Structures (explicit agreements)

There are many ways to give structure to an improvisation performance.

STRUCTURES or Explicit agreements can be a great way to focus a performance, to bring to the surface certain performance material, or deepen the way that performance material is used in the moment.

On the other hand, such explicit rules and structures can sometimes be (experienced as) stifling.

In this section we discuss explicit structures that go beyond the basic agreements that we discussed under Context).

For discussing structures/exercises that are used to prepare performers and create a common ground prior to the performance moment (creating implicit group knowledge, connection, etc., look under IMPLICIT AGREEMENTS (Common Ground).

So in this chapter, we want to discuss explicit structures that are given to the performers with the intention to limit their options in the performance itself.

We are also interested in the general function of rules/structures/scores. What are the benefits, what are the challenges? (what does it mean when performers are relating to the moment plus a whole set of rules, as opposed to a group that shares Common Ground and who is for the rest left fairly free for the performance?)

In general, we could separate three ways to implement structure “from the outside” into an improvisation performance:

1. Scores and Scripts

(structures for defining material or dramaturgy/order of things)

“Scores” is a widely used term (at least in dance and music) to describe a set-up or structure that defines beforehand certain things about the piece that is going to be improvised. Most of the times, a score is giving structural (dramaturgical) rules about the execution of the piece, or it defines certain performance material that is to be used (notes, riffs, movement phrases, spoken text,…) or it defines the way the performance material (sound/bodies/objects/space/…) is to be treated and developed.

“Scripts” or “Plots” are terms coming from theatre/film that can be alternatively used for more or less the same thing. These term are also heard in a wide array of professions outside the arts to describe a certain order of things/actions to happen in a certain situation (while the exact situation that will be encountered is often unknown and therefore an improvisation).

Both ‘scripts’ and ‘scores’, come from performance traditions where things are traditionally fixed pretty clearly (as in sheet music, or a written theatre play), defining not only what is going to happen from moment to moment, but even fixing the reading/interpretation of the performers in rehearsals lead by a director. In improvisation performance work, it concerns usually much more flexible and open structures, and therefore the terms ‘open scripts’ and ‘open scores’ are also used.

Sometimes a score/script defines merely rules about the way the performers are allowed to interact. But in those cases (if there is only a rule-set, but little else in terms of timeline/structure) I propose that we talk about a “Game-Piece”, see 3.)

In general, it could be helpful to say that Scores/Scripts can affect three different types of areas:

  • the expressive Material that is used in the performance, which possibly includes the space
  • the Time or Order of Things to happen
  • The Behaviour of the Performers (which links to Types of Interaction discussed under Common Ground), and in which case the script might be a Game-Piece, discussed below)

2. Interaction Rules & Game-Pieces

Game-pieces are often also categorised under “scores/scripts”, but it makes sense to discuss them separately. There is a gray area of course, but one could say that scores who mainly define interaction principles between the players but leave dramaturgy/time-line more or less undefined can be called game pieces.

The special nature of a game-piece is that by defining first a set of rules, the performance is afterwards executed like a game, the performers being players who either collaborate or play against each other. The order of things and the material used and how it is developed will mainly be defined by the way the performers interpret the ‘rules of the game’.

Sometimes, this form is mixed with the form of (1.) Conducting, as in John Zorn’s famous game-piece “Cobra”.

Other things that can be said about this category?

Please add.

3. Conducting

(one person with the power to command and/or suggest)

Instant Composition Conducting is one way of structuring improvisation performance by placing the responsibility and power to create structure into the hands of one person. The conductor usually improvises as well, most often via hand-signs that have to be learned by everybody beforehand. But it could also be big cards or other means of suggesting/commanding structure that all the performers understand.

The structuring force of an instant composition conductor can differ widely depending on personality and style of conducting. Conductors can go as far as suggesting certain pieces of source material that has to be used and commanding direct influence on the development of that material (like softer/louder, faster/slower), or on the other end of the spectrum just give structural suggestions (start/stop) or connect players and material with each other on basis of what they hear/see the improvisers are doing (suggesting grouping, solo’s, duets…)

When there is a conductor, there is always also the issue of obeying and not-obeying. Sometimes, there are rules about that as well (which again can be broken).

Music is the discipline that uses conducting the most, for obvious reasons. In interdisciplinary conducted performances there is always the question of how and when the other performers actually have time to look at the conductor. (which e.g. for dancers/actors can be problematic)

Other general things about this category?

Please add.

Are these three ‘types’ above a good categorizing of all the possible ‘Explicit Agreements/Structures in Improvisation’?  Please let yourself be heard if you think otherwise!

Just note that we discuss in this section only those structures or roadmaps for improvisation that go beyond the Basic Agreements (see those in the section about Context):

And that we discuss structures/exercises that are given to a group in ‘preparation’ under creating Implicit Agreements (Common Ground).  Of course, there is overlap there, and –> scores for Exercises/Training is a new section that could still be created).


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