Improvising Character: Jazz, the Actor, and Protocols of Improvisation

Marshall Soules PhD.

There is a cruel contradiction implicit in the art form itself. For true jazz is an art of individual assertion within and against the group. Each true jazz moment (as distinct from the uninspired commercial performance) springs from a contest in which each artist challenges all the rest, each solo flight, or improvisation, represents (like the successive canvases of a painter) a definition of his identity: as individual, as member of the collectivity and as link in the chain of tradition. Thus, because jazz finds its very life in an endless improvisation upon traditional materials, the jazzman must lose his identity even as he finds it. (Ellison, Shadow and Act 234)
Ralph Ellison, who wrote extensively on jazz as both critic and writer of fiction, affirms the importance of character in any formulation of the "true jazz moment." The complex negotiation of identity within a performance context--whether the art be music, acting, writing, or the performance of self in everyday life--pits individual freedoms against the constraints and opportunities of society. In a similar vein, Attali claims that music is "an affirmation that society is possible....Its order simulates the social order, and its dissonances express marginalities" (29). Ellison's curious choice of the word "cruel" to describe the apparent contradiction of losing one's identity in the moment of finding it may seem overly-dramatic to some. However, as an echo of Artuad's famous articulation of the "theatre of cruelty"--with the actor as a martyr burning at the stake and signaling through the flames--Ellison's "cruel contradiction" suggests something of the commitment, courage, and risk-taking required of the dedicated jazz musician or stage actor. Derrida reminds us that the theatre of cruelty is marked by its "affirmation"of an "implacable necessity" (232). Cruelty in this sense connotes a matrix of character traits and registers the difficulty of authentic self-less performance.

Discussions of jazz and improvisation as a mode of performance are often as complex and multi-layered as the polyrhythms found in the music itself, and often just as charged with emotion. Questions of definition, lineage, authenticity, appropriation, and ethnicity are often contested, both enriching and complicating our responses. Ajay Heble's Landing on the Wrong Note is a fine review of how the discourse on jazz and its cultural signification is not only evolving and somewhat unstable in the current critical climate; it also resonates with self-professed dissonance in which "timbral innovation, playful improvisation, altered harmonies, and wrong notes" (28) operate as a kind of "sonic symbolism"--a term borrowed from George Lewis--marking both a critical practice and an approach to cultural stratagems of power and representation.

Similarly, in her discussion of modal jazz in the work of George Russell, John Coltrane, and Miles Davis, Ingrid Monson positions her discourse at a figurative crossroads of cultural analysis--reflective, expansive, open to possibility in a dialogic style I take as one of my models here: "Music truly served as a crossroads through which this wide range of social discussions were brought into dialogue. The musical changes that came to be associated with modal jazz--fewer chords, greater freedom in melodic and harmonic choices during improvisation, and more open forms over which to improvise--opened the door to a more international dialogue in the musical community…" (163). In the dialogic spirit recommended by Heble and Monson, I want to explore the cultural and aesthetic crossroads where jazz and the theatrical character intersect through their respective "protocols of improvisation": those voluntary guidelines used by performers--among them musicians, writers, actors--to ground the play of creativity within a matrix of constraints. By interrogating the nature of improvised music and acting in close juxtaposition, we gain insight into the nature of improvisation itself (even though it would be imprudent to suggest an essential definition suitable for all performance situations) and learn something about the dialogic construction of character.

Protocols--"long-established codes" determining "precedence and precisely correct procedure"--may at first seem antithetical to popular notions of improvised creativity. However, interdisciplinary research into the nature of improvisation shows that it typically occurs either within, or in close relation to, voluntary constraints. Pressing, for example, writes: "To achieve maximal fluency and coherence, improvisers, when they are not performing free (or 'absolute') improvisation, use a referent, a set of cognitive, perceptual, or emotional structures (constraints) that guide and aid in the production of musical materials" (52). Attali writes extensively on the "codes" found in the production of music: "rules of arrangement and laws of succession" which provide "precise operationality" (25). Protocols are strategies or agreements which "glue" events together (after the Greek protókollon, a first leaf glued to the front of a manuscript and containing notes as to its contents). These guidelines, whether explicitly stated or implicitly embodied in the mode of expression, ground the play of improvisation in performance situations and, in Pressing's analysis, signify expertise.

Even in a piece as radically improvisational as Ornette Coleman's Free Jazz, a few protocols were required: "Not only is the improvisation almost total, it is frequently collective, involving all eight men inventing at once. And there were no preconceptions as to themes, chord patterns or chorus lengths. The guide for each soloist was a brief ensemble part which introduces him and which gave him an area of musical pitch. Otherwise he had only feelings and imagination--his own and those of his accompanists--to guide him" (Williams; emphasis added). Williams describes the composition as a "kind of polyphonic accompaniment based on pitch, melodic direction, an emotional complement...." For Coleman, the guidelines embodied a different emphasis, one more attuned to the needs of the players: "The most important thing…was for us to play together, all at the same time, without getting in each other's way, and also to have enough room for each player to ad lib alone--and to follow this idea for the duration of the album. When the soloist played something that suggested a musical idea or direction to me, I played that behind him in my style. He continued his own way in his solo, of course." Improvisation for performance--both in jazz music and otherwise--is not typified by unrestrained freedom, though it does provide unique expressive opportunities for individual performers within the ensemble.

Coleman's emphasis alerts us to the importance of character in the improvisational transaction, and how character is inextricably entwined with the relationship of the individual to the collective. In many ways, the centrality of character to jazz and acting--and by extension, the relationship of the individual to society--justifies Robin Balliger's argument for "music and noise as social forces, fully involved in the 'dialogic process' of social life and as such, an important site of control--and resistance" (13). A network of analogies informs improvised music, transformational acting, and the notion of the improvised character in a "culture of spontaneity" (Belgrad). We are often called upon to improvise our characters within a matrix of social codes, and there is much to learn about how and why we do this from a study of improvisation as a performative practice across a variety of disciplines.

Performance at the Crossroads of Culture

Any writing which purports to explore intercultural and interdisciplinary correspondences immediately treads on highly-contested ground regarding questions of authority, authenticity, subjectivity, and appropriation. In The Predicament of Culture, James Clifford argues that contemporary societies have become "too systematically interconnected to permit easy isolation of separate or independently functioning systems": everywhere we see individuals and groups who "improvise local performance from (re)collected pasts, drawing on foreign media, symbols and languages" (15). Clifford and others refer to these inter-cultural formations as "creolized"[1] in reference to the heterogenous and layered cultures of, for example, the Caribbean. In Clifford's predicament, there is a complex interplay of value, influence, and adjustment which resists easy reconciliation, and which puts the ethnographer in the position of performing in relation to the performance of the culture under study.

