Some implications of  Solo Performance Improvisation as an Arts Practice

This paper was the basis of the lecture I gave in PIN Festival Stockholm at Danscentrum Stockholm 23/10/2015


I began to be involved in Improvisation in a very casual way in Melbourne in 1981.

It starting from structured movement tasks, which were given to us as part of a course that was based around Laban Movement Analysis. We did not call it improvisation, and the purpose of the course was to train teachers in using Creative Movement. We were expected to use the Laban vocabulary for programme and curriculum development.

I was a primary school teacher at the time and was about to spend the next 10 years working in dance with young children with sensory, intellectual and physical impairments.

During the course in 1981 I was invited to join an Improvisation Performance project run by a visiting teacher from the US, Al Wunder, this was the first time I had been involved in performing.

I then followed a path with Al for 7 years, doing workshops with him, becoming a company member of Theatre of the Ordinary, performing solo regularly in his performance workshops as well as doing seasons in his ensemble. This period overlapped with my teaching of the children with disabilities.

During my time with Al I was really enjoying myself, interested in both the experience of improvising and also in developing certain technical skills of Improvisation.

Once I left Al’s ensemble, I continued to develop by working in a duet with Peter Trotman (another original member of Al’s ensemble) for 12 years. We now developed our own style of performing even more, and in particular we shared a practice that researched in considerable depth our own techniques and interests in form. This was the inevitable stage of needing to move away from our original teacher so that we could find something for ourselves.

Peter and I both enjoyed our own analytical approach but accepted that the world we were exploring was based in the world that Al had introduced to us.

I now began to think of myself as a performer and during the nineties became more and more involved in performing (e.g. street performing, large festival ensemble projects).

All of this was very satisfying, stimulating and engaging but I am now often shocked by the questions I was not engaged with during this time.

The big questions that have became the centre of my attention in Performance Improvisation in the last decade are to do with the questions of art making. This was something I did not consider in my first decade and a half.

Improvisation could be perceived in a similar way to the conventions of painting.

Because some painting is art does not mean that every use of paint is art, or that everyone that paints, or uses paints is an artist or has the intention of creating art or becoming an artist.

Equally I could say:

Because some Improvisation is art does not mean that every use of Improvisation is art, or that everyone that improvises, or uses Improvisation is an artist or has the intention of creating art or becoming an artist.

I see Improvisation being used in all sorts of ways, it is omnipresent in the performing arts, but the questions that are now interesting for me are:

    what kind of Improvisation can become an arts practice?

    what kind of art can be produced from and by improvising?

    what are the unique potentials of making art through Improvisation?

The rest of this piece will be a summary of some of the things that I have refined in my reflection on Improvisation in the last decade.

Just before we look at this, I should now state clearly and fervently that because I talk about these things does not mean that other uses, or understandings, of Improvisation are wrong or bad. The purpose of my work and this paper is to articulate what interests me, so that I can follow my own path in the form. I hope that you find these ideas interesting and even provocative, but I am not interested in converting you to my view, or (even worse) making  you feel that I am criticising your approach.

i.  Performance Improvisation

A central identifier of the kind of Improvisation that interests me, and that I have built my practice around, is that it is a performance form, i.e. I choose to see what kind of content will emerge when I am in front of an audience.

“Audience” is not limited to the idea of groups of people sitting in rows in a theatre. Audience could mean one witness in a studio, or any of the variants we might choose to break down the convention of “people sitting in rows”.

But being in front of the audience is the point of the activity. Sometimes students tell me that they love to do long solos by themselves at home, and that somehow it is “not the same” when they do it in front of an audience.

I think that it is good that it is “not the same”. The difference might mean “better” or “worse” but to expose my Improvisational skills to the pressure of being witnessed is the point, for me, of the art making aspect of Improvisation.

In the performing arts in general the art is constructed to create a communal interchange between the artist and the audience. This interchange can have a range of degrees of democracy, from the authoritarian to the anarchic. This I would describe as a matter of aesthetics (i.e. an individual choice) on behalf of the artist.

What is not negotiable is that, in Performance Improvisation we do it in front of the audience, and are implicitly shaped and influenced by their presence. The range of influences begins with the temporal and spatial realms. We have decided when we will perform to enable us to gather an audience, and our spatial relationship to how the audience is arranged in the space immediately creates certain hot spots for our attention to work in.

