Elements of Ritual and Communion in Improvised Theatre


Whose Line Is It Anyway?, The Upright Citizen’s Brigade, Saturday Night Live, and a host of other modern popular comedic fare all draw roots from the North American tradition of improvisational theater as developed largely in Chicago, Illinois and Calgary, Canada. This brand of performance creates scenes, stories, characters, themes, dialogue and staging spontaneously based on offers solicited from the audience. The skills, philosophies, and practice of this type of theater demand a heightened level of attention not only to the other performers onstage, but also to the chemistry of the room. Improvisational theater has a penchant for eliciting an atmosphere of collectivist and communal sensibility by way of creating a performance that, by its very nature, will be unique to those gathered and those performing. After the show is over, there will be nothing left but memories to measure and analyze the experience (unless someone decided to record it). It is this communal sensibility, this one-mindedness that emerges through the process of improvisation that has fueled the growing popularity of improvisational theater to the point where it has come to be represented on television (in an edited fashion) and spawns improvisational theaters in cities large and small across the globe.

One could approach this type of theater theoretically in many ways. We could look at theories of Performance, Humor, and/or Ritual. For this essay, we will be looking through the lens of Victor Turner’s theories regarding “Liminality” and “liminoid” phenomena, as well as the multi-faceted notion of “communitas”., which Turner often seated in the context of performance. He considered performance a “liminoid” phenomenon. However, Turner was also focused in ritual and the theatre, and this mix of social practices and collective behaviors were central to his thoughts on the collective meanings and social functions of performance in general and theatre specifically (Turner 1982, 1988).

Turner asserted that communitas is an intense community spirit, the feeling of great social equality, solidarity, and togetherness. Communitas is characteristic of people experiencing liminality together (Turner, 1982). Liminality to Turner is a period of transition, during which normal limits to thought, self-understanding, and behavior are relaxed, opening the way to something new (Turner, 1982). “Liminal” is a reference to both time and place. It is a term that can be simultaneously applied to an instance and a space because of a sense of demarcation that separates the space/time from the normal rules and mores of typical social and cultural goings on. In various ritual settings in many cultures, people involved in or undergoing rituals are allowed to or even expected to invert and/or transgress social norms during the period of the ritual and/or in the ritual space (Bell 1997, Turner 1982).

However, rituals are typically obligatory events with underpinnings of the sacred which is what typifies them as being “Liminal”. Whereas, we can find similar instances of the bending, breaking, inverting, and transgressing of social norms in performances of varying kinds: slam-dancing in mosh pits at a concert, screaming and shouting for one’s team at a sporting event, posing as another person for a play, shouting out suggestions or volunteering to be a part of a performance in improvisational theater. Any of these things, if taken out of the context that they are typically situated, would be a breach of social norms.

Within the space of the liminal, one is opened potentially to the experience of “Communitas”. Turner distilled his conception of communitas into three components that issue from a base experience. The base experience and the catalyst for the other two components is “spontaneous communitas”. These three divisions were explained by Turner:

(1) Spontaneous communitas is “a direct, immediate and total confrontation of human identities,” a deep rather than intense style of personal interaction…this moment when compatible people-friends, congeners-obtain a flash of lucid mutual understanding on the existential level, when they feel that ‘all’ problems…could be resolved…if only the group which is felt (in the first person) as “essentially us” could sustain its intersubjective illumination.
(2) Ideological communitas is a set of theoretical concepts which attempt to describe the interactions of spontaneous communitas. Here the retrospective look, “memory”, has already distanced the individual subject from the communal or dyadic experience. Here the experiencer has already come to look to language and culture to mediate the former immediacies…
(3) Normative communitas…is…a subculture or group which attempts to foster and maintain relationships of spontaneous communitas on a more or less permanent basis. To do this it has to denature itself, for spontaneous communitas is more a matter of “grace” than “law,” to use theological language. (Turner 1982)

This essay is more apt to be seated in the facets of “spontaneous” and “ideological” communitas. These two divisions are most applicable to the exploration of the sorts of educational atmospheres that improvisational theater emerged from. They are concerned with the immediacy of the experience and the discussion and explanation of these experiences and techniques. At the time of its emergence, there was no larger structural body that sought to normalize the practice of improvisational theater. This is what would need to be present in order to involve the aspect of ‘Normative Communitas’ as outlined by Turner above.

