What is to be done about Improvisation?

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.

14 Comments Add yours

  1. ‘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 [sic] running 100 metres in less than ten seconds.’
    ‘The reason for that is because that split second pre-in-the-moment planning is quantitatively no different from planning what we want to say, ten seconds ahead. It is simply different in terms of quantity of time.’

    I would have a slightly different take on this. The time factor is not I think the only difference that impacts on the resulting outcomes. The shorter time frame is likely to result in a different form of internal censoring and calibration and this impacts on the results. Longer time frames allow for a more considered review and actually in some cases a more creative result. In ego terms Berne’s Adult Ego State is going to have a greater function in this judgemental process rather than just Parent and Child. And whilst the process may be quantitative in difference it is also qualitative in my view. This ‘improv set up’ is where I believe some of this Wow factor emerges, from the different form of self censoring and the resulting situations created. Sticking with the metaphor of the downhill skier, it is not just the speed which creates the Wow, but also the circuitous route they take.

    FYI: The ‘yes and’ strategy in negotiations is often a way of removing the word ‘but’ and contributing to a more effective rapport with the client, often the advice is just to substitute ‘and’ for ‘but’ in any sentence. However, the experienced negotiator is going to have established their WAP, (Walk Away Point) by determining their BATNA (Bet Alternative To A Negotiated Agreement) long before they even get in the room with the client. According to research by the Huthwaite Research Group the more effective Negotiators are more likely to stop and walk away sooner than the infective ones simply for this reason. ‘Yes and’ in some cases can lead to some fairly chronic and financially disastrous deals being done for the sake of achieving rapport rather than a good deal for both parties.

  2. Excellent comments, Garry

  3. iam says:

    Seen the same process in jazz music… it seems the more experience on has of a genre, the harder it can be to see it afresh.

  4. I’m always surprised reading such a strong criticism on the work of Keith Johnstone. I guess what you call “johnstonianism” has more to do with the fact that a lot of improvisers (or just people in any other field) need a goeroe than with his work. They don’t make an innerprocess of their work. And.. I experience exactly the same watching people playing with the “Yes and” mantra, as watching people doing it with the “Enough Johnstone, Now fuck the rules!”-one.
    I’ve been and I am very happy working with him and others around him, and the funny thing here is that how I experience and interprate it, for me it absolutely doés match the flow-presencing-awareness-work. I agree with most of what you wrote here, and think you’re pointing things out very clear – thank you for that. I’m just finding it sad that someones work has to be blamed for it. Few days ago I read a blog by Patti Stiles, which I’d like to share here https://www.facebook.com/notes/international-theatresports-institute/our-story-by-patti-stiles/584506664903724

  5. I’ve had some very live feedback about this sensitive use of “Johnstonian”. I am referring to the legacy not the personality. I also apologise for some over simplification in trying to make a point.

    The man himself has moved on and developed, invented and improvised. It’s always the danger of people casting others work into tablets of stone that which should be fluid and open to change – especially in this, of all fields. A true improviser improvises their improvisation…

  6. Thx for your reply. Love that last sentence. (I might put in a tablet of stone and become a Levynist ;-))
    Hope to meet in Berlin, cheers!

  7. Erik says:

    The problem with people turning Johnstone’s work into dogma’s is that they can’t seem to look beyond the various games, formats and theories and see the ‘hub and spoke’ structure of his work. Johnstone came up with his games, formats and theories to lead the improviser to the ‘hub’, where it all comes together. I think it’s the same ‘hub’, you’re aiming for here. Keith Johnstone always challenges his students to disagree with him, go out there and test their own theories. Or tease them with quotes like ‘think inside the box!’. He taught beginners to say ‘yes end’ just to give them insight in the fact that saying no is probably an unconscious expression of fear to move into the unknown future, and to let them discover that a story might move forward and develop a tad easier when you agree to offers. Only to find out a few years later that ‘yes and’ turned into a dogma.

    Anyway, great post.

  8. Thanks for writing this. It’s right on the money. For the last couple of years I’ve had a growing feeling that few “improvisers” actually know how to improvise, in the pure sense of the word. And even fewer seem to understand anything about improvisation beyond all the impro slogans. Most discussions about impro sound the same. This article is a breath of fresh air. Much needed! Thanks.