From here we might be shaped consciously and unconsciously by the response of the audience. We (the artist) open ourselves to all these possibilities by choosing to do our work with an audience watching.

“What I would do if I was alone” is not relevant to this process, “What I do when I am being watched” is one of the grains of grit in our art making.

(I am also convinced that doing solos for yourself at home is in inherently worthwhile activity as it will produce self awareness and personal insight, however, it is another journey to choose to do the same process while being watched.)

Once I have made this commitment then it has implications for the form of practice that I choose to support my work.

I do not do solos when I am alone in the studio, to practice performing I need an audience. There are many useful things that I can do in the studio when I am alone, but performing is not one of them. Thus I am always developing a network of people with whom I can share practice, so that we can be an audience for each other.

I have also become more rigorous about calling what I do “Performance Improvisation” to identify if within the broad, amorphous field called “Improvisation”

ii.  Emergent Content

Given my openness to the experience of being in front of the audience as an initial condition for art making with Performance Improvisation, then it is also clear I have no idea what this experience might be, or what content it will produce in me. If I could predict what I might be feeling at 8pm on Thursday evening then perhaps I could prepare some content that might help. The best I can do is to prepare my self with Improvisational skills that allow me to find interesting content from whatever might be happening at the time.

Despite my best efforts to control the variables through ritualised warm up, or various preparation strategies, the real skill of Improvisation is to deal with whatever is a happening for me in the in the experience of performing while being watched.

There is a tendency to want to believe that a little bit of planning (via themes or scores) will make the entirely improbable task, of making a performance whilst under public scrutiny, a little easier. I am not sure that this is true or not, but I have found that each time I modify a purist view of Performance Improvisation I also dilute the artistic potential of the form.

Tiny little shifts towards what I could call the “world of the maker” might indeed mean that I make something that is easier (for me or the audience) or more marketable, but in the end it is the artistic potential of Performance Improvisation that interests me, even if it is more of a risk.

I therefore make a commitment to dealing with what emerges for me as content, whilst I am performing.

This does not mean that all my content is new. Often material that I have dealt with before re-emerges, I do not reject it because it is not “new”. I am interested in finding something “new” in it.

My assumption is that it has emerged under the conditions of the current performance and it therefore is relevant in someway, which I will hopefully discover if I can bring a fully enlivened attention to it. Thus old content that re-emerges is not simply re-presented, but gives a focus to finding a new direction or perspective.

I therefore practice as often as I can performing without any preconceived content, so that my skills of finding and shaping content are a primary resource when performing. These skills are the things, which I know (through practice) I can trust most when I enter the space, and that clutching to preconceived material is not necessary.

It is perfectly normal for the mind to want to prepare some content especially in the often-anxious 20-30 minutes just before you perform.

From an artistic perspective there is no reason to trust that the content that emerges from this anxious pre-performance state is relevant or substantive enough to help with the art making required during the performance.

I can well remember a phase in my performing life when I would indeed engage in a kind of imaginative meandering just before I performed, thinking “yes I could do this, or that” and then letting those things happen. Then one day realising that I had forgotten it all the moment I had entered the space. This is the point I think: to be able to enter the space relaxed enough so that I can notice what is a happening, and relaxed and skilled enough to begin by working with it.

iii. Emergent Structure

As a Performance Improviser I have existed in a milieu for 30 years that includes, dancers, choreographers, actors, directors and dramaturges, many of these people have become my friends or close colleagues. I have also noted that for many of them there is a necessity to base their career in a number of these roles. Often they also love Improvisational work, sometimes not, but I have developed a healthy regard for the differences between these roles and the disciplines that that encompass.

My own work, superficially, bridges across dance and theatre, but I have tried to identify the unique potentials of my own form, and not simply to appropriate the artistic potentials of fields such a choreography and dramaturgy.

As with content, in Performance Improvisation, the form that is most interesting to me is the form that emerges during the performance.

My experience of this is that there are times when forms emerge which have a “well-made” quality, and that it is relatively easy to develop certain techniques as an Performance Improviser that give the impression of making a piece with a pleasing structure (e.g. ABA forms, Endings which are summaries of the piece, and more and more as I grow older, endings which give the “moral" of the piece).

