IMPROVISATION-MORE THAN MAKING DO
So what exactly is “improvisation”? In its casual use, the term improvisation typically refers to “making do,” “getting by,” or points to a “doing whatever” attitude in which no rules or structures seem to apply. Improvisation, however, is far more than getting oneself more or less elegantly out of a tight spot. A closer look into social and performance theories, as well as into improvised theater, reveals improvisation as a complex and structured phenomenon that opens spaces for creativity and resistance.
Improvisation is part of a long tradition of thought about the power of “mimesis” in that it is not just a mental activity but rests in part on physical (re-enactment. Physical spaces, postures, gestures, bodily tensions, and sensations are all important ingredients of mimetic knowledge (Gebauer & Wulf, 2003). Akin to what Schon (1995) called practitioners' “knowledge-in-action,” mimetic knowledge frequently escapes verbal explanations. As a form of embodied knowledge, it goes beyond rational analysis or mere technique but is developed and held in the physical doing (Gebauer & Wulf, 2003). Current neurobiological research has come to support the idea that some knowledge resides outside conscious cognitive processing, is difficult to describe, and yet influences everyday actions and decisions (Wilson, 2002). In fact, emotions, bodily sensations, and high-level cognition are interwoven in what Immordino-Yang and Damasio (2007) termed “emotional thought.” Hence, physicality and emotions are essential ingredients in all learning and decision-making processes (Immordino-Yang & Damasio, 2007), and learning occurs more easily, faster, and is more likely to translate outside of the classroom if positive emotions are connected to content and process (Huther, n.d.; Immordino-Yang & Damasio, 2007).
Like the larger concepts of performance and mimesis, improvisation has no singular meaning or definition. In general, improvisation is a process characterized by unplanned, creative, and spontaneous reflexivity, as well as moment-to- moment decision-making in continuous reaction to the social context (Janesick, 2000; Johnstone, 1981, 1999; Sawyer, 1992; Spolin, 1999). Moreover, it is associated with playfulness and fun, frequently experienced in close collaboration with others.
Stephen Nachmanovitch (1990) provides a fundamental characterization of improvisation in his book Free Play—Improvisation in Life and Art, in which he explores various artistic improvisations. To him, the improvisatory process involves setting free an existing creative capacity in a “play space” that is similar to the mythical Greek temenos, a sacred, magic, and safe place in which extraordinary things can occur. Like childhood play, the ability to improvise in the temenos is not limited to those with special talent but, rather, is a creative force inherent in all human beings. Hence, improvising is “not a matter of making the material come, but of unblocking the obstacles to its natural flow” (Nachmanovitch, 1990, p. 10). The main obstacles to improvising are fears, such as the fear ofbeing seen as foolish or incompetent or the fear of actually being foolish or incompetent. Expert teachers of improvisational theater therefore foster an atmosphere in which learners are encouraged to “make mistakes and stay happy.” Mistakes are viewed as creative and valuable moments that are not only inevitable but also inspiring for learning processes and thus should be j oyfully embraced rather than avoided, hidden, or denied (Walter, 2006). They are, in Nachmovitch's words, “a grain of sand around which we can make a pearl” (p. 89).
Another central feature of improvisation is its emphasis on collaborative practice. Out of such collaboration, ideas emerge that are more than a compromise or the mere sum of ideas provided by individual participants. Rather, the process ideally dissolves dichotomies of self and other, and it unites performers into one big “self-organizing whole” (Nachmanovitch, 1990, p. 101). The practice of paradoxes such as “collective individuality” is essential to improvisation, much like practicing “rehearsed spontaneity” or “anxious confidence” (Mirvis, 1998). As a collaborative enterprise, it centrally focuses on dialogue in word and deed to build a team in which all members are leaders and supporters.
A third feature of improvisation is its use of limitations to inspire and transcend what is given. Improvisations creatively utilize existing resources and structures to address new conditions and problems in a process also known as “bricolage” (Nachmanovitch, 1990). As such, they are reliant on what is given while at the same time seek to go beyond. Contrary to popular belief, improvising is therefore not breaking with forms and limitations just to be “free” but, rather, using those forms and limitations as “the very means to transcend ourselves” (Nachmanovitch, 1990, p. 84). In other words, improvisation thrives on the power of limits, and it uses structure to inspire rather than stunt spontaneity. Thus, far beyond “making do” or “doing whatever,” improvising well means doing the unexpected and extraordinary with what is present—building on existing ideas but re-performing them not as mere copy but, at its best, as a transformation.
Performance theorists in particular use the concept of improvisation to describe the dynamic tension between innovation and repetition that is inherent in all mimetic approaches (Gebauer & Wulf, 2003). For Bourdieu, for instance, improvisations are impromptu actions that occur when past ways of acting (“habitus”) are met by circumstances and conditions for which there is no set response (Holland et al., 1998). The resulting improvisations are “openings by which change comes about from generation to generation” (Holland et al., 1998, p. 16). Therefore, playful improvisational practices hold resistive and liberatory potential (Holland et al., 1998; Shepard, Bogad, & Duncombe, 2008) that may result in re-performances that generate alternative readings and subvert the original in what Jackson (2000) called a process of “re-formance.”