How Do We Jump In?

Over the last decade of teaching improv classes, I’ve watched hundreds of new students as they dipped their toes into the performing arts pool. Some are timid, ask questions, and carefully lower themselves in, while others are bold and confident and dive into the deep end. And as I’ve dug deeper into performance theory and acting styles and confidence builders I’ve started to discover that there isn’t just one approach to getting into the pool. Everyone’s different, and for me it’s part of teaching a good, value-rich class to notice how students approach a new skill and learn within their personal framework. And through research I realized I was starting to think about learning styles.

Becoming popular in the 70’s, learning styles proposes that all people can be classified according to their “style” of learning, although the various theories present differing views on how the styles should be defined and categorized. And although there is ample evidence that individuals express preferences for how they prefer to receive information, few studies have found any validity in using learning styles in education (Wikipedia). And I’m sure you’ve seen the test you can take online that will tell you if you’re a visual, auditory, or kinesthetic learner (do you process info better from looking, listening, or doing). There isn’t any real science to back up the claims that tailoring your teaching approach to an individual’s preferred way of learning will make any substantial difference, but there could be value in the individual having a better idea of how they like to learn.

For example, I have recently been teaching “thinking A-to-C” in my classes and training actors on how to pick apart a word or phrase and wring as much creative inspiration out of it as they can. When an improviser gets a suggestion from the audience to start the show (a word or phrase or location) they go through a process in their heads in which they analyze the word and take a few steps away from it in their heads to arrive at a new point of inspiration with which to start a scene (thinking A-to-B-to-C). This makes the scenes more rich and interesting and helps the actors have more room to explore. So, if the audience gives the suggestion of “apple” to the actor, if they just took the word at face value and did a few scenes about apples, you’d probably end up with a boring 20 minute show all about apples. And you as the audience would want your money back. However, if the actor got the word “apple” and then thought A-to-C, they could think “apple makes me think of fresh baked pie, and fresh baked pie makes me think of a county fair” they could now have an interesting scene about two people working a ring toss booth at a local fair. A lot more interesting than watching two people talk about apples for 20 minutes.

But what went through my head when I was thinking of the word “apple”? Did I visualize a freshly baked pie sitting on a windowsill to cool? Did I picture the word and begin to shuffle through other words in my brain-rolodex? Did I smell the apples and immediately smell cinnamon and pie crust? Did I feel the apple in my hands and begin to imagine holding other apple related objects? What was the path my brain took to arrive at a new inspiration location? That’s where I landed as I was teaching this concept. And for me this is a fascinating place to explore.

As I ran through this exercise with my students it became obvious that everyone had a different approach to exploring the idea. Some were visual, others auditory, and others felt the ideas in their bodies. And noticing how you explore an idea is helpful in making the act of exploration easier and more valuable. When you are mindful of how you explore, what you notice, and what you eventually glean from a new idea or concept the act of learning isn’t just about memorizing new data, but being actually curious about it and being open to explore and hungry for more. And this concept isn’t just valuable for performers, it can translate to any line of work. Notice what path your brain takes when you hear a new concept or take on a new project or puzzle. Do you visualize the issue and roll it around in your brain? Do you see the words or picture Excel sheets? Do you need to grab a pencil and begin to write out ideas or draw flowcharts or schematics? How do you easily and most effectively process the information so that it’s interesting and supports your innate curiosity?

In other words, how do you jump in?