The difficulty I have with the “games” is how attached some people have become to them, especially in, 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.
Let’s take a look at the process of play, which lies at the heart of improvisation.
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. An invented game, spontaneously emerging from play, from a group process, can be a wonderful temporary and sudden change of direction for improvised play. But repeat that game in a way that is habitual, turning renewed rhythm into fixed repetition and the game becomes a weight on the lightness of playfulness. Structure supports but can also weight down.
Those playing may not be aware of the Nightingale’s cage they are now flying around in, playing within habitual boundaries.
According to the great Neva Boyd:
The vitality of the game lies in creative process of playing it . . . The discipline of making judgements, often instantaneously, and of acting upon them within a static frame of reference, i.e. the verbalized rules, is unique to the playing of games. While the game is an imaginatively set up structure into which the players project themselves psychologically, they act consistently with the demands of the situation, and thereby subject themselves to the self imposed discipline, which involves many aspects of social behaviuor. (Neva L. Boyd, Handbook of Traditional Games, H. T. Fitzsimmons Company, Chicago, 1945)
This gets to the heart of games in improvisation, in a workshop or a performance context. Structure supports. We can enter a relative improvisational state and get very close to pure flow. Entertainment and engagement become emergent properties of these structure-supported flow states as the players dive in with varying degrees of bodily and psychological commitment. But structure also has weight. This is the very weight that sometimes earths the play to heavily. Repeat this once too often and that repetition can become a rusting structure. Make those structures too elaborate and complex, and their become even weightier. What is the “one less thing to do” that Harrison Owen entreats us all to look for is ever-repeated audience participation? Or ever-repeated game structures? What happens when we stop improvising the play structures themselves?
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.
So, I mentioned all this to a well established “improv” performer in my home city of Brighton. Yeah, yeah, yeah, she said. Interesting, she said. But we can’t take the risk!
And that’s the nub of the issue from the point of view of commercially focused improvisers. This same point came up at the recent open space conference in the UK “What shall we do about improvisation” organised in London by Improbable’s Devoted and Disgruntled. Comedy improv is money. Comedy improv is part of the commercial comedy circuit and we cannot risk our show or, indeed, even one skit from our show, bombing – dying on stage. It all as to work. So many comedy improv performers have evolved formulae and recipes for zero or low risk discuss. We “fix” things just enough in advance to ensure that the laughs flow into further box office bookings. It sounds like I am being cynical and, even if I am, I also do understand the world of performed live comedy. It’s tough out there, and the risks are high and there’s a lot of competition. The consequences of a scene dying on stage too often because we decided to truly experiment and let the whatever flow in the moment, could be commercially dire for a company. So, in the “market”, the games are used to warm us up, not only to some kind of diluted improvisation, but also to ensure the show is a safe bet. And why not, if it gets people laughing and punters paying?
So, at the level of commercial comedy, improv is part of a game that includes stand-up and sketch comedy, clowning and comedy theatre. The level of scriptedness is always at least somewhere above zero because the risks of failure are too great. But it does create the paradox at the heart of this article – that real improvisation is rendered taboo.
And yet, in comedy, there are stand-up comedy performers, (few I admit) who improvise on the night. And there are some long-form improvisers such as Katy and Rach in the UK who come a lot closer to real improvisation. But it is rare.
I think the issue is this: by mainstreaming practice that essential seems to root from a commercial model, a lot of improv training has been kind of infected by that model. Improv games become mainstreamed, not to encourage pure improvisational flow, but, instead, versions of safer, live, performed, comedy improvisation. And this has largely happened in fields such as applied improvisation – where improvisation practices are used in business and organisational training and consultancy. The “games”, derived largely from the improv comedy industry are too safe, self-limiting, and ultimately sell the clients short.
Games can be keys that open doors into possibility and play. But they must never becoming the rooms themselves. When games become repetitive, directive structures, the possibility becomes defined by game structure – limited and shaped. Those in the structure can quickly confuse the defined play space with the wider universe of possibility. Then we lose improvisation to a variability limited by the parameters of the game.
And that isn’t improvisation – it is a tragedy.
Want to read more? There’s a companion post to this here – here: