Applied improvisation

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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.[1]

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.[2][3]

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 that had relevance as an instrument of democracy and civic education.[4]

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.[5]

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 by the traditions of the Etruscans. They also performed in public spaces, traveling around the country.[6][7]

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.[8]

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 criticize the decisions of the emperors. In many ways he incorporates the practise of the Trickster.[9]

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.[10]

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.[11] Games often consist of stepping into different personas in a blink of a moment, of pretending to be in various settings and genres. They often have a certain structure and also invite to play with these structures, evolve them – therefore improvisation is an important aspect of games. Also games are often the starting points for improvisation and theatrical approaches.[12] Also pedagogues like Pestalozzi, Fröbel and Montessori applied games and role plays in education.[13]

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.[14][15] 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).[16] Spolin also emphasized, that these games and exercises evolved key competencies like self-efficacy, creativity, the ability for collaboration and to tackle problems.[17] 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 used improvisational exercises or scenes. Later on, he used these experiences in the development of psychodrama – improvisational approaches are an important aspect in this method.[18][19]

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.[20] 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.[21]

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 into 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.[22] People like Shaun McNiff started to apply improvisational methods in arts based research projects.[23]

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[edit]

Applied improv to...
Some fields to use 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.[24][25]

Applied improvisation is also often used in methods like design thinking [26] and in service design projects [27] – therefore the methods are also researched and applied in UX-Design.[28] And it is used in evolving engineering.[29]

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.[30] Additional to psychodrama, improvisational methods are also used in other therapeutic settings and drama therapy.[31]

In education, improvisational approaches are used in all fields of teaching teachers, of designing and evolving didactic concepts,[32] and also as a method of student centered learning.[33]

As mentioned in the history, improvisational methods are also applied as research tools since the permormative turn.[34][35] There are several projects connected to applied drama where improvisation is an important aspect.[36][23] There are also examples of use in the fields of health and life sciences,[37] in evolving didactics and in design research.[24]

The Applied Improvisation Network[edit]

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.

Further reading[edit]

  • Boal, Augusto. 1993. Theatre of the oppressed. Theatre Communications Group ISBN 978-0930452490
  • DesMaisons, Ted. 2014. Applied Improvisation Definition Generator [1]
  • Landgraf, Edgar. 2014. Improvisation as Art: Conceptual Challenges, Historical Perspectives. Bloomsbury Academic. ISBN 9781441146946
  • Sawyer, Keith. 2011. Structure and Improvisation in Creative Teaching. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521746328


