Improvisational Theatre and Music Games

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Gareth James, CC BY-NC

The so called "improv", although popular in some places, is to many countries a fad or a threat to mimes. We will not cover all the field, but let's focus on a subfield of improv games ("a set of rules that control players to spontaneously create a play").

Surface Similarities

New music is rarely the result of an improv game, but social function of games for music and of games for theatre is similar. Both are a group activity, held privately or as spectator events. For amateurs both music and theatre games are either just fun or a personal development tools, as they involve participants creatively, performatively and intellectually and also both activities don't require much prior expertise to be picked up.

For practitioners games might be a kind of professional training which develops improvisation skill or is a playful version of drill exercises. Then, if you're good, you can record albums of music games or do your improv full-time. Both types of games might be staged, though in music games spatial aspect is less important and the focus of visual attention may narrow down much more than any theatrical prop allows.

The Historical Context

Improvisation in the theatre has a long history, but theatre games started post-war and are now interestingly popular. Sure to mention here is a TV show Who's line is it anyway? — developed in the UK (started as a radio programme in 1988, with John Sessions and Stephen Fry as key performers) then peaked in the US (with Drew Carey, Ryan Stiles, Colin Mochrie, Wayne Brady…). It found an audience even when aired against Friends (where Lisa Kudrow also showed a strong improv experience).

How could improv be so popular as music games will probably never be? First and foremost, by design: Keith Johnstone was developing his improv games with explicit focus of engaging the audience and his main inspiration was actually… professional wrestling (as staged fights with jumping, shouting etc.). The aim of this form of entertainment is indeed to appeal to crowds.

Although improv was not designed specifically as a comedic form, that focus is now dominant. Two main routes to comedic scene would be developed characters or references (*). Both tactics are based on familiarity, but even within this closed frame, possibilities are vast and that allows for spectacular skill to manifest itself. This improvisers' skill is a huge part of the appeal (contrary to intentions of improv originators that stressed content more than just skill).

In the field of music games there's not much to resemble that familiarity effect. Surely, skill is to be appreciated and there are games where rule-based solos are played to a more "typical" accompaniment or with Zappesque games based on genres. But at their origin game pieces were to escape the genre, they were a way to widen musical horizons. It would be hard to reduce the field of music games so they get along with popular music.

Improv Music Games

In a frequent improv setting there is an instrumentalist (or a small ensemble) that provides musical context for improvising actors to play with or against. These musicians surely play hard. The situation requires a particular set of skills like genre-juggling, sound-scaping and following both rules of the game and cues from actors. Viewing that situation in our context, you get a loosely defined and complex music game; unfortunately extremely demanding. Music there might be great, but it also might be cliché and… no-one actually minds as the music in improv rarely takes the foreground.

It's also worth noting that there are improv games that deal with music directly. For an overview: in an online table of such games for 44 titles only 6 are tagged as "No words", and there are 13 games in the "Rhyme" category. Generally, these games might be "musical" more as in "a Broadway musical", not only "related to music", so only two games fit our library:

Acapella Harmonies

Players stand in a circle with their eyes closed
After some breathing exercises they start to sing held notes
Every person should be singing at the same volume to create a group chord
It can sound horrible, or beautiful. Embrace both.

Some variant of the above you can see at many improvisation workshops (like "One Note Piece" of Music for People) and instrumentally as an intro to every second kraut rock concert. ;p

Harmony Duets

Person 1 sings a short tune (can be la-la-la)
Person 2 joins in the second time with a harmony line
Person 2 repeats their line on their own
Person 3 joins in with Person 2 with a harmony line. (Person 1 can now go and make a cup of tea)
Person 3 repeats their line on their own

Gamey in appearance, because it's turn-based.

Classics like Magic Music are often used at workshops. A bit different, also language-independent category are "energizers" or "warm-ups" which often use rhythm and body percussion — these on the other hand usually don't let participants meaningfully influence the sound result. Unfortunately, the most established musical improv games are precomposed simple pieces with words to fill. Here as an example, "Irish Drinking Song":

Other Bonds Within the Library

In the example above viewers call a theme for a song to be performed next and audience participation is indeed a general similarity between fields. Both in staged context and at music games meetings, people that don't perform music in a given game might start games by choosing a variant or assigning roles for participants to push towards the edges of their comfort zone. Non-musicians can participate without producing sounds as Conductors or collective Judges.

Improv mechanics worth using in music games is tagging out when players can swap in the middle of the piece. This might work as the critique system — the next queued up player picks the person who in one's opinion did worse in that round and they change places. Of course tagging out can just serve a purpose of mixing things up without evaluation.

You can also use a typical improv arrangement as a variant end condition: one person selected before the game is responsible for choosing when to end the piece. This again has a positive effect of stretching performers' creativity out of well-known areas. Running out of ideas when a leader prolongs the game is just the moment for your development. This optional ending may be used in many free-form activities from our library.

Direct inspirations are already present in our library. Entitled piece is a take on an "external suggestion" idea. Two-headed soloist is based on "Three-headed Broadway Star" improv game. The 3-split free-form is like "Sitting Standing Lying" (and its variants) with spatial qualities translated to musical ones.

The fields are also bonded personally. One of the figures to mention would be a music games author W. A. Mathieu who is an ex-musical-director of the first ongoing improv theatre groups in U.S. — Second City from Chicago.

The Theory and Rules of Improv

Inspiring is the amount of theory that got built around improv. It has a rich glossary (still ahead of music games one) and much of jargon is not only based on activities on more important topics like players interaction, impersonation and story development. These sorts of matters seem harder to conceptualize in the context of music games. The musical equivalent would be to classify basic improvisation interactions and examine which generate engaging (?) and dynamic (?) music (but what is good music?).

Finally, check out tips for newcomers (so called "Rules of Improv"). These apply well also to musical free improvisation:

Say Yes-and! (accept ideas and develop)
Focus on Here and Now
Change, Change, Change!

Avoid judging what is going down except in terms of whether it needs help (either by entering or cutting), what can best follow, or how you can support it imaginatively if your support is called for.

Be vulnerable, Trust and support your partners, Misbehave in a playful way


Thank you to Sebastian Świąder from the Association of Theatre Pedagogues (Stowarzyszenie Pedagogów Teatru) for suggestions regarding this text.

And maybe to you? Please comment to make this text better.


Sources / recommended follow-up

Keith Johnstone, Impro for Storytellers
https://www.deepfun.com/seven-aspects-of-spontaneity/Viola Spolin's approach described
http://www.musicalimprovcomedy.co.uk — lists and rules of music games
http://improvencyclopedia.org/ — games, glossary, "rules of improv"
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Improvisational_theatre
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9A3pgTX8JUAMartin Short at The Late Show with Stephen Colbert talk improv (*)


Mark for clarification

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