Category Archives: Improvisation

Hard Times Demand Playful Dancing

rich-laverne-lynnTwo days after the election I awoke with muscle aches and a hint of a sinus infection I thought I was finished with. But my overwhelming sensation? A savoring, after-glow from the play-based ritual my improv troupe, Wing & A Prayer Pittsburgh Players and I created last night.

We gather for rehearsal most Thursday nights and our practice is to play with “what’s up?” Two days after the unexpected seismic election it wasn’t hard to find the theme strongly on our hearts and minds.

Using dance, song, story, and stillness, (the birthright practices of our ancestors, wherever they came from), we created a safe container and ways to express ourselves as individuals and as a group.

Here’s how it works –

  • Warm up together physically in order to get in our bodies and to create a sense of a group body. Especially necessary after highly charged experiences that may have shut down our breathing or caused us to exit our bodies.
  • Use an InterPlay improv form or “game” that allows us to hear from each person as they express in words and movements- “what’s up?” for them.
  • Play with a partner to mine our stories about the over-arching topic, elections and U.S politics. In the form, “I could tell about….” we take turns naming memories or images that come to mind.
  • Select forms that allow people’s stories to exist side-by-side, creating for the observer a sense of the larger group story.
  • Using shape and stillness, we dance on behalf of people not in the room who are particularly affected by this election. (Immigrants, Muslims, people of color, disappointed young women and old women who will not live to see a woman president.)  
  • Create a song to lift our spirits to a hopeful future – Last night the line we sang and played with was, “The farther back we pull the bow string, the farther goes the arrow.”

As Mr. Rogers reminded us, “Play is the work of children.” I’m fortunate to have adults in my life willing to join me in connecting with our child within. That’s where our fears, disappointments, dreams, and creative energy reside. Play turns out to be a secret path to accessing what we need to move forward, individually and collectively, into a joy-filled future, no matter the circumstances.

A Dance At Easter

Anticipation for Easter this year was enhanced by an invitation from Gail Ransom, a minister friend, to dance at her church’s Easter Service. Dancing as part of a worship service goes to the roots of dance itself, and sparks reminders of my past dancing career. Over 40 years ago, for a period of six years, I was a member of Festival Dancers, a dance company sponsored by the Jewish Community Center of Detroit and directed by Harriet Berg, who is still holding forth as Ms Detroit Dance. We performed frequently during that period in churches and synagogues around Michigan.

IMG_1216The ministerial team at First United Methodist Church came up with inspiring music and ideas for my colleagues and I to play with as we developed our contributions for the Easter service.  Rather than choreographing a dance piece from movement phrases I knew or thought up, I decided to use InterPlay’s improvisational forms, and arrange them in a sequence and in formations that fit the music and this particular church space. This was a natural choice because InterPlay founders Cynthia Winton-Henry and Phil Porter created InterPlay over 30 years ago on the altars of churches in California as a way of creating dance sequences for worship services.

A week before Easter I met with three young girls, members of the church, and taught them the primary forms we’d be using – shape and stillness, side-by-side solos, and gesture choir. When the members of Wing & A Prayer Pittsburgh Players joined me on Tuesday we worked out spacing and added a variation I’d call shape/travel/shape for each dancer to repeat until arriving at her assigned spot in the sanctuary. Inside these forms each of us created our own movement, connecting to the music and to one another.IMG_0332_2

The piece we were given to dance to was “Let the River Run” by Carly Simon. It had won the 1984 Oscar for best song in the movie “Working Girl.” The river referred to and celebrated in the song is a river of women, hundreds of thousands of women, taking their places as productive and fully contributing members of societies across the globe.

I was delighted and surprised by the synchronicity between one of my deepest lifetime longings and an opportunity to dance it.  Having the eager and dedicated young women join us added another layer of meaning to the piece since they are the future. As the choir lauded the coming of the “New Jerusalem,” we dancers of various ages leapt for joy, and my entire being tingled with what I could only describe as ecstasy.

