28 May Match report: Global Improvisation initiative 2019
Talking about improv is weird. Not bad-weird, but maybe not good-weird either. Probably just hard-weird. It is, at the risk of being tiresomely obvious, an artform with many many different ways of doing things. And because it is inherently transient, being precise with actually what you are actually really truly talking about is very very difficult. You can’t isolate the factors, and in many cases you can’t even agree on what outcome you are aiming for. After all, if the process is the product, try talking about it without heading into abstractions. Which way is up? Or rather which way do we want up to be? Can we agree that the up you experienced is the same as the up I experienced? And who are you proving it to? In the end, we are all discussing our lived experience, both of the playing and of watching and (as Neil Degrasse Tyson put it) an eyewitness report is the least reliable form of evidence.
So last month was the second bi-annual GII conference, or four days of talking about improv. It was held conveniently near my house and co-organised by Improbable theatre co who are the reason I started improvising. I was originally supposed to be speaking, but the research I have been doing fell apart, so I just went to listen. It’s better that way anyway. With the theatre coming to a temporary close, the Nursery is in a state of flux and you should never let a good crisis go to waste. New information is always useful.
Being at the conference was a very weird experience. I felt a strong sense in the room of the old guard and the new. The mighty oaks and those saplings pluckily pushing up towards the forest canopy. (I am going to generalise here.) In general the old guard were interested in presence, awareness and slowing down. In general the new guard were interested in safe spaces, diversity of access and widening opportunities*. I should be clear: there wasn’t animosity, and there were a lot of respectful, tough and productive conversations, but there were some inherent differences in the lenses through which improv is being seen. In the ways people approach improv and the outcomes they were looking for. In a way, these differences are the point of a conference like this.
Because there is not ‘improv’, there are many improvs. Not just because you can improvise dance, theatre, stand up or a TED talk, but also because the way we play in London is different from the way they play in Bristol or in Brisbane. Partly because of our training, but partly because of our culture. A community creates (or possibly is created by) the memes, habits, assumptions and micro-preferences that it shares. And communicating all that to someone without the lived experience is pretty damned hard.
I have written before (in a less nuanced tone) about the limits of talking in improv, the danger that it can make you better at hating improv rather than doing it. And last week got me to thinking about how rather than whether to do it. What are the best and most useful ways to talk about improv, and the barriers that get in the way of it. I didn’t reach any useful conclusions, but I am OK with that.
I do, however, have some pleas for the improv(s) community(s), and they go like this:
- Please be very careful of saying ‘in improv’ when what you probably mean is ‘in my practise and experience of improv’.
- Please stop dismissing ‘comedy improv’ as less than whatever you do. It is not easy to make people laugh and nor is it less than making them cry or think.
- Please stop expecting there to be a single improv answer to anything.
- Please stop expecting improv to be the answer to everything.
When you spend your time in any artform, you get better at it, and that almost inevitably means you specialise. You work on particular skills, you improve and, if you are part of a community or a team, then however hard you try, you will gain more people who are or play like you and lose those people who aren’t or don’t. That’s almost as tautological as saying as to get better at something, you have to improve. Innovation comes from groups of people who are like-minded enough to work together, which means they have to stay together enough to stay together.
The danger is that when you encounter people from outside your community, you go on the defensive and spout the truisms of your community, desperate to fit all other experience into the frame and mould that you have created. The danger of new ideas is that you might have been wrong all these years, or at least narrow in your approach. This leads to talking in answers, finalities, solutions, closing down the space and restricting the scope of the conversation.
I think we should talk in questions. Questions are live, forward-looking and interested. They open discussions rather than closing them, connect rather than separate, produce rather than reproduce. The allow us to occupy space as yet unclaimed and strive for knowledge as yet unlearnt.
I enjoyed the conference very much, and met some fascinating people, and had more ‘huh, never thought of it that way’ moments than I remember. Improvisers are open, persistent people with a great faith in the future and people. I don’t imagine next time it will be close to my house again, but I’ll be there with a raft of questions and a well-sharpened pencil.
*For the record, I am neither the old guard or the new, and I am very interested in both these viewpoints