Improvising FOR the audience or WITH the audience?

Thoughts on improvisational theatre that emerged at 2014 Naked Stage festival.

Naked Stage 2014, 12th international festival of improvised theatre

19 – 23. 11. 2014, Stara mestna elektrarna – Elektro Ljubljana; Prešernovo Gledališče Kranj
Production Zavod Federacija Ljubljana; Coproduction: Zavod Bunker, KUD Kiks

Naked Stage 2014 01 Hannu Risku, Matthieu Loo, Alenka Marinic - Photo Gregor Gobec
Hannu Risku, Matthieu Loo, and Alenka Marinič – “Old Friendship, New Love: Alenka Marinič and Matthieu Loos” (lights Borut Bučinel)

I was starting to see and appreciate how improv theatre can do something no other theatre form can.

As a longtime travelling companion of the Naked Stage international festival of improvised theatre my attitude towards theatre improvisation grew and developed alongside the festival’s own evolution. After sharing theatre beginnings with some of the Kolektiv Narobov members (who run the festival), we were pursuing different theatre related directions until our paths crossed again at the time the festival was dabbling in cross-disciplinary approach, inviting performers from contemporary dance, clowning and other improvisation-based theatre genres. I fell into that story trying to figure out how to approach the field of improvisational theatre as a reviewer using my elsewhere acquired skills (my background is in contemporary performing practices and contemporary dance). Few years later the festival’s direction turned back to their improvisational theatre roots, while, in parallel, I was starting to see and appreciate how improv theatre can do something no other theatre form can.

Both audience and performers share the same space. They share it as nobody controls it, they are both witnesses to things emerging outside anybody’s rational control or theatrical strategies.

As an audience member, I, in general, distinguish two different ways in how performances address us. One path is in making an impact: a performance would employ one of different strategies to create a specific desired effect for the audience, while the audience will try to figure it out. Audience will thus engage the performance in the way it is expected of them and try to follow the proposed direction. Such a performance would happen in the line between the performers and the auditorium. (The “desired effect” could be one of a broad range of different artistic strategies and their correlated effects. The “effect” doesn’t need to be a narrow one, it could be openended, offering multiple successful engagements of performance and the audience.) The other path is a performance that in a way engulfs the audience within the space it inhabits, it’s not the audience who is facing the performers and vice versa, it’s all of them occupying the same space. In the first type of performances I am, as an audience member, observing the performance, reading it, discerning the signs and interpreting them. In the second type, the most I can say is that I’m a witness to things going on. This type isn’t about active participation, but togetherness – both audience and performers share the same space. They share it as nobody controls it, they are both witnesses to things emerging outside anybody’s rational control or theatrical strategies.

Naked Stage 2014 03 Lee White, Gregor Moder - Photo Gregor Gobec
Lee White and Gregor Moder – “Old Friendship, New Love: Gregor Moder and Lee White”, (music Hannu Risku, lights Borut Bučinel)

Within such an improvised performance we, the audience, are in an equal position in relation to the scene’s direction as the performers, which creates a temporary community between us and them.

In the context of improvisational theatre, I can observe these two strategies of performance-to-audience relation in how an improvised show understands humour. The improvisational theatre type I was initially exposed to were theatre sports, where the most common approach towards the audience (the only?) seems to be in trying to get a response: acting for the effect by trying to come across as funny, shocking or surprising. As I could read the performers’ intentions and what kind of reaction I was expected to give, it caused me to become detached, instead of being willing to play along. I thus temporarily wrote off improvisational theatre, exploring other theatrical horizons, until, few years down the line, I’ve returned to the Naked Stage festival and witnessed something else. Seasoned, experienced improvisers performing in seemingly the same, classical disciplines, but displaying a different attitude. They were not trying to amuse and surprise the audience, but also themselves. Humour wasn’t an effect directed at the audience, but an exploration the performers were also a part of, being curious about the direction of the scene they were creating, while remaining open to all the possible options. Within such an improvised performance we, the audience, are in an equal position in relation to the scene’s direction as the performers, which creates a temporary community between us and them. This sense of togetherness is what I consider to be the uniqueness improvisational theatre can offer to its audiences.

