What intent has to do with creating with colleagues

In talking with colleagues, do you need to know what their intent is? Or can you create without it? Take for example a recent conversation I had with the students and faculty of the professional science masters program at U.Conn Storrs. A student asked, “Don’t you need to know what the other person is thinking or intending in order to respond?” “No,” I replied, “you don’t have to know what their motivation is. You don’t need to assume that anything is going on behind their face-- what you have to work with is what they’ve done: said, gestured, etcetera. In fact, there’s a game that plays with this idea of motivation or alter ego. It’s called-- Alter Ego.”

I learned Alter Ego as a game for four performers: two characters, each with an “alter ego”. The job of the characters is to create a scene by responding to what each other says and does. The job of the “alter egos” is to speak after their character, saying what their character is “really” thinking. The “alter ego” adds to the scene we see on stage. Yet, as in life, the characters have to build with the words and actions of the character they are speaking to. As you can guess, it’s easier and more fun to play the game than it is to explain it, so I took a risk. I paused in the middle of a formal slide talk and asked, “Shall we play? Who wants to play? Who wants to perform with me?” I was looking for three people to join me. I got two volunteers, so being a good improviser, I went with it. As we crafted this modified version of Alter Ego, which I admitted to everyone I hadn’t done before, there was a perfectly ridiculous moment of intense collaboration.

There we were, three people about to do what we had never done before in front of others. We built a scene titled “my gel didn’t work” that emerged as a student timidly admitting to her faculty member that the gel she made didn’t work and the faculty member asking, ”did you follow the directions?” The “alter ego” reacted with things we may have all thought on either side: “I can’t believe you’re asking again.” It was short. It was improvised. It was playful and fun. In improv theater, we see each act, sound, or posture as an offer, something to respond to and build a scene with. To build successful scenes, we accept and add to the offers given by other performers.

Practiced improvisers see everything as an offer, and often let offers take them far from initial plans. (For example, playing an improv game in the middle of a lecture!) Often we’re faced with our colleagues offering ideas, approaches or ways of interacting that aren’t the same as ours. These are great improvisational opportunities to see and accept that unexpected offer. In our everyday moments, we are constantly responding to people in front of us. we don’t need the assistance of their “alter ego”. With an eye to performance, we work with what the person in front of us is saying and doing.

Try it: In everyday moments, work with exactly what the person is saying and doing with you. Build with what is in front of you. Let us know what you discover.