Politics and Improv

I’ve been struggling over the last week or so to find a voice that honors the important historic moment we find ourselves experiencing in the United States – a voice that serves appropriately as an ally without becoming performative, a tone that acknowledges my own privilege and need to grow while empowering and adding important volume to others, a way to express myself honestly as an artist without being blind to or distracting from the critical and timely struggle of the Black Lives Matter movement. I haven’t figured the balance out, and I offer this post with that context in mind, because there are moments when I think it’s important that we add our imperfect voice rather than remain silent or absent for fear of not being the most paradigmatic ally or having the best observation or the sagest wisdom.

I offer this first blog post back from my hiatus from the vantage point of a theatre historian, a lens that I admittedly don’t overtly utilize much in my current life as an improv practitioner, although I’d note my historical and critical musings have very much informed my practice and strategies. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what the role of improv should/could be in the current political discourse and what responsibilities we might have as practitioners as we wield this tool. I’ve also been thinking a lot about Carlo Goldoni and Carlo Gozzi, two theatre makers working in eighteenth century Italy during a time of social unrest as the rising middle class sought to grasp power from an increasingly ineffective and unresponsive elite. If you haven’t heard of them before, I was in the same boat until I stumbled across them in my studies. That’s Gozzi smugly smiling at you in the image above.

Many improvisers tend to think of our craft as innately progressive or radical as it has a tendency to question, satirize or undermine institutions of power, and this has often been the case historically. The performer in general, and the improviser in particular, has been legislated and viewed with distrust by the hierarchies that control the means of production: this mistrust and control acknowledges the inherent and potentially subversive power in the act of performance. Religious figures were banned from commedia dell’arte stages across Europe for fear of the contempt or ridicule that might occur, the Mexican carpa and Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed often served and represented voices that were otherwise disenfranchised or prevented from entering social discourse, and Keith Johnstone’s initial improv demonstrations literally defied England’s Lord Chamberlain’s role as theatrical censor for the Crown as there was, in fact, no script to view and control. In these, and many (most) other global traditions, the impetus to “punch up” and take aim at those in power is clear and connected to the very core of the improvisational performance instinct. If you take yourself or your institution too seriously, improv has the critical power to hold you up for closer inspection and to proverbially or literally knock you off your high horse.

There are a handful of examples where improv has appeared in a more conservative manner (conservative here meaning it displayed a clear interest in conserving current power systems and inequities.) Japan’s improv performative tradition of renga poetry became incredibly formalized and elite (although there were instances of a more accessible companion form), carnival traditions arguably serve as moments of temporarily suspending power systems only so that they can shortly return in full force without further question or challenge, and then there is the eighteenth century literary and theatrical feud between Gozzi and Goldoni.

This isn’t the place to get bogged down with too much of the minutia of this historic moment but here are the broad strokes. Carlo Goldoni, also known as the Italian Moliere, was born as a member of the upper echelons of the Venetian “common people” and he had lost patience for the stale traditions of the “improvised” commedia dell-arte. At this time, so much of the craft and lazzi had become essentially set that the audience could almost speak the dialogue along with the supposedly improvising performers. (A quick note that mature commedia dell’arte always seemed to straddle the line between generating and recycling material.) Goldoni also had some issues with the immorality of these shows, and the lack of a true and nuanced representation of the emerging middle-class, to which he belonged. His solution was to breathe new life into these characters by incorporating them into an essentially written literary tradition where he could more deliberately take aim at the useless and out-of-touch aristocracy. Among his better known plays is The Fan which is a good example of how he elevated the middle class while taking some deserved knocks at those who had long since ceased to be of any real service to society.

In response to Goldoni’s efforts to use the commedia dell’arte characters and devices as a sharper satiric tool, Carlo Gozzi emerged as his theatrical rival. In simple terms, Gozzi embodied the very aristocratic leech that Goldoni had so successfully brought to the stage and critiqued. He was the embodiment of privilege, unearned status, and patriarchal oblivious excess. As Goldoni had done, Gozzi also deployed the commedia dell’arte masks, but in many cases he retained their bawdy impromptu nature, allowing particularly the lower class characters comedic freedom in his fiabes or fables, such as The Love of Three Oranges. These plays were sumptuous escapist affairs with little in the way of social commentary or satire: his scripted prologues often set the scene and actively invited his audiences to return to a dream-like and intellectually disengaged childhood wonder.

