Thoughts on Status in Improvised Theater

The introduction of the notion of “status” was transformational for improvised theater. Keith Johnstone’s conceptual innovation took the art of improvised theater into even deeper territory in the 1960’s. Adding the idea of status focused improvisers more fully upon a person/character’s behavior and intention. It allowed them to meditate on what are the ‘key’ actions that could make a human relationship flourish or wither. Status was a ‘Stanislavskian’ leap in developing improvised theater.

In classes, we typically start the discussion by having a pow wow about what everyone’s thoughts are when they hear the word “Status”. Most classes go to socio-economic and archetypal classifications: Rich, big cars, the boss. Then we usually start expanding on the notion by having people consider what the essentials are in talking about “high” and “low” status. This again is steeped in artifacts and appearance: suit and tie is high, scruffy dirty is low, Ferrari vs. Dodge Dart and so on. Largely, it stays close to the land of the stereotypical.

The conversation takes an interesting turn when it comes to using behaviors and intentions as the barometer for measuring how status is gained and lost by making a game out of them. I feel like this is one of the more important passages of thought for people to pass through on their journey through the world of improvised theater. In the laboratory of status games, we are asked to briefly detach ourselves emotionally from our typical actions and behavior. Essentially, we are allowed to have an active meditation on the mechanics of human choices in social situations and life in general.

This is also why, through many discussions with students, it helps to distinguish between ‘socio-economic’ status and ‘interactional’ status. Our interactions with others let us gain and lose status within minutes. Any of us can go from being on top to being made low by a turn of phrase or an ill-timed grimace. Clifford Geertz, an anthropologist, talked about much the same in his book The Interpretation of Cultures (1973), when he asked the question ‘when is a wink just a wink?’ to spur the analysis of symbolic actions. Exploring the meanings of symbolic actions (and the mistaken interpretations of them) is a big staple of both literature and comedy, and in our own lives it’s one of the key experiences that helps us grow to be more empathetic and balanced.

Through using the laboratory of status exercises and games in improvised theater, we are allowing ourselves to walk backward and forward through those experiences; thus adding miles to the odometer of our understandings of ourselves and others, through experiencing winning and losing, pride and hubris, and everything else on the journey to the top or the bottom. We are also fine-tuning our own abilities to get the most out of the relationships and interactions in our own lives. This is such an important set of skills to maintain, lest we lose our humanity and passions to the world we see on screens. If you turn yours off, you’ll elevate the status of the real world.

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5 Tenets of Ensemble Play

1) Keep it as equal as possible: Unless you’ve been elected to be the director/coach/teacher, it’s not the best of ideas to elect yourself to be the person who tells the ensemble what to do and how to play before you hit stage. This tends to communicate that you don’t trust the ensemble to succeed, and it suggests that you believe that you’re the only competent member. In both cases, you’re alienating yourself. Give it up. Trust the process, or have an ensemble meeting to deal with the tension and get to the heart of the matter. A functional family can talk about its difficulties.

2) Contribute: If there are 7 members of your troupe, everyone should be striving to be doing 1/7th of the stage work. This is not always possible, but in the grand scheme people will notice if you’re a hog who’s onstage for every scene or that you’ve been in 4 shows and only been in 2 scenes posing as pieces of the environment. This can lead to varying degrees of resentment. Buck up and add more or relax and trust that people can manage a scene without you. Be honest with each other about trends in how ensemble members contribute. It’s about making the work as tight and good as possible. Spend time in rehearsal finding out how your team of improvisers works best together to maximize contributions.

3) Rehearse: It doesn’t matter how skilled ‘you’ are. If an ensemble doesn’t take time to check in with each other and stay practiced, it’s going to turn into an all-star game when you hit the stage. Meaning that you’ll all be out to make yourselves look good, and you’ll have little clue on how to connect with each other and elevate the quality of the work. The show may be funny, but it will rarely rise to ‘amazing’ or ‘sublime’ without that background of ensemble building through socializing and regular organized play away from a crowd.

4) Decompress: An ensemble that takes time to recognize where they ‘got it right’, as well as where they ‘got it wrong’, is constructing a vocabulary of strategy. Taking note of your ensembles’ strategies in approaching the work can help identify members’ styles of play and how to best combine them, as well as recognizing unproductive avenues or “ruts” in the work. Keep your focus on the work and don’t take this review process personally. If you do take it personally, have a rational discussion about it when you’re ready to talk in reasonable tones. Nothing hurts an ensemble more than a member who flies into rages or fits, whether they are justified or not.

5) Socialize: Hang out as citizens. Plan a dinner party, movie night, breakfast, camp-out, weekend outing. Getting together as people really helps you all learn what each others’ knowledge base and hopes and dreams are. A good ensemble has the potential to grow into a good group of friends. That enjoyment of each other translates to fluid connected work onstage because it’s a no-brainer supporting people that you’re familiar with and like. Decreasing that social gap of unfamiliarity will only help an ensemble, but it can sometimes lead to marriages and babies. Fair warning.

Roadblocks to Connection: “Sorry” and “Worry”

One of the first big ideas I introduce to new students is how “Sorry” and “Worry” are the biggest enemies to good improvisation. I do this because it’s the first thing that I consistently see operating in beginning improv classes filled with new students. It’s our default as humans when facing a new social landscape. It’s all hinged on our desire to connect and be social. We do incredible things as people to preserve and maintain that channel and potential for connection.

