There was a fascinating article on group creativity in the January 30th New Yorker that I think has some wonderful applications to improv and the Chicago improv community.
1) Del Close was right: Your first idea probably isn’t your best idea.
“David Palermo and James Jenkins, began amassing a huge table of word associations…Palermo and Jenkins soon discovered that the vast majority of these associations were utterly predictable…When asked to free-associate about “Green” nearly everyone says: “Grass.” “Even the most creative people are still going to come up with mundane associations,” Nemeth says. “If you want to be original, then you have to get past the first layer of predictbility.”
Nemeth constructed a color association experiment that introduced a layer of counter intuitiveness by planting a research assistant who would mis-identify the color being displayed. The introduction of this deliberately inaccurate information pushed other participants to create more unusual associations. “Instead of saying that “blue” reminded them of “sky,” they came up with “jazz” and “berry pie.” The obvious answer had stopped being their only answer. Even when alternative views are clearly wrong, being exposed to them still expands our creative potential. In this way, the power of dissent is the power of surprise.”
This is actual evidence that Del was right. Essentially Del was advocating that the most obvious relational idea is probably a little TOO obvious. And even highly creative brains will start from that easy relation before they find something more unusual.
What is even better is the role which our ‘mistakes’ play in driving us further out creatively. In the second study, a plant had to be introduced in order to create a false relation, but in the quick movement and skeletal reality of an improv stage, “mistakes” are constantly created. The study indicates that these mistakes are a vital part not only of, in the moment, taking our story to new places, but they actually free up our brain to think more widely and creative about the relationships we are forming as we improvise.
“Mistakes” not only create a new and unexpected plot point, they prime our brain to find even more of them and push them even further. This is another reason to make our “mistakes” the most deliberate part of our improv. By pulling our attention to the weird and counter-intuitive relation that has just been inadvertently established we actually improve our ability to make even more strange and interesting choices!
2) The Rise and Fall of Harold Teams (and Other Creative Entities)
Uzzi examined musicals as examples of collaborative creativity and specifically tried to determine how the relationships of the participans was linked to the qualiy of the product. To gather data Uzzi examined 470 productions between 1945 and 1989. “He devised a way to quantify the density of these connections, a figure he called Q…When the Q was low – less than 1.7 on Uzzi’s five point scale – the musicals were likely to fail… “This wasn’t too surprising,” Uzzi says. “It takes time to develop successful collaboration.” But, when the Q was too high (above 3.2), the work also suffered. The artists all thought in similar ways, which crushed innovation…The best broadways shows were produced by networks with an intermediate level of social intimacy. The ideal level of Q – which Uzzi and his colleague Jarrett Spiro called the “bliss point” – emerged as being between 2.4 and 2.6.” Shows produced in this range were significantly more commercially and critically successful. “These teams had some old friends but they also had newbies. This mixure mean that artists coudl interact efficiently – they had a familiar structure to fall back on – but they also managed to incorporate some new ideas. They were comfortable with eachother, but they weren’t too comfortable.”
My first harold team was one that had already been established for over a year and I was the only addition that round. It seemed strange to me and kind of awkward since it almost seemed like I was there to do something specific, but no one knew what it was.
If the above is true, then what I was there to do was to be precisely so uncertain of what needed to be done – in other words, I was there to throw a bit into question the relation and dynamics the team had before I arrived.
This also explains the strength of Chicago as a place for generating well trained and skilled creative people. The improv scene here is massive, and divided in an accidentally ingenious way. The population of aspiring creatives is split between numerous philosophies, locations and types of performance. Those institutions provide a common social and philosophical background that encourages amazing and constantly changing artistic alliances. As improvisers, writers, directors form groups, put up shows and make films, they coalesce and then break apart. Each joining strengthens ties that may come into use in a later collaboration, but also typically involves new combinations and tasks that keep the creative thinking fresh, unexpected and new.
The ideas behind this study raise as many interesting questions as they answer. The interesting question for me is: What makes a long term creative relationship work such that it doesn’t fall into stale thinking and repetitive patterns?
Why do places like Second City continue to be relevant?
Is there no real end to the life length of an institution if it continues to infuse new with old?
How does that happen institutionally/individually?
Does this kind of logic apply to an individual’s relation to their own work? Do certain individuals push and improve their creativity through the introduction of new?
3) Why Everything Improv is on the North Side
Isaac Kohane, a researcher at Harvard Medical School, studied how useful research was quantifed by the physical proximity of the researchers. By counting the number of subsequent citations that later used the paper he discovered that “…when co-authors of papers were closer together, their papers tended to be of significantly higher quality. The best research was consistently produced when scientists were working within 10 meters of each other…”If you want people to work together effectively, these finding reinforce the need to create architectures that support frequent, physical, spontaneous interactions,” Kohane says. This model was epitomized by MIT’s Building 20. “Stewart Brand, in his study “How Buildings Learn,” cites Building 20 as an example of a “Low Road” structure, a type of space that is unusually creative because it is so unwanted and underdesigned…scientists in Building 20 felt free to remake their rooms, customizing the structure to fit their needs. Walls were torn down without permission; equipment was stored in courtyards and bolted to the roof…the space also forced solitary scientists to mix and mingle…Even longtime residents of Building 20 were constantly getting lost, wandering the corridors in search of rooms.” Urban theorist Jan Jacobs has described these spaces as producign: “knowledge spillovers.”