None of these things in themselves are particularly bad things to do, but I have tried to stop myself from becoming addicted to using such obvious, conscious strategies as my criteria for evaluation of my work.

Also, if these are the pleasures that I really want from performing than perhaps I should become a writer, chorographer or director where I could give time and attention to satisfying that need.

A Performance Improviser is most interested in seeing how a structure emerges during the piece, in this, the major dynamic comes from allowing the brain to follow its own path of “meaning making” which is a spiral, pattern making facility that bridges conscious and unconscious realms of sensation, perception and imagination. In this process there will be as many dead ends as freeways.

Improvisations will often be lumpy from a structural perspective, every piece will contain moments which a, well meaning, dramaturge would remove, but which the Performance Improviser cannot take out because it is part of the journey in which every part is necessary.

In Performance Improvisation the whole journey is visible to the audience, including the moments when material is arriving, and unconscious.

Performance Improvisers are still on the meaning making path, so we are not content to just hang out in a solely internal space, we are explicitly engaged in being watched, finding material, and following the structure that emerges from our own process of meaning making.

To help me to be in this process (i.e. to trust that it happens) I have been using a description of three different ways in which my brain is working when I am performing. Even though I will now describe them using words, they are in fact three very different textures of internal experience, which these words can only indicate their flavour.

Of course I am not saying these are the only three possible internal experiences but sometimes it is helpful to use a shorthand, reductive tool to help deal with of a complex, subtle phenomena.

If we look at any temporal experience then every experience has three parts, a beginning, middle and an end. Any one moment has this structure, and any one Improvisation has it, also any discrete section within any Improvisation has it.

These sections are most easily described after they occur, so they can also be emergent.

Perhaps, one way to engage in the process of living experiences which have a beginning, middle and an end, could be to engage in different arrangements of our functioning which could be called a beginning mind, a middle mind and an end mind. I am not really happy with these titles, and hope one day to find clearer names for them.

The beginning mind is marked by a preference for noticing, perceiving and for all the different ways, both conscious and unconscious, we have of working with our attention. The implication is that we start by noticing. Language is not a necessary element of this way of working. Noticing is very much concerned with the present.

The middle mind works from what we notice and allows it to become more conscious, we work with our attention to give us content or material, this is material that can be described or named so it will produce a lot of language, but also movement, dynamics, musicality etc.

In the middle mind my consciousness can broaden to operate in the past, present and future

The end mind has an even broader perspective, it is aware of where have I been, it allows me to choose where I might go next, or to think about what I need to do next, or what the piece needs next, it allows me to structure the piece, edit the path of the piece (but it cannot edit out anything that has already happened). It is the most conscious of the three minds, the most decisive and the one I need to use least.

However, it is clear that these are ways of functioning that do not need to occur in any particular order but become a palette of choices that we can allow to occur or choose to use for our artistic satisfaction.

Structure will emerge, but it may not be neat, indeed this is one of the most exciting reasons for using Improvisation: there is a strong potential for finding new, unusual and lumpy forms as a product of out brain’s inherent meaning making capacity.

A further implication, of this, is that in performance we are crucially interested in revealing the structure of our consciousness while we perform.

iv. Centrality of attention

If we divest ourselves of preconceived content as we enter the space, then the question becomes “where does the content come from? “

My superficial answer to this in the first 5 years of my improvising practice was, “I think of an idea”. The idea of the “idea” is one of those self-deceptive concepts that make it easier for the beginning Performance Improviser to feel that they can enter the space. But quickly the beginning Performance Improviser experiences that there are times and circumstances in which it seems to be impossible to think of an idea, and also that the ideas we can think of tend to be ones that are familiar.

For me it became necessary to stop relying on the unit called “idea” and begin looking for its constituent parts, or the processes whereby they are created, we must begin a search at the sub-atomic level and ask“where do we get ideas from and how are they made?”

Luckily we do not need to be genius’to find useful, pragmatic ways to do this.


i.  ideas are made in the brain, and

ii. information comes into the brain through the senses.

Our whole body is a set of senses designed to feed information into the brain, the brain then deals with this information to create what we might call meaning.

The brain interprets and combines sensations to form ideas concepts, thoughts, memories etc as well as musicality, dynamics, or textures of experiencing.

