“Play and art use the great essentials – intelligence, imagination, aesthetic feeling, sensitivity, spontaneity, originality, and productivity. The player and the artist create a tangible thing regardless of the fact that it may be composed entirely of intangibles – the song, or the game for instance.”Neva Leona Boyd. Play and Game Theory in Group Work: A Collection of Papers. Chicago: University of Illinois at Chicago Circle, 1971. p. 87.
How do we describe an improvisational “maker,” the artist who shapes and gives meaning to a spontaneous event? This role may be taken on by an individual, shared between a handful of co-creators, or broken into smaller interconnected roles within a collective. While the function of art maker can have a lot in common with our colleagues working in the scripted tradition, the scope and range of duties tends to have a broader and more inclusive reach, and the improvisational creator rarely resides neatly in one camp. I’ve personally explored using many different terms in my own work to describe this creative role and after some trial and error have settled on the nomenclature of Deviser. While the specific duties and responsibilities may alter from production to production and collaboration to collaboration, this term helpfully combines the multitude of hats that most improvisational practitioners wear as they approach the challenge and delight of crafting a new theatrical piece.
Faces of the Improvisational Deviser
An improvisational deviser might not assume all the following roles, but it is likely that the majority of these functions will at least partially fall under their purview:
1.) Creator. Often the seed of a new improvisational production will begin as a random musing. This initial inspiration may be teased out by an individual or collective who assume responsibility for determining the intent and shape of the improvisational event. What artistic conversation does the show join or continue? How does it connect or react to other works of art (spontaneous, scripted and from other non-theatrical disciplines)? Ultimately, what is the intended look, arc and feel of the desired show? Depending on the circumstances of performance (such as the venue, producing entity, intended audience) the initial spark may also include a strong consideration of the available production parameters.
“I’ve got this idea of creating a fully improvised Moliere French farce, utilizing rhyming couplets, a randomized stock set of commedia-inspired archetypes in period-appropriate costumes, and set in a drawing room location. I want to explore social facades and hypocrisy both then and now.”
2.) Playwright. Once an idea has been formulated and perhaps brainstormed, often the next stage of improvisational show development resembles that of a traditional playwright’s function, although the process and product will likely look quite different. Previous training and experiences will undoubtedly inform the final shape, but the improv playwright determines the structural, textual and framing elements (or lack thereof) of the piece. These may be formally collated and written down in a script equivalent, coalesced into a blueprint or pictorial chart, or polished and passed down primarily through oral notes and discussions. Often it may prove a mix of all the above. On occasion “set” elements may also be included to frame the improv action that requires a playwright’s touch – such as an opening song, host banter, or introduction of the core conceit or characters. Or this voice may weave smaller improv units or devices aesthetically into a greater overarching form.
“I’d really like to have a choreographed opening, reminiscent of the period, to introduce the company, present the possible archetypes, and then elicit votes or selections from the audience. The performance itself will resemble the dominant five-act structure of the period, with the events all occurring in the span of one day. Act One will utilize a La Ronde so we can meet the characters…”
3.) Dramaturg. Depending on the focus and scope of the endeavor, the dramaturgic function could prove brief or expansive. If you are primarily interested in crafting a “modern day” piece, there will probably be little need for deep historical research although you may elect to investigate and explore pertinent improv antecedents that connect to the work at hand. If you’re looking to construct a specific genre piece or are setting your action in a distant time, culture or location, intensive dramaturgical work could follow. While the playwright primarily solves the structural challenges and defines boundaries, the dramaturg provides content and sociopolitical threads and influences alongside story guidance and possibilities.
“Let’s read a strong cross section of Moliere’s comedies, mining them for character, story and historical details that we can then use as inspiration. I’m also going to engage in some research focusing on early eighteenth century France, and core tensions circling around religion, the aristocracy, gender roles, colonialism and courtship as I can see these topics being particularly rich areas to bring to the stage.”
4.) Director. The above roles and work might precede or function in tandem with the actual process of mounting the production. If the desired work riffs on a well-known or accessible structure, or borrows liberally from a public-domain source, there may be little need to engage in a robust and separate development period. At its core, this director function closely resembles its scripted equivalent in that the pertinent task is now getting the production up on its feet in a timely fashion. Unlike its scripted counterpart, however, the improv director often assumes a deeply pedagogic role providing strategies and techniques for crafting work within the desired frame and overcoming perceived challenges: they are equally concerned with the how as they are with the what. More often than not, they serve as teachers and coaches. The improv director’s job also rarely concludes on opening night as they may continue to shape and craft future performances throughout the run through continued observations and notes.
“I see that we’re struggling with the poetic element of the piece so today I’d like to focus on our verse. Let’s get into two lines and we’re going to warm-up with a rhythm and rhyme exercise to start those juices flowing…”
5.) Player. Finally, it is not uncommon for improvisational practitioners to also perform in their own creative projects. They may lurk behind the scenes in a support or directorial capacity serving as a resource or guide to the company (akin to a short-form host, emcee or sidecoach), or may boldly trot the boards alongside their fellow cast mates as a co-creator (as is the case with Playback Theatre’s Conductor, Forum Theatre’s Joker or Gorilla Theatre’s Director). From experience I would note that there are certainly pros and cons to also donning this hat, and while it is foreseeable that some of the above functions will helpfully persist (the director might lead post-show notes, for example) this conflation of roles can also prove problematic at times (fellow company members can needlessly defer to or seek permission from this collaborator in the moment of creation). Clear boundaries, expectations and responsibilities prove essential.
“Welcome to Wholly Moliere where we will attempt to improvise an entire full-length French farce based off your brilliant suggestions…”
These five roles strike me as the most common facets embodied by the improvisational deviser, although I’ve certainly taken on other obligations too such as producer, designer, marketer, house manager, (ill-equipped) graphic artist, (equally ill-equipped) choreographer, and chief problem-solver. The improvisational impetus tends to elide and push boundaries, so it should probably serve as no surprise that this is also the case when it comes to re-envisioning the traditional theatrical production team. The title deviser, while imperfect, at least acknowledges and encompasses some of this fruitful messiness in a way that is more descriptive than the alternatives I’ve personally encountered.
And in case you’re wondering, yes the Moliere format is a concept I’m currently musing on!
If you want to check out some of my past devising projects check out this page, or you can read about specific productions with my fledgling “Firsts” and connected “A Peek Inside” series here and here.
Related Entries: Dramaturgical Improv Synonyms: Creator, Director, Dramaturg
Connected Game: Prologue