Activating our creative minds and abilities at the Artful Orators improvised storytelling challenge

by Owen Stafford

Once again I had the privilege of attending another amazing Artful Orators evening, once again in the beautiful, classical and historical La Fleur en Papier Doré. The event was billed as an Artfully Improvising meeting – a night where imaginations could be unleashed and creative storytelling abilities tested to the max. It would be the first time I would attend an improvisation workshop, so that aspect was particularly appealing. But maybe it wasn’t the first time I witnessed someone improvising per se. Because isn’t it already something a lot of us do, try to do, or need to do in daily lives? If so, then isn’t it best to learn through studying improv experts at their work?

While of course such an evening is full of fun, games, and storytelling, improvisation is a skill that can benefit all of us. It can help us to better think on our feet, increase our self-awareness, foster collaboration with others and help to throw off that veil of shyness which can easily inhibit us from expressing our thoughts and views, be it socially or professionally. Also unexpected issues and problems can occur anytime. Given the ‘spur of the moment’ nature of improvisation, this is a valuable exercise to teach us how to tackle the unforeseen and to do it with confidence.

For this workshop, the Artful Orators brought in Kelly Agathos, the driving force behind ATC Improv, Brussels’ first Anglophone improvisation society. Kelly is a member of the Brussels’ American Theatre Club’s resident improv troupe, The Ghost Sheep, and organises and hosts improv workshops regularly. Invited along for the evening by Artful Orators’ Jo Ann Broger, Kelly explained how to gain various improv skills in a series of fun and enjoyable games.

But before the improv workshop, we had a couple of entertaining and heartfelt speeches. The first was from Sabine Schoenangerer who tackled the theme Comfy or Crazy.  She did this with a personal story about love, informing the audience that she would soon be leaving Brussels and moving to Malmö in Sweden, for love. The audience congratulated her on this news, wishing her the very best. Yet there was some sadness that they will be losing their friend and fellow orator. But, as they say, love does conquer all.

Following that, new Artful Orator Zsuzsanna Corridori shared with the audience an amazing and powerful poem The Bards of Wales by Hungarian Poet János Arany, as part of the Specialty Speeches manual.  Dating from the 19th Century, it concerned the legend of King Edward I of England sending 500 Welsh bards to the stake for refusing to pay homage to their new monarch. It was their way of passively yet ardently resisting his rule, even if it meant their deaths.

Hilary Peden and Kirsten Ujvari respectively gave their evaluations with both words of praise and constructive advice on improvement.

Then came the main event: the improv workshop, where imagination and creativity were given free reign.

Kelly began by getting everyone into pairs for a bonding game called “bing bong”, which was something akin to performing in sync with a partner on the dance floor – both partners shout “Bong!” when they copy the same movement, thus increasing their bond.

It got all the orators suitably warmed up for the next session, dealing with word association. All the orators had to form a circle and were given a word or term to think about, for example sunshine. In turn they had to shout out the first word that came into their heads that best related to this term, such as beach or seaside. It was truly amazing to see how far meanings linked to a particular word can change and evolve, but also to see how people’s minds can both think alike but also very think so differently.

The next game up, possibly the most interactive of them all, was a bit more physical, involving orators improvising through actions. Again, everyone formed a circle and the game went as follows: when one person entered the ring pretending to be, for example, a tree, another would enter playing the part of a branch and then a third would come in pretending to be an apple.  The tree would then leave the ring, choosing to bring the branch or the apple along. If the branch were left then someone else would need to enter in a related role, such as a leaf or a bird.

This gave everyone the chance to let their creative juices flow. It was not just a game suited for quick-thinking talented improvisers. For some others – present company included – it allowed us to throw caution to the wind, get out there and feel comfortable about it. Earlier on, Kelly had stressed that this was the environment to say and act out whatever was on our minds, so the courage was plucked up and any lingering shyness or hesitancy quickly disappeared as everyone dived in.

The next game saw everyone split into groups of three or four, where one member would tell a story and would have to improvise depending on the instructions from other group members. If the story they told was interesting, they were instructed to continue; if one member felt it was boring, they would have to add details required to make it more interesting.

The next game was called ‘story, colour emotion’. All orators reverted back into a large circle. A member was picked out to tell an interesting story, adding extra layers of description and emotion. The speaker would be directed by his or her peers, with ‘emotion’ being shouted out if there wasn’t enough feeling in the narration, ‘story’ if it got boring or bogged down and ‘detail’ if it was really interesting and needed more. This was probably the most testing session of the night, especially for the chosen speaker who had to make up the story on the spot, from suggestions given by colleagues. Such topics on this occasion included heroine nurses, a heroine librarian teaching the President of the USA how to read and write properly on Twitter, and a story about… er… ‘the world’s greatest pizza lost in the toilet’ – most certainly challenging!  However, Kelly did highlight the usefulness of this game for Toastmasters in terms of learning how to properly use pace and pauses when giving a speech.

Sandra evaluating Kelly’s workshop.

Sadly, before we knew it, time had flown by and the workshop came to end, with everyone expressing their deep thanks to Kelly for her time and input. Sandra summed up everyone’s feeling in her evaluation, describing it as a fantastic experience and a treat for Artful Orators to host such a session, as well as wishing there had been more time to play more games.  She especially appreciated how relevant the workshop had been to Toastmasters and hoped they could do improvisation more often.

Marzena noted how everyone enjoyed the workshop and how it activated the audience’s brains with its benefits.

Kelly concluded that, while improvisation may be new to many Toastmasters and that time would be needed to get to grips with it, the games played throughout the evening could easily be practised – the more time put in to learn them, the more people could improve and increase their skills and techniques.

For more information on Kelly Agathos and her improv workshops and shows go to www.atcbrussels.com/contact.html.

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