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Super Human Spotlight: Mary Cait Walthall on Clowning and Communication

Welcome to the newest edition of our Super Human Spotlight series! Mary Cait Walthall shares her expertise on clowning and positive communication. Turns out both are creative - and very serious - practices.

Watch the video for a taste, then read the full transcript below. Stay tuned for more installments in the coming weeks!

Sarah Ashley: Mary Cait Walthall, thank you for joining me for our Super Human interview series! Today we’re talking about positive communication. So, let’s start with your background in communication.

Mary Cait Walthall: Well, my undergrad degree is in psychology. Actually, my senior thesis was about how people communicated their sense of humor in Craigslist personal ads and breaking that down. It was very heteronormative. It was heterosexual relationships broken down by gender to see how people communicated their own sense of humor or the sense of humor of the person that they wanted to attract.

SA: I had no idea that was your senior thesis.

MW: It was very much about my thinking that being in comedy was keeping me from getting dates. Truthfully. But, it was fun! It was very interesting to comb through all those ads and see what people were saying.

After college, I ran a group intervention for people with artery blockages in their legs. It was actually a medical research study through Northwestern [University]. We were in groups helping people to motivate themselves to walk more because it would help them preserve their mobility. That was an interesting lesson in communication in terms of how to meet people where they are. We did a lot of motivational interviewing with that; so, instead of telling people what to do, or even trying to direct them or guide them in what to do, it was more like asking, “What are their motivations? What are their values? Why are they here for their health? How does walking impact their lives?” And just letting them set goals that were appropriate to them and goals that were in alignment with their lives.

Then, I went to physical theater school. While I was already doing improv, I was getting really interested in this mysterious thing called clowning, which sounds silly, but in fact I found it to be very serious. I found it to be very philosophically interesting, this idea that the clown is completely vulnerable and doesn't hide anything, and how much people communicated with small movements on stage. Just watching from the audience in one of those classes and seeing a slight shift in where someone places their body weight - suddenly they looked 20 times more confident or suddenly they looked incredibly sad - and it was real! Seeing people expressing something that’s real for them, but they do it almost without knowing that they're expressing it.

"Communication is a creative act... There are so many ways to communicate what's going on inside oneself."

SA: I’ve read about body language and how we communicate things simply by standing in a certain way without even knowing.

MW: Yeah! We can't hide it. We may think we're hiding things. Definitely on stage when the audience is far enough away to see your whole body, you can't hide it. I think when we see uncomfortable improv shows by very new improvisers, what we're uncomfortable about is what’s going on in their bodies, not actually the content of the scene as much. Sometimes the content.

SA: How has this training in communication, both verbal and nonverbal, impacted your professional life outside of improv?

MW: Hugely. After I went to physical theater school... in London and Berlin, when I came back to Chicago I didn't necessarily think of myself as someone who was going to work in entertainment. I think because I was finding that this interpersonal side of theater was really drawing me, I looked for a job in something that would be beneficial to the community.

I was hired at Alternatives, which is a nonprofit here in Chicago that works with young people. The services are very youth-centered and driven by what youth want. I started off on the substance abuse prevention side and quickly found that the restorative justice team was where it’s at. So, I basically just implemented restorative justice practices into my substance abuse prevention work until I had the skills needed to apply to the restorative justice job. That has been life-defining for me. In terms of what restorative justice is, is going to be hard to explain succinctly, but I’ll say it’s relationship-centered practices for building and strengthening community when harm is done. It’s repairing relationships when harm is done, rather than throwing out the person that we deemed to be the harm doer.

"Meeting people where they are involves asking questions from the perspective of, 'You are a full human who’s just as complex as I am and I don’t know yet what’s going on with you.'"

SA: I've been thinking so much about restorative justice because it’s so easy to cast someone out or say, “You’re wrong, you’re bad.” Obviously there are things that need to stop happening, but then how we move on and grow as a society is such a difficult question right now. What are some things that you wish people understood about restorative justice or could put into practice today?

MW: There are several things I wish people understood about restorative justice, especially because I think people don't understand how robust it is and they believe that it’s not going to work, to be honest. So, one thing I want people to understand is that it’s not a binary system between punishment and restorative justice. It’s not binary between being aggressive and being passive. Being restorative is more along the lines of being assertive. The team I was on uses something called the social discipline window, which is a graph. It’s got two dimensions. This one is expectations, from low expectations to high expectations.

