I’ve had four connections with the world of improvisation during my professional life.
Firstly I led theatre workshops for over fifteen years as part of Brighton’s community-based Upstairs Theatre Company. This company is a bit of a legend in the city of Brighton having given birth to the professional careers of a lot of actors, writers and directors as well as staging over 100 performances, some improvised. Its workshop base was often focused around improvisation work. A lot of invention took place and, in my own case, I “invented” a lot of improvisation activities and approaches, many of which I later discovered were part of an existing field called “Improv”. But quite a lot of my work didn’t fit into that field at all. (www.applied improvisation.co.uk)
Secondly, I found the field of improvisation overlapping with the field of teaching and learning. As a researcher at the Centre for Research in Innovation Management I became fascinated with concepts such as “flow”, “dialogue”, “Yes-and” (which had found its way into negotiation skills training) and the use of improvisation in encouraging creativity in students. Improvisation and problem solving, improvisation and public speaking, improvisation and idea generation were all linked in fields outside of “improv” years ago.
Thirdly, as founder and editor of FringeReview, a theatre reviews publication that covers fringe theatre and performance all over the world, I have seen and written reviews of several hundred improvisation performances, mostly in the UK. I’ve seen a hell of a lot of “impro”. (www.fringereview.com)
Finally, as a member of the applied improvisation community, (I’m a member of the Applied Improvisation Network as well as host of appliedimprovisation.co.uk), I’ve been involved for over ten years in applying improvisation in organisational and business contexts, particularly in training and development. This is a fairly large internationally and growing community of practice.
So, one way or another, I’ve been fairly immersed in improvisation for a long time and in a number of different ways.
I could also add a fifth field that is harder to define. As a writer on philosophy and a practitioner in the field of personal development, I also have come across the concepts and practices of improvisation in these fields as well. I mentioned earlier the concept of flow. There is the work of David Bohm on dialogue. There are approaches to conversation such as Goethean conversation, as well as notions such as “presencing” and being “in the moment” to be found in Eastern practices including meditation. The world of “impro!”, rooted in the work of Keith Johnstone doesn’t begin to describe the much broader, deeper and richer territory that characterises improvisation.
Over these years, and in all of these different fields of activity, I’ve always been dissatisfied with the dominant form of performed improvisation I’ve seen pervading in the UK. It tends towards comedy. It tends towards cloning itself. It tends towards making stuff up in front of people in order to “get a laugh”. It tends towards hanging that “making up” on hidden structures, hooks, and anchors. And it tends towards “games”. And now it is really starting to repeat itself as a form. And there are more groups forming all the time, repeating and copying these formulae. The map now is definitely not the territory.
Much of it is a direct copy of the ‘theatresports’ and “games” world of Johnstone and his followers. Much of it copies that which came out of the “Chicago School” decades ago. It often lacks freshness, seeking a new gimick and focuses on punchline based skits. The shows often base around audience suggestions, and a version of improvisation that is relative rather than pure or absolute. What do I mean by that? Well, if, as an audience member, I’m not particularly spontaneous in my life, and tend to follow scripts – the scripts of cliche, of thinking a lot before I speak, the scripts of work rules and routines, the scripts of repeated entertainment from TV and the media – then I will tend to feel the “wow” factor of people on stage making stuff up a lot faster than me, and on stage to boot! I experience “improv” as “improvisation” because they are all doing it so cleverly, and so quickly – almost in real time! I’m feeling “wow” just as I feel wow when I see fast downhill skiers, or spinters running 100 metres in less than ten seconds.
A lot of improvisational performance, often called “improv” or “impro” for short isn’t pure improvisation – a complete real-time state of emergent, spontaneous creativity – it is simply what we all do every day, but speeded up, and enabled by a bunch of structures and tricks. True, some of these rules and tricks do create moments of near pure flow – but rarely. What we really have is lightning quick , split-second-before-the-moment planning that can fool even the speaker. And we call it improvisation because, compared to how the rest of usually are, it IS much more improvisational – so relatively speaking, it is improvisation.
Absolutely speaking it isn’t. And I would even suggest that Johnstonian “improv” can take us to the very edge of pure improvisation but it can take us no further. We might as well be a million miles away.
