- Views and Reviews
To talk about improvisation within a stable set of conceptual signposts across artistic disciplines would be, arguably, antithetical to its practice. Despite improvisation’s dynamic ambiguity and resistance to definitional fixity, however, the discursive field surrounding it is charged by a theoretical tension. On the one hand, improvisation is often characterized as a potentially liberating, emancipatory force from orthodoxy, convention, and the status quo. On the other hand, improvisation is seen to rely on the pleasurable return of the familiar, on the mimetic pleasure of recognition and reappropriation, operating under the guise of artistic freedom. In The Philosophy of Improvisation, Gary Peters accounts for these divergent views by proposing a continuum of improvisational forms from the canny to the uncanny. Canniness (Heimlich) refers to an understanding of the art form in relation to an economy of consumption in pursuit of “a spectacle of freedom and expression” and a “fundamental at- homeness both within the given forms of improvisation and the cultural milieu in which they are promoted and consumed” (120). Uncanniness (Unheimlich), on the other hand, points to improvisation’s subversive and perhaps emancipatory potential in its ability to unsettle “the given with all of its overbearing familiarity” (120). Peters’s theoretical framework for improvisational activity nicely encases the articles that comprise this issue’s Views and Reviews. Together, these articles demonstrate a range of possibilities for improvisation, whether as a community-building force that generates dialogue and collectivity or as a means of interrogating disciplinary “givens” in order to find a “way forward.”
In “A Way Forward,” musician Joe Sorbara charts how his interdisciplinary improvisational work with corporeal mime Julie Lassonde provided a way of unlocking the assumptions that undergird their respective disciplines and discovering the performative possibilities of sound and gesture such that both become equally relevant and equally at play for the musician and the dancer. That improvisation can be, paradoxically, an impediment to artistic innovation, despite being an indispensible method of theatrical devising, is evident in Gyllian Raby’s article on the “Commotion” project with Niagara youth. Raby trenchantly captures some of the ideological pitfalls of improvisational “canniness” when left to its own devices and assesses how the RSVP method can redirect a reversion to the familiar and the predictable. On the topic of devising, Aida Jordão reviews Collective Creation, Collaboration and Devising, edited by Bruce Barton. Barton’s collection provides a vital compendium of work on and by Canadian theatre artists who employ a range of devising methods that present, as Jordão says, “an alternative to ... the conventional one-author play as a starting [End Page 85] point for performance.” (97)
Several articles examine the formation of an improvisational community and improvisation as a means of community building and social action. Nicholas Hanson reviews the Comedy Bar in Toronto, a hub for the improvisational community across Canada that has broadened the scope of improvised forms and experimentation undertaken by Canadian companies. Robert Wallace writes on the formation of the Improvisation, Community, and Social Practice (ICASP) initiative, which brings together artists and scholars working in a range of disciplines with community partners in order to investigate how improvisation can serve as “a crucial model for political, cultural, and ethical dialogue and action.” Continuing this thread of performance and social action, Catherine Graham reviews Monica Prendergast and Juliana Saxton’s Applied Theatre: International Case Studies and Challenges for Practice, which provides an ambitious international overview of applied theatre for students and practitioners eager to learn more about the discipline. Finally, this section concludes with an elevating “view” by Ajay Heble, which invites us to think about improvisation as a potential praxis, opening avenues of future possibility for Canadian cultural practices.
On a personal note, this collection of pieces marks my first as co-editor—along with Jenn Stephenson—of Views and Reviews, and I would like to thank Ric Knowles and Laura Levin for the opportunity. To borrow the words of Ajay Heble in the spirit of the great Astro-Black philosopher and improvisor Sun Ra, I look forward to the “possible futures” and “the spaceways [CTR] might travel.” (100)