Common Ground (implicit agreements)


Next to basic agreements (see under Context), each time we go into an improvisation, there are implicit agreements ‘in the air’ that are usually not specifically named and those unspoken agreements depend on (amongst other things):

– the people present and what they think about each other
– what they experienced together before
– in which type of space they are
– what the assumed social/cultural codes are of the group and the space

As improvisers, we can decide to work with these implicit agreements in two ways (which are partly overlapping):

  • by making the implicit agreements explicit and modify them (through talking about them and/or through exercises)
  • by working on ‘common ground’ which can add new, shared implicit agreements to the group (for example the implicit knowledge that a group accumulates through working together for a weekend with a certain focus, even without talking about it)


You can do this simply by talking about them, or by addressing the implicit agreements in exercises.

For example: It is rather common that musicians with big, rather immobile instruments (a drum set, a piano) place themselves at the sides or the back of the performance space. If you perform with an interdisciplinary group and this question is not addressed in the group, it is likely that ‘the position for musicians is at the margins of the performance space’ will be the implicit agreement for the performance. If the question is made explicit, however, the group might decide that placing the drum-set right in the mid-front of the stage would be great to try, and the central position of the drummer might become an ‘explicit structure’ (an explicit choice for how to set up the performance space) for the next improvisation.
Instead of talking about it, you can do exercises that challenge the group to place the musicians in ‘uncommon’ locations on stage, or asks the musicians to move around during an improvisation. This way, there don’t need to be explicit rules about the position of the musicians, but you will have replaced the implicit agreement about positioning musicians at the margins of the space with the implicit invitation to be more creative with it. 


Common ground can mean a lot of things, but the term is usually connected to a feeling trust and clarity about how we will interact as a group. In which ways are we going to interact with each other on stage? How do we read each other? What is our common language?

Groups that perform regularly have build such a common ground through working together, which means the way they interact doesn’t need to be verbally defined each time they perform: There are tacit agreements that are part of the group culture. Everybody ‘knows’ the context in which to perform.

When improvisers gather who don’t know each other and are asked to function in an interdisciplinary setup, we don’t have the luxury to lean on such unspoken agreements (which by the way can also be problematic for groups who have worked together for a long time, but that is another story).

Let’s try to define what we mean with this ‘common ground’ from an interdisciplinary perspective.


In principle, once an improvisation starts, there is already a connection between the performers on stage. Our awareness of it might be clouded, but in principle you don’t have to prepare for being connected, you ARE. It is a pretty crucial thing to realise, because sometimes it doesn’t feel like that at all.

As improvisation performers, we like to gain a ‘sure sense’ of our connection – to feel the undercurrent that is already there. That is why different improvisation practitioners have developed many different work forms to achieve this ‘sense of connection’.

One interesting observation is that ‘clarity/definition’ and ‘connection’ are helping each other. The more you have a clear picture of the context you are in, the (maybe unspoken) ‘rules of the game’, the identity of yourself and the other players, the more connected you will feel. This clarity/definition of context is sometimes achieved purely intuitively, and sometimes it is useful to name it, or to conduct an exercise in order to clarify it.

One way to bring about a Common Ground and a feeling of connection is to

Define a Type of Interaction

By giving a certain focus on one type of interaction, the players automatically ‘gather around’ that focus and much easier feel their connection on stage.

For example, “Interact only by looking at each other, not by touch, movement, words or sound. Look people in the eyes and experience the effect their gaze has on you”, could be a preparation exercise that one can do with an interdisciplinary ensemble prior to a performance. This very narrow rule can be dropped once the performance starts, but will have a strong effect on the way the performers feel connected, all through the following piece.

Another example that probably works for any type of discipline would be:
“Communicate to each other simply by the act of starting and stopping”.
This could even be an interesting Structure for the performance itself (see further under Explicit Structures), but the point to make here is that it is a good preparation to enhance a group’s feeling of connection that will carry on into the performance, even if the performance has no such rules.

So imposing a very strict limit on the Type of Interaction allowed is one way to create a Common Ground.

Later on these rules can be dropped (or not), but they will have given the group of performers a ‘tactile’ sense of their connection, simply because of the focused work they did together.

Other ways of working?

A focus that clarifies the interaction between performers is of course just one way to bring about connection in a group. But it seems that most improvisation practitioners use mainly this method, or variations of it. Of course, just talking with each other about a certain subject, or sharing life stories, is another way to create ‘Common Ground’ or a feeling of connection.

The above described exercises are working with a strict frame – a narrow focus on the types of interaction allowed to the group – and slowly open it up towards more free expression and free interaction. But we can imagine work methods that tackle the issue from a different angle or even opposite to this. Please contribute to this page if you have anything to say about other ways to bring about ‘Common Ground’.

Note that the creation of Common Ground is a separate issue from the subject of creating Structures, which we try to discuss under Explicit Agreements in this Knowledge Base. There is natural overlap of course, but the most important difference between the two is that an explicit rule or structure that you give to a performance is something that the performers need to consciously remember (and can break or forget). It can be written down and looked up later. Conversely, implicit agreements are just ‘there’ (in your bones, in your thinking), they are subjective as well as collective, but cannot easily be pinned down. But they can be influenced, can be partly made explicit, and can be made to work for us in the ways described above.

Read further:


Session leaders in the Carpet Sessions have brought in different modes of working that all seem to use the method of first narrowing down the interaction and then opening it up.  But there were also a few in het first half of 2011 who worked differently — This below section could be worked out more. If you were a session leader, please contribute with your findings…

…some examples:

“One thing”/Seperation-muscle:  connecting through clarity in action: Clarity of intention / clarity of worlds / clarity in the definition of space

Drone/Polyphony:  creating a constant group-connectedness and reference through the musical concept of drone/polyphony – transferred to any type of performative action

Doppelgänger: interaction models based on ‘being one’ (no seperation) and the format of doubling/re-interpreting material.

Arriving / Touch:  interaction modes related to arriving and leaving / dramaturgy of ‘moving towards’ and completion

Ketjak/Interlocking:  having the undercurrent of a constant ‘unstable’ rhythm – even if not audible. A silent or very active pushing energy as the basis for all types of interaction.


Improvisation is a space, a set of structures where you have the opportunity to not perform. Where you can allow all of yourself to come up. The parts of yourself that you lost through a normative, linear, narrative,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s