Improvisation teaches you to be quick, both on your feet as well as mentally, but it also teaches you a lot about being open to others as well as helping them. Veronica Stivala participated in The Fifth Finland Improvisation Festival. She writes about why she thinks everyone should try improvisation at least once.

It is not every day that a man gets to fake shave his bikini line, nor a woman to fake brush her teeth as if she were a man. But this is how I got to spend an afternoon, in Finland, in June. The context, you see, was a theatre improvisation workshop centred around exploring gender as well as playing the other gender.

Led by Israeli actress and trainer Hila di Castro, this three-hour intensive class delved into and then tore apart the way we are programmed from childhood by society to think of gender in a certain way – boys should wear blue and be powerful, while girls should wear pink and be gentle.

What was so refreshing was that never was there any reference to any form of artistic hierarchy, if you will

Beginning by diving into gender theory and the history of gender roles, di Castro took participants on a journey that looked at how gender stereotypes are defined between five and seven years of age and progressed to challenging those present to play scenes without any presumptions at all.

Seeing as we were a group of mixed genders, we could group up with someone from the opposite gender and imitate their movements in different contexts, observing how they used their fingers, the weight of their stride, and their flexibility and flow in, for example, brushing their teeth.

Improvisation is a curious art in that performers need to come up with a character, a voice for that character, movements, gestures and, sometimes, even a back story – all in the space of seconds, sometimes even split seconds. To be able to do this well one, of course, needs to have an inventory of tools and techniques to draw on, as these build a scene during a performance. As with everything, practice makes perfect and this workshop was an enlightening opportunity to practise what it is like to walk in the shoes of the opposite gender and receive feedback in the process.

This workshop was one of a number I took during my participation as a solo artist at The Fifth Finland International Improvisation Festival in early June. The brainchild of Michigan transplant Trent Pancy, this four-day festival was pretty perfectly organised by Pancy and his devoted, hardworking team. The festival has gained a reputation for bringing a huge variety of improv shows together in Tampere, a small city in southern Finland.

This year’s edition of the festival showcased nine international teams and 12 ensembles who presented a great array of shows featuring 66 improvisors from 20 countries namely Argentina, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Israel, Italy, Japan, Kazakhstan, Malta, Poland, Russia, The Netherlands, UK and the US.

Yours truly was duly proud to be the first, and so far only representative of the Maltese Islands.

The festival took the form of various workshops being held during the day, followed by a series of shows held on each evening during the festival. The participants saw people from various backgrounds in the world of dance and theatre. But, what was so refreshing was that never was there any reference to any form of artistic hierarchy, if you will. We were all there together to learn from each other, to entertain, and, most of all, to have fun.

While not everyone may be cut out for an improvised performance, everyone should try it out in the safety of a workshop because, after all, isn’t so much of our lives improvised?

In addition to di Castro’s workshops, I attended Laura Doorneweed’s movement workshop as well as Pancy’s rap workshop. While Doorneweed saw us become more comfortable with movement, Pancy had me having the time of my life as I rapped a song about a nurse who tried to quit smoking, as well as unexpectedly finding myself rhyming Obama to llama in one fun exercise.

While each and every workshop was so different, I think they all had something in common, and that was that they opened my eyes to trusting myself, to trusting others on stage and to being confident in who I am. While not everyone may be cut out for an improvised performance I think everyone should try it out in the safety of a workshop because, after all, isn’t so much of our lives improvised?

I left Finland richer in having made friends I know will last a lifetime, as well as feeling inspired, instilled with confidence and fuelled by the energy I found at the festival to delve more into this wonderful world of improv, both to improve as an artist, but also to share the positivity this art form emanates, both to those who take part, as well as those who watch it as audience members.

Veronica Stivala’s trip was supported by the Arts Council Malta’s Cultural Export Fund – Travel Grant.