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National Theatre Blog

A potted history of improvisation

An image of five actors from Lost Without Words seated on and around a leather sofa

When Lost Without Words comes to the Dorfman Theatre in March, it is without one key element: a script. Six actors in their 70s and 80s, who have spent their lives performing the words of others, will go on stage and create a new show from scratch every night. They join part of a long history of improvised performance, which stretches from Ancient Rome to modern comic performers like Tina Fey. Here’s a quick look into the history of improvisation and its impact on theatre.

In all likelihood, improvisation began in prehistory, with two cavepeople trying to explain to another caveperson what they were doing in each other’s cavebeds. The earliest recorded example comes from the fourth century BC. Atellan Farces were comic improvisations by stock characters that were popular in Rome and contemporary Italy. A few hundred years later, commedia dell’arte (known as the first form of professional theatre) productions of the 16th century were based on stock characters and heavy on the improvisation. In fact, the art form is sometimes called commedia dell'arte all' improvviso.

So, improvisation was important in the advent of professional theatre. However, in the early 20th century, improvisation mostly referred to jazz musicians. In a theatrical context its earliest applications were to unscripted comedy and in particular to the work of Dudley Riggs, a comic, vaudevillian performer born in 1932. His style developed as a way of dealing with hostile audiences: when they booed, Riggs and his Brave New Workshop troupe asked for suggestions and took them on board. Riggs himself preferred the term ‘instant theatre’ to improvisation; critics who saw its parallels with the music scene referred to it as ‘word jazz’.

If you’re so inclined, you can trace a line from the Brave New Workshop to modern TV and radio comedy like Whose Line Is It Anyway?, Saturday Night Live and the Second City company, whose alumni include Bill Murray, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Steve Carell and Stephen Colbert. Second City has its origins in the Compass Players cabaret troupe, set up by Paul Sills in 1958 and influenced by Sills’ mother, arguably the most important figure in 20th-century improvisation: Viola Spolin.

In the 1940s, 50s and 60s, Spolin invented the ‘Theater Games’, a set of improvisational exercises that allow performers to create spontaneity and have formed the backbone of improvisational theatre since. Some examples include ‘Gibberish Interpreters’, in which one performer speaks in gibberish and another translates into English, ‘Building A Story’, in which actors improvise a story relay-style based on audience suggestions and ‘What’s Beyond?’ in which three performers improvise a scene, one leaves and the other two invent a secret that the third person must figure out when they return. Spolin formalised the games in her book Improvisation for the Theater, in whose introduction she wrote:

Everyone can act. Everyone can improvise. Anyone who wishes to can play in the theater and learn to become “stage-worthy.”

We learn through experience and experiencing, and no one teaches anyone anything. This is as true for the infant moving from kicking and crawling to walking as it is for the scientist with his equations.

If the environment permits it, anyone can learn whatever he chooses to learn; and if the individual permits it, the environment will teach him everything it has to teach. “Talent” or “lack of talent” have little to do with it.

Spolin’s work didn’t just inspire comedians. Towards the latter half of the 20th century, improvisational theatre took on brand new, non-comic forms. San Francisco’s Diggers, for example, were a radical group of ‘community anarchists’ who also made improvisational theatre in the late 1960s, while New York City’s Open Theater used improvisational elements to devise full-length productions. Its director, Joseph Chaikin, used improvisational techniques to respond to traditional acting, which he said 'has become a blend of that same kind of synthetic ‘feeling’ and sentimentality which characterizes the Fourth of July parade, Muzak, church services, and political campaigns’. Meanwhile in the UK, scripts had to be legally approved by the Lord Chamberlain’s Office until 1968 and actors could be prosecuted for improvising during a performance. It didn’t stop them, though; Joan Littlewood, for example, faced legal action more than once.

Improvisation, as you might expect, continues to develop and shift with the times. Social media has brought new opportunities and the possibility to interact with audiences outside of a specific space. Offline, improvised performances make up a huge part of Edinburgh Festival Fringe and dozens of professional improv troupes practise in the UK. Among the foremost of these is Improbable, who will bring Lost Without Words to the Dorfman in March. Improbable’s mission statement gives an insight into what makes it such an enduring art:

We see improvisation in all its forms as a tool for social change. It is a deeply democratic art form that fosters a sense of community and empowerment amongst its participants and audiences alike and, in an age of increasing digital complexity, is determinedly live.



Visit the Lost Without Words page.