Can we think of Applied Improvisation without thinking of theatre?
Theatre is a big, beautiful red herring in the world of Applied Improvisation. The distinctive ideas in our field are the ideas of improvisation, not of theatre. Many typical current practices happen to come from theatre workshops – those classic exercises for groups who are preparing to do things on stage. Now they are increasingly also coming from facilitation, sports, coaching and other practices. These are the professional disciplines of our incoming practitioners, who mostly are adding theatre improvisation as a secondary strand to their existing professional background, as they mutate into Applied Improvisers.
A recent recruiting route for AIN has been workshops and AIN local meetings directly about the applications of improvisation, often with no performance element. Many of the games that facilitators learn and use come from innovators such as Keith Johnstone and Viola Spolin, and can be experienced as group activities and exercises, rather than performance formats. It was a lucky accident for Johnstone, for example, that his training workshops turned out to be entertaining enough for spectators to watch.
AI stands aside from theatre studies as a subject worthy of exploration in its own right. It is inter-disciplinary and cross-pollinated. Applied Improvisation practitioners don’t even, in this way of thinking, mostly have a theatre background. First, they have an original interest or profession somewhere else (their background). Then they get interested in improvisation – mostly by watching performed improvisation and spotting some relevance and connections. Then they learn something more about it, as it happens mostly in improv comedy set-ups (though less so than in the earlier days). Then they integrate it into their new practice of Applied Improvisation – which is best conceptualised without reference to theatre. And, in my controversial view, also best practiced with a lot less theatre. That’s to say we will be benefit from finding ways to teach and practice this stuff with a lot less of putting people into scenes, characters and into performing than is currently the case.
The important skills are adaptability, being in the moment, collaborating well with others and managing uncertainty – all of which are visible, practiced, articulated and necessary in many fields, of which theatre is of course one.
I think it’s very difficult for people steeped in theatre to see the case for AI independent of theatre. That may be why AIN was led by people like me and Alain Rostain, both of us much more interested in management (team work, people development), organisations and ideas about complex systems than in being improv performers ourselves.
What do you think? Is AI inextricably theatrical in its concepts, history and practices? Or can we stand independent, should we wish to do so?