Attunement as a Tool for Character Development

One of the stated goals I have for each episode of the Improv Comedy Connection podcast is to amplify and share the voices of the guests – and I hope I’m learning more and more how to stay out of the way in the episodes to let you have an unfiltered and undiminished look into the wisdom, insight, experience and perspective of each guest. But it also has occurred to me that most of us (people generally, but improvisers, comedians and communicators, too) tend towards the familiar and known.  So unless you’ve decided to listen to each episode (and thanks to those of you who have!), you might not know what good stuff you’re missing.  And as the diversity within the show’s guests increases — particularly as the show’s guests are more global and more varied in their improv/theatre/comedy traditions and backgrounds — it may be more likely that you’ll miss something really valuable.  And if so, then I’m less likely to achieve my goal.

So, in response, I’m going to try something new.  Starting with the current season, I will highlight some aspects of previously released episodes to encourage you to perhaps check out an episode and engage in a conversation about that topic.  When this season ends, I’ll likely look back to the first season and do the same.  Regardless, I have decided to start with the topic of Attunement that is covered in some depth in the Shannon Dale Stott episode = episode 3 from Season 3.  This was the topic that got me excited to start interviewing again, and I continue to refer back to this topic in my own work and improv community.  So in case you missed it, let me say a couple of things to tease the fuller discussion with Shannon.

First – Attunement, as used in the episode, is a newer concept to  Shannon (as it was to me) that she explored with a clinical social worker named Zach Patton (click here for the video).  The definition we used worked off of considered attunement to be “[t]he process of understanding someone else by trying not necessarily to live it, but to feel it.”  In an improv concept, that requires “you to actually ask actual questions and put the answers to those questions in your body,” according to Shannon.  That may be something that you can do with some success on your own, but will probably be more impactful if you consider the experience of others that you know.  A great exercise that Shannon described (and credited to John Gebretatose of Huge Theater) involved standing face to face with a partner and thinking about their life experience in various contexts.  This and other work to have a fuller understanding of another’s experience should allow you a greater ability, as Shannon says, “to attune to the thing that you are trying to become, not the thing you are trying to portray.”  This should not only allow for fuller, richer characters on stage, but also a greater ability to avoid defaulting to stereotypes, caricatures, and tropes associated with experiences that may be less familiar or known to you.

The conversation goes deeper than that, too, however.  Having a sense of attunement to not only the experience of the individual but the experience of the improviser should allow for healthier and more whole improv communities.  Shannon and I discussed attunement in connection with how “we can create a safe place where people can open up and they can ask you, they can invite you to know them.”  Although there is an aspect of that that might be considered passive, Shannon rightly discussed that it is not a fully passive part of the work for those within the dominant culture to “be quiet, and letting the stage be silent,” and waiting for someone in the non-dominant position to take that space.  As she says, “[s]itting on the sidelines and letting the stage be blank looks passive, but it is an active choice to let a woman, a person of color, someone who is differently abled than you, to have a moment.”

Again, this is a brief survey of a fuller conversation within a wider ranging episode – but I hope it is an encouragement for you to listen to the episode if you haven’t and/or an encouragement to consider how attunement might be a useful tool in strengthening your improv community.

I’d love to hear what you think and hear back on what your experience might be with attunement on many levels.  Please do let me know!

Again, check out the episode web page for the Shannon Dale Stott episode of the Improv Comedy Connection.

* “People” in this context could be described as those specifically outside of the dominant cultural position – which in our specific conversation was focused on those who would not be part of the cis-white male community members.

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