My child is cuter than your child

My child is cuter than your child

Let’s get something out of the way. My kid is cuter than your kid. He has fatter little cheeks, funnier little facial expressions and looks cuter dressed in a rainbow baby grow. 

Iggy (yes, we lumbered him with the name Ignatius) was born on the 30th December and is therefore one day older than the year. The labour wasn’t easy and because we are a little older, neither was getting that far. But here we are, staring at this little thing that now laughs in recognition when we come into the room. 

Savour the first fews weeks, people say, they go so fast. Soon he will be growing out of all the clothes people have donated rather than struggling to fill them. Soon he will be running around and breaking things, asking for sweets, then a phone, a car and help with a mortgage. 

This blog has two purposes:

1) To boast about how cute my child is. 

2) To talk about the improv. 

1) is done, so let’s get on to 2). 

Are children the best improvisers?

Have you ever heard someone say ‘Children are the best improvisers?’. It annoys the crap out of me. The logic goes that in their freedom and ease, children just instinctively know how to make wonderful stories and scenes. That we were all little creative geniuses before we had it crushed out of us in Mr Peter’s art class.

Like all good myths there is just enough truth in this to help us swallow the nonsense. Children lack the ability to plan ahead and therefore don’t get choked by expectations or fears. They do no more than doing simply because that is the limit of their current cognitive capacity. They are able to enjoy what they are doing for no more than what it is. This is an extremely refreshing way to be and a wonderful thing to be around. But they also follow the ball into the road, both metaphorically and literally. 

But does it make them good improvisers? Well no, not really. Improvising requires not just that we respond to what is overtly said and done, but also to intention and internal life. In order to play a scene, I am also building a picture of the expectations and knowledge of both my scene partner and the audience. Improv is a delightful dance of who thinks and expects what and what actually happens in the end. 

Theory of mind (or TOM) and it is best illustrated with one of those wonderfully cruel experiments from the golden age of experimental psychology. Imagine I empty a chocolate box and put a spider in there (shudder.) If someone comes into the room afterwards, what will they think is in the box? They don’t know what I did, so I can trick them by imagining what they must be thinking. It’s a virtual machine made of flesh. 

This ability to imagine whether someone will expect chocolates or a spider develops when kids are about four years old. At that age, they start the long and laborious process of learning how to distinguish between ‘I think’ and ‘You think’ and how to make those things interact with each other. Holding the explosively complex variations of that in your head is the work of a lifetime. Humans are extraordinarily, obsessively and necessarily social. 

I understand the origin of the idea that kids are great improvisers. It is an appealing idealisation and the feeling that everything was better in the good old days is a culturally persistent one. No matter what we do it is hard to slip the feeling that we are losing something as we progress, that complexity, maturity and speed are somehow worse.

So has Iggy taught me about improv?

Of course. I have spent the last two and a half months ditching plans, trying to work out what he needs and accepting when I constantly get that wrong.

Is he a good improviser? Not in the slightest. But he will be.

The Improv Nurds – Heather, Jules and Iggy
Jules Munns
jules@thenurserytheatre.com

Jules is the one of the founders of the Nursery Theatre. Jules is also the director of Impromptu Shakespeare and a member of the Maydays, as well as one half of Ten Thousand Million Love Stories.

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