Improvisation! Get your notebooks out, and get ready to take notes!
Origins of Improv • From the 1500s to the 1700s, commedia dell’arte performers improvised in the streets of Italy. • Troupes of performers would travel from town to town, presenting shows in the public squares and on makeshift stages. They would improvise all their own dialog, within a framework provided by a set "scenario".
But what is commedia dell’arte? • Commedia Dell’arte (comedy of professional artists)—Improvised comedy featuring stock characters that began in Renaissance Italy. • A troupe consisted of ten people: eight men and two women. • Outside Italy the form was also known as "Italian Comedy".
Commedia Dell’arte • plot lines were written on themes of adultery, jealousy, old age, and love. • Since the productions were improvised, dialogue and action could easily be changed to satirize local scandals, current events, or regional tastes, while still using old jokes and punch lines.
Characters of Commedia Dell’arte • Commedia dell'Arte featured stock characters, some of whom wore distinctive masks. • The company's ten or more actors each developed a specific type of character, such as the Captain, two old men , the Zanni. Since all wore masks, their roles were eventually called masks. Along with these comic characters were the lovers. Female parts were originally played by men, but later played by females.
What are stock characters? • Stock Characters—have sets of recognizable traits such as, the young lover, the irate father, the clever servant, and so on.
Classic Stock Characters • PANTALOON, center, is a comic old merchant from Venice. He is always old, sometimes a rich miser, sometimes a poor man, sometimes a bachelor, sometimes a father of a family. If he is rich, he is a slave to his money. If he is married, his wife is usually young, often deceiving him. He loves to give advice. Often he Is the recipient of blows from his servant. He is always duped by someone.
Classic Stock Characters • THE DOCTOR is a member of every academy, although his pronouncements are usually in tortured Latin or Greek. His children and servants make fun of him. He is a good friend of Pantaloon. Like his friend, he is old, an "eternal gas-bag" and miserly.
Classic Stock Characters • THE LOVER, at center, whether called Leandro, Flavio, Lelio, Ottavio, is always charming, dapper, and sometimes a bit ridiculous. His sole purpose in the script is to be in love. He must be young, good looking, courteous and gallant. The lover wore no mask. His costume is always in the style of the period.
Classic Stock Characters • THE BRAGGART CAPTAIN, at right, has a tradition which can be traced back to Greek comedy. He is bold and swaggering. He struts around in a splendid uniform, pursues the ladies, and often runs from battle. Our example is Giangurgolo (Big Mouth). He is a thief, avoids the police, has a dangerous temper, and loves to bully people smaller than himself. He claims he is a nobleman but usually isn't.
Modern Day Improv • After the Commedia died off, improv theatre faded into obscurity until it was re-invented by two people who have shaped the craft as it exists today -- Keith Johnstone and Viola Spolin.
Keith Johnstone • Keith Johnstone started formulating his theories about creativity and spontaneity while growing up in England, and later brought them into his teaching at the University of Calgary. He felt that theatre had become pretentious, which is why the average man in the street didn't even consider attending it. Johnstone wanted to bring theatre to the people who went to sporting and boxing matches, the same audience that Shakespeare had written for in his day.
Johnstone • Born February 1933 in Devon, England, he hated his schooling, finding that it blunted his imagination and made him self-conscious and shy. In the late 1950s, as a play-reader, director and drama teacher at the Royal Court Theatre in London, he chose to reverse all of the things his teachers had told him in an attempt to make his actors more spontaneous. For example, he would instruct them to make faces at each other and to be playfully nasty to each other. In the course of his instruction, he would tell his students, "Don't concentrate," "Don't think," "Be obvious," and "Don't be clever!" His unorthodox techniques opened his students' imagination and spontaneity. Even after leaving the Theatre in 1966, Johnstone continued to develop important principles of acting and drama. • Whilst he was running the Writer's Group at the Royal Court, he began to teach that drama is about dominance and submission, believing that an alarmingly high proportion of comedy comes from the infinite and tiny ways that people try to raise their social status and lower the social status of others.
Keith Johnstone • Johnstone decided that one approach would be to combine elements of both theatre and sports to form “Theatresports”. The rules of team sports were adapted to the improvisational theatre context; teams would compete for points awarded by judges, and audiences would be encouraged to cheer for good scenes and boo for the bad ones. • Through Theatresports, Johnstone's ideas have gone on to influence (directly or indirectly) almost every major improv group. • Theatresports eventually gave rise to the popular TV show "Whose Line Is It Anyway?".
Viola Spolin • Back in the 1920's and 1930's, a woman named Viola Spolin began to develop a new approach to the teaching of acting. It was based on the simple and powerful idea that children would enjoy learning the craft of acting If it were presented as a series of games. • Along with her son, Paul Sills, Viola Spolin created the techniques utilized by the cast of Chicago's Second City as well as every other improvisational comedy troupe ever since.
Viola Spolin • Spolin's Theater Games are simple, operational structures that are each built upon a specific focus or technical problem. The games have a liberating effect for the players. There are games to free the actor's tension, games to cleanse the actor of subjective preconceptions of the meaning of words, games of relationship and character, games of concentration - in short, games for each of the areas with which the growing actor is concerned. The games also heighten sensitivity, increase self-awareness, and effect group and interpersonal communication. As a result, Spolin's games have proved useful beyond theater training programs.
Another Explanation • Philosophically, improvisation often focuses on bringing one's personal awareness "into the moment," and on developing a profound understanding for the action one is doing. This fusion of "awareness" and "understanding" brings the practitioner to the point where he or she can act with a range of options that best fit the situation, even if he or she has never experienced a similar situation.