What Does it Mean to Improvise?

Written by Gary Schwartz on . Posted in Improvisation, Spolin Games, Team Building, Theater Games, Viola Spolin

“Creativity is not the clever rearranging of the known.” – Viola Spolin

Creativity is a state that allows us to touch the unknown and to bring it into the phenomenal world: To make the invisible visible.

The unknown is a territory that holds all possibilities, until it is revealed. The act of revealing – that is creativity.

Unknown areas are full of lure, yet, like deepest, darkest Africa once upon a time, it appears as a fearful place; a place of mystery, full of danger, mythologized into a place where one is destroyed, devoured, and never heard from again. Many fear the unknown. Ah, but once opened up to the light of day and fully explored, Africa is a wondrous, exotic place and part of the known world. Bravo to the brave explorers. Are you among them? Dr. Livingston, I presume?

 Off-Balance: The doorway to creativity.

When we are off-balance, we naturally tend to want to right ourselves, pulling back from the precipice of not knowing what will happen next. That moment of off-balance holds thrill, uncertainty, joy, and anticipation – everything is possible. It is why we watch sports, go to the theater, or wonder about death (the great unknown), it is in fact what gives joy and meaning to life. We want to see the unfolding of the unknown and watch it become part of the known world. We don’t watch a team sport because we know who will win. We go to find out who will win!Not knowing is the draw. We don’t go to the theater to see a story we already know, or if we do know it, then we go to be held in the present moment (the art of the actor) as we watch the unfolding of that story. The unknown is the flame that draws us.

Improvisation produces an environment where the player can enter, happily into a state of play where the unknown event, situation, or relationship can be explored and discovered simultaneously by player and audience.

Not knowing what will happen next is the essence of improvisation. An audience comes to the theater seeking the thrill and joy of being surprised; put off-balance momentarily, to watch the twists and turns of players wending their way through the onstage playing.

The appeal is the same for (or should be) the improvisational actor. Going forth into the unknown area, handling situations with unexpected grace, wit and joy. Playing full out – that is what makes improvising so much fun. The surprise is the gift that playing produces. In improv ideally, the audience and player come upon the surprise together.

Fear of the unknown causes us to prepare for the worst.

For the player, fear of not coming up with the goods, of not having the wit or presence of mind to be able to give the audience this gift causes the us to prepare for the inevitable, the failure to thrill the audience. As if making a wrong turn in the jungle forces the explorer to halt the expedition, consult a map and retreat to the comfort of some nice hotel.

Fear of failing in front of an audience causes the cautious or timid actor to collect a ‘bag of tricks’ — sure-fire techniques, lines and old behaviors that have been rehearsed and proven effective in many situations in order to give an audience a nice surprise. Well, that’s something, at least, but it’s not improvising. It is comedy poorly rehearsed.

Performing in this manner becomes the domain of the fast, the clever and quickest wits. For they are the only ones who can retrieve this type of information easily, thus appearing to an audience as brilliant and talented. Talented, yes; the talent being, the clever rearranging of the known (old, tried and true bits of information) to fit into the fluid, fast moving events onstage, simulating spontaneity.

This is not improvising. This is someone cleverly using rehearsed material able to quickly apply these known “bits”. This is indeed a great skill and there are many talented actor/comedians who are marvelous to behold when performing in this manner, but it does not have the electrifying power of true spontaneity.

True spontaneity is achieved when player and audience are both present to the unfolding of an unknown event/outcome during the playing.

The player is so involved in the pursuit of the game that he comes to that off-balance moment, not really knowing what will happen in the next moment and passes into a truly spontaneous state where the possibility of something new can occur — Something unexpected for both player and audience. This is the creative act being born onstage – true improvisation.

To shrink from the risk of nothing occurring in this state (a possibility – for we are bound to run into blind alleys and then must rely on the known to lead us back to where we may try again) we are left to rely on old information (jokes and common references), known behaviors (mugging, funny physical mannerisms) and other tried and true rehearsed bits. These may be new to an audience, or maybe not, but it will provoke a laugh or two. Maybe just from the fact that the audience is made comfortable seeing familiar scenes (and therefore not alone). But nothing will have changed for audience or player and the vitality of theater is omitted. Result? Pedestrian Comedy Theater posing as improvisation. In the opinion of this writer, the proliferation of this type of theater is condemning improvisation to be misconstrued and developed into a training ground for quick wits and clever minds: Two elements that aid in the pursuit of real improvisation, but are by no means the real currency of improv.

By only using quick wits and cleverness, the doorway to the unknown, uncharted land remains closed.

As audience players, we go to see the unfolding of a game, event or theater piece because it lifts us out of the predictable state of our circumstances. It holds us in present time and reveals the vast potentialities that exist within every moment — The field of all possibilities*.  It is only in the present where hope can be borne and we realize that life is continually in a state of becoming. We awe at all that is possible. We go forth without judgment** and are open to all life’s possibilities.

This is why we marvel at great sports figures and great artists. We see the courage it takes to go into this area and applaud them for this. Yet, is it courage? Ask many of these people and they will tell you what a joy it is to be in this state. We witness their journey and are brought into the present with them. We get a taste of the present moment when we go to see a great play, painting, sporting event or other performance. It is the entire premise on which improvisation was founded. Viola Spolin created some 300 doorways, in the form of Theater Games to allow for this most ephemeral, but essential experience — The experience of present time where true creativity is possible.

To the witch she did go
To find out what the future holds.

And to the seeker, the following was told:

 “Present Time you must find
And within it dwell.
For in there is the key
That opens the door to the Great Mystery
And the Future you will see.

 But hark!

If in Present Time you cannot dwell
You’ll have no future to foretell.

Trapped in the past you’ll always be.”

 So she went forth to dwell in Present Time.

 But alas!
 Present Time, like the divine,
Is most difficult to find.
                                           – Viola Spolin

My advice to the improviser: Go forth! And have fun exploring. It’s the creative thing to do.

© Gary Schwartz 2001. Seattle WA

* Deepak Chopra’s phrase relating to the definition of the universe.

** Judgment — using the past to measure the present, thus remaining uninvolved.



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Categories: ImprovisationPlayViola Spolin


Gary is a former student and protege of Viola Spolin – known as the Mother of the Improvisational movement.. Executive Director and Founder of INTUITIVE LEARNING SYSTEMS, offering Improvisation workshops for professionals in all fields as well as conducting special workshops for business, to enhance communication and creativity in the workplace. “Gary Schwartz is a gifted player and coach. He has a thourogh understanding of my work” – Viola Spolin

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Gary Schwartz

Gary Schwartz

Gary Schwartz is a former student of Viola Spolin and the only teacher to earn an endorsement from both her and her son, Paul Sills. He is the founder of Intuitive Learning Systems and Improv Odyssey devoted to exploring, and expanding the work of his Mentor,

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