Of all the fields of personal and organisational practice, applied improvisation and self-organising, emergent processes such as Open Space are the ones that ought to be a space for very fluid, emergent, and probably transitory forms to come into being.
Networks are pretty structural and I would suggest they bind unnecessarily what is possible in play.
The world of “improvisation” has developed into a range of communities, many of which have coalesced around the usual gurus and key books (the “storage jars of the spirit”, as Rudolf Steiner called them). Applied Improvisation is one. Improvisation in drama education is another. Open Space is another.
There are conferences, with registration fees and administration processes and, thankfully, these days the programmes still have a high representation of simply allowing open spaces to exist within the start-finish, time and date enclosed, fixed events structures of these conferences. At many such happenings, improvised play becomes something akin to a warm lake of good feeling and laughter that one dips into, serving as a kind of oasis in overstructured, prescribed and proscribed professional lives and practices. There is often much important sharing and powerful learning as well. But we’ve then begun to institutionalise this feel-good factor (people want more of it and see it as a new string to their personal or professional bows), and the networks start to develop cult-like tendencies, in which challenge and questioning is associated with “misery-making” and “spoiling”. Why would anyone challenge the “feel good” that we try to repeat at each new conference? Feel-good starts to become confused with authentic community, challenge starts to be marginalised and, worst of all, “play” becomes a predictable, paradoxical constant.
Yet, the whole notion of being in the moment, of the unplanned, emergent, fluid and air nature of improvisation suggests, though harder to “manage” and “strategise” (and therefore inconvenient for empire builders), our “community” needs to really be open to not becoming too permanently defined, to not becoming too structurally fixed, to not “norming” in the name of coordination. Communities of play can, if allowed, appear and wonderfully disappear, evolve and involve, self-destruct in good ways in order to create fundamental spaces not just for new structures to grow, but also for new foundations – deep foundations – to also “play” into reality. A sure sign of that play really taking place is that both comfort and discomfort sit reasonably equally on either side of learning and transformation.
So, I’d argue for impermanence, for us to resist organising too cleverly and tactically, for us to dance away from instituitionalisation, for us to sit wonderfully uneasily with who and what we are as an “applied improvisation” community (and we can play at renaming that from time to time), for us not aping the forms of the past with “chairmen” and “presidents” and “deadlines”(which are of course, dead), for rules, membership, constitutions, regulations and assessment processes aiming at fixed professionalisation.
Surely this, of all fields, has something to offer humanity as an alternative to the dogmas that have perhaps atrophied our culture and created narrow-view living and working.
Play defies definition when it is truly emergent and spontaneous. It really is okay for things to be transitional, undefined; we may look messier from the outside, when we live the spirit of our ever-morphing field, and yet play also delivers tangibly from moment to moment when applied socially and organisationally – it can address questions and challenges that come to meet us – and we can respond with an ability (as response-ability) – not with a shelf full of books, structures and strictures, with “tools and techniques”, but with acting, now-based, listening, where we invent our field anew in each moment. We see it work from day to day, and in the moment. So, let’s have the confidence not to cast it into stone. Our field is made of gorgeous, malleable clay and mud!
Any structures which do serve us for a period of time (such as a conference or club, a network, or a course) should not be repeated per se in the name of security (a fixed thing) and dogmatic feel good, but should be subjected to the core processes of the very field in which we love to work – we should subject applied improvisation to improvisation, to raw play, to emergent critique and questioning without being seen as unwelcome “disturbers of the status quo”. Where does “status quo” sit with a field that has improvisation at its heart?
Over to you…