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Applied Anthropology meets Applied Improvisation

It seems that there are two professional communities who are focused on organizational, cultural, and policy development that are unaware or uninformed about one another. Applied Anthropologists have been in the realm of development formally for over 50 years utilizing ethnographic techniques to learn about peoples’ lives and communities in order to create and administer reasonable policies for these communities and organizations. Applied Improvisation, the introduction and use of improvisational theater techniques and ideas to develop organizations, has been around for over a decade using theater techniques to elicit and explore peoples’ stories, as well as give them tools for building sustainable organizations and relationships. Both of these fields share very similar goals, but they differ in methodologies and slightly in theory. However, these two fields can come together in helping one another achieve their ends through a cooperative systemic exploration utilizing each others’ methods and theories. The field of Applied Anthropology could definitely be bolstered, if not streamlined, by the incorporation of Applied Improvisation.

Improvised theater shares a common trait with Applied Anthropology, and that is the element of having to prove itself as a viable form next to a more ‘formal’ and ‘pure’ form of scripted theater, or the split “between those who know and those who act” in anthropology (Kozaitis, 1999, Conquergood, 2002). Like Applied Anthropology, it is beholden to a textual frame when it is a practice that operates within a living contextual frame. They are both focused on active development through working with participants. They both find insights and direction from eliciting and working with collective and individual narratives. In the realm of performance studies, there has been a call for such engagement in narratives at the ground level. “… [Ethnographic] knowledge is located, not transcendent…it must be engaged, not abstracted; and…it is forged from solidarity with, not separation from the people” (Conquergood, 2002). This is the very essence of what motivates Applied Improvisation. This active engagement with peoples’ spoken stories serves one of the main goals of the theory of praxis in that it seeks an engagement in the social reality and is embedded in the process of social life.

Melanie Harmon is currently the marketing director for a large firm that handles collegiate ‘travel abroad’ programs, AHA International. She has an M.A. in Theater with a focus on improvisation. Over the last decade, she has been involved with a couple of different applied improvisation settings. She worked with Kaiser Permanente in Denver for the theater outreach wing. Shortly after she signed on, she managed to bring in Augusto Boal to run a workshop on the techniques of the “Theater of the Oppressed”. This form of theater is used as a means for bolstering social action through repeated simulation of difficult social situations where participants are encouraged to take the place of certain characters in the scenario in order to find alternate solutions to the situation. This workshop was the catalyst to the formation of an internal office for the theater outreach program. From here, Melanie utilized improvised theater games and exercises to help communicate particular theoretical understandings that are taught to people who perform improvised theater (personal communication, 2006).

Theory in Improvisation: a Digression

From the outside, it may seem peculiar that performers who are ‘cutting up’ on an improv stage or on the show “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” are not operating on any sort of theory. Many beginning improvisers enter into classes thinking ‘I just need to be fast and funny’. They are then introduced to the ‘rules’ in improvisational theater, which are really more of a core set of values and notions than a hard and fast set of rules.

At the heart of this ethos of improvisation is the notion of ‘agreement’. It stands at the heart of this art because it is impossible to build anything cohesive and comprehensible without establishing certain shared realities or ideas. Agreement is a concept that is really more of a way of describing a means for exercising acceptance, appreciation and acknowledgment; which tends ro foster support, encouragement and respect. To disagree is to return to the first step of having to establish something (1.“Hi Mom” 2.”I’m not your mother”). To keep disagreeing is to keep taking the first step again and again (1. “Oh, Aunt Trudy. I mistook you for my Mom.” 2. “I’m not your Aunt Trudy, either”). This is also known as ‘blocking’ or ‘denying’. These are all ways that we shoot the harpoon into a growing sense of connection through trusting and being comfortable with vulnerability. In agreeing, we are making steps forward towards something (1.“Hi Mom” 2.“Hello, dear. Have a cookie”). In anthropology, this may take the form of preliminary research that helps the anthropologist to understand the situation they will be entering into, a sort of ‘platform’ to build from, or it could be insights from the data from focus groups and interviews. However, this does not fully enter into the realm of “shared reality” in that the researcher is also involved. It is more so the reality of those being studied, but it does allow the researcher to understand the established reality of those that they’ll be working with, which is an important step towards a shared reality and understanding. In essence, researchers are trying to understand the first “Hi Mom” in order to find a response that builds on what is established and present when they add to the interaction “Hello, dear. Have a cookie”.

