How my Improvising Training helped my Parenting.
At first, the name Keith Jonhstone isn’t directly associated, or even indirectly, with child rearing methodologies. In fact, he has nothing to do with child care ideologies at all-he is the grand poobah of Improvisation, Theatrepsorts™, Masks etc.et.etc.
So why the misleading title you ask? Well it begins like this. In the 1990’s I spent most of my free time at the Loose Moose theatre, starting out as all wee Moosers do, as a front of house volunteer. Taking every opportunity to participate in the 6 o’clock improve class lead by Dennis, Keith or another senior member and eventually being chosen to play the 10min game, Free Improv, Danish and the ultimate dream- Second Half.
An improviser learns two very basic but crucial lessons when starting out as an improviser that will form the foundation of every scene you do-much like the basic plié in ballet, or handstand in gymnastics. ‘Don’t be prepared and always say yes’. Well, already that is pretty much how I got pregnant in the first place.
So after saying yes and not being prepared 9 months later we welcomed our first Elianna to the world. You may shriek at the idea of not being prepared for a baby’s arrival wondering what I did for the 9 months leading up to her birth but when I refer to ‘don’t be prepared’ I mean mentally. All tangible items relating to and pertaining to babies are a must for readiness. Mentally, accept that whatever you have visualised or rehearse in your head will be of little use once the baby is in your life. You must always have snacks, nappies, changes of clothes, wipes, dummies, (soothers)gin(?) …….
I soon learned to stop thinking’ but the book says, they didn’t’ explain this in antenatal classes.’ For example, I had no idea that a night feed would involve so much strategy, stealth like manoeuvres and the above mentioned strategies require adapting at any given feed. I read that the baby wakes in the night, you change the baby, feed, burp the baby, baby goes back to sleep and repeat in about 3-4hrs. I was not prepared for’ baby wakes, mummy changes baby, baby feeds, falls asleep goes back to bed for 15min wakes up poos, gets changed wants more food, feeds falls asleep, poos then is awake for 3-4 hrs. Now I could have said ‘but this isn’t what the manual says, I didn’t prepare for this routine’. But as in improviser I thought’ accept the babies offer’ and advance the narrative even though you wanted the scene to end with mummy in bed asleep after a 45min change feed, sleep scenario.
Similar mind set required for next vignette. When my two youngest boys(2yrs apart) are both woken up to collect their sister from school, they both scream and cry. I think’ this shouldn’t’ be’, they should be happy to see their sister and only the baby should be crying not the toddler. I wanted to join in with the crying but instead I though no, this is the narrative they are offering to me for this afternoon scene so I will accept it (*note this is not the same as accepting bad behaviour). So I take a breath and conduct the boys cry choir instead.
Now status is a big feature of improv and we learn to recognise and play high status or low status characters . By status, we mean how we feel the world perceives us therefore a politician may act low status which is demonstrated thru awkward body movements, looking at the ground, sitting on as little of seat as possible. A high status character could be a politician but might also b e a homeless man who acts high status by holding his head up high, broad open shoulders, takes up as much room on the chair as possible. Toddlers and babies are extremely high status which can be daunting if you think about it; they are small, vulnerable and need you total care of their every need. However, they still cry if the milk isn’t satisfactory, scream if you put them down for a nap when in fact they are hungry and will say no when they please without justification. You wold think a tiny person who relies on us to make sure their essential need are met would be a bit more humble and low status. So, I felt I was able to respond to this behaviour by accepting the baby’s offers again, and doing as the baby asks, apologising if it goes wrong. With a toddler, the status transition must occur. The once high status baby must now lower itself to accept my offers of’ go to bed, eat, potty and don’t’ hit’. It is tough for both mother and baby to suddenly rail against the demands that were once catered to with a coo and a cuddle. A baby who refuses a feed would be told ‘oooh whose not hungry?’ But a toddler/older child who claiming not to be hungry will hear the following’ eat or you’ll starve until breakfast.’ No cooing at all.
Gibberish is often a game played by babies and toddler s and trying to understand the unintelligible is a skill all parents must have. Even if you say what you think they want and it is wrong, this okay because often the attempt at dialogue can amuse both mother and child. The mother is often better at deciphering gibberish so she usually gives translation for the father or any other visitor left confused.
With gibberish, you can employ stage directions whereby the offstage improvisers provide the stage directions for the on stage performers (who can speak in English or gibberish). This, I found very helpful to guide the new dad(and even the experienced father). For example, the father might say ‘oh the baby is crying’ and the mum will say’ he said going and picking up the baby, changing the nappy and bringing the mum some wine’. Or the baby might babble, and the mum will say’ the baby said going to BED.’ Speaking of partners, the game of answering with a question is somewhat prevalent. Note the following example: a dad asking a new mum ‘how are you feeling?’ The mum will more than likely reply ‘how do you THINK I am feeling?’ The dad might reply ‘why are you so cranky’ to which the mum will say ‘why don’t you try giving birth then you can answer your own question’.
When you go out on an excursion you think it will be one that the babies/kids will cherish forever, look back and feel that the outing shaped who I am today. You feel warm inside(not do to a leaky nappy+baby on knee) think wow I am going to be like the family in the commercial, the book the posh London parenting magazine; except this usually doesn’t happen. So, once again, you can’t be prepared you can’t assume the day will go as mentioned above. Go with a full bag of snacks, clothes nappies, Raffi tunes and a clear mind. So many outings have ended 10 min after arrival with leaked nappies, unruly kids, toddlers asleep at the zoo then screaming as they wake up in the car wondering when we will get to see some animals. Trips to embrace nature end in wet feet, vomit etc. LEGOLAND can be magical until the queue is to long, the kids get tired and want to leave after an hour. I sound negative but I am not; this is the reality but by no means should you ever not plan activities. If you are not prepared you will accept that there is no plan on how they/you will react and take the day as it comes. Some days are magical and couldn’t’ have gone better, often the impromptu days out. And even if they day ends abruptly for whatever reason, the experience has still been beneficial…for the kids.
So to you, the art of improvisation and in particular The Loose Moose Theatre, I thank you for allowing me to accept what happens and not to be hung up on how I wanted and should react to life as a parent. It is okay to say no to your kids but mentally say yes in a way that you accept the opposition as part of the package of life as a parent. If only I had a horn for boring days and a basket for insolence.