Learning to improvise properly in Sydney is difficult. The training is mostly by rote drilling of sometimes inexplicably contradictory “rules”, which have been passed down over the last 30 years as gospel, with advancement usually based on how funny you are, not how well you can improvise. Since figuring that out, I’ve spent the last 3 years questioning everything I’d learned and knew about improv, and radically reinvented my approach and technique. It also led me away from Keith, to Del, but some of the answers came from neither, and were some odd non-improv sources.
I’ve been reading Jurgen Appelo’s book Management 3.0, a complex systems’ perspective on, and guide to agile management, which is basically about managing software development, but I’ve been surprised how much of his writing also applies to improv.
In Sydney we don’t normally embrace the idea of a troupe, we’re a Keith Johnstone Theatresports town, and most shows are very much the rock up and play type, where you play with different people in each show. There’s a lot wrong with this idea, but as a consequence there’s few if any regular troupes who rehearse and play together. I’ve been one of the lucky few, in that I’ve spent the last 3 years rehearsing with various troupes pretty much weekly, and had the opportunity to really explore with some likeminded people.
One of the things I questioned was the term group mind, the idea that a group of players as a whole can think likemindly as a single being. To overly simplify, some of the defnitions of group mind have included: you and your scene partner think the same way; you and your scene partner both know what should or does happen next; we all think the same way at the same time; we can count to 20 without surprising ourselves; and, knowing what your scene partner is about to do. To me these all seem like bad things, and the antithesis of what it means to improvise.
And then there’s the mystical definition, that something inexplicably magical happens to the group. I’d put this more down to coincidence and wishful thinking, a side effect of having worked with the same players for a while, which has good and bad facets to it. To come at it from a different perspective, how often does your troupe not have something magical happen? Coincidence is like that, it’s an exception masquerading as a rule.
Management 3.0 on the other hand has some good insights into what I think is really happening when we have those group mind moments.
The idea that a system can be better than a some of the parts, is born out of systems theory. Complex adaptive systems are called such because they are diverse and made up of multiple interconnected elements, and have the capacity to change and learn from experience. An improv troupe is a complex adaptive system, especially if there’s no clear directorial leader, and is at least a sum of its parts, the players.
Emergence is the idea that complex systems produce emergent resultants, results and effects caused by the sum of the parts and not attributable to any clearly traceable part. Emergence, or strong emergence when applied to a creative team like an improv troupe, causes the troupe to be greater than the sum of its parts.
The amount of emergence is commonly based upon the number of components and their interactions, which in the case of improv will increase over time. Many of the interactions may be negligible, not useful or may create noise that prevents emergence, however rehearsal and performance allow the troupe to refine and better their group play, the amount of emergence.
You can optimise emergence in several ways. Firstly, the system must be self regulating and self organising, not merely directed via hierarchy or by a single component of the system. This is also my experience in working with troupes. Creativity, capability and skill all improve when the group builds together, so long as the players are experienced and at a similar level of ability.
The diversity of a complex system is also important, as it increases flexibility by making it resilient to environmental changes, and feeds innovation due to the varying combinations and interactions between the component parts. This is particularly true of an improv troupe, including Theatresports teams with the old 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th player categorisations.
So what is group mind? I think it’s emergence, a team of creative people building something greater than the players themselves, but tempered with the coincidence that comes from working with the same people for a while.
Management 3.0 has many more great insights into improving creative teams, and while it would probably be a hard slog for an improviser not involved in software development, I’d certainly recommend a skim through it on Amazon or in a technical library if you can find one.