  1. ^ Frost, Anthony; Yarrow, Anthony (2015). Improvisation in Drama, Theatre and Performance. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
  2. ^ Bahn, Eugene (1970). A history of oral interpretation. Bahn, Margaret L. Minneapolis: Burgess Pub. Co. ISBN 9780808702603. OCLC 66554.
  3. ^ Babcock-Abrahams, Barbara (1975). ""A Tolerated Margin of Mess": The Trickster and His Tales Reconsidered". Journal of the Folklore Institute. 11 (3): 147–186. doi:10.2307/3813932. JSTOR 3813932.
  4. ^ Grossmann, Villavicencio; Villavicencio, Cesar; Grossmann, Cesar (2014). "The Rhetorical Side of Free Improvisation (PDF Download Available)". ResearchGate. doi:10.13140/2.1.4739.2642.
  5. ^ Scott, Jeffrey (2014). "Improvisation in the theatre: An intersection between history, practice, and chaos theory". hdl:2346/58714. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  6. ^ "From Ritual Drama to Ancient Theater – Italy". 2012-07-16. Retrieved 2017-08-12.
  7. ^ "Ancient Pantomime and its Reception | APGRD". Retrieved 2017-08-12.
  8. ^ Mariani, Angela (2017). Improvisation and inventio in the performance of medieval music : a practical approach. New York, NY. ISBN 9780190631185. OCLC 994882778.
  9. ^ Otto, Beatrice K. (2007). Fools are everywhere : the court jester around the world (Pbk ed.). Chicago: Univ of Chicago Press. ISBN 9780226640921. OCLC 148646349.
  10. ^ Henke, Robert (2002). Performance and literature in the commedia dell'arte. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521643245. OCLC 50583130.
  11. ^ "The relevance of role-play to the learning of mathematics in the primary classroom › Research Explorer". Retrieved 2017-08-12.
  12. ^ Brown, Stuart L. (2010). Play : how it shapes the brain, opens the imagination, and invigorates the soul. Vaughan, Christopher C., 1961- (1st pbk. ed.). New York: Avery. ISBN 9781583333785. OCLC 426800582.
  13. ^ McKnight, Katherine S.; Scruggs, Mary (2008). The Second City guide to improv in the classroom : using improvisation to teach skills and boost learning (1st ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. ISBN 9780787996505. OCLC 166872897.
  14. ^ "Boyd, Neva Leona - Social Welfare History Project". Social Welfare History Project. 2011-01-12. Retrieved 2017-08-12.
  15. ^ Proudfit, Scott (2016). "From Neva Boyd to Viola Spolin: How Social Group Work in 1920s' Settlement Houses Defined Collective Creation in 1960s' Theatres". Women, Collective Creation, and Devised Performance. Palgrave Macmillan, New York. pp. 51–65. doi:10.1057/978-1-137-55013-2_3. ISBN 978-1-137-60327-2.
  16. ^ LaPolice, Alan. "THE IMPACT OF IMPROVISATION TRAINING ON TEACHERS' SENSE OF SELF EFFICACY". Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  17. ^ Spolin, Viola (1999). Improvisation for the theater : a handbook of teaching and directing techniques (3rd ed.). Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press. ISBN 9780810140080. OCLC 41176682.
  18. ^ Scheiffele, Eberhard (1997-09-01). "The Theatre of Truth: psychodrama, spontaneity and improvisation; the theatrical theories and influences of Jacob Levy Moreno". Research in Drama Education: The Journal of Applied Theatre and Performance. 2 (2): 227. doi:10.1080/1356978970020211. ISSN 1356-9783.
  19. ^ "Moreno & Applied Improvisation". Retrieved 2017-08-12.
  20. ^ Dudeck, Theresa (2013-10-10). Keith Johnstone : a critical biography. London. ISBN 9781408183274. OCLC 854907806.
  21. ^ Coudray, Sophie. "The Theatre of the Oppressed". Retrieved 2017-08-12.
  22. ^ Haseman, Brad (2006-02-01). "A Manifesto for Performative Research". Media International Australia Incorporating Culture and Policy. 118 (1): 98–106. doi:10.1177/1329878X0611800113.
  23. ^ a b The Routledge companion to research in the arts. Biggs, Michael (Michael A. R.),, Karlsson, Henrik. London. 2012. ISBN 9780415697941. OCLC 751832557.CS1 maint: others (link)
  24. ^ a b Sirkin, David; Ju, Wendy (2015). "Embodied Design Improvisation: A Method to Make Tacit Design Knowledge Explicit and Usable". Design Thinking Research. Understanding Innovation. Springer, Cham. pp. 195–209. doi:10.1007/978-3-319-06823-7_11. ISBN 978-3-319-06822-0.
  25. ^ van Bilsen, Gijs (2013). Yes and ... your business : the added value of improvisation in organisations. Kadijk, Joost., Kortleven, Cyriel., Chimento, P.F. (Philip Francis), 1981-. [S.l.: s.n.] ISBN 9789081950602. OCLC 856568528.
  26. ^ "Why Improv Training Is Great Business Training". Forbes. Retrieved 2017-08-12.
  27. ^ "The Politics and Theatre of Service Design (PDF Download Available)". ResearchGate. Retrieved 2017-08-12.
  28. ^ "The Creative Impact of Improvisation". 2014-01-07. Retrieved 2017-08-12.
  29. ^ Ludovice, P.; Lefton, L.; Catrambone, R. (October 2010). Special session #x2014; Improvisation methods to catalyze engineering creativity. 2010 IEEE Frontiers in Education Conference (FIE). pp. F1A–1–F1A–2. doi:10.1109/fie.2010.5673388. ISBN 978-1-4244-6261-2.
  30. ^ Tint, Barbara S.; McWaters, Viv; van Driel, Raymond (2015-04-07). "Applied improvisation training for disaster readiness and response". Journal of Humanitarian Logistics and Supply Chain Management. 5 (1): 73–94. doi:10.1108/JHLSCM-12-2013-0043. ISSN 2042-6747.
  31. ^ "Improvisation: Yes and Psychotherapy! | Adler Graduate School". Retrieved 2017-08-12.
  32. ^ Rossing, Jonathan P.; Hoffmann-Longtin, Krista (2016-06-01). "Improv(ing) the Academy: Applied Improvisation as a Strategy for Educational Development". To Improve the Academy. 35 (2): 303–325. doi:10.1002/tia2.20044. hdl:2027/spo.17063888.0035.206. ISSN 2334-4822.
  33. ^ "Whose Classroom Is It, Anyway? Improvisation as a Teaching Tool (PDF Download Available)". ResearchGate. Retrieved 2017-08-12.
  34. ^ Sajnani, Nisha (2012-03-28). "Improvisation and art-based research". Journal of Applied Arts & Health. 3 (1): 79–86. doi:10.1386/jaah.3.1.79_1.
  35. ^ "Play as Research: The Iterative Design Process". Archived from the original on 2017-07-12. Retrieved 2017-08-12.
  36. ^ O'Connor, Peter; Anderson, Michael (2015-02-26). Applied theatre : research : radical departures. London. ISBN 9781472513854. OCLC 875997211.
  37. ^ Hoffmann-Longtin, Krista; Rossing, Jonathan (2016-04-08). "Making Science Make Sense: Applied Improvisation in Health and Life Sciences". Cite journal requires |journal= (help)

External links[edit]