A guide to norm creative improv

For a number of years Gunilla Edemo has held workshops for improvisers and theatre teachers who want improvisational theatre to challenge social norms. Here we are posting an English translation of an essay she wrote for Bloggen om improvisationsteater about her work, first published in 2016.

I am often told by the groups I meet that they are looking for ways to avoid portrayals of characters on stage that unintentionally enforce norms and where jokes are made at the expense of minority or marginalised groups. There is however a paradox in this – does having a critical view on social norms limit spontaneity? Should I always be thinking about what I am doing on stage? And if so, is that counterproductive?

When we meet to explore these ambitions, paradoxes and fears, there is often a strong desire for even more freedom and creative techniques for examining our society, where we together find a way of portraying alternative worlds beyond our current social norms.

I shall here try to summarize a work-in-progress with possible ideas for anyone who wants to work critically and creatively with social norms on the improv stage. These ideas are based on a number of workshops held 2011-2016, at Stockholms Improvisationsteater, Banditteatern in Malmö, Skuggteatern in Umeå and Improvisationsstudion in Stockholm.

Explore your scene work on three levels:

The personal level – the specific body and experiences
that you have in this world

Let the audience and your partners on stage know you: the aspects of your body and your experiences that you are comfortable revealing and communicating with. Create formats where it is possible for the improviser to present (parts of) themselves and communicate with each other and the audience as themselves. Abandon the idea of the »neutral« improviser who can be transformed into anything. Be on stage foremost as yourself, with all your strength, weakness and experience. Be honest about who you are. But who are you? This is of course changeable. Identity is always transitional and a negotiation. Every time you get up on stage is unique. Your body, your thoughts and your feelings will be new each time and you present yourself according to how you experience yourself in that moment.

The technical acting/storytelling level – »the making of«

Give the audience the chance to experience the creation of the characters and the stories. Create formats that communicate the creation of the story on a metalevel. Aim for a practice that highlights the gaps in between the players bodies and actions and the characters/stories they are creating. In the gaps between your own body (that might be gendered in a certain way) and the one you are portraying (which might be gendered in another way) there is a great potential to be normatively creative. When we explore these gaps we also describe how, for example gender norms are not normal and that in different ways everybody has access to this gender fancy dress box. We show that it is possible to play around with social norms.

Here I would also like to emphasise what many of my improvisation teachers have taught me through the years: use and celebrate your mistakes by incorporating them in your storytelling, do not hide them or dismiss and ignore them, take time to explore them! As my colleague Lotta Björkman says: when working with norm criticism we need to appreciate our mistakes. They give us the chance to discover our blind spots when it comes to social norms and to develop as improvisers, teachers and directors.

The narrative fictional level

Be conscious of different dramaturgical norms. When using Aristotelian dramaturgy (that we know from folk tales, Hollywood films and classic dramas) there are many possibilities to challenge social norms. Create »opposite« alternative worlds or exaggerate existing norms (see for example Eddie Murphys classic sketch »White like me« https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l_LeJfn_qW0) There is also the revenge drama where the »deviant« character prevails and triumphs at the end (see The Millenium series with the character Lisbeth Salander). All these methods highlight and criticise social norms.

When working with other dramaturgical paradigm (absurd, poetic, post-dramatic) you can create fictive worlds beyond the existing norms and instead have even more options to let your characters move between different positions and identities. In this work the strategies that in the Aristotelian dramaturgy is a no-no for the improviser (whimping, blocking, cancelling, bridging…) are an asset to the storytelling.

Here there are many opportunities to be norm creative. Remember that good and bad are always in relation to specific quality norms. Take for example the idea that blocking is always bad; this idea is dependent on a specific quality norm. To have a common quality norm can be a creative platform within your ensemble. However, it can also be limiting if not properly articulated, or taken for granted and therefore impossible to renegotiate.

Themes for your improv training

To say yes and to say no

You can regard a no as a yes to something else. A no I always something valuable, it is a message. Learn to recognize when blocking Is productive, something you want to listen to and follow – because it is there to say yes to your own (or the story´s) integrity. And when, on the other hand, blocking is something you might listen to but then let go of – because it stops you (or your story) from developing. Listen and trust your own no. If you want to avoid jokes and comedy at the expense of subordinate groups, you need an agreement that enables anyone to stop the scene at any time to back up or start over. This makes it possible for everybody in the cast to take responsibility for the integrity of the players, the audience and the characters. The audience wants to interact with improvisers who are happy, have fun and respect each other!

Following the news, research and trends

Keep up-to-date with current events locally, as well as globally, that engage you and your audience and incorporate this into your narratives. Make use of the potential that improvisational theatre has to actively make contemporary political comment on for example abuses of power and restrictive social norms. As a teacher or a director you can also devise games and formats by studying texts on for example gender studies or postcolonialism. This is how I created my workshop Gender Masquerade – where the class explore the experience of different types of masculinity and femininity. One important text to read is the article »Play Fair: Feminist tools for teaching improv« by Amy Seham in the book Radical Acts: Theatre and Feminist Pedagogies of Change, edited by Ann Elizabeth Armstrong and Kathleen Juhl. My advice is to read all kinds of texts, but not with too much respect – and take what inspires you and leave the rest.

Reflect on your practice

How can you talk about your creative process while you are creating? Reflection is possible before, during and after a creative process, but in different ways. Explore this! Let go of the idea that reflexion somehow is a hindrance to creativity. In my experience, the ambition to not reproduce normativity on stage can be what counteracts creativity. Instead you should let norms and preconceptions be portrayed in your scene work. Create formats where it is possible to stop, reflect, laugh at yourself and together with the audience make new choices.

Acceptance and forgiveness

I hope more improvers will continue to explore a norm critical and norm creative practice. But no matter how much we keep working together we will never be able to draw up a definitive manifesto. All our (artistic, political and private) strategies are preliminary and incomplete. Choices we make (on stage and in life) will both alter as well as enforce norms and power structures. Having a forgiving attitude is probably my most important message. To explore our existing social norms with the hope of maybe changing them is good enough, it will make a difference in your life and in the lives of your audience.

Gunilla Edemo is an educator, dramaturg and journalist. She took her first improv class in the early 90`s and has since the returned to the improv world time and time again. She wrote the teaching curriculum for Stockholms Improvisationsteater together with Lotta Björkman and has taught numerous storytelling classes. For many years she worked at one of Sweden´s main theatre institutions, Riksteatern, with artistic development and as a dramaturg. Gunilla was also the director of Improvisationsstudion´s show »Hetero«.

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