Dwight Conquergood responds to this predicament by charting out five attitudes, or strategies, for approaching the ethnography of performance, four of which he believes are morally compromised. Carlson nicely summarizes Conquergood's schema:

The suspect stances were that of the custodian, the enthusiast, the skeptic, and the curator. The custodian collects examples of performance, interested only in acquisition or exploitation. The skeptic, like many traditional ethnographers, stands aloof from and superior to the performance being studied. The enthusiast goes to the opposite extreme, seeking an easy identity in quick generalizations. The curator takes a tourist's stance, seeking exoticism or spectacle. Against all four of these, Conquergood champions the fifth stance, a "dialogical" performance, which aims to "bring together different voices, world views, value systems, and beliefs so that they can have a conversation with one another." The result sought is an open-ended performance, resisting conclusions and seeking to keep interrogation open. (Carlson, Performance, 31)
While the reader will certainly find traces of the custodian, the enthusiast, the skeptic, and the curator in what follows, it is in the spirit of dialogical performance that the present study of improvisation is offered. Despite differences of culture, ethnicity, and gender, many individuals find themselves to be "'out of tune' with orthodox habits of coherence and judgment" and struggle "to achieve control over the ways in which their identities have been constructed, framed, and interpreted" (Heble 9), even by an audience. The work of Brazilian director Augusto Boal is animated by his goal of making us aware of the "cop in the head," the oppressive imaginal character who seeks to keep us in line.

The Improvised Self: Scrambling the Codes

"There is no such thing as a human nature independent of culture," Geertz writes, meaning by culture not primarily "complexes of concrete behavior patterns--customs, usages, traditions, habit clusters"--but rather "a set of control mechanisms--plans, recipes, rules, instructions...for the governing of behavior." Self-fashioning is in effect the Renaissance version of these control mechanisms, the cultural system of meanings that creates specific individuals by governing the passage from abstract potential to concrete historical embodiment. (Greenblatt 3-4)

In her discussion of George Russell's theory of tonal organization, Ingrid Monson describes the influence of the Russian mystical philosopher Georges Gurdjieff, subject of Peter Brook's film Meetings with Remarkable Men. With Russell and Coltrane as exemplary figures, Monson attempts to give substance to the argument that "improvisation has often been taken as a metaphor for freedom both musical and social" (149). Gurdjieff's conception of character was evidently suggestive for Russell, and continues to be a subject of great interest in psychological circles. Gurdjieff used the symbol of the enneagram--a nine-pointed figure inscribed within a circle--to map the human psyche according to Pythagorean notions of harmonious musical scales (Bennett). Each of the nine points on the symbol represents a different character archetype within the individual psyche, and each character type operates in relation to other types depending on an individual's temperamental proclivities and life experience. In effect, Gurdjieff believed that we all carry the potential for many characters within ourselves. We adopt a repertoire of character traits to adjust to changing circumstance, and this liberation of character from fixity may have been what attracted Russell to Gurdjieff's teaching.

Arriving at a working definition of the self--especially one which accommodates the exigencies of improvisation and contemporary theories of character--is difficult. Baumeister provides a lucid overview of "how the self became a problem," arguing that our notions of identity have become progressively destabilized: "In the absence of consensual, unimpeachable guidelines (values) that are adequate for making the choices that define the self, these guidelines are presumed to exist hidden within the self" (173). "Self-presentation," or "the extent to which the self is inextricably linked with how it is perceived by other persons" (174) is of growing interest to psychologists, who now seem prepared to substantiate Goffman's insights from the late 1950's about the presentation of self within the frames of culture.

One theorization of the self seeks to introduce greater spontaneity and multiplicity into the formulation. John Beahrs, a psychoanalyst working largely with hypnosis and trance states, uses the term "simultaneous co-consciousness" to describe his notion of the self: "We may indeed be true multiple personalities in a far more literal sense than the way the term is defined in the psychiatric nomenclature" (3). Beahrs likens the self to a symphony orchestra in which individual musicians (the unconscious) synergistically create a sound under the direction of the conductor (the conscious) who, while in charge, is largely silent during performances. This model, of course, suggests that the conductor directs the orchestra and thus may not be the best analogy for illustrating "simultaneous co-consciousness." Better would be the example of a free jazz ensemble.

Psychologists Hermans, Kempen, and van Loon articulate an ingenious argument derived from Bakhtin's narrative theories. They claim that the self is "dialogical" since people arrive at an understanding of the self and the world by telling and listening to stories. The self, as "dialogical narrator," is "social, with the other not outside but in the self-structure, resulting in a multiplicity of dialogically interacting selves" (23). The authors cite Bakhtin's argument that dialogue "not only represents a literary genre and possible conceptualization of personality, but also the very essence of personality" (28), and conceptualize the self as a "dynamic multiplicity of relatively autonomous I positions in an imaginal landscape" (28). They complicate Beahrs' analogy of the self as symphony orchestra by suggesting that the conductor (the I) is nomadic: "The I has the possibility to move, as in space, and from one position to the other" and "has the capacity to imaginatively endow each position with a voice so that dialogical relations between positions can be established. The voices function like interacting characters in a story" (28).

In Anti-Oedipus, Deleuze and Guattari advocate one of the more radical models of the improvising self by deconstructing the "restrictive codes of Oedipus" and the tyrannical suppositions of psychoanalysis in general. In their place, they substitute "schizoanalysis," a method which shifts its attention from the neurotic--"the one on whom the Oedipal imprints take" (xxi)--to the psychotic, the one who is "incapable of being oedipalized": "It might be said that the schizophrenic passes from one code to the other, that he deliberately scrambles all the codes, by quickly shifting from one to the other..." (15). The work of the Open Theatre on transformations and of Grotowski with the holy actor have many parallels with Deleuze and Guattari's mythopoetic schizophrenic, not the least of which are the goals of penetration and fluidity.

In his introduction to Anti-Oedipus, Mark Seem claims that such an analysis is intended to kindle "forces that escape coding, scramble the codes, and flee in all directions…" Estrangement is the rule. Deleuze and Guattari's politics seeks to "de-normalize and de-individualize through a multiplicity of new, collective arrangements against power" (xxi). Ultimately, "singularity and collectivity are no longer at odds with each other"--a formulation which seems to address Ellison's "cruel contradiction."

The Protocols of Jazz Improvisation

The problem of the self is compounded in this case by the difficulty of defining jazz improvisation as an initial paradigm of comparison. Derek Bailey notes the contingent nature of musical improvisation, and its subsequent resistance to analysis: "...[A]ny attempt to describe improvisation must be...a misrepresentation, for there is something central to the spirit of voluntary improvisation which is opposed to the aims and contradicts the idea of documentation" (ix). His approach, then, and that taken by Paul Berliner in Thinking in Jazz, is to explore improvisation through its practice: "For there is no general or widely held theory of improvisation and I would have thought it self-evident that improvisation has no existence outside of its practice" (x). For Bailey, musical improvisation in either "idiomatic"-- such as jazz, flamenco or baroque--or "non-idiomatic": "most usually found in so-called 'free' improvisation and, while it can be highly stylized, is not usually tied to representing an idiomatic identity" (xi-xii). As will be noted below, the idea of idiomatic improvisation resonates deeply with the related notion of the vernacular in identifying both the character of the performer and the nature of the performance. Bailey's interrogation of musicians to find out what they do--the practice of practice--attempts to skirt some of the problems of theorizing improvisation, and is similar to the method used by Berliner: "close observation and description of the full range of musical activities that occupied active members of a community known for its expertise in improvisation" (4). While the approach taken here attempts to synthesize a diversity of observations and ideas about improvisation as a mode of performance, it does so with the understanding that any theory is less than useful if not confirmed--or at least entertained--by the practice of experts.