A Different Kind of Gypsy

In the musical comedy theaterTravellers_Decorated_Caravan_(6136023633) the dancers are called “gypsies.” I suppose it’s because the nature of their employment involves changing jobs and moving around the country often. The first year I was in New York, I lived in 11 different places around the city, including the times I arranged to sleep on a friend’s couch.

This week I’m falling back on those learned long ago gypsy skills – moving around the world with a spirit of adventure, and practicing the spiritual discipline of extreme flexibility. I’m been in North Texas on what might be termed “a book tour.” With the help of my sister who lives north of Denton, I organized one book event in Fort Worth and two in Dallas. Sandwiched in between I attended a women’s retreat at a ranch an hour and a half northwest of Fort Worth.highways

I lived in this area of the world for over 20 years but having left eight years ago, I’d forgotten the amount of time people here spend in their cars and how carefully they plan their trips to miss the rush hours and the logjams created by road construction projects.  As a visitor it strikes me that most every roadway is being worked on, or expanded to accommodate even more traffic. Toll roads are under construction to swoop people over the top of the current roadways and make money for the state and the construction companies.

I’m now at my next stop, Atlanta GA. doing a home stay with a friend as I prepare for a Warrior Mother Performing the Book event this evening at Charis Books and More, the nation’ s oldest independent feminist bookstore. If you’re in the area, please join me as I help Charis celebrate their 43rd year as one of the “must see” places in the Atlanta area.charis

Story of the Book Part III

In the present topsy-turvy literary world, getting a book out into the world has become a major career in itself. For well-known authors, the first months after their books’ released, there are television interviews on shows like Jon Stewart or Good Morning America and radio shows like Terry Gross’s Fresh Air on NPR. Print reviews of their books are featured in national newspapers and magazines and their book tours include book signings and speeches to regional and national audiences.sheila at bookstore

But for regular writers like me, the publicity path is quite different. Publishers don’t have budgets to promote unknowns.  Most books now are sold through some type of word-of-mouth, and the word may travel through on-line connections as well as in-person conversations. I hired a professional literary publicist, Stephanie Barko, who arranged a virtual tour, which was something new to me. In addition to arranging professional reviews of the book, Stephanie arranged on-line written interviews, guest blog spots, and online blog radio interviews for me to spread the word about Warrior Mother. Most of these events took place during the first thirty days after the book’s release and we used social media to promote them, along with the book giveaways that occurred on sites like Goodreads. SheilaAsylum2 2013

I’m finding the radio shows especially enjoyable. Recently I had a wonderful interview with Marianna Cacciatore on her organization’s show, Bread for the Journey  and another interview with mother/daughter team Lisa Smith and Nancy Reid on their Happy Hour Radio Show  Somehow they made room to discuss my book as they toured another one of the 401 national parks they plan to visit in the next couple of years.

Bookstores used to help with getting the word out by hosting author book signings, but most have given up the practice. Many people buy their books on line now and don’t frequent neighborhood bookstores as they once did. But authors are borrowing from musicians the practice of house parties, hosted by friends in their homes. When the structures of the music industry toppled a few years ago and musicians had to become entrepreneurs, the house party became a great place for performing and selling CDs. Authors are now discovering it can work well for books too.

I had my first book house party in Atlanta last week, hosted by a dear friend, and it was delightful. Though they weren’t in my demographic, the three teenagers and their family dog added much fun to the evening as we attempted to improv the book’s themes in a method I call, “Performing the Book.”

book-club-2I’m also exploring another place to find book lovers – book clubs. I’ve been asking people to put me in touch with any book clubs they know about, and in a couple of weeks I’ll be meeting here in Pittsburgh with the first book club I’ve become aware of whose members have read my book.