It is Viola Spolin and Keith Johnstone who first formalized and put to print the ideological basis for the communication and explanation of theater games and by association improvised theatre to the literate world. It was from their own witnessing and experiencing of spontaneous communitas through theater games (explained in more detail below) that Spolin and Johnstone could call on and develop the language and terminology for the basics of improvised theatre. Turner’s notion of ‘communitas’ reads out well to the improvisational theatre world, which displays normative communitas by way of the ubiquitous urban improv troupe(s) worldwide, as well as popular training centers like the Improv Olympic and Second City in Chicago which have sprouted satellite training centers in other major cities.

The Progenitors and Their Ideas

As previously mentioned, modern improvisational theatre’s roots are seated both in Chicago Illinois and Calgary Canada (and/or London England). Although the work of Viola Spolin, who is something of the grandmother of modern improvisational theatre, predates Keith Johnstone’s by a decade or more, they both centered their training and practice in the creation and use of theatric games which became the foundations of all formats of improvisational theatre today. They are not the sole developers of improvisational theatre, but they are some of the more important progenitors in regards to developing and disseminating these ideas and techniques to the world. Only some of the more notable contributors to the development of modern improvisational theatre will be dealt with here. There are many individuals and groups who have developed methods and ideas that have come into common use, but due to the fluidity of how improv theatre knowledge moves around via oral communication through workshops, it would require a separate work to catalogue it all. For this essay, we will be looking at the work of Viola Spolin and Keith Johnstone who created and spread theater games across the globe, which ultimately seeded the growth of improvisational theatre to what it is today.

Spolin was from an immigrant family, and this may have contributed to an empathetic understanding of the immigrant experience. Her own childhood experiences involved role-playing as a means for processing the difficulties of being an immigrant. She writes that “her uncles and aunts would ‘dress up’ and through song and dialogue poke fun at various members of the family and their trials and predicaments with language and jobs as newcomers to America” (Spolin, 1963). From her own experiences she understood the value of these ‘improvised’ moments if not explicitly, most definitely implicitly as a means for groups to frame, critique, and explore their lives and the world around them. This figured heavily into her work in developing improvisation. This work also led to her role in training the first improvised theater company in the US, the Compass Players in the mid 1950’s.

Spolin began her work as part of the Federal Theater Project, more specifically as part of the municipal Works Progress Administration (WPA) project in depression era Chicago. Viola trained initially to be a settlement worker and studied at Neva Boyd’s Group Work School in Chicago. “Boyd’s innovative teaching in the areas of group leadership, recreation, and social group work strongly influenced Spolin, as did the use of traditional game structures to affect social behavior in inner city and immigrant children” (Spolin, 1963). While serving as the drama supervisor for the Chicago branch of the WPA’s Recreational Project (1939-1941), Spolin perceived a need for an easily grasped system of theater training that could cross cultural and ethnic barriers within the WPA Project (Spolin, 1963). Many of the people that were utilizing these programs were immigrants and their children. She began devising theater “games” as a means to solve theatric problems (blocking, dialogue, stage picture, mime, etc.) without making the actors self-conscious through too much direction. A ‘game’ in improvised theatre is a short scene (2-10 minutes) that is governed by a simple rule or rules which require the performers to work within the restrictions or conventions inherent in the rule(s).