While many cultural threads weave together to tell the story of improvisation, African music and culture claim pride of place when our central focus is jazz and its related musics. "Listening to rock, jazz, blues, reggae, salsa, samba, bossa nova, juju, highlife, and mambo," writes Robert Farris Thompson, "[O]ne might conclude that much of the popular music of the world is informed by the flash of the spirit of a certain people specially armed with improvisatory drive and brilliance." In tracing the translation of West African cultural forms throughout the Diaspora, Thompson contributes to our understanding of the protocols informing jazz and blues performance:

Since the Atlantic slave trade, ancient African organizing principles of song and dance have crossed the seas from the Old World to the New. There they took on a new momentum, intermingling with each other and with New World or European styles of singing and dance. Among those principles are the dominance of a percussive performance style...; a propensity for multiple meter...; overlapping call and response in singing...; inner pulse control...; suspended accentuation patterning...; and, at a slightly different but equally recurrent level of exposition, songs and dances of social allusion (music which, however danceable and "swinging," remorselessly contrasts social imperfections against implied criteria for perfect living). (xiii)
Thompson's catalogue of "organizing principles" is certainly not meant to be exhaustive, but rather suggests that the flash of the spirit that is improvisation thrives when there are productive tensions occurring at the level of the individual note as much as with the quality of social interaction supported by the performance. The intrinsic continuum between actions of the individual performer and the construction of cultural interaction--a mode of being both personal and public simultaneously--animates the spirit of improvisation.

Thompson identifies the roots of jazz improvisation with the cultural practices of West Africans, and establishes the profound relationship between spiritual beliefs, social decorum, and concrete performance techniques. While he is primarily concerned with the translation of this cultural matrix throughout the Diaspora, musicologist John Miller Chernoff focuses on musical aesthetics and social practices surrounding the performance of music in West Africa, chiefly in Ghana. His detailed study African Rhythm and African Sensibility arrives at a similar conclusion about the importance of "organizing principles" in improvisation: "Those who have pressed us to recognize the achievements of extemporaneous improvisation have often underemphasized the importance of organization to the critical aesthetic sense" (122). Chernoff describes how the apparently spontaneous and improvisatory music is performed within a set of codes, some related to the aesthetics of performance, some related to social contingencies. Reciprocity and restraint compliment energy and expressivity in framing the performance of music:

...a drum in an African ensemble derives its power and becomes meaningful not only as it cuts and focuses the other drums but also as it is cut and called into focus by them. Rhythmic dialogues are reciprocal, and in a way that might seem paradoxical to a Westerner, a good drummer restrains himself from emphasizing his rhythm in order that he may be heard better...[A] rhythm is interesting in terms of its potential to be affected by other rhythms. (60; emphasis in the original)
In this telling, the style of improvisation seems directly related to the social purposes of the music: "Improvisation for the master drummer...lies not so much in the genesis of new rhythms as in the organization and form given to the already existing rhythms, and a musician's style of organizing his playing will indicate the way he approaches from his own mind the responsibility of his role toward making the occasion a success" (82). Style, according to Chernoff and his sources, is "another word for the perception of relationships, a dynamic aesthetic attitude which focuses the music on the occasion." More than just guidelines, protocols retrieve traditions and recuperate them into present practice; they imply a cultural repository of aesthetic taste; and they signify an attitude toward social responsibility and engagement.

Anthropologist Victor Turner uses the term "normative communitas" to describe times when "individuals come together and devise rules for themselves" (Anthropology of Performance 44). As a demonstration of normative communitas, improvisation uses protocols to create conditions which allow individual voices a place for spontaneous expression in a communal setting. With a similar intention of creating an ensemble of players in a form of social organization respecting individual voices and contributions, Joseph Chaikin--one of the founders of the Open Theatre--calls normative communitas a "voluntary discipline." The discipline is necessary, and related to notions of character: "Because of the way things are in this country, we often act out of a dictate that has nothing to do with ourselves. We must not take that into our work, for, if we do, we won't be able to recognize our own impulses..." ( Presence 80). That the discipline is voluntary marks the practice as being non-coercive, not conceived for purposes of power and control, and thus culturally subversive in its contrast to any authoritarian cultural regime. Since the discipline is voluntary, individuals are encouraged to take a high degree of personal responsibility for their involvement.

One might say, then, that improvisation for performance involves a voluntary discipline when individuals come together to devise rules for their play, in an open-ended arrangement allowing individual expression within the ensemble of players. Chernoff elaborates: "...[T]he musical form is open rather than rigid, set up so it affords a focus for the expression of individuality that subtly distinguishes an occasion within the context of tradition" (126). Normative communitas--and improvisation--seek to strike a balance between the human needs for individual expression and social integration. In many respects, normative communitas is closely related to the nature of play, a subject discussed below in more detail.

Signifyin(g) in the Vernacular

In his vernacular theory of the blues, Houston Baker situates the African-American idiomatic music at the railway junction, the place where road crosses tracks:
The railway juncture is marked by transience. Its inhabitants are always travelers--a multifarious assembly in transit. The "X" of the crossing roadbeds signals the multi-directionality of the juncture and is simply a single instance in a boundless network… Polymorphous and multidirectional, scene of arrivals and departures, place betwixt and between (ever entre les deux), the juncture is the way-station of the blues. (7)
Baker's conceit suggests that the blues musician provides "expressive equivalence for the juncture's ceaseless flux" and thus the blues performer may be considered a "translator" (simultaneously suggesting an affinity with the Greek understanding of the actor as translator). Baker refers to John Felstiner's argument that translation preserves something of value, as in the giving of a gift, by "keeping it in motion" (206). The blues musician, working in the vernacular--of the slave, native or peculiar to a particular country or locality--translates experience at a particular crossroads which is also a node in a network of cultural relations. The crossroads marks both a particular instance of local expression--the vernacular--and a point with no fixed address, something of a cultural universal ruled by archetypes and protocols.

How did the organizing principles identified by Thompson, Chernoff and others fare in the brutal translation of the middle passage to become North American jazz? Whatever the details of loss and adaptation, the importance of continuity and cultural influence remain central to an understanding of improvisation. Paul Berliner quotes Wynton Marsalis: "Jazz is not just, 'Well, man, this is what I feel like playing.' It's a very structured thing that comes down from a tradition and requires a lot of thought and study" (63). The protocols of improvisation derived from the knowledge and study of the tradition provide a context for the greater freedom of spontaneous invention. Berliner comments: "[D]espite stylistic changes over time, jazz retains the continuity of certain underlying practices and values associated with improvisation, learning, and transmission. These factors of continuity, moreover, rest at the very core of the tradition, contributing to its integrity as a music system" (14). In his description of Henry Minton's club as a "retreat" where a "collectivity...could find continuity and meaningful expression," Ralph Ellison contends that the jam session was the jazz musician's "true academy." The jam or "cutting session" was a "contest of improvisational skill and physical endurance between two or more musicians....It is here that he learns tradition, group techniques and style.... All this through achieving that subtle identification between his instrument and his deepest drives which will allow him to express his own unique ideas and his own unique voice. He must achieve, in short, his self-determined identity" (208-09). Character development and finding one's voice are central to an apprenticeship in improvisation.

