Is Improvisation Political?

Note: This is an inchoate, conversational thought-dump. It is not without serious thought, but it is without serious rigour. It is an invitation, mostly to myself, to explore the political potential of improvisation. Thoughts are welcome and a real person is behind this, so e-mail me at aden@adendate.com if you’d like to explore these ideas further.

Me, conceiving of political improv

Let’s begin by defining some terms. When I say improvisation, I refer to long-form improvised theatre. For the unfamiliar, it’s like Whose Line is it Anyway? on Clozapine.

When I talk about long-form improvisation, I’m talking primarily about the tradition instigated by Del Close. Del was the first person to propose that improvisation could stand alone as a performance art. Until Del, improv was only ever a side-dish — never the main course.

Del also believed that the gestalt of the show itself could be improvised. I use gestalt as distinct from structure as the structure of the show is still usually fixed (i.e. The Harold is a structure). Gestalt is what we might call Game of the Scene or Theme. It is the rules and practices which emerge from and shape the contours of the show. It is a kind of theatrical grammar.

Therefore, when I use the term improvisation, I am describing a form of standalone performance art in which the gestalt of the show is discovered throughout the performance.

Politics should be harder to define — but it is actually much easier.

My definition of politics mirrors my definition of improvised theatre. Politics is the arena in which political actors create the rules, systems and structures which govern everyday life. The gestalt of politics — embodied in its culture, structures, and institutions — is the emergent, coruscating property of a system of connected actors engaged in ongoing action.

This is an aspirational definition, one that transcends our current experience of politics as thin participation in the market economy and elections. Real politics is thicker. It is the stuff of everyday life. It doesn’t really exist today. This aspirational politics is sometimes called Democracy.

So, clearly improvisation has some conceptual similarities to democratic ideals. Is there evidence of a strain of this in the actual history of the art?

To begin, improvisation certainly has a long history as a social and educational technology. Viola Spolin used improvisation games to build cross-cultural social skills, a practice that continues today to help individuals with Autism and other mental health issues. Improvisation is also used to help actors and writers generate content more intuitively. Whilst stopping short of politics, it was recognised very early that improvisation can teach us how to be ourselves amongst other people — a foundational skill for political participation.

A more explicit effort to explore the political potential of improvisation can be seen in the work of The Compass Players, co-founded by Viola Spolin’s son Paul Sills and colleague David Shepherd. Their political improvisation was situated firmly within mid-century Marxist thinking which put class struggle as the central vector for political change. They saw improvisation as a low-cost, highly responsive form of theatre which could speak directly to working class people.

In the aura created by Sills and Shepherd, Del Close emerged. Where Sills & Shepherd were mostly interested in the weeds of modern-day politics — the issues on the television, the puritanical moral codes which shaped the possibilities of everyday life — Del Close saw things at a higher, almost mystical level.

Del saw improvisation as a process whereby a collective of individuals could move towards higher states of group consciousness. Improvisation took on the quality of religious ritual, a way of bringing the unspeakable and immanent in to being. Whether or not we share Del’s beliefs, his influence continues to inform every long-form improvisation class on the planet.

This period was right in the throes of the American hippie movement. However, as the fledgling American revolution slowly became productised and the hippies fled to the suburbs, so too improvisation drifted from its radical potential in to something more commercial.

The Compass Players coalesced in to what is now The Second City. The major theatres of improvisation became incubators for the growing film and television industry. We lost the revolution, but we got Caddyshack and Tina Fey as Sarah Palin. Improvisation’s relevance outside the comedy industry became limited to asinine corporate workshops, where the product designers and human resource managers play I Am a Tree in starchy, collared shirts.

In other words, improvisation can help us be more creative, open, and adaptable — but today it does so in order to feed a global entertainment industry and/or various flavours of corporate profiteering. Yawn.

However, improvisation training and performance has broadly succeeded in staying true to its roots. The work on stage is still often sacred and surreal. It is still centred around judgement-free play and collaboration — the full-throated enactment of “Yes, And.” It’s when you stray beyond the theatre that improvisation gets ugly, like a church in a Mafia town.

So perhaps the question is not, ‘Is Improvisation Political?’ but ‘Can Improvisation be Made Political Again?’

It’s no mistake that I write this now, during COVID-19. The whole world holds its breath. We are all on a forced Vipassanā retreat. Someone has ended the last scene and a new scene has just begun. This new scene could be almost anything — and the choices we make at the top of this scene will determine the contours for the future we want to inhabit.

This applies at every scale. It applies to us as individuals, to the theatres and ensembles we are a part of, and to the societies we inhabit.

I think we undersell improvisation. The most impoverished perspective regards it a method to train other skills. This was much of improvisation’s history before Del Close’s innovations. This is also much of how it works today. We teach corporate teams to improvise so they can become more collaborative. The goal is not to improvise (in the fullest, political sense of the term), but to collaborate on developing better products (that nobody needs). We constantly hedge, measure, and couch improvisation in the language and outcomes desirable to those with resources and power.

I may ruffle a few feathers, but I also believe it is impoverished to think of improvisation as primarily a performance art. Improvisation’s great democratic achievement is that it collapses many boundaries that otherwise exist in theatre — the boundary between writer and performer, between character and actor. However, improvisation continues to rely on a distinction between actor and audience to fill theatres and justify careers.

My suggestion is that we think of improvisation as a social technology. It is primarily a way for people to practice the work of politics — inhabiting uncertainty, making sense, and making gestalt together. Every improv scene is an experiment in political agency. To improvise is to rehearse for the emerging future.

I do not think this in any way diminishes that improvisation should retain its lightness, playfulness, and laughter. Improvisation suffused with political agency and ideals is more playful and funny than without. Similarly, while I deny the centrality of performance, I also acknowledge its necessity and importance. Performance is where the highest ideals of improvisation are modelled.

The project of re-politicising improvisation is therefore firstly a project of framing. We need to better articulate in our classes and shows what we are doing on stage. Yes, we are making comedy. Yes, we are expressing ourselves. Fundamentally, however, we are re-discovering our political agency.

Secondly, it is a project of scale. At Only the Human, our first effort is to explore improvisation at the level of our own governance by way of a co-operative structure which ensures equal voice to all members. This may be a good place to start for existing companies who overwhelmingly rely on traditional heirarchical governance structures. This also makes theatres’ diversity and inclusion efforts a central part of their work.

I won’t venture as to what comes after that — I’m not sure. As an improviser, I’m comfortable with the uncertainty inherent in politics. The improviser is not an idealist, but a pragmatist, tuned in to the social reality of the scene and making moves in alignment with that reality. What I suggest here is not radical. It is in our art already. It’s an offer. Will we “Yes, And” it?

Aden Date is an improviser (duh), Director of Only the Human, an Australian improv theatre company on the neglected west coast. He’s also a freelance consultant focusing on Arts, Media, and Social Impact. You can read more about him and/or sign up to his newsletter here, or don’t.