Reflecting on the spread of the Improv Meme

Of late, I find myself teaching and coaching high and low throughout Portland. Some days I go from teaching college improv, to coaching middle schoolers, to coaching professional performers, to coaching organizations. As a scholar on the subject and a fanatic, I’ve developed a tendency to help the young and new to the art connect it to their lives, or, more importantly how it can connect ‘their’ lives.

It is not at all necessary for someone to shoot for a stage career in improv (and as many of us know, not a lucrative path to take), but everyone can benefit from becoming a better listener, noticer, supporter, and initiator. One thing that has been causing me to reflect is how a majority of American youth that I work with are so steeped in the put down. I would love to look into the reasons/causes of this phenomenon. Is it brain development? Is it western industrial culture? Is it socialization? Is it a blend of these? My training leads me to believe in the blend because there is no simple magic bullet when it comes to dealing in human behaviors. We are affected by and affect the systems and contexts that we encounter and inhabit.

If there’s one thing improv training can do, it is to help us explore and master that reality of human existence. If we can accept that we are vulnerable and can find strength in finding an emotional center in our lives, we can move from that center to create connection and embark on challenging journeys toward discovering what our experiences and connections have to offer in terms of satisfaction and growth. The habits of listening, noticing, supporting, and initiating (the keys of collaboration and cooperation) are our birthright as humans.

So, as I write this, teach that, and perform something else, I get to proselytize and advocate for all of the things I hope to see emergent in the generations coming up. In my mind, our scions lived by a similar code of cooperation and collaboration (more often than not), and when I read about riots, and occupy, and protests, and disaster response, and happenings; I like to think that I am seeing the stirrings of a long slumber. The defectors who have stopped listening, stopped noticing, stopped supporting, and stopped initiating are beginning to be recognized for who they are (even if they are ourselves). The beauty of this realization can even be explored through the lens of improv in that mistakes are opportunities to notice ‘the now’. With an edit, or with an agreement, or with an embellishment; we can change our course and emerge from the dark underworld of tragedy and separation to the sunny skies of comedy and connection.

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What can improvised theater teach us?

Introduction

Improvisation is at the heart of the process of life; from the construction of RNA to a flock of birds to actors creating characters, narrative, and relationships onstage. It is a process that requires focus, intent, communication, connection, and action. From the hard skills of survival to the soft skills of human interaction, making due with who and what is at hand is the most essential of skills for beings to flourish.

Improvised theater, pioneered and expanded in the 20th century by luminaries like Viola Spolin, Keith Johnstone, Paul Sills, and Del Close, is moving away from being the trite little brother of scripted theater to a widely applied toolkit for professional and personal development. What is it that makes these ideas, games, and exercises (that people who teach and train others using improv) so effective at improving collaboration, creativity, communication, and leadership? Why is it that these things cross cultural and social boundaries to connect people using guided imaginative and role play? What are the skills and abilities that get exercised in improvisation? Let’s explore these questions by looking at some of the most basic parts of this practice, and like any practice from meditation to martial arts, the more you do it; the better you become.

Openings for Connection

eye-contact-true-feelingsChristian Swenson, a Seattle-based dance and movement professional who has traveled the world studying movement traditions from many cultures, said in a workshop I attended “The eyes are the spine of the face.” His implication was that a majority of our intentions and inner feelings play outward from our eyes. The most basic forms of connection between humans begin with a meeting of our eyes. From the wide-eyes of terror to the soft eyes of love, we find the building blocks for engaging, understanding, and communicating in the simple act of eye-contact. The eyes are our primary openings for connection. Some of this is evidenced in the fact that blind people tend to be less social than sighted people (click here for facts on ‘social exclusion’ and ‘well-being’ of the blind).

In improv training, the first activities to be introduced usually involve standing in a circle and playing a game that requires a lot of eye-contact. It is a first phase of warming people up to more intensive communication. The hominid march toward bigger brains and more complex cognition started here according to Stephen Mithen in his book The Prehistory of the Mind: the Cognitive Origins of Art and Science. According to Mithen, the domestication of fire in early hominid history resulted in early hominids sitting in a circle to enjoy the warmth and benefits of the fire, which inevitably meant that our ancestors found themselves regularly face to face looking into each others’ eyes. This stimulated the development of the neocortex where the bulk of our social intelligence is centered and necessitated the cognitive skills required to have a “Theory of Mind“. More recent research has uncovered a neuron system in our brains called “mirror neurons” that many researchers believe are integral in learning and developing a sense of empathy. Eye contact is one of the key signals that we are engaging on a deeper level of connection…Listening.

