CONTEXT (& basic agreements)

CONTEXT is the container-term we use for describing all that which provides the ‘bedding’ for an improvisation, so anything starting from the people organising it, the way the people (audience and performers) are brought together, in which space, under what kind of invitation, etc. etc.

Too much to name it all… 🙂

To make it a bit more simple, let’s start with looking at

BASIC AGREEMENTS (to set up an improvisation)

There are many ways in which to prepare performers for an improvisation 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, it is always helpful to at least CLARIFY THE CONTEXT on the four aspects below even if your idea about improvisation could be that for the rest, nothing much is defined beforehand.

BASIC AGREEMENTS should be simple and clear. If it goes beyond that, we talk in this Knowledge Base about creating Common Ground (implict agreements) or Structures(explicit agreements).

Here we go:

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. You can decide to work with Implicit Agreements / Common Ground or with Explicit Agreements / Structures.
  • What type of interaction with the audience is allowed? (see also Audience)

It is good to keep in mind that even if you want to keep the rules of interaction completely open, it creates enormous clarity if that choice is actually being made explicit (‘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 implicit agreement everybody assumes (e.g. “everybody starts dancing, so I guess I’ll do the same”).


The term ‘free improvisation’ – although used a lot because we seem to not have better words available – is a rather fuzzy term because no improvisation is in essence totally ‘free’. Each performance happens in a distinct context (a certain space, certain people present, implicit agreements about interacting, etc.) whether that context is named or not.
The idea of a ‘free improvisation’ doesn’t acknowledge the fact that a context is always given (and therefore not everything is possible) and that implicit agreements affect us and exist in any social context.

Of course you can improvise (and invite others to improvise with you) while deciding to neglect the context. A goal could be that your interest goes towards performance as a social experiment (where the context is consciously kept cloudy). However, assuming we are improvisers who want to reflect about our discipline it is important that we realize that a so-called ‘free improvisation’ is not exactly what the name implies. Usually, what people mean when they say the next improvisation will be ‘free’ is that there are no explicit agreements made for the upcoming improvisation. There are, however, always implicit agreements that are ‘in the air’, depending on what happened before, the type of people present and the context of improvising (for example if there is audience or not).

In general, if  the context of an improvisation is not named and clarified beforehand, we will make our own assumptions about the implicit rules, guided by our own personality/history and the ‘group culture’ we mean to perceive. This has the danger of effectively making the interactions on stage pretty ‘un-free’, because we have to guess about the rules (e.g.: Am I allowed to switch discipline? How much time is it allowed to take?) and we might become cautious (or the opposite: reckless) as a result.

On the most basic/practical level, this clarifying the context can be tackled by the BASIC AGREEMENTS above.

For a deeper discussion of CONTEXT in Instant Composition Performance let’s consider:

THAT WHAT IS (people, objects and other entities that are present)

COMMON GROUND (unspoken, implicit agreements)

STRUCTURES (rules and other explicit agreements)

(Are we forgetting anything? Please fill in by commenting on this page.)

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