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Thinking about Improvisation

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I asked my students to bring an example of an authentic performance to class this week. It’s a folklore class and since it’s early in the semester we’re still getting our common vocabulary together before we jump into the meat of our work for the semester (Indiana Folklore, Folklife and Folk music, if you’re curious).

What I haven’t talked about much (yet) is my own research, which these days – those of you who’ve read my sporadic postings here know this – is on picking at the corners and edges of what we define as a performance because, to paraphrase (as Inigo Montoya via William Goldman once said) “I don’t think it means what you think it means.” In short, I think we’ve been sloppy about how we define what performing is.

As a consequence of my interests here, I’ve naturally gotten into a dialogue about what improvisation and play are and how they relate to performing. I’m writing about it a lot, and in fact am trying to get myself to finally stop writing the first article on this so that I can officially move onto the second.

I also have one of those brains that seems to make odd connections. In my case, I’m reconnecting with an old interest in neurosciences. Yes, in a different life I’d be a physicist, but I’m already in a discipline where I get to ask why so at this point I’m not changing. They get to explore what play has to do with human learning. I care about what play has to do with where we draw the line about performing. So, is this play, a performance or both? What about this? What about this?

Obviously I think they’re both for any number of reasons. Let’s try a few:

  • all of them are collaborative
  • all of them involve creative expression
  • all of them are expressed in a linear fashion which can be understood as a kind of text
  • all of them interact with norms and conventions that are socially understood and communicate different things at different levels

What if there had been no video recorder, or no track? What if you, the audience, were not part of the equation? Where does co-presence become less relevant than the play itself – is that where we can draw the line?

Just some musings about improvisation and play today. Yes, I’m trying to decide what chapters to include in the book, and where to draw the line.


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