Can we think of Applied Improvisation without thinking of theatre?

Jul 4, 2017 | 14 comments

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?


  1. Kay Ross

    Is Applied Physics independent of Physics? Is Applied Linguistics independent of Linguistics? is Applied Psychology independent of Psychology? I don’t think so.

    • Paul Z Jackson

      Is anyone suggesting that Applied Improvisation is independent of Improvisation? The point is that improvisation does not belong to or derive from theatre, although it does so happen that many of us have learned about improvisation from involvement in theatre. There are also many other ways to learn about, conceptualise and apply improvisation. Jazz, for example – though then you may be lured into thinking it always has a performer/audience element.

    • Max Schafer

      Can we think of Applied Improvisation without thinking of theatre?

      Your Mission statement states that is the case:
      Applied improvisation uses the principles, tools, practices, skills and mind-sets developed in comedy, jazz and theatre and utilises them for non-theatrical or performance purposes.

      For that reason I am running a workshop called “Improvisation for Dance.” But the concepts I teach are as much for Actors as Dancers, as it focuses on the physical response to Improvisation, and keeps the actor out of the head, and in Presence. Please visit my workshop. I am a student of Paul Sills and Viola Spolin.

      • Paul Z Jackson

        Hi Max, good points. I guess we should update that mission statement to ‘… and elsewhere’.

  2. David Hobson

    Life is 99.9% improvised and a lot can be learned from Improv Games to assist in dealing with the many and varied activities, duties, problems, conversations and complexities thrown at us everyday. Corporate team working can certainly be improved by following many of the ‘rules’ of Improv. Applied Improvisation is, therefore, a life-skill and not one which should be restricted to the theatre. However, there is nothing like ‘the roar of the grease paint and the smell of the crowd’ to really get the adrenaline going and, to have the therapy of improv performance really have its maximum, happiest impact on the human soul.

  3. Stephanie McCullough PsyD

    This is an important topic to discuss. There are similar parallels to this dynamic in many other professional areas. Does one need a full medical degree to get perscription rights for patients? Does one need to take college courses in art history to be a web graphic designer? Can a certified life coach implement the same behavioral techniques as a cognitive therapist?

    If the argument is, the ends justify the means…so long as a positive and beneficial outcome is satisfying to both parties, what does it matter?

    But I am “old school”.

    Improvisation stands on the shoulders of 400+ years of theater tradition. And it’s become very clear to me that too large a # of professional improv enthusiasts are sorely unaware. I have read blog entries wherein a very earnest improv teacher was asking for feedback on a new term she has come up with; “Stage picture”.

    My jaw nearly dropped.

    So no.

    If we don’t educate ourselves on the origins of where improv has sprung, then we are demeaning it’s value. And we are also sounding a quite a tad silly and at times even ignorant.

    Does that mean it’s all about The Stage? That is not my argument. But just because I love my bulldogge and know everything about how this breed operates and responds, does not make me a qualified vet.

    What is the resistance to learning about the theater tradition Improv comes from? When we learn Stanislavsky, we become better facilitators in passing the movement/sound exercise.

    To minimize this value? Makes no sense to me.

  4. Robert Lowe

    It is my belief that theatrical foundations, and the greater history of Improvisational Comedy are an important part of a deeper understanding of our fine art and science, especially in non-theatrical situations.

    That being said, to introduce it as “theatre” (even using associated words such as “performance”, or “comedy”) can create barriers, and problems. It can be akin to referencing AI alongside “roll playing”. Fears, and preconceptions abound in most settings, and heavily in all groups who are new to the idea of AI.

    It is good to remember that a great portion of our foundation comes from Neva Leona Boyd, primarily with her social work at Hull House, in Chicago, and in Veteran’s hospitals around the country, long before the “Compass” Miracle, recognized as the “birth” of modern Improvisational Comedy Theatre, in 1955.

    It is well worth noting also that the fabulous master of play, Bernie De Koven, has been working with games, adult play and playfulness, and Improvisation without audience for around 40 years.

    For a powerful understanding of the deeper nature of our work, I highly recommend, “The Culture of Spontaneity: Improvisation and the Arts in Postwar America.” by Daniel Belgrad.

    At the risk of committing self-promotion, my new work, “Improvisation, Inc. Revised Edition 2017: An Applied Improvisation Handbook”, has some usable advice, along with a guided Bibliography, and a forever “work-in-progress” Timeline, beginning with pre-history, leading to the first Etruscan Improvisation performances in about 200 BCE, and up to “now” as seen through my particular lens.

    It was originally published in 2000, with the sub-title “Harnessing Spontaneity to Engage People and Groups”, because very few business, and organizational development people had even heard of Improvisation, let alone its greater applications.

    That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.
    Looking forward to further blogversation, and looking forward to gathering with our lovely tribe in Irvine.

    • Stephanie McCullough PsyD

      Clearly this was comment supposed to connected to my post – not a separate post. I find this blog page very burdensome – and I find it very disconcerting to read “this is why AI is led by people like me and …” as further anchoring that AIN organization believes many of the improv exercises “happen” to come from theater.

      Many astute colleagues in their comments above speaking of the Games movement in the 70’s are giving voice to yet another very important component that constantly gets ignored…the social birth of Game play during an incredibly turbulent time in our culture, too, is a vital piece of the genetic code of Improv as it now exists.

      “Not for public consumption” is often how I conceptualize all of the improv exercises, muscle stretches, and mindful expansions that we collective experience in the workshop room. Though, arguably, there is so much learned by the observer. So much.