Some people starve themselves thinking that, if they were thinner, people would like them. Some people buy lots of things thinking that, if they have stuff, people will like them. Many homosexuals spend years hiding their identities just to insure that people will like them, while others commit suicide because they cannot bear the threat of losing their social connections. Suffice it to say, connection is one of the prime motivators in the human world. So the thought of isolation, rejection or being found ‘unworthy’ is a terror we all share to some degree.

When we let this terror grip us, we fall to our baser instincts for self-preservation. If we have no faith in ‘us’, than it’s gonna be about ‘me’. This brings us back to the Sorry/Worry discussion. ‘Sorry’ is a focus on the past. It is the fear that something you’ve done will get you voted off the island; thrown out of the group; talked about in the break room. It distracts you. ‘Worry’ is focus on the future. It is the fear that you will fail, be wrong, or otherwise embarrass yourself which could possibly lead to getting voted off the island; thrown out of the group or talked about in the break room. It prevents you from taking action. Both of these fear-based thought processes draw your attention and focus from what’s going on in front of you. When we’re drawn away from the here and now, we miss details, nuances and sometimes the entire point of what is happening.

In my experience teaching improvisation, the heart of a majority of problems students encounter are situated in fear whose continuum is situated between our two perpetrators; sorry and worry. People can be putting out the best offers, acting and stage presence possible, and their scene partners, gripped by worry or distracted by sorry, are unable to connect with them to use those things to create the scene in concert with their partners. They are just not mentally ‘there’ for them, but instead are enthralled by the possibility of failure or looking back on failure. The best improvisers tend to be those that can fail, learn and move on to connect back up with their partners. The tighter you hold onto failure, the harder it is to hold onto anything else.

‘Yes And’ for Newbies

Improvised Theater has no script. No one made a map, and no one gets a moment to plan. That’s fine; I hate memorizing anyway, but how the heck are we just going to make up a scene both worthy of doing and worthy of being watched? All we have to do is be funny, isn’t that what improv is? That’s where I came from when I got to my first improv class. I thought it was about cracking jokes and regurgitating pop-culture puns and gags. I missed things a lot because I was worried about getting a laugh, and I didn’t really listen.

Then I got my first lessons in improvised theater and found that it wasn’t that easy to be funny with someone. I was funny, but when I had to make a scene funny with someone else, it was a struggle. I got a laugh or two, but the scene didn’t make much sense in the end. There had to be a way to simplify this process and guide this interaction.

Like a beam of light that helped give form to the darkness, the idea of “Yes, And…” was delivered by my first teacher. It was like the singing of cherubs, improv cherubs that drank and smoked. After 15 years of doing and teaching improv though, I still find it a tricky thing to consider and understand, but it’s one of the key ideas at the root of a majority of successful and fun scenes and still is one of the most important ideas in Improvised Theater. It’s a tool that helps bring a little order to the madness for an individual, but it also helps us discover newer better madness as a group.

In this article, you’ll hear why listening is the key to everything else. You’ll learn why and how agreeing can give you solid ground to stand on to develop a scene, characters, and relationships on the fly, and you’ll learn how to make all of those things more detailed and important, which ultimately will make them funnier and more interesting for everyone. All of this will help you understand the engine that helps improvised scenes go, the E=MC2 of improvised theater: “Yes, And”.

Listen Up! This is Important.

Of all the skills that improvised theater uses, listening is the most essential. Things would be really easy if all you needed to do was say funny things, but since we’re working with others to find the meaning and the humor in a scenario, we had better start paying attention to what’s being said and done by our scene partners. Improvisers have to listen with their ears and their eyes. Because we’re making up everything that can be done in theater like the places to stand and move, the dialogue, the motivations of a character, the setting, and how these characters interact; we need to keep track of almost everything that is said and done from the moment our scene starts.

Have you ever been to a party and one person just keeps talking and never stops? Have you ever started talking to someone, and they seem to check out just waiting for the next moment they can talk? Those kinds of experiences tend to leave us feeling unwanted, un-needed, and ultimately uninterested in putting the effort towards connecting with that person, even if they are funny. When our fellow players are all we have onstage to help us make the scene work, it is incredibly important that we keep our eyes and ears open for clues, hints, and signs of what the characters (that our fellow players are portraying) are doing, meaning, and saying. Understanding something is the essence of listening. In order for the two or more of you improvising a scene to stay on the same page, you need to listen.

Tip
Try repeating things that are said by your scene partner(s) in your head or re-iterate what they said when you respond. For actions, watch your partners eyes, face and body so you don’t miss how they and or their character is feeling and behaving or what sort of activity they may be depicting with pantomime.

It’s a measure of goodwill towards the person you are doing a scene with that you are present, available, and actively engaged. It will become obvious very quickly if you missed the fact that your partner just referred to you as a “doctor”, and you go on to say how you love being a “mechanic”. People will take notice if your scene partner depicted walking through mud to get to you, but you walk back the same way without depicting walking through mud (even though you watched them ‘walk through mud’ to get there). This is why it is important to listen with your eyes and ears. The details that continue to get portrayed bring the audience into the reality developing in the scene.

Not all of humor and life occurs in the world of words: a lot of meaning and comedy is conveyed by things that are done and never said. In order to build on anything to make a bigger and better scene, we need to make sure we know what we have. The definition of improvisation is “to make, provide, or arrange from whatever materials are readily available”. Everything that is said and done in your scene is the readily available material. Listening is how we compile and maintain an inventory of what we’ve got to play with.