Listening is the other opening that allows us to connect with others. Being able to stop and listen opens us up for a lot of important data about our surroundings to filter in: bird calls, approaching cars, music, crying, cars honking, whispers, that strange sound the engine is making in your car, that your kids are a little too quiet right now, the meaning behind what someone is saying. Listening has always been a valuable skill. It can be the difference between missing the point and getting the point of what someone is saying. For our ancestors, it was a way to find game, locate water, track herds of animals, follow birds, or note changes in wind direction. Mind you, the ability to hear does not always mean that someone has good listening skills. Listening is the ability to focus and follow the things we’re hearing in order to get the point, find the source of the sound, be affected by what’s transpiring right now. Listening keeps us in the present and connected to what is going on.

Improv-based training is rife with exercises that allow us to work our listening muscles (sometimes in conjunction with our observation skills). For instance, there is an exercise where one player must repeat verbatim what they just heard from the other player before they can utter their contribution to the scene/conversation. There is another simpler exercise that requires both people to have a conversation, but the speakers must try to speak the same words at the same time. This tends to slow the speakers down and make them very aware of how much more involved listening is when you cannot simply listen to respond but, instead, must hang on every word uttered so that you can utter it too. The understanding with many of these listening exercises is that listening is a muscle (or a group of muscles) that can be strengthened through regular practice. It’s also very important in regards to the next section.

Doing these things regularly helps us grow and exercise our understanding of people by allowing us to deepen and expand on our own theories of the minds of others. It may also have the potential to strengthen one of the key brain systems that helps us learn, communicate, and empathize. Regular play with people, helps you learn how their minds work. This knowledge helps us develop trust by learning how others are like or unlike ourselves. More importantly, playing also helps people discover how their minds work together. It fosters occasions for innovation, and the chance to find and feel the space of innovation for a particular group. It would seem that improv training starts building the habits of connection where our ancestors started, face to face in a circle listening to what the community and the natural world had to offer.

Putting Out the ‘Welcome’ Mat

MyWelcomeMatsThe next phase of improv-based training is introducing the notion of agreement, of “Yes”. To agree, to say “yes”, is an act of vulnerability. It is an expression of trust to some degree. It’s essence is that, on some level, the person who is ‘agreeing’ is validating and welcoming the ideas or presence of the other. Historically, humans have not been very good when it comes to ‘others’. Xenophobia, the fear of the new and different, is a distinct part of the primate psyche. It comes from a want for security and stability. Keith Johnstone, one of the big idea men in the world of improv, is often quoted in regards to this. These words come from his famous book Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre “There are people who say ‘yes’, and there are people who say ‘no’. The people who say ‘yes’ are rewarded by the adventures they have, and the people who say ‘no’ are rewarded by the security they attain.”

Johnstone’s approach to improvisation was informed by the disciplines of psychology and anthropology, and his contributions to the art in the 1970’s still have great impact on the world of improvisation even today. When people are taught about ‘agreement’ during arts or applied improv training, they are asked to recognize that this is not an uncritical approach to agreeing with anything that’s said or done. Rather, they are trained to use it as a way of noticing, appreciating, and acknowledging the things that are unfolding in the moment during any sort of interaction; whether that’s a scene onstage, an interaction between a boss and an employee, a teacher and a student, a mediator and parties in conflict, or creatives meeting to design or develop anything. This approach has even been used for homeless youth outreach to teach pro-social skills. It’s a skill that is key to establishing and encouraging authenticity and honesty in communication, as well as generating, expanding and exploring ideas.

To say “yes” or ‘agree’ or ‘acknowledge others’, is to create an opening for discovery and building something that did not exist before. It is like a new connection between neurons creating a pathway for a novel idea. It is the basis for combining the proverbial chocolate with the proverbial peanut-butter (If those things can even be considered proverbial). In some recent research that was published in Psychology Today, it was found that the word “no” can have a distinct impact on our ability to reason, communicate, and think logically. In general, negativity can hamper our ability to succeed in life, work, and relationships. Improv training is focused on the practice of saying yes and being positive, and both of those skills, when exercised regularly, lead to more resilience. Accepting things like our own mistakes helps us reserve our mental energies for bigger challenges than maintaining our own bruised egos. Matt Smith, a well respected improv teacher and trainer, has even implored people to adopt a “Failure Bow” in order to accept the mistake and move on. Working on our skills of agreement puts the welcome mat out for growth in our professional and personal lives through fostering more authentic relationships with a constructive approach to communication.

Big or Small

We’ll finish with discussing another important facet of improv-based training. That is the notion of “Status”. This big idea was brought to the art by Keith Johnstone inspired by reading Desmond Morris’ books The Naked Ape and The Human Zoo. These books fascinated Johnstone in the way they viewed human interaction in terms of dominance and submission. He was very careful to separate his ideas of status from socio-economic notions of status by stating, “Status is a misleading concept unless one understands it as something that one does. One can have a low social status and still play high and vice-versa.” In improv-based training, the introduction of status concepts and exercises are generally applied to developing leadership and communication skills, and it is focused on how people gain or lose face or pass power back and forth over the course of an interaction. This is usually observed, and eventually brought into mindful control, by bringing attention to the verbal and physical moves that parties make in a conversation. Understanding how to view and engage with Johnstone’s approach to “status” gives people entry into understanding how we influence and affect others, but also how others influence and affect us.

