The Permanence Of An Impermanent Art – Improv Corner Special – “Who?”

A new year means there are lots of new and exciting shows, music, albums, comedy and much around the corner and we have an exciting month for you! In true Phoenix Remix tradition we are chatting to lots of different acts all about what they have in store for 2022. To celebrate the new year we have something truly special for you, improviser David Escobedo has returned to The Phoenix Remix to discuss the Permanence Of An Impermanent Art. This is the last article in the series.

…the distance from the moment gives perspective.”

Ben Macpherson, 2021

Who should be documenting improv? Who should be documenting the lessons, the schools, the leaders, the teams, the philosophies, and the milestones of improv? Coming from an altruistic place someone might easily say “EVERYONE.” 

Yet, I wonder who: 

should be and who has been documenting improv. 

Many people interface improv as a fun activity. Only knowing that every Friday night (or whatever night) they get to practice improv with friends. Once they get deeper into the improv culture, some people see a role in the community as a crucial element to get on teams and other opportunities. If you interface it for fun, at a casual level, what sort of accountability does this give the author/documentarian for representing the artform? Maybe none. Maybe some. A casual improviser may not experience racism or sexual harassment and apply their energy and money to a leader or institution that is historically problematic. Then the more they elevate this person, the deeper their victims hide. 

Whether you are a casual improviser, or have been improvising with Jane Morris ever since the e.t.c. opened, I don’t think you speak for all of improv at any time. No matter what your perspective is, it is limited by your experience.  There is this theory called Disciplinary Landscaping (Royster, 2003). It means to say that no matter where you are in your field, you are limited in your scope of it.  There is a “landscape” and some trees block mountains, and some rocks hide rivers. You will never have a comprehensive “bird’s eye point of view” of the landscape. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t share your perspective! It means that by sharing your perspective you may bring light to elements that others may not be able to see from their perspective. 

Again, people like to say “improv is for everyone” and “you are enough” but I personally have been judged for not having taught or performed at certain improv schools. I have been told that I don’t deserve my success. Some leaders tell their community members that anybody can do improv, but then judge my success against the Chicago schools or opportunities to teach. Even in light of claims of systemic racism, and problematic institutions, I still have to have had been successful in that history in order to “earn my success.”

Curt De Silva says in his article “So You’re Feeling Weird About Your All-White Comedy Group”:

“Just by virtue of the fact that BIPOC improvisers have been, and continue to be, shut out from on-stage and off-stage performance and personal development opportunities (workshops, gigs, etc.), means they get less exposure, less experience, less opportunities to fail. “

Therefore in the eyes of some influential improvisers, success is still measured against your experience in a history that did not welcome you. That context may never have been chiselled out history, unless people outside of the institution had documented their experience.

Bobby brings forward some insight when he says those that “should be” are those that have a purpose.

“I think there should be a clear reason why you are documenting, and hopefully that will lead you to an idea of ‘who’ should be doing it.”

His referenced “purpose” does not have to be for a wider audience. The “purpose” may be for the individual to improv. 

Anisha progress this in her own words when she says:

“I feel anyone can document improv …it is purely an art form that is an end in itself. In every interaction with improv we have an opportunity to reflect on our own patterns. We are such a small group of people who have engaged in the art form with every artist who is able to reflect on their craft they are providing new pathways for younger, wider audience and future practioners to be able to access the art form and make it their own.”

I hope people see that social media pages can have a greater impact in improv by documenting the culture in this period in time. It is not solely a place to create event pages and disappear. Comments and discussions of improv can be documentation of the virtues and values of improv in the improv community at this time. Additionally, “social media” is not just Facebook and Twitter. There are ways to uses wordpress, Tumblr, podcasting platforms, Mighty Networks, Wikipedia or others to document improv – and not just passively consume the information, but to contribute your voice. A social media platform is just a website with window shopping traffic.  

“Ethonography of Speaking” is the rejection that theatre (or folklore) is solely the presentation of text. Keith Sawyer speals about the ethonography of speaking in his piece Group creativity: Music, theater, collaboration: “The ethnography of speaking rejected a view of performance texts as fixed products, and a view of contexts as situations that a text is performed in, instead shifting the focus to processes of contextualization.”  This is a valuable paradigm because it seeks to validate the performance by its context, not its text. Whereas so many this may seem obvious, throughout the history of academia, scriptocentrism (the focus on the written word) has caused most academic research to analyse the script.  The script is stable and can easily be analysed by the researcher, their supervisors and the PhD Interviewers. It does not change and is easier to distribute through distance and even over time, more than a show that occurred one moment in time. 

Scriptocentrism also has the additional element of being the “hallmark of Western imperialism” (Conquergood, 2002) Not only is this focus on the written word colonizing, but also systemically racist, sexist and elitist.  This is because the scripts or written texts that historically were published and could stand the test of time, were those who had the access.

“In his critique of the limitations of literacy, Kenneth Burke argued that print- based scholarship has built-in blind spots and a conditioned deafness:  The [written] record is usually but a fragment of the expression (as the written word omits all telltale record of gesture and tonality; and not only may our “literacy” keep us from missing the omissions, it may blunt us to the appreciation of tone and gesture, so that even when we witness the full expression, we note only those aspects of it that can be written down). ” 

D. Conquergood, 2002

In improv we seem to lack the initial written text, and go straight to the performance. Which means our field lacks the same proliferation of artifacts that span distance and the space of time that scripted theatre has. There is less to analyse because there is less evidence of it. It flows through our fingers like sand. Then we have nothing to hand future generations, unless we document the experience of it. 

I want to end with something Ben Macpherson said during these interviews. I feel like it grasps an open welcome to document your improv journey, as you experience it:

“Anyone with an interest, should be documenting improv. I still have notebooks from 10 years ago which I go back to when I want to reflect on an aspect of improv, but I use these when I want to develop.”


No photo description available. Bobby Anderson co-runs the Sheffield Improv Jam and Stürike Comedy with Alex Keen. Their improv searches for truths and meaning in the absurd.

No description available. Anisha based in London, follows her passion for playback and improv by collaborating with various in person and online teams like  True heart and citylamps among others.

No description available. Ben Macpherson is a Nottingham based improviser and writer, with a decade of experience making spontaneous comedy. Ben is also part of Missimp and offers improv dramaturgy.

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