What does improvisation as a musical practice involve, and how does this practice lend itself to appropriation or mimesis by other types of performance? One point of intersection grows out of the previously discussed notions of continuity and tradition: the idea of referencing previous expressions. In literary studies, this use of allusions can take the form of troping--a kind of linguistic play--or intertextuality, when one text participates in a "dialogue" with a previous text. In jazz, the use of allusions, echoes, or references is often called "riffing." Albert Murray elaborates in Stompin' the Blues:

When they are effective, riffs always seem as spontaneous as if they were improvised in the heat of the performance. So much so that riffing is sometimes regarded as being synonymous with improvisation. But such is not always the case by any means. Not only are riffs as much a part of some arrangements and orchestrations as the lead melody, but many consist of nothing more than stock phrases, quotations from some familiar melody, or even clichés that just happen to be popular at the moment....[I]mprovisation includes spontaneous appropriation (or inspired allusion, which sometimes is a form of signifying) no less than on-the-spot invention. (96)
Murray also notes that the efficacy of the creative process "lies not in the originality of the phrase...but in the way it is used in a frame of reference" (96), an idea that essentially repeats what Keith Johnstone claims for originality in improvised acting--the more obvious one is, the more original one appears (87). What distinguishes the jazz musician adept at improvisation is "idiomatic orientation." The "character" of the jazz musician is revealed by the "voice" of the instrument; idiomatic orientation is the relation of that voice to the other instruments and to the tradition, and can be seen as a variation on the idea of the vernacular.[2]

In The Signifying Monkey, Henry Louis Gates Jr. explores a related notion of improvisation in which the performer "repeats and revises" musical figures, styles, and instrumental voices. Gates associates this activity with the African American practice of "Signifyin(g)--playing with linguistic figures to parody or pastiche a rival"(46)[3]. Gates notes how this process of Signifyin(g), of repetition and revision, has become a staple of jazz improvisation:

Improvisation, of course, so fundamental to the very idea of jazz, is "nothing more" than repetition and revision. In this sort of revision, again where meaning is fixed, it is the realignment of the signifier that is the signal trait of expressive genius. The more mundane the fixed text ("April in Paris" by Charlie Parker, "My Favorite Things" by John Coltrane), the more dramatic is the Signifyin(g) revision. It is this principle of repetition and difference, this practice of intertextuality, which has been so crucial to the black vernacular forms of Signifyin(g), jazz--and even its antecedents, the blues, the spirituals, and ragtime.... (63-4)
For Gates, the repetition and revision of the improvising jazz musician has its counterpart in the intertextual networking of the cultural critic: both trade on indeterminacies resurrected from the tradition; both act as translators hoping to preserve the gift of culture. The same might be said of actors who give their unique interpretation of a given stage character.

It is no coincidence that Gates associates this Signifyin(g) practice with the trickster archetype, and incidentally, with the practice of cultural and literary criticism:

Signifyin(g) in jazz performances and in the play of black language games is a mode of formal revision, it depends for its effects on troping, it is often characterized by pastiche, and, most crucially, it turns on repetition of formal structures and their differences...[T]he Signifying Monkey, he who dwells at the margins of discourse, ever punning, ever troping, ever embodying the ambiguities of language, is our trope for repetition and revision… (52)
In Gates' complex mythopoetics, the literary critic and the improvising jazz musician are equally engaged in acts of translation and dialogic networking. By tracing the path of the Yoruba trickster Eshu-Elegbara to his multiple New World incarnations as Exú, Papa Legba, and the Signifying Monkey among others, and by associating the act of literary criticism with musical improvisation through the conceit of Signifyin(g), Gates plots an intersection of performative activities that include "individuality, satire, parody, irony, magic, indeterminacy, open-endedness, ambiguity, sexuality, chance, uncertainty, disruption and reconciliation, betrayal and loyalty, closure and disclosure, encasement and rapture" (6). Animating these often contradictory activities is the spirit of play.

Play and Cognition

One of the great practitioners of theatrical improvisation in the twentieth century, Jacques Copeau, associated the "essence of the dramatic personality" with "the child who, in sheer bodily delight, jumps and shouts for joy on a spring morning: that is where to find the origin of exultation" (5). Copeau looked to the energy and attitude of children--their ability to play--for the origins of the impulse to improvise, and thus to a source of inspiration for actors (and musicians): "The habit of improvisation will give back to the actor the suppleness, the elasticity, the true spontaneous life of the word and the gesture, the true feeling of the movement, the true contact with the public, the inspiration, the fire and daring of the jester" (153). Frost and Yarrow, among others, identify Copeau and his followers as central figures in the resurgence of interest in improvisation in the twentieth-century. Copeau's training techniques and orientation to spontaneity would ultimately find expression in the vogue of stand-up comedy, the Second City phenomenon, and improvisational troupes such as Theatre Machine (founded with Keith Johnstone as director in 1967).

It may need to be clarified that Copeau promoted "the art of improvisation and the illusion of spontaneity" (155; emphasis added) in his actors, and sought to define a "pre-established form which is inspirational" (158). Apart from repeating the idea that improvisation occurs within a matrix of constraints, Copeau draws our attention to the self-reflexive awareness required of performance. Marvin Carlson writes: "[A]ll performance involves a consciousness of doubleness, through which the actual execution of an action is placed in mental comparison with a potential, an ideal, or a remembered original model of that action. Normally this comparison is made by an observer of the action...Performance is always performance for someone, some audience that recognizes and validates it as performance even when...that audience is the self" (5-6; emphasis in the original). Similarly, in his discussion of masks and improvisation, Eldredge discusses the importance of "dual consciousness" for the improvising actor, a formulation wherein the performer is both participant and observer simultaneously: "What is important is the inscribing and imprinting of mental and emotional forms onto the actor's 'other' consciousness through physicality" (37). Eldredge suggests that "acknowledging the cast of characters within" (34) is both closely allied with dual consciousness and the transformative power of masks in improvisational acting. This double consciousness is highly involving cognitively and involves translating--inscribing and imprinting--what can be formulated in consciousness onto the "undisciplined" realms of the unconsciousness. In many respects, the double-consciousness required of performance is a rehearsal for character development.[4]

For improvising actors and musicians alike--and indeed for many playful children as well--performance often involves notions of decorum and suitability: what is acceptable by the audience, what goes too far. Similarly, performers may need to be aware of how far they can go in terms of their own dignity and safety. This focus on "performative-consciousness" (Schechner) draws attention to the need to keep the open-ended structures of improvisation safe for the performers or players. Richard Schechner comments: "Because performances are usually subjunctive, liminal, dangerous, and duplicitous they are often hedged in with conventions and frames: ways of making the places, the participants, and the events somewhat safe. In these relatively safe make-believe precincts, actions can be carried to extremes, even for fun"(xiv)[5]. Influenced by Grotowski's reading of Artaud--that the image of actors "signaling through the flames" embodies the "whole problem of spontaneity and discipline"--Schechner concludes, "Both spontaneity and discipline are risks for the performer" (Performance Theory 57).

Schechner's description of performative consciousness is influenced by the work of anthropologist Victor Turner who conceived of play as a liminal, or boundary-crossing experience. Synthesizing the research of van Gennep, Huizinga, Caillois and others, Turners argues that, in play, we combine what we have at hand--what is, the indicative function--with what could be--the subjunctive, or provisional function (From Ritual to Theatre 28). For example, we might take a stick or a pencil and play as if it were a sword. We make paper airplanes. We drum on our desks. We are bricoleurs who assemble the materials at hand into something new and heterogenous, often on the fly.[6] As did the Surrealists, we make radical juxtapositions to shock the unconscious into awareness. In so doing, we participate in an activity which is highly engaging cognitively since we are integrating analytical (indicative) and associative (subjunctive) mental processes.

