Social Dynamics of Improvisation

Improvisational theater is a new topic of interest among the psychological community. Not only is it a relatively new art from (beginning in the 1960s, roughly), at first glance, it seems entirely non-academic in nature. However, the form of theatrical improvisation follows many social and cognitive norms, such as dialogue patterns, creative emergence and group dynamics. Because of its highly social nature, theatrical improv is a great place to begin understanding group dynamics between performers themselves, as well as between performers and audience members. Some non-comedic forms of improvisation use these group connections to help bring audience members together as a community. These connections are made using the performers as a catalyst for exploring community relationships and creating a shared context to view the community as a whole.

An exploration of group dynamics and audience interaction in theatrical improvisation. The questions motivating this research were:

  1. How does a set of improvisers interact to form a scene?
  2. How does audience interactions vary between different forms of improvisation?

Improv Group Dynamics

When discussing theatrical improvisation, many different terms are used, but they define a few key concepts that help in understanding the group dynamics of theatrical improvisation

Group Flow:

Sawyer uses the term to discuss when a group is performing at its peak while being completely aware of each others actions, supporting and interacting as one entity and collectively developing new ideas. It is related to Csikszentmihalyi's definition of flow, which applies to an individual's peak experiences when performing, with the important distinction that group flow is an emergent group property. Interestingly, it is claimed that group flow does not require individual flow. Group flow is related to the concept of “empathetic attunement” presented by Seddon when describing group jazz improvisation. According to Seddon, empathetic attunement “is a heightened state of empathy when improvisers go beyond responding supportively to their fellow musicians and stimulate the conception of new ideas.” Group flow has been commonly called “Group Mind”, “Clicking”, “Being in Sync”, and “Good Chemistry”.
In a recent 2012 Sawyer article in Greater Good, a magazine published by Berkeley (full article: What Mel Brooks Can Teach Us About "Group Flow"), he outlines 10 keys for achieving group flow:

  1. A compelling, shared goal
  2. Close listening
  3. Use “yes, and…” to keep it moving forward
  4. Complete concentration and full attention
  5. A sense of being in control
  6. Blending egos
  7. Equal participation
  8. Familiarity
  9. Constant, spontaneous communication
  10. The potential for failure

Group Collaboration:

Interactional synchrony refers to when performers are closely tuned to each other and still continue their own performances. It creates a group environment where decisions seem motivated by a sort of “group consciousness.” Coined by Sawyer, it is closely related to collaborative emergence. Collaborative emergence especially happens in long form improv, where members of the group intentionally begin a scene with many ambiguities, which are resolved in later choices made by other actors. This involves both a bottom up and top-down approach to creating an improvised structure. In order to obtain an environment of group collaboration, improvisers need shared mental models and thus may encounter cognitive divergence and cognitive convergence.

Shared Mental Models:

This refers to the agreed framework for the scene between all members of the group. These models are assumptions by the members about what is happening in the scene. When all members are agreeing in their assumptions(aka cognitive consensus), the scene flows, which in turn can lead to group flow. When members disagree on their shared mental models, cognitive divergence occurs. In order to continue the scene, the members must undergo cognitive convergence. Without these shared mental models, the members of the group would have difficulty in establishing and acting in a scene.

Cognitive Divergence:

Fuller's describes this occuring when “improvisers have conflicting mental models of what is occuring on stage.” Sawyer discusses this as well in terms of group theater improvisation. When the members of the group disagree on where the scene is headed, they must, inaudibly and inconspicuously mend their disagreement (cognitive convergence).

Cognitive Convergence:

“The process of resolving such conflicts (Cognitive Divergence) within the performance”, according to Fuller. As the members of the group mend the differences in shared mental models, the scene beings to resort back to a state in which all members agree. Short form improv games like Party Quirks and Green Screen are built explicitly around creating cognitive convergence among performers. This process is imperative on a much more subtle level for any scene to function, and, as a tool for creating dramatic interest, is slowly worked out over the course of a long form performance.

Audience Interaction

Different forms of improv require different levels of audience participation. In comedy, some improv relies heavily on audience participation, adding to the group dynamic of the improvisation, while some only utilizes audience suggestions to initiate scene work. In non-comedic improvisation, improv is used to create a context within which audience members can participate at varying levels. It is used as a tool to build community relations, spark discussions about social or political topics, etc. A vast majority of role-playing scenes that you did in middle school/high school included improvisation. Many assemblies/ how-to sessions also include improvisational forms.

Comedic Improvisation

Short Form Games

Often times, short form games require the highest level of audience participation in a standard theatrical improvisation. Short form games can go as far as including audience members in the scene. This adds a new challenge to the performers, as the audience members are often unskilled and occasionally uncooperative. The new purpose of the performer is to “make them look good” during the scene, or sometimes openly critique them. Here is a good example: Moving Bodies Game

Long Form

Long form games, such as the 'Harold' require very little audience input to function. These games often require a one word inspiration from the audience that is built upon by the entire group throughout the extended game. This format can be used for non-comedy improvisation.

