This new book is a collection of my research and writings on improvisation. Some of the chapters are familiar, but there are several new unpublished works in these pages. Please take a look at the link. There is a preview. Happy New Year and Enjoy!!! Now I can sleep for a little while.
Recently, while at the Applied Improv conference in San Francisco, a Dutch colleague approached me to collaborate on creating a workshop that was focused on bringing the participants towards a state of trance. She had some knowledge of neo-shamanism from reading and participating in some European personal growth workshops, and she wanted to collaborate with me for my experience and anthropological lens on rituals and their structure. We spent part of the evening on our feet brainstorming a lesson plan and discussing our motivations and intentions for the activities that would fit best. It was an incredibly fun and engaging 40 minutes of planning while other conference goers partied in the next room.
One of the things I wanted to experiment with was how to get participants to a vulnerable, open, and safe space as quickly as possible. If you’ve read anything I’ve written, you know that I’m totally into Victor Turner’s ideas about creating communitas. In the spirit of that, my notion was to have all the participants do a long introduction of themselves to every other participant. These introductions would be given in their native language, and they were to be structured as follows: I am [name], grandson/daughter of [names of all grandparents], son/daughter of [names of all parents, including steps or fictive kin], brother/sister to [names of all siblings], Father/Mother to [all children if any].
From there, we engaged in some exploring of the workshop space and making eye contact, as well as some body contact. Then we gathered for a favorite circle game of late that is called “Bunny, Bunny, Tooki, Tooki” in my circle. It’s played in a circle and is steeped in rhythmic chanting with the conceit of the game being thrown around the circle requiring groups of 3 proximal participants to chant something different from the rest of the circle. The group commenced with the prescribed rules, and Lieselotte (my Dutch colleague) and I occasionally coached the group to be mindful or focus on particular things. Some of the coaching I remember giving were notes like: “Copy the energy you are receiving”, “Don’t take this too seriously; keep it light, enjoy it”. This game evolved into a large group ceremony whose rules and meanings began to emerge spontaneously. When the group began to fall into the heat of the collaborative play, we no longer coached, and the moment of communitas arrived. Meaning that everyone seemed so intent on the essential actions of the ‘us’ that the idea of coaching or even leading disappeared from my horizon for the time.
The session was only an hour, and it had started late. We had time for a 5 minute debrief on peoples’ experiences, and from what participants shared in terms of their emotional states and perceptions during the warm up, full engagement, and cool downs, it appears that we achieved a certain degree of release and communion. There was some specific discussion about how the long introduction put people into a reflective mood centered on the relationships that informed their lives for good or ill. The vulnerability piece came forward, and a few of the participants reported that it made the person introducing themselves more solid through having to introduce not only themselves but the context that shaped them.
Almost all of the participants reported that they had felt some form of letting go and a feeling of deeper connectedness to the others and the actions while deep in the “Bunny, Bunny, Tooki, Tooki” game. Many had said that hearing the coaching to be light and enjoy it was what led to the falling deeper into the moment of connection. Separating this activity from the solemnity that often accompanies many formal modern religious rituals was one of the key directions that I suspected would help participants get there. This experiment helped to highlight the importance of creating the safe play space for creating deeper connection.
Some more validation arrived a few weeks after the conference. One of the participants, a very successful and revered trainer who joined the workshop late, contacted me to chat. Their motivation was that “they couldn’t stop thinking about the impact of the workshop”. The conversation came around to ‘how did you do that?’, and the only way that I could think to explain it was that, at a point, ‘I’ can no longer be there because there is only space for ‘us’. Me being a coach or leader will ultimately prevent that deeper ‘us’ to emerge because that role anchors us to the normal social world of rules and hierarchy. By Lieselotte and I stopping to coach and lead, we opened the way to creating a ‘liminal’ space where the rules and expectations of normal human existence are relaxed and allowed for that deep connection to emerge. How I did it was by getting out of the way at the right moment and letting my self fade to the background to be a part of ‘us’. Not leading, not following, just accepting what happens and projecting that energy forward with excitement. That is the road to ecstatic experience with groups.
