“I” is for “Improvisation”

“When we improvise, we act spontaneously, without preplanning, using whatever is at hand to invent stories and characters to create a world of make-believe.”

Lyn Pierse, Theatresports Down Under. 2nd ed. Sydney, Australia: Improcorp, 1995. p.29


This is a surprisingly difficult entry to begin even though (and because) it really serves as the starting point for all the entries that have come before and will follow. Oftentimes it feels difficult to define theatrical improvisation without resorting to a description of what it is not: at the simplest level, improv is not scripted, not a set product, and is not repeatable. In most Western theatre histories, improv is also often relegated almost solely to its relationship to the scripted world: it’s a tool for developing new (later-to-be-textualized) material, researching or deepening a repeatable character, or getting you through an onstage slip up and then safely back to the lauded scripted action. Yes, improv is certainly all of these things, but those who have dedicated themselves to this craft would quickly argue that these reductive tropes barely scratch the surface of this often overlooked artform.

I endeavored to research and define improv on its own terms (freed from the shadow of the script) in my doctoral dissertation and I’m drawing liberally from those musings here while also trying to reduce the Bakhtinian theory that infused my work in a way that appeased my thesis readers but also sadly pretty much guaranteed that few in my chosen and cherished field would slog through the final result! I still maintain that looking at the spirit of Improvisation as it has appeared across multiple times, places, and cultures reveals some striking tendencies that unite a wide-reaching and diverse performance style. There are, as one would expect, exceptions to all of these improvisational facets, but I believe there are poignant and recurring themes that serve as helpful ways to consider what it is we do and value as spontaneous practitioners.

Five Improvisational Values

1.) Elevating play in a shared space. Improvisation places a high value on the actual site of performance, crafting rich relationships with audiences in spaces that are often found or transitory. While improv can certainly mirror its scripted counterpart in erecting imaginary fourth walls between the players and the attendees, this is a less common orientation and performances often take place in streets, bars, public spaces, or on itinerant or portable stages. When improv does occur in more traditional theatre spaces, it still tends to deliberately challenge the separation of the event’s participants by drawing attention to the physical means of the hosting space with players willfully crossing the great divide of the real or imagined proscenium. The resulting creative space is typically communal and shared, whether this is in the vein of Richard Schechner’s Environmental Theatre, Augusto Boal’s Invisible Theatre, or South Korean Madang Theatre. In short- and long-form traditions, which serve as the focus of many of these entries, players often incorporate or refer to the constituent elements of the host venue and communities, and audience members frequently find themselves involved directly or indirectly with the unfolding action.

Improv theatre values the potentials and details of the specific locations in which it appears.

2.) Esteeming the importance of the now. Improv pioneer Jacob Levy Moreno defined this style of play as performance in the “here and now” and that the present is both the form’s moment of birth and death. While many scripted traditions appear to seek or elevate a sense of timelessness or universality, improv is unavoidably and unabashedly committed to this very time and place. It’s malleability embraces (if not demands) a responsiveness and reactivity. Improv that does not or cannot change or reflect the specifics of the historical now tends to become stale or a pale facsimile of the spontaneous spirit. This inclination towards process and change in and of itself can undermine more capitalistic models of art that demand reproducible and predictable products. A commitment to an evolving process serves as both improv’s power and its burden: traditions such as the ancient Roman mime (and frankly most pre-twentieth century or oral traditions) remain largely obscure to us as so little remains that can help us understand the nuanced nature of the work. In the modern period, some improvisation has been digitally captured or televised but, I would posit, that recorded improv quickly loses the magic of “presentness” and unrepeatability that is a defining feature of the form.

Improv theatre responds to and reflects the historical moment in which it’s set.

