The below article came out of a project that was part of the Carpet Sessions, regular interdisciplinary research sessions in Amsterdam on the nature and practice of improvisation.
If you are a professional of any craft, using improvisation in your work, you are welcome to contribute to the Carpet Sessions by proposing a research. (click here for the website)
In early summer 2015, a group of improvisation actors, dancers and musicians set out to merge their disciplines in improvisation performance. The main ambition was to see if it was possible for the three disciplines to work together on equal footing, so that it would not be decided whether the emerging instant piece would be a concert, a dance or theatre – or something in between. What do we need, as performers, to work in such an open frame? And what are the needs of the audience (who are also used to ’their discipline’ and are conditioned to a certain reading of what is happening on stage).
Most of the times, when disciplines are merged, one disciplines works in service of another in their ‘native’ frame: actors ask musicians to accompany their theatre improv, a choreographer asks an actor to be part of a dance production, a concert is enhanced with dancers, et cetera. In such cases, the frame is usually clear and provided by the host-discipline, which makes a whole lot of difference. Because even in improvisation, the idiom/culture of a certain art disciplines provides a pretty strict frame on the types of things that will happen. This frame is an important anchor for the performers: the host-discipline is the thing you hold on to in deciding which type of material to produce and how to react to your colleagues on stage.
So what happens when this falls away? What can you still hold on to, what kind of new strategies you need to evolve or train when improvisation performers come from different disciplines and there is no hierarchy in the collaboration?
We worked for five Thursdays and shared our findings with invited audience and with other improvisers in an open session. What follows is a description of the most poignant outcomes.
TIME AND SPACE
When searching for the aspects of performance that not purely linked to one discipline, we pretty soon settled on the aspects of space and time as a good start. Any live performer has to deal with space and time, whatever his performance language.
The term ’space’ points to the actual performance space but also to how much space there is in the produced material: how dense is it (how many words/notes/movements in a given time) as opposed to how much silence/emptiness there is. Musicians, dancers and actors could all directly relate to the idea of space in their expressive material.
And while the actual performance space is treated and interpreted differently by actors, dancers and musicians, they can’t ignore that they have to work in the same factual space. (Musicians might claim their work is about the music, not about their position in space, but they actually do care whether their fellow musicians are close or far away from them. Next to this, the musicians’ presence in space is irrefutable and their impact on the performance and relationship to other players greatly changes whether they are, say, in the left back corner of the stage, or right centre front.)
All disciplines have to work with time as well. ‘When’ and ‘how long’ are things that matter to actors, dancers and musicians alike. Time is present in the way each performer treats his own material, but also how he places it (in time) in relation to other events that are happening: what we call timing.
So in time and space, we would meet – which proved a statement that sounded as interstellar as it was useless in its practical application at first. We first got muddled up helplessly.
LEANING INTO EACH OTHER’S FIELDS
It is dangerous terrain to try and define the exact ‘field’ of one discipline in contemporary performance, because any discipline borrows from others and performance makers nowadays redefine freely what a concert, a dance piece or what theatre could be. Which is wonderful, but it can lead to confusing and old-fashioned discussions, revolving around exclamation like “this is not theatre! (or dance, or music)”. Leaving this kind of discussion behind us (let us accept that, nowadays, everything can be dance/music/theatre), it is still useful to talk about the different fields of expertise that the respective disciplines provide.
Dancers for example train their bodies in a particular, intensive way that is never approached by musicians or actors. Improvisation actors train strongly performance aspects as ‘character’, ‘plot’ and ‘story’, which if at all, only play marginal roles in the training of musicians and dancers. Musicians, finally, have an expertise in filling and manipulating the audible realm that is never taught on a dance or theatre school in such delicacy.
All of them use the same instrument to achieve their expression: their bodies in space. This might be an open door, but to name it means getting a better view on the entanglement that happens in interdisciplinary improvisation: means of expression are overlapping, while the intentions and the expertise in certain terrains do differ. While in a rehearsed piece, having different disciplines on stage is not in itself problematic, in improvisation every act (a sound, a movement, …) could be intended and read as various things: As part of a theatrical scene, a dance phrase or a musical contribution. (e.g. “Is this arm movement the beginning of a physical transformation into a character or is it a dance pose?”) For an audience, a certain ambiguity in this can be very exciting, but for performers who create together the piece while performing it, this ambiguity can lead to problems. For example, performers can get lost because they can’t ‘make sense’ anymore of what is happening (which we will come back to). Or performers can get seduced in entering each other’s field of expertise without reflecting on the fact that they possibly miss a certain sensitivity and training to play out the scene in the foreign discipline effectively. So we want the overlapping of disciplines, but we want to prevent getting lost while visiting the border zones.