Remember
Listening well saves us from having to invent every word and action. It helps us by providing fuel for identifying useful patterns in words, actions, ideas, and emotions. These patterns are a gateway to making sense and finding comedy in our scenes. Being able to capture all of that information requires paying attention with both your eyes and ears. If you have a hard time listening, you’ll have a hard time improvising theater well.

Agreeing Makes Things Happen

Remember when you were a kid, and you would bounce from your mom to your dad in hopes of getting a “Yes” to do something? Getting that yes meant that you could go to the movie, have a sleepover, get another cookie, fly to visit Grandma, take the field trip to the aquarium, or any number of other cool things that you wanted to do. Guess what, that’s what saying, doing and being “Yes” or agreeing is all about in improvising theater. It’s a way to:

• Establish the scene
• Move the action forward
• Put everyone on the same page

Agreeing is a how improvisers get onto the same page. If I come onstage and call you “Dad”, to agree would be to act and talk like someone who is a father to my character. If you stare off into the distance and say to me “I love the sunset in Cancun”, to agree I would stare in the same direction you are and act like I was watching the same sunset and maybe say something like “Look at those reds and oranges.” In improv, this sort of thing can be referred to as “setting a platform”, or creating a basic reality in the first few exchanges. The richer and more detailed your first exchanges are, the stronger the start of your improvised scene will be.

Let’s compare two different scene openings.
1) I say, “Hey Buddy, I’m dropping off the thing.” I act like I’m placing something about a foot wide on a pretend table near you. You respond, “Thanks Man, cool thing.” while looking at the space where the “thing” was placed.
2) I say, “Dr. Paraguay, I’ve returned with the samples from the insects you’ve collected.” I act like I’m setting something down on a table and pulling smaller things out of it to look at them. You (Dr. Paraguay) respond, “Thank you Enrique, I think the cure for your nightmares lies in these samples” You act like you’re taking small things from Enrique’s (my) hands and holding them up in the air while looking at them.

In both scenarios we agreed to the first things. However, the second example got us a lot farther in terms of setting up what is going on in the scene. Setting out specifics in terms of ‘who we are’, ‘what we’re doing’, and if possible, ‘why we’re doing them’ can help finding a nice strong platform to agree on in order to build the rest of the scene together.

Being and Doing ‘Yes’

When a lot of people first start learning and doing improv, they find that being positive and finding common ground with their scene partner is difficult. Think about the things many of us are taught on our way to adulthood. We’re taught to draw boundaries, protect our own stuff, question the motives of others, and ,in general, have a healthy skepticism in life. The flip side to this is that most of us have also learned to lie, cheat, steal, and take advantage of people. Most of us learned these things the hard way by being lied to, cheated, stolen from, or taken advantage of. These are the things that replace our childhood innocence and naiveté because they are the undeniable reality of social life on some level whether we like it or not. They are also lessons that help us navigate the adult world effectively.

Improvised Theater requires us to get over that defensive ‘stay your ground/stay in control’ programming. Agreement is the first big hurdle to jump. It’s essence is that we accept the developing world of this scene as real and matter-of-fact, and be willing to surrender to other interpretations that fit what’s going on.

For instance:
1) You say, “Trevor, the feral sheep have surrounded the house. We’re trapped!” I (Trevor) say, “Damn their wool!” while shaking a fist in the air.
2) As opposed to you saying, “Trevor, the feral sheep have surrounded the house. We’re trapped!” with me (Trevor) responding, “Actually, we’re in your bedroom playing a video game” while crossing my arms.

The first exchange really helps us feel the tension of the situation, and the crisis is compelling and interesting. The second exchange deflates the tension and returns us to ‘everything is fine’ mode. It negated ‘what was going on’ in the scene. The second iteration took away the whole first offer of the scene. There is now very little to be compelled by or interested in. We’re essentially starting another scene and not using what our partner said at all. This is what would be considered “Blocking” within a scene.

Jargon Alert
“Blocking” is a term used to describe moves in an improv scene that negate and/or cancel information or actions that have already been put forth through dialogue or pantomime.

What I’m getting at by saying that we should ‘be’ and ‘do’ yes is working on re-training ourselves to accept and/or appreciate things as they change or become apparent, and act on the new reality rather than struggle with it. Being “Yes” is a matter of allowing ideas outside of your own into the game, scene, or show; and Doing “yes” means being as supportive, affirming and accepting of those ideas as you are to your own. The better you become at this in improvisation, the more fluid and fun the scene will be for you and your partners and the struggle to make a scene work will start to go away.

Only Fools Agree to Everything

Wait a minute, isn’t all drama driven by conflict? Can’t you say “No” to anything? Do improvisers just become passive robots that say “Yes” to everything? Yes. Yes, and yes. Hold on. No to the third.

When we’re talking about agreement, we’re really referring to the facts and figures of the reality of the scene. There are certain largely set parts of our reality. The sky is blue. Water is wet. Gravity keeps us on the ground. We have parents (somewhere), or had parents (somewhere). These are the facts of living on the earth as a human. Other places have rules too. It’s absolute zero. Lethal radiation permeates the surroundings. There is little to no gravity. These are the facts of living in space. The things that are agreed to in scenework are typically things of this order. They are the rules of how this imaginary reality works.

Characters can have different wants and needs. People say “no” to things they don’t want to do or to things they don’t believe in all the time. This is how we set boundaries in life and solidify our unique identities. This is another fact of living as a human being. Saying “no” or disagreeing to something that your character doesn’t believe in or want is definitely allowable, BUT agreeing to an action while voicing your character’s ‘dislike for’ or ‘doubt in’ the action moves the scene forward and allows the audience and your fellow players to learn something about your character. I guess that would mean that your character can disagree, but you as a player are still responsible for helping the action continue and build. Which means characters can be disagreeable, but players are tasked with finding ways for their disagreeable characters to keep the action in a scene moving to help advance the story/the scene.