In the Ever-Changing Maze: Introduction
In Greek mythology, there is the story of Daedalus constructing a maze for King Minos of Crete in order to hold the Minotaur, a half man-half bull hybrid. The Minotaur was born from a union of Minos’ wife and a bull, which was payback from the gods for Minos’ greed. As far back as ancient Greece, we are introduced to the monstrous follies that arise from greed and hubris. Deadalus, an engineer, architect, inventor, and designer, builds an incredible construct to try to contain this monstrous offspring of human passion and beastly drive, the Minotaur. Later, Theseus (a hero from a village that is compelled to sacrifice children to the Minotaur) would be cast into the maze with the intent of killing this beast. His salvation comes from the actions of Ariadne, who provides him with a skein of thread that aids in finding his way out and the instructions of Daedalus on how to navigate the maze to find the beast. The compassion and cooperation of Ariadne and Daedalus lead them to provide Theseus with what he needs to succeed in order to escape after killing the beast of passion and hunger, which was set to wander and consume those trapped in the maze.
The story and the symbol of the labyrinth is one of the earliest concepts to be introduced to us in young adulthood. You can walk one, or the outline of one, practically anywhere in the world. They’ve even got portable labyrinths now. C.G. Jung suggested the labyrinth is a symbol of our ‘unconscious mind’; that obscure place in our psyche that is a repository for socially unacceptable ideas, wishes or desires, traumatic memories, and painful emotions put out of mind by the mechanism of psychological repression, or more broadly, a place and process in our minds that we cannot directly access with our conscious mind (at least according to Freudian thought). However, Jung made the claim that the labyrinth was really a modern realization of the more ancient concept of the underworld.
For anyone who can access this blog, a visceral understanding of the world as it was when humans were fully embracing and believing in the underworld is not possible. It is a concept that started getting watered down and eventually put out of most human cultures as they urbanized. The underworld in animist traditions is the place where mysteries lie and turbulent forces beyond understanding play out as the above world (where we live) is born, lives, dies, and then returns to the underworld. It was more of a place out of sight and beyond understanding where everything comes from and returns to than the more colorful and horrifying version of Christian hell. The underworld was inextricably married to our world in the ancient mind, as opposed to what the labyrinth and maze often imply; something built by human hands that inspires fear, loneliness, confusion, and separation (with a thin slice of mystery). However, as humans urbanized, they needed a symbol that was closer to the everyday experience of urban living: walls, halls, and doors. The maze and labyrinth were an easier analog to understand for urbanites, who were in the process of writing and reading history and myth.
The notion of walking through an environment that was solely constructed by human hands and ingenuity had been around for several thousand years when the Greeks were perfecting their civilization. In 1000 B.C., they were building on the ideas that flowed up from the Sumerians (2000 B.C.) who were the ancient peoples of modern day Iraq, and the Sumerians undoubtedly took some of what they knew from the Harrapan Civilization (6000 B.C.) that existed in the IndusValley in what is now modern day India. The human species has been around for roughly 200,000 years. Approximately 10,000 years of that has been involved in the transition from tribal living as foragers and hunters living dispersed across the landscape to urban living supported by an agrarian system in a high-density environment. Today, over half of the world’s population lives in cities, and that ratio is growing to favor urban living over rural living as time goes by (which, by default, means more food consumers and less food producers). We are all marching deeper into the labyrinth that we have built under the direction of elites and kings. We may well be marching to the center of something that is consuming and destroying us.
Human beings are astute. They are generally very good at figuring things out, including each other. This skill is a great thing for us when used to heal and nurture. Sometimes, it is misguided and used against us for the purposes of manipulation, through sowing doubt and encouraging fear. I think that the story of the Labyrinth and the Minotaur is a lesson and a warning from our earliest urbanite ancestors: ‘No matter how clever we are, no matter how much we invent and build; there is still a beast of passion and hunger at our core’. Urban elites throw those who oppose them to the confusion and uncertainty of the Labyrinth to be consumed by the bestial nature of those who dwell in the confusion. These days in the U.S., we call it prison.
All the while, the elites, and those who directly serve them, remain safe with a clear understanding of what the Labyrinth is and how to use it. An elite person in any society is someone who holds considerable political, economic, social or intellectual sway over significant portions of that society. Oftentimes, these people may hold sway over multiple domains. The urban setting, and the specialization it allows for individuals, is fertile soil for growing elites who govern, utilize, and profit off of those who dwell within and around cities, and in our globalized world, their reach and influence has increased to cover the globe.
Civil engineering, planning, and architecture are major facets of urban living that play a distinct role in making people feel safe or uneasy. The builders of our world are working with almost 10,000 years of accumulated civil design and architectural knowledge. Spaces in our modern cities can be and are purposely engineered to facilitate or hinder human commerce and comfort. Couple this with the other maze that has arisen from urban life, the labyrinth of information we are bombarded with, and you have all the tools at your disposal to enhance or worsen the circumstances and understanding of those who are inside or dependent on the systems that are integral to urban living.
