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Improvisation and Devising: The Circle of Expectation, the Invisible Hand, and RSVP

From: Canadian Theatre Review
Volume 143, Summer 2010
pp. 94-97 | 10.1353/ctr.0.0047

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Since 2007 I have been working on the Commotion project with Pablo Felices-Luna of Carousel Players,1 St. Catharines’ professional youth theatre. Commotion is an ongoing series of youth-devised theatre projects that uses the “Resource, Score, eValuaction, Participation” (RSVP) creative process developed by Lawrence and Anna Halprin in the 1970s. Collaborators in the Commotion project improvise extensively to generate material and have found that two aspects of improvisors’ culture—the “Circle of Expectations” and the “Invisible Hand”pose challenges for devisers. Through the course of our devising process, we have found that RSVP offers a methodology that circumvents these challenges.

The Circle of Expectations is Keith Johnstone’s name for the cultural assumptions and associations that cumulatively define the improvisor’s dramatic world (79). Johnstone, the inventor of theatresports, instructs improvisors to draw the audience in by playing on cultural assumptions, but to dramatically disrupt them. The performer-audience relationship is different for an improvisor performing immediate and short-form scenes than for a deviser performing a long-form work. The familiarity of the Circle of Expectations that anchors improvisation easily becomes predictability when scripted as part of a repeatable performance. Devisers intent on the dramaturgy of character development and story arc often forget to disrupt their carefully constructed Circle of Expectations; unchecked expectations spiral into stereotypical narrative.

The Invisible Hand takes hold when one individual drives an improvisation without appearing to take leadership. Improvisation training is full of “how-to” methodologies for this, such as playing “low status manipulation” to generously coerce the scene partner to “play major.” In devising, however, when one group member consistently and subtly uses his or her know-how to shape the show, others feel disenfranchised from the work. One solution is for devisers to make the “hand” visible by acknowledging an “author, director, or facilitator.” The Commotion project’s mandate, however, is collective ownership. Because the objective is to enable, not control, the creativity of the improvisors, we try to limit the impact of the facilitator on the youth creators. However, the youth lack dramaturgical experience. Without the Invisible Hand of a guiding facilitator, the Circle of Expectations bullies them to devise predictable stories. One question that catalyzed the Commotion project was, “Might awareness of the RSVP creative cycles mitigate the predictable narrative of the Circle of Expectations and the subtle influence of the Invisible Hand?”

Lawrence and Anna Halprin wrote RSVP Cycles: Creative Processes in the Human Environment to free creators from normalizing cultural assumptions and to alert them to different creative strategies. Jacques Lessard adapted their work for theatre in the 1980s (Beauchamp 26); I learned it at Théâtre Repère from Robert Lepage and Marie Brassard. RSVP offers a compass of interconnective creative mindsets rather than a prescriptive “how-to” methodology.

Resource/Recherches (the R in RSVP) is the information mode in which devisers investigate all the human and material resources wirh which they have to work. In the first session of the twelve-week Commotion program, for example, we explore skill sets through exercises with an object (also used to make music), a visual image, and a text.


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Thirteen broken chairs: RSVP resource designed by Michael Grieves for E.L. Crossley High School, arranged into a “car pile up” by student improvisors.

Photo by Jenn Benson

Score/Synthese (S) is the activity mode in which devisers use a variety of exercises, combining resources in different ways so as to generate dramatic content. Improvisation techniques and games are important scores. In Commotion, we try to balance the group’s physical, verbal, musical, writing, and expressive skills so as to keep stylistic options as wide as possible.


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Here (l-r): Laural Short, Therese Labelle, Jesse Wyatt, Shane Vanhell, and Spencer Van Wyck in an “ eValu-action ” session at E.L. Crossley High School

Photo by Jenn Benson

EValu-action/eValuation (V) is the analytical mode in which devisers select and analyse material. Commotion groups hold sponsoring sessions, during which participants vote on the work they find “stage worthy.” The scenes or moments with the most votes become resources for future exploration. This sponsored work is critically examined for biases and...



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