Monday, September 26, 2016

FROM THE ARCHIVES: David Shepherd's Community of Improvisers

In 1971 after taking a five year break from improvisation, David Shepherd (co-creator of Compass with Paul Sills, and the Improvisation Olympics with Howard Jerome) formed Community Makers in New York City. The organization was set up to correct ailing communities by using improvisation as a people’s theatre. This article was originally published in Dramatics Magazine, December, 1971.

By David Shepherd

Suppose that the third reel of a film was destroyed accidentally in the projection room. The whole show would be cancelled, naturally.

Suppose for a moment that the Living Theatre is late for a performance (or any other touring company). Imagine that their bus breaks down in a snow storm. It’s 9:30 on a Saturday night. There are 500 customers waiting in the theatre and in bars along Main Street. Is the show cancelled?

What’s to prevent some of these 500 from putting on their own show?

This is a question that I’ve been struggling to answer over the past year. Put it this way: What prevents people from creating their own entertainment IN THEIR OWN HOMES?

Is the answer lack of leadership or inability to communicate? Ignorance of one’s own roleplaying potential? Unwillingness to draw attention to real concerns? Or are we living in a basically passive society, where most people are not willing to exchange canned entertainment they could create, or the sports they could play?

Of course during blizzards or celebrations, people do try and do succeed in creating entertainment – through jokes, dancing, charades, discussion and debate. People do go somewhere – so that the very change of setting is a kind of entertainment. For instance, they go from their living room to a bar, or to Coney Island, or to the park.

But the living room entertainment that I’m talking about doesn’t require a taxi or a beach buggy or even a stroll down the block. This kind of “organic” entertainment makes it possible for you to go on a trip without moving from the room where you are together with your group.

I’m talking about a way of making conversation part of a performance. And making conversation as easy as just talking to someone at a party.

This, it seems to me, is one possible theatre of the future – an activity that people can do in their homes just as easily as they play Monopoly or plan a dinner party or put on charades.

I call this activity “Responsive Theatre” because this name encourages an idea of theatre that responds and that is relevant to what people feel at any one moment.  To go back to the 500 people waiting for a touring company in a snow storm on Saturday night, Responsive Theatre would reflect how they felt about the snow storm, the disappointment of no “pro” show, the fact that it is Saturday night – time to improvise.

Responsive Theatre would be 100 percent improvised, a way of presenting the collective talent of the audience to itself – without rehearsal. A way to explore the concerns of the audience. A way to satisfy its needs.

Let me sketch the rough design. I’ve discovered by creating “responsive settings” over the past nine months – in homes, discotheques, churches, classrooms and auditoriums.
My design begins at the door to the Responsive Setting. Instead of being met by an usher or Maitre D, the participant is met by a player. The participant can also be given the opportunity to choose – let’s say between soft lighting and bright lighting, or between rock-and-roll and country music. He becomes involved in his own entertainment at the door. (If the normally passive player makes a choice, he’s entering a program that may lead him directly into the playing area by the end of the evening.)  

Next the players helps the participant discover other options: to drink wine or soda, to eat sandwiches or potato chips, to dance or watch others dance, to write suggestions for scenes on the walls or fill out “order cards,” to join a political discussion or simply sit with any group that has an empty seat at its table. The player is responsive to whatever the participant needs.

Two audience members on the dance floor at a disco play out a wild party.

Direction signal cards are passed out among the participants or the direction signals are posted prominently on the walls. Sample signals would be: FREEZE! …. Stops the action, REPLAY, FEEL IT! LOUDER! TURN OFF THE SOUND, FORWARD IN TIME, BACKWARD IN TIME, SWITCH SETTING, GET TO THE POINT!, APPLAUSE…..ends the action.

There are three or four ways by which the participant now becomes responsive himself – thereby shaping the entertainment he will get: he can vote for themes, characters or confrontations that he wants to see enacted; he can learn how to direct an improvisation by trying out signals on players sitting at his table; he can prepare to join the roleplay himself by entering into “responsive games” with the players; finally, he can change the roles of the evening – assuming he’s not a new-comer and knows what he’s doing: for instance, he can suggest some signals be used and others discarded.

Let me give an example now of how this works in practice. At last night’s performance of Responsive Theatre in Manhattan, the suggestion “Attica” was given. “The parents of a prisoner” and “the wife of a hostage” were asked for. Time: “Just before Governor Rockefeller makes his decision not to intervene in the prison riot.”

We were playing with about eight signals, which were visible to everyone watching. As the improvisation started a regular customer became disappointed. She felt that the players were floundering in sentiment and that the audience was embarrassed for them. She directed the improvisation to jump forward in time to after the Governor’s decision. She then asked for a change in roles.

Now “SWITCH ROLES” is not one of the signals we encourage. It’s enough for a player to switch setting or time without switching his role.

“Switch roles!” the viewer called out. “The father of the prisoner is now Governor Rockefeller, and you two girls are his aides. You’re trying to decide whether to intervene or not.”

