This post is derived from a talk I was invited to give at Nerd Nite Vancouver on January 25, 2017.
Improv as we know (that is, improv for improv’s sake) it is a relatively new art form. When theatrical improvisation started gaining popularity in the 1960s, it was a rather radical concept. The founding voices of modern improvisation are, to me, voices of rebellion, mischief, and innovation. Keith Johnstone (inventor of Theatresports, and Maestro) talks about his experiences watching professional wrestling, and longing to bring the wild energy of those performances back to traditional theatre spaces. Del Close (founder of Improv Olympic, father of long form improvisation) is quoted as saying, “Fall, then figure out what to do on the way down.” Viola Spolin invented Theater Games that allowed people from different cultural backgrounds to express themselves freely, with little theatrical training. To me, all these voices call for more expression, more vulnerability, more curiosity, and more chaos.
Improvisation is inherently risky because it puts process in front of an audience, rather than a polished, rehearsed product. A scene might fall flat, an actor might freeze, the audience might be uncomfortable. Things seldom go as planned. But herein also lies the joy of improvisation; the moments of true surprise, the triumphs of unlocking a group’s impulses, and the catharsis that occurs when a whole room feels something together.
Over time though, as improv has gained popularity, it has moved further away from being process on stage. As audiences more commonly understand the concept of improvisation (thanks to media like Who’s Line is it Anyway?, and Don’t Think Twice), and as a growing number of actors perform improv, we have are constantly carving out and defining what a improv is. We have expectations about what an improv show is or should be. We practise how to successfully play games, how to teach edits, and how to use common language about improv. Most shows start with a host coming out, asking for three audience suggestions as a warm up, and then bringing out the improvisors. Many word-at-a-time stories end with “The moral of the story is…”. Many open scenes start with a person opening a cupboard and pouring a cup of water. I understand why we teach students how to succeed, but I also wonder if we should be teaching students to experiment more. If an improv show can be anything, than why does a lot of improv around the world look more or less the same?
In one of my courses at Simon Fraser University (Dialogue 701: The Practice of Engagement), we recently talked about the concept of the chaordic space.
‘Chaordic space’ is a term coined by Dee Hock; the founder and former CEO of VISA. The term identifies the intentional blending of qualities of both chaos and order in an organizational process. In the context of my course, we were talking about how to find the chaordic space build a safe place for generative dialogue; when you are preparing to bring people together, you want to have some structure, but leave space for the unexpected without predetermined outcomes.
I think there is a clear application to improvisation here. When we step on stage to do a show, what are the expectations we put on ourselves as performers, and our audiences? Do we have predetermined outcomes? Do we have an inkling about how the show will likely feel? Order has its place, but if there is too much order in improv, shows can read as safe, boring, fearful, and controlled.
On the other hand, total chaos is… well, chaos. Ideas don’t connect, no patterns are found. It’s hard to tell a story. The reason we play set structures in improvisation is the create a container with which to improvise in. We often get suggestions from the audience to narrow our focus, to provide inspiration. Without any structure, the openness can be stifling.
To work in the chaordic space is a balancing act – it is where the unexpected happens, where the audience is as surprised as the performers. I think in the chaordic space lives improvisation at its best.
So, how can we build improv shows that challenge what is expected of improv? How can we create organizational culture that supports the inherent uncertainty of true risk taking? How can we push ourselves to be less comfortable, and more curious?
Several months ago, I had the pleasure of taking part in a show called Last Wish, directed by the amazing Maja Dekleva Lapajne. I think her theatre company, Kolektiv Narobov from Ljubljana, Slovenia, is one of the most interesting improv companies on the planet, and they are consistently doing challenging work. In thinking about the chaordic space, to me, Last Wish exemplifies a show that existed in teetering space between success and failure, organization and radical freedom.
The concept of the piece was simple: one microphone in a spotlight, where any of the performers could step up and share what they wished for the show. It could be a wish for a particular improv scene, or a wish for the audience, for fellow actors, or the space. In workshop, Maja helped us establish trust in our ensemble, she fed our curiosity, and trained us to be patient with our choices. The result of her excellent direction was a surprising, chaotic, and wonderful improvised show.
We didn’t take a suggestion, we just agreed to let themes emerge in the first few beats. We did scenes in the dark. We had a conga line. We did scenes in heaven. We endowed audience members as people in our lives we needed to apologize to, and apologized to them. We told a great escape story. We had silent scenes underscored by music. We climbed on each other. We made inside jokes. We cried. We looked behind the curtains. We had a dance party with the audience. Some of it was pretty bad. Some of it was the best improv I have ever done. Some people in the audience thought it was indulgent and hated it. Some others loved it. I think some people were bored. Looking back, it was one of the best creative experiences of my life.
By creating a simple container for the improvised content, we were able to take risks, while trusting we could change the trajectory of the show at any time. Our director urged us to let go of what we thought the show should be, and just let it happen. While on stage, I felt the clear pull of expectations on the show, and felt my fellow ensemble members push to abandon them. Once we got past that, it truly felt like anything could happen. When I came off stage, it felt like I had been caught up in a whimsical wave of impulse.
I want to feel this on stage more often.