Taking Warrior Mother on the Road

 “How’s your new book doing?” people ask, and I don’t know quite what to say. The official reviews have been wonderful, most of them thoughtful and articulate, better than I could have hoped for. I have felt blessed by such intelligent and crafted responses as different reviewers have picked up on and emphasized, different themes from the book, rather like turning a prism to refract the light into the various colors contained therein.Sheila Performing Book

Friends and acquaintances who have spoken to me or sent me an email after reading the book have had very good things to say. Of course there may be people who read it and didn’t like it, but they’ve failed to contact me. No one so far has demanded their money back. One woman friend I ran into in the grocery store detained me for quite a while with wonderful comments and complements, followed by a pledge to bring several friends to my next book reading. And she did just that.

Amazon rankings have been all over the place, but today the book is number 51 of the top 100 books in the category of parent and adult child relationships. I had a big disappointment when one of the top reviewing companies that had spoken highly of the quality of the book, and had promised to review it, declined to do so at the last minute.  I learned they were concerned it “wouldn’t have wide enough appeal.” (I think that’s code for “it won’t sell enough books to make it worth our while.”) But in the two and a half months the book has been out, this has not been my experience.

There’s the man I gave a promotional post card to, who read the synopsis on the back quickly as we stood together on the street corner. “I’m gonna buy one of these and give it to my daughter-in-law,” he said. When I asked why he said, “She’s been having a rough time. Our nine year old grandson was killed last year in a boating accident.”  Several people have told me they were buying the book for a friend or family member going through grief, or stuck in an old grief, having trouble moving on.

Wing & Prayer Book Performance
Wing & Prayer Book Performance


I’ve become very cognoscente of the universal themes contained in Warrior Mother through a system I’ve developed for book readings. In place of a traditional reading, I connect with people in the community where I will be presenting who do InterPlay, (the system of movement, song, and storytelling that I use) and have them join me in “Performing the Book.”  We select themes that emerge from the snippets I read, and link them to an InterPlay form. The improvisational artists then add their own stories and experiences to mine.

At Performing the Book events we’ve explored relating to adult children (or being one), accompanying a friend or loved one through medical diagnosis, treatments, and death, and rituals that heal grief and loss of whatever variety. Feedback from these presentations has given me a realization that Warrior Mother is about finding ways to authentically communicate about, and honor, the human condition. And that condition is that everyone dies. Once we face that reality, we can enthusiastically choose life for whatever moments that we, and our loved ones, are allowed.

Dancing on the Fringe

The streets of Edinburgh Scotland were filled, as they are every August, with performing artists and the tourists and locals who had come to see them. Rich and I, along with 22 other InterPlayers from around the world were among them. RichCatapillerphoto-16Pushing our way through the hordes of mostly young performers on the cobblestone street which is the Royal Mile, we observed the ritual of performers dressed as caterpillars and clowns, giving out flyers, barking as circus midway callers do, to draw attention to the free samples of their art on the makeshift stages of High Street. Though a little less flamboyant, and a good deal older than most of them, we too had came to perform on the Fringe.

Edinburgh Fringe
Edinburgh Fringe

The Fringe Festival, the largest open access arts festival in the world began in 1947 when eight theatre companies showed up uninvited to the Edinburgh International Arts Festival.  The juried arts festival is still in business but the Fringe, officially organized in 1951, has grown way bigger that that one. In fact it’s bigger than anyone could imagine an arts festival becoming. By 1959 there were 494 companies and by this year, 2013, the festival had over 40,000 performers in 359 venues. Unlike those original participants, we did have an invitation from Mairi Campbell, a well-known Scottish folk singer,

Meeting up with a dozen members of our US InterPlay community, and joining another dozen InterPlayers from Germany, Finland, England, Australia and Scotland, we formed an improv troupe. After practicing together for several days (which was a big part of the fun of it all, along with time spent with fabulous local home stay hosts), we came together at Venue #127, St. John’s Church in the center of the city. Our performance of the Unbelievable Beauty of Being Human was part of the Just Festival, a subset of the Fringe that focused on social justice, spirituality, and peace.mairiUBBH-17

Our well-attended performance was a fitting tribute to the festival’s themes as we danced, sang and told our stories in the moment and on the spot, highlighting what’s wonderful about being human and what’s not so great about it. As one of the elders in the group, this was my 9th performance of Unbelievable Beauty, having participated in the first series of performances in San Francisco CA in 1997, in Sydney, Australia in 2004, and in Seattle and Chicago in the years in between.  Each improvisational performance followed a similar format yet each was a unique and never-to-be-repeated experience for participants and audiences.