The notion of ‘agreement’ is then coupled with the notion of ‘heightening’. Heightening is often thought of as making something more important through adding detail, emotional involvement, or some sort of personal stake to what has been established in the initial phase of an interaction (“A cookie? You’re trying to make me fat”). An important element to note is that both sides of this interaction are expected to be working from this same set of rules. On the improv stage, players are expected to agree and heighten each others’ moves every step of the way to their best ability. This cooperative element is highly regarded, and showboating or ‘gagging’ is considered ill-fitting for a ‘good’ improviser. Amongst performers, the most valued performer is one that concerns themselves with making their partner look good through this process of agreeing and heightening (Huffaker et al., 2003). The colloquial term for the process of agreeing and heightening is “Yes, and…”

This focus on agreement and heightening is very close to one of the other facets of the theory of praxis which is the self-determination of peoples and the actualization of human potential. In improvisation, each player chooses how they will build things with their scene partners, and both are supported in that venture if their partner is being generous and following the rules of improvisation. There are many basic improvisational exercises that help to highlight these core concepts. These exercises are often introduced at the beginning of an applied improvisational event in order to 1) create a shared conceptual frame to work from and 2) provide a visceral example of how these concepts feel when they are successful (Huffaker, 2006, Harmon, 2006). Julie Huffaker, an applied anthropologist working for an Applied Improv agency “On Your Feet: Improv for Business”, suggests that these more basic exercises also create an atmosphere where greater communication and comprehension can take place because it suspends typical social norms and hierarchical power dynamics (Huffaker, 2006). She referred to this state as “Shine”. This notion of bringing the physical and theatrical into Anthropology has been asserted by other scholars:

“…admitting theater as a source of intercultural knowledge involves recognition, not only of performative next to informative knowledge, but also of anarchic vs. hierarchic conceptions of knowledge. Only then can we begin to gain knowledge of other cultures through participative play” (Fabian, 1999)

Applied Improvisation is the laboratory where these techniques are being experimented with. Unfortunately, most of the settings that these practices are being applied are in the development of corporate culture and marketing strategy in western businesses. The lessons emerging from this work have broad application in establishing multi-directional feedback relationships and diminishing hierarchic social and organizational systems. When everyone participates in supporting others with the understanding that that also supports them, it creates validity for and momentum behind the notions of collaboration and cooperation.

Of course, there is a risky step in working towards trusting such a process. In the initial phases of exposure to this system of knowing and acting, there is a realm of compromise that must be crossed by those who are benefited by a hierarchy. This is one of the friction points that applied improvisation is often concerned. It shares the same characteristics of compromises that applied anthropologists may deal with in serving the interests of their client. One runs a risk when recommending that a client may need to change their mode of operating in order to improve conditions, or one may need to find a way to implement an unsatisfying solution. This is the friction point that applied improvisation has the potential to address for applied anthropologists.

Improvisation also looks at the components of human verbal and physical interaction as a series of ‘offers’. These offers are what are being exchanged and enhanced in the process of agreeing and heightening. Offers could be interpreted as the observational data that applied anthropologists gather in the course of assessing an organization. Applied Improv would most likely encourage the telling of and then staging of a typical day or interaction in order to contextualize the offers that are present in a particular setting to all stakeholders and policy makers. This format is an extremely effective tool in getting to the heart of particular matters. In Julie Huffaker’s work, she has used the notions of offers and blocking to contextualize and explore communication difficulties. Participants would work their way through scenarios where they could replay a scene/story where they were ‘blocked’ by someone and try different ‘offers’ to find a solution. The participants were asked to make choices informed by a notion called ‘tilt’, which is thought of as a novel or unexpected way to change an interaction. These sorts of simulations are powerful tools for developing and investigating the effectiveness of policy and communication.

Case in point, in staging a typical doctor patient intake exchange at Kaiser Denver, the participants noted that the doctor was faced away from the patient while entering prognostic data during the intake, and in the simulation, this was obviously resulting in missed non-verbal cues that would be very helpful in discerning if there were other unspoken factors contributing to an illness (stress, depression, etc.). This point was reached through warming up the participants with improv exercises that introduced collaborative concepts, then moving them into storytelling exercises, which led to the staging of particular stories for dramatic exploration which led to the discovery above and the imagined solution of computers on wall-mounted extender arms to facilitate face-to-face interaction with the patient (Harmon, 2006). This is now the case in a number of health-care settings within and outside of Kaiser Denver. The same discovery may have taken a few days or weeks for an applied anthropologist to observe, interview, and focus group towards the same end.