For instance, her students were avoiding or excluding touch in their performances. To address this she developed the game called “Contact” where the participants are given the rule that they must touch their scene partner in some way before they can speak a line of dialogue (Sweet, 1987). The development of this simple single rule theater game resulted in great discoveries for the participants in the realm of developing stage pictures (where interesting/meaningful images are made through the positions/movements of performers onstage) and relationships in their scenes. It led to a discovery for the participants of how touch affects the depth and tone of a dramatic scene, as well as general human relationships. Spolin felt that utilizing the game structure for theater training was “a means to free the child and the so-called amateur from mechanical, stilted stage behavior”. (Spolin, 1963)
Spolin’s insights touch on what Victor Turner later labeled and defined as ‘communitas’. In her seminal work Improvisation for the Theater, Spolin writes:

“Through spontaneity we are re-formed into ourselves. It creates an explosion that for the moment frees us from handed-down frames of reference, memory choked with old facts and information and undigested theories and techniques of other peoples’ findings. Spontaneity is the moment of personal freedom when we are faced with a reality and see it, explore it and act accordingly. In this reality the bits and pieces of ourselves function as an organic whole.” (Spolin, 1963)

Her thoughts here have the same flavor and tone as Turner’s writing in the late 60’s and early 70’s. This certainly highlights the fact that Spolin was forging into new intellectual territory for performance with her ideas; especially if less than ten years later, Turner was exploring and defining nearly identical notions in the realm of symbolic anthropology. Spolin’s theatre games were an avenue to the phenomena described by Turner’s notions of ‘liminality’ and ‘communitas’.

Keith Johnstone came into the realm of improvised theatre soon after joining the Royal Court Theatre in the late 1950’s. He originally signed on as a script/play reader. Later, when the Court set up a writers’ group and an actors’ studio, Johnstone began to teach his own style of improvisation that was “based on fairy stories, word associations, free associations, intuitive responses, and later…mask work as well.” (Johnstone, 1991) Johnstone also devotes much time in his teaching of improvisation to the exploration and understanding of social status and how it is enacted. All of his work “has been to encourage the rediscovery of the imaginative response in the adult.” (Johnstone, 1991) Much of his more contemporary work has been through the Loose Moose theatre and school in Calgary Canada.

Irving Wardle in the introduction of Johnstone’s first book writes, “Like all great advocates of the unconscious, Johnstone is a sturdy rationalist. He brings a keen intellect, nourished on anthropology and psychology, to the task of demolishing intellectualism in the theatre.” (1991) This is an important characterization for Johnstone. Much of his thought is centered on a re-imagining of pedagogy that is in line with the likes of Paolo Friere’s ideas about the Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970), which was published a decade ahead of Johnstone’s book Impro: improvisation and the theatre (1981). Johnstone felt that much of modern education was actually a “destructive process, and bad teachers are wrecking talent” because they viewed education as “a substance” (Johnstone, 1991). Johnstone himself was influenced by an art teacher in college who was more focused on students realizing their inherent potential than ‘getting it right’.

“Stirling believed that art was ‘in’ the child, and that it wasn’t something to be imposed by an adult. The teacher was not superior to the child, and should never demonstrate, and should not impose values: ‘This is good, this is bad…’” (Johnstone, 1991)

This passage gets towards the heart of Johnstone’s concerns with social status. Many of his notions of drama are steeped in relationships of dominance and submission, which he came to through reading several books by Desmond Morris, the popular British zoologist (Johnstone, 1999). These same ideas colored his thinking on pedagogy. He felt that it was important that a teacher minimize their status and facilitate exploration by providing opportunities and options rather than create obstacles or level criticism on the unwitting. This sort of thinking came to him via Anthony Stirling, the aforementioned college art teacher. Johnstone mentioned that Stirling recommended that his students read the Tao Te Ching. He then goes on to quote specific parts of this Chinese text at length, which highlights the influence of eastern thinking that was emergent in the western artistic milieu in the 1950’s and 60’s. The main idea behind all of these things for Johnstone was that “the student should never experience failure. The teacher’s skill lay in presenting experiences in such a way that the student was bound to succeed.” (Johnstone, 1991)

This is where we begin to see a connection to the first of Turner’s three divisions of ‘communitas’, “spontaneous communitas”. Johnstone’s focus on minimizing status and creating a more fluid “yes” focused experience and an atmosphere of equality over a stifling “no” focused experience in an atmosphere of hierarchy is illuminated by Turner’s theoretical notion of ‘spontaneous communitas’:

“But when the mood, style, or “fit” of spontaneous communitas is upon us, we place a high value on personal honesty, openness, and lack of pretensions or pretentiousness. We feel that it is important to relate directly to another person as he presents himself in the here-and-now, to understand him in a sympathetic…way, free from the culturally defined encumbrances of his role, status, reputation, class, caste, sex, or other structural niche.” (Turner, 1982)

Not only does this reflect back on Spolin’s work, but this is also illustrated in a passage that deals with Johnstone’s first assignment as a schoolteacher in a British working-class neighborhood that he describes as being an area that “new teachers avoided”. As a new teacher, he was assigned a difficult class that was viewed as containing students who were “ineducable”. He was to instruct them in writing.

“I tried getting them to send secret notes to each other, and write rude comments about me, and so on, but the results were nil. One day I took my typewriter and my art books into the class, and said I’d type out anything they wanted to write about the pictures. As an afterthought, I said I’d also type out their dreams-and suddenly they were actually wanting to write. I typed out everything exactly as they wrote it, including the spelling mistakes, until they caught me…The pressure to get things right was coming from the children, not the teacher. I was amazed at the intensity of feeling and outrage the children expressed, and their determination to be correct, because no one would have dreamt that they cared. Even the illiterates were getting their friends to spell out every word for them.” (Johnstone, 1991)

It is clear in this example that Johnstone truly seeks to minimize the distance in status between himself and his charges, which merely opens the conversation on social status for Johnstone. The alleviation of “role, status, class, caste” opened the students to the classroom as being a place outside of the normal and normative structures that limited their motivation and perception. The classroom became a ‘liminal’ space. This classroom liminality was fostered and enhanced by Johnstone:

“At the end of my first year the Divisional Officer refused to end my probation. He’d found my class doing arithmetic with masks over their faces-They’d made them in art class and I didn’t see why they shouldn’t wear them. There was a cardboard tunnel he was supposed to crawl through (because the classroom was doubling as an igloo), and an imaginary hole in the floor that he refused to walk around.” (Johnstone, 1991)

This example from Johnstone’s past has a strong correlation to one of Turner’s characterizations of the liminal being a place “where the bizarre becomes the normal, and where through the loosening of connections between elements customarily bound together in certain combinations, their scrambling and recombining in monstrous, fantastic, and unnatural shapes, the novices are induced to think, and think hard, about cultural experiences they had hitherto taken for granted.” (Turner 1982) From Johnstone’s description, one might guess that the Divisional Officer’s notion of education is one of assimilation and obedience, whereas Johnstone’s notion of education is more focused on discovery, exploration, and novel connection.

Later, his discovery of using the notion of social status to improve performance came through trying to solve the dramatic problem of creating genuine/ordinary conversations onstage. After a number of different attempts using various ideas, he finally asked his performers to “try to get [their] status just a little above or below [their] partner’s.” (Johnstone, 1991) This resulted in “authentic” feeling scenes. Johnstone characterized this discovery by saying,

“Suddenly we understood that every inflection and movement implies a status, and that no action is due to chance, or really ‘motiveless’…In reality status transactions continue all the time. In the park we’ll notice the ducks squabbling, but not how carefully they keep their distances when they are not.” (Johnstone, 1991)

With this we see a stronger entrance into the liminal ‘betwixt and between’ness for improvisational theatre. The deconstruction and analysis of social status begins to open the performer to a transitional space between their real world status, the status of the character they are depicting and the status of their partner and their partner’s character. In this space, the shared task of attempting to maintain relative status lends itself to a sense of unity and frees the performers from a constant search for (or invention of) new motives. In seeing status as a toy, they are freed, if only temporarily, from its constraints.