In the Greek myth of the labyrinth, only a tool given out of empathy and compassion provides a way out of the maze of confusion for someone to escape to clarity and safety. The Minotaur was killed and the maze was rendered safe only through providing support to the hero, Theseus. Only a courageous person with their wits about them can actually recognize and use the tools and assistance presented to them to find their way out of a threatening and confusing environment. In the end, cooperation, collaboration, and empathy (the facets of our lives that training in improvisation can enhance), led everyone back to safety. Another more contemporary mythic example of collaboration, cooperation and empathy as a means towards the end of great suffering would be the twisting journey of Frodo in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.
Tolkien’s master work is likely a more relevant example because it was influenced by the rise of the industrial age. Sam and Frodo’s journey through the twisting lands of the east in Middle Earth bear a resemblance to the mysterious loneliness and separation that is suggested by the maze-like path to their goal. The element that brings Tolkien’s tale into the modern urban experience is the element of surveillance. The “all-seeing eye” is constantly watching in search and hunger for the crux of its power, the one ring. This ring allows it’s bearer to become invisible, to disappear, yet when this power is used, it alerts all those who seek and crave the power of the ring. In a sense, this ring element coupled with how the “seeing stones” are used in the narrative of the Lord of the Rings play into an analogy of how information is valued and controlled.
If someone has the power to fall off the grid while intending to destroy a system that benefits from domination, suppression, and misinformation, you can bet your bottom dollar that that person will become public enemy number one. Sauron, the all-seeing eye of Tolkien’s books, uses misinformation to sow doubt and discord among the kingdoms of men in order to prevent them from effectively uniting. It is interesting to note that the ‘seeing stones’ of Tolkien appear to be a magical analog of edited television, at least in the films. It is only through a selfless group of unlikely heroes, who vow to bring an end to this system, that the impossible is accomplished. How do they accomplish this? Through finding ways to collaborate, cooperate, and restore a sense of empathy, sympathy and allegiance amongst themselves and in the world.
This mythology of collaboration and cooperation that runs through inspiring pieces of fact and fiction belies what is valued by humans. These behaviors are our legacy. They may have even been part of a shared inheritance among mammals. Have you ever felt moved at the sight of people succeeding at something through cooperation? Have you ever given money to the victims of a disaster? Has a tear rolled down your cheek when a good Samaritan appears and lends help when it was needed? For many of us, this is our truth.
Our brains even shift into high gear when we engage in intense collaborative events like religious rituals, sports, music, games, and theatre. When our brains are in that high gear, we feel a deep connection to all those around us and the world at large. These are biological rewards for exercising our empathy through cooperation and collaboration.
However, there are some of us who collaborate on manipulating others for personal gain. It so happens that when the human intellect is missing the check of a sense of empathy that we get disorders like narcissistic personality disorder, socio and psycho-paths. Every culture and society on the planet has individuals who have these disorders, and they leave wrecked lives in their wake. In one study by psychologist Robert Hare, 4% of a sample of 203 corporate professionals met the clinical criteria for being described as psychopaths. The percentage of psychopaths generally is considered to be approximately 1% of the total human population. If that is indeed true, there are approximately 70 million psychopaths wandering the world. This is certainly a number that makes one pause.
In taking a look at the people who have a weighted hand in shaping the direction of culture through wealth, we see that certain elites, like King Minos and Sauron of fiction and any number of historic and contemporary individuals from the real world, know that building an obscure and difficult to navigate environment for those they wish to control (as well as defend and obscure themselves and their manipulations) works very well, for it was born from their own unsympathetic, unappreciative greed. The political, social and cultural tensions of the ancient Greeks had similarities to our modern tensions, and Tolkien modernized the themes. It would seem that human society and culture has been wrestling with the a very real understanding that systems of ensconced power pass a threshold into a dangerous oblivion when they become divorced from the well-being of humanity in general, and when that happens, it is a necessary but difficult thing to dismantle or escape them through immigration, war, or revolution. We no longer have the luxury that our ancestors had of moving to new territory to find a promised land. Globalization has largely brought an end to new frontiers on the surface of the earth.
So why recount these stories of Theseus and Frodo? What does this have to do with ‘What Connects Us’? What does it have to do with improvisation or anthropology? How is this relevant to the challenges we face today? Many of the answers to these questions lie in looking at the contrast between the lives humans led before the advent of cities, and the lives we’ve come to lead in cities. The different contexts require different approaches to different challenges, and they also provide different degrees of opportunities for those who wish to meddle with the social contract in each setting. There always have been, and I speculate that there always will be individuals who profit from creating confusion. However, how these people are dealt with in each context is important to note.