In other settings, where larger groups of people are involved in an applied improv workshop, a small ensemble of actors/presenters is utilized to enact problems/situations. They are then stopped by a facilitator who asks for alternatives for the scenario to be acted out. This forum often elicits audible levels of comprehension with participants discovering unforeseen problems, as well as uncommon solutions (Huffaker, 2006). This is often a very powerful experience for the participants, but one of the criticisms is that the effects are rarely long-lasting. A workshop or two fades from memory as people return to their routine (Booth, 2000). Julie noted that “the feel good stuff tends not to stick”, but the lessons on communication and discoveries through simulations and replays tend to stay (Huffaker, 2006).

Applied Anthroprov

However, these tools, exercises, and practices would best serve applied anthropologists as evaluative tools first and development strategies second. They are well-suited to be elements for testing the accuracy of data and as a means of iteration in Rapid Assessment Procedures (Ervin, 2005). The story exercises, as well as the staging of life, allows for the communities being assessed to play a distinct role in how they are depicted and understood by the researchers. This fits well with the goals inherent in the theory of praxis of an interaction between objective knowledge and subjective experience. It may also be a window into the elements of a culture that may otherwise be missed in the short time allotted for Rapid Assessment studies by creating a sort of enhanced cultural lab where the meaningful and emically important portion of a community’s life are brought forward. Another benefit is that it does not require the participants to be literate in order to communicate concern or investigate and communicate solutions. This creates a needed detour around the sorts of textual hegemony that is at the core of international development.

They could also be heavily incorporated into Participant Action research. Applied Improv perfectly fits with the mission of PAR in that the people most affected have the most to say in the ways that their own realities are analyzed and in the courses of action taken to improve their conditions (Ervin, 2005). The stories of success offered by both Melanie Harmon and Julie Huffaker support this notion. The concepts of improvisation offered earlier like ‘agreement and heightening’, seeing interactions as ‘offers’, working on making the other person look and feel good also feed into developing a productive and generative set of behaviors that can lead to the sort of autonomy that is hoped for in Participant Action Research (Ervin, 2005).

Anthropologists are coming at the solution from a somewhat positivist angle, and improvisers are approaching the solutions from a naturalistic/artistic angle. The driving forces behind applied improvisation match well with one of Michael Agrosino’s epistemologies of the culture concept, and that is the “interactionist, which sees culture as arising in an adaptive manner from people trying to cope with a given social setting in such a way that they are guided by but not “determined by” a set of assumptions about proper relations that are, to a greater or lesser degree, shared.” (1999) Communities, organizations, policy makers, and stake holders have much to benefit from if a union of these two approaches could occur. It would take a little trust and agreement, as well as some investigation and research, to make this happen. “Hi, Improv.” “Hello, Anthropology. Have a cookie.”

Works Cited
Agrosino, Michael. “The Culture Concept and Applied Anthropology” NAPA Bulletin.
18 (1999): 45-65

Booth, Tamzin. “Improvisational Comedy Groups Work to Build Corporate Teams” Wall
Street Journal. 21 July 2000

Conquergood, Dwight, “Performance Studies: Interventions and Radical Research”, The
Drama Review 46, 2, Summer 2002, pp.145-156

Ervin, Alexander M. Applied Anthropology Tools and Perspectives for Contemporary
Practice. 2nd Ed. ed. Boston: Pearson/Allyn and Bacon, 2005. 209-224.

Fabian, Johannes, “Theater and Anthropology, Theatricality and Culture”, The Journal of
Research in African Literatures 30, 4, Winter 1999, pp. 24-31

Harmon, Melanie. Personal interview. 6 June 2006.

Huffaker, Julie. Personal interview. 9 June 2006.

Huffaker, Julie S., Brad Robertson, Gary Hirsch, and Rob Poynton. “Improv Culture:
Using Practices From Improv Theater to Help Organizations Evolve Successfully
Over Time.” OD Practitioner 35 (2003): 30-34.

Kozaitis, Kathryn A. “The Rise of Anthropological Praxis” NAPA Bulletin. 18 (1999):


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