“D” is for “Dramaturgical Improv”

“Improvisation is an art that has to be learned… The art of improvising is not just a gift. It is acquired and perfected by study… And that is why, not just content to have recourse to improvisation as an exercise towards the renovation of classical comedy, we will push the experiment further and try to give re-birth to a genre: the New Improvised Comedy, with modern characters and modern subjects.”

Jacques Copeau quoted in Anthony Frost and Ralph Yarrow, Improvisation in Drama. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989. p. 25


I’ve become inclined to use the term Dramaturgical Improv to define a subset of spontaneous play that tends to share certain characteristics beyond the more simplistic labels of long-form or narrative improv (although it tends to be both of these things as well). I’m indebted to Nicolas Zaunbrecher for first uttering the phrase in my presence at a conference where we were both presenting. The promise of the term resonated deeply with me in terms of encompassing a very specific and recurring type of improvisational approach and performance style that I have come to deeply value. The phrase itself warrants a little parsing:

Dramaturgy is a fluid term that can mean different things in different countries and to different companies. If you’re unfamiliar with the role, on a simple level a production dramaturg is often a researcher and creative collaborator who has a particular eye on the fidelity and accuracy of a play and its given circumstances. They are closely allied with the director and creative team, or, in some instances, serve as an audience-development and education resource. Dramaturgs also provide critical resources and critique for playwrights especially when pieces are taking their first steps onto the theatre boards. Or their work spans all of these areas, creating detailed resources for the company, working to fine-tune choices in the rehearsal hall as a “first spectator,” providing historical context for the audience in program notes or displays, and developing educational materials for outreach programs.

And improv means make-em-ups…

Together, these words refer to a body of improvisational work that tends to place itself more consciously in conversation with other historical or stylistic trends and practices. Or perhaps put another way, it is improv built on a robust foundation or body of knowledge.

Qualities of Dramaturgical Improv

As a relatively new term it is a little difficult to definitively define this particular approach to spontaneous theatre, but in general the following tendencies tend to unify dramaturgical improv:

1.) Form and style. Often focused on a particular genre or art product, dramaturgical improv tends to elevate and celebrate the source material that serves as its bedrock and inspiration. While a simple parody or brief short-form scene might happily skate on the surface, dramaturgical work, by definition, strives to paint a more hard-earned picture, incorporating emblematic devices, characters and best practices while simultaneously mirroring key structural or formulaic components. Playful choices are inclined to emerge from a more informed vantage point as players engage in a theatrical homage rather than a hastily or ill-formed crafted pastiche. The resulting work may certainly assume an air of irreverence but this will generally be born from a place of appreciation rather than distaste. (Most improvisers would not commit the necessary time to explore and inhabit a world or genre which they innately disdained.) Showstopper! The Improvised Musical and Free Associates’ Cast on a Hot Tin Roof come to mind as examples of long-form pieces that display this sense of care and affection.

2.) Historicity. While some dramaturgical pieces emphasis a genre or specific art product as the primary source of inspiration, others more overtly privilege a particular historical moment or period. Such works seek to acknowledge or replicate cultural and sociopolitical tensions that would have been in play during the time period in which the improvisational piece is to take place. There may be calls for “authenticity” or seeking informed perspectives and choices based on important historical trends and dynamics. This inclination can fold into a genre-specific piece and support structural and stylistic discoveries, or become the unapologetic raison d’etre of the event with the tools of theatre being repurposed to serve an explicitly pedagogic or edutainment end. In either case such works generally acknowledge and priviledge their historical antecedents and backdrops. Work of this ilk includes living history sites such as Plimoth Plantation that allows visitors to interact with early European settlers and indigenous peoples as they live their seventeenth century lives, and the (sadly now defunct) Astors’ Beechwood which offered visitors a tour of a Newport estate as if they were honored guests in 1891.

3.) Depth and detail. I’ve likened the work behind this style of performance to the image of an iceberg: it’s highly unlikely that on any given night or interaction with the event that you will be exposed to more than the tip of the knowledge, context and research that has been amassed and lies dormant beneath the surface of the artistic creation. And yet practitioners working in this modality tend to believe that this depth of preparation intrinsically elevates and enables the final product. Details and specifics are researched and pursued as they provide both dynamic launching points or scenic potentials, but often also because they form a broad and solid common foundation from which to launch the playing. Some improvisers may find this expected level of commitment off-putting while others enjoy the opportunity for personal enrichment and discovery. Polished improvisational parodies such as Austentatious and Shakespeare Unscripted (to name just two) embody this impetus and approach, and typically require company members to invest consider time on research in order to gain familiarity and ease with the pertinent source material.

4.) Critique. When dramaturgical improv situates itself in a particular historic moment or aesthetic frame, it also tends to offer a critique of the practices it replicates. This may or may not operate at as a primary goal but merely the juxtaposition of a bygone era or cherished form of the past alongside our modern morays is likely to offer some food for thought in skillful hands, and in many cases this satiric or ironic tension is clearly desired and given focus. Whether it is revealing the limitations of gender roles, the blindnesses of powerful institutions, or the disparities faced by various segments of society, carefully etched homages offer a unique and powerful potential to reveal and question resilient societal inequities and contradictions. Such conversations may present themselves playfully, such as in Some Like It Improvised, or overtly, politically and pedagogically, as is the case with Augusto Boal’s Forum Theatre.

Final Thought

It is fair to note that some of the companies and productions mentioned above may not wish to choose the moniker of dramaturgical improv to define their own work; I offer these merely as reference points that share certain orientations and inclinations. As has often been the case with theatrical movements, they are most vividly and comprehensively defined well after the moment of their inception. But as we continue to contemplate the shape and scope of the improvisational impetus, I think it is important to make room in the conversation for works that combine spontaneity, structure, research and efficacy in complex and nuanced ways. Such work has the potential to shatter the unscripted and scripted divide while serving and attracting a diverse and dynamic audience.

Related Entries: Deviser, Improvisation, Long-Form, Narrative

Cheers, David Charles.
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© 2021 David Charles/ImprovDr

Connected Game: Sequence Game

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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