  9. Zeno says:

    Thank you for this review
    Being a Physicist and also sometime an Improviser and Actor (not my job) I was quite interested of your quote of David Bohm on Dialogue. I personally think that the question of dialogue and more generally interaction is at the heart of generating “new stuff” by the process of transformation because of incompatibility and complementarity.

  10. Patti Stiles says:

    Thank you for your article. Very interesting thoughts, most of which I agree with. I’ve been saying for quite awhile that I think 90% of impro companies don’t trust improvisation. This leads to much of the repetition and regurgitation out there.

    It is unfair to assume and label the work that is happening as Keith Johnstone’s work. HIs work has been misinterpreted and significantly changed. For example most people think Theatresports™ is all games, where the games are actually there to use as variety between the scene work. Keith dislikes the light entertainment dismissible improvisation which is rampant and often attributed to him.

    I’ve worked a lot with Keith. With Keith teaching or directing me I have felt free and completely open to the spontaneous moment. Free of thought, judgement or fear of failure. Keith was able to help me feel that moment and feel what it is like to create from that wonderful pure improvisation moment. To respond to stimulus from impulse.

    If his work is going to be judged, the judgement should be based on his work and not the misinterpretations of his work by others.

  11. Viv Mcwaters says:

    Great post. Thanks for putting into words many of my (as yet) unformed thoughts about improv. I come to improv from outside of the theatre and see huge potential for many situations, yet the formulaic and ‘going for the quick laugh’ approach does improvisation a great disservice. My introduction to improvisation was via Playback Theatre and I still think it’s one of the unsung heroes of improv, bringing together empathy, story, metaphor and long-form.

  12. The difficulty I have with the “games” is how attached some people have become to them, especially in this, of all fields, improvisation.

    Games are often used to “warm up” and “loosen up” for improvisation performance. They are used a lot in training and workshops.

    In play, if a game is too structured, the variety and kind of play will become a function of the structure that play is hanging on, or being influenced by.

    If a game is repeated there is at least a danger that only certain kinds of flow will emerge, also limiting the play.

    Those playing may not be aware of the Nightingale’s cage they are now flying around in, playing within habitual boundaries.

    Games are better when they are simple. Simple toys with archetypal shapes can become entire worlds in the imagination of a child. Give it a Star Wars lego kit and, having followed the instructions, the child will often turn to the box and play with that because it is more interesting! Complex games can become virtual worlds for play (you can find them online) yet even the improvisation within that complexity often has a hidden rooted simplicity and “essence”.

    Games, when they become, “format”, start to format the flow; and formatted flow is not improvisation.

    So, play games. Indeed – just play. But improvise even that form and the format. Improvise the improvisation. Play archetypally and essentially.

    Drop dogmatic notions of status, if only because they are repeated notions. Let the play fall into glorious failure, embarrassing silence and glorious surprise. Forget the “laws” if only to discover them anew.

    Let improvisation breathe in ways other than laugh-chasing speediness.

    Improvise your improvisation.

    Improvisation isn’t about anything until you improvise. You can only really look back on it with delight or horror.

    Stop making improvisation into something, in advance of the emerging whatever.

  13. Excellent. You state the issues very well. The theories of both Johnstone and Spolin suffer from the same thing, that of missing the underlying goal of transcending the game to touch the intuition through spontaneous flow.

    My first critique of what places like Second City and its descendants have made from the original material that fostered Improvisation is exactly the same as your assessment, It is not improv as much as it is comedy, poorly rehearsed.

    Spolin’s approach and popularity has dimmed in contrast to the brighter lights of Improv Gurus like Del Close and Keith Johnstone, but all three (maybe not Del Close) eschewed having a cult grow up around their work.
    I asked Keith one time what he thought of the current state of Theater Sports and he said “Atrocious! I can’t bear to see it. They are pissing on the altar.”

    The real exploration revealed by Improv’s visionaries like Spolin and Johnstone is ongoing and should never be “packaged”. But the public likes to consume product and not process and Improv’s popularity is being packaged as “easily digestible” process (Yes, and…, etc.) that quickly becomes dogma and something is lost in doing so.

    I do believe applied improv even in this state has a primary good. Collaboration at any level beats the alternative. But let us shoot for more and keep pointing to the unknown area and creating true flow to get there.

  14. Gary, you’ve said it far more eloquently than I. Thank you.

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