I remember Theatre Narobov’s show »Radio FM« in which Maja Dekleva Lapajne and Gregor Moder were creating conflict situations, mainly on the female-male axis of things (romance). As their characters clashed, both improvisers were only further escalating the tension, and we, the audience, couldn’t tell how the situation will resolve. Because: neither did they. While escalating the conflict, they were buying time to figure out which step to take next, and this waiting in turn poured even more fuel on the fire, creating a scene more gripping than it would be, if rehearsed. It’s a situation completely unlike the drama theatre where the actors execute the script, line by line, already knowing what will happen, and, if not well enacted, the audience knows they know thus killing any possible tension.

Why not focusing instead on the audience and performers sharing the journey together?

When we talk about audience participation in the improvisational theatre, the first notion that is usually brought up is asking audience for suggestions, which the performers will then build a scene around. While suggestions can offer welcome challenges to the performers, it seems they often function as a tangible proof to doubters that audience indeed participates and that these scenes are indeed improvised. Why not focusing instead on the audience and performers sharing the journey together? Let us all marvel together at the things, situations, impressions and creations emerging before us. As the first day of the festival showed me, it’s not necessary the amusement and the jokes which are being explored together and shared. They could be, but they’re not the only option, nor are they the limit of what is possible within improvisational theatre: tension could be shared (as in the above Radio FM example), or it could also be other emotions, atmospheres and states – as demonstrated by the main show of the opening night – Slow Impro.

[the article could be read as an introduction to the Slow Impro review.]

Naked Stage 2014 05 Hannu Risku, Inbal Lori, Vid Sodnik - Photo Gregor Gobec
Old Friendship, New Love: Hannu Risku, Inbal Lori, Vid Sodnik and Borut Bučinel

Samo Oleami, November 2014, reedited May 2017

Addendum: On “format” and other improvisational cohabitations

Thoughts on the nature of “format” in improvisational theatre and “Old Friendship, New Love” projects

Old Friendship, New Love: Alenka Marinič and Matthieu Loos
Old Friendship, New Love: Gregor Moder and Lee White
Old Friendship, New Love: Hannu Risku, Inbal Lori and Vid Sodnik
Naked Stage festival 2014 productions [Zavod Federacija Ljubljana]
All three projects: Music by Hannu Risku, Lights by Borut Bučinel

Naked Stage 2014 02 Matthieu Loo, Alenka Marinic - Photo Gregor Gobec
Old Friendship, New Love: Alenka Marinič and Matthieu Loos

it’s easy for a group of performers who never met before to pick up a “format” – a short set of rules – and immediately perform a show.

At the time of 2014 Naked Stage festival, I remember having long talks with Maja Dekleva Lapajne, festival’s director, about the dominant influence of North American improvisational style on the international and Slovene improv scene, especially in relation to the issue of innovation in performing strategies, as well as to the question of improvisational “formats”. As most improvisers have performed with people well versed in this “North American” style and/or have been at similar workshops, it’s easy for a group of performers who have never met before to pick up a “format” – a short set of rules – and immediately perform a show. This is possible because many silent presuppositions about what theatre improvisation is are shared – both on the level of “selfevident” ideas (like: performer enacting a character; performer being linked to the same character within a show; scenes as situations where multiple characters meet), as well as on the level of performing style and techniques (favouring a fast moving verbose realistic style, as opposed to more bodily techniques such as clowning or physical theatre). In every theatre performance the performers on stage do not only share the show’s explicit protocols (score, directions, script), but also share a set of behavioural performing strategies which emerged from a creative process in rehearsals. These include group dynamics and nonverbal cues, as well as performative logic/dramaturgy. It’s this set of performancespecific behaviour that makes a performance this exact performance. Maja later corrected me by stating that some formats – “instant formats” – can indeed be immediately picked up and used, as they depend on performers already sharing a similar performing style, while some other formats might need couple of rehearsals (some adaptation of performing strategy is required) and some are akin a “score” and thus open to any preexisting performing strategy (not presuming a particular performing approach).

Each group could establish a personal connection or deepen preexisting ones in a process that was made to highlight the improvisers themselves, their onstage chemistry and communication – as opposed to sticking to ideas or formats.

