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  • Bob Pearce

Improvisaiton as process or method?Or what the hell are we trying to achieve!! ( pt1 - perhaps.)



Improvisation broadly, very broadly, falls into to three main forms of practice - or even we could say “purposes”.

These are as process and as means and as what for now I am calling system.

What do I mean by these terms?

Process: here is defined as a thing in itself, for itself. As a complete approach, that drives both the creation and the finished work. In fact the prices sis the finished work, engagement with the process is the purpose and the outcome of the improvisation itself.

Different approaches can be taken to this - as I’ll discuss below. But primarily the act of improvising is its own end. No other end or product is envisioned. _ there may be a better word than process for this - we could talk about a praxis for example - but I feel process is sufficient.

Means or Method : Here is defined as a means to an end, it is something that is undertaken to create or generate something else that can be recreated. Doing an improvisation to generate material that can be later be used again is an example of method. This technique is used commonly in dance, theatre and music. It is a core of devising techniques, and its main purpose is to contribute towards the discovery of and generation of material that is to then to be composed into a realably repeatable piece.

As System - this could be defined as structured improvisations, these can be practiced and rehearsed - they have a frame work and well defined rules which are learnt and understood by the performers, this also means they have clear rules of success and failure , systems can be used as performance ( process) or for means. But they are contained systems so may limit the types of output - they are however more aesthetic in thier output as they play by largely socially accepted rules of aesthetics - examples would be theatre sports or modern jazz.

All three forms of improvisation rely on “technique” - but do they rely on the same technique?

Lets focus on process driven improvisation, or Improvisation as method

I think there is a tendency in the arts world to assume that improvisation is itself a technique, or simply a tool in the artists tool kit. So this is the most common way improvisation is used, and the one most theatre sound and dance practitioners will be familiar with. Given that the improvisation as a means is much more common use this is a reasonable assumption.


Improvisation then is a tool towards solving an "engineering" problem.


Art though is not a process of engineering, though it can very easily become one with various blueprints and rules available to artists of all kinds, these things are themselves useful tools.

Does Improvisation as a Process require different techniques as improvisation as a method or structured improvisation?

I would they are all different in many ways and the reason for this is the intent of the practitioners its location and orientation.

Improvisation as a method occurs primarily in a setting that is closed, ie it is a way from the public, it is in a place where there is a certain amount of trust between the participants, they may have already been working tougher on the material and have built certain clear relationships, where risk his highly mitigated.

Furthermore what constitutes failure and success is clearly definable. This is important as I will explain below when discussing Process driven improvisation.

I will use an example of improvisation as method based in dance as I feel it is applicable to both music and theatre as well -

Lets say as a choreographer I am devising a piece- there is an existing concept for what that piece is, what it sets out to explore, it has themes, it may even have a broad narrative of sorts, a road map perhaps. There is an intent, perhaps to get from a to b. or to take the audience from a to b. etc.

There may be music, or other elements, which have already been composed, which might define the duration and atmosphere of the piece, if we where talking about a band of musicians writing a piece fo music there might already be a set of lyrics in place for example.

In other words there are a number of pieces of our composition already in place, we have , more or less, a clear intent.

Improvisation here becomes a way of exploring material that either represents that intent or moves us along our journey. Its prime function is to generate material, through engagement in practice. The choreographer might set specific tasks for the dancers to play with - we could call this play, but if we are a serious artist we might instead call them “exercises” or “explorations”.

Undertaking these exercises, the dancers will come up with movements, relationships between themselves, emotional states, glances, gestures etc. Sometimes they will be stuck, sometimes things will ramble on without anything “useable” by the choreographer/director. The task of the choreographer here is to direct, shape and lead the dancers into generating material that the choreographer thinks has utility for the piece being created - this material is then recreated, refined and absorbed into the finished piece - as a piece of choreography itself. It loses its improvised character in the process.

Here the core techniques are those of the choreographer or composer, ie they come from an outside authority figure. Questions are presented, in the form of exercises, provocations, games etc. that the performers answer through engagement with the material. The choreographer/writer then sorts through the material generated, looking for what is useful in terms of the journey. This is an important aspect of collaborative ensemble work. The finished piece, will belong to a composer or a choreographer or a writer perhaps or it will be understood as a devised collaborative piece. Most importantly the piece will be repeatable, it will be able to be re-created in exactly the same way as any piece that is written or prepared in a different way. The main advantage of this process is that it exists in space as a physical act, it relies upon a group interaction and because it is largely developed by the group is reflective of the group itself ( the same process can be undertaken by a solo artists - who “simply” divides themselves up into the different roles of composer/enacter) or brings in a director or friend as an “outside eye”.