For example:
1) Disagreeing – “Mildred, there’s glass everywhere. Could you please sweep up?” You, “I have a Harvard MBA. I don’t sweep.” You cross your arms.
2) Disagreeable – “Mildred, there’s glass everywhere. Could you please sweep up?” You, mime sweeping in a frustrated angry manner and say, “I have a Harvard MBA. I don’t see why ‘I’ have to sweep.”

The first disagreement stops action from happening and tells us something about your character. It’s a lose-win scenario. The second version where you are ‘disagreeable’ keeps the action moving forward AND tells us something about your character. It’s a win-win scenario. The first is “blocking” action, and the second is not. It’s ok if your character doesn’t ‘like’ some things. It’s a difficult road to travel if your character doesn’t ‘do’ things, or rarely does things. Play nice, and pitch in. Be a good example of a generous player. There’s also the other option of just being Agreeable:

“Mildred, there’s glass everywhere. Could you please sweep up?” You, “This here’s a class 5 shatter. It’s a thin glass that fragments easy and it covers nearly 1 square foot. Of course, I’m certified for up to class 11 shatters…You don’t ever want to see one of those.” You shudder, sniffle and pretend to start crying.

Hint
If you are just beginning in improvised theater, it is better to focus on how to agree and be agreeable, than to hunt for loopholes that may allow you to keep being negative in scenes. Even after 15 years of performing improv, I still need to be reminded that being positive and agreeable gets you a lot farther in scenes and stories than being negative and defensive.

“And” moving right along

So we’ve seen how agreeing on things can help us build a platform to stand on for our scene. Let’s start working on how we can build things up from that platform. It’s time for “And”! The lovely sister to the “Yes” in improvised theater. “Yes” is definitely a well-liked guy, but “And” is the life of the party. She has this way of making everything bigger, better and more important. Just like her function as a conjunction suggests, she’s all about connecting things and making them bigger and better. She adds meaning, depth and flare. I also like to refer to this vixen of an improv rule as “heightening”.

In some of the examples in the section on “Yes”, you may have noticed that I added a lot more details and descriptors to an initial exchange in order to make it more distinct. With “And” or heightening we are doing the same thing; only we are doing that with our reactions or verbal responses to our scene partners. In theater, it’s best to work on creating tension and filling in some of the story with exposition, which is a fancy way of saying ‘expanding on’ or ‘explaining’ something. Heightening or “Anding” is how we do that when we’re improvising theater.

Remember this exchange from the section on “Yes”:

1) I say, “Hey Buddy, I’m dropping off the thing.” I act like I’m placing something about a foot wide on a pretend table near you. You respond, “Thanks Man, cool thing.” while looking at the space where the “thing” was placed.
2) I say, “Dr. Paraguay, I’ve returned with the samples from the insects you’ve collected.” I act like I’m setting something down on a table and pulling smaller things out of it to look at them. You (Dr. Paraguay) respond, “Thank you Enrique, I think the cure for your nightmares lies in these samples” You act like you’re taking small things from Enrique’s (my) hands and holding them up in the air while looking at them.

In this section, we’re going to look at the reasons why the second exchange is better in order to understand what it means to heighten or “And” something, and how we go about doing that.

The Magic of Addition

Adding things to an idea, movement or phrase makes them more complex and, presumably more meaningful. For example, there’s a big difference between setting a file down on a desk and walking away – and setting a file down on a desk, winking, making a clicking sound with your mouth, and pretending to shoot at someone with your pointer finger and your thumb . One action is average or mundane, and the other is a lot more interesting and curious. The ‘interesting and curious complex file drop-off’ leaves the viewer with a lot more questions in their head like: ‘Is he just wierd?’, ‘Was that a come on?’, ‘Is there something really good in that file?’. The mundane file drop-off leaves us with one main question, ‘what’s in the file?’. An important question for sure, but when we’re initiating and working through improvised scenes, it’s important that we give the audience a lot of things to be curious about.

The more we add to our moves, be they physical or verbal, the more interesting they become. Don’t get ahead of yourself, though. Adding 25 things to one move is overkill. Adding 2-3 things is usually enough. These additions:

• Help define the scene
• Help color our exchanges
• Help boost the importance of anything

In the second example above, the additions tell us a lot about who these characters are (Dr. Paraguay and Enrique), what they are doing (taking insect samples), and even a hint of why they are doing this (to cure Enrique’s “nightmares”). When you begin to add that sort of information to the mix, you reduce your options down from infinity to a more manageable reality in just a couple of exchanges. That will help you immensely and help you avoid brain-lock onstage.

Tip
Brain-lock usually occurs because a thousand ideas crash together, explode and leave you blank, or you think you’ll make a “bad” choice. Making ANY choice and moving forward is always better than NOT making a choice and freezing. You don’t have to be clever. You don’t need to get a laugh with every line. Just choose something, do it, and watch how it affects the action to figure out what to do next.

