Tourist Brain and Improv Brain: The Merlin Works June 2017 Newsletter

People spend thousands of dollars on travel, but how much time or money do they spend on learning how to be a good tourist? Probably none. Well, summer travel season is here, and your ol’ pal Shana is going to give you tips on how to get the most out of your visit to another country, another culture, or just another person’s house. And how to avoid being the equivalent of the person dining at the Olive Garden in Times Square, NYC.

The improv brain and the tourist brain are actually very similar. In every improv scene, you are a tourist who’s visiting a new reality—learning about it, exploring it, pursuing joy and adventure in it, and gaining some wisdom along the way if you can.

Improvisers and Tourists are both:

Non-judgmental. A good tourist doesn’t go to Spain and say, “Your dinners are too late, you drink too much wine, and why is everyone napping in the middle of the freakin’ day?!” You are in Spain to experience a different way of life. So instead of judging it or wishing it was something else, you embrace it. I often go in to tourist mode when I encounter someone who is really different from me. I don’t think, “Aack! Get me away from this sleepy Spaniard!” I think, “Oooh! We are in Spain, I wonder what kind of pajamas they wear for a siesta…”

Action-oriented. A good tourist does things. They leave their hotel room. They zip-line or visit a museum, even if they have those things in their hometown and never try them. A good tourist knows the pleasure and the benefits that come from trying things out, which far surpasses hearing about them or reading about them. An improviser takes action in a scene, even if they are unsure of all the rules of their new reality. They don’t sit out and wait until they are comfortable. They make a move and figure things out as they go, knowing that doing is the only way to fully understand something.

Curious. Good tourists see adventures around every corner. They are interested in who people are, how things are done, the history and background of a place. They ask questions, they do research, they open doors. Improvisers are constantly asking questions in their heads and answering them in the scenes. They love to find out all the details about the characters, locations, and history of their scenes. Instead of being fearful about the unknown and avoiding it, improvisers are curious about the unknown and move forward in to it.

Humble. Since they aren’t local, tourists don’t assume to be the expert in a new world. They are open to asking for help, looking things up, relying on locals and experts. Improvisers know things can collapse at any moment or get things wildly wrong, so they don’t take themselves too seriously. They listen to others, lean on them, and know that everyone onstage has important information to share.

Adventurous. They might not be fluent in the language, but good tourists will give a few key words or phrases a try. They might not have used this transit system before, but they get a ticket, look at the map, and hop on board. They take risks, make mistakes, learn some things, and come home with some stories, like any good improv show.

Aware. Tourists are soaking things in. Tasting the food. Hearing the music. Watching the pageantry. They see the beauty in what might be mundane for the locals. Improvisers experience a heightened awareness onstage. Nothing is habit and everything is new, so they can perceive more than in their every day lives.

Impersonators. For many, the ultimate goal of tourism is to discover oneself anew. So when they are in Spain, they might take on the Spanish lifestyle—dressing like a local, eating like a local, keeping the hours of a local, starting to talk like a local. They might be someone new when they are somewhere new. And that might be fun for an hour or two…or a day…or maybe you decide you are a Spaniard at heart and never leave. Improvisers are constantly trying on new characters and roles, hiding behind them and revealing themselves through them.

By contrast, a poor tourist would try to make things in their new land as similar as possible to home. They stay in their hotel room, eat Ritz crackers and M&Ms, watch their favorite TV shows, and avoid connecting with locals. Of course, some comforts of home can be a good idea, but if you take it too far, then what’s the point of leaving home?

This tourism-improv connection came up in conversation with the brilliant faculty at the Dell Medical School at UT Austin. In their innovative curriculum, after one year of classroom study, doctors-in-training begin a series of eight-week clinical rotations. For example, for two months they might be in Pediatrics, then Emergency Medicine, then Obstetrics, and so on. They are essentially tourists in different specialties—not just to learn about the culture and methodologies, but also to find an identity for themselves and pick a specialty they want to call home. The challenge is this: so much risk-averse, “bad tourist” behavior got them to their high-achieving med school student status. But to get the most out of their clinical rotations, they need to throw themselves fully into each new world. And that’s exactly the kind of training I’ll be helping deliver this summer in the Milestone program, developing the best possible medical tourists—practitioners, not patients!

I will warn you, there is a danger with the improv and tourist brain. I use it so often and so deeply, I can lose sight of who I am and what I actually prefer. As a master improviser, I can quickly enter tourist mode when I meet a new person: “Wow you raise snakes! That’s so cool! How do you get into that? Have they ever escaped?” I go on and on listening to their answers with fascination, and it might not be hours later that I’m like, “Do I like snakes? No. That person thinks I’m totally into snakes. Am I into snakes? No, right? Right. I don’t like snakes.”

This Onion article—Open-Minded Man Grimly Realizes How Much Life He’s Wasted Listening To Bulls**t—sums up the drawbacks pretty clearly. (NSFW)

So next time you are taking a trip for pleasure; visiting family; heading to a destination wedding; or just visiting planet “I don’t believe in climate change,” see if you can put on your improv hat and be a good tourist.

About Shana Merlin

Merlin Works is the brainchild of Shana Merlin: improviser, teacher, and performer. Since 1996, she’s been leading classes that stretch people’s imaginations, push them out of their comfort zones, and make them laugh out loud for hours at a time.
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