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An exploration of group dynamics and audience effects on theatrical improvisation.

Accidental/Unskilled Improvisation

We will be researching the process of improvisation in scripted/scored mediums and how it differs from planned improvisation. This encompasses the actions of unskilled improvisers when faced with a situation that requires it. Retrospective contextualization, improvising in a crisis situation, or error correcting are all important aspects of live performance and relate to unexpected improvising.

Unexpected improvisation in music

An unexpected musical situation could include having to improvise within a scored piece in order to mask a mistake or compensate for an unexpected event/interruption.

Music Example

Unexpected improvisation in theater

In a theatre context this could include the performers needing to unexpectedly improvise because of a disturbance to the performance, a deviation from the script, or a need to fill additional time. Unlike in improvised music or theatre when, the dialogue is scripted, all participants already know the background and the outcome of the performance and have to fit their unexpected improvisations into the existing context.

Theater Example

Topics to discuss

Unexpected Improvisation in Music

* Error Correcting Example:

1. An example of error correcting in scored music is when a soloist skips a section or comes in early, and their pianist must skip music or improvise a way to get to the part the soloist is on. Another example is when, in music for theatre especially, more time may be needed to be filled with music. The conductor or musician must make a quick decision of what to play, and how much more music will be needed to fill the time without sounding awkward.

* Retrospective Contexualization:

1. An example of retrospective contextualization is changing something in the future to reflect a mistake made in the past. This could be changing a same note in a repetition of an early passage where a mistake was made, or changing a harmony.

* Improvising in a crisis situation:

1. While a musical crisis is not in itself a crisis, this could refer to a situation that gets your adrenaline pumping. One such example is when music falls off a stand and you must make something up until you can get the music in front of you again.

Unexpected Improvisation in Theatre

* Error Correcting Example: 1. Sawyer explains that in unskilled improvisation, it is very common that the actors don't know how to advance a drama or carry out the scene til the end. He presents two skills that actors can use to advance an argument. One way is to answer yes, accepting whatever proposal the previous actor presented, and the other way is to add “and” after the yes; He mentions that with this tool, you can offer something new to the performance. However, if actors DON'T use this tool, Sawyer explains how this can lead to an error correcting situation. He says that, “If an actor fails to add something , he is forcing the other actors to do more than their share of the creative building of the frame,” (Sawyer 94), resulting in fixing “a disturbance” to the performance.

Error Example

* Improvising in a Crisis Situation Example:

1. There are plenty of examples for this situation because there are always times when unskilled actors get themselves in a bind in a performance. Like, for instance if one of the actors doesn't understand the character they are displaying or understand how to display the character in a performance, usually the best way to deal with this crisis is to turn right to comedy. Do something comedic with the character because even if you aren't achieving the character's description, it's funny for the audience to watch. The main goal is to achieve laughter from the audience.

Crisis Example

* Retrospective Contextualization Example:

1. When it comes to this topic in improv, it usually happens in a group performance when one of the actors strays off topic in the beginning and in order to keep the scene going to the end, the other actors will also have to back up and follow the first actor's mistake.

Retrospective Example

How is Unexpected Improvisation similar to Intended Improvisation?

  • You Learn something from each performance
  • The audience only cares about the jokes
  • Use the context and material of the situation to make something new

How is Unexpected Improvisation different from Intended Improvisation?

  • More spontaneous
  • Takes less preparation
  • Harder to feed off the other actors
  • Have less experience (usually) in an improv situation


Magerko, Brian et al. An empirical study of cognition and theatrical improvisation. Georgia Institute of Technology, 2009. 117-126. Print

Sawyer, R Keith. The emergence of creativity. Philosophical Psychology. Vol 12 No 4. Taylor & Francis LTD, 2006. 447-468. Print.

Sawyer, R Keith. Group creativity: musical performance and collaboration. Psychology of Music. Vol 34. Sage Publications, 2006. 148-165. Print. <>.

Sawyer, R Keith. Chapter 2: Jamming in jazz and improv theater. Group Creativity: Music, Theater, Collaboration. Mahwah, NJ: L. Erlbaum Associates, 2003. Print.

Sawyer, R Keith. Chapter 6: Degrees of improvisation in group creativity. Group Creativity: Music, Theater, Collaboration. Mahwah, NJ: L. Erlbaum Associates, 2003. Print.

Sawyer, R Keith. Chapter 8: Improvisational theater: an ethnotheory of conversational practice. Creativity: Music, Theater, Collaboration. Mahwah, NJ: L. Erlbaum Associates, 2003. Print.

Roux-Dufort, Christophe, and Benedicte Vidaillet. “The Difficulties of Improvising in a Crisis Situation.” Studies of Mgt. & Org. 1st ser. 33 (2003): 86-115. Print.

Rusbult, Craig. “Music Improvisation: using Creativity + Music Theory.” Craig Rusbult, 1998. Web.

Kamoche, Ken. “Improvisation in Organizations.” Studies of Mgt. & Org. 1st ser. 33 (2003): 3-9. Print.

Kitahara, Tetsuro, Katsuhisa Ishida, and Masayuki Takeda. “Improvisation Supporting Systems with Melody Correction and Key Vibration.” Http:// The Pennsylvania State University, 2007-2010. Web.

Yanow, Dvora. “Learning In and From Improvising: Lessons from Theater for Orgazational Learning.” Reflections 2.4 (2001): n. pag. Society for Organizational Learning and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Print.

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