Details, Details

You and your scene partner should play like you have all the goods on the characters that each of you is playing in the scene and the world they live in. So spill it! Make up specific things about your character or your scene partner’s character and the world they live in. Help ‘us’ (your scene partner included) understand these characters and this world. Try lines that give us some cool information.
Lines like:

• “I had no idea you were an internationally renowned boy scout.”
• “You gave me hope when you learned to walk after your skating accident.”
• “So you’re Richard LePetomane. I never thought I’d bump into you outside the Moulin Rouge.”
• “By golly, these strawberries are as big as my head. No, seriously, look at how friggin big this thing is. The radioactive fertilizer is working.”
• “Your eyes. They’re silver. It’s true then. You’re a Moon Wizard.”
• “We’re the last two golfers left in this tournament. I may as well tell you that I’m an android programmed to defeat you.”
• “We are not allowed to speak the name Joseph on the plains. Our people mourn his passing.
• “I was Waitress of the Year for the United States in 1977. I miss those days of disco and hamburgers.”

Details go a long way in helping us expand on our characters, and our worlds. By doing this, we help ourselves out by defining our characters and world. This means a lot less guess work will be needed moving forward into your scene. These sorts of details in your first lines makes for a great initiation.

An “Initiation” is what a lot of improvisers call the beginning of a scene. It’s usually the first exchange or two at the beginning that help to set up characters, activities, relationships, maybe some history and a place.

Remember
Listening is the key to improvised theater. If you’re not catching any of these cool details, you can’t use them to do a lot of different things like ‘letting something specific emotionally affect your character’, ‘understand the world these characters live in’, ‘share in an activity’, or ‘learn something about your character or anyone’s character’. Stay in the game. Make eye contact. Listen.

Once more with Feeling

The highest and lowest points of peoples’ lives are riddled with waves of intense emotion. Everyone has a mechanism for dealing with strong emotion. It’s part of the human experience to encounter difficulty and success on some level. When people go to see theater, they’re not going to see something where there is no change, where no one reacts to anything. People come to improvised theater because of the crazy places we can take them, where people live out exciting, tense, amazing, serene and sweet lives. They want to see people do things in life that require guts and make them vulnerable. They want heroes and villains and the people in between. Why? Because these are people who are willing to show how they feel and stick to their convictions. So showing feelings and using emotions in reaction to something is one of the best ways to add something, to “and” something.

There’s a reason performances are called “shows”. You should be showing us something. If you express your character’s feelings with your body, face, and voice, it will help your scene partner and your audience understand what is important to you and what’s important in the improvised scene. Once you’ve uttered or embodied some sort of emotion, make up something that fits the logic of having that reaction.

Like This:
• I say, “Drake, these are the candles you asked for.” You stroke the pretend candles slowly and let a huge smile cross your face then say, “This is going to be the best birthday ever” or “Perfect. Now we can begin the third stage of the ritual of Karnac” or “You are the most thoughtful knight in the whole order” or “Thank you, I will be able to continue the vigil for our father.”
• I say, “Drake, these are the candles you asked for.” You back away in fear and say, “I’m not sure I want to accept candles from someone who has turned into a vampire” or “It’s been 43 years, and you haven’t aged a day” or “I had no idea that they’d be in such horrible macabre shapes.”
• I say, “Drake, these are the candles you asked for.” You point your finger at me and with a clenched jaw say. “It’s been 43 years! What the hell, Simon?!” or “Those are all red, and you knew I needed black for the Ritual of Karnac. You cannot prevent his calling!” or “I’ve changed my mind, Wilt. I’m NOT going to transform you into Casanova, and that’s final.”

In these three examples, you can see that the responses agree logically with the emotional reaction. Reacting emotionally, in any way, to one of your scene partner’s lines or actions makes those lines or actions immediately more important in the scene. This gives us a trail to follow in discovering the rest of the scene.

Tip
Anger is a ‘go to’ emotion in beginner and intermediate players. It’s instant conflict, AND it’s a natural defense against unfamiliar and uncomfortable situations like making up theater on the fly. Unfortunately, it tends to lead towards argumentative scenes. These types of scenes are tense for a while but can get boring fast if they’re about trivial things. Be measured with anger when you’re improvising. Try to discover anger more than lead with it, and find ways out of that anger with your scene partner if you fall in too deep.

It is also vital that you bounce between emotions within a scene or story. It’s funny to see people go through rapid or unusual changes in emotion. It’s funny to see people move from fear to relief, sadness to joy. That’s the ‘tense and release’ nature of human relationships. That’s part of the changing and moving forward function of heightening/Anding. Too much of one emotion without another emotion to counter-balance it can lead improvised scenes into corners. If you find yourself ‘dead-ending’ in a scene, it could very well be because another emotion didn’t appear to either resolve tension in your scene or add more tension into it.

On the Road to a New Ethnography: Anthropology, Improvisation and Performance

“For the first time we may be moving towards a sharing of cultural experiences, the manifold “forms of objectivated mind” restored through performance to something like their pristine affectual contouring. This may be a humble step for mankind away from the destruction that surely awaits our species if we continue to cultivate deliberate mutual misunderstanding in the interests of power and profit. We can learn from experience-from the enactment and performance of the culturally transmitted experiences of others-peoples of the Heath as well as of the Book.” (Turner, 1982)

The Anthropology of Theater and Performance was pioneered by Victor Turner through his experiences and experiments with Richard Schechner. Turner moved the notion put forward by Erving Goffman of performance as imitation (Goffman, 1959)– mimesis – to one of creation – poiesis – or in the words of Turner himself “making, not faking”(Turner, 1982). Turner set the stage for further work with a more post-structuralist and political emphasis. Homi K. Bhabha links the performative with fluctuation, and the pedagogical with sedimentation (Bhabha, 1990). Thus we see the performance move from an emphatic view with Turner to a more politically urgent view with Bhabha. This move takes us from poiesis to kinesis, from “making, not faking” to “breaking and remaking” (Conquergood, 1992). More recent scholarship has focused on performance being a new realization of ethnography, and that the current centralization of ethnography in the written word is another manifestation of western hegemony and maintaining a system of othering by excluding all who have not been trained in the code of social theorizing or all those who cannot read (Conquergood, 2002). The assertion is that the performative opens the intercultural and ethnographic dialogue to all.

