During the lockdown, I took an online class, organized by the Spirit Loft in Toronto, with Jozef Fruzek and Linda Kapetanea of Fighting Monkey. For me, much of their work revolves around a playfulness that reminds me of my time in theater school. At one point during the class, we were instructed to be constantly off balance, as if we were drunk, and in brief moments reorganize and throw a punch, then return to our drunkenness. I found it to be an exciting way to play with the movement between, and the balance of, full and empty, hard and soft, stable and falling. While we played the game, I heard Jozef, speaking into his computer microphone from across the world, exclaiming over and over, “Surprise yourself!” These words launched me back to my days spent in one of the black boxed rehearsal spaces of theater school. My favorite class was taught by a man named Tom Orth. Tom was a playful heretic, so he was more than thrilled to allow me to sneak into his classes as a first and second year student when they were reserved for third and fourth years. He taught what was called a Vaudeville class, which captured bits of movement, improv comedy, and storytelling. All we did for 2 hours was imagine, make-believe, and daydream. He used to say things like, “Keep the child alive inside of you” and, “Accidents are wonderful gifts.” And, upon hearing Jozef’s demand for surprise, I could hear Tom saying the same words. Perhaps he said them, or perhaps it sounded like something he would have said, but regardless I was taken back to the black box and Vaudeville class. The education Tom delivered was through play, and the entire class was built around the “surprise yourself” philosophy. Although I was infatuated with his classes, I couldn’t articulate what I was learning. It has taken me 15 years, and a rollercoaster of a life through stand-up comedy, movement, and becoming an adult in New York City to finally wrap my mind around some of the magic of surprise.
Our society makes every effort to avoid surprise. Instead, we try to force, control, and win. We rarely enter the world as collaborators; instead, we enter as dominators. Through flattening surfaces, mechanization, and linearizing processes we have reduced the opportunities for surprise. It seems the only welcomed surprises are the ones that come before a party. I’ve said recently that I think there is a difference between knowledge and intelligence. Knowledge is the information we collect that has words attached to it. It lies closer to the surface and we can discuss our knowledge collection. Intelligence is something we are born with, it is deeper within us, and is fed through experience and surprise. If we continue to reduce and remove unexpected moments, we are not feeding our hungry intelligence.
How does a baby learn to walk? Does it read a book? Does it have a teacher who follows a walking curriculum? No, it learns through tinkering. And through this process, small surprises occur, and indescribable discoveries are made that feed the baby’s innate intelligence. Over time the baby acquires enough information to take a few steps, and later walk, run, and skip. It is a similar story for learning to speak. In fact, I would be willing to guess that most of what is learned early in a child’s life is realized though this kind of process. They can do this because they approach each new scenario playfully. Playfulness gives the freedom to take risks, and surprise lies on the other side of risk-taking. Children are wonderful players because they are not held down by the chains of self-consciousness. For the youngest, they don’t even have a self to be conscious of yet. This is what Tom meant by, “Keep the child alive inside of you.” He knew that being an adult often means shedding playfulness, and when that goes away, we cease to surprise ourselves. As adults we transition to a play-to-win approach, collecting knowledge rather than feed our intelligence.
A fall by definition is an unexpected scenario. Falling, a literal physical fall, or an emotional one, is a powerfully honest moment. Rarely do we witness the coveted occasion of surprise when someone is presented with an unexpected scenario and in that instant of reconciliation, the outward shell is deactivated, revealing the person within. When I witness someone fall, for one brief moment their self seems to vanish; and I think I catch a glimpse of who they really are. Whatever identity they are trying to uphold is swiftly and unconsciously surrendered as they trade their outward persona for the actions required for survival. The way someone responds to the fall shows me how much they’ve allowed themselves to fall in the past. When we fall, the only thing we have to grab on to is our intuition, which is fed through our innate intelligence. The more we’ve fed this intelligence, the less stressed we are by the fall, and the more tools we have to recover. We can’t be taught to fall; we have to learn to fall by falling, and with each one we learn things we can’t attach words to.
While in Boulder, I spent some time with Marlo Fisken, a skilled pole artist and teacher who is brilliant on many levels. Our initial conversation was virtual, an interview for my podcast, Behind the Movement. When we found our time in Boulder overlapping, we met up in real life for some walks and chats. During one of our walks, I asked her what issues she thought hadn’t been talked about enough in movement culture. She quickly responded, “How teaching and practice can reflect the changes we’d like to see in the world.” Her words rang in my ears for days. I thought about the changes I want to see, and how they could be reflected in my approach to movement. Letting go of control and force, and rather embracing change and uncertainty, kept coming back to me. We should be collaborators rather than dominators and citizens rather than individuals. In order to play this role, we need to be creative and resourceful, and it is through surprise and discovery that we develop these qualities. This can’t be taught, but rather facilitated through playfulness, tinkering, and risk-taking. From my experience, the most wonderful teachers I’ve crossed paths with have taught me little, but instead given me opportunities to learn.
Every new day is a surprise. Each time we walk out our front door, we are accepting a world of uncertainty and randomness. Rather than trying to control an uncontrollable world, I propose we enter as willing participants. But how do we incorporate randomness into our practice? How do we train to not be in control? My suggestions are play, imagination, work with partners, and practice in seemingly imperfect scenarios. However, perhaps the simpler answer is, “Surprise yourself.”