Sawyer's theories of group mind, shared mental models, and cognitive convergence and divergence are based off observations of short and long form games. Therefore a discussion in their relevance to both of these forms is omitted from this page.

Non-Comedic Improvisation

Playback Theater

Playback theater, as outlined by Fox, relies heavily on audience participation. The professional improvisers use real-life stories from audience members to facilitate group understanding of struggles and daily life. The goal of the performance is to give voice and visibility to those often overlooked and ignored. Because the focus of this type of theater is to create connections within the audience, not necessarily between the performers and the audience, group flow is not the goal of the performance. Still, the actors have many of the components that lead to group flow in improvisation, as outlined by Sawyer. The humanitarian nature of Playback Theaer lends itself to the compelling, shared goal, close listening and equal participation of the actors. In additon, the potential for cognitive divergence is reduced by the actors following a pre-explained plot line from the audience. Portland Playback Theater Interview

Theater Of The Oppressed

The Theater of the Oppressed, founded by Augusto Boal in the 1960's in Brazil, uses theater to promote social and political change. The audience, referred to as “spect-actors” are actively involved at various levels throughout the performances. Theater Of The Oppressed has many different major “branches” or types, including:

  • Image Theater
  • Forum Theater
  • Invisible Theater
  • Newspaper Theater
  • Rainbow of Desire
  • Legislative Theater

In relation to Sawyer's group flow theories, Theater of the Oppressed presents a potential problem. As the members of the scene interact, they are constantly aware that the audience is carefully observing their interactions. Due to the nature of the form, the actors understand that they will be interrupted constantly throughout their performance. While some aspects of Sawyer's group mind apply (such as a compelling shared goal, “yes and”, and the potential for failure), the narrator's comments and interjections have an effect on the group mind of the performers.

Invisible Theater

While a sub-category of Theater Of The Oppressed, Invisible Theater is unique in that audience members don't know that they are witnessing/involved with the performance. They can choose to participate what they think is a real, unstaged event. We think that it's basically pranking people without trying to be funny. The difficulties of applying the theories of group mind to invisible theater are centered around the informal setting of this form. A goal between the improvisers and the audience is not shared. The group is attempting to improvise while the audience is convinced that the performance is a real event. Similar to theater of the Oppressed, some aspects of Sawyer's theories can be applied to Invisible Theater, such as full attention, equal participation, and constant communication, but the nature of the form is not condusive to achieving group flow in Sawyer's sense.

Closing Discussion

Although there are no expansive theories focused on audience interactions in improvisational theater, many group dynamic theories can be applied to this audience interaction, including Sawyer. While most of these theories are built around short and long-form improv (usually comedic), aspects of them can be applied to a wide range of non-comedic improvisation. The field of social psychology is vast, but no specific, systematic study seems to have been applied to non-comedic improvisation. Aspects of Sawyers theory of group flow generalize very well, however. Invisible theater, for example, is completely dependent of a sense of equal participation and full attention from the “audience,” while simultaneously having no sense of a shared goal between the performers and the unknowing audience. Regardless, the performers goals cannot be met without achieving some semblance of group flow with their “audience”. Due to added structural components in much Theater of the Oppressed, the rule of “yes.. and” not only isn't applicable but would work against the intended group flow dynamic between the spect“actors” and the professional performers. Image Theater, for example, seeks out most of the group flow components that Sawyer claims are integral to group flow, but the rule of “yes.. and” makes no sense in that context. Although the academic literature is largely focused on short and long-form improvisation, many elements of the research is directly relevant in understanding other forms of theatrical improvisation. Many social educational presentations or shows like ABC's “What Would You Do” use effectively the same format as some non-comedic improvisation. The similarities display the global effectiveness of improvisation and the power of social dynamics within the art of improvisation.


Baumer, A., & Magerko, B. (2009). Narrative development in improvisational theatre. (pp. 140-151). Berlin: Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg. Retrieved from

Dezutter, S., & Sawyer, R. K. (2009). Distributed creativity: How collective creations emerge. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 3(2), 81-92. doi: 10.1037/a0013282

Diggles, D. (2004). Improv for actors. (pp. 1-23). New York: Allworth Press. Retrieved from

Fox, Hannah. (2007). Playback theatre: Inciting dialogue and building community through personal story. The Drama Review, Vol 51, No 4, 89-105.

Fuller, D. (2012). Shared mental models in improvisational performance. INT3 '10 Proceedings of the Intelligent Narrative Technologies III Workshop, 15, Retrieved from

Magerko, Brian et al. An empirical study of cognition and theatrical improvisation. Georgia Institute of Technology, 2009. 117-126. Print (find out what book this is in).

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.

Seddon, Frederick A. Modes of communication during jazz improvisation. British journal of music education. Vol 22. 2005. 47-61. Print.

Group Members: