When a baby is learning to walk, it falls constantly. With every effort, every wimpy, wobbly step, onlookers cheer. They applaud the baby’s effort, not the result. They do not pressure the baby to be better. Never does an adult squat down and denigrate the little human for failing. Their support is unconditional. Finally the baby takes a few measly steps and everyone rejoices for this minor accomplishment.
The unconditional support that we give our children continues into early childhood and is reflected in their sense of possibility. If I ask a group of elementary school students, “Who likes art? Who likes music? Science? Dancing? Sports? Who wants to volunteer?” Nearly every kid raises their hand.
Then they hit puberty. All of that optimism and possibility falls away. Our social structures become more complex. The pressure to succeed is grossly emphasized and failure - the companion of success - is overwhelmingly stigmatized. We place ourselves in a box or we step into the mold that others have made for us. We think we are capable of little more than the little bit that we have already done with our little time on this little planet.
Many of my students have observed that there is something childlike about improv. Though I understand the sentiment, I disagree that improvising is “like being a kid again.” If that were so, children would be the best improvisers, and they are not. So why does this comparison between improv and childhood pop up?
Because improv embodies a sense of freedom and play that many people have not felt since they were a child. Because as a child our relationship to failure was radically different. Because as an adult we do not unconditionally support our peers. But in improv, the freedom to fail is given and unconditional support is a requirement. Improv reminds us of childhood because we may once again view the world as limitless, our potential as unbound, and our community as a safe haven, applauding our efforts, cheering for the most minor of our accomplishments.