Improv is to scripted theater as jazz is to classical music, I’ve often said. In both improv and jazz you take the constructs of the classic form (which is not to disregard the essential elements of the African diaspora in jazz) and create something new and different. Although jazz relies heavily on written melody, in its improvised sections jazz can have great immediacy and power as it expands off an existing structure. Improvisational theater also develops out of existing structures if not necessarily scripts or scenarios.
Thus it was with great excitement that I recently read the following passage from Tom Piazza’s The Guide to Classic Recorded Jazz: “In jazz, each instrumentalist has to understand his or her role in the group well enough so that he or she can improvise on it and not just follow directions. Playing in a jazz group involves both responsibility and freedom; freedom consists of understanding your responsibility well enough to act independently and still make the needed contribution to the group. As such, a jazz performance is a working model of democracy.”

How about that? Now Piazza was writing about jazz here but aside from some of the specific terminology he might have been writing about improv or basketball or creating a marketing plan. What creative group couldn’t benefit from this model of combining freedom with responsibility?

In Transactors Improv we strive to work democratically. Certainly as the director I strive to seek and utilize input and ideas from members. Members get the opportunity to explore and lead projects and rehearsals if they desire and this strengthens the individuals as well as the group. It may not be Rousseau’s democracy but I hope it’s at least a benevolent despotism.

Once we’re on stage, however, the democratic nature of work becomes even more important. We feel that the best scenes are not led by any one person with one or more others following. Rather, we strive to explore and discover together, one player following the other so that the distinction between leader and follower ceases to exist. It’s give and take or, as Paul Sills would grumble, “Follow the follower.”

Each player must take responsibility for ‘good’ improv practices, such as being aware—especially of one’s partner—flexible, and generous. If both players in a scene take seriously the responsibility of supporting the other, then each can have the freedom to create and explore and, more importantly, to discover something together that is greater than what either could have found or created alone. In jazz improvisation this phenomenon might take the form of harmony, syncopation, or even dissonance.

Yet at the same time, individualism is to be encouraged and actually benefits the group. “As with a soloist with a jazz band,” Cornel West writes in Race Matters, “individuality is promoted to sustain and increase creative tension within the group—a tension that yields higher levels of performance to achieve the aim of the collective project.”

So in improv, while we don’t have one guy on bass and somebody on drums and so on, we know our roles in terms of our responsibilities to our fellow players and our work. Our instruments, as such, are the characters we’re playing. The song is the scene.

Responsibility isn’t a term that most people think of when considering creativity and art but it’s critical as is another traditionally no-fun word, discipline.

My experience tells me that the best improv relies on order rather than chaos, even if the scene winds up looking crazy or absurd to the audience. Wildly hilarious and frenetic scenes usually start with a simple premise that is carefully built upon by the players. The scene’s intensity increases in measured, sensible steps. Or sometimes there’s a huge leap but it has to be in the right direction or it just won’t work.

This is intuitive stuff you start to feel after you’ve done improv a long time but put simply, you can’t just say or do anything you want. Your discipline should guide you through responsibility to partner and to creative process toward what is best for the scene.

The jazz equivalent would be going straight from, say, I Got Rhythm to something in a completely different key, tempo, and style. The audience may marvel at the switch but does it really work for the piece as a whole and how are the other band members going to feel when they realize you’re not only in a different zip code but an entirely different country? Maybe you can build off the chord progressions or rhythms in a more disciplined way with your fellow players and find yourself in something that makes a little more sense. That may sound square but that’s kind of how it works with a group.

Perhaps a more easily understood comparison might take us to a business meeting in which someone goes off on a tangent that’s completely unrelated to the topic being discussed. Gee, that’s never happened, has it? The discipline of staying within shouting distance of the topic and thus being responsible to others and the process is more likely to result in a productive session, whether it’s brainstorming or just brain warming.

Individual artists have their own ways of working and that’s fine. But group creativity, in whatever form it may take, isn’t all just inspiration and following the muse. Group members must be disciplined and have a responsibility to the other members and to the process of creation. Responsibility and discipline are sun and water spurring seeds of ideas to grow… into mighty bamboos that are cut down and used to make reeds for saxophones.

Sorry, I just had to bring it back to jazz somehow.

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