Mindfulness and Improv: A Conversation with Steve Clorfeine

For theatre artist Steve Clorfeine, mindfulness and improvisation fit together like hand in glove. Lyn Hartley talks to Steve about how this connection is made.

Photo © iStockPhoto.com/Maica

Over the last ten years, Steve has been on the Authentic Leadership in Action (ALIA) arts faculty, which leads creative process sessions. At ALIA, creative process helps leaders become more fully attuned, moment-to-moment, to what is happening.

It also balances mental and verbal engagement. “When people come to creative process, they have been spending a lot of time sitting in a chair, absorbing new theory, being in conversation. And then suddenly there comes a moment when they can let all that go. They can move into another part of themselves.”

Improvisation also invites bravery and a willingness to engage in what Steve describes as “not knowing and using everything you have to go forward.” He elaborates:

“It is always a challenge to bring more of ourselves into the present. Through mindfulness we come to notice our hesitation, our resistance. It takes effort to bring that in, to not be afraid of ourselves. By mixing mindfulness and improvisation, we invite a bit more of ourselves, from outside our usual comfort zones or strategies. How much can I include in being present? Can I include not being present? Can I include being afraid? Can I include hesitation and resistance? How much can I include? To me that is the question at the heart of improvisation.”

This type of improvisation is very different than people’s preconceived ideas: “People often speak about improvisation as going wild—doing whatever you want. I’m speaking about something different, about stretching or expanding your attention and absorbing as much as you can, as directly as you can, to inform the choices you make.”

In the creative process sessions, people begin to directly experience what is happening within themselves, in a playful way. “There is tremendous discipline in deep play. When you think of it from a child’s point of view, it’s almost an instinctive discipline. When you watch children play, they are completely absorbed in what they are doing. It is a natural discipline of attention.”

While play may be natural to children, as we get older, we often lose the ability to fully engage in the moment. “We lose our confidence that it’s okay to play. We give in to the demands of being adolescents or adults and wrap our egos into those responsibilities. We don’t give ourselves the opportunity to play. I think this is why when we as ALIA artists improvise together, it’s scary on a certain level. Sometimes we don’t even have a plan even though we spend a lot of time pretending to plan!"

“Scary is another way of saying, it is so deeply poignant that you can hardly get a grip on yourself. The call to openness is the call to compassion—compassion for yourself and compassion for others. As my friend Ruth Zaporah says about improv, “Everything your partner does is perfect.”

Four-Minute Improv Exercise

  • Stand facing in one direction, wherever you are, and scan the horizon.
  • Notice what you notice.
  • Shift your weight, pivot, and turn to face the next direction.
  • Take the first few seconds to receive the new shape of what is in front of you. Then begin to scan the horizon, from left to right.
  • Repeat in each of the four directions, for one minute each time.
  • Notice how you feel.

Steve’s reflection on the four-minute exercise:

“I notice that slowing down this way invites vividness. Slowing down and receiving what’s in front of you and at the periphery – just receiving it, without judgment – this invites openness. I notice my state of mind—sometimes it is difficult to slow down. I might notice the running commentary that I have about everything going on. I want to receive things directly, and yet I have some interference, a kind of editorializing. All these things come up very quickly, and it is all very useful.”

This article was originally published in the ALIA Fieldnotes newsletter.

Lyn Hartley, PhD, completed her PhD in Human and Organization Development. Her doctoral research on transformative learning is with the Authentic Leadership in Action Institute in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Both Lyn and Steve Clorfeine will be attending the ALIA Summer Institute in Columbus, OH in June.