Improvising a new world

Social change is necessary — but it’s not enough. Making significant headway on the withering challenges that the planet faces requires more than altering the way things are. In a world where we’ve just experienced the hottest September on record, where accelerating, runaway wealth leaves much of the earth’s population destitute, and where military drones are a growth industry, we have to set our sights higher: not on a fantastical utopia but on a world gambling its future on the proposition that everyone matters.

In an era when global economic and political forces are working feverishly to lock down a commodified, technologized and militarized monoculture, reinventing the world for good seems even more challenging than usual. Nevertheless, we have something to build on. For the past century innumerable movements, campaigns, communities and individuals have been experimenting with creative and dramatic reinvention. This has become the Era of Nonviolent Improvisation, when — from Gandhi’s Salt March to a 2012 fracktivist flash mob — activists have improvised compelling dramas designed to counter society’s policies of violence and injustice, and the social frames, myths, assumptions and scripts that reinforce them. Today the multiple emergencies facing the planet require more creative engagement than ever, including the audacious, long-term project of improvising a new world.

“Improvisation” derives from a word meaning “unforeseen.” To improvise is to invent, compose, or perform with little or no preparation. It can include inventing new variations, as in the case of jazz, which often creates variations on a melody or creates new melodies in accordance with a set progression of chords. It can also mean “to make or provide something from what is available,” as in “I improvised a dinner from what I found in the refrigerator.”

Improvisation does not stick to the script. Instead, it responds with creativity and innovation, often using what’s at hand to do so. At the same time, it does this by drawing on the wealth of experience and training of the improviser. A jazz pianist is able to create a variation not because she has imagined it before but because, as a musician, she is grounded in the potentiality and range of her craft and instrument and, more importantly, she has been trained to create; her knowledge of the underlying patterns, possibilities and limits give her a freedom to freshly vary the melody. The improviser is spontaneous, but this spontaneity is rooted in long-term training.

Jazz musicians are not the only improvisers. In fact, most of us improvise all day long. We are continually negotiating one situation after another without a script, drawing consciously or unconsciously on our life experience and knowledge to make it up as we go along. We are born improvisers. And, like Gandhi and the fracktivists, we are going to need to hone this deeply embedded capacity as we move forward in inventing a more just, peaceful and sustainable world.

Sometimes this means changing up the script on the spot. Some years ago, I lay in the street outside a laboratory protesting its design of nuclear weapons. A group of us had decided to not cooperate with the arrest as a way of withdrawing our consent from this war work. Eventually a police officer came over to put me under arrest. When I refused to get up he started to tug at my arm. His superior, seeing this from across the street, yelled out, “Don’t fool around with him. Just break his wrist!” He started to twist my hand and I felt the wrist beginning to go. Without any forethought, I leaned up and, looking him in the eye, whispered, “You don’t have to do this.” After a bit more twisting, he unexpectedly relented, letting go of my hand. He had just given me a gift — leaving my intact wrist — so I spontaneously decided to give him one: I got up and walked. As we were approaching the police van, he turned and said, “Thank you for telling me that I didn’t have to break your wrist! I was in a spell, under orders, but you broke that spell!”

Such a spontaneous intervention will not always work. But the more equipped we are to improvise, the more we can try to open space, create options and apply improvisational thought and action to larger movement concerns and situations.

Training in the art of improvisation is embedded in much current nonviolence education, with its role-plays, real-plays, socio-dramas and psychodramas. But there are also many opportunities for this kind of training in improvisational theater, including the Theater of the Oppressed, the Living Theater and the academic field of Performance Studies.

One of the better known sources is improvisational comedy. “Improv” was pioneered in Chicago in the mid-1950s by David Shepherd and Paul Sills, whose Compass Players ensemble explored how “everyday improvisations could be tapped, focused, and structured into theatrical art.” Second City and ImprovOlympics (now named iO) further developed this approach.

Truth in Comedy, a manual on improvisation written by iO founders Charna Halpern and Del Close with Kim “Howard” Johnson, explains how long-form improvisation (oddly called by this group “The Harold”) works. While this is a book devoted to generating laughter, many of its principles and methods highlight group dynamics applicable to situations far beyond the comedy club.

The Harold is about getting laughs, but it assiduously avoids jokes. Why? Because contrived joke-making is not as funny, say the authors, as “honest discovery, observation, and reaction.” For this art form, humor is not forced. It flows from the situation created by the ensemble, usually composed of seven or eight participants. After soliciting an idea from the audience, the ensemble creates a scene drawing out the implications of this idea. Its success hinges on the ability of the group to collaborate effectively. This requires forgoing competition in favor of mutual trust, acceptance and agreement.

A number of guiding principles are at work, including accepting and working with everything that is presented. Players do not talk their partners out of their ideas. Instead, as Del Close says in Truth in Comedy, they practice the “Yes, &…” rule:

It’s too easy to find ways to disagree. It strikes me that a more interesting thing for the art form — and for the planet — is to look for ways to agree, rather than disagree. “Yes, &…” is the most important rule in improvisation. By following this simple rule, two players can build a scene before they know it. The “Yes, &…” rule simply means that whenever two actors are on stage, they agree with each other to the Nth degree. Answering “No” leads nowhere in a scene.

The humor comes, not from jokes, but from the creative connections that are made as the scene unfolds. Hence the need to support one another, as the following Harold principles stress: Respect choices made by others. There are no bad ideas. There are no mistakes — everything is justified. Treat others as if they are poets, geniuses and artists, and they will be. Avoid preconceived notions. The best way to look good is to make your fellow players look good.

Players are urged to stay in the moment and not be distracted by the ego that assumes it knows the best direction for the scene to go: What is happening now will be the key to discovery. Nothing is ignored. Follow the unexpected twist. Take the unusual and active choice to forward the action. The action begins with the disruption of a routine. Be specific — avoid generalities. Listen and remember. Look for the game within your scene and play it. Listen to your inner voice. Reflect each other’s ideas.

When the Harold is rolling, the ensemble sometimes achieves a powerful “group mind” where all participants are in sync:

When a team of improvisers pays close attention to each other, hearing and remembering everything, and respecting all they hear, a group mind forms. The goal of this phenomenon is to connect the information created out of group ideas. Its members have a very strong sense of the group as an entity of its own, and connects with its feelings and requirements. There is an empathy among the individuals involved … the members exist to serve the needs of the group. They always accept the ideas of the other players, always thinking, “This is now our idea.”

Are there ways the principles and dynamics of improvisation can strengthen our movements for the nonviolent metamorphosis our times demand? While social struggle is very different from the contained environment of a comedy venue, this approach may offer some tools for building movements, waging nonviolence and reinventing the world.

Our movements, for example, could benefit from deliberately deploying the “Yes, &…” rule to garner as many “pieces of the truth” in crafting the vision and direction of strategies, campaigns and actions. In addition, explicitly preparing participants in nonviolent improvisation could come in handy in the face of challenges and potential turning points — in the way, for example, Nobel Prize winner Leymah Gbowee improvised a dramatic action to break the log jam at the 2003 Liberian peace talks.

Most importantly, our movements — and the society we are seeking to transform — would benefit deeply from taking seriously the core Harold dynamics of trust-building, collaboration, group mind and agreement across the many lines of difference that stand in the way of the thoroughgoing transformation our world requires. We are all part of the solution, and a dash of improv might help get us there.

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