Ben Taylor helps furloughed feds “grow something useful out of the void”
In order to help furloughed employees capture a bit of joy in the middle of a challenging time, WIT is staging a series of free Improv for All workshops to give them a taste of improv and share the joy it provides. The first workshop was documented in a short video by USA TODAY.
A furloughed federal employee himself, WIT faculty member and Wonder Whale coach Ben Taylor has led or co-led both of the workshops and took some time to talk to WIT about the experience.
The next workshop for furloughed feds is Friday, Jan. 18 at noon.
How long have you been doing improv? What do you love about it?
I started doing improv in 2008, and got addicted quick. I love that improv lets you get in a room with a complete stranger and two hours later you’re building a space station together. It allows you to go on stage and make something positive, honest, and surprising out of absolutely nothing with another human being. It is the ultimate team sport.
Just like the federal employees you’ve been working with, you’ve been furloughed yourself. How has the furlough impacted you?
I’ve been logging hours remotely with the hope for backpay since January 1. My partner is still working, so we are fortunate to have one income stream through this, and my heart goes out to those where this is not the case. For me, it’s been a complete and total disruption of routine. I’ve been spending a lot of time with my Burt, my dog, and I can’t complain about that. But underneath everything is this personal hum of ineffectiveness and lack of use. A real scatterbrainedness. It’s like waiting for a doctor to call with horrible news about a necessary and ailing organ I’ve never really had to think about.
Tell us about your experience leading the workshops. What does the room feel like?
Every Improv for All workshop I’ve been to already shines with this excited, anticipatory energy, because they’re usually filled with people who are trying improv for the first time, or who have been out of the craft for a while and are getting back into it. But the energy in the workshops for furloughed workers is iridescent. It’s almost like the improv skills are secondary. People are there to take control of their downtime, take some control of their present, and grow something useful out of a void.
Since you’re also furloughed, does that change the way you relate to the workshops participants (compared to a workshop for a general audience)?
I believe deeply in the transformative power of improv to help you see and become your best self. I want everyone who takes a workshop with me to fall in love with the craft and with their ability to report honestly about themselves as they support others doing the same.
But for the workshops for furloughed workers, I place a lot more focus on improv as a foundation for a safe and supportive community. I want participants to feel free to express their frustrations, anger, and fear in a caring and reciprocal environment. Because that’s what I need right now. I need to feel heard and cared about, and to know that I can show others they are heard and cared about, too. That’s one of the best things that an improv mentality (“YES, I hear you, AND, I feel it too”) can give to people.
Have there been any especially memorable moments from the two workshops you’ve done?
At the first workshop for furloughed workers, someone asked if they could address the group about the power of improv. They were a union representative speaking on behalf of furloughed workers, and they told us how improv is the reason they have the courage and confidence to speak to the press on behalf of their colleagues. Everyone cheered, and it was a moving example of the direct impact improv can have on people’s lives. A person came up to me after the second workshop this afternoon, and told me that just minutes before the workshop, they had been nearly in tears. The reality of everything was that overwhelming. And now with the workshop over, they felt good. They felt happy.
These are the serious examples. But there are hundreds of thunderously funny moments with lighthearted joy and laughter that I could mention, too. I’ve seen people ride on the backs of relative strangers during pantomimed jousts so intricate, they’d make the Renaissance Festival jealous.
Speaking as an improviser and a person impacted by the furlough, what do you think is the value of doing improv in a time like this.
Improv gives you support, control, focus, and victory. It gives you a place where you can go and be surrounded by folks who know what you’re going through, where you can shout at the top of your lungs and be thanked for it. At a time like this, who wouldn’t benefit from a place like that?