In his essay "Body, Brain and Culture," Turner draws on the work of various neurophysiologists to speculate that "at the neurobiological level play might have something to do with the sensitization of neural structures of an interface type, like the limbic system at the core of the brain..." (167) Edward Hall reaches a similar conclusion: "Seated in the old mammalian brain, improvisation is a process originating in play in mammals....With these new types of animals, a new brain evolved, a horseshoe shaped structure called the limbic system....The limbic system is the center of emotions, parenting, social organization and play. And play is the device which permits all mammals to have fun, but gives them the means of mastering the skills needed for survival" (224). Turner gives this playful function a distributed location in the limbic system, at the intersection of energy-expending (ergotropic) and energy-conserving (trophotropic) processes within the nervous system. Turner cites the research of d'Aquili and Laughlin which suggests

...that when either the ergotropic or trophotropic system is hyperstimulated, there results a "spillover" into the opposite system after "three stages of tuning," often by "driving behaviors" employed to facilitate ritual trance....In particular, they postulate that the rhythmic activity of ritual, aided by sonic, visual, photic, and other kinds of "driving," may lead in time to simultaneous maximal stimulation of both systems, causing ritual participants to experience what the authors call "positive, ineffable affect." (165)
In effect, repetitive "driving" behaviors, whether sustained by meditation, ritual, or music may create a state of satori or ecstasy.

Turner, however, does not rest here. He notes that d'Aquili and Laughlin are absolutely silent on the question of play, which he sees as a kind of neurophysiological free-agent, sampling, revising, re-creating: "...[P]lay does not fit in anywhere in particular; it is transient and is recalcitrant to localization, to placement, to fixation--a joker in the neuroanthropological act" (167). Play is, for Turner, "a liminal or liminoid mode, essentially interstitial, betwixt-and-between all standard taxonomic modes, essentially 'elusive'...Like many Trickster figures in can deceive, betray, beguile, delude..." The alignment between Turner's formulation of the trickster as central to the spirit of play and Gates' association of the trickster with Signifyin(g) is striking.

More recent neurophysiological research seems to confirm Turner's insights. Candace Pert's discovery of widespread peptide receptors throughout the body conclusively blurs previous distinctions between cognition and emotion, and where they occur in the body. As reported by Fritjof Capra in the The Web of Life, peptides are the equivalent of "molecular messengers" which interconnect nervous, immune and endocrine systems into "one single network" (282). Pert's research on peptides--short chains of amino acids--identify them as the biochemical instantiation of emotions translated in the limbic system into cognition about those emotions. In a unique convergence of terminology, James Austin suggests in Zen and the Brain (1999) that the hippocampal formation lies at an "obvious crossroads in the limbic system" where it provides a "single association matrix" marking "that conjunction between an event, its occurrence in time, its place in space, and the lively coloration it receives from its emotionalized limbic correlates" (182-183). The limbic system, a crossroads of human anatomy, translates sensation and emotion into cognition through the widely-distributed agency of peptides. Is it possible, then, that the archetype of the trickster embodies, as Turner suggests, a deep intuitive understanding of how the human mind translates feeling into action on the fly, how it grapples with paradox, how it reconciles the one with the many? If so, then neurophysiologists may be close to identifying now and where play and improvisation occur in the body, and thus providing insight into the origins of the mythopoetics of the crossroads, the trickster archetype, and the dynamics of improvisation. Cognition--and its relationship to emotion and action--introduces protocols into all improvisational transactions, from play to music, acting, writing, and negotiating character. In their introduction to improvisation in drama, Frost and Yarrow claim that improvisation is a "paradigm for the way humans reflect (or create) what happens," a kind of "creative organization" for how we "respond to and give shape to our world" (2).

Improvisation and Acting

Improvisation is fundamental to all drama. All performance uses the body of the actor, giving space and form to an idea, situation, character or text in the moment of creation. It does not matter that the play has been rehearsed for a month, with every move, every nuance of speech learned and practiced. In the act of performance the actor becomes an improviser. (Frost and Yarrow 1)
Through the notion of protocols and the performing self, we can begin to explore some of the common ground occupied by jazz and acting improvisation. It can be argued, for example, that both modes of performance thrive when individual expressive freedom is framed by "organizing principles," though these principles will differ in kind. There is the common perception that both are subversive of culturally-valorized art forms, deserving only marginalized or fringe status. Frost and Yarrow point out that, while improvisation has deep roots in the dramatic practices of the world, there has been a resurgence of interest in the European and North American contexts in the twentieth century, during which it developed in close juxtaposition to jazz. While jazz may have taken little notice of dramatic improvisation, there are countless examples of theatre practitioners inspired by the organization, expressive goals, and discipline of the jazz ensemble. Most importantly, however, is the unifying notion of the improvised character: both jazz and improv acting are procedural systems which challenge restricting constructions of character; both seek to open up character to greater expressive potential, wider freedoms and responsibilities. Improvised jazz and acting both refashion character to provide alternate models of human aspiration and interaction.

While it is not the place here to survey the history of improvisation in acting from the Dionysian rhapsodein, through the popular commedia dell'arte of the Italian late middle ages, or the complex self-fashioning of the Elizabethan theatre of Marlow and Shakespeare, it is appropriate to trace briefly some of the major instantiations of acting improvisation in the last century. Frost and Yarrow investigate the history of acting improvisation in the twentieth century along three intersecting trajectories, or contexts: as an element of actor training and character development in the tradition of Stanislavski and the American Method--what they call the "traditional" theatre; as a practice associated with the "alternative"--non-realist--drama; and in the "paratheatrical" context typified by Grotowski's later experiments, the work of Augusto Boal, and other activities which seek to involve the audience more directly in the making of the performance. There is so much intersection of influence, however, that such a scheme of organization serves only rudimentary purposes of clarification. As the authors write, "Improvisation is not just a style or acting technique; it is a dynamic principle operating in many different spheres; an independent and transformative way of being and doing" (13). As a method of "creative organization"(2), however, the related questions of character and authenticity are central to acting improvisation in all contexts.

For those working in the tradition of naturalism, the well-made play, and the actor preparation techniques inspired by Stanislavski, improvisation is largely a rehearsal technique for exploring depth of character, a repertoire of physical actions suitable to the character, and elements of the subtext. The technique of emotional memory, for example, allows the actor to invest the character with deeply-felt feelings in a reasonably consistent way in performance after performance. The "magic as-if" exercises--another stock-in-trade of method acting derived from Stanislavski--requires the actor to enter imaginatively into the psychology and physical actions of the character. Both techniques require the actor to improvise the character into existence in the moment of performance through a variation of spontaneous appropriation. While the degree of improvisation in the performance is often at the discretion of the director and subject to the discipline of the actors, improvisation in traditional drama animates character and promotes the illusion of spontaneity and presence. The work of Jacques Copeau and his disciples, Joan Littlewood, John Cassavettes, Ariane Mnouchkine, Mike Leigh, Caryl Churchill, and Mike Figgis illustrate dramatic improvisation in this context. In her documentary Hearts of Darkness (1991) on the making of Apocalypse Now, Eleanor Coppola captures two marvelous demonstrations of actors (Charlie Sheen and Marlon Brando) improvising their way into character.