Of course, the idea of improvising formats is exactly in a performance being transferable between different performing groups, yet there’s also the underlying question of production costs. It takes time (rehearsals, showings) for performers to develop a performance with its own specific improvisational approach. It’s much easier, especially in improv festival settings, to pick an “Instant format”, mix it with a selection of international improvisers and voilà. For these and related reasons the 2014 edition of Naked Stage festival proposed “Old Friendship, New Love” production model. Three pairs of improvisers, one Slovene, one from abroad, paired with musician Hannu Risku and Borut Bučinel on lights had a couple of days to work on their artistic collaboration during the festival. Each group could establish a personal connection or deepen preexisting ones in a process that was made to highlight the improvisers themselves, their onstage chemistry and communication as opposed to sticking to ideas or formats.

Naked Stage 2014 04 Lee White, Gregor Moder - Photo Gregor Gobec
Old Friendship, New Love: Gregor Moder and Lee White

In direct opposition to the idea of a cerebral score, they used a stack of blank papers – another physical material – as the focal point around which their show developed.

Alenka Marinič and Matthieu Loos’s collaboration was most akin a showing of a work in progress. Building on their previous artistic encounters and embracing their common preference for physical theatre and clowning, the performance focused on their onstage chemistry. In slowly evolving scenes, with more action than words, we could observe both similarities and differences in their performing styles and the dynamics this brought to the scenes they were developing. In direct opposition to the idea of a cerebral score, they used a stack of blank papers – another physical material – as the focal point around which their show developed. This “organic” setup had its natural highs and lows emerging from few days of working together. It showcased the potential and uniqueness of this collaboration as well as promise of what could become had the group more time available for their artistic exploration.

Lee White and Gregor Moder’s presentation was the closest to a format – two front facing podiums framed the performance as a debate between two presenters trying to prove their point and win the audience over. Their performing attitude was also in sync as they were doing on stage what they would often be seen doing backstage – having endless debates with one another, or anybody else present. (Been there done that.) However, the “Old Friendship, New Love” model did allow both performers to try out this for improv rather unorthodox approach of improvising on the form of a presentation, rather than having a character or a plot.

By Inbal and Vid taking a step back from leading the performance, a space was created that Hannu and Borut could fill up, producing a situation reminiscing oneoff improvisation events where dancers and musician would meet and jam.

Inbal Lori, Vid Sodnik and Hannu Risku’s duo that turned trio and became a quartet with Borut Bučinel was for me the most interesting and could be labelled as experimental. With Inbal’s experience in solo improvisation, Hannu doubling as improvised musician and onstage theatre performer, with Vid and Borut (on lights) joining the frame of equal horizontal collaboration, they created a space most similar to dance or music improvisation. Small solo scenes created a poetic atmosphere that didn’t initially led into a cohesive narrative or dramatic situations. Rather, it created impressions and atmosphere and, as in dance improvisation, there were chance encounters and meetings between four artists creating effects not owned by any performer and shared between them and the audience. The “experimental” notion was perhaps noticeable in how the performance in its second half didn’t build on its strengths, trying to steer into a more familiar ground of cohesive narrative with scenes and characters. Even some performers weren’t most assured in their creation after the show – another reason why I hope they will read these lines. By Inbal and Vid taking a step back from leading the performance, a space was created that Hannu and Borut could fill up, producing a situation reminiscing oneoff improvisation events where dancers and musician would meet and jam.

Naked Stage 2014 06 Hannu Risku, Inbal Lori, Vid Sodnik - Photo Gregor Gobec
Old Friendship, New Love: Hannu Risku, Inbal Lori, Vid Sodnik and Borut Bučinel

How to continually find working conditions (i.e. funds) to pursue such artistic explorations in the field of improvisation theatre?

I would consider the whole “Old Friendship, New Love” experiment to be successful as all three projects went outside of the scope of common realistic improv approach – Alenka and Matthieu brought improv closer to physical or dance theatre, Lee and Gregor dabbled with lecture performance (and parody), while Vid, Inbal, Hannu and Borut ventured close to music and dance improvisation events. What remains is a question of how to continually find working conditions (i.e. funds) to pursue such artistic explorations in the field of improvisation theatre.

Samo Oleami, February 2018

Photos: Gregor Gobec

Author: Samo Oleami

Reviews drama theatre, street theatre, improv theatre, contemporary dance, intermedia, boardgames and stuff.

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