Spreading Ideas

The Compass began in a storefront theater near the University of Chicago campus in the summer of 1955 and lasted only a few years before its players moved on. Paul Sills was the young director of this fledgling company comprised of U of C students, and a few people from that college scene. Paul was also the son of Viola Spolin. The University of Chicago at this time was a rather bohemian haven for young intellectuals. A cadre of students who wanted to explore a new idea regarding a theatre of and for the people gathered and became the Compass Theater. The Compass began performing in a bar just off campus. One of the more interesting and ironic things about the U. of C. was that…

“[It] was almost unique among large American universities in having no drama or speech department. There was no University of Chicago Drama School. The University Theatre was considered an extension of University of Chicago ideals and standards in the humanities, a literary theatre whose director was hired through the student activities office on a seasonal basis, the way another college would have hired a football coach.” (Coleman, 1990)

The Compass and those who comprised its ranks came out of this self-selected, self-directed amalgamation of renegade scholars and a few college dropouts who were auditing U of C classes. The U. of Chicago in the 50’s was still in the midst of the “Chicago College Plan” which had been conceived and enacted by the president and Chancellor of the University Robert Maynard Hutchins. This plan was largely inspired by the medieval university of Saint Thomas Aquinas, which sought to produce “an intellectual community of scholars capable of achieving enlightenment through a common body of ideas and information and by sharing the divine revelations of knowledge” (Coleman, 1990). This led to a reorganization of the entrance requirements for the university’s undergraduate program, which resulted in abolishing an age requirement for students seeking a B.A. “Students who could pass an entrance exam were encouraged to enter the University of Chicago after their sophomore year of high school, at fifteen or sixteen, but the entrance age was considerably lower for some whiz kids.” (Coleman, 1990) The University was rife with “interdisciplinary research teams who were transcending the petty concerns of their own fields in order to contribute to “social science”” (Coleman, 1990)

By way of minimizing the differences of age and specialized fields of knowledge, we can see that some of the elements of Turner’s communitas apply to this historic atmosphere where open honest discourse and diminishment of status was encouraged. It was common for students to host on-campus symposiums on subjects they were interested in that the faculty were as likely to attend as the student body (Coleman, 1990). This communal sensibility was openly fostered, and it could be read in the fact that ‘communism’ and ‘socialism’ were popular ideologies for this period of the University of Chicago, as they were at other universities.

It was in this place under these circumstances that Viola Spolin was called upon to help train the Compass players in her theater games and facilitate the birth of the first improvised theatre company. This company would spawn the likes of The Second City, the Improv Olympic, and the Groundlings. These groups subsequently broke apart and reconstituted the functioning components of Spolin’s theater games into novel performance products that either used improvisation as the sole engine for a piece of theater or as a means to create scripts and sketches like The Second City does today.

Through Johnstone’s popular performance format Theatresports™, which got its goals and structure from professional wrestling, theater games were introduced to the world at large through tours of Johnstone’s own hand-picked touring team which included the likes of Ryan Stiles of ‘Whose Line’ fame. This also spawned the growth of a global franchise which gathers royalties to the International Theatersports Institute. So it stands that we see through time the fire of spontaneous communitas within the moment of improvising flow into the discussions of theory inherent in ideological communitas to finally settle into the structure of normative communitas through the varied institutions where improvisational theater is bought, sold, performed, watched, taught, and learned.

Works Cited

Bell, Catherine. Ritual: Perspectives and Dimensions. New York, Oxford University Press, 1997

Coleman, Janet. The Compass. 1st Ed. ed. New York: Distributed by Random House, 1990.

Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum, 1986.

Johnstone, Keith. Impro Improvisation and the Theatre. 1991 Reprint ed. London: Eyre Methuen, 1981.

Spolin, Viola. Improvisation for the Theater. Evanston, Ill: Northwestern UP, 1963.

Sweet, Jeffrey. Something Wonderful Right Away. 3rd Limelight Ed. ed. New York: Limelight Editions, 1987.

Turner, Victor Witter. “Liminal to Liminoid, in Play, Flow, and Ritual.” From Ritual to Theatre the Human Seriousness of Play. New York City: Performing Arts Journal Publications, 1982. 20-60.

Turner, Victor Witter. “The Anthropology of Performance.” The Anthropology of Performance. New York: PAJ Publications, 1986. 72-98.


3 comments on “Elements of Ritual and Communion in Improvised Theatre

  1. Great article! I just started reading Keith Johnstone’s Impro and was looking for more information on Anthony Stirling. your article provided useful context.

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