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.

5 Tenets of Ensemble Play

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

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

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

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

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

Elements of Ritual and Communion in Improvised Theatre


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Progenitors and Their Ideas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spreading Ideas

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

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

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

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

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

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

Works Cited

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Tool for Understanding Humor and Empathy

If you were stuck on a desert island with only one other person, would you rather be on an island with someone who was far too serious and seemed to have no interest in or understanding of ‘you’, or would you rather be with someone who has an engaged interest in your shared fate and has some personality to help keep the boredom away? Many of us would probably choose the latter. Unless you tend towards the misanthropic, you would probably prefer to share the company of someone who is understanding and fun. Humor and empathy are two big facets of human life that bond us all, and the one requires the other to some degree.

It is nearly impossible to escape the gaffs of life, and experiencing these myriad failures gives one context to understand the experience of others undergoing similar circumstances. It is this same empathetic knowledge that allows us to see the idiosyncrasies of our experience through new eyes, and one of the things that emerge is laughter. Rooted in the rhythmic hooting of earlier primates, laughter can be considered something of an ancient inheritance. There is precedence for laughter among other species like rats. Our laughter, depending on how it is performed, connotes many things; joy, exasperation, derision, surprise, embarrassment. It is our ability to consider context and discern intention behind human actions that enables us to effectively understand which laugh is the one we’re hearing and seeing.

Improvised theater comes from this mix of humor and acting out a mosaic of real and imagined lives and locales through dialogue, body language, singing, and mime. It is fairly easy to take a class in improvisational theater, or ‘improv’ for short. People from many walks of life take a beginner’s class; high-school counselors, retirees, actors, writers, cooks, nurses, high schoolers, lawyers, etc. It is here that people get introduced to the driving ideas behind the mechanics of improvised theater. Much of early training is focused on understanding and internalizing the idea of “Yes, and”. In every book on improvised theater and its applications since Jeffrey Sweet’s Something Wonderful Right Away, there is a section devoted to understanding this idea. The notion of “yes and” is what can turn the desert island scenario from a negative experience to a positive one infused with active engagement rather than passive disengagement.

To take things a step deeper, there is recent research that suggests that we all have (to a greater or lesser degree) a neural system in place that functions as a means for learning and understanding human intention and human emotion. These networked brain cells are called “Mirror Neurons”. These are neurons that fire in the same way whether you are doing something or watching something being done. Basically what this research is suggesting is, if you raise your arm and I see it, my brain fires all of the same neurons that it would fire if I were raising my arm. The same follows for seeing emotions and body language.

Improvised theater (and the exercises used to teach it) is uniquely designed to enhance a person’s practice and understanding of human intention and emotion. Like all theater, students are coached to become more outwardly emotional in order to communicate a character’s inner life. To do this effectively, it takes a detailed understanding of human emotion and intention; and the performance skills to enact behavior that is appropriate or inappropriate depending on which avenue will help create a nice story with some entertainment value. One researcher of mirror neurons even suggested that actors are mirror neuron experts because of their ability to make people ‘feel’ simply through performance.

As opposed to scripted theater, improvised theater requires this seeing, understanding, responding process to happen in the present moment rather than over weeks of rehearsal and direction. It is the immediacy of this process that I think results in a sort of exercising and strengthening of the mirror neuron system that helps us connect to and understand our fellows. What we do with that knowledge and understanding is another matter. For improvisers, “yes, and..” is a way of saying ‘I understand what you have said or done, and what I say and do will add to the importance and effect of your words/actions’. The catch is that it is expressed through their performance. For our brains, “yes, and..” is the recognition of an action and its context, and from that we intuit intention and desire by overlaying our own map of experience over the viewed action. This process of affirming and embellishing the choices and ideas of our fellows is the engine that helps improvisers develop fun and engaging scenes from little to nothing. It is this idea that has a sort of transformative and uplifting effect on people who get involved in improvised theater, whether to become performers or just as an avenue for personal development.

Long form improvisation, a form that takes a few inputs in the beginning to develop an entirely improvised play, pushes things even further in the cognitive realm. Because long-form shows, like the Harold, commonly follow a structure similar to the phases of ritual (separation, transition, incorporation) they sometimes elicit a socio-emotional state of unity and one-mindedness amongst the performers. This cognitive state has been researched in other ritual settings, and they propose that in these states of heightened cognitive arousal the brain shifts into high gear. It goes from the two hemispheres firing alternately to the two sides firing simultaneously. This usually only happens in instances of orgasm, REM sleep, zen and yogic meditation and ecstasy states . This experience is the defining moment between a passive interest in improv to a dedication or addiction to the activity.This kind of state is what usually bounds our longest and most intimate friendships and relationships. Another scholar even proposes that this facet of homo sapien cognition and experience helped us survive the last ice age and was the foundation for religious thought.

Laughter, like yawns, is one of the most infectious behaviors in humans. Our ability to laugh appears in infants, and it is a signal of a normal and healthy developing brain. It is a sign that we can see beyond the surface of appearance and delve deeper into the tapestry of meaning by noting the idiosyncrasies of concepts and behavior. It is also a signal that we have developed a mode for judging meaning from context through measuring it against our experience. That very experience also connects us empathetically in real time to the experience of others; allowing us to viscerally experience the tragedies and triumphs of the people we observe in life, whether we know them or not. The training one receives in studying improvisation is generally a good exercise to help us strengthen and develop our ability to communicate, create, problem-solve, collaborate and imagine. These are the skills that need fostering in order to meet the challenges we face in the future.

(originally published in 2009 on

Amsterdam in Retrospect

Have some time on my layover to do a quick share. The conference was great. It was an amazing learning experience. There was so much good information, and it was totally awesome connecting with friends both new and old.

People were really affected by my talk, and it sparked a lot of reflection and discussion. I was given one of the highest compliments that I’ve ever received, passionate madman. Of course, I also had time to soak up Amsterdam’s charm. Thank you to all the generous and wonderful people in Portland and Amsterdam for making this trip possible. I couldn’t have done it without you!!!