Attend, Accept, Advance

A look toward theater improvisation provides additional insights into the principles and processes involved in the “how to” of improvisational practices. Although it has older roots in the Commedia dell' Arte tradition of the Renaissance, modern improvisational theater began to form in the United States in the 1930s and 1940s and a decade later in England mainly to help actors be more real, connected, and relaxed on stage. Two major figures in the development of improvisational exercises are Viola Spolin (1999), who is considered the mother of improvisational theater in the United States, and Keith Johnstone (1981, 1999), who began his work in England, later moved to Canada, and is perhaps best known for “Theatresports,” a mock competitive format in which two teams of improvisers challenge each other, in good humor, to win points for short theatrical scenes and games. Spolin incidentally was first introduced to the use of games and storytelling at Chicago's Hull House in the 1920s, where she trained to become a settlement worker.

Learning improvisational theater (or, for short, improv or impro[1]) today typically means being introduced to some version of three interdependent core activities. Through games and exercises, theater improvisers practice how to attend, accept, and advance. Much like the principles of holistic engagement outlined in Chapter 1, attending means paying attention to everything that happens, to intended and unintended actions, words, and emotions of fellow players, to one's own feelings and behaviors, and to the physical environment including elements that are imaginary and merely mimed. Although this is the most basic of tasks for improvisers, it is already a challenge because this kind of attention requires relaxed and alert awareness of broadened perception rather than zooming in on anything in particular. Several authors have likened this kind of attention to practices of meditation and Zen mindfulness (Madson, 2005; Taibbi, 2009).

Accepting extends attending and asks an improviser to be invested in what is already given and support fellow players. It is akin to a willingness to say “yes” to what has been offered in words, deeds, or emotions. In improv, everything, be it intended or unintended, is considered an “offer,” a gift, to be recognized and treated as such. Hence, improv students learn how every offer can be used and built upon by virtue of how the offer is accepted. The impact of saying “yes” to offers can be experienced by first learning the effects of its opposite, called “blocking,” meaning to say “no” to offers by denying or contradicting someone else's reality. Rejecting or ignoring offers physically, verbally, or emotionally is at the heart of blocking, and it is a familiar activity. In life, blocking offers often keeps us safe, but it also hinders building collaborative relations and stunts chances of discovering and developing anything new together. As Johnstone (1981) stated, “There are people who prefer to say ‘Yes,' and there are people who prefer to say ‘No.' Those who say ‘Yes' are rewarded by the adventures they have. Those who say ‘No' are rewarded by the safety they attain” (p. 92). In theater improv, adventures are the preferred direction, and thus a willingness to take risks by saying yes to offers, to trust fellow players, and to make one's partner rather than oneself look good is paramount.

The third component essential to good theater improv is to advance or build on existing offers by adding something to further the scene or story. Together, accepting and advancing are often subsumed in the cardinal improv rule of saying “Yes, and . . . " Rather than inventing entirely new ideas in an attempt to be clever or original, improvisers advance by using what happened before to inspire the next action. In other words, in improvisation, meaning, order, and form emerge through a retrospective approach in which improvisers must be willing and able to move forward while looking back, all the while leading and following in this effort. Results of a qualitative inquiry with professional theater improvisers (Walter, 2006) have led me to distinguish two kinds of advancing: moving forward the relationship between characters and moving forward the story.

The idea of advancing relationships between characters centers on being changed in response to the other. Allowing oneself to be changed requires a willingness to be vulnerable because it means leaving a perhaps familiar or otherwise comfortable position in service of the other. Johnstone's “status games” are staple exercises that bring into focus how relationships are enacted and enhanced through the changes in position of bodies and the use of space and language. Exemplifying Watzlawick, Beavin, and Jackson's (1967) axiomatic “you cannot not communicate,” status exercises highlight how verbal and nonverbal actions inadvertently communicate relational dynamics and impressions of hierarchies. Because the stage functions like a magnifying glass, observers of status exercises become aware how quickly we read bodily positions through cultural frames in terms of “high” or “low” (dominant or less dominant) relational status in interactions. At the same time, those who play characters on stage experience how physicality inspires them to react and relate. Imagine, for instance, a person sitting stiffly at the edge of a chair, with all limbs tightly tucked to the body. This image immediately invites interpretations and projections of “anxiety” from the audience and frequently evokes similar emotions and thoughts in the player. Add to this scene a second character, who stands firmly grounded, occasionally looking at the seated figure with an extended gaze.

Without a word being spoken, a status relationship between the two emerges both in the minds of onlookers and in those who inhabit the bodies.

At the same time, this type of relational status differs from social status in that it is far more fluid. Small changes can quickly alter the relational status that appeared so clear a moment ago: The person in the chair comfortably leans back, holds the gaze of the other, raises a single eyebrow, and suddenly the person who stood with such clear dominance is lowered in relational status. Social and relational status may even be contradictory. Observing a person with low social status (“servant”) act “high status” in his or her interaction with a social superior (“master”) is not just the material of classic comedy; studying and playing it also highlights the agency in relational status behaviors that can subvert social status.

Advancing story means moving forward the narrative if and when longer scenes or stories are improvised (not all improv involves narrative). To this end, improvisers learn basic structures of storytelling, including the role of genres or other culturally established styles. Understanding and constructing improvised stories is a complex enterprise in that jointly improvising a story means that players serve simultaneously as co-authors, co-directors, and co-actors by “yes, and- ing” each other's offers.

  • [1] In North America, the term “improv” is common, whereas in other areas of the world,“impro” is more typical. Although some discussions in the field link different styles of improvisation to each term, I do not make such distinctions here and simply opt for “improv.”
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