- Performing Self and Society Through Improvisation: The Improvisation, Community, and Social Practice Project1
The historical connections between improvisation and theatre, however we define either of those terms, are long and complex. And while actors, dramatists, and theatre scholars (most notably Keith Johnstone) have long theorized on the benefits and disadvantages of improvisation, the relevance or understanding of what might be involved in improvisation has remained relatively murky over the centuries. As in musical improvisation, improvisation in theatre has historically connoted an ambiguous talent: the ability to deceive and simultaneously reveal the potentially immoral and unethical character of an actor. Stephen Greenblatt unpacks such a view of improvisation in his provocative article entitled “Improvisation and Power,” wherein he defines “improvisation” as
[t]he ability to both capitalize on the unforeseen and transform given materials into one’s own scenario. The “spur of the moment” quality of improvisation is not as critical here as the opportunistic grasp of that which seems fixed and established. Indeed, as Castiglione and others in the Renaissance well understood, the impromptu character of an improvisation is itself often a calculated mask, the product of careful preparation.(60)
Yet such careful preparation here leads to control, manipulation, and subterfuge. Greenblatt’s improvisation becomes an essential mode of Early Modern domination, wherein characters like Shakespeare’s Iago exhibit “Europeans’ ability again and again to insinuate themselves into the preexisting political, religious, even psychic, structures...and to turn those structures to their advantage” (60).
Improvisation has had many different and equally powerful trajectories in the course of the past five hundred–plus years of imperial machinations. It is the potential for improvisation to build new forms of community, to create new forms of social change that can operate in opposition to or beyond such Iago-like manipulation—on or off-stage—that the Improvisation, Community, and Social Practice (ICASP) initiative seeks to study. ICASP is a research project directed by Dr. Ajay Heble (professor at the School of English and Theatre Studies at the University of Guelph), and is a multi-campus research initiative funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. Bringing together scholars and community partners across North America, Europe, and Australia, “the project’s core hypothesis is that musical improvisation is a crucial model for political, cultural, and ethical dialogue and action” (ICASP). While the ICASP initiative stems from Dr. Heble’s own involvement in improvised music scholarship and promotion (through his work as Artistic Director of the Guelph Jazz Festival) in addition to other project members’ music-based work, the research team is committed to engaging improvisation from a broad range of perspectives. Participants therefore include scholars from a wide variety of disciplines, including literature, drama, ethnomusicology, law, sociology, anthropology, philosophy, and social policy. Theatre Studies scholars involved in the project include Dr. Ric Knowles and Dr. Daniel Fischlin (School of English and Theatre Studies, University of Guelph), [End Page 89] Dr. Keith Sawyer (Department of Education, Washington University), and the 2009–10 ICASP postdoctoral researcher based at the University of Guelph, Dr. Rebecca Caines. As the project’s website describes, “In addition to public discourse and scholarly publication, [ICASP] highlights collaboration with arts presenters, educators, and policy makers to ensure the broadest possible impact on Canadian society.”
ICASP was formally launched in 2007, creating a rush of scholarly activity, community partnership, and artistic energy that continues to grow. Each year the project hosts academic colloquia located in Guelph, Montreal, and Vancouver, along with periodic symposia, lectures, and reading groups connected to the University of Guelph, McGill, the University of British Columbia, and Université de Montréal; work from these events has subsequently been featured in the peer-reviewed online journal connected to the project, Critical Studies in Improvisation/Études critique en improvisation. Topics considered range from improvisation in sports, improvisation and gender, and the relationship between legal discourse and improvisation. Another unique ICASP focus is the biennial Summer Institute for graduate students, which enables students to interact with pre-eminent scholars in a two-week session of seminars, lectures, informal meetings, and workshops on critical improvisation studies.
The project has also worked with community organizations such as Montreal...