Many of you may not know, but when I was a teen (back in the dark ages) I used to do a lot of improv at Theatresports in Toronto. In my 20s and early 30s, I worked at St. John's York Mills, and had the privilege of working tangentially with the drama program there-- again, with plenty of improv in my time with the youth I was working with.
So I wasn't all that worried last week when, after a lovely Christmas lunch here at the office, we moved into our staff meeting and discovered that we would be playing theatre games. Before you ask, no-- this is *not* what a typical staff meeting looks like.
Adele Finney, our Executive Director, led us through an unorthodox visioning exercise involving theatre games. The culmination of the time was playing the game "machines". If you already know this game, skip the next paragraph. But if you're not an improv junkie, you might want to learn how the game works: read on.
Machines begins with one person moving to the centre of the stage and beginning and repeating a simple action and noise. It could be something as simple as miming pressing a car horn and saying "beep beep". They continue to do that motion and sound until the game ends. A second person then joins in and adds their own motion and sound- possibly directly interacting with the first person, perhaps just nearby. Then another person joins. And another, until the machine is complete. The goal of the game is for a machine to organically be created with some purpose. In some versions of the game, a final actor comes on the stage and describes how the machine works. In other versions, the machine is named either before it starts or as part of the description of its function.
We didn't have anyone explaining the machines, but Adele gave us the kind of machines we were to make. They started off fairly easy: "Make a food machine", but moved into more cerebral and philosophical territory. Our culminating machine was "Make a machine that shows what PWRDF will be like in 3 years."
The machine I wanted to talk briefly about (after all this introduction) was one called a "responding to HIV and AIDS machine." The machine began fairly conventionally with a couple of people moving onto the stage and moving around, miming giving out food and medicine.
I stood on the sidelines, watching.
Then Zaida, one of our development staff, stepped into the middle and began to flap her hand against her chest and breathe in a raspy, wheezy voice. She was clearly not part of the machine, but was someone suffering from AIDS. Her breathing was incredibly poignant, and her simple action and sound moved us all.
I couldn't stand on the sidelines anymore.
I stepped in and became a "comforting" part of the machine: patting her shoulder and breaking a rule of the game by using actual words ("We're here") as part of my response. The people who were already in the machine moved over to Zaida and began giving the food and medicine to her (another breaking of a rule- you're not supposed to change your action at all during machines). Others joined in, all focused on easing her suffering.
It was an incredible moment- not one that could be scripted. Not one that could even happen within the rules of the game. But one that touched us all.
It reminded us that our work is not the work of machines, but is work with people. People who are in difficult circumstances. People who are suffering. People who crave human contact, and to live with dignity, love, and hope- the same things we all want.
It also reminded us that sometimes we have to break the "rules" in order to do what we do in the best manner possible. Sometimes it's not enough to sit back and wait for things to happen: sometimes you have to go out and *make* them happen.
This game might not have given us our vision for PWRDF in 2015, but it reinforced for us all why we were there. Hmm. Maybe it *did* give us a vision, after all!