By Michelle James | Posted 3/21/07 | Updated 5/13/23
I'm in an improvisational theater performing group and we improvise full-length plays with nothing planned in advance. No structure. No outline. No planned characters or plot development. Nothing except for two locations we get from the audience at the beginning of the play.
The play is then titled "The Space Station and the Bathroom" or whatever locations we get from the audience. Two of us then run on stage and start interacting, and thus the play begins.
When the play goes well, the audience says, "That had to be scripted. It looked too easy." It was easy. When the performance doesn't go so well the audience says, "That looked hard." It was hard.
So what makes it hard sometimes and easy others? What's "the magic formula" that allows a fully formed, coherent, organized play, with believable characters and a plot, to emerge before the audience's and our own eyes? And what gets in the way?
What makes it work when it works? We do not go our with a pre-formed notion of our characters or of a plot or of a conflict, challenge or situation. We just let them emerge based on our interactions, actions, and reactions. The magic formula is the adherence to improv principles.
When we adhere to the principles of improvisation, an emergence occurs that is more intelligent, creative, and organized than any one of us could have planned. As with any new emergence, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. By adhering to the principles, a play unfolds so original and unpredictable, that while in it, you have a sense of being entirely in flow getting to fully experience the adventure as you create it.
The principles that allow this to happen are simple, yet profound. They seem easy, but in practice, they are almost the exactly opposite ways society navigates every day life and work situations. They take re-learning (I say that because we were born natural improvisers and then got educated and civilized out of the playful aspects of it). Below are seven basic improv principles:
So, what makes it "look hard" when it is not working so well? Simple, any violation of the principles. If one of us tries to orchestrate, or worse impose, our own agenda or plot on the piece. If one of us tries to be the "star" and take too much focus. If even one of us is not present to what is unfolding, moment-by-moment. If one of us worries about the plot, and starts to figure out how to "save" it. If we expect someone to respond in a certain way. In short, anything that gets out of the moment and out of support and into our controlling heads.
The truth is, in each performance we have some magic moments and some more effortful ones some that work and some that fall flat. But by adhering to the improv principles we significantly increase the magic and decrease the efforting. A creative and surprisingly logical play can then emerge through that fresh and alive energy. We, and the audience, then get to experience the real-time excitement of riding the flow of a creative emergence.
Creativity is naturally a self-organizing system. We are meaning makers, and left to our own devices, our brains naturally seek order, coherence and meaning. Once you allow yourself the freedom to explore and play; set the guidelines of play i.e., improv principles; and then get out of the way, creativity can develop and unify all kinds of things that otherwise would seem impossible.
The principles of improvisation serve a much larger purpose than performance they have the ability to create the life-giving container for cognitive, personal, organizational, social, political, and spiritual transformation. I see them as rules of engagement for a more peaceful, co-generative, co-creative, sustainable world.
©2007 Michelle James. All rights reserved.
Michelle James, CEO of the Center for Creative Emergence, is a creativity catalyst, consultant and coach to individuals and organizations. …