Improv as Minimally-Structured Play

chelsea snow play
ur beloved Chelsea, being an ‘only dog’, taught me to play. No language was needed. She would just put her front paws and her nose down, lift up her rear, and wag her tail, and that told us it was play time. The preferred game was ‘chase the dog’, wherein I would chase her all over the yard (or the house, including up and down stairs) until I was exhausted, at which point she would stop and wait for me to catch my breath. When I caught her, roughhousing ensued, including gentle play-biting and fierce tummy-rubbing, followed by more chasing. Occasionally I was allowed to be the pursued, and she would chase me, but only for a few seconds. She always initiated this play, and she taught me to get pretty good at it. Many variations were introduced over the years, usually by her. Frisbees were often involved.
Improvisation has been defined as “unrehearsed, synergetic social activity”. To me, it could equally be defined as “minimally structured play”. It involves simultaneously (or iteratively) and spontaneously teaching and learning, collaboratively, with others. It’s demanding work, and, if done properly, great fun. It is how most of us (could) learn best, ahead of reading or listening or even being shown.
It includes conversation, group stand-up (“who’s line is it anyway”), jazz improv , dancing, cooperative games (frisbee again), flirtation, play (with those who have not forgotten how), and perhaps even sex. There are no ‘rules’, although some standards may emerge over time by mutual agreement, but there are competencies, tactics and attributes to good improv.
The competencies include: active listening, paying full attention, inventing, self-expression, reacting quickly, remembering, teaching/helping quickly, learning quickly, letting go and letting come. There is a zen-like state that you can get into if you have, and practice using, these competencies: It’s a combination of extreme alertness and extreme relaxation. That’s only a paradox to the incompetent. Arguably, it is our natural state.
The tactics include building and drawing on others’ actions (“yes, and…” rather than “yes, but…”), exploring, reflecting, complementing, mimicking, and what someone has called “moving with and moving against”.
The attributes include intimacy, engagement, true ‘whole is more than the sum of the parts’ collaboration, and reciprocation.
The paradox of practicing improv is that, if done well, it can make you so good that you’re restless improvising with others who aren’t, yet, if done badly, it can make you worse, entrench habits that are hard to unlearn, and make improv so tedious that you give up on it entirely, so you get no practice at all. As a horrifically bad dancer who still loves to dance, I can attest to this personally. As the Phil Collins song goes: “I can’t dance, I can’t talk, only thing about me is the way I walk” — the confession of an incompetent improviser.
Some people think improvisational ability is instinctive, an inherent talent — you either have it or you never will. While good instincts are probably helpful, I don’t think they’re essential, and most improvisational actions are not instinctive — they are quickly but consciously thought, or perhaps more accurately felt. It is not anticipatory either — if you second-guess what the others in your improv group are going to do you will no longer be paying full attention, you’ll be caught if you guess wrong, and you risk becoming a boring (predictable or competitive) improviser.
I’m far from an expert at improv, but I’m starting to learn, slowly, what works. I think it’s mostly about getting yourself into the right space, and learning the above-mentioned competencies, and not trying too hard. Practice helps, but this is a natural process, and it’s not as important as being ready.
The most important part of getting yourself into the right space is self-awareness, self-confidence, self-comfort. Over the years I’ve delivered speeches and presentations (not an improvisational process, but hear me out) that have varied from word-perfect to full of hesitancies and blank-outs. Lately I’ve learned to pay attention to my state of mind (enthused, animated, and playful, versus full of dread, uninspired, and discouraged) and my state of body (relaxed, healthy, comfortable versus tense, pained, stressed). Those pre-existing states are expressed in, and determine, the quality of my presentations, far more than how well I know or have rehearsed the material. I’m sure the same is true of improv: being ready (i.e. in the right state) is more important than being practiced. Though to the casual observer, the improviser who’s in the right state looks to be doing it instinctively, and looks to be practiced.
My granddaughter does improvisational art. We work with a large (18″ x 24″) whiteboard and those dry-erase coloured markers. We just start drawing, anywhere, together. She responds to what, and how, and when, I draw, and the result is often remarkable, a collaborative work. Just like Chelsea, she teaches me to be better at improvisation.
Now you know all I know about this important subject. Tell me more. Yes, and…?
Category: Collaboration
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5 Responses to Improv as Minimally-Structured Play

  1. Thank you for that. For reminding me, really. I did comedy improv for a couple of years in L.A., but that’s a long time ago. It did wonders for teaching me new tricks, finding ways of doing things I didn’t know existed. Before I was purely intellectual and anything but spontaneous. Was wonderous to find that zen space where you just pay attention, and you create in the moment, without preconceived ideas, without knowing exactly how, but you do it in synchronization with others, and sometimes it works extremely well. Starting sentences without know how they’ll end. Committing strongly to choices and actions while still discovering what they mean. I think I need to find an improv group again. I’m getting to be a little too mental. Only trouble is it will have to be in French, which is a bit of an extra challenge.

  2. Viv McWaters says:

    Wow! Great summary of improv. I’m pretty new to improv too and have found it invaluable, nay essential, for my faciliation. In the absence of any improv group or workshops that I could go to locally, I started my own group – and it’s all about play. Adults love to play. I love to play. We laugh a lot. That’s good for endorphins. And I have learnt so much from improv that influences my work – being in the moment, being present, making your partner look good (especially when co-facilitating), accepting offers (even those dressed up as challenges etc), taking risks, making mistakes, acknowledging mistakes, being average (and hence giving yourself permiussion to excell – a lovely paradox), keeping the action moving forward. The best improvisers make it look easy, but we know that behind that ease is a lot of practice. I think that’s true of facilitating too. The best facilitation is barely there – a dance floor for the particupants – yet underneath that dance floor is a robust structure and lots of effort to make sure it witholds the weight and stands up to the pressures it will need to endure.

  3. Stephanie says:

    Nice improv detail! As an improv instructor I’m always thrilled when people realize how important improv is in our lives, in work and play. I teach adults as well as kids and it’s so rewarding when I get all the feedback from my “students”. People who are shy, come out of their shells, kids with ADD learn focus and team work, adults who forgot about the essence of play and imagination discover how much it aids them in life and all find themselves looking forward to the one night a week they come to learn from me and eachother.I always tell the kids that imagination is like a muscle, if you don’t keep using it it will get weak and useless, they always look at me funny but then I say, “It’s like playing pretend with your parents” and they always laugh and reply “Oh yeah! They’re terrible at it!”

  4. sakthi says:

    Congrats,Well summarized article about improv..I used to taught my students about it whenever we had a free time in the class and we used play games like multiple uses of any product,word improvisation,etc.,Certainly I noticed the change and refreshment with the students..Its really worked…Car Breakdown Cover

  5. lugon says:

    Dave, maybe you’ll want to look into

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