In Praise of Causality

In Praise of Causality

This is a companion piece to a recent blog on the topic of feedback, partially in response to some people’s responses to it on social media, and partially because it occurred to me that while I had discussed the how of improving your connection with other improvisers, I had not really addressed why that was a worthwhile task in the first place.

In his wonderfully angry prose-poem ‘Storm‘, Tim Minchin skewers alternative medicine and the soft logic surrounding it, embodied in a “good looking hippy with fairies on (her) spine and butterflies on (her) titties”. I have a long history with alternative medicine, and this article is not about that, but there is a line which comes back to me over and over. “Throughout history, every mystery every solved has turned out to be . . . not magic”.

Except maybe in the arts. In the arts in general and improvisation in particular, we can behave as if inspiration flows from a magical, unquestionable source. That all we have to do is tune in to it and that talking about causality and methodology in the arts takes away the magic, like dissecting a frog. As if there is a wellspring of creativity and ideas in the centre of the universe and we are just looking to open our seventeenth chakra and channel from there.

Bullshit. Things happen because of other things. There are webs of complex factors and causes and sometimes the patterns are too complex for us to conceive of, let alone observe. But one thing causes another. That is the nature of reality. But even in the arts, even the instant arts, there are reasons for why things happen. I don’t pretend that we can ever isolate and understand everything that is happening in a scene, but with a little observation, some humbleness and a touch of scientific method, we can maybe make some higher-order observations about what causes what, even in improv.

The core of the scientific method as opposed to the revealatory/religious one is that when you form a theory about the world, that theory must then be tested against data. If I believe that playing larger, broader characters help with the narrative arc of a panto show that I am making, I have a duty to not just notice this, but try it out to see if it is true. And try it enough times that I can be pretty sure.

So how about this as a way to work: Ask yourself, in part using the simple question that I outlined last week, what in the piece of improv that you created caused what, as far as you can tell.
Now to be strictly scientific, that we may well make a lot of mistakes working like this. Post-hoc errors will surely abound, and we will never ever ever in the world have a data set large enough to draw watertight conclusions. Given that the areas for investigation are decided by the people playing the scenes, there can never be a blind test, and there is basically no way to even start to eliminate confirmation bias.

My point is not that we can ever achieve a totally perfect and pure experiment or create laboratory conditions in the rehearsal room, but that we do ourselves and our intelligence a disservice when we absolve ourselves of the responsibility of thinking about causality. Maybe the second question after “What did you notice?” is “Why did that happen?”. Again, there will be differences in opinion, and differences in how the causality works for different scenes and people (I get confidence from a meditative calm, you from a manic energy for example), but piece by piece, step by step, we may start to see through what is happening to why it is happening and therefore be able to influence it.

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