In the sessions, we looked at this by simply giving ourselves the task to notice clearly when, while doing something solo, we start leaning into a ‘neighbour’ – discipline. For example, if I am a musically trained actor, I might in the course of a monologue get into repeating a number of words a couple of times, and through that rhythmicality find myself on the bifurcation of either turning it completely into music, or stick to the theatrical monologue. Or if I am a dancer, an intuitively or aesthetically driven movement phrase I do might resemble a very recognisable, human gesture. The field of dance overlaps on such a moment with the field of theatre, and completely entering the other discipline from here could be a natural development, just as to stay in the grey zone in between or turning back into dance.
Just making us more aware of those moments created much clearer choices and an easier understanding of each other when subsequently improvising together. In short, we heightened our sense of direction when things became ambiguous: do we stay in this ambiguous border zone, or do we completely pass over into the field of the other discipline? Or, as a third option, after a short flirt on the border, do we return to the safe grounds of our own discipline?
The added value of this was that after strengthening our awareness, it happened much less that performers got lost when engaging with another art form that they were not trained in. Overlapping and interaction was still possible, but when treading in ‘foreign terrain’, the performers acted with greater awareness and kept a conscious link to their native discipline in order to navigate through that moment.
CONFUSION OF SPACE, CONFUSION OF LANGUAGE
There were also challenges that were specific to each discipline when engaging with interdisciplinary work.
Musicians had the standard issue of where to place themselves in space and whether they take the role of accompanier or of actual ‘presence’ in a performative manner. It sometimes is a practical issue (connected to their instruments), but often also a question of attitude and habit, being used to the role of supporter. Consciously placing yourself in the middle of the action can help, but there is also no reason why a musician couldn’t grab everyone’s attention with doing something at the very back of the stage. Instrumentalist are special anyway in the sense that they are the only ones who have a defined role that is visible from the beginning, at least from the moment they hold their instruments. But also singers tended to choose a position on the periphery of the performance space.
So in the sessions, while leaving open whether musical contributions would be more supportive, or more claiming their own space, we tried to disconnect this from the different positions in space that a musician would choose.
Dancers would, in a totally different way, sometimes struggle to find and claim their space. Being mostly silent, sometimes the danger was to feel (and therefore act like) an embellishment to the scene. Also, as one important aspect of the language of dance is ‘space’, when a number of people with little spatial awareness crowd the stage, the dancers’ vocabulary is pretty much stifled. So this was a question of on the one hand making other disciplines more aware of working spatially, and on the other hand giving dancers more moral permission to define the scene. Because the times when dancers did claim their space or used their expertise to totally change the spatial relationships of that moment, were of astonishing beauty.
The actors, finally, had to develop a more abstract understanding of the material they produced (e.g. that every spoken sentence is, next to the content of the words, simply sound that has a certain form, colour and rhythm. And these were the things that dancers and musicians would react to, much more than to the content of the words). So the danger for actors was that they would read the scene purely from a story/character point of view and miss things that were establishing on other levels. To more often go into a ‘soft freeze’ (being alive and present in your role, but not engaging with the scene) was one strategy we found for actors so they could find space to listen to other performance ‘languages’ that were present.
A cross-disciplinary tool that proved extremely useful to sharpen interactions and connect people to what was going on was the concept of ‘phrasing’. Musicians, dancers and actors train this differently in their respective ‘schools’, so it first needed some clarification and adjusting in terminology. But once described as an interdisciplinary concept, it proved indispensable as a simple and effective way to interact across disciplines.
“Phrasing”, in short, is the way something starts, progresses (takes time) and ends. This can be applied to movement, to sentences and strings of word, and of course also to sound or musical phrases. It includes timing (when does it start, in relation to other things that are happening / when does it end) and it includes the dynamic of the expressive material (how does it ‘take its time’ / how does it progress). Once we trained these different aspects of phrasing within our own discipline and in relation to others, the players got a good sense of how to interact with each other in almost any situation. The trust in their own material and the feeling of connection between each other was strengthened in a way that went beyond the much more complicated concept of ‘making sense’ of each other.
It is maybe the biggest motor and also the biggest trap while creating improvised performances: the wish for it to ‘make sense’. I use the term ‘making sense’ in the broad meaning of something feeling ‘right’ or ‘coherent’ or ‘worth our while’. In theatre, for example, the expectation for it to make sense is often linked to a coherent story, or at least to a coherent set of images/scenes. Music however can make sense to us in a much more intuitive way: when music is enjoyable or intriguing, we don’t mind if we can’t explain it. It just feels right.