In the 50-page program for the Just Festival, which was a subset of the 390 page program for the Fringe, the program description read: “Re-igniting hope for human kind, passionate, funny, honest, affirming of real people and real living. Performers elevate both the miracles and struggles of every day folk in a daring, spontaneous, fresh way.  Directed by InterPlay founders, the program features InterPlayers from around the world. UK debut”.UBBH.Edinburgh1

And so it was, a never-to-be forgotten, Unbelievably Beautiful Experience!

Celebrating Redemption

At a graduation celebration for nine women in Pittsburgh who have just completed the InterPlay Life Practice Program, twenty-five of their friends and family gathered to cheer them on. Many of the guests had never seen InterPlay, so members of our Wing & A Prayer troupe provided a short demonstration.

My husband Rich asked the audience to give him a word to use as the theme for his story. The setting was a chapel in a Christian church, so that may have influence the word choice, but someone called out, “redemption.”

Rich began his story, allowing as how, as a Jewish man, he wasn’t sure what his faith tradition has to say about redemption. He did say that many of his brethren were like him, downloading coupons from the internet, printing them off, and then forgetting them at home when they needed to redeem them at the store.

His story was playful and entertaining, but it left the impression that he didn’t know anything about redemption. As the mistress of ceremony, I had not planned on telling a story of my own, but I was compelled to share a memory that came to me strongly in that moment. I did not understand how the story was related to redemption, but I decided that it must be, so I shared it.

It’s the summer of 1998 in Texas, and as usual, it’s hotter than hell. Rich and a buddy have decided to begin raising money and training to ride in the first Texas AIDS Bike Ride – a 7 day, 587 miles tour through Texas. I tried to be supportive, bringing snacks and water to their training rest stops, but the whole idea seemed pretty nutty to me.  The first night of the ride, their campsite, somewhere outside Houston flooded, and they had to be evacuated from their tents to a school gymnasium.

Standing at the finish line in Dallas, looking out to the bridge on the edge of the skyline I saw nearly a thousand bicyclists riding into town like they were following Lance Armstrong in the tour de france.  I spotted Rich in the crowd, wearing a big smile and our son Ken’s picture on his back.  As riders lifted their bikes over their heads in triumph, Rich and I hugged, danced, and poured water on one another.  “Wherever Ken is now, he’s so proud of you,” I told him.

After I tell an improvisational story I’m never sure whether the story made any sense to the audience. I’d written about this scene in my upcoming book, Dancing on Behalf of Life and Death, but I wasn’t sure why it had came to me in this situation. Later, a  Jewish graduate shared a section of an article by a rabbi on her faith tradition’s view of redemption, which helped me connect the dots –

“Here the notion of celebration is central, of public proclamation and acclamation, of the realization that things continually move ahead towards a larger aim. This movement may be toward some sense of redemption – the notion of improvement of ourselves and our species – or it may be an appreciation of our place in this creation – not here as a small, created thing, but as one whose task it is to speak out about this process, to share the sense of the sacred in the world with the rest of the world.”

Cycles and Circles in Women’s Lives

Just back from a wonderful trip to Texas. I attended a Women’s Retreat at Glenda Taylor’s Earthsprings in East Texas. The Piney Woods got some much needed rain while we were there, but the sun didn’t desert us, and felt all the more welcome after the clearing storms.

So many lessons and memories in the connections with friends of over twenty years. And having the amazing college age daughter of one of the women present was a special gift. Great to see how women’s wisdom gets passed down to the next generation through the vehicle of women’s circles. And she mentored us, encouraging we elders not to “take to our beds” but to stay connected to members of her generation, sharing and supporting them.

