The word “improvisation” in the theater sends me cowering to the nearest corner.
I leap away from the word, hissing like ol’ Christopher Lee when facing a crucifix.
It’s irrational, I know.
It seems to me that improvisation in the theatre usually means one of two things.
I love the first meaning. It is the air I breathe in rehearsal. When I am immersed in the script and the character and the moment; when I am listening and alert and listening and watching and listening; every gesture, every glance, every inflection has the immediate potential to send us spinning into places we’ve never been…maybe places where no one has been. Sometimes when we reach those places, we find the character we’re searching for. Sometimes we find bits of ourselves…which may be the same thing. It is thrilling and addictive.
The second meaning though…
…is theatre games.
Theatre games are disguised as “fun” and “team-building” and “warm-ups.”
They can involve balls and circles and imaginary boxes.
Notice please, they don’t as a rule involve characters or scripts. I sign on for characters and scripts…not imaginary boxes.
Theatre games tend to be just that; games. They usually decay rapidly into competitions won by the clever and the funny. How that furthers our explorations of MacBeth plumb evades me. I’ve yet to hear MacBeth described as clever or funny.
(Insert various grumpy comments here. Any will do. “Get offa my lawn!” is trite but appropriate enough.)
I mostly despair of any good rehearsal time lost to theatre games.
There are special moments, however…
Once upon an evening, I was involved in a particularly useless “warm-up” game before a rehearsal. The cast formed a circle with one member in the center. The person in the center had to chant; “I’m (state their name) and (state some fact about themselves).” At that point, every person in the circle for whom the fact stated was also true had to abandon their spot in the circle and assume another spot. The center person would try to poach an abandoned spot and whoever was left out would be relegated to the center and would repeat the process.
Most of the chants proceeded along the lines of;
– “I’m Jane Doe and I went to the movies today.” (scurrying and giggles)
– “I’m John Doe and I drive a Chevy.” (scrambling and guffaws)
– “I’m Becky Doober and I like pizza.” (chasing and chortles)
All very helpful when ferreting out the subtext of a Sam Shepard script.
You can only imagine the utter hilarity that filled the room.
This jocular exercise continued until a middle-aged fellow (no, not me) found himself in the center and chanted;
“I’m Joe Doober and I’m a convicted felon.”
The silence of the group…
…was of the soul-searching, exit-locating variety.
The stillness of the group…
…was as profound as a sudden wish for invisibility.
The director broke the meditative moment by chirping;
“Well, that’s enough for tonight. Let’s get started. Set up for Act I.”