Happy Accidents: Improvisation and the Art of Weaving

Recently, a friend told me that she was reading Tina Fey’s new autobiography – Bossypants -and that there was one chapter that reminded her of what I had been espousing as some of the practices of network organizing, specifically the “art of weaving.”

The chapter “The Rules of Improvisation That Will Change Your Life and Reduce Body Fat,” is all about how to do comedic improvisation. Improvisation of course is when 2 or more actors create a situation out of thin air and then act it out  to create a compelling, funny scene.  I have seen this on TV and live, and as someone who has done some acting (long ago) I always found it harrowing but also amazing and fun.

What does this have to do with weaving and building community? These days – in public life and neighborhood life – it can be very hard to connect with and have relationships with the ‘strangers’ in our midst. And more and more those ‘strangers’ are from a different country, cultural background and faith. But we all know that communities need those webs of relationships to be safe and function well. Network weavers help with this. By “weaving” we mean an intentional effort to help people connect to each other – even when they are very different and even when its scary or awkward.

We often talk about weaving as an act of genuine caring and curiosity – something that all people can do but find it hard to do because we are all so guarded. Weavers often need to be jumping into the situation – saying hi, making eye contact, starting a conversation, asking a question, offering to help, asking for help.

There is A LOT of improvisation involved in weaving. And improvisation – more than anything else – requires you to be present; to be in the moment  listening and observing only what is happening then and there AND accepting the ‘then and there’ as truth.

Tina Fey’s first rule of improvisation is to “Agree…and say YES” to whatever the situation that is presented. She writes “If we are improvising and I say ‘freeze I have a gun’ and you say ‘that’s not a gun its your finger’ ..our scene has ground to a halt. But if you say …’the gun I gave your for Christmas! You bastard!’Then we have a scene.”   This is the first rule, according to Fey because “it reminds you to respect what your partner has created and to at least start from an open minded place.”

The second rule is “Yes, And.” She writes “If I start a scene with ‘I cant believe its so hot in here’ and you just say ‘yeah’ then we are kind of at a standstill. But if you say ‘what do you expect we’re in hell’  then now we are getting somewhere” because the scene can’t go on unless you add something yourself. She says “Yes, And…. means don’t be afraid to contribute.” You and what you have to give – matters and part of being present is showing up with your best stuff.

The third rule is Make Statements – Dont just ask questions. Here she writes “If we are in a scene and I say ‘who are you? Where are we? What are we doing here? What’s in that box? Then I am putting all the pressure on you to come us with the answers. In other words, whatever the problem be a part of the solution. Dont just sit around raising questions and pointing out obstacles.”

Her fourth rule is There are No Mistakes only Opportunities. Writes Fey “If I start a scene as what I think is a cop riding a bicycle but you think I am a hamster in a hamster wheel, guess what? Now I am a hamster in a hamster wheel. I’m not going to stop everything and explain…who knows maybe I’ll end up being a police hamster whose been put on hamster wheel duty. In improv there are no mistakes only beautiful happy accidents.”

In real life this kind of improvisation is hard because we bring lots of fears, self-consiousness and judgements into a given situation.  But as we do this we are saying no to new possibilities and pre-determining the outcome. Essentially, instead of an improvisation – where anything can happen based on the situation – we can go through our day acting out a script based on what has always happened or what should happen. The weaver works hard to lose the script, to be present, to listen and react with caring and curiosity.

The weaver encounter is all about exploration, discovery and creation – of something that doesn’t yet exist, hasnt been explored and most often will never be discovered unless we take the leap to improvise! Perhaps the discovery today is a skill Ididn’t know you had, or a third cousin we share, or something to learn about whats going on in the neighborhood, or something I should definitely be aware of at my kid’s school, or a great deal at the market, or something I should be aware of about myself. Maybe its a new friend – someone else in the world I can depend on. Weavers create the space for exploration by taking risks, saying YES and feeding the scene with information, presence and new possibilities.

Ultimately, weaving is about creating the scenes in everyday life where happy accidents can happen.



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