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Making the Invisible Visible with the Theatrical Arts

As those who have been following the GRASPnetwork know, our objective is to apply artful thinking to improve to our ability to cope with the increasingly immaterial nature of our daily lives, both in the business and the private spheres. Our original intention was to concentrate on the visual arts, but our blog articles this year have ranged far and wide over philosophy, artificial intelligence, computer science, physics, and music. The GRASPnetwork wants to be inclusive of all promising avenues to reach our objectives, as our understanding of the issues evolves. In this blog post we’ll take a look at what another art form might have to offer: the theater.

In my last blog post, I reported on an interesting phenomenon of recent years: a resurgence in manual occupations, especially artisanal forms of work. I noted that several authors have hypothesized a reason for this phenomenon: the need for a balance between mind and body. Today’s immaterializing world is tipping the balance too far toward “mind” and too far away from “body”. In this context, the theatrical arts seem promising: after all, the theater is all about communicating with the mind and the body.

One theatrical form getting a lot of traction lately is improvisation. People are discovering all kinds of uses for improvisation: to make you a better leader; a better customer support professional; a better innovator; even a better blogger. And on top of all that, “improvisation makes you healthier!” So can it help us in GRASPnetwork achieve our objectives?

Fortunately, inside the GRASPnetwork itself we have a collaborating professional with whom we can investigate the possibilities. Patrizia Falcone has been teaching theatrical improvisation for over 30 years as part of her overall drama coaching activities, and one particular exercise offers an interesting point of departure. This exercise is known as the transformation of the object, and is a staple of serious improvisation pedagogy. Each student passes an imaginary object to the next in turn. The students must make clear through their actions what the object is supposed to be. Once a student has received the object, they can transform it into anything else they want as they pass it onto their neighbor. Patrizia says that students going through this exercise receive a demanding lesson in communicating with others in the context of immaterial entities, and often come out of it exhausted and defeated.

There are many variations on this exercise, including versions with dialogue. In her book Bossypants, Tina Fey presents rules of improvisation, and the first one is to agree: “So if we’re improvising and I say, ‘Freeze, I have a gun,’ and you say, ‘That’s not a gun. It’s your finger. … our improvised scene has ground to a halt.’” In other words, to paraphrase a famous marketing slogan, “Your partner is always right.” Fey’s rules of improvisation contain more ideas about how to keep the dialog going and create an effective scene.

Certainly, the transformation of the object, both in its mime and spoken variations, is a promising avenue for exploration of communicating with others about immaterial objects. But there are other instructive variations, too – for example, the dematerialization of society is occurring not just with respect to the objects we deal with, but also with respect to the ways in which we communicate with each other. Communication between human beings used to be direct and immediate. Now it’s increasingly indirect and deferred. As Rob Asghar explains it, “ … we need antidotes to the new, ‘asynchronous’ world that we all live in. We’re used to getting text messages and social-media posts, and then responding on our own time. This artificiality damages our ability to relate to real human beings in the moment. Improv drags you out of that asynchronous, virtual-reality world, and drops you into that wondrous world of high-energy, immediate, person-to-person interaction.” Patrizia comments: “GRASPnetwork isn’t just about finding solutions within our immaterial, virtual society. Another important function is to help us discover how it is affecting us – even when we don’t have a solution yet. For example, maybe we will need to stop using e-mail so much and get back on the phone to rediscover the immediacy of live conversation.”

Here is yet another promising variation: not simply communicating with other humans about the new immaterial entities, but communicating with the new immaterial entities themselves. In a paper published just last month (September 2018), Kory Mathewson and Piotr Mirowski report on an experiment of using artificial intelligence (we always seem to come back to that, don’t we?) to provide a robotic theatrical improvisation partner (they call it Improbotics). Mathewson and Mirowski have a lot to say about the problems the improvisational actors have in adjusting to their immaterial partner. Now consider our new mobile “partners” like Apple’s Siri and you can see how this kind of exercise could produce some interesting insights into the way communication between humans and robots could evolve (as also explored in the movie Her). It seems, then, that theatrical improvisation may hold out a lot of promise to help us in the GRASPnetwork – but is this enthusiasm justified?

The musician Frank Zappa once said “Improv’s not dead, it just smells funny”. He’s not the only one to have sent out warning signals about the use of improvisation. Some have been much tougher: “Improv’s greatest sin is encouraging the mediocre … it celebrates fuzziness over precision, first drafts over revision …” Tough words indeed. What’s going on here?

Patrizia puts it this way: “People seem to think that improvisation is a substitute for good preparation. Well, it’s not. It’s the tip of an iceberg of preparation, a major commitment to learning your craft. It’s not a result on its own – it is a tool for arriving at the result. And it must be practiced in the presence of a professional who has ‘seen it all’ over years of experience, or it will indeed produce a mediocre result.”

Her thoughts are echoed by a Hollywood professional: “Improv training is not acting training. It is an acting training technique. It was not devised to be an end goal for performers.” The great Duke Ellington has some wise words for us in that regard: ““Another theory … is that there is such a thing as unadulterated improvisation without any preparation or anticipation … there has to be some thought preceding each phrase that is played, otherwise it is meaningless. So, as I say, jazz today, as always in the past, is a matter of thoughtful creation, not mere unaided instinct.”

In fact, in Count Basie’s band, improvisation wasn’t just about creating music – it was about creating community: "Count Basie's drummer, Jo Jones, used to say his job wasn't to be a virtuoso on the drums … When something is needed at a particular moment, you provide it. You accent what other people do, and together you create something that none of you would have done individually."

This is how we see improvisation in GRASPnetwork: a tool, a technique, something that in the hands of a competent person could potentially become another means to achieving our objectives of creating and preserving human community in our immaterial world.

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