For each of us, depending on our cultural and social background, taste and general curiosity about the world, different kind of parameters have to be met for something to ‘make sense’ to us. And this is why it is not very practical or useful to try and define with a group of performers what makes sense to us and what doesn’t. There is no way we could find a clear agreement about what constitutes a ‘meaningful’ piece of performance. At least not on the level of its outside appearance. Some people enjoy red, others blue, some people like chaos, others like harmony, some want to be touched emotionally (otherwise ‘it doesn’t make sense’ to them), others want to understand it with their minds. So there is no practical use in trying to get everyone on the same page about the outside appearance of things.
However, (and unfortunately) this is often what we are trying to do with each other. For example, actors would say to each other: “if you start using this famous quote from Shakespeare, you need to go on with it, or better use no famous quotes at all” A dancer: “Am I not too literal, when doing behavioural movements, or everyday expression?” These are all outside appearance concerns, and of course they are linked to the training we received. Any school of performative art conditions us to like or dislike a certain type of performative expression or certain ideas about how these expressions should be ordered in a piece. We are concerned about how things look, because it is in general the way we learned to make sense of the world.
But as you will agree, in contemporary performance, no singular expression can be right or wrong, and in interdisciplinary performance not even any however erratic string of different expressions. The feeling that a performance is “worth our while” clearly depends on other things.
NEED FOR STORY / NEED FOR ABSTRACTION
One fascinating result that we didn’t expect when inviting audiences into our research was that theatre and dance/music people didn’t appear to have principally different needs for story/abstraction. Both types of audience could enjoy aesthetic compositions just as well as those pieces that involved clear characters and story. But there was a difference in how far they got confused when a certain ‘style’ that was established would change in the duration of the performance. Some people really lost interest when the performance changed from a more aesthetic choreography to a theatre scene and from there to strange sound making and back. Others were really intrigued. And, surprisingly, this difference of the acceptance of incoherence didn’t follow the separation between dance, music and theatre audience, it seemed a personal thing.
So again, it appears there is not much to be gained from discussing the right amount of straight story or crazy, unfollowable patchwork dramaturgy that a piece should have. Both can be at times boring and at other times completely compelling.
So what are we left with?
Unmistakably, an antenna for that feeling that something is ‘right’, ‘it’s worth our while’, or it ‘makes sense’ is important as a guide to create performances that thrill us and thrill our audiences. If we don’t feel what we are doing or witnessing makes sense in one way or the other, we start getting distracted, start doubting/thinking, or start getting bored.
So maybe a useful description that probably all performers or audiences could agree to, is simply that something ‘makes sense’ when it engages us. Without having to define how something has to look or sound in order to engage us, making sense then becomes a grade meter for the amount to which we are connected to whatever is happening at that moment.
And on this level, we can ask useful, practical questions. For example:
What do we need, as interdisciplinary improvisation performers, to stay engaged with whatever is happening?
Firstly, we have to understand our own material, in the sense that we are curious about it, and want to know where it develops. But secondly, we want to be engaged with other people’s material and with the dynamic of the overall performance that we are part of. This can however be problematic in interdisciplinary performance, because we might not (from the vantage point of our own discipline) ‘understand’ everything that is happening around us. But we can always engage with it on the level of space and time, and this is where phrasing comes in.
Focussing on phrasing means that I can place my material in relation to other people’s material and make meaningful connections to it, without necessarily understanding the content of it. To give a simple example: If I am an actor and I started on a monologue about the pet I owned when I was young, I might not understand ‘what’ a dancer in another part of the stage is doing. But I can place the phrasing of my sentences in conjunction with the phrasing of the dancers’ movements. When the audience realises that our timing is linked, they will make a connection and the things that they see on stage will start to make more sense to them. And while I might still not know what exactly the ‘sense’ is of our connection, my engagement with being in pace with the unpredictable dancer’s movements will automatically strengthen my own trust in that I am doing something that ‘makes sense’.
The most intriguing pieces of performance we watched during this research were generally those of which the performers afterwards said “I don’t have a clue what the whole thing was about, but I felt connected to it all the way through!”
In the five sessions we had, we inadvertently could only scratch the surface of the work that is connected to a merging of dance, theatre and music in improvisation. But we got a good idea of the open field that it is, and of the main issues that performers have to face.
Beginnings and endings, entrances and exits and solos versus the group work were things we touched briefly, but which would be great to explore further, as these aspects appeared to gain unexpected dynamics through the presence of all the three disciplines.
And there will be more aspects to this interdisciplinary challenge that we didn’t even stumble upon yet. Therefore, we are intensely looking forward to further investigations in this area in the frame of the Carpet Sessions or elsewhere.
Do get in touch with us if these lines resonate with you, throw up questions/comments or you have things to add from your own improvisation practice.
There is, I guess, a whole continent yet to explore!
The website of the Carpet Sessions and the Interdisciplinary Improvisation Knowledge Base can be found here: www.instantcomposition.com