The reason for that is because that split second pre-in-the-moment planning is qualitatively no different from planning what we want to say, ten seconds ahead. It is simply different in terms of quantity of time. The sense of excitement and adrenalin rush can certainly increase and, occasionally, the shock of it, combined with a reduced sense of ego (In improv we very much are about give and not only take), can shift us suddenly into accidental pure flow states. Actually, I think it is what all “impro” performers desperately seek.
Now, this lightning fast individual or group “impro” can be a real spectacle, just as a lighting fast downhill skier can be a real spectacle.”How do they do it so fast”? because a big part of the audience wow and they often “get off” on the thrill of will it or won’t it work. In a skilled improv troupe. of course, it often does work.
Linked to this is what I’ll call the “wilde” factor. Yes, Wilde with an “e”. At lightning pace, the group is also able to make up content – story and one liners, sight and verbal gags – that feel impossibly witty and clever in the time given.
Often the audience are so immersed in this process of basically getting a “speed and cleverness” fix that they feel the troupe deserve applause and reward for the sheer feat they have achieved. I’ve often noticed that the comedy material can be groanworthily bad, but an audience will forgive much if the troupe is sweatingly fast enough and really “going for it”. Because so much improv involved audience suggestions, the fourth wall is regularly down and the audience are collaborators in the success or failure of the show. This means that judging the performance too critically is a kind of audience self-damning. And they rarely do it. We all end up colluding with an emerging mediocrity. As a reviewer, time and again I watch audience reaction at improv shows. There are always some audience members who haven’t dived in, aren’t collaborators, and are looking in from outside wondering what on earth people are laughing at or enjoying.
Improv shows with audience involvement rely, for their success, not on improvisation, but on the creation of temporary cults. Basically the audience have to sign up to “yes, and…” in blood as well.
Sadly, Johnstonian improv theory and practice, theatresports, “yes, and…”, the default to gags and laughter, and the dominance of “status” have all, ironically, become dogma in the world of improv performance. And this had led to an increase in formulaic shows, repetition and stale formats. The established groups are seeking new income by running fairly fixed “trainings” and new generations of office-bored wannabes are happily doing the courses and then setting up their own groups and performance nights all too quickly. Many improv troupes are basically the new folk club singarounds of the upstairs pub circuit. In terms of the many shows we have reviewed in recent years the standard overall has gone up in terms of competence with in the formula but the amount of improvisation and experimentation with the genre itself has declined.
And little or none of it is true improvisation. It’s fake. Call it improvisation in relation to slower scriptedness. But in pure, terms, it isn’t.
Dangerous territory here, using the word “pure”. Pure improvisation, to quote acclaimed long form improviser, Rachel Blackman is an ‘egoless state’. There are no tricks or structures to hang it on, because those very structures defeat it and render it elusive. Some suggest the pure improvisational state is not a state of being “in the moment” but of being “beyond the moment”
Personally I don’t believe improvisation is best hung on theories of the Naked Ape , of the competitive status relationships we are all in, as more highly evolved apes. I have found more electric improvisation in notions of emergence, open space, flow, communion and community. So much of “impro” was born out of a reaction to overstructure, from sports metaphors and the work of people like Desmond Morris. Yet there is, and has always been a richer, deeper vein of experience and practice in the fields of creative flow, breathing and presence, and resonance.
By becoming a fixed dogma, “yes and” has largely killed real improvisation on stage. Yes, and… is one of a number of flow states in improvisation. Yes, but… set in the larger context of resonance, can give birth to astounding improvised performance, especially where trust has been evolved more deeply than weekly warm-up exercises. Some of the best long-form improvisation I have seen has clearly come from audience attention and deep silent involvement – their spontaneous breathing in reaction to the unfolding performance, as well as the silence of expectation and openness, and then the performers perform not “to” the audience but “out of the audience” in ways far more effective than clumsy audience suggestions. Improvisation such as this often works well in the semi round or the round, or even in promenade. And much vibrant improvisation recognises the importance of resistance, of creative clash and friction as well as the power of self-organisation.
This may all sound and read like hot air or a bit weird. But that is because “improv” has become so institutionalised. Many “impro” addicts simply don’t get these new ideas. They certainly don’t want to unlearn much of what they’ve learned by rote. It’s always been bizarre to me that many improv groups meet to “practice” and repeat their impro practice just as a magician practices in order to make what has been practiced look improvised to the audience. Here, improv becomes only about the content on the night, not the underlying process. Yet the content is not the process, it is the output. The vomit or the song. Improvisation is also the process.
What is to be done about “impro”? Simple, it needs to start improvising again.