There is another exciting element to the drafting of this overview, and that is the relevance of my own performance experience. I have experienced a number of the elements that the authors I’ve researched have discussed first hand, and, as an insider, I understand the power and value of the ideas that they describe. I will include some of these experiences in hopes of further explaining and highlighting the notions brought forth in this discussion.

Social Dramas and Intercultural Theatric Interpretations

Victor Turner worked with Richard Schechner’s company, The Performance Group, back in the 1970’s. He was impressed by Schechner’s approach in coaching and directing his actors. Turner saw Schechner’s process “as constituting a kind of liminal phase in which all kinds of experiential experiments are possible, indeed mandatory.” Turner felt that this approach would be valuable to anthropological teaching because it forces one to recreate behavior from within, which he felt left the learner able to handle the unfamiliar material by contextualizing it with elements that were familiar to the learner (Turner, 1982).

He went on to describe an instance in a workshop where he asked participants to enact roles of a very specific Ndembu rite into modern American terms. Someone volunteered to be the focus of the rite, and he asked this person to “give [him] the name of a recently deceased close female relative of an older generation who had meant much in her life.” In this way, Turner went about setting the stage for the re-enactment of the ritual using elements that would help to contextualize it in a meaningful way for the participants. Turner was able to elicit a visceral understanding of a cultural practice well outside of the experience of the workshop participants. This is what Turner means when he asserts “making, not faking”. The re-enactment goes beyond copying to the point where the experience is made again for the participants with its power and personal meaning intact and palpable.

A similar technique is used by practitioners of psychodramas in the forum of “Playback Theatre”. “Within the structure of a ritual framework, the performance is spontaneous – it is theatre created through a unique collaboration between performers and audience. Someone tells a story or moment from their life, chooses actors to play the different roles, then watches as their story is immediately recreated and given artistic shape. Many artistic variations are possible within the clear ritual structure and rhythm of a performance event” (IPTA website). The Playback performances are improvised as were Turner’s social drama experiments. The goal is similar in that the participants are seeking a deeper understanding of a situation in order to claim its power and meaning anew. The difference is that Playback focuses on interpersonal dialogue, and Turner’s social dramas focus on intercultural dialogue; the understanding of the other rather than the understanding of the self.

Turner also ran into certain instances of ambiguity in translating certain cultural narrations to a dramatic stage product. The instance in question was the staging of a girls’ puberty ritual of the Ndembu. Prior to the staging, an anthropology graduate student had given some instruction to the performers on matrilineal kinship systems and problems. These women decided to begin the piece with a ballet that set the women up as a circular frame in which the male political action could take place. Turner states, “Somehow this device didn’t work-there was a covert contemporary political tinge in it which denatured the Ndembu socio-cultural process. This feminist mode of staging ethnography assumed and enacted modern ideological notions in a situation in which those ideas are simply irrelevant” (Turner, 1982). This begs the question of whether or not westerners are capable of enacting cultural narratives that accurately – or perhaps adequately – represent the culture they are portraying. Secondly, will notions like cultural relativism be considered in determining representations? These are salient notions when considering that dramatic representations can depict, describe, elevate, lampoon, and parody both peoples and ideas.

Turner addressed this by stating, “The movement from ethnography to performance is a process of pragmatic reflexivity. Not the reflexivity of a narcissistic isolate moving among his or her memories and dreams, but the attempt of representatives of one generic modality of human existence, the Western historical experience, to understand “on the pulses”…other modes hitherto locked away from it by cognitive chauvinism or cultural snobbery.” (Turner, 1982)

The main message of Turner’s drive towards “ethnodramatics” was to move away from the obscurity of anthropological scholarship to have it “become something more than a cognitive game inscribed in…somewhat tedious journals” (Turner, 1982). He felt that dramatizing ethnography required one to seek to understand things in a more contextual manner by investigating setting, props, and other elements of the mis en scène, as well as the meaning of cultural practices. As anthropological scholarship continued, Victor Turner’s cry was not unheard.

Ethnography as Performance and the Tyranny of Text

Dwight Conquergood, known for his role in the popular book The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman, had been one of the more notable voices in ethnodramatics up until his death from cancer in November of 2004. He founded the Performance Studies program at Northwestern University, and wrote extensively on the subject of the anthropology of theater, and dramatizing ethnography.

Conquergood was distinctly concerned with questioning the operation of the academy and was fond of what Foucault termed “subjugated knowledges”, which “include all the local, regional, vernacular, naïve knowledges at the bottom of the hierarchy-the low Other of science” (Foucault, 1980, Conquergood, 2002). In making his arguments, Conquergood often refers to Michel de Certeau. Particularly, he is concerned with the notion that “scriptocentrism is a hallmark of Western imperialism”, in that the written word and the weight that it holds for international scholarship, economics, and law is central to the domination of non-westerners (Certeau, 1984).

