Thoughts on Improvisation and Objects

In 2008 and 2009, I organised several evenings of performance & food which were dedicated to Interdisciplinary Improvisation and Object/Puppet-Theatre.

This is the article I wrote to explain the idea of the title (Imps@work&soup!) to all the contributors. As you will read, it goes pretty far in expresssing my philosphy on improvisation performance in general.


The first part of the title pays homage to the definition of improvisation as coined by Enrique Pardo: “Improvisation is imps at work.” Those spirits who, according to folklore, are often of mischievous intend and live along the borders of our reality.
In the same line of thinking, he says an impuls is ‘an imp giving you a push’. Uncensored thoughts, unplanned movements, sudden unexplainable feelings, these are imps at work in and through us.

In object/puppet theatre, we usually intend to give life to inanimate objects. But there is also the notion that this proces is not so much us giving life to an object, but rather that we are trying to discover ‘it’s life’. So we allow for the possiblity that there is knowledge (or content/spirit) in every material and that it can teach us how to handle it. Of course there is usually an interplay between ourselves and the material, so it might be hard to define who’s imps are at work when we engage with an object or a puppet.

When working on a stone sculpture, Andy Goldsworthy says: “I try to understand the stone”. This is on the one hand a practical/concrete notion, gathering information about the handling of the stone by working with it, but also an intuitive one: The information cannot easily be put into words, and the resulting stone sculpture is a mixture of Andy’s intention with the stone, and the stone’s response to that intention. Which is to say: Objects/materials have an inside (spirit? imp?) that is only accessible by working with them. And this ‘unconscious’/inconcrete aspect of the material can only be unraveled by engaging with it, not by talking about it.

To me, these definitions give a picture of the way our unconscious or intuitive selves are in play whenever we are improvising. First of all: Improvisation is more than just a clever, virtuoso act of an artist handling his discipline. Improvisation is the attempt to let those ‘imps’ speak to you and through you, meaning that we are trying to unveil the unconscious reality that is present in the here and now, and work with it. But also: The best route to working with this part of reality is through concreteness: A stone is a stone. Work with it. Don’t get sentimental.

So one thing is to invite our intuitive or unconscious selves to come out and play with us. But that is not where it stops. There is no use in just taking the lid off our ‘inside world’ and throw everything what is in there out on the stage. There is work to be done.

When we bring this ‘other world’ into this world, we have the responsibility to handle it: Any impuls, any action is a theatrical (or musical/visual/…) fact that asks to be cared for. Yeats‘ often quoted “In dreams begin responsibilities.” somehow also applies to instant composition.  😉

That is why instant composition has little in common with the notion that improvising means ‘doing whatever’/’be free’. On the contrary: With the first step, the first picture, the first word being uttered, there is no freedom anymore: Anything that follows will have a relationship to what is already there, and we as performers have to take care of that relationship.
This doesn’t mean that ‘free play’ is not an important aspect of improvising. It surely is. But there is a balance to be found, because any freedom only exists when relationships and structure are being taken care of somewhere else.

‘Soup’ has a lot of associative meanings, but the concrete meaning to Imps@work&soup! is that there is a cook who is making a soup for performers and audience in the beginning of the evening.

Soup is food, and therefore directly related to our bowels – maybe the most unconscious parts of our bodies. Making soup, on the other hand, is very concrete work. And good cooking requires an intuitive understanding of ingredients and processes which, again, you gather through the working knowledge of concrete experience.

But most importantly, soup is nourishing and warm. There is a giving aspect to sharing soup with each other, which is for me also central to the notion of instant composition. If I have no intention to give something, it does not make sense to invite people to come and watch me improvising. If an improvisation performance circles mainly around the process or experience of the improvisers, it is blatantly off balance. Soup should be nourishing, so there needs to be some content in it. Thinking about improvisation as something that needs to speak to the bowels of your audience and not only to yourself helps avoiding this trap of self-centeredness. Of course one shouldn’t be trapped either by wanting to fulfill the audience’s (supposed) expectations. So the work is again in finding a balance: I cannot always make soup that is to everybody’s gusto. And I am allowed to challenge the taste-buds of my eaters. But I can take responsibility to make a nourishing soup full of taste, according to my best knowledge of both the available ingredients and my guests.

Last but not least, soup is a gathering: a mixture of ingredients in the same pot. And so finally, time is another important aspect. Time to let the different ingredients work on each other and transform the soup into something that is not merely the sum of all the parts. Remember how soup can develop extraordinary taste, when the rests of it have been left in the cooking pan overnight? In that way, the notion of taking time should never be underestimated, in any improvisation peformance.

     Thomas Johannsen

Please feel free to send me your thoughts if this article has inspired you and/or you would like to share you take on things with me. Looking forward to read from you!  contact Thomas

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