‘… MY ADVENTURES IN THE ART AND SCIENCE OF RELATING AND COMMUNICATING’ part four
by Alan Alda
Published by Random House
eBook ISBN: 9780812989168
Copyright (c) 2017 by Mayflower Productions, Inc.
“I lurched through a couple of questions about solar panels, but the interview was lame and halting. I was well into my third blunder: Just as I hadn’t been really relating to him in not responding to the look on his face, none of my responses grew out of what he was telling me. I wasn’t really listening to him when he answered my questions.
In fact, I hadn’t been listening in three different ways. When I’d told him he had made the panel with parts off the shelf, I was paying more attention to my own assumptions than I was to him. When I didn’t read his face, I wasn’t listening to his body language. And when my questions didn’t spring from what he was saying, I was disconnected from him. I was alone. How could the conversation have been anything but strained when I had shut myself up in my own head?
I was a little downcast by the experience. Where was the improvisational ability to listen and react that I knew how to do onstage, that I had been trained in and was so proud of? I cherished my experiences in improvising with other actors. Why wasn’t I doing it now?
Improvising on the stage is usually thought of as creating funny sketches on the spot, with no preparation. Most improvisation that audiences are exposed to is comedy improv, and that was my first experience with improvisation.
One summer in my early twenties, I was performing in a cabaret show, sunk in the basement of a hotel in Hyannis Port. The first act of our show was a set of sketches we had created in rehearsal through improvisation. There was no writing of funny lines; it was all developed through the spontaneous interactions of the actors. The only preparation beforehand was thinking about characters we could play, and figuring out the quirks they had that could be relied on no matter what the other actor tossed our way. We worked these sketches over many times in rehearsal, and, although they were derived through improvisation, we knew we had these surefire set pieces for the first half of the show.
The second half was much scarier.
Before the intermission, I would ask the audience to give us words or headlines from the news. Then we’d take this list of minimal prompts backstage, and for fifteen furious minutes we’d toss ideas back and forth.
“They gave us the word taxes,” I might say to Honey Shepherd (who went on, decades later, to play Carmela’s mother on The Sopranos). “How about if you do your Nice Old Lady being audited for her tax return?” Her character was sweet, reasonable, and totally antiwar.
When she got out on stage, if the tax auditor asked her why she hadn’t paid her taxes, Honey’s Nice Old Lady could be relied on to say something like “I don’t want to buy a bomb.” Which would lead to a tangled, logically illogical dialogue.
As we brainstormed the most minimal of premises for sketches, we ad no idea what we would actually do or say. We didn’t know where a sketch would go or how it would end. Whoever was offstage during a scene would have their hand on the light switch, and when something funny happened that sounded like a concluding moment, they’d flip the switch and we’d have the punctuation of a blackout.
In an improvised press conference, I would take on the persona of President John Kennedy, answering questions from journalists in the audience who had asked the same questions of the real John Kennedy in the same hotel that morning. His answers to their questions hadn’t made it into the newspapers yet, so I was flying completely blind.
It was easy to worry that we would fail and flame out in front of the audience.
As opening night approached, we felt a thrill that must be like the thrill that runs through a person’s tingling body just before he jumps off a bridge.
As scary as this kind of improvising was, there was excitement in not knowing what we would suddenly be doing during a show. It was exhilarating, but we were limited by two things: We had to be funny, and we had little or no training in improv. We were relying mainly on sheer guts.
A year or two later, though, I was introduced to a completely different form of improvising.
I was invited to join a workshop conducted by Paul Sills, who had founded Second City, the phenomenally successful improv company. We met twice a week on the Second City stage in downtown New York City. It was the same stage where skilled comedy improvisers would perform nightly, but in these sessions Paul introduced us to a completely different kind of work.
His mother, Viola Spolin, had done groundbreaking work in creating a kind of improvisation training that was rigorous and exacting, and that slowly built in actors the ability to connect with one another spontaneously. Comedy was not the objective. Cleverness and joke making were forbidden. Something else, something much more fundamental to theater, was being explored: a kind of relating that could lead to deeper, more affecting performances.
***** TABLE OF CONTENTS *****
PART ONE: Relating Is Everything
1: Relating: It’s the Cake
2: Theater Games with Engineers
3: The Heart and Head of Communication
4: The Mirror Exercise
5: Observation Games
6: Making It Clear and Vivid
7: Reading Minds: Helen Riess and Matt Lerner
9: Total Listening Starts with Where They Are
10: Listening, from the Boardroom to the Bedroom
11: Training Doctors to Have More Empathy
PART TWO: Getting Better at Reading Others
12: My Life as a Lab Rat
13: Working Alone on Building Empathy
14: Dark Empathy
15: Reading the Mind of the Reader
16: Teaching and the Flame Challenge
17: Emotion Makes It Memorable
18: Story and the Brain
20: Jargon and the Curse of Knowledge
21: The Improvisation of Daily Life”
Alan Alda has been on a decades-long journey to discover new ways to help people communicate and relate to one another more effectively. If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face? is the warm, witty, and informative chronicle of how Alda found inspiration in everything from cutting-edge science to classic acting methods. His search began when he was host of PBS’s Scientific American Frontiers, where he interviewed thousands of scientists and developed a knack for helping them communicate complex ideas in ways a wide audience could understand–and Alda wondered if those techniques held a clue to better communication for the rest of us.
In his wry and wise voice, Alda reflects on moments of miscommunication in his own life, when an absence of understanding resulted in problems both big and small. He guides us through his discoveries, showing how communication can be improved through learning to relate to the other person: listening with our eyes, looking for clues in another’s face, using the power of a compelling story, avoiding jargon, and reading another person so well that you become “in sync” with them, and know what they are thinking and feeling–especially when you’re talking about the hard stuff.
Drawing on improvisation training, theater, and storytelling techniques from a life of acting, and with insights from recent scientific studies, Alda describes ways we can build empathy, nurture our innate mind-reading abilities, and improve the way we relate and talk with others. Exploring empathy-boosting games and exercises, If I Understood You is a funny, thought-provoking guide that can be used by all of us, in every aspect of our lives–with our friends, lovers, and families, with our doctors, in business settings, and beyond.
Alan Alda has earned international recognition as an actor, writer, and director. He has won seven Emmy Awards, has received three Tony nominations, is an inductee of the Television Hall of Fame, and was nominated for an Academy Award for his role in The Aviator. Alda played Hawkeye Pierce on the classic television series M*A*S*H, and his many films include Crimes and Misdemeanors, Everyone Says I Love You, Manhattan Murder Mystery, and Bridge of Spies. Alda is an active member of the science community, having hosted the award-winning series Scientific American Frontiers for eleven years and founded the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University. Alda is the author of two previous bestselling books, Never Have Your Dog Stuffed: And Other Things I’ve Learned and Things I Overheard While Talking To Myself.