As happens at the later stages of life, one of our members is in a nursing home and I visited her as I nearly always do when I come to Fort Worth. She has been given one of life’s most dramatic challenges to dance with, but I was inspired with how she is doing just that. Here is a prose poem I wrote about some of what I learned from her.

Sylvia Jean

Our bodies embrace in a full-bodied hug, confirming

our deeply connected 25 year sisterhood. Seated at the

café table, as in the long ago, we tell each other our

dreams. She speaks of a woman who tells her what’s

going on, and scolds her for not getting it right. I

refrain from admitting, even to myself, that her

dreams seem dreadful nightmares to me.

“I’m noticing my head,” she tells me and I see the

familiar sheepish smile. “You might think it’s silly

to be noticing my head,” she says and she chuckles,

knowing she can trust me with this information.

I remind her she always was aware of her body and

marvel at how she has kept her curiosity and wonder

at what’s happening in the Now. And her disease is

taking from her all but the Now.

I remind her we’ve been best friends through thick and thin.

“I know and I feel like I’m going to cry.”

“Me too,” I say.

She creates a poem in the moment, a gift to her husband

at his leaving. Some words are incomprehensible, but the

phrases are complete with a song-like rhythm and rhyme.

In the bittersweet moment of my leaving, she constructs

another poem, a gift to me, accompanied by a youthful

smile which takes pride in this accomplishment. We

both seem to know we must keep on keeping on, practicing

letting go, allowing her to become again the child she always was.

Life’s an improv

Anyone who knows me is familiar with my facination with improvisation. After all, I’ve spent the last 16 years practicing and teaching InterPlay, an improv system based on helping folks unlock the wisdom of their own bodies. But in the last few days, improv has been following me around. Everywhere I’ve turned; the newspaper, a phone call with a friend, even an NPR radio show on my way to have my hair cut, there’s been something else about improv.

The first incident was a newspaper article about Moth Stories, announcing a performance in Pittsburgh last Thursday night. Moth Stories is a storytelling organization in New York City founded in 1997 by writer/poet George Dowes Green. The name comes from his experiences in his native Georgia, telling stories with friends on the back porch in the summertime, the moths being drawn to the light. The article mentioned that though the performers rehearse their stories, they improvise them each time before the audience,  otherwise the stories “seem like they are coming from a corpse.”

When I learned that the performance was already sold out I signed up to be on the early notification list next year and suggested they ask the group to do a couple of performances given the popularity of their work. Later I visited their website and learned that every one of their performances in New York City has been sold out in the first 48 hours. 

The next day, in a phone conversation with an InterPlay colleague, Soyinka Rahim, I learned that when she and I present at the Facing Race conference in Chicago Sept 24-25, using InterPlay, a group named Improv Edge will be sharing the podium. This sent me to their website where I learned that they use improv to teach business skills. According to their founder, Karen Hough, “improv teaches individual and group accountablity, thinking on your feet, saying yes to your colleagues and adding your own contribution.” Wow! I can’t wait to meet them.

The third incident involving improv happened on my way to get my hair cut the following morning. I heard Terry Gross interview Bobby McFerrin, the well known improvisational musician, about his new album, Vocabularies. Things I remember from that captivating conversation:

  • The importance of becoming completely comfortable in his own body, (something he learned from dancers), because the whole body is the instrument when we sing.
  • The stage has become his second home so he feels completely comfortable there and not intimidated by the audience.
  • His voice has become softer over the years because he has found that a softer voice gives him more flexibility as he improvises sounds.
  • He chooses improvisation partners that will bring out new aspects in him. He enjoys the element of being surprised by what emerges from these collaborations.

Amen and alleluia! Can I dare to hope that these three experiences are a sign that improv’s time has finally come. That our culture is finally getting it that life is about creating in the moment, and it’s a handy skill worth practicing.