When my daughter was maybe four, I taught her an improvisation exercise: Gift. Gift always starts the same way: the two people playing agree who is going to give the gift. If I was giving the gift, I might start by picking up an (imaginary) box; maybe a large box. Then I would hand it to her.
For the game to continue, she would have to take the box she couldn’t see. It couldn’t be just any box but the box I had handed to her. She would have to agree with what had already happened.
At our last retreat, Andrea read a passage about improvisation from Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink to us. I offered a Gift to Ingrid. She very carefully removed many ribbons, opened the flaps, reached into the box and lifted out something; clearly something that filled the box, perhaps rounded, and said “thank you.”
I said “its shiny” and then she said “pretty” to which I replied “But what does it do?”
“I don’t know but it’s shiny.”
“I’ve been wondering what it does since I bought it.”
Then she said “It’s pretty. That’s what it does.”
Improvisation never has a script but, even if you can’t see it from the outside, there are always rules. One rule (spoken or not) that is critical to improvisation is that there has to be agreement.
Improvisation usually has no props, no set, no backdrop: just people. With only their words and action they have to create a world, a Doctor’s office, a closet, a library, a garden that will draw in the audience. As long as they agree on what is happening in that garden, it will continue to develop and grow. But, when one player no longer agrees to what has happened, they’ve taken a fork in the path and entered a different world.
Even though they are still on the same stage and may even take turns talking, at best, they are talking past each other. As far as everyone else is concerned it would be better if they tromped off to different parts of the stage and one recited poor Yorick! and the other juggled his balls.