I have often wondered: why is there no improv in Hyde Park? Or in Evanston?
Why don’t those massive populations of educated, middle to upper class white people in their early life stages sustain an improv audience?
The answer is perhaps present above. The bars and common spaces that make up the Chicago improv scene are more than simply cash cows for the theaters, they are spaces “…that support frequent, physical, spontaneous interactions.”
Think about the training center lobby at Second City. How often passing through do you meet friends, former castmates, teachers, etc…
How many creative ideas have come out of the interactions that space allows?
Now think about the Second City Offices. If you have spent time back there it is remarkably maze like. Similar to the description of MIT’s Building 20.
Putting a theater in Hyde Park or Evanston would be missing the crucial ingredient that our shared neighborhoods and bars provide: a closely knit community that shares a very specific geographic location.
All quotes are from:
Annal of ideas: Groupthink: The Brainstorming Myth
By Jonah Lehrer
New Yorker: Jan 30, 2012
A good improviser has a natural inclination to ask questions and does so constantly.
In the process of unfolding a story and its meaning for an audience, our role as both the architects and enactors of that fantasy is to constantly be pushing ourselves one step ahead of the audience in constructing their experience. The way that we do this is by asking questions.
Good improvisers know what questions to ask and ask new ones all the time both contextually and narratively. The difference of course is that we ask those questions of ourselves and assume their answers all in the same moment.
The content of the answer is seldom as important as the question itself. It is less important how we react as it is that we recognize the question that exists: What is my reaction?
The more rapidly we can see which questions are relevant and create answers to them the more coherent, wholistic and fluid the world we create for the audience can be. Questions are a compass for circumstance, character and emotion because they indicate unknown and they almost always come with stakes.
The disjoint that we so often see on stage, the breakdown that occurs when improvisers spend time questioning one another is that they are doing little more than replicating the audience’s experience of the moment. If an actor on stage has a question about who someone is or what they are doing or where they are, it is likely something that the audience too is attempting to discover.
Our job is to recognize those questions and provide the answers before the audience has articulated the need for that information to themselves.
Improv is an area where skeletal rules structure free movement such that efficient systems are created. This kind of limiting the movement of autonomous individuals and structuring their choices is readily apparent in many areas of human life.
Our roads have rules that are essentially limitations. Speed limits, passing lanes, stop signs. These all structure the experience of driving such that we have a go-to set of actions in each set of circumstances we encounter. When these rules are broken or ignored we create accidents that slow the momentum and fluidness of the overall system.
Traffic also creates some very interesting questions about these kind of systems as well as about improv itself.
- The individual agents must be equivalent. For the rules of traffic to function well all the vehicles must be approximately significant. If some cars went only 5 MPH and some cars could only go 100MPH the rules would be unable to function. Size is another example of this equivalence. A parking spot is a standard size. A bridge can only carry certain weights of vehicles. A 8 axle semi cannot go down a one-way cul-de-sac. So standardization is necessary for the rules to be useful. And indeed the rules themselves are bound up with that standardization. The slope and angle of an on-ramp is built to specifications of speed, size and weight.
- External signals synchronize choices. In addition to our knowledge of internal rules we require external temporal signals to efficiently regulate the system. There are standardized timed signals like stop lights that synchronize our decision making and at times we even require humans (traffic cops) to disqualify the visual signals and internal rules we would follow individually in favor of a top down regulation of movement.
- Efficiency is based on an expected capacity. In addition to the speed, size and weight of the vehicles themselves, our road systems are built to handle a specific volume of traffic. Beyond that volume the system of individual choice and external signalling ceases to be efficient. After a Bear’s game, we can’t have the 200 cars waiting at the intersection just use the stop sign. We need a human being to come in an make a final choice about who gets to go when.
- Rules must be enforced. Rule breaking ruins the integrity of the system. The rules themselves inconvenience individuals in favor or a smoother overall system. i.e. You would get to work faster if you could just ignore all the stop lights, drive on the sidewalk etc. So we have to have a system in place to punish rule breakers. We require police.
If we carry this metaphor back over to the other side and apply the components of this system to improvisational theater, we get some very interesting questions:
- What role does the audience play in this analogue? Are they the police? The roadways? The external sensory signals that synchronize the actors?
- What are the punishments that keep everyone following the rules? Are such punishments existent or necessary? Is this kind of cooperative creative work fundamentally different from individuals attempting to personally arrive at their own destinations?
- If this analogue is difficult because individuals in a traffic system are attempting to satisfy their own needs instead of working together to accomplish a larger goal, can we create a continuum of efficient rule based systems? Do individual goals require more explicit and specific synchronizing cues or punishments than a collective effort?
- Is the concept of capacity valid while extending the metaphor? Can we say that a stage or an audience has a particular capacity that limits the size of a successful collective group project? If so, what can be changed to grow or shrink that capacity?
- What is the relationship between the explicitness and sharpness of the rules and the simple evaluation of the outcome? A traffic jam is a failure. What constitutes a failure on stage? Do looser rules lead to more efficient outcomes in certain situations? Which ones and why?