“Improv’s excitement comes from its internal contradictions. Improvisers are challenged to be at once unthinking and quick-witted; to be unselfconscious, yet aware of the audience, the scene, and the other players; to express individuality within a groupmind; to channel cosmic truths while parodying contemporary hypocrisies; to let go and at the same time to make do.”Amy E. Seham, Whose Improv Is It Anyway: Beyond Second City. Jackson, Mississippi: U of Mississippi P, 2001. p.224
The concept of Groupmind refers to a seemingly magical condition where the ensemble walks together in creative lockstep. It can feel tantamount to a collective flow state where ideas and moves cease to have individual authorship and are, instead, apparently products of a unified consciousness. As an improv conceit it defies clear definition on the page and can tend to feel a little mystical or esoteric; yet, most improvisers can point towards numerous instances when they have felt this sense of effortless connection and creativity, when the same choice inexplicably seemed to bubble up for everyone in the ensemble at the same exact moment, or when players became completely immersed in the fictional world of play.
In many circles groupmind is lauded as a pinnacle of improv practice and a goal worthy of our utmost efforts and endeavors. And not without reason. If you’ve had the good fortune of visiting this creative nirvana you certainly want to return as much as possible. But as Seham rightly observes elsewhere in her thought-provoking book, the concept is not without its own challenges and limitations. It’s important to keep in mind the potentially unintended (or unquestioned) consequences of an unnuanced pursuit of this improv state of being. Just as a overly simplistic cry of “accepting” at all costs can encourage stereotypes, diminish agency and potentially promulgate all manners of injuries, so too can elevating groupmind without a careful consideration of what group we may be inadvertently centering or, alternatively, blindly marginalizing.
The ensemble creates an effortless scene riffing on a pop-culture reference. Each player intuitively knows the game and how to gradually ramp up the dynamic until a joyous climax is reached. The team celebrates together afterwards…
The ensemble creates an effortless scene riffing on a pop-culture reference that is shared by most of its members. Most players intuitively know the game and how to play it with one notable exception who hasn’t experienced the source material in question. As the scene approaches its climax this increasingly alienated player becomes further and further isolated. After a joyous climax shared by the majority of the group, the team questions why everyone was in the “know” and playing along except for one member who just wasn’t “fitting in”…
Groupmind Dynamics Worthy of Interrogation
Here are some inherent tensions at play within the concept of groupmind:
1.) Exclusionary versus inclusionary. Any “group” activity, creation or membership can be defined by those who fall within its purview or those that are excluded from the event. In the examples above, the sense of effortless flow may further tighten the group dynamic or possibly serve (generally unintentionally) as a way of making some members feel unwelcome or unheard. If we pursue moments of “everyone being on the same page” we must also realize that some people may not be starting with the same book and that, in fact, this latter reality is more likely to create complex and interesting stories. If we esteem work that revolves around a common set of references or pop culture knowledge, we should also recognize that these cultural touch points are rarely truly universal and might alienate company members (and audience members) in a way that obfuscates difference. When we accept that groupmind doesn’t mandate one common experience we reduce the likelihood that its pursuit will create an environment where only sameness is valued.
A company member joins a game in an unexpected way as they have not seen the television program that everyone else is utilizing in the scene. Company members embrace this novel and brave approach and weave it into the action…
2.) Dismissive versus self-aware. Related to the above dynamic, it can be tempting (and destructive) to ignore or dismiss choices and energies that do not, on first impression, “gel” with the dominant mood of the scene. This is a particular trap in larger group scenes where parallel choices have become the game or focus of the moment. Just as we seek full involvement in our warm-ups and exercises so that everyone feels engaged and welcome, so too should we extend this philosophy to our scenic work and games. There is an innate value in recognizing that someone may not be experiencing the action in the same way or is retreating as others are scaling the bastion. If we succeed or fail as a team then leaving fellow players behind should be avoided especially if they are clearly expressing a desire to play. (The notable exception would be players self selecting out of material or a game that they view as triggering or unhealthy.) Oblivious groupmind can tend to focus only on the experience of the majority; aware groupmind seeks to acknowledge and include.
