Monday, October 13, 2008

Applied Improvisation

I just got back from the "First in a series of Applied Improvisation Network (AIN) London Events", and thought I'd share some impressions.

The AIN describes itself as "Spreading the Transforming Power of Improvisation". At this particular event, AIN founder Paul Jackson was going to "use improvisation activity to introduce a business theme ... [using] complexity/emergence as the business theme example". I decided to go along because it sounded fun. Re-reading this, I wonder if perhaps my taste for fun has become a little over-sophisticated. Never mind.

The evening was pretty much as described. Just under a dozen people turned up to the usual oddly-shaped room in a re-purposed building. We talked, interacted as individuals and as a group in a set of well-structured exercises, and pushed off for a pint/meal. All was fine and dandy, and I'll go again. I found the exercises interesting, and may adapt* some for my own consultancy and groups - LEWT people, expect to gather in self-selecting groups sometime soon.

However, in this evening's exercises, there was a frustrating focus on game over content. I was reminded of peer events I have attended which degenerate (and I mean degenerate) into good teachers swapping their favourite lessons. Enjoyable and informative, but I took much more away about facilitation exercises and ways to get people to engage in improv than about the structures and ideas of improvisation. Emergent behaviours were discussed, but as personal lessons emerging from an exercise, rather than as properties emerging from a system. Business was discussed, but in terms of getting business people up and interacting in workshops, not in terms of translating improvisational skills into their working environments.

Reacting to this, I revisited some of the ideas about improvisation that I was playing with over the summer, and present them here, tidied and decorated for your amusement.

I'm interested in the improvisation involved in exploring a city, making an extempore speech, singing harmony to an unfamiliar tune. We improvise when we cook a meal with whatever is in the fridge, when we need to get a USB key from behind that hotel radiator, when someone falls off a ladder in front of us, when we get lost - especially when we get lost. To be expert is to be able to improvise with confidence.

It's clear that my interest in improvisation is, in particular, the improvisation we do as individuals under pressure from external circumstances. Perhaps I'm just not a team player; after all, my sports are/were skiing, swimming and fencing. Ask the Choir if they agree before you jump directly to any conclusions...

Improvisation as AIN addresses it is useful, interesting, but seems (on the strength of a single meeting and a swift half) to be biased towards shortform group improvisation under circumstances imposed by the group. This is more complex in at least two ways, and a wonderful field of study - but the interests I list above would be poorly served if this was where improvisation stopped. Conversations indicated that, perhaps, improv was the only improvisation the group could discuss with engagement. I think there's more, and I look forward to interacting with the group and its approaches.

One-line summary: improvisation ≠ improv. Who knew!?

* at the workshop, no ownership was claimed, and no attribution given. One could use the viral meme (pace GPL) and apply the same rules when passing it on, or apply one's own standards if more stringent. I choose to apply my own standards - these exercises were facilitated, and may have been devised, by Paul Z Jackson. However, if it is the practice within this industry to change and neither claim nor attribute, I many yet adjust those standards to fit the context. For those interested in improv exercises, is a resource with more than enough (500+) to tickle your fancy.

1 comment:

  1. Improvisation is a funny old subject really. It tends to be born out of two things, the knowledge gained through experience and the ability to call on that knowledge and experience. I do not believe that knowledge without experience is particularly usefull when it comes to improvisation. I'll give two examples: I play the guitar and occasionally improvisation is required when playing along with other people or writing my own music. Having the knowledge of triads, scales, pentatonics etc. will give me the tools to be able to play music, experience of using those tools will then give me what I need to be able to improvise (and practice). Another example is in my work which of course is testing. All testers will be familier with needing to re-evaluate the testing that is required due to squeesing time frames etc. the more knowledge and experience you have the better you will be able to improvise when that situation occurs.

    I guess my point here is that it would seem more constructive to understand the building blocks of improvisation before learning to improvise. Perhaps ???