What’s the Silver Lining? The Merlin Works July 2020 Newsletter

What’s the point? What’s going to come of all of this?

For most of us our lives were turned upside down when the shutdown began in March. What felt like a sprint, and then a jog, seems to have turned into a marathon. Here in Texas, it can seem like so many compounding problems–our public health crisis, economic crisis, racial inequities, and police violence–are mostly getting worse and not better, with no end in sight.

So what’s the silver lining? It can be hard to spot. Well, one takeaway comes from my favorite modern philosopher Alain de Botton from the School of Life. He was on The Late Late Show with James Corden of all places on May 6th. Corden asked him, “What do you think we can learn from this? What do you hope we hang on to when we get to the other side of this virus?” And Botton replied:

We can change things. And we can change things not over ten years but over, like, an afternoon. We can radically change how we live and be imaginative and courageous. And it doesn’t have to be perfect the way we redesign things. We can play. We can experiment. We can try to make life the more fulfilling and exciting and genuinely joyful thing we know in our hearts that we all want. But so often we’re held back by tradition. Let’s throw the bad traditions out of the window and try to be ambitious about how we want to live.

When all the schools closed and the business shuttered and work pivoted online and unemployment expanded and traffic ceased, things changed. As Botton said, not over ten years but over, like, an afternoon. On March 13th, we went on an Extended Spring Break which turned into an Endless Summer, which, like all things when you have kids, doesn’t fell like a vacation at all.

I’ve been thinking about this idea ever since I saw it in early May, which was weeks before the murder of George Floyd and the worldwide protests for Black Lives Matter. And I think this is a key factor in why those protests were so broadly supported and effective. Because we had seen, just a few months earlier, the change we had always been told takes time, has a gradual process, needs to work inside the system–that change can happen overnight. We found out it’s not true. Change does not have to be incremental. Not when it’s important enough. If it’s important enough to everyone, change can happen in an afternoon. So when another Black man was killed in the streets by police, people didn’t want to wait another decade or another lifetime. They wanted change that came as swiftly as the pandemic shutdown.

The idea that we can just do it now. That we don’t have to plan as much as we thought. That if the current system is understood to be dangerous enough, stopping it and starting something new is a better option. And we can continue to fix and improve and iterate it as we go. This is an expression of improvisation at the highest levels. That we can change how we do things in a heartbeat. And all the work we have done on our values and education and communication will show up for us to execute something different and hopefully better.

Here at Merlin Works, we’ve been rethinking our business model. From delivering 90% in person training to going 100% virtual for classes, shows, and corporate training. From thinking about having one diversity scholarship candidate at a time to five. From trying to market ourselves for gigs to stay afloat to trying to amplify the voices of BIPOC in our industry to get the work they deserve and can excel at.

And there’s things I’ve been doing thoughtlessly for decades (because that’s the way I was taught and that’s the way they’ve been done) that have changed in an afternoon. Look, I’ve been doing improv as long as Moses. I still play games I call “Typewriter” and “Slide show” to give you a sense of when and where I learned improv. When I was preparing to lead team building activities for the local medical school’s freshman class in June, I was coordinating with leadership there to take my curriculum virtual. We settled on doing some ice breakers, some Yes And, and a round of Sheriff, Bandit, Victim–a game that works on presence, flexibility, and stepping in to whatever role is needed, not always the one you want. It’s a fast fun game and I’ve played it a ton of times over many years. But then I got an email back from the organizers. They let me know there is no possible way we will be playing a “game” called “Sheriff, Bandit, Victim” in June 2020 at college student orientation. And as soon as I saw that, I knew that they were totally right. And I had been completely blind to the fact that there might be a lot of people who don’t think there’s one funny or playful thing about having their teammates pretend to point a gun at them while their hands are in the air. I thanked them for their feedback and we modified the game to play “Intern, Resident, Patient.” It covered all the same learning points without making light of a situation that sounds like make believe to me but is very real to many.

This was one small thing to support Black Lives Matter. My hope, and my work, is to see things improve for Black Indigenous People of Color here in America. Ideally, in an afternoon.

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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