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.


The Evolution of Language

Robin Dunbar is amazing. I just finished his book Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language, and it was an eye-opening, insightful and compelling read. The main points of the book are that language evolved as a result of the pressure to keep and maintain social ties in larger primate groups. Once that begins to happen, personal information becomes a means of trade not only for identifying bad behavior but also in lauding good behavior. This certainly supports why praise and blame are such powerful social motivators.

Dunbar and his graduate students did a lot of eavesdropping in order to get to the heart of what people talk about, in order to get to the why. From this field evidence, he begins to weave in the narratives of biological anthropology, archeology and neuro-linguistics to get to the heart of the matter. His propositions are compelling in regards to human group sizes, social cohesion and even how the very same knowledge has come upon abuse by individuals in the modern media.

Considering we’re in the middle of the age of facebook, I think the explosion of digital social networking is a confirmation on a certain level of Dunbar’s theorizing in the book. Although, it would require some neurological studies to nail down whether or not the endorphins released during touching or talking are activated by “facebooking”. That would certainly be an Orwellian consideration on some level. This book has definitely revealed another amazing layer of human interaction for me.

In regards to improvisation, it’s compelling to note why learners and performers have a natural tendency to talk about things or people who are not in their scene. According to Dunbar, that’s how we can win favor with people we’re unfamiliar with. It’s our way to triangulate the values, knowledge and concerns of the person we’re interacting with in order to find out how we can bond.

There was another tidbit that I found fascinating. It was how the different genders communicated. In mixed social interaction, women talk about themselves only about 1/3 of the time, whereas men talk about themselves about 2/3 of the time. Dunbar proposes that this is because the genders have different goals in the evolutionary scheme of things. Women seek to create networks to share knowledge and seek aid in birth and child rearing. Men are advertising their availability and potency in order to find mates. For men, language has become a display like the tail feathers of a peacock. For women, language is the glue for their communities. With a little reflection, there might be some insight into dating in this paragraph.

Smelling a Rat on Easter Island

Tonight I attended a talk by Terry Hunt, an archeologist whose done a lot of research on Easter Island. Let me preface this by noting that I’ve been interested in Easter Island since watching an episode of “In Search Of” back in the late 70’s. My curiosity was further piqued by the historical fiction film about the island called Rapa Nui. Jared Diamond also used it to help illustrate his ideas in his book Collapse.

However, tonight’s talk was a great example of how the constant review and revision process of science can lead us to better understandings through maintaining a critical approach to ‘established’ realities. The big ideas behind the ‘collapse’ of Easter Island (that supposedly left a society of people who built the great stone statues) are that they deforested, overfished, and drastically degraded the ecology of the island due to self-aggrandizing competition between zealous leaders of these people. The iconic statues were a product of elite pride which drove the populous to carve these giants to serve their chieftain.

The narrative that Dr. Hunt wove from his years of research on the island turned out to be quite different. Strangely, at the beginning of his research, he truly believed he was merely going to catalog the evidence that was going to support the assumptions of previous researchers who had proposed the human driven ecological collapse. A different picture began to emerge.

One of the first things that got dealt with was the movement of those giant statues. Originally, when Europeans first landed on the island, they had asked the inhabitants how the monuments had been moved from the stone quarry to their standing sites, which can be up to several miles away. The native residents said in essence ‘They walked there’. This answer was considered a humorous ruse by the early Europeans, and it was dismissed and left a mystery. Through a closer analysis, as well as some collaboration with a design program in Washington, they came to discover that the statues could be easily moved by a simple process of rocking them right to left. The way that the statues were constructed gave them the perfect center of gravity for just such movement. The reason that this discovery is important is because it meant that deforestation wasn’t truly necessary to construct any kind of sled or rollers in order to transport the statues. The natives had not lied. The statues had indeed walked there (with a little help from the islanders, of course).

So what made the trees disappear? Were they making a bunch of boats for fishing? The answer is no. The species of palm that covered the island when the Polynesians first colonized it were soft and fibrous on the inside with a very thin bark, which made them terrible material for dugout canoes. This situation, coupled with the fact that the nearest island was over a thousand miles away, essentially left them stranded. However, there were some stow aways that arrived on the island with them, the pacific rat.