To get back to technique - the performer may or may not be skilled at improvisation, but with good facilitation from a choreographer/director they will be able to generate material, they can be led into the exercises, and guided into developing material. Skilled improvisers will need less direction but may need to be contained more to stay on track, they may generate more extraneous material that will need more sifting and sorting. In any event the relationship is between the choreographer and the performers and the devising process. Most performers who have been through a training have some experience and skill in improvisation - though in my experience the more structured it is and the more it is referred to as exercises or exploration the more successful - even asking well seasoned professional performers to simply “play” or engage in free improvisation may cause some hesitation or simply a reversion to established habits.

In terms of success and failure the outcome is clear, success or failure is definable - the measure is simple - it is that useful material has been created, something new has been added to the work, or something that sheds light on something already existing in the work has been discovered, and all these things can be recreated and combined into the final piece in one way or another.

Of course there is proberly a lot I am missing out about this process for now - but I think this is a reasonable articulation of the way its most commonly used in group collaborative work of all kinds.

How does this differ from Improvisation as process.

The first and most obvious thing is that the improvisation is the work itself.

The audience is coming to see a work they know will be improvised.

The audience themselves become part of the material, the environment the atmosphere and mood of the improvisation as they will have an effect upon all of these things.

Secondly, The performers are not contained with in the safe space of the rehearsal room, or protected by the existence of a finished product that has been refined and rehearsed. Nor do they have the rules of a structure, such as a chord progression, circle of fifths, the accepted rules of harmony etc.( as I the more systems type approach of say modern jazz, or prog rock style "jamming".)

Rather the free improviser working in a live setting is working directly in font of an audience. With either no or perhaps a very limited structure, and where there is such a structure that structure is self defined and normally pretty arbitrary.

Most unnerving of all perhaps for some, is that there is no clear criteria of success or failure.

Rather it is about the moment, about things like authenticity and “truthfulness” things that are in quite elusive and difficult to quantify. There is often not a goal other than to engage in the improvisation. There may be no preset agenda, or concept that requires exploration simply a set of elements and individuals who have been assembled for the performance. These things themselves could be a regular ensemble or perhaps something more transitory. Performers may not have even met each other until directly before the performance. Now there are many pitfulls in such performance that relate to technique, which is the subject of a future post, but the main thing is the normal rules of performance and of our expectations of the performance are broken down in this kind of performance. For example authorship is non existent - even the audience may play a role in this, there is no director or cheograpier or writer, there is no outside authority to decide if something is right or not, or aesthetically pleasing or not. All such decisions are made by the performers in the moment and adjustments remade accordingly in real time. This kind of improvisation itself could be seen as a process of correcting continuous "mistakes", a process of balancing, of micro adjustments. It is a dialogue. Everything that occurs is to be accepted, nothing can be pushed or steered, leaders and followers are quickly dissolved, switched, overthrown. Our own anxieties and thought processes about our actions during the performance are shaping the work, whilst an actor or dancer on their 100 performance of a piece might be mentally reciting their shopping list whilst outwardly going through the motions with little or no external effect, for an improviser to be doing this would immediately lead to a different result (perhaps actually doing this could be part itself of an improvisation). Concentration may sharpen and loosen in turns, the mind may wander and come back to he material but all these things will be reflected in some way. Everything that is, IS. Here what is elevated is not the text, not the work of the author, but the direct experience of the moment. There are no geniuses, no great artists. This may sound somewhat problematic. How are we to make an aesthetics from this, how do we know if something is good or bad, or just plain lazy? What are the criteria for criticism? Such things are upturned via improvisation. There are of course criteria, and as performers and audiences value judgments will be made. But the authority of these judgements is de-centred. Ultimately “the moment” is the judge. Improvisation holds a mirror up not to the externals of life but to its hidden wiring, its very underpinnings in time and space. It invites us as practitioners and as an audience to connect in what ever way we can in experiencing our experience - even if that experience is in everything seemingly falling apart, or our mind being frustrated with something, it is what is right now and that in turn is feeding that which is manifesting.


Creation is not here a process of design and refinement - it is a process of direct experience and uncovering what is here right now, and that itself constantly slipping away and being replaced with new information.


Already I have had to slip into less pragmatic language, and perhaps less useful language when describing this kind of improvisation. Finally The products of free improvisation, or what I am calling improvisation as process, things such as recordings, drawings films etc, do not exist as works as such, but as artefacts, they exists like antiquities. They point towards but do not truly represent the actual event, the lived experience.They are documents of something that has already happened, not themselves the works. Such free improvisation is more akin to ritual than performance - it is for the benefit of the those present. Audience and performers alike. Not for an end result, as it itself is the end result.


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