Offer / Listen / Consider / Respond. Improv, Teaching, and Occupational Therapy

It was a fine Fall evening when I joined my friend Scott for an improv night with his group. My plan was to sit back and enjoy the show, but he didn’t cut me any slack. “Put your name in the jar,” he said, “and come to the stage when you’re called. Always say yes – it’s the only thing you need to know.” As it turns out, I ended up on stage as part of a three-person act. Speed-walking across Manhattan avenues on our way home, Scott told me how impressed he was with my “performance”: I had actively contributed to the story, advancing it with my responses to the situations I was presented with. And that’s unusual for a first timer, he explained. “You don’t have a lot of teachers coming to these things, do you?” I asked. “It seems to me that this is a lot about listening and responding. And, as an educator, that’s what I do all day.”

After spending a day with Griffith University’s Occupational Therapy students, I could also have suggested Scott invite a few Occupational Therapists along to improv.   Because, in the end, we do the same thing. In improv and occupational therapy as in education, we offer, we listen, we consider, and we respond. And we listen again.

I was invited to be part of an afternoon of presentations by Occupational Therapy students at Griffith University in Australia’s Gold Coast. They spent a day playing games that helped them think about themselves and their professional mission in this (and other) worlds; they also had to design a presentation about their latest professional placement.

Each group of students curated their own story using cardboard boxes and other basic materials. A few lucky “VIPs” like myself were invited to serve as an audience for their performative presentations. There were games, and cartoons, and conversations, and posters. But mostly, there was a beautiful willingness to listen and respond. Every group of students I chatted with talked about how they got to their site and did their best to understand what their clients (individuals or organizations) actually aimed to get out of their working collaboration before making any other plans. Yes, they have studied the ins and outs of the discipline; they know what many other clients have enjoyed and not; they have their own ideas as to what people and organizations need. But OTs don't know what those specific clients want and need before before they ask, they observe, and they listen - so they do.

Back home to my studio, I get busy preparing the next course I will be working on, a special technique for painting on glass. What does this specific paint do? How does glass react to it? What are the specific properties of these materials? Based on what I hear from the glass, I will create my pieces and design my teaching sessions. I listen to my materials as I listen to my students - just as OTs listen to their clients and improvisers totheir prompts. We offer, we listen, we consider. And we respond.