Improvisation (and the social skills and ethics that it imparts in regards to enhancing our capacities for empathy, collaboration, cooperation, and creativity) enters into the conversation as the skein of thread that gives us a hope to navigate the labyrinth of confusion with the tools that our ancestors relied on daily to succeed, survive, and thrive; their relationships and the social networks that arose from them. The skill-set that is enhanced by improvisation is the gift of light “when all other lights go out”. When people are introduced to and practice methodically the process of listening, appreciating and acknowledging what they’ve heard, and supporting that with an idea that they think would improve and enhance the initial idea (the essentials of improvising drama); it kick starts a transformative process that leads away from self absorption toward cohesion with others. Improvisation is a fairly low-impact means for exploring ideas and experiences in concert with people rather than in competition.
Unlike meditation, which can elicit the same cognitive state, it is an active, collaborative practice that has the potential to bring insight and peace into our lives through experimenting with social interactions in a sort of laboratory of play. It can be a way to knock down walls and create straight corridors through the maze of social distraction and confusion that we are generally surrounded by in the urban experience. For dozens of millenia before humans began their march towards towns and cities, our ancestors gathered together in ceremonies where they explored mysteries, sought knowledge, and found catharsis through the narratives and performances of shamans. These men and women were experts, not only of the workings of the natural world they all relied on for survival, but also of the social group they served. Much of the effectiveness of a shaman had to do with their abilities to read and understand their audience in order to create the occasions and experiences for emotional and psychological catharsis.
Today, this is realized in the practice of improvisation in psychodrama specifically as a mode for therapy, but it is also applied at large in artistic classes and organizational training to enhance the performance of a variety of groups of people from a myriad of backgrounds. So it stands to reason that through the unlikely emergence of a refined approach to improvising theater that we have, in fact, come around full circle to rediscover a secular way to commune through making new myths together and realizing that these skills allow us to make connections with nearly everyone we meet. It has been suggested by other anthropologists that this is something akin to our original state of being, pre-urbanism. It’s important that we know our roots and our history because they both have a lot to do with what connects us.
Stay tuned for the next part of this ongoing series where we’ll explore the differences between tribal living and urban living and how the differences shape our lives, expectations, and concerns (as well as compare with the ethos of improvisation)…
De Wall, Frans. Good Natured: The Origins of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals. Pp. 40-83 & 163-203. Cambridge: HarvardUniversity Press. 1996.
Flusty, Steven. “Building Paranoia”. Architecture of Fear. Ellin, Nan, ed. Princeton Architectural Press: New York. 1997.
Fortier, Brad. “The Brain on Improvised Theater” speech: Ignite Portland 10. 2012.
Newberg, Andrew, M.D. et al. Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science & the Biology of Belief. Pp. 54-97. Random House: New York. 2001.
Sorenson, E. Richard. “Preconquest Consciousness” in Tribal Epistemologies: Essays in the Philosophy of Anthropology. Helmut Wautischer, ed. Ashgate Publications Ltd. 1998.
Winkelman, Michael. “Shamanism as Psychobiological Structures of Consciousness, Cognition and Healing”. Curare 22 (1999) 2: 121-128.
Here is the text of a 5-minute speech I gave at Ignite Portland 10:
After performing and teaching improvised theater for years, I noticed two things. 1) in the best of performances, many of us would have this incredible feeling of ‘unity of thought and action’ as a side effect during the show, a sort of group mind. We felt a weird bond that held this sense of clarity and connection that was different from our ordinary play. It was a palpable, almost cosmic, sense of union. It was rare but sublime. 2) At the same time, one of the most common comments from students was that ‘learning improv was like therapy’. As an anthropologist, I couldn’t help but wonder exactly what is behind this sense of oneness and personal well-being that was coming out of the process of improvisation for actors and students.
Victor Turner, in his book “From Ritual to Theatre: the Human Seriousness of Play”, talked about a temporary deep sensation of unity, shared identity, and oneness arising out of ritual practice. He called it “Spontaneous Communitas”. Other scholars have called this feeling “Group Flow” and “Absolute Unitary Being”. Turner noted that people have also reported feeling these sensations in a number of collaborative forms of play: sports, theater, music, games. We all have the capacity for this experience. This incredible feeling of oneness is more of a rare state of grace than a guaranteed outcome from some formula of words and actions. “Communitas”, “Group Flow”, and “Absolute Unitary Being” were very similar to what performers had long been referring to as “group mind”; the point in some shows where it feels as if the performers are one brain in sync.
