{this is the third post in) a series of Seven Things that Improv Gives us}

Currently I’m reading ”The Boys in the Boat” at bedtime. And I’m loving it. I’m completely drawn in to the story of this nine young men – the University of Washington crew team – who persevere against all odds, and win the olympic gold in Berlin in 1936 (under Hitler). At the time all the great crew teams were Ivy League schools in the east – Harvard, Penn, Cornell, Yale, etc. University of Washington’s crew team didn’t come from a place of means. Many were sons of lumberjacks and farmers; many like Joe Rantz came through such adversity and abandonment from his own family (twice!). The author chronicles how Joe often felt like an outsider from even his own teammates. The varsity coach Al Ulbrickson kept trying new configurations of the boys in the boat. They’d do well, but then fall apart.  Then after many ups and down Ulbrickson found his nine boys in the boat.  And they started to be in sync with each other.

There is a thing that sometimes happens in rowing that is hard to achieve and hard to define. Many crews, even winning crews, never really find it. Others find it but can’t sustain it. It’s called “swing.” It only happens when all eight oarsmen are rowing in such perfect unison that no single action by any one is out of synch with those of all the others. It’s not just that the oars enter and leave the water at precisely the same instant. Sixteen arms must begin to pull, sixteen knees must begin to fold and unfold, eight bodies must begin to slide forward and backward, eight backs must bend and straighten all at once. Each minute action — each subtle turning of wrists — must be mirrored exactly by each oarsman, from one end of the boat to the other. Only then will the boat continue to run, unchecked, fluidly and gracefully between pulls of the oars. Only then will it feel as if the boat is part of each of them, moving as if on its own. Only then does pain entirely give way to exultation. Rowing then become a kind of perfect language. Poetry, that’s what a good swing feels like. (p.161)

When I go to an improv show here in Bellingham at the Upfront Theatre, I often witness synchony on stage.  The mainstage players are so in tune with each other in that scene it’s as if it’s magic. They are in the flow together. It’s a beautiful thing. And a joy to watch.

We feel this to in the delight of conversation with a good friend. Where there is a give and take and we are ”tuned in”.

But what about those, like Joe Rantz, who had been abandoned twice, and had a hard time trusting, how can synchrony begin to be restored?

Bessel van der Kolk, M.D., whom I’ve quoted recently, tells us.

Traumatized adolescents are noticeably out of sync. In the Trauma Center’s Trauma Drama program, we use mirroring exercises to help them to get in tune with one another. They move their right arm up, and their partner mirrors it; they twirl, and their partner twirls in response. They begin to observe how body movements and facial expressions change, how their own natural movements differ from those of others, and how unaccustomed movements and expressions make them feel. Mirroring loosens their preoccupation with what other people think of them and helps them attune viscerally, not cognitively, to someone else’s experience. When mirroring ends in giggles, it’s a sure indication that our participants feel safe. (The Body Keeps the Score, p.338,339)

Our culture is moving more and more towards as Bill McKibben calls it, a hyper-individualism. It’s a lie. We need to move the other direction and find places and ways to be in sync with one another. Improv helps us embody that synchrony. What would it look like for more of us to become more adept at getting in sync with those we meet? Who knows what might happen when we do?  Let’s find out!


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