Conquergood vaults off of this idea into the radical pronouncement, “The hegemony of textualism needs to be exposed and undermined. Transcription is not a transparent or politically innocent model for conceptualizing or engaging the world. The root metaphor of the text underpins the supremacy of Western knowledge systems by erasing the vast realm of human knowledge and meaningful action that is unlettered, “a history of the tacit and habitual”” (Conquergood, 2002). This captures the sentiment of the opening quote by Turner in which ethnography is for the “people of the Heath as well as the Book”. The hegemony of the text keeps access to the knowledge of other cultures (and other cultural understandings that defy being written) from being communicated. To write or read a description of a kiss is far less instructive than seeing or participating in a kiss and coming to understand a kiss’ meaning by its physical and social context, all of which can be viewed and experienced, but not all of which can be ‘transcribed to’ and ‘gleaned from’ the page.

From experience, this same dynamic is sometimes present in contemporary theater contexts, wherein scripted theater is considered the ‘more legitimate’ form of dramatic art, and improvised theater can be devalued as trite enactments of the lowest common denominator or as a tool for rehearsal in the eyes of script actors (rightfully so in some instances). Either way, it is often viewed as a means to an end rather than a means and an end in itself. I have a friend who was denied entrance into a theater company based on the fact that she was an improviser, and she was told that they felt that because of this she wouldn’t be capable of serious and meaningful work. The irony of this was that she was, at the time, employed as a theater counselor who was using improv techniques to give voice to the experiences of female prisoners and homeless youth. If that is not serious or meaningful work, then what is? Unfortunately, popular media has helped to cement the notion of improvisation being trite.

To go a step further in detail, even within improvised theater, there is a penchant to become mired in the verbal. Western European and North American improvisers tend to center their activities and concerns in the verbal portion of a performance. Such was the consensus at one of the two panel discussions at the 2004 Slovenian International Festival of Improvisation (Personal Communication, 2004). This is more prevalent in persons who are newer to the art. When I train performers, I must constantly remind them of the power of the unspoken, or more importantly that powerful things can be said without words. A subtle gesture, a lingering look, a well-placed sigh can all add layers of meaning that would require many more spoken words to describe. Many of the most meaningful, powerful, despicable, and noble things that occur between humans are not heralded by words, but occur silently in the form of actions and gestures. This concept has been distilled into the phrase ‘show, don’t tell’.

Conquergood centers in on this same notion by stating, “Oppressed people everywhere must watch their backs, cover their tracks, suck up their feelings, and veil their meanings. The state of emergency under which many people live demands that we pay attention to messages that are encrypted; to indirect, nonverbal, and extralinguistic modes of communication where subversive meanings and utopian yearnings can be sheltered and shielded from surveillance.” (Conquergood, 2002) It is by the right of the pervading eye of western systems of power, that disenfranchised people are driven to show their notions rather than tell them aloud lest they be, at best, catalogued and consumed, thus stripping them of their essential meaning, or, at worst, lead to one being captured, tortured, and killed for speaking out against a regime. As they bow to hegemony, they also subvert it through subtle active resistance. An epigraph of a cheeky Ethiopian proverb is a great example of such actions: “When the great lord passes the wise peasant bows deeply and silently farts” (Scott, 1990).

By locating ethnography and cultural meaning in the living frame of behavior as performance, we come to the anthropology of performance as ‘kinesis’….

 

If you like this article and want to read the rest, you can find it in my book or eBook.

 

Works Cited:

Bhabha, Homi K., “DissemiNation: Time, Narrative, and the Margins of the Modern
Nation,” Nation and Narrative, London: Routledge, 1990, pp. 291-322

Certeau, Michel de, The Practice of Everyday Life, Translated by Steven Rendall.
Berkely: University of California Press, 1984

Conquergood, Dwight, “Rethinking Ethnography: Towards a Critical Cultural Politics”,
Communication Monographs, 58, June 1991, pp. 179-194

Conquergood, Dwight, “Ethnography, Rhetoric, and Performance”, Quarterly Journal of
Speech, 78 (1992): 80-123

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

Conquergood, Dwight, “Of Caravans and Carnivals: Performance Studies in Motion”,
The Drama Review 49, 4, Autumn 1995, pp.137-141

Fabian, Johannes, Power and Performance: Ethnographic Explorations through
Proverbial Wisdom and Theater in Shaba Zaire. Madison, WI: University of
Wisconsin Press. 1990

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

Fadiman, Anne, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: a Hmong Child, Her
American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures, New York: Farrar, Straus
and Giroux, 1997

Foucault, Michel, Power/Knowledge, New York: Pantheon, 1980

Goffman, Erving, Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, New York: Anchor Books, 1959

Haraway, Donna, Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York:
Routledge. 1991

International Playback Theatre Network, http://www.playbacknet.org/iptn/index.htm,
2005

Scott, James C., Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts, New
Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1990

Turner, Victor, From Ritual to Theatre, New York: PAJ Publications, 1982

Turner, Victor, “Dramatic Ritual/Ritual Drama: Performative and Reflexive
Anthropology”, Kenyon Review, Summer79, Vol. 1 Issue 3, p80, 14p

Turner, Victor, The Anthropology of Performance, New York: PAJ Publications, 1986

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):
45-65

Improvisation: the Original Survival Tool

When it came down to it, mother nature laid the smackdown on early Homo Sapiens. We arrive in the archeological record about 200,000 years ago. About 90,000 years ago, Africa’s climate became extremely arid in a very short time leading to a resource crisis. No food and no water means no surviving for many of the early Homo Sapiens. If you look at our genetic diversity, it tells the story. What this means is that contemporary Homo Sapiens, us, lack the kind of diversity seen prior to 70 to 90,000 years before the present.