Several company members display discomfort as they can’t join the wordplay frenzy riffing on the popular 80s sitcom. Team members joyfully incorporate them into the game focusing on their other skills in the realms of character and story telling…
3.) White-washing versus informed. I’ve hummed and hawed about using this term in the subheading but especially when summarizing the modern history of North American improv it hits the nail squarely on the head as groupmind tended (tends) to express a young white heterosexual male perspective. I’m unsure if there have been similarly pervasive monoliths in other global improv communities, but in general there is a heightened onus on those of us who have experienced the privilege of occupying dominant cultural positions to educate and develop ourselves so that we are better equipped and more sensitive to the experiences of others. Left unchecked, groupmind can tend to demand that those whose stories and experiences have unfortunately often existed on the peripheral of society abandon their points of view in order to join the pervasive “majority.” So much is lost if this becomes a subconscious or unspoken expectation. The fluid and immediate nature of improv allows any story to emerge and it strikes me as a tragic waste of this power to merely regurgitate stale and familiar platitudes that have been amply amplified in performances past.
A company (that reflects the diversity of its greater community) consciously rotates protagonist and leadership positions in scenes, including who makes initiations and assumes high status roles, to ensure that one voice or set of experiences doesn’t dominate from performance to performance.
4.) Coercive versus celebratory. Another trap to avoid when elevating the concept of groupmind is extolling unity at any cost. It can be liberating and dynamic when everyone on stage shares a common vision and plays a scenic game in largely the same way. Such a dynamic can also be a coercive act that demands the subjugation of the individual. Yes, on some level the improv ensemble can thrive when its members are able to defer their unique whims and story ideas for the good of the whole: not everyone can serve as the scenic protagonist or focus whenever they would like to assume this position. But especially when engaging in complex themes or societal issues it can quickly become problematic if players are expected to “go with the flow” even if they find such an act uncomfortable, unethical or unnuanced. There is a marked difference between subversively playing a position different than your own or assuming a stance with an air of informed satire or commentary, and being bullied into a function or portrayal you find distasteful, damaging or an embodiment of prejudice. Stripping players of agency and self-determination rarely results in crackling scene work or a healthy ensemble.
As players recognize that the scene has moved into troubled waters they allow the game to shift and morph providing space for voices that might have otherwise been edited, subsumed or ignored, thereby noting their own assumptions and sitting in that discomfort in a playful but honest way…
5.) Clique reinforcing versus ensemble building. At the end of the day, groupmind can tend to encourage us to play with those who think and act and respond in ways that we can almost predict. It can reward familiarity and homogeneity as has been seen in the faces of early (and more recent) long-form teams and companies that adorn the walls and websites of many trailblazing improv houses. We must display a wariness of mistaking cliques for healthy ensembles or complacency with inclusive creativity. Stories are more likely to trot over well-worn terrain when they are only ever approached from the same voice or positionality again and again and again. We are ultimately serving our art, our audiences and our companies when we actively pursue making the tent as big and inclusive as possible. And we are more likely to become more well-rounded, interesting and accepting people at the same time.
A company elevates numerous different voices and perspectives as an integral part of its mission to develop an inclusive groupmind…
As a white man from New Zealand I have generally worn the shoes of the “majority” in my work on the improv stage. I recall first playing with Comedysportz in Chicago during my college days. Part of the ballgame gimmick of the show includes singing the national anthem before the official competition begins. During my first performance I had the uncomfortable experience of trying to mouth along the words with my American counterparts. After the show I was rather incredulously met with disbelief that I didn’t know the words to the national anthem! To which I replied, “Well, it’s not my national anthem.” A kindhearted company member (Phil Granchi) later sat me down and wrote the words out on a napkin, but this moment has stuck with me all these years later. There was no intended malice in my peers’ reactions, but I very much felt like an outsider in that moment. I think it behooves us all to keep in mind that we don’t have the same anthems, childhoods and shoes and that, frankly, our improv and world is so much the better because of that.
Connected Game: Counting Circle