Global Impro 2 How Impro material surfaces

May 23 2019

Holly Stoppit
Image credit: GII

2.) Three ways of surfacing: How improvised material emerges and what you have to consider as a facilitator. A seminar by Gunter Losel

This blog is the second of a series of blogs, charting my experience as a Theatre Bristol agent at the Global Improvisation Initiative Symposium, May 2019. If you'd like to get a little context, start here. Otherwise, welcome to theory and practice exploring how improvised material surfaces.

Gunter Lösel has been publishing on the theme of improvisation since 2004. He is an accomplished impro-player, a member of the German National Team of Theatresports (2006), founder of the “Improtheater Bremen” and member of the price-winning duo “Stupid Lovers”. He holds a PHD in Theatre Studies as well as a diploma in psychology and is heading the Research Focus Performative Practice at the Zurich University of the Arts since 2014. [From the online conference description]

Gunter began by asking us:

Q- How many of you think impro produces something new?

Around half of us raised our hands.

Q. What is 'new'?

  • Does it mean new to you?
  • Does it mean new to the local region you're in?
  • Does it mean new to the world?

Q. Do you think you can recognise if something is new?

Gunter explains; “We're programmed to resist the new, we're programmed to not even see it.”

Evolutionary speaking, we're programmed to repeat and recreate what we know and to fear the unknown, this is how we've survived as a race and this is how our brains still insist on trying to keep us safe now.

Gunter believes there are three ways that material surfaces in improvisation:

1.) chance

2.) unconscious

3.) social emergence

1.) Chance / randomness

Gunter spoke about the Dada movement, which began in Switzerland in 1914 – against the backdrop of the first world war. The seriously playful Dadaists believed that following logical and rationalistic thought would lead to societal collapse. Their surreal, non-conformist art was an effort to disrupt logic and rationalization.

A Dada exercise:

1.) fill a page with writing on any topic

2.) cut it up into strips

3.) throw it all up in the air and see how it lands on the floor

4.) what emerges from the writing now?

Ways to bring chance into your impro:

  • Ask the audience to write suggestions on pieces of paper and put them in a hat – pick out their suggestions and integrate them into your impro.

  • Use a pack of cards – each player takes a card from the pack and uses the number of the card to give their character a status (ace is the lowest status, King is the highest).

  • Using dice – either with 6 predetermined options, or asking the audience to call out the 6 options, roll the dice to find out what happens next.

Gunter explains: “Real randomness is really hard to attain.” Chance can spark automatic, predictable reactions. You could say chance allows us to “illuminate the human way of making associations” as it triggers our ability to make sense of the seemingly random. 

2.) Material emerges from the unconscious

Gunter explained that both Moreno (inventor of psychodrama) and Spolin (one of the pioneers of improvisation as we know it) wrote about the phenomena of spontaneous emergence of unconscious material. Whereas Freud saw the unconscious as driven by sex and ambition, Moreno and Spolin had a more positive view of it than that.

Flicking through Viola Spolin's impro teachers handbook, I found her definition of spontaneity: “A moment of explosion, a free moment of self-expression” and in an essay written by Moreno in 1940, he writes,“spontaneous states are of short duration, extremely eventful, and sometimes crowded with inspiration.” Both these definitions feel more expansive than Freud's limited explanation of the unconscious.

An exercise to explore tapping into the unconscious:

  • Divide into partners, (A) and (B)

  • (A) is the parent and (B) is the child

  • (B) closes their eyes and, and holding both hands, (A) guides them slowly around the space.

  • (A) cannot demand trust, trust must be earned

  • (B) does not need to force trust, just be honest, if you don't feel safe, communicate to your partner so that they adapt what they're doing.

  • Once trust is established, (B) can start to allow pictures to come into their mind as they are moved around space.

  • (B) begins to move through the pictures, as if inside them.

  • (B) begins a monologue, describing the imaginary scenery as they're moving through it.

  • Still moving through the pictures, describing what they see, (B) can open their eyes.

  • Is it possible to stay with the pictures in your mind whilst your eyes are open?

  • Can you incorporate what you're seeing - your partner, the space, the other people, into your imaginings?