Ritual itself is always performed in order to solve a problem presented by and to the verbal analytic part of our brains. Like many human rituals, improvised theater contains elements of narrative and dramatic rhythm and repetition, it is steeped in the social and cultural knowledge of the participants, and it aims to define the individual as part of some larger group or cause. For instance, the football game reaffirms or puts stress on whether you’re a Duck or a Beaver (college football teams in Oregon). West Side Story reaffirms or stresses whether love or loyalty is what we aspire to. This feeling of oneness is also one of the most common threads in the myths underpinning most religions. Four neuroscientists, (Andrew B. Newberg, Eugene D’Aquili, Charles Laughlin and John McManus) have put in lab time mapping out what happens when that feeling of unity and wholeness comes up in rituals. They point to the behavior of the hippocampus.
The hippocampus is part of the Limbic System, which is highly interconnected with the brain’s pleasure center via the hypothalamus. The rhythm and repetition of ritual behaviors ramp up brain activity. The hippocampus is a sort of traffic cop that regulates brain activity. In the heat of play/ritual, the right hemisphere takes a more dominant role in cognition and can begin to fire in sync with the left hemisphere. This also tends to happen when we dream, meditate, or have an orgasm. If things get too busy, the hippocampus inhibits neural flow until action in the brain settles down. Sometimes during rituals/play, it inhibits flow to the orientation association area. That’s the part of our brain that manages the boundaries of the self and orients that self in space. A reduction in neural flow to this area could explain the sensation of oneness, unity, and universality. It’s like the hippocampus says “Alright, we’re keeping all this traffic out of the self. It needs a rest anyway. It’s always worrying and needing me time.”
Improvised theater is a ritual of play, of sorts, that brings us together into an imaginative examination of the world we live in now or an exploration of what could be. Both play and religion are rivals for being able to bring these feelings of deep momentary union to us. Improv theatre allows us to playfully explore problems and experiment with solutions to a myriad of life’s challenges, and lets us laugh at ourselves in the process. While playing at improv, 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. Improvised theatre is another way to awaken our humanity. This feeling of oneness that arises within us is evidence that our brains are geared to reward us with feelings of pleasure, comfort, and belonging when we fully engage in focused play and religious ritual.
D’Aquili, Eugene & Newberg, Andrew B. The Mystical Mind: Probing the Biology of Religious Experience. 1999. Fortress Press: Minneapolis
Fortier, Brad. Long-Form Improvisation: Collaboration, Comedy and Communion. 2010. Lambert Academic Publishing
Hayden, Brian. Shamans, Sorcerers and Saints: A Prehistory of Religion. 2003. Smithsonian Books: Washington
Newberg, Andrew; D’Aquili, Eugene; Rause, Vince. Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science & the Biology of Belief. 2001. Random House: New York
Rappaport, Roy A. Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity. 1999. Cambridge University Press: New York.
Sutton-Smith, Brian. The Ambiguity of Play. 2001. Harvard University Press: Cambridge
Turner, Victor. From Ritual to Theatre: the Human Seriousness of Play. 1982. PAJ Publications: 2001
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.
I’m in the middle of doing research for another book in the works, and I came across this from Brian Sutton-Smith in his book The Ambiguity of Play:
However, modern chance games and modern festivals have fallen away from religion and become secularized. Yet one can see that, along with all forms of play, they both still provide experiences of “otherness,” “alterity,” or “altered states of consciousness.” And these or similar states of mind are as essential to religious ritual and prayer as they are to game involvement. In both cases one becomes “lost” in the experience and thus transcends everyday care and concerns. It is worth considering that because the two (religion and play) are in modern times so separate, they are in fact rivals for the promotion of such altered states of consciousness. Which means they are rivals for the positive qualities that such alterity provides. One can say of both religion and play that they make life worth living and make everyday activities meaningful, because of the transcendence that they propose, one eternal and one mundane. Perhaps the unwillingness to attribute such experiential transcendence to games of fate exists not just because games of fate are heretical to the work ethic but because, through sharing transcendence with religion, they are actually rivals for its value…One may suppose that with the development of the rhetoric of “optimal experience”, secular civilization may be gradually transforming itself to the point that it can indeed admit that play is as fundamental to life as are survival and religion.
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.
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.
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.