Spectator with Agency

The improvisation spectator has a great range of roles within which to situate herself, including the fairly passive one invited by traditional theater or film, where viewers have a high degree of immersion in the storyworld and relatively little sense of agency. At the other end of the spectrum, the spectator of an improvisational performance may take on a much more active role, imagining future scenarios based on the unfolding performance, contemporaneous with the actors on stage.

One of the distinctive markers of watching an improvisation comes out of the audience's knowledge that the work is in fact improvised. Improvisation is inherently reflexive, calling attention to its own constructedness in the advancing present moment that the actors share with the audience. This is just the kind of immediacy that some alternative theater pioneers sought, hoping to rehabilitate narrative form which had been critiqued for uncritically retelling and therefore reinforcing conventional social roles. A narrative that reflects its own construction challenges the conventional. This post-modern strategy of foregrounding mediation ultimately undermines any singular claim to truth, for if truth is seen to be always mediated, it must also be subjective and labile.

Like the actors in improvised theater, the audience is also engaged in a split focus. The audience is to some extent attentive to story, immersed in the unfolding narrative. But audience members are also gleefully attentive to the way that the story is being built. There is a particular pleasure for the spectator in seeing an improviser set up her own character's downfall, for example. The audience knows that the writer-improviser is setting the trap for the actor-improviser to fall into. The most sophisticated spectators look for any and all signs of engagement among actors to mold the story in particular directions, as well as the inevitable gaffes and misunderstandings. Spectators are often able to decode intended directions or mistakes which authenticate the scriptless and spontaneous process in motion.

The awareness of a narrative under construction in the present invites the audience into the act of constructing, imagining plot lines that might have been. Speaking of the performance art improvisers Grand Union, one theorist contends that "audience members were encouraged to compare [performer] decisions...with decisions they themselves might make in a similar situation" (S.L Foster as quoted in Smith and Dean 200). Brecht also writes about such a position for the audience in the theaterworks he envisions, likening the spectator to a river builder who "sees [the river] together with its original bed and many a fictitious bed which it might have had if the angle of incline or the amount of water and been different...Our spectator in the theater should be made aware of these sketchy lines and echoes in incidents which occur" (Organum #41).

Speculative practices like these require an audience member to behave more like a writer than in most forms of theater. Where traditional plays ask the audience to identify with the characters and some alternative theaterworks ask the audience to reckon with the presence of the actor, improvised theater asks the spectator to do both...and more. Improvisation invites audiences to enjoy the pleasure of immersion of traditional drama, all the while calling attention to the actors creating the narrative. Improvised theater then goes on to invite the spectator to collaborate in authorship in a sense by imagining would-be scenarios and completing or justifying narrative lines that remain open and unresolved at the end of the performance. The spectator shifts between a focus on a compelling character, the actor playing the character, the actor/playwright writing the plot, and on her own act of authoring the missing or possible elements of the piece. Frost and Yarrow describe this process as follows:

The process [of improvisation] does not only involve a 'sender' and a 'receiver' (an 'active' performer and a 'passive' spectator). The spectator is active, tooand more than usually so when watching something improvised. The act of decoding information implies the creation of new, often unsuspected or unintended meanings out of the signals received. The audience does not only 'read' the performancein a very real sense it 'writes' it, too (167).

They go on to assert that the spectator's authorship continues after s/he has left the theater:

"An act of theatre has many sets of meaning. There is that which is created in the act of performance, and there is that which is re-created after the performance. The first created jointly by the actor and his co-creator, the audience member; the second is created privately in the mind of either after the event is concluded and the partners in the original act have separated. And there is a third kind of meaning; the meaning of the whole event, which is apprehended by the whole group, the community which partakes in its creation. This is meaningfulness, where all participants experience the way meaning is made. It is an archetypal experience of theatre." (169)

Whether or not Frost and Yarrow's contentions are accepted in full, it is nevertheless clear that the spectator's role in improvisational theater can be a good deal more active than the same in conventional drama. This increased agency develops greater engagement with the emerging narrative, paralleling the engagement that George experiences in the immersive environment of the II9. In his case, however, his emergent behavior and the engagement he experiences comes out of his interaction with the machine...and the designer behind it.

Jump to Moving Towards the Post-Human: Why George Is the Way He Is

Jump to George Immersed and Emergent

Improvisation in Act I, Scene 3

Improvisation in Act I, Scene 5

Improvisation in Act I, Scene 7