How does the saying go? Hard Times bring a family together. Looking at the fossil record, along with the inferences of genetic evidence in our own DNA, suggests that we nearly didn’t make it. The estimate is that we dwindled to between 1,000 -10,000 individuals capable of reproducing, which created a genetic bottleneck. That’s smaller than most suburbs (heck, a neighborhood), and that is how many people survived to produce the 7 billion and rising on the planet today. Quite a comeback, I would say. The thing is that because there are so many people, it’s impossible to care about all of them. Because of the limits of our own abilities to connect meaningfully with more than about 150 people at any one time, we have no attachment to the hoards of others that blanket the planet despite attempts to connect us through media. We respond to tragic events when they happen because our brains’ mirror neuron systems allow us to feel their discomfort on some level. For most of us, once the check or cash is sent those feelings often dissipate, and we return to business as usual. These understandings would have been critical to people trying to survive. If your group doesn’t function well in times of scarcity and difficulty, it can tear apart the social fabric and lead to serious, sometimes fatal, consequences.

We have developed into beings whose state is situated in the median range of the immediate. We have developed to have the sensibilities of an improviser. What is in front of me? How can I build with this or on it or use it? How do these things or people connect, and what happens when they do? What are my companions feeling? How can I improve or change these relationships? The reason we have this legacy of improvisational sensibility is that these thoughts and behaviors were, more than likely, what led to the survival of those desperate 1,000-10,000 survivors who made it through that 20,000 year stretch of hard times to emerge from Africa to populate a world whose climate was returning to a time of abundance and seasonality. That’s the way selection works. It could have also been that we require less calories to live than the Neanderthal. Seems oxymoronic considering where we are now.

These folks didn’t survive because they were screwing each other over and hoarding resources to the ‘deserving’ few in their tribe. Quite the contrary, most foragers operating from a preconquest consciousness have an egalitarian ethos that puts the individual as subservient to the group; leaders are appointed and impeached by the group, as necessary. Couple this with the fact that we have cognitive mechanisms that intellectually and emotionally reward us for intensive organized collaboration, cooperation and creative exploration (communitas, absolute unitary experience, group flow, whatever you want to call it), and we’ve found some very compelling evidence to suggest that the ethos of support and generosity that is native to improvisation is at the core of our beings. Improvisers are trained specifically to look out for and support their partners and group in order to find success as a whole. Hoarding and self-aggrandizement are things that come out of agriculture, urbanism and consumerism. I think Jared Diamond has covered that subject pretty well. His explorations of the collapse of the Anasazi, Romans and Aztecs in his book Collapse help to clarify the outcomes of the self-centerdness and hierarchy that are the tendency of “civilization”.

The most common form of organized collaborative cooperative creative exploration across the globe is ritual, and a lot of things can fall into that category (music, theater, sports, even some games). Rituals often combine elements like music, dance, myth, and physical challenges in a communal setting. Is it any wonder then, when we look back at the things we find in ancient Homo Sapien sites on the coasts of Africa dated to around 70,000 years ago, that we find the first evidence of red ochre being harvested and stored? Red ochre is the most ancient form of symbolic adornment. To symbol, to create something outside of ourselves that communicates meaning, had almost never been seen in the archeological record until these sites. Throughout the archeological record, red ochre is commonly related to ritual and other symbolic behaviors. Considering that we are descended from these survivors, it is not surprising to see that ritualistic activities are one of the most common features of human society.

We, as a species, are in the business of creating occasions for these sorts of collaborative and sometimes ecstatic events. Our brains are geared to overload when we earnestly undertake these collaborations and provide us with a sublime and indescribable sense of unity and connection with each other and the world at large. What a wonderful adaptation for dealing with tremendous difficulty and adversity? The only other thing that can do this on a more common and less formalized scale is humor. This unifying state is also an amazing way for our brains to be networked, and find innovative solutions to the problems of the world at large.

So it stands to reason that improvisation is a secular road to our social and cultural health as beings on this planet. It also stands to reason that the tools of improvised theater help us find not only depth and detail in life and relationships, but they also help us find humor. Improvisation helps us exercise our brains’ mirror neuron systems, which are appearing to be integral to communication, learning and understanding. The training people receive while studying improvisation is focused on understanding human relationships; both what makes them succeed and what makes them fail. Improvised theater is igniting a sort of grass roots social rebooting. It has the power to awaken people to the present.

The challenges that are emerging in the 21st century will demand more than we’ve had to give in a long time as a species. The last big shift in global climate, the end of the ice age, led to the disappearance of all other hominid species; making us the lone hominids. Even though huge climatic shift events are what have led to great leaps in human brain evolution, it was because we were in a desperate fight to survive, and only those who figured out how to work together and enjoy it made it out alive. Certainly, there was inter-group competition for resources, but it was definitely rarer than the intra-group collaboration, cooperation and creativity that were employed in the daily struggle to survive. These are the very skills that are lacking in the upcoming generation of technologically-dependent and increasingly socially-inept children in the developed world. We are breeding a generation of social illiterates whose narcissism could lead to a dangerous turning point in human history. A point in history where we’ve gone so far away from genuinely connecting with each other and the planet that sustains us, that it becomes the final chapter in humanities book.

After all, Neanderthals were only on the planet for 300,000 years. We’ve only been here for a little over 200,000. If there’s one thing all species have in common, its extinction. To succeed in improvisation and evolution, one must accept and adapt to the new conditions. To deny the changes we observe is to invite being edited out of the scene and out of history. What kind of epitaph will our species have if that happens: Here lies Homo Sapien, the species who ‘blocked’ and ‘denied’ into oblivion?