Improvisation and Trance: an Experiment

Recently, while at the Applied Improv conference in San Francisco, a Dutch colleague approached me to collaborate on creating a workshop that was focused on bringing the participants towards a state of trance. She had some knowledge of neo-shamanism from reading and participating in some European personal growth workshops, and she wanted to collaborate with me for my experience and anthropological lens on rituals and their structure. We spent part of the evening on our feet brainstorming a lesson plan and discussing our motivations and intentions for the activities that would fit best. It was an incredibly fun and engaging 40 minutes of planning while other conference goers partied in the next room.

One of the things I wanted to experiment with was how to get participants to a vulnerable, open, and safe space as quickly as possible. If you’ve read anything I’ve written, you know that I’m totally into Victor Turner’s ideas about creating communitas. In the spirit of that, my notion was to have all the participants do a long introduction of themselves to every other participant. These introductions would be given in their native language, and they were to be structured as follows: I am [name], grandson/daughter of [names of all grandparents], son/daughter of [names of all parents, including steps or fictive kin], brother/sister to [names of all siblings], Father/Mother to [all children if any].

From there, we engaged in some exploring of the workshop space and making eye contact, as well as some body contact. Then we gathered for a favorite circle game of late that is called “Bunny, Bunny, Tooki, Tooki” in my circle. It’s played in a circle and is steeped in rhythmic chanting with the conceit of the game being thrown around the circle requiring groups of 3 proximal participants to chant something different from the rest of the circle. The group commenced with the prescribed rules, and Lieselotte (my Dutch colleague) and I occasionally coached the group to be mindful or focus on particular things. Some of the coaching I remember giving were notes like: “Copy the energy you are receiving”, “Don’t take this too seriously; keep it light, enjoy it”. This game evolved into a large group ceremony whose rules and meanings began to emerge spontaneously. When the group began to fall into the heat of the collaborative play, we no longer coached, and the moment of communitas arrived. Meaning that everyone seemed so intent on the essential actions of the ‘us’ that the idea of coaching or even leading disappeared from my horizon for the time.

The session was only an hour, and it had started late. We had time for a 5 minute debrief on peoples’ experiences, and from what participants shared in terms of their emotional states and perceptions during the warm up, full engagement, and cool downs, it appears that we achieved a certain degree of release and communion. There was some specific discussion about how the long introduction put people into a reflective mood centered on the relationships that informed their lives for good or ill. The vulnerability piece came forward, and a few of the participants reported that it made the person introducing themselves more solid through having to introduce not only themselves but the context that shaped them.

Almost all of the participants reported that they had felt some form of letting go and a feeling of deeper connectedness to the others and the actions while deep in the “Bunny, Bunny, Tooki, Tooki” game. Many had said that hearing the coaching to be light and enjoy it was what led to the falling deeper into the moment of connection. Separating this activity from the solemnity that often accompanies many formal modern religious rituals was one of the key directions that I suspected would help participants get there. This experiment helped to highlight the importance of creating the safe play space for creating deeper connection.

Some more validation arrived a few weeks after the conference. One of the participants, a very successful and revered trainer who joined the workshop late, contacted me to chat. Their motivation was that “they couldn’t stop thinking about the impact of the workshop”. The conversation came around to ‘how did you do that?’, and the only way that I could think to explain it was that, at a point, ‘I’ can no longer be there because there is only space for ‘us’. Me being a coach or leader will ultimately prevent that deeper ‘us’ to emerge because that role anchors us to the normal social world of rules and hierarchy. By Lieselotte and I stopping to coach and lead, we opened the way to creating a ‘liminal’ space where the rules and expectations of normal human existence are relaxed and allowed for that deep connection to emerge. How I did it was by getting out of the way at the right moment and letting my self fade to the background to be a part of ‘us’. Not leading, not following, just accepting what happens and projecting that energy forward with excitement. That is the road to ecstatic experience with groups.


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

Inspiring Words

I’m in the middle of doing research for another book in the works, and I came across this from Brian Sutton-Smith in his book The Ambiguity of Play:

However, modern chance games and modern festivals have fallen away from religion and become secularized. Yet one can see that, along with all forms of play, they both still provide experiences of “otherness,” “alterity,” or “altered states of consciousness.” And these or similar states of mind are as essential to religious ritual and prayer as they are to game involvement. In both cases one becomes “lost” in the experience and thus transcends everyday care and concerns. It is worth considering that because the two (religion and play) are in modern times so separate, they are in fact rivals for the promotion of such altered states of consciousness. Which means they are rivals for the positive qualities that such alterity provides. One can say of both religion and play that they make life worth living and make everyday activities meaningful, because of the transcendence that they propose, one eternal and one mundane. Perhaps the unwillingness to attribute such experiential transcendence to games of fate exists not just because games of fate are heretical to the work ethic but because, through sharing transcendence with religion, they are actually rivals for its value…One may suppose that with the development of the rhetoric of “optimal experience”, secular civilization may be gradually transforming itself to the point that it can indeed admit that play is as fundamental to life as are survival and religion.

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.

Improvisation: the Original Survival Tool

When it came down to it, mother nature laid the smackdown on early Homo Sapiens. We arrive in the archeological record about 200,000 years ago. About 90,000 years ago, Africa’s climate became extremely arid in a very short time leading to a resource crisis. No food and no water means no surviving for many of the early Homo Sapiens. If you look at our genetic diversity, it tells the story. What this means is that contemporary Homo Sapiens, us, lack the kind of diversity seen prior to 70 to 90,000 years before the present.