  • Whenever you lose connection with the pictures, close your eyes and reconnect.

  • Switch over roles and repeat

This exercise demonstrates the theory that there are three barriers to accessing the unconscious in improvisation:

  1. trust

  2. language

  3. space

I resonate with this, In my experience, if I don't trust myself or my partner on stage, self-consciousness will pull me out of my flow. Creativity needs trust.

Language carries a huge heap of association for me – whenever words are involved, my inner critic squeezes my brain and makes me doubt myself – making me feel I'm not good, clever or interesting enough. Language can easily pull me out of my flow. 

The third component – space, encountering the unexpected actually opens up access to the unconscious for me, as I find it so much easier to respond to external stimulus than to generate my own material. Of course it's always my own material, but somehow – when I'm responding to what's in the room, the inner critic doesn't get much of a look in. This is why I am an improviser.

I guess different people will have different needs, which will effect their ability to tap into the unconscious in different ways. I wonder how this resonates for you? Do you find comfort or ease with trust, language or space? If one is missing for you, can you still enter into flow? Is it easier or harder?

Gunter explained how the role of the parent in the exercise is to keep contact with the environment so the child doesn't have to think about it. He believes there needs to be somebody outside the play space to make it safe for the improvisers to play.

I guess that's what I do for the fools of Beyond The Ridiculous. In order for them to feel free to dive into their imaginations, I hold the space and mediate between performers and audience. 

Gunter says; “We can use theatre to make spaces for public dreaming.” I love that and I resonate with that a lot. Beyond The Ridiculous fools plunder their unconscious for material and it's often said in the training and shows that watching the fools is like being in a dream. When we inhabit our dream spaces, we give the audience permission to inhabit theirs. Gunter explains that dreaming is private and therefore susceptible to censorship – how can we avoid censorship to let the dreams manifest? He recommends having someone on the outside to be the grown up.

3.) Social Emergence

Gunter spoke about professor of education and psychology, Keith Sawyer's work on social emergence. In his book, Social Emergence, Societies As Complex Systems, Keith describes emergence as “the process whereby the global behaviour of a system results from the actions and interactions of agents.” 

Exercise to explore Social Emergence:

Fast Food Haiku

  • A game for 3 players, played for an audience

  • First, the players are given their instructions

  • you are three very famous, very serious Japanese Haiku poets

  • You've been working on this poem for three years

  • Player (1) offers a short sentence describing anything that comes to mind

  • Player (2) offers a short sentance that is nothing to do with player (1)'s

  • Player (3) then waits for the moment when something emerges – don't look for the connection, wait for it to spontaneously appear

  • The facilitator introduces the poets with reverence and they begin their poem

Gunter explains: when something real emerges, you can feel it, there's a difference between mining the archives of your mind and being here, responding to what the other two have said.

Gunter says, in order to achieve social emergence, the preconditions are important:

  • don't make your sentence too long.
  • the input from the facilitator is important, imbuing the task with reverence, will help the players to pretend it means something and then the frame will appear.
  • the group explore a non-hierarchical principle- each element is equally important, don't dominate.

After a group discussion, exploring how we can take this into our own work, Gunter impressed on us that “you can't introduce societal rules into art – we're on the wrong track if we start doing that!” So if art must be free then what can we do to ensure it's not getting stuck? Gunter advises to “work on the preconditions of social emergence and find a safety belt for if it doesn't emerge” 

I'm lucky that my clown training gives me an innate safety belt, whenever my material fails, I get to play the flop, a brilliant mechanism that allows me to maintain a connection with the audience however bad my material is. In my experience, this is often where the best laughs come, when I'm able to be bold and vulnerable and own my humanity.

I was left thinking again about what Blessin had said in the Gender debate, about how the audience draws out unconscious bias in the performers. I'm fascinated with the audience's impact on the choices that are made in improvisation. Gunter's theory only takes account of the players of the game, but what if the audience's presence is also part of the process? Is it possible that audience unconsciously draw out what they want to see? 

Next I find my way to a dark studio theatre where curious improvisers were drawn together to discus the pitfalls of replication in improvisation.

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