      I am grateful to the very learned colleagues here to also commented. I am very impassioned by this topic. And I’m very concerned to read an argument in favor of ignorance.

  5. Doug Shaw

    Once upon a time, there was this branch of philosophy that was getting increasingly applied. It was called Mathematics. As time went on, we stopped thinking of Mathematics as “applied philosophy” and its own thing. In my own time, a highly applied branch of mathematics called “computer science” came into its own – I actually work with some computer science professors who used to be part of my department (the math department) before they split off.

    I think the math people SHOULD know that we came from philosophy, and the CS folks SHOULD know their discipline once was a branch of mathematics. (And I certainly like to remind them when we’ve been drinking). But once children leave the nest, they make their own way.

    Knowing history is good and important. I agree with the poster above who said AI practitioners shouldn’t think that “stage picture” is a new concept. But at this point, there is I believe an increasing separation between improvisational theater and applied improvisation. Sometimes that makes me uncomfortable because I love improvisational theater and I feel it is being “mined” – just as Pleiades picked and chose what it took from Yoga. But my discomfort doesn’t make it less true that AI is its own thing now, and is growing in the direction it needs to grow, and the intersection of it and performing for audiences’ entertainment is going to be decreasing. Just as what I do as a mathematician no longer has as much to do with what my friends in the philosophy department are studying.

  6. Carla

    Yes we can think of AI without thinking of theatre. Of course. Should we?

    I get this constant feeling that there is a disproportionate interest in dissociating improvisation from the theater as if theater was something negative, superficial, associated with clowning or, in any case, far less relevant than AI. From my point of view, theater (not just improvisational theatre, but THEATRE, with capital letters) is one of the most powerful tools of emotional connection between people, which is what moves the world.

    I feel that, instead of highlighting the positive values of improvisational theater, what we are trying to do is to sink it and untie the AI forever from the improvisational theater so that it can be taken seriously instead of taking the theater once and for all out of the world’s general discredit by acknowledging the relationship between both disciplines even if they end up being independent. .

    I agree with Doug, anyway, that AI is increasingly growing and making its own path, “leaving the nest”. Let’s enjoy the transition without forcing it or denying each other, if possible.

  7. Alison Gitelson

    I was introduced to AI by a practitioner with a doctorate in Applied Theatre who has continued to be (one of) my mentors. Despite her background she only delves into theatrical explanation if we pursue a more academic discussion with her.

    I incorporate AI into most all of my work – workshops, meetings, focus groups, anything I facilitate, but I don’t necessarily say what it is. Like any other tool I use I will only name it if that adds some extra value to what we are doing or if someone asks me.

    If I am asked about AI I would explain the connection to improvisation which many people then associate with a stage because of “Whose line is it anyway”. I personally think of dance and music.

    I got excited about AI because I experienced the power of the games when I was a participant. I don’t think its origins have anything to do with how I experience it, or how people attending my workshops benefit from their participation.

    My work is in the space of leadership, high performing teams and a human centred way of doing business. I love that the participants are generally very willing to engage in the games. If anything they are probably connecting them back to their childhood. And isn’t that one of the reasons that AI works? We as humans learn through play. If I was to make connections to theatre or stages many would run a mile.

    I find that an equal amount of value comes from the debrief after a game. That debrief process isn’t as far as I am aware a feature of theatre’s use of improv. In fact my mentor has students who have been trained in Drama Therapy. When she asks them what is for them the biggest difference between their previous studies and their AI studies they name the debrief. The debriefing has more similarities to a coaching approach.

    I have also learnt other Applied Theatre tools. Naturally these have a stronger connection to the stage but it is as much to dance and physical theatre as it is to acting theatre. Looking around a room of participants doing a physical embodiment process one can often spot those who have had some theatrical background BUT the benefits gained in doing the work during the session are as great for the person with no theatrical background as for those who have it. And it is for those benefits of exploration, uncovering and shifting that I am incorporating the techniques.

  8. Kay Ross

    Hi Paul Z Jackson – related to this debate, I’m curious about your article “Why you should insist your facilitator is a skilled improviser too”. When you use the word “improviser” there, what kind of improviser are you talking about? Someone who performs theatrical improv onstage, for an audience? Or some other kind of improviser? Thanks.

  9. Robert Cochrane

    Like many here, I was introduced to Improvisation via theater. I love the form and continue to practice it today. That being said, I recognize how limited it’s applicability is if it’s only seen that way.

    I’m a huge fan of the work Kelly Leonard and The Second City are doing in business and health – in particular in the worlds of neurology. I’ve done a lot of work with Parkinson’s disease as my dad has been diagnosed for 16 years and introducing improvisation as a philosophy to him has been beneficial. It’s also been beneficial to me to look at it in terms of care-giving.

    The Lou Ruvo Center in Las Vegas partnered with The Second City to do a study on the efficacy of improv in caregiving and it was an excellent course. While we played a lot of games, it was not about performance. It was about collective experience, compassion, empathy, trust, and learning tools for management.

    To hold improvisation in a singular box seems antithetical to its nature. At the same time, ignoring or removing its value in theatrical play also seems unnecessarily limiting.

    I personally enjoy seeing improvisation as a way of accessing our most free, child-like and human self. Presenting that to others, particularly in a circle as opposed to a stage, is one way to keep it from appearing so exclusive.

    I agree with David Hobson (above) when he mentions the preponderance of improv. It’s everywhere and we’re doing it always. With consciousness and intention, we can do it better and gain subtle influence – which can appear like control to those who are un- or less conscious.

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