As practitioners, there are obviously a myriad of paths forward as we contemplate returning to the theatre boards post COVID, and yet this struggle between Goldoni and Gozzi has returned to me perhaps as an historical warning of sorts. Goldoni sought to breathe fresh air and social commentary into his commedia dell’arte inspired characters and plays, and consciously held up an archaic system of rule for ridicule. While you could make the case he greatly diminished improvisational freedom, he retained or perhaps re-inspired an approach to art that sought to give voice to the masses. Gozzi, on the other hand, retained the guise of improvisational freedom, but pursued an escapist tradition in an effort to sustain the status quo. He maintained an appearance of improvisation, but arguably, inverted its inherent promise or responsibility, deploying it as a means to appease and ultimately control the masses with frivolity and fantasy.

There are several lessons I take from this distant historical moment. Our art will always be framed, inspired and informed by the political landscape. As improvisers and artists, we can adopt an apparently non-political stance, as Gozzi did, but often our unwillingness or inability to face sociopolitical realities merely results in us upholding the status quo. Escaping into the theatre or our craft may strike us as necessary or appropriate — “everyone needs a break from what’s going on in the world” — but this also smacks of un-interrogated privilege as not everyone is able to or wants to put aside this moment of import. Is this really a moment to blow off collective steam in the theatre (a critique often leveled at Aristotle’s concept of catharsis) or rather a time to find new agency and ways of empowering voices and narratives that need a space now more than ever? As practitioners, do we want to allow our craft to become so stale and “set” that it no longer serves our constituents, as was the case with commedia dell’arte when Goldoni interceded to return agency and vibrancy to the craft? Or do we want to commit to use the unique tools of improv to respond honestly and powerfully in the moment, “punching up” while lending our hands, voices and stages to those most in need?

While I predictably know my own answers to my pedantic questions above, I will confess that I do not know exactly what this reactive and informed improv should look like in my own work. To use my campus troupe as an example, our short-form show is much less likely to be able to interrogate issues of racial injustice and inequality with appropriate depth than our long-form narrative work, although there are also problems here in terms of representation and finding ways to engage current affairs responsibly. As with many improv companies, we still have ample room for growth in terms of racial diversity and inclusion, although we have done better in terms of balancing sex in our casting and have a long history of strong female improvisers excelling in positions of leadership. In general, however, for many improv can still feel closed, inaccessible, or predominantly straight, white and male.

In some contexts, I’m thinking particularly of competitive-style short-form shows, bringing current political issues front and center into our content may feel jarring or inappropriate as it runs the risk of minimizing the issues at hand or, perhaps worse, might give the impression if done without care that we are poking fun at the very communities and tensions that so urgently require our attention. But even in our most joyful and lighthearted enterprises I believe we should honor that the world and stage can not merely be business as usual. I wonder if exploring creative partnerships, organizational sponsorships, pre- or post-show speakers or discussions, offering curated resources and the like could be a first move to frame our improv events in a way that acknowledges our greater responsibilities as artists. And perhaps we should not unduly focus all our attention on our onstage material but also interrogate how we are representing, supporting and building up our larger communities in general.

Regardless of the specific next steps we each take, however, I hope we can all agree that we shouldn’t be a Gozzi, an out-of-touch aristocrat crafting escapist fables designed to draw attention away from the fact that we are simultaneously perpetuating, masking and embodying the very problem we need to address as a society.

Don’t be a Gozzi.

Cheers, David Charles.
Join my Facebook group here.
Here’s an interesting article about race and improv from American Theatre.
© 2020 David Charles/ImprovDr

Published by improvdr

A professional improvisational practitioner with over thirty years experience devising, directing, performing, teaching and consulting on the craft of spontaneous (and scripted) theatre and performance.

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