It constantly amazes me what life can teach me about improv, and what improv can teach me about life. Take the holidays for example (Please! – to bastardize a famous joke).
This is a time of year that is usually spent with copious amounts of family, and therefore copious amounts of booze. However, this year, instead of the usual emotions and behaviors I feel and exhibit when faced with family (avoidance, complaining, drinking), I decided to view the situation through the lens of improv. Looking at it this way allowed me to see the comedy, rather than the tragedy, that is my relatives. I suddenly became an audience member, rather than a participant in the drama – well, mostly, anyway. This lens at least gave me enough emotional distance so that I didn’t feel the need to kill someone.
This perspective also taught me some cool things about status and control.
As an improviser I know that I cannot control my scene partners. The people I play with on stage (thankfully) all have different views and ideas from me. This is also true of my life “scene partners” as well; I cannot control them either, much as I might want to try.
When I am in an improv scene my job is to take in what my scene partner offers me and react to it however I want. When I began to see my interactions with the relatives in the same way, I could suddenly distance myself from their actions and actually begin to enjoy the circus.
What I also started to see was a fascinating and often hilarious network of status interactions. Whereas before, the behaviors of these people would drive me crazy, now watching them was like peeking behind an interesting curtain. I could even create status “rules” or laws and then try “experiments” to see of my theories were correct by initiating status interactions. (Believe me, this beats playing the thousandth game of Trivial Pursuit with Uncle Charlie!)
Most of my observations boiled down to one basic law:
The less power someone thinks they have the more he/she will play status games to gain control.
This year, whining was one of the more frequently utilized status techniques – and not just by youngsters. The basic strategy was for the person to use low status (when whining, the body contracts in, the voice becomes higher, the eyes downcast) to get what he/she wanted, be it presents, food, or to herd the entire family of cats into doing something “together.”
High status strategies were used as well (although not as frequently) and mostly by men. These techniques included telling others to do things, taking up as much space as possible on the couch, ignoring others, and being “experts.”
Conflict occurred when a status battle was initiated either by someone attempting to undercut or go lower than another person’s status, or when someone’s high status was challenged. Naturally, the relatives who felt the most comfortable and powerful pretty much avoided all of this, but most of my relatives spent the entire time embroiled in one status battle after another.
My brother-in-law discussing politics at the dinner table
This one shift in my perspective, seeing my relatives’ actions as status gambits for control and power, allowed me to look behind these behaviors. Behind the behavior, I saw the status, and behind the status I saw the fear of powerlessness. Once I saw that this behavior’s root cause was this fear – that basic human emotion – then forgiveness and compassion replaced annoyance and anger and I could interact with these people without feeling like strangling them.
They are, after all, my relatives.