A Culture of Play

A Culture of Play
Support independent publishing: Buy this book on Lulu.

This new book is a collection of my research and writings on improvisation. Some of the chapters are familiar, but there are several new unpublished works in these pages. Please take a look at the link. There is a preview. Happy New Year and Enjoy!!! Now I can sleep for a little while.

The Human Brain on Improvised Theater

Here is the text of a 5-minute speech I gave at Ignite Portland 10:

After performing and teaching improvised theater for years, I noticed two things. 1) in the best of performances, many of us would have this incredible feeling of ‘unity of thought and action’ as a side effect during the show, a sort of group mind. We felt a weird bond that held this sense of clarity and connection that was different from our ordinary play. It was a palpable, almost cosmic, sense of union. It was rare but sublime. 2) At the same time, one of the most common comments from students was that ‘learning improv was like therapy’. As an anthropologist, I couldn’t help but wonder exactly what is behind this sense of oneness and personal well-being that was coming out of the process of improvisation for actors and students.

Victor Turner, in his book “From Ritual to Theatre: the Human Seriousness of Play”, talked about a temporary deep sensation of unity, shared identity, and oneness arising out of ritual practice. He called it “Spontaneous Communitas”. Other scholars have called this feeling “Group Flow” and “Absolute Unitary Being”. Turner noted that people have also reported feeling these sensations in a number of collaborative forms of play: sports, theater, music, games. We all have the capacity for this experience. This incredible feeling of oneness is more of a rare state of grace than a guaranteed outcome from some formula of words and actions. “Communitas”, “Group Flow”, and “Absolute Unitary Being” were very similar to what performers had long been referring to as “group mind”; the point in some shows where it feels as if the performers are one brain in sync.

Ritual itself is always performed in order to solve a problem presented by and to the verbal analytic part of our brains. Like many human rituals, improvised theater contains elements of narrative and dramatic rhythm and repetition, it is steeped in the social and cultural knowledge of the participants, and it aims to define the individual as part of some larger group or cause. For instance, the football game reaffirms or puts stress on whether you’re a Duck or a Beaver (college football teams in Oregon). West Side Story reaffirms or stresses whether love or loyalty is what we aspire to. This feeling of oneness is also one of the most common threads in the myths underpinning most religions. Four neuroscientists, (Andrew B. Newberg, Eugene D’Aquili, Charles Laughlin and John McManus) have put in lab time mapping out what happens when that feeling of unity and wholeness comes up in rituals. They point to the behavior of the hippocampus.

The hippocampus is part of the Limbic System, which is highly interconnected with the brain’s pleasure center via the hypothalamus. The rhythm and repetition of ritual behaviors ramp up brain activity. The hippocampus is a sort of traffic cop that regulates brain activity. In the heat of play/ritual, the right hemisphere takes a more dominant role in cognition and can begin to fire in sync with the left hemisphere. This also tends to happen when we dream, meditate, or have an orgasm. If things get too busy, the hippocampus inhibits neural flow until action in the brain settles down. Sometimes during rituals/play, it inhibits flow to the orientation association area. That’s the part of our brain that manages the boundaries of the self and orients that self in space. A reduction in neural flow to this area could explain the sensation of oneness, unity, and universality. It’s like the hippocampus says “Alright, we’re keeping all this traffic out of the self. It needs a rest anyway. It’s always worrying and needing me time.”

Improvised theater is a ritual of play, of sorts, that brings us together into an imaginative examination of the world we live in now or an exploration of what could be. Both play and religion are rivals for being able to bring these feelings of deep momentary union to us. Improv theatre allows us to playfully explore problems and experiment with solutions to a myriad of life’s challenges, and lets us laugh at ourselves in the process. While playing at improv, we are also fine-tuning our own abilities to get the most out of the relationships and interactions in our own lives. This is such an important set of skills to maintain, lest we lose our humanity and passions to the world we see on screens. Improvised theatre is another way to awaken our humanity. This feeling of oneness that arises within us is evidence that our brains are geared to reward us with feelings of pleasure, comfort, and belonging when we fully engage in focused play and religious ritual.


D’Aquili, Eugene & Newberg, Andrew B. The Mystical Mind: Probing the Biology of Religious Experience. 1999. Fortress Press: Minneapolis

Fortier, Brad. Long-Form Improvisation: Collaboration, Comedy and Communion. 2010. Lambert Academic Publishing

Hayden, Brian. Shamans, Sorcerers and Saints: A Prehistory of Religion. 2003. Smithsonian Books: Washington

Newberg, Andrew; D’Aquili, Eugene; Rause, Vince. Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science & the Biology of Belief. 2001. Random House: New York

Rappaport, Roy A. Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity. 1999. Cambridge University Press: New York.

Sutton-Smith, Brian. The Ambiguity of Play. 2001. Harvard University Press: Cambridge

Turner, Victor. From Ritual to Theatre: the Human Seriousness of Play. 1982. PAJ Publications: 2001

‘Yes And’ for Newbies

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

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

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

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

Listen Up! This is Important.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Agreeing Makes Things Happen

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

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

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

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

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

Being and Doing ‘Yes’

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

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

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

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

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

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

Only Fools Agree to Everything

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And” moving right along

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

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

Remember this exchange from the section on “Yes”:

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

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

The Magic of Addition

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

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

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

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

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

Details, Details

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

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

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

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

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

Once more with Feeling

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Social Dramas and Intercultural Theatric Interpretations

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ethnography as Performance and the Tyranny of Text

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Works Cited:

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