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what's an improv toolbox good for?

Updated: Apr 19

This is the third blog post of the why improvisation is not a toolbox series.


In the second post, if improvisation were a toolbox, I suggested that, when using the toolbox metaphor to describe improvisation, "it is important to be aware of the skills, understanding and training that are needed to use the tools well and responsibly."


This post will look at the instrumentalist view of improvisation which asks: 'What is the improviser's toolbox good for?'


This image shows a cylinder being lit from two angles so that on the one wall the shadow is a rectangle and on the other the shadow is a circle.
Photo by Daniel Joffe on Unsplash

To understand the logic of the improviser's toolbox, let's use one of my favourite world-building prompts (dare I say 'tools') from improv comedy: "If this is true, what else is true?"


What are tools?


Tools are objects, devices or instruments which aid people in accomplishing tasks. They are mostly used for creating, moving, holding in place, breaking or fixing something.


If this is true, what else is true?


People in different trades use different tools for different ends. Trainers, coaches and facilitators can use tools to help their clients find solutions to problems.


If this is true, what else is true?


"A trainer's toolbox can be imagined as an array of methodologies, activities and interventions that help a client reach their desired goals or outcomes." (blog 1)


If this is true, what else is true?


Improvisation methodologies, activities and interventions are tools. Improvisation tools are a useful means to an end.


According to this logic, it follows that the improviser's toolbox is good for many things. "Through its versatility, (applied) improvisation is becoming the ultimate Swiss Army Knife in a creative trainer's toolbox. And who could argue against the utility of one of those?" (blog 1)


Here's some brief context for the rise of this instrumentalist worldview:


During the Industrial Revolution, hand production methods transitioned to mass production machine tools. Complicated machinery required precision, process standardisation and interchangeability of parts.


In Europe, this gave rise to scientific management (Taylorism), the concepts of which still underpin today's economy. These include rational analysis, strong work ethic, and task efficiency through elimination of wasteful activities.


This was further developed in the United States by Fordism, which took many of these principles and intensified them to produce standardised, low-cost goods. Ford's car assembly lines broke down their tasks into the smallest possible steps which allowed unskilled workers to use special-purpose tools.


The concepts of reducing futility and uselessness were perhaps best described in the Japanese terms muda ('wastefulness'), mura ('unevenness') and muri ('overload'). Brought together by the Toyota Production System, these denote three types of deviation from the ideal of efficiency and effective allocation of resources.


Despite much criticism of the instrumentalist view which treats employees as literal 'human resources', these developments in work culture form the DNA of almost every strategy that came thereafter. Whether we call it cycle time, time-based competition, quick-response manufacturing, push-pull strategy, workflow automation, Waterfall, Lean, Agile or Scrum, all of these management processes seek to standardize and intensify the pace (time and motion) of production.


In this sense, the language of efficiency and effectiveness is just Taylorism under another name.


Image of Fred from Scooby Doo unmasking Frederick Taylor disguised as a ghost.
Images of Frederick Taylor and Fred from Scooby Doo found online.

During my training with Nora Bateson and the International Bateson Institute, I learned that along with the technological, organisational and productive changes of industry, language changed too.


Nora wrote: "In industrial terms, the product became a linear endpoint towards which a culture of how to get to that desired endpoint or output was put upon a racetrack of faster, more, cheaper. This has become wrapped into education, economy, health and technology in ways that have soaked into identity and language."


We have become accustomed to using mechanistic, object-based, and linear language to describe our everyday life. When I applied to the Warm Data Host training in 2020, I wrote:


"My hope in doing this course specifically is that through building my own toolkit and network I will be able to better hold space for other people and find socially constructive ways of creating lasting systemic change."


'Specifically,' 'toolkit,' 'constructive' - These are all industrial terms. The training brought home to me that we are so eager to get from point A to point B, from problem to solution, from action to result, that we 'design' our lives based on the industrial premises of measurement, optimisation, and predetermined outcomes.


"This linearity is an epistemological habit of the industrial world," Nora wrote.


Anything that does not directly contribute to achieving our desired outcomes must justify its existence by being good for something else that will help us achieve our goals. For example, in large parts of the world, it is understood that we go to school in order to get an education, a job, a house... studying simply for the pleasure of learning is deemed a 'waste of time', and taking longer than the prescribed number of years is considered to be a 'waste of resources'.


While studying at the London School of Economics (LSE), I was told by many fellow students that they had wanted to take an arts degree, but their parents insisted on more prestigious career paths. Even pursuing hobbies (such as improv comedy) that did not directly contribute to a more powerful CV was out of the question. The stereotype of the useless, non-productive artist prevails.


"Advocating 'art for art’s sake' has been insufficient for preserving the arts in schools." Choosing a subject in the arts is often justified by making students better at science based subjects because this has been proven by science.


"The tautology is fantastic!"


This film was put together by Nora Bateson, Rachel Hentsch Spadafora, Leslie Eubanks and Vivien Leung. You can read the script for the video here.


In the corporate world, we're told that we need to market playing improvisation games as tools to become better leaders, more effective communicators, and more efficient at making more money.


"By evoking familiar expectations of mechanistic and measurable engineering solutions for ‘creative’ problem solving, the metaphor has itself become a tool which opens the door for creative people who wish to enter and succeed in the industrial workplace." (blog 1)


As a trainer, I am often asked "what is this activity good for?" and told "we can't just play games!" The uncertainty of potentially wasting time by doing something useless gives many managers and training participants anxiety. Especially when they are under pressure to meet deadlines, employees need to know what they are doing and why before they can fully entrust themselves to it. To reach a shared understanding, I adjust my language.


"Improvisation," I say, "is good for raising people's confidence and enhancing their interpersonal skills." Then I add: "Our training will equip your people with the tools they need to become effective team-players and leaders."


Then I am required to provide step-by-step plans with learning outcomes, justifying every minute of time spent. Before doing anything, I critically ask myself whether my work is justifiable and commercial enough. Stephen Nachmanovitch wrote in Free Play:


"This tension reflects the values of a society that considers the product more important than the process. What's wanted is a sure thing, the assurance that we are getting a product whose value has been ratified by authorities."


When our focus lies on achievement and goals, we start to hone in only on the effects produced through improvising, rather than exciting at the possibilities that arise when we engage in non-competitive purpose-less divine play. Rather than opening up a space for new possible ways of relating and learning, notions of applying improvisation tools get inducted into the realms of 'productivity,' 'efficiency' and 'progress.'


In Stephen's words: "None of this can be specified a priori if we are dealing with raw creativity." "The heart of improvisation is the free play of consciousness as it draws, writes, paints, and plays the raw material emerging from the unconscious. Such play entails a certain degree of risk." (Free Play)


But risk is what ought to be minimised, no?

On the production line, in the office, and everywhere else, right?


Industrial thinking pervades not just economics, but all aspects of our existence. Be it in the contexts of education, health or family life, instrumentalism has become the lens through which we perceive reality.


"For an improvisation business, this means narrowing down the inherent uncertainty and unpredictability of free association, to repeatable and replicable activities which take their participants down a predictable path of 'transformational' experiences." (blog 2)


This may all seem harmless, until we start trying to apply the principles of managing a car factory to living in a family or tending to a rain forest. As we are finding out when trying to address issues such as global pollution, linear industrial frameworks of change-making form an atmosphere that constrains thought and action. Albert Einstein already warned us that "we cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”


"The irony of this is that the most pernicious problem facing humanity at this time is the habit of attempting to respond to living, non-linear, multi-causal issues with responses geared toward specific outcomes," Nora Bateson wrote.


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