This kind of improvisation tends to assume a concept of character as the locus of "deterministic forces" (Frost and Yarrow 14), which for many theatre critics is the hallmark of dramatic naturalism and realism. In his attempt to establish a solid theoretical ground for naturalism in the theatre, Strindberg broached this question in his "Author's Preface to Miss Julie" and subsequently complicated any rigid conceptions of character entertained by students of modern drama:

The term character has come to mean many things over the course of time. Originally, it must have meant the dominant trait in the soul-complex and was confused with temperament. Later it became the middle-class expression for the automaton, one whose disposition was fixed once and for all or had adapted himself to a particular role in life. In a word, someone who had stopped growing was called a character.
In Miss Julie, Strindberg sets about to define the modern dramatic character as "more vacillating and disintegrating than their predecessors, a mixture of old and new." His "souls (characters) are conglomerates of past and present cultural phases, bits from books and newspapers, scraps of humanity, pieces torn from fine clothes and become rags, patched together as is the human soul." This conception is reflected in a dialogue where "characters' minds function irregularly, as they do in real-life conversation, where no topic of discussion is exhausted entirely and one mind by chance finds a cog in another mind in which to engage." Strindberg allows the dialogue to wander, "presenting material in the opening scenes that is later taken up, reworked, repeated, expanded, and developed, like the theme in a musical composition." Finally, Strindberg suggests that the actors might take their inspiration from Italian commedia del'arte which requires that actors improvise portions of their own dialogue, "although in accordance with the author's intentions."

A more contemporary version of the improvised character is found in the work of Sam Shepard. Read together, Shepard's introductory notes on the music and to the actors in Angel City sum up the conjunction of music, acting, and character which I have taken as my theme. The "Note on the Music" suggests that the character Sax remain "cut off from the other characters...even when he appears on stage" (61). His music is meant to contribute a dominant mood of "lyrical loneliness" in the style of Lester Young, though with occasional explosions of Charlie Parker and Ornette Coleman. Significantly, the "musician should be free to explore his own sound within the general jazz structure" and is given license to "heighten or color the action" at places not indicated by the script.

The "Note to the Actors" is often cited by critics to make the point that Shepard's conception of character is consistent with the principles of acting transformations, with their goal of subverting the conventions of coherent motivation characteristic of realism:

Instead of the idea of a 'whole character' with logical motives behind his behavior...[the actor] should consider instead a fractured whole with bits and pieces of character flying off the central theme. In other words, more in terms of collage construction or jazz improvisation. (61-62)
Shepard clarifies that he is not describing one actor playing multiple roles ("doubling up") but an actor combining "many different underlying elements and connecting them through his intuition and senses to make a kind of music or painting in space." What at first appears to be an overtly expressionistic notion of character retains some basis, if not in realism, at least in reality. Shepard explains, "If there needs to be a 'motivation' for some of the abrupt changes...they can be taken as full-blown manifestations of a passing thought or fantasy, having as much significance or 'meaning' as they do in our ordinary lives" (62).

In their various ways and with many variations of approach, both Strindberg and Shepard explored the limits of dramatic realism and both, in part, belong equally to what might be called the anti-realist tradition of western drama. This "anti-tradition," according to Frost and Yarrow,

...rests on a more radical acknowledgement of the fragmentation of nineteenth-century notions of a consistent personality. The comic and satiric vein, often allied to improvisation, challenges assumptions about stable social personality and "bourgeois" respectability; taken to extremes, it undercuts political, religious and philosophical myths about the coherence of individual identity and its consonance within a system of stratified order and significance. (14-15)
With Miss Julie, Strindberg attempted to "destabilize" Ibsen's coherent, if complex, treatment of characters such as Nora Helmer (A Doll's House), or Hedda Gabler. Jarry's satiric portrait of the authoritarian personality in Ubu Roy, or Pirandello's philosophical deconstruction of presence and identity in Six Character in Search of an Author or Tonight We Improvise continued to subvert the idea of the overly-determined character. In different ways, both Beckett and Brecht challenged assumptions about the construction of character; for one, the existential underpinnings of the absurd character is sustained by play--temporary, in-the-moment stratagems used to confirm a tenuous hold on identity; for the other, empathy in the plight of the character is "alienated" from the audience by various distancing effects, including a repertoire of acting techniques designed to remind the audience that they are watching acting--the demonstration of an event, attitude, or character trait--and not reality. Brecht was concerned that sustained audience empathy with the plight of the character would promote catharsis rather than motivate social change.

In these examples taken from the anti-realist tradition, the playwrights promote the illusion of spontaneous improvisation on the stage, even though the words and actions of the characters are carefully scripted. Though their means may vary considerably, the illusion of spontaneity Signifies (à la Gates) on the assumptions audiences tend to make about the construction and nature of character, substituting instead destabilized, fragmentary, collaged, and musically-inspired alternatives. In his essay "Just be your self," Philip Auslander reviews the problematic construction of the actor's self, tracing the intersecting analyses derived from literary theory (including Derrida's deconstruction of the "metaphysics of presence") against the theories developed by Stanislavski, Brecht, Grotowski, and others. Auslander asserts that, while "all theorize the actor's self differently, all posit the self as an autonomous foundation for acting." Using Derrida's critique of the performance of presence (28), Auslander concludes that "the actorly self is, in fact, produced by the performance it supposedly grounds" (30). Performance precedes presence, and clearly usurps essence.

In the western dramatic tradition, there has evolved a conviction that the work of the actor should provide a model for inspired human interaction. Peter Brook's term--"the holy theatre"--describes performance which aspires to "a reality deeper than the fullest form of everyday life" (Empty Space 40). In his analysis of catharsis in the holy theatre of Artaud, Copeau, Brook, and others, Auslander writes: "Divorced from reality yet reflecting it, communal theatre carries artists and audience together to a level of universal emotional response then returns them to quotidian reality with a keener sense of the psychic structures shared by all people." In contrast to Artistotle's view that the "new balance achieved through catharsis" contributes to the "emotional equilibrium" of the responsible citizen, Copeau and Brook "imply that the balance achieved is a fresh understanding of the individual's relationship to the collective." At the heart of this cathartic effect lies the ability of the spectacle--in the way envisioned by Artaud--to accomplish this in "much the way music does--through abstract theatrical elements (rhythm, sound, archetypal imagery) rather than through mimesis" (21). Auslander's distinction between spectacle and mimesis--or between presentation and representation--brings forward Aristotle's original definition of catharsis in the Politics (VIII:7): individuals, Aristotle claimed, are "possessed" by strong emotions, but "when they have made use of the melodies which fill the soul with orgiastic feeling, they are brought back by these sacred melodies to a normal condition as if they had been medically treated and undergone a catharsis" (14). This distinction between the representation of character and the presentation of "the individual's relationship to the collective"--undertaken in the context of musical ways of knowing and feeling--is of central importance when considering the question of improvisation in drama. Such an analysis also serves to pry drama away from the traditional venues and invigorate a contemporary interest in performance--the rebirth of the medieval jongleur (Attali 14, 141).

At the heart of the holy theatre is the notion that the actor, in clearing away obstacles to being fully present in a role, is in effect charting a course for individual human behavior. The extreme articulation of that concept is Artaud's oracular "Actors should be like martyrs burnt alive, still signaling to us from their stakes." In Jerzy Grotowski's view, such a claim contains "the whole problem of spontaneity and discipline, the conjunction of opposites which gives birth to the total act" (125).

Grotowski's famous concept of the via negativa describes how the actor does not seek to build up a character but rather how to eliminate obstacles which prevent the actor from being less than fully present. In the following description of the holy actor, Grotowski reveals the impulse to challenge the illusions and limitations of personality so central to his and, among others, Brook's and Chaikin's, actor training techniques: "If the actor, by setting himself a challenge publicly challenges others, and through excess, profanation and outrageous sacrilege reveals himself by casting off his everyday mask, he makes it possible for the spectator to undertake a similar process of self-penetration. If he does not exhibit his body, but annihilates it, burns it, frees it from every resistance to any psychic impulse, then he does not sell his body but sacrifices it" (34). He goes on to distinguish the technique of elimination used by the holy actor from the accumulation of skills by the "courtesan actor" (35). For Grotowski, the holy actor, something of a trickster, provides a model for ideal humanity. As noted earlier, Grotowski's formulation of the holy actor resonates deeply with Ellison's notion of the cruel contradiction facing the jazz improviser.

The actor Ryszard Cieslak characterized Grotowski's negative way as a "score": as with the banks of a river, the actor's spontaneous and authentic energies are given direction, force, and relevance. In Grotowski's "poor theatre," spontaneity must be given form by "external discipline"-- "...the more we become absorbed in what is hidden inside us, in the excess, in the exposure, in the self-penetration, the more rigid must be the external discipline" (39). He compares this style of acting with a sculptor "who takes away what is concealing the form" to reveal contours of the self which were formally only felt as vague outlines. On this point, Grotowski found himself in agreement with Artaud's appreciation of Balinese theatre, wherein "spontaneity and discipline, far from weakening each other, mutually reinforce themselves" (121). Grotowski felt that Stanislavski did not understand this principle, since he allowed "natural impulses to dominate." Neither was it understood by Brecht "who gave too much emphasis to the construction of a role" (121).

While their ends may differ, Peter Brook shared many of Grotowski's notions of the actor's relation to a character. Brook writes that "preparing a character is the opposite of building--it is demolishing, removing brick by brick everything in the actor's muscles, ideas and inhibitions that stands between him and his part..." (Shifting Point 7-8). Similarly, Brook affirms the importance of what Grotowski terms the "conjunction of opposites": "As soon as a performance begins, the actor steps into the structure of the mise-en-scène: he too [like a runner] becomes completely involved, he improvises within the established guidelines and...enters the unpredictable" (8). For Brook, preparation is not meant to "establish form" since the "exact shape" only comes into being "at the hottest moment, when the act itself takes place."

To illustrate how improvisation can establish a dialogue with an audience which does not speak the same language as the actors, Brook relates how he and a troupe of thirty actors traveling through Northern Africa performed fragmentary improvisations when they reached a town. In one place, they used a pair of dusty boots sitting in the middle of a carpet as a starting point: "…[O]one person after another came in and did various improvisations with them, on a really shared premise: that first of all there was the empty carpet--there was nothing--then a concrete object....Through the boots a relationship was established with the audience, so that what developed was shared in a common language" (Shifting Point 115). This anecdote illustrates what Nettl, in the context of musical improvisation, calls a "point of departure": "…[I]mprovisers always have a point of departure, something they use to improvise upon. There are many types, extending from themes, tunes, and chord sequences to forms, from a vocabulary of techniques to a vocabulary of motifs and longer materials, from what is easy or 'natural' for the hand to what is intellectually complex" (16). What this reveals about Brook's orientation to the theatre is, first of all, a search for the essential elements that constitute the theatrical experience, and which can serve as points of departure. Secondly, as a practitioner of the holy theatre--in which "theatre becomes life in a more concentrated form" (114)--he is drawn toward community and away from the isolated individual. This emphasis on forging a community of interaction was explored in the work of Chaikin's Open Theatre, founded in 1963.

The aesthetic intention of the Open Theatre was, according to Chaikin, "to bring about a kind of theatre immediacy--a presence, being present, in the theatre. To explore those powers which the live theatre possesses" (Blumenthal 15). He explored "alternate understandings of character" and attempted to find "new ways to enter stage roles using somatic and musical methods" (17). Informing these explorations of the relation between the actor and the character is a perception akin to Reich's notion of "armoring," of the essential nature in retreat behind an "individual neurotic superstructure."[8] Chaikin describes such an understanding as follows: "We have to shake off the sophistication of our time, by which we close ourselves up and to become vulnerable again....We've closed off a great deal of our total human response" (qtd. in Martin 121). Both Chaikin and Brook were suspicious of the Method actor's freedom to improvise on the "gestures of everyday life" because, as Brook writes, "the actor is not drawing on any deep creativity. He is reaching inside himself for an alphabet that is also fossilized...." (Empty Space 112).

Improvisation exercises are fundamental to the kind of actor training advocated by both Brook and Chaikin. Brook, for example, writes: "Those who work in improvisation have the chance to see with frightening clarity how rapidly the boundaries of so-called freedom are reached" (Shifting Point 112). The aim of improvisation exercises in rehearsal is to bring the actor up against personal barriers and is thus a form of boundary-crossing activity. One such improvisation exercise adapted from Nola Chilton by Chaikin was a "sound and movement" technique in which the shape of a sound is passed back and forth across the room. Emotions come to be embodied in action and sound, making what is normally invisible, visible (Martin 121-2; Blumenthal 96). The actors are thus encouraged to become vulnerable to difficult emotions.

Other improvisation exercises used by the Open Theatre included the chord, conductor exercises, and jamming. Blumenthal cites the following description of an actor's jam:

One actor comes in and moves in contemplation of a theme, traveling with the rhythms, going through and out of the phrasing, sometimes using just the gesture, sometimes reducing the whole thing to pure sound....Then another comes in and together they give way and open up on the theme. During the jamming, if the performers let it, the theme moves into associations, a combination of free and structured form. (76)
Throughout the Open Theatre workshops, music and musical analogies were used to explore, among other things, the non-linguistic dimensions of sound, "thought-music"--"the fleeting, often contrapuntal interplay of feelings and ideas" (Blumenthal 97)--and musical prototypes for dramatic structures. To underscore the pervasive musical analogy, Blumenthal quotes Chaikin's statement that the theatre "exists not just to make a mirror of life, but to represent a kind of realm just as certainly as music is a realm" (47).

In its earlier workshops, the Open Theatre made extensive use of improvisation exercises developed by Viola Spolin, who brought forward the teachings of Neva Boyd and inspired a whole generation of acting improvisers: among them Paul Sills, Bernie Sahlins, and Andre Alexander of Second City fame. Underlying Spolin's theory of improvisation is a principle similar to Grotowski's "conjunction of opposites" in which spontaneity is given form by external discipline. In Improvisation for the Theatre, she emphasizes that games, and theatre games in particular, require the mutual acceptance by all performers of the rules. Once the rules are accepted, games encourage participants to improvise solutions to the problem posed by the game: "The energy released to solve the problem, being restricted by the rules of the game and bound by group decision, creates an explosion--or spontaneity--and as is the nature of explosions, everything is torn apart, rearranged, unblocked. The ear alerts the feet, and the eye throws the ball" (6). The Reichean principle that character fixation and emotional trauma are embodied as armoring underscores Spolin's understanding of the efficacy of improvisation exercises. The explosion of spontaneity, prepared for by the acceptance of rules, transpires through the body at a bio-energetic level. In her discussion of "physicalization," she contends that the "physical is known, and through it we may find our way to the unknown, the intuitive" (7). Since there are often few props, costumes, or set pieces in improvisational theatre, the actor is required to project a stage reality having depth, texture, and substance through the physicalization of ideational forms. This act of translation characterizes improvisation across the arts.

