study. We form bonds with our scene partners over shared experience and common emotions. We may even get to geek out over our extensive Harry Potter knowledge.

Open Up to Improv

Improv is a safe, supportive, and fun place to learn more about yourself and those in your ensemble. Self-disclosure within the structure of an improv exercise makes vulnerability less a risk of attack and more an opportunity for attunement. Introducing the element of play into our work and lives keeps us open to connection, and to the gift of vulnerability.


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