How does the saying go? Hard Times bring a family together. Looking at the fossil record, along with the inferences of genetic evidence in our own DNA, suggests that we nearly didn’t make it. The estimate is that we dwindled to between 1,000 -10,000 individuals capable of reproducing, which created a genetic bottleneck. That’s smaller than most suburbs (heck, a neighborhood), and that is how many people survived to produce the 7 billion and rising on the planet today. Quite a comeback, I would say. The thing is that because there are so many people, it’s impossible to care about all of them. Because of the limits of our own abilities to connect meaningfully with more than about 150 people at any one time, we have no attachment to the hoards of others that blanket the planet despite attempts to connect us through media. We respond to tragic events when they happen because our brains’ mirror neuron systems allow us to feel their discomfort on some level. For most of us, once the check or cash is sent those feelings often dissipate, and we return to business as usual. These understandings would have been critical to people trying to survive. If your group doesn’t function well in times of scarcity and difficulty, it can tear apart the social fabric and lead to serious, sometimes fatal, consequences.

We have developed into beings whose state is situated in the median range of the immediate. We have developed to have the sensibilities of an improviser. What is in front of me? How can I build with this or on it or use it? How do these things or people connect, and what happens when they do? What are my companions feeling? How can I improve or change these relationships? The reason we have this legacy of improvisational sensibility is that these thoughts and behaviors were, more than likely, what led to the survival of those desperate 1,000-10,000 survivors who made it through that 20,000 year stretch of hard times to emerge from Africa to populate a world whose climate was returning to a time of abundance and seasonality. That’s the way selection works. It could have also been that we require less calories to live than the Neanderthal. Seems oxymoronic considering where we are now.

These folks didn’t survive because they were screwing each other over and hoarding resources to the ‘deserving’ few in their tribe. Quite the contrary, most foragers operating from a preconquest consciousness have an egalitarian ethos that puts the individual as subservient to the group; leaders are appointed and impeached by the group, as necessary. Couple this with the fact that we have cognitive mechanisms that intellectually and emotionally reward us for intensive organized collaboration, cooperation and creative exploration (communitas, absolute unitary experience, group flow, whatever you want to call it), and we’ve found some very compelling evidence to suggest that the ethos of support and generosity that is native to improvisation is at the core of our beings. Improvisers are trained specifically to look out for and support their partners and group in order to find success as a whole. Hoarding and self-aggrandizement are things that come out of agriculture, urbanism and consumerism. I think Jared Diamond has covered that subject pretty well. His explorations of the collapse of the Anasazi, Romans and Aztecs in his book Collapse help to clarify the outcomes of the self-centerdness and hierarchy that are the tendency of “civilization”.

The most common form of organized collaborative cooperative creative exploration across the globe is ritual, and a lot of things can fall into that category (music, theater, sports, even some games). Rituals often combine elements like music, dance, myth, and physical challenges in a communal setting. Is it any wonder then, when we look back at the things we find in ancient Homo Sapien sites on the coasts of Africa dated to around 70,000 years ago, that we find the first evidence of red ochre being harvested and stored? Red ochre is the most ancient form of symbolic adornment. To symbol, to create something outside of ourselves that communicates meaning, had almost never been seen in the archeological record until these sites. Throughout the archeological record, red ochre is commonly related to ritual and other symbolic behaviors. Considering that we are descended from these survivors, it is not surprising to see that ritualistic activities are one of the most common features of human society.

We, as a species, are in the business of creating occasions for these sorts of collaborative and sometimes ecstatic events. Our brains are geared to overload when we earnestly undertake these collaborations and provide us with a sublime and indescribable sense of unity and connection with each other and the world at large. What a wonderful adaptation for dealing with tremendous difficulty and adversity? The only other thing that can do this on a more common and less formalized scale is humor. This unifying state is also an amazing way for our brains to be networked, and find innovative solutions to the problems of the world at large.

So it stands to reason that improvisation is a secular road to our social and cultural health as beings on this planet. It also stands to reason that the tools of improvised theater help us find not only depth and detail in life and relationships, but they also help us find humor. Improvisation helps us exercise our brains’ mirror neuron systems, which are appearing to be integral to communication, learning and understanding. The training people receive while studying improvisation is focused on understanding human relationships; both what makes them succeed and what makes them fail. Improvised theater is igniting a sort of grass roots social rebooting. It has the power to awaken people to the present.

The challenges that are emerging in the 21st century will demand more than we’ve had to give in a long time as a species. The last big shift in global climate, the end of the ice age, led to the disappearance of all other hominid species; making us the lone hominids. Even though huge climatic shift events are what have led to great leaps in human brain evolution, it was because we were in a desperate fight to survive, and only those who figured out how to work together and enjoy it made it out alive. Certainly, there was inter-group competition for resources, but it was definitely rarer than the intra-group collaboration, cooperation and creativity that were employed in the daily struggle to survive. These are the very skills that are lacking in the upcoming generation of technologically-dependent and increasingly socially-inept children in the developed world. We are breeding a generation of social illiterates whose narcissism could lead to a dangerous turning point in human history. A point in history where we’ve gone so far away from genuinely connecting with each other and the planet that sustains us, that it becomes the final chapter in humanities book.

After all, Neanderthals were only on the planet for 300,000 years. We’ve only been here for a little over 200,000. If there’s one thing all species have in common, its extinction. To succeed in improvisation and evolution, one must accept and adapt to the new conditions. To deny the changes we observe is to invite being edited out of the scene and out of history. What kind of epitaph will our species have if that happens: Here lies Homo Sapien, the species who ‘blocked’ and ‘denied’ into oblivion?