3.) Raising the voices of the many. Forgive me for slipping in a little Bakhtin here but he has the lovely concept of the prosaic (everyday) that stands in contrast to the poetic (elite). Improvisational theatre historically and globally tends towards the former rather than the latter. Most improv embraces labor-intensive models of performance (the work and skill reside primarily in the bodies of the players) as opposed to capital-intensive approaches as one often sees in the scripted realm (the product requires complex technical and financial resources to succeed). It’s not uncommon for an audience member to observe an improv show and become inspired to join the company – or pursue their own performance opportunities – and for these two moments to occur with little time separating them. An audience member attending an ornate Broadway-style production, on the other hand, rarely leaves with the same expectation that this form of art and venue is immediately available or welcoming to them in the foreseeable future. Improv theatre frequently presents itself as art by, for, and/or with the communities in which it appears and with some few notable exceptions – Japanese Renga Poetry is a favorite – strives to include participants that may find themselves on the margins elsewhere. (This is not to suggest that there have not been painful failures or blindnesses in this regard as a quick consideration of modern North American improv will quickly reveal.) Many traditions, such as Playback Theatre, Spolin games, and Theatre-in-Education, actively embrace those who might be considered amateurs, while other modes, such as Commedia dell’arte, Theatre of the Oppressed, and the Kawuonda Women’s Theatre of Sigoti, illustrate moments when otherwise marginalized voices found a stage.

Improv theatre provides the means for inclusiveness, access, and representation.

4.) Privileging dialogue and flexibility. I think it can be a common misconception to view improv as formless or without structure, and while it is defined by its lack of a set script this does not mean that it may not incorporate other complex, ornate, or inherited structures, rules, and blueprints. The more important distinction perhaps lies not in the presence or absence of structural components but rather in the way they are utilized and viewed. To sneak in a little more Bakhtin, he provides the concept of the dialogic which means that multiple voices interact as equals to define and chart the artistic journey. Whereas the playwright’s vision (or in some theatrical movements, that of the director, auteur, or designer) typically reigns supreme in traditional scripted realms, improvisers routinely inhabit the stage as empowered co-creators. Guiding hands may certainly assist or shape the action – Spolin’s sidecoach, Boal’s joker, Moreno’s director, Johnstone’s host, or Playback’s conductor – but improv players enjoy considerable agency as co-authors. A great deal of modern improvisational theory focuses on ways to better enable the ways in which self-aware and generous collaboration can occur so that (ideally) voices are not needlessly or carelessly excluded from the process. Similarly, improvisers are encouraged to actively and bravely balance form and freedom, structure and chaos, the familiar and the unknown.

Improv theatre seeks to create a space where the responsibility and joy of creativity is shared.

5.) Questioning the status quo. Lastly, due to improv’s reluctance to create a predictable and stable product, its very presence stands in defiance of the establishment as it uses laughter or pathos (amongst other tools) to question, ridicule, or undermine the systems of power with which it coexists. Whether it takes the form of overtly political performance on the streets, satiric commentary in the cabaret, or seemingly benign short-form games, the very fact that improv evades control and censorship – nobody can really know what will happen next – gives it an unmistakable power and potential that uniquely defines the genre. Cogent examples of this political tendency include Moreno’s sociodrama with its merging of art and healing efficacy, Boal’s Legislative Theatre that embodies spontaneous interplay as a means for changing and creating political reform, and Nigerian Apidan Theatre with its complex balance of numerous contradictory and oppositional elements. To return to the site of short- and long-form modern improv, most traditions acknowledge the power and importance of “punching up” as a foundational approach; that is, choosing worthy and deep-rooted societal powers as the targets of our work rather than the marginalized or dispossessed.

Improv theatre, with its innate unpredictability, provides a mechanism for challenging power.

Final Thought

I offer these five qualities as a way to understand and unify the broad array of performance styles that rightly self-define as improvisatory and also, on some level, as a charge to recognize the special power and tools that improv theatre possesses. Spontaneous theatre has a unique relationship to the here and now that inspires and informs our play, offers the rich potential to value and lift up voices and stories that may not find themselves welcome in more conventional performance modalities, provides the flexibility and means to empower collaborative and dialogic creativity, and holds the power to playfully or pointedly call into question inherited oppressive systems and norms. This is certainly an exciting artistic field worthy of our utmost attention and efforts!

If this lens intrigues you, a digital copy of my full dissertation is available online here. It includes a strong bibliography and timeline although these reflect what was available in print in English in 2003 and the world of improv (and the internet) have changed greatly since then!

Related Entries: Audience, Groupmind, Long-Form, Punching Up, Short-Form Antonyms: Repeatability Synonyms: Spontaneity

Cheers, David Charles.
Join my Facebook group here.
© 2021 David Charles/ImprovDr

Connected Game: New Choice

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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