Actors call it “performing without a net;” jazz players term it “blow,” and yet for others, “improvisation” is about working with what is available. Consider, for example, the Pecha Kutcha Research Exchange (February 20, 2008). While some contributors creatively negotiated the technological glitches by making on-the-spot adjustments, others, including Jem Mackay and me, were less successful at implementing an imaginative plan B. While there were many factors contributing to our flop performance, overarching them all was our inability to improvise. Accordingly, I have come to recognize improvisation as an integral aspect of discursive practice.
Dialogue is intrinsically responsive. At its best, it is an open-ended process that unfolds through interpersonal exchange. At its worst, it is one-sided monologue resistant to give-and-take interaction. To avoid the latter and explore the former, I propose to cultivate the skill of improvisation by using the methods described in R. Keith Sawyer’s text Creating Conversations: Improvisation in Everyday Discourse.
There are at least two differences between Sawyer’s methods and what might be called strategies of “persuasion for personal profit” espoused in self-improvement books such as Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. First, Sawyer’s approach critiques dominant culture by recognizing creative conversation as a non-elitist, highly accessible vector for expanding the cultural field. Second, his techniques not only emerged from Sawyer’s scientific research into conversation, creativity and improv theatre but also his twenty years of practical experience as a jazz musician. A key theoretical influence on Sawyer’s methods is Noam Chomsky’s theory of generative grammar, which, according Sawyer, “…explains how we can create an infinite variety of sentences out of a finite vocabulary.” Sawyer’s emphasis on improvisation in day-to-day experience is also indebted to Erving Goffman’s The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life, specifically his sense that day-to-day interaction is performative and thus potentially creative, an idea also explored by Judith Bulter in her theory of gender as a performative act.
Some of the most useful heuristics described in Creating Conversations include the following:
To engage with these approaches, I will a) seek out appropriate situations in which to practice (such as, Future Reflections brainstorming sessions); b) practice these heuristics; and c) self-observe and critically reflect on if/how this conscious practice enriched the dialogue in question. From time to time, I will also compare and contrast the efficacy of my conscious practice with my unconscious practice, bearing in mind the veritable impossibility that my conversations in my research can ever be genuinely natural given my own biases as a researcher. While the criteria for determining the significance of my improvisation will be assessed on a case-by-case basis in keeping with each project’s local interest, some of the general questions propelling my critical reflection more generally will include the following:
It is not my intention to prescribe improvisation as a “best practice” for the collaborations comprising my research. Consequently and alluded to throughout this discussion, I understand this process as a tool for individual authorship. At times, however, improvisation may also be useful for group work. It was through a tacit version of the “Yes…and” approach, for example, that Future Reflections developed the idea of personifying the collaboration as an interlocutor in the radio play, interview and dialogue comprising our publication submission for Future (Re)turn for the Detours lll conference in Torres Vedras, Portugal (2007). Based on this and other precedents, I may introduce improvisation as a working practice for collaborative production.
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