This rat is different from its old world cousins in that it isn’t really a disease vector. Instead, it is a natural deforester AND a fast growing source of protein. Like other rats, they are prolific breeders. To illustrate this, Dr. Hunt presented the figure that the amount of time it takes to go from one breeding pair of rats to 1 million in an environment with no predators only takes a couple of years because the number of rats doubles every 47 days. 47 days! The rats feed on the yummy seeds and fruit dropped by the palms. So within a couple of years of the Polynesians making landfall at Rapa Nui (Easter Island), the process of renewal in this palm jungle was brought to a screeching halt. The abundance of rat bones in the soil layers that date to this period support this notion.

The early Polynesians who were colonizing the island probably didn’t mind. They were agriculturalists who preferred a clearing of the palms to make way for the planting of taro and yams, the main subsistence crops of many pacific island cultures. Once the trees were gone, though, there was nothing holding back the wind that swept over the island, and that wind carried salt spray onto the island’s soils making them unfit for cultivation. When the Europeans made landfall, the island looked rocky and forbidding, and from the European agricultural perspective, it looked unfit to grow crops.

This was the prevailing idea until Terry and his research uncovered a peculiar pattern. At numerous places across the island, it seemed as if rocks had been collected and concentrated in patches. As they looked into the patterns and began testing the conditions that these rock fields created, they came to find that these were actually cultivation plots. The subsurface conditions of these rocky fields were far more stable and nurturing to these cultivars than the soils.

The dispersal of these fields was fairly even, and it suggests that small bands merely tended their own plots. What this also implies on a social level is that they were more likely to be an island of friendly neighbors. Considering that the entire island gets to experience boom or drought together, there was little need for conflict. The experience of resource scarcity or abundance was island-wide rather than patch or range based like on larger land masses.

Because of the scarcity of resources on the island, there was a need to control the population. This usually meant maintaining the number of births either through birth control or infanticide. This is a common theme for island cultures. Limited land means limited resources. Too many mouths to feed leads to starvation. However, the creative energy and social satisfaction in a community that comes with having children regularly is missing. Dr. Hunt proposes that the creation of the idols was a way for people to gather, create and foster solidarity in a community where children are scarce by neccesity. The creation of the famous statues was a mechanism to keep peoples’ morale up.

So the 3000 or so residents, who greeted the first Europeans to arrive, were not the remnants of a once great people but rather living how people had been living for hundreds of years since colonizing the island originally. The real devastation came with the diseases from first contact with Europeans. This revised tale of Rapa Nui helps support the notion that the tools of improvisation (making do with what’s at hand, holding the frame of ‘we all win or lose together’, group collaboration being an avenue to fulfillment) really are the most apt approach for dealing with adversity and creating populations of people with a core mindset of sustainability. Easter Island is no longer an example of the dangers of overconsumption, but a testament to the tenacity, ingenuity and wisdom people can bring to potentially desperate situations.

Terry Hunt’s book about this subject comes out this June. Check it out.

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,,

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 since the mid-1980s using theater games and a shared ethos rooted in affirmation, observation, and connection 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 “worthy” in comparison 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 text when it is a practice that operates within a living dynamic contextual frame. They are both focused on active development through working with participants. They both find insights and direction from gathering 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 Moseley was 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. During the late 90’s and early 2000s, she had 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 using some of the techniques from Boal’s own creation, “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’. Agreement is an umbrella term for any sort of affirming, acknowledging, or recognizing one can do in relation to another person or something in their immediate space. ‘Agreement’ 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 tends to 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 a harpoon into a growing sense of connection. Only through trusting and being comfortable with vulnerability via the process of agreeing and affirming ideas and actions, can that sense of connection be fostered.

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 know how to raise my spirits”).

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 common 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 framework and 2) provide a visceral example of how these concepts feel when they are successful (Huffaker, 2006, Moseley, 2006).

Julie Huffaker, an applied improvisation consultant with a background in anthropology, 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. Most of the settings where 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. This 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 during intake and assessment (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

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

Moseley, 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):