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Applied improvisation is the application of improvisational methods in various fields like consulting, facilitating (workshops, team trainings, meetings, conferences…), teaching, coaching, researching, generating or evolving ideas and designs, theatrical training and playing, medical and therapeutic settings or in social work.
Shamans are part of every culture, starting from the origin of humanity in the Stone Age. They used stories, initiated and facilitated various rituals consisting of storytelling, dances and embodiment of past or future events and challenges. They applied basic principles of improvisation, to help people, to collaborate, to understand what is happening around them and to cope with daily life.
The Sanskrit-Theater originated 1,000 BC is a very early form of theatre. The vidushaka was part of the cast and the plot and at the same time stepped out, made comments, that mostly were improvised. He can also be seen as the first appearance of a clown.
Starting about 600 BC Rhapsodes travelled around Greece. He – only men – combined in an improvised way the epics of e. g. of Homer, myths, tales, jokes, songs and adapted this mixture spontaneously to local expectations and situations. In many aspects he built upon the traditions of the shamans and the trickster.
In the fifth century BC originated in Greece an intense examination of improvisation applied in rhetoric. Schools were established, to learn how to improvise a speech which had a t relevance as instrument of democracy and civic education.
The fourth century BC in Greece is an important milestone for the history of theatre: The roots of drama and comedy were established, also in the phylax play, a burlesque dramatic, played on wooden stages: A lot of the content was improvised. Improvisation also was applied in the Atellan Farces in ancient Rome.
Always a combination of stocked and improvised moves, dances and artistic movements coined performances of Pantomimes – in ancient Rome it was also one of the origins of improvised dancing. Their performances were influenced through traditions of the Etruscans. They also performend on public spaces, traveling around the country.
From the 12th to the 14th century Minnesang was very popular. The musicians visited castles and cities, they used stock texts and music and added a lot of improvisation, inspired also by historical events, social developments and reactions of the audience. Both, Commedia dell’Arte and Minnesang can also be perceived as a contribution to adult education and civic education in a time, literacy was not common and access to information often difficult.
Also in the 12th century emerged the Jester and had the task to use improvisational methods to call attention to urgent matters of politics and society. He was allowed to criticise decisions of the emperors. In many ways he incorporates the practise of the Trickster.
In medieval Italy Commedia dell’Arte was a revival of the Atellan Farces: Groups of actors travelled also through parts of Europe. As inspiration for the improvised parts of their plays they also used political events and current social issues, what they experienced and heard in other cities, as well as wishes and reactions of the audience.
In the 17th century the pedagogue John Comenius was one of the first who emphasized the significance of play and games as method for learning and teaching – he referred to the works of Plato. Games often consist of stepping into different personas in a blink of a moment, of pretending being in various settings and genres. They often have a certain structure and also invite to play with this structures, evolve them – therefore improvisation is an important aspect of games. Also games are often the starting points for improvisation and theatrical approaches. Also pedagogues like Pestalozzi, Fröbel and Montessori applied games and role plays in education.
The social worker Neva Boyd collected around 1920 description of various games and added own inventions. She used them to teach language skills, problem-solving, self-confidence and social skills in Chicago. She also accompanied people to cope with the effects of the Great Depression. Boyd also worked together with the theatre academic and educator Viola Spolin. She used and evolved her games which „…were meant to promote creative expression through self discovery and personal experiences between children with extremely diverse backgrounds.” (LaPolice, 2012, S. 26). Spolin also emphasized, that these games and exercises evolved key competencies like self-efficacy, creativity, the ability for collaboration and to tackle problems. Spolin applied the games and exercises also in workshops for actors of the Compass Theater in Chicago, the first improvisational theatre group.
Also in the 1920s Jakob L. Moreno summarized existing ideas and founded in Vienna the Stegreiftheater, the Theater of Spontaneity: People attending were actors as well as the audience – the shift took often place within a used improvisational exercises or scene. Later on he used these experiences in the development of psychodrama – improvisational approaches are an important aspect in this method.
Starting in the 1950s the educator and playwright Keith Johnstone developed in the USA and Canada various improvisational games – they not only were used to train actors or to prepare for performances of improvisational theatre groups but also in workshops and projects with teachers of schools and universities, trainers in juvenile and adult education. In the development of improvisational theater also Del Close had an important function, as he developed also long form games.
Also in the 1950s started the work of Augusto Boal: He also developed various improvisational methods and applied them e. g. in the theatre of the oppressed. Actors and audience switch their roles often; Boals methods are also applied in civic education, in the training of teachers of all fields and in politics.
In 1975 Johnathan Fox and Jo Salas founded the first Playback Theatre: People from an audience tell stories of their lives, which are after that transformed in theatrical sequences by actors, using improvisational methods speaking, singing and dancing.
In the late 1990s the performative turn began in social research. Performance – also any kind of using improvisational approaches - was not longer considered only as a process on a theatre stage with a rather passive audience, but as a comprehensive principle for researching and understanding human actions. People like Shaun McNiff started to apply improvisational methods in arts based research projects.
2002 the Applied Improvisation Network was founded, a non-profit organization of people using improvisational methods in various fields.
Examples for the implementation of applied improvisation
Additional in the training of actors and as preparation to improvisational theater, applied improvisation e. g. is used:
In consulting and corporate training applied improvisation is used e. g. in team and sales training, workshops for presentation skills, resilience, leadership and for people responsible for innovations.
Applied improvisation is also often used in methods like design thinking  and in service design projects  – therefore the methods are also researched and applied in UX-Design. And it is used in evolving engineering.
Another field for applied improvisation is in the education and advanced training for people working in the fields of social work, medical and health care and medicine. A new approach is to apply improvisation for disaster readiness and response. Additional to psychodrama, improvisational methods are also used in other therapeutic settings and drama therapy.
As mentioned in the history, improvisational methods are also applied as research tools since the permormative turn. There are several projects connected to applied drama where improvisation is an important aspect. There are also examples of use in the fields of health and life sciences, in evolving didactics and in design research.
The Applied Improvisation Network
The Applied Improvisation Network (AIN) is a global community of over 5000 members online and numerous local groups. Practitioners of applied improvisation facilitate workshops, for individuals or organisations, introducing them to these principles, tools etc. via solo, paired or group exercises, activities and games.
The members of the AIN are business professionals and academics who use improvisation tools, experience, and theory for human development and training in communities and organizations. The network includes consultants, managers, trainers, coaches, facilitators, performers and academics. The AIN was founded in 2002 by Paul Z Jackson, Michael Rosenburg and Alain Rostain. Since then the number of local groups and online communities has grown year by year, with a series of conferences, regional events and roadshows in North America, Europe, Japan and Australia.
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