The Present Moment: What is the Power of the Now?

Driving on Bridge

Do you dwell in the past or the future? What do you do with your commute time? Sometimes I rehash conversations I had with my husband or children the night before, or with my mother decades ago. Sometimes I calculate the best route to outsmart the traffic, plot what I’ll cook for dinner, worry about how I’ll pay the bills, or strategize my next meeting or home remodel. Sometimes I ponder retirement or politics. In these moments I am unaware of the present moment. I hardly notice the morning sky or the plants blooming in my garden on the way out the door. I don’t see the faces of fellow commuters.

If my intellectual skill is analysis and planning, what is the use of the Now?

Improv can answer that question. In the Now problems co-exist with their solutions because all available resources and ideas exist in the Now. Creativity is in the Now. Inspiration, too. There are no new ideas in the past. Perhaps most importantly, connection with our fellows happens only in the Now. Listening is a tool of the Now. The ability to uplift or destroy another with a thought, word, or glance happens in the Now. Fun is here. Laughter, too. Intimacy takes place only in the present moment. Joseph Campbell counseled about following your bliss: It is here! It is here! It is here!

Children are born improv artists – master teachers of the value of the present moment. I dreamed up the Wonderland Playhouse Acting Improvisation and Storytelling Project because I was certain that more than being mere consumers of story, kids had their own stories to tell. My own children did. Their stories were epic and endless, and sufficient hours did not exist in a day to provide the audience they craved.

I really wanted to hear those stories. Weary of the predictable violence and lowest common denominator responses made popular by modern media, I was desperate for entertainment and dynamic stories of human experience. I hypothesized that children were capable of surprising artistic expression and great humanity. That’s why I was caught off guard when one of the early Playhouse sessions contained stories with chainsaws. I remember thinking, “My goodness, what have I done?”

What Happens When Violence Hijacks The Story?

Yes! And, . . .. Improv dictates all ideas are valid. Exerting authority to change unwanted ideas is not an option. I reminded myself I had intended to tell their stories. If they wanted to talk about chainsaws, so be it. We moved on to rehearsal. When the chainsaw hijacked the story the players were confused and dismayed. Once the gadget worked its magic the story was over, but they didn’t want the story to be over. (Do you remember what it felt like when your favorite game ended too soon?) We elected to re-write and we replaced the chainsaw with a magical medallion. This new device was more fun to play with and it transformed the story. Our chainsaw massacre evolved into a story of overcoming prejudice and the reunion of a boy and his father.

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These players needed to move past limited ideas to access deeper truths. We are trained early that knowing the right answer is prizeworthy. Being able to sit in not knowing takes courage and it is easier for kids. At first that chasm is scary because it feels empty. I remember when I couldn’t breathe in that space. But, just beyond that breathlessness are entire worlds full of ideas, resources, and friends to help. Commanding the courage to leap that divide, past the fear that you don’t know what to do, or the conviction that you’re not smart enough to do it, is a skill you were born with.

Thus, in the season of our discontent we learned to rely on each other, that the best impulse is not always the first impulse, and that waiting and listening in the Now is powerful.

Their story is A Dragon in Pink Bunny Town.

Children Writing Story: Once there was a . . .

thumb_20160918_112328_1024In my quest for creativity I studied story structure from a broad base of teachers: Aristotle, Homer, Lajos Egri, Lew Hunter, L. Frank Baum, C.S. Lewis, Steven Spielberg, Hayao Miyazaki, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Ira Glass, and the Three Stooges. My favorite storyteller was the whimsical bard Joseph Campbell who used the entire mythological library to weave webs in my mind that spanned time and culture.

In developing children’s programs for Wonderland Playhouse I began with structure. My three-act structure map was adapted from Campbell’s The Hero With A Thousand Faces. The map outlined plot elements along the timeline of a hero’s journey and we used it to analyze stories like Finding Nemo and The Wizard of Oz. Once players understood it, they collaborated to write their own improv stories. I prompted for the elements: Who is our hero. What’s his problem? Where is he going? That’s when things got exciting. Have you ever seen a kid shoot his hand up to answer a question and fly off his seat? Enthusiastic players exploded, their raised hands blasting them off the floor, ideas blurting out of them like exhaust from spinning rockets.

Story Structure:  What are the rules?

From Beowulf to Hollywood, we find villains and violence in adventure stories. A villain drives the hero forward while violence excites. I knew this because I learned it, but the truth is I have never been fond of violence. Two things that make me feel bad when I want to feel good: war and menace. The list of award-winning movies I have walked out of is memorable: The Omen, Apocalypse Now, The Silence of the Lambs, and Lord of the Rings. Now I choose movies wisely and I sometimes wait in the lobby of the theater during trailers because they are often bathed in blood. Yuck! I’m just not wired for it. Still, I included the villain in the structure map because of my training.

With one exception (that I’m saving for the next blog post), when I prompted for a villain, eager players lost altitude and regarded me as though I spoke Arcturian with a lisp. In the rare case they offered a villain it was really a friend in disguise, a challenging friend perhaps, but not a true villain. I was uncertain what to do: ask again? coach the elements more? Their stories worked; I was the one stuck behind the rules. Ultimately improv settled it. Yes! And. . .. No villain? Okay. Moving on.

Wonderland Playhouse stories revealed no war, no villains, and no violence. The players were a lot like me. I once showed them Brad Bird’s animated film The Iron Giant. When several of them walked out during scenes of military domination and violence we all ended up in the kitchen snacking. They weren’t wired for it either and they didn’t come to the Playhouse to feel bad. We may have been the only folks in the world who felt that way, but we had found each other.

thumb_file5491278465708_1024Violence is Irrelevant

Once familiar with the map I stopped coaching altogether and would simply prompt – Once there was a . . ..

Then, I stood back and watched as players fired and blasted all over the room. My job was keeping up with them. Brilliant young storytellers created lovably flawed heroes with uniquely goofy sidekicks on countless magical adventures.

Over and over they told me:

Violence is irrelevant;

Adventure is good for adventure’s sake; and

A villain does not drive a hero to heroic acts, love does.