SA: And that’s the x-axis? The vertical one?

MW: The y-axis.

SA: I was close.

MW: So, expectation is the y-axis and the x-axis is support. Of course, if you’re in this low expectations, low support area, that’s going to be neglectful. That is characterized by not doing anything. This could be a child you're working with; it could be your own child; a relationship you’re in; a work relationship. This applies to anyone we interact with. So, we've got this low expectations, low support.

Okay, let’s raise the support, but not raise expectations. We become passive, we become permissive. That permissive side is characterized by doing things for someone. “Oh you poor thing, you can’t do it, I’m going to give you tons of support and just do everything for you,” which also isn’t very beneficial for that person.

Okay, let’s keep the support low and raise the expectations. This is where we get into the punitive zone. Where we are mostly doing things to someone. It’s characterized by, “You should’ve known better; I don’t wanna deal with you,” that kind of stuff. “If you don't know better, well, then you deserve XYZ.” You get punished.

Finally, if we go all the way up into high expectations, high support, this is what is known in parenting lingo as authoritative parenting. This would be restorative. Authoritative versus authoritarian.

SA: That’s a good distinction.

MW: It's like having positive authority in the parental zone. In a colleague zone, if we’re being restorative, we’re doing things with people... We keep our expectations high and we keep our support high. So, people who are failing to meet our expectations, we’re asking them, “What do you need in order for you to meet the expectation?”

I don't want people to think that they are one quadrant or the other, all the time, in their whole lives. In fact, we’re going to be moving through these quadrants at different times of the day. We’re passing a stranger in the street, we probably have low expectations and support for them. There might be other times, just based on how we’re feeling, “I expected you to do the dishes and I don't want to give you support.” We’re all gonna be all over the map. If we’re plotting a graph of our interactions throughout the day, we’re trying to move our cluster of dots towards restorative.

SA: In a professional setting, what does high expectations and high support look like?

MW: It depends on the relationship. I think high expectations, high support with a relationship within hierarchy is a lot of communication about what support people need and about what the expectations are - and that it’s flowing both ways. And it's not as though the person above you in the hierarchy is the one who gets to have expectations and the one below is the person who needs support. Both parties have expectations and need support. They’re intertwined.

SA: I want to go back to something you said right at the beginning about meeting people where they are versus meeting people where you think they are, or where you want them to be. What does that look like in communication or relationships?

MW: To me, what it looks like is asking questions and being curious. It’s really easy to think we know where someone is, especially when we're seeing them more as a cardboard cutout or a less dimensional person than I know myself to be. We’re always like, “Oh, on the inside, I'm so complicated.” We can acknowledge or we can understand how many different feelings we have inside and different motivations. Then, when it comes to someone else's actions, we think we’ve nailed them down and know exactly why they did what they did. Meeting people where they are involves asking questions from the perspective of, “You are a full human who’s just as complex as I am and I don’t know yet what’s going on with you.”

SA: It’s so easy to whittle someone else down to a couple adjectives. What communication skill do you believe people would find most helpful?

MW: I think the value of the pause is huge. In improv and in life. My boyfriend and I are actually reading the TJ and Dave improvisation book [Improvisation at the Speed of Life by T.J. Jagodowski and Dave Pasquesi] and they talk about just being quiet. Being quiet so you can listen, and that listening is the number one communication skill. I’m in the practice of nonviolent communication, which I also really love. When we’re in conflict, we can choose basically one of four options: blame others, blame self, or empathize with others, give empathy to oneself. Those latter options require a pause. And listening can include listening to what's going on inside oneself and listening to understand the way I’ve interpreted the other person’s communication.

SA: It’s hard to listen to your own interpretation of someone else from the outside.

MW: Because to us it’s just, “That’s what they said.” Even when it’s not what they said.

SA: Any other communication tenets that you return to on a daily basis?

MW: Playfulness, to be honest. Because communication is a creative act. There are so many ways to communicate what's going on inside oneself and in fact, none of them will be perfect because words are completely imperfect tools. It’s always going to be a translation or a transposition from what’s actually going on in physical reality, so being playful with it and allowing it to be imperfect, and knowing that clearly the first time I said something it really didn't land the way I meant it, and just cleaning it up and having fun while doing that.

SA: It’s so funny you ended this interview that way, because I also asked Katie, “What’s one thing you really hope people take away from this?” She said follow your sense of play.

MW: Ha, yeah. It’s like we work together or something.

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