One scholar, Henk Stultiens, describes four basic ways that people move status in an interaction: raise your own, lower your own, raise the other, lower the other. These moves can be achieved by complimenting or cutting at someone, or complimenting or cutting yourself verbally. They can also be exhibited physically by behaving in ways that diminish or elevate a person’s presence or appearance. However, the finer points of these approaches should be judged in their proper cultural contexts. What may be considered a ‘high status’ move in the American milieu may be seen as ‘low status’ in the Japanese milieu, and vice-versa. The underlying implications of looking at human interaction in regards to dominance and submission are astonishing. In essence, it is training people to go from being moved by sub-conscious and unconscious behaviors that help or hinder our communication to becoming conscious of what actions and words actually do to affect the outcomes of social interactions. Becoming versed in the language of status is to become versed in the intricacies of what humans do to make themselves or each other seem big or small, happy or sad, praised or blamed.

Of Presence and Absence

So what have we learned about what improv teaches? It teaches us to reconnect and look back into each other for support, connection, and creation. It teaches us to be present. Through the eyes, we tie back into systems that have evolved to make us successful through the long march of time and change. When we face one another, it is easier to discern intention and work toward authentic and deeper ways of relating. This is a no-brainer for some, but it is a new discovery for others who spend large quantities of time in front of screens with minds absent from the world around them. The universality of being able to look, listen, and interpret emotional cues from peoples’ expressions is the groundwork to building communication across language and cultural boundaries.

The approach of being able to find common ground through discovering things that we can agree upon, acknowledge, and appreciate in the ideas of others (even if it is only part of the idea that is agreed with) will take one leaps and bounds toward accomplishing forward movement and achievement of goals and the finding of solutions. The ability to foster a welcoming atmosphere is something that is valuable and sought after the world over in business because it is both a driver for commerce and productivity, but it is also sought after in the human realm for reasons of simple comfort and belonging. That, I believe is the most important of reasons, AND the very thing that has been selected for in the long slog of human evolution because groups that are high-functioning and pro-social are most likely to be creative and solve challenging problems that hinder the group’s success.

Knowing where you stand in the pecking order of a group and understanding your own role is very important in that very same process. Also, being able to know what it takes to step up and command a new role is the sign of a resilient and self-sustaining group. To have a clear understanding of when to bow and when to stand (and also when to break with those traditions) has informed all of human history if we look at the repeated rise and fall of human civilizations. Understanding systems of social power and control through working with status leads to incredible insight into how relationships, groups, and organizations grow and diminish.

To engage in the practice of improvisation is to engage in becoming present in our world as it is right now. It is an active meditation on human existence and human interaction, and it is also an introduction to the revitalizing and connecting power of imaginative play. It is a modality for experimenting with different approaches to managing communication and relationships in a low impact setting. No performance is necessary to glean the benefits of improvisation. A little training and a fun group of cohorts is all you need to begin down the road of this amazing practice. Improvisation is like yoga or martial arts for your mind, but the only pain you’ll leave with is from laughter.

The Power of ‘Yes’

Currently, I’m doing some contract work with the United Way here in Portland. One of my tasks is to visit funded organizations and initiatives and talk to the people there to get their stories.

Today took me out to an organization called JOIN that does outreach for the homeless to get them up on their feet and back into the game. One of the biggest hurdles to coming off the street is building a sense of self-worth back up. Both of the people who shared their stories of coming off the street, told me that it was the most renewing thing to have people approach them and validate and appreciate their situations. It was the first time in years for these folks, but that simple act of having someone finally say ‘Yes, come in, and we’d like to help you’. The program does this out on the streets, largely. For the long-term homeless, there are incredible trust issues that need to be dealt with before they can make headway towards stability. They don’t trust because they’ve been denied so often.

In the world of improvisation, we know that appreciating, validating, and “yes”ing is how relationships and stories are built. The reason it works so well in improv is because it works well in life. Saying ‘yes’ to a homeless person is the most vulnerable thing for privileged person to do, but one of the people I talked to today told me, when they were at their lowest, two different people reached out to help and validate his need. He told me that those gestures awakened hope in him and gave him the strength to press on and work towards change.

That’s the deep power of yes. It builds trust between people. It affirms the value of a developing relationship, and it inspires us to do our best for ourselves and ultimately for others.

Thoughts on Status in Improvised Theater

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

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

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

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

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

Elements of Ritual and Communion in Improvised Theatre

Introduction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Progenitors and Their Ideas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spreading Ideas

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

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

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

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

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

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

Works Cited

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.