Improvisation Basics – Context


There is no such thing as a ‘free improvisation’. Each improvisation always happens in a distinct context (space/people/tacitly agreed types of interaction, etc.) whether that context is named or not.
The idea of ‘free improvisation’ doesn’t acknowledge the fact that always tacit agreements exist in a social context.

In general, if  the context of an improvisation is not named and clarified beforehand, we will always make our own assumptions about the rules, guided by the ‘group culture’ we mean to perceive, which most of the time translates during the improvisation into a general and polite way of interacting with each other. Or it results in the opposite: rash behaviour of some performers and complete confusion about the context with the rest. Either way, it is not helpful.

The idea that something like a ‘free improvisation’ exists (no rules, no context given) clouds our awareness as performers (as there is always context, and there are always tacit rules) and makes our interaction effectively pretty ‘unfree’. Crisp and open interaction does not happen without a shared, transparent context – a common ground.


There are many ways in which to prepare performers for an improvisation (exercises, rituals, assignments, or no preparation at all) and there is also a gliding scale in how much or how little rules are given for the interaction on stage. But apart from anything else you do in preparation, there is always the necessity to at least clarify the FORMAL AGREEMENTS for the improvisation that is about to be played.

FORMAL AGREEMENTS should be simple and clear. Yet again, it could be few or many agreements. Always, however, at the very least clarify for the performers (or with each other) the four aspects below:

SPACE (How is the performance space defined?)

  • Is there a ‘backstage’/’out’ for the performers, or are they all through the performance ‘on stage’/’in’? (in other words: How is the space defined for the performers?)
  • Where in the space is the audience? (or: How is the space defined for the audience?)

TIME (beginning, duration, end)

  • How does the performance start?
  • What is the agreement about time/duration?
  • How does the performance end?


  • How many/which performers are on stage at the beginning of the piece?
  • Is that group fixed or flexible, and if flexible: What is the agreement about going ‘in’ or ‘out’?

INTERACTION (What type of interaction is asked from the performers?)

  • From ‘anything is possible’ to a very precise definition of the actions, there is a wide range of possibilities to define interaction between the performers. Here is where things get a bit more complex. There is a separate section – “Common Ground and Types of Interaction” that discusses this issue in more detail.
  • What type of interaction with the audience is allowed? (see also Audience)
  • Just realise that even if you want to keep the rules of interaction completely open, it creates enormous clarity if that choice is actually being said (‘Any type of performative action is allowed, let’s go!’) rather than this aspect being left undefined. If nothing is said, the perceived ‘group code’ will be the tacit agreement everybody assumes (e.g. “most people start dancing, so I guess I’ll do the same”).


(am I forgetting any other important formal aspect? Please fill in by commenting on this page.)


If even more rules are made for an improvisation piece, we enter the realm of ‘Scores and Structures‘, discussed here.




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