At the Open Theatre, the transformations which evolved from the improvisation exercises inspired by Spolin, Chilton, Brook and Grotowski brought the actors, and hopefully their audiences, up against the boundaries of unconscious behavior. Megan Terry, widely acknowledged as instrumental in the early development of transformations joined the Open Theatre as a writer in 1963. The concept of transformations grew out of a desire to move away from the usual dramatic focus where "one person gets to show three or four aspects of the personality, while all the other people have supporting roles and usually are stereotypes" (245). The egalitarian impulse behind the transformation exercises traded on the audience's familiarity with the stories and editing techniques of films, radio and television. Terry believes that a playwright "can speak to people in a new kind of shorthand, by the use of dramatic clues. It's like Gestalt psychology--connect the dots, the incomplete completes itself." There is no need to supply subjective motivations for characters because audience members will do that of their own accord. Transformations are a way of "playing with the elements of theatre," using jump cuts, dissolves and fades, creating comedy from quickly changing situations. She cites stand-up comics, impressionists, cartoons and Gertrude Stein as other influences. The essence of the transformation is to eliminate transitions: "When people try to show the transition, they fall into a morass. Transitions should be as pure and quick as those of a child playing--with total commitment each time" (247).

The difference between Method actors and transformational actors in Terry's view is an ability to "drop" a character quickly. "Our actors were trained to that. It takes Actors Studio actors half an hour to drop it" (246). One exercise used to promote acting responsiveness and flexibility is the "transformation of styles": "You take the same dialogue and do it as Molière, as Shakespeare, as The Days of Our Lives [a TV soap opera], as Noel Coward, as Tennessee Williams" (246). The actor involved in transformations is riffing like the jazz musician, a channel for a dialogic mix of cultural voices unencumbered by reifications of personality or place.

The transformational exercises of the Open Theatre and other companies in the 1960's reflected a deep interest in the therapeutic value of improvisation. J. L. Moreno's psychodrama, first developed in Vienna in 1923--besides inspiring theatre practitioners--continues to inform family reconstruction therapies (pioneered by Satir and Minuchin in their separate spheres), as well as other approaches to psychotherapy promoted by Jung, Maslow, and Rogers. Moreno borrowed from the Greek paradigm in which a character experiences a degree of catharsis through some form of enactment wherein issues of choice, receptivity, responsibility, and identity are of central concern. Psychodrama allows participants to discover their character armoring (Reich), and their attachment to the attributions of others (Laing). The work of the Wooster Group, Mabou Mines, Laurie Anderson, Spalding Gray, Karen Finley, and of risk-taking stand-up comics from Robin Williams to Richard Prior all owe a debt of influence to Moreno's use of drama, play, and improvisation as a way of opening up the self to greater freedom and possibility. Frost and Yarrow offer the term disponibilité--derived from Lecoq--to suggest a range of meanings reflecting the therapeutic possibilities of improvised drama: "Availability--openness--readiness--acceptance: the precondition of creativity. It implies not resisting, but flowing with the world and the self....The performer is without armour, but not without weapons: such as wit, agility, mobility, and inventiveness....Disponibilité is the state of 'armed neutrality' from which all movements are equally possible" (151-52). Through the agency of disponibilité--"the power to dispose of oneself and one's activity" (153)--one is ready to discover what Hakim Bey has called the "temporary autonomous zone." Ruled by the spirit of festival rather than revolution, the TAZ requires us to become nomadic-- ready to move on, to relinquish attachments and preconceptions, to enter a state of temporary neutrality. There may, in fact, be a cruel contradiction in our discovery of the improvised character: as we perform ourselves into a sense of authenticity--of authoring ourselves in our own voices--our performance erases the traces of our individuality within the ensemble of humanity.


1. Fred Wei-han Ho argues for an alternate spelling--"kreolization"--to distinguish it from the "creolization" of Herskovitz "pertaining to the intermixing in the Caribbean." Kreolization, a concept promoted by Dorothy Désir-Davis, emphasizes "cultural and social cross-fertilization, a process that leads to the formation of entirely new identities and cultures," some of which may be appropriated into "the dominant identity and culture, but politicized and deracinated" (143,n.3).

2. That character may be identified or located by voice may be approached profitably in terms of Mikhail Bakhtin's notions of dialogism, multivocality, and heteroglossia. Marvin Carlson suggests that the "creative tension between repetition and innovation" implied by Bakhtin's dialogic model "is deeply involved in modern views of performance" (58).

3. Gates coins the neologism "Signifyin(g)" to distinguish it from the semiotic "signifying". Signifyin(g)--"to engage in certain rhetorical games" (48), to repeat with revisions--refers to an African-American vernacular tradition of rhetorical troping.

Whereas signification depends for order and coherence on the exclusion of unconscious associations which any given word yields at any given time, Signification luxuriates in the inclusion of the free play of these associative rhetorical and semantic relations. Jacques Lacan calls these vertically suspended associations "a whole articulation of relevant contexts," by which he means all of the associations that a signifier carries from other contexts, which must be deleted, ignored, or censored "for this signifier to line up with a signified to produce a specific meaning." Everything that must be excluded for meaning to remain coherent and linear comes to bear in the process of Signifyin(g).... Signifyin(g), in Lacan's sense, is the Other of discourse...(50)

4. Keith Johnstone cites a number of descriptions by actors of their sensation of split consciousness while acting; for example, Fanny Kemble: "'The curious part of acting, to me, is the sort of double process which the mind carries on at once, the combined operation of one's faculties, so to speak, in diametrically opposite directions'" (151). Johnstone claims that this bifurcated consciousness is typical of trance states, that the actor is, in effect, possessed.

5. Schechner elaborates on this idea that improvisation for performance occurs within frames by positing an "axiom of frames" for the theatre: "the looser an outer frame [performance space, dramatic conventions, text, director], the tighter the inner [the "free" space allotted to the improvising performer], and conversely, the looser the inner, the more important the outer" (Performance Theory 14).

6. In his essay "Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences," Derrida reports: "The bricoleur, says Lévi-Strauss, is someone who uses 'the means at hand,' that is, the instruments he finds at his disposition around him, those which are already there, which had not been especially conceived with an eye to the operation for which they are to be used and to which one tries by trial and error to adapt them, not hesitating to change them whenever it appears necessary, or to try several of them at once, even if their form and their origin are heterogenous" (285).

7. Johnstone claims that Western culture is hostile to trance states: "We distrust spontaneity, and try to replace it by reason: the mask was driven out of the theatre in the same way that improvisation was driven out of music" (149). Since the association of trance and improvisation is relatively foreign to the Western ethic of artistic control, Johnstone resorts to such sources as Maya Deren's trance experiences in Haiti and Jane Belo's descriptions of Indonesian trance possessions to make his point that acting improvisation has many affinities with trance states.

8. Reich writes in The Sexual Revolution: Toward a Self-Governing Character Structure: "In the conflict between instinct and morals, ego, and outer world, the organism is forced to armour itself against the instinct as well as the outer world. This armouring of the organism results inevitably in a limitation of the total ability to live.... This armour is the chief reason for the loneliness of so many people in the midst of collective living" (4). Reich develops this concept of armouring to account for personality differences: "What makes people individually different is...essentially their individual neurotic superstructure" (5).

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© Marshall Soules 2001