This, I think is quite uncontroversial, but is does mean that the idea of sensation and perception of sensation is central to the process of finding or making ideas. The process by which they interact is not so clear to me, but it clearly is not the same as the almost sole cognitive task of thinking of ideas. We can go further with this to see that we can clearly get a new idea from combining two existing ideas, but that this process (getting ideas from other ideas) is less sensory and also therefore a less embodied process. I am not opposed to cognition taking place in performance but I am much more interested in using embodied cognition.

For this process to occur in the particular context of being watched while performing then I need to have very refined skills of working with my attention, both at a sensory level and at a thinking level. This is another reason while as a practitioner of Performance Improvisation we try to exclude the use of pre-planned structures and content, so that as much of my attention as possible is released into the process of working from sensation and the body.

When we work with our attention, sometimes language is created, and sometimes content is in the form of movement only.

We can see how these processes can create loops and spirals of modes of working, rather than relying on hierarchies in which language and meaning is the top aspiration. The Improvisation process is more like a roller coaster ride than the Eiffel tower.

Our attention is our key tool in taking the ride. Once again it needs to be said that this does not mean that thinking has no part of Improvisation, but the kind of intellectual activity we are interested in are the ones whose meaning might be a surprise to us, that lead us to say or do something and not quite know why.

From an art making perspective the purpose of a Performance Improvisation is to lead us to a discovery. As we have no idea of what it will be before and after we have some sense of what happened, it is implicitly a discovery. However it is also to be hoped that we discover something in the piece that we have never found before. If we work from units of sensation whose meanings are not known then this could lead us to discover new content. Everything does not need to be new, but something should be. New material may not be profound or especially meaningful either, but the process of discovery has its own excitements, which hopefully can also be shared with the audience.

v. Solo

For me the artistic destiny of Performance Improvisation lies in extended solo performances.

In general, in the performing arts, pieces are collaborative. These collaborations can take many forms, but for me one of the confusions inherent in it is knowing “whose art am I watching”. These collaborative methods have their own potential for art making, and are not necessarily a bad thing.

In the visual arts the concept of “the artist” is clearer, in general we expect that the artist is the maker of the art. Now I admit that this convention has been challenged quite a bit in the last 30 years, but I still think this is an interesting form of clarity which in turn leads to a strong sense in myself as a viewer that the artist takes responsibility for the work. For me this is one of the meanings of the tradition of signing their work too.

In Performance Improvisation we see the artist and their attention, decisions and processes making the work in front of us. The “art” is ephemeral; its major responsibility is to fill its time with what is interesting for the artist. It will never happen again. It is made in the full awareness that the audience is watching. In the end the audience has the right to decide if they liked it or not, but they do know who the artist is, and hopefully they feel like they have met them in the interchange.

It takes time for the loops and spirals of the method to become a rich layering. We start with little or no content, and we want some to occur. It makes no sense artistically, to only have enough time to grab the first thing to emerge. It is potentially more interesting if there is time for things to mix and spread and be forgotten and then to remerge. The artist must have sufficient tools and methods to work productively for between 40 and 60 minutes. They need stamina for using their attention, sensitivity to work with their own embodiment, and generosity to spend time with the audience.

vi. Practice

With all of the ideas I have presented here, they only have any value if they become the basis for the arts practice of the artist.

It has become increasingly clear to me over the last decade that I need to be assiduous about how I practice Improvisation. I felt the need to identify a paradigm of the form and then set up practice that supports it and to question all the elements of my practice to ensure that it supports my intention and paradigm. Often Performance Improvisers have training or backgrounds in other performance paradigms, and without questioning will bring elements from these other forms into their Improvisation practice. This can be confusing.

For me the decade long process of finding colleagues to practice with, finding useful ways to dialogue, taking time for my own Improvisational technical development, taking time to deepen my sense of embodiment, and extended solo practice has been a rich and fascinating process.

For me, my practice has forced me more strongly into Performance Improvisation as an Arts Practice, and also forced me more and more to consider myself as an Artist.

As you can see the both this paper and my journey has lead me from being an Enthusiastic Amateur into being a Performer and finally into the idea of being an Artist.

As someone who has received an enormous amount from being a practitioner of Performance Improvisation, it has been timely to begin to imagine where Improvisation in Performance might go and what direction might I take to give something back to the form to which I owe so much. To imagine that it is an arts practice, with its own potentials, with its own artistic intention. Not just to be the over-used tool kit, supporting other art forms.