We “responsive players” do not like this kind of suggestion, as a rule. We prefer a viewer use just one signal, and select that signal from a list of permissible signals. Here was a viewer coming on with the authority of a Tyrone Guthrie. She was changing the rules of Responsive Theatre. She was asking us to be more responsive than we wanted to be. But we did respond. Rudy, our black player, played the Governor, with two white aides, Penny and Diana.

(It is this tension between players, viewers and dramatic content that makes an evening of Responsive Theatre fizzle, burn, or blast-off. Some customers and players maintain that the “bad” nights are the most interesting.)

At the Manhattan Theatre Club Cabaret. Members of the audience (left) move into a scenario about "turning on." David Shepherd, center.

“Switch roles!” the same lady soon called out again. “You are now Mayor Lindsey with his staff.” For a minute, it seemed we were channel-hopping during the 6:00 news of September 13, 1971. Then our energy hit a peak, the audience applauded, and Attica as a theme-for-the-night passed from the concerns of the audience.

A successful Responsive Theatre episode need not be complicated. Acting on the participants’ suggestions, the players can move directly toward uncovering the basic emotional and ideological content of our daily lives. The results are often quite simple and yet quite imaginative. I asked Penny Kurtz, one of our players, to describe a typical experience in a responsive situation, and her answer was a telling evocation of this aspect of our improvisations.

“I remember my first experience with Responsive Theatre. We were given the suggestion of an elevator with two people – a man and a woman. I volunteered. Suddenly I find myself entering a small elevator, with a suspicious gentleman following me in. The door is still open. He stares at me, and I return his gaze. My mind flashes “Don’t push your floor button til after he does.” We stand motionless for several moments.

“We exchange some small talk. Finally he pushes his button: third floor. My floor. I smile. He smiles. The door closes. Maybe he isn’t following me after all.

“Freeze! You go out together for coffee.”

“We sit, talk, relax and discover that we’re both very lonely and afraid. Ronald (as I learn to call him) has been afraid of women all his life. He’s been seeing a psychiatrist. I want to help him. I take his hand. I think I’m going to fall in love.”

“Applause!.....and the scene ends.” Sometimes we’re asked to jump from century to century, switching roles and settings at the same time, as we chase after the theme of women’s liberation, or pollution, or child raising. It becomes impossible to respond. So we must set guidelines.

The “entertainment order” that we work from has to be stage worthy; just as a candy store cannot serve a steak platter, so we cannot stage a suggestion like a “bar with a horse and a goldfish talking about acupuncture in the year 1492.”

If we don’t have the skills or knowledge to handle a suggestion, then we ask the person who gave that suggestion to help us; this works best when there are two trained players for every amateur.

If we simply don’t like a suggestion because we did it last night or because we find it banal, or because we think it’s in bad taste, then we warn the audience that at the risk of boredom, they must take responsibility for directing their own suggestion.

Sometimes the audience accepts this responsibility. Sometimes it does not. Sometimes the players respond to the collective direction of the audience. Sometimes for various reasons, they do not. This is precisely the challenge of Responsive Theatre. Let me go back to my own original question: WHAT PREVENTS PEOPLE FROM CREATING THEIR OWN ENTERTAINMENT?

1)    LEADERSHIP. Our culture, or at least the Anglo-Saxon culture, dictates that you take certain steps before you dare perform. You have to prove your competence at a skill. For instance, instead of humming and beating on a table with your fingers, you must go first to music school. Instead of horsing around with some friends, you must first go to drama school. In America most of the arts are run by professionals, and those who participate pay the bill demand professional leadership.

However, if improvisation can be entered just as you enter a game like charades, then the professional can serve not as the leader but as a technical assistant. In fact, the whole activity of creating an improvised statement in your home can be stimulated and guided by an inexpensive game plus aids like a phonograph record to show you how other groups did it. The game will identify and support leaders.

We are about to make this possible through Responsive Theatre.

2)    IGNORANCE OF ONE’S OWN ROLEPLAYING POTENTIAL. People have no idea how interesting they are. Find two housewives or two businessmen conversing in the corner of the theatre, and turn a spotlight on them. Their first impulse is to say nothing. Their second is to say something funny.

Players act out the suggestions of residents at the Coronet Nursing Home in Brooklyn.

In an improvisational theatre people are convinced that whenever they participate, they must be funny. We are trying to break down this myth, so that the spectator can accept his own identity and worth – so that he no longer thinks of himself as low man on the talent pole.

3)    UNWILLINGNESS TO DRAW ATTENTION TO REAL CONCERNS. Just as giving a suggestion in no way guarantees that the players can stage it, so getting a suggestion in no way guarantees that the spectator is telling you what he really wants to see. The spectator is often so unused to participating in theatre that he immediately challenges the player – dares him to do something absurd or obscene.

We get endless suggestions for scenes in men’s rooms, men’s rooms in the White House, President Nixon and Vice President Agnew.

Our only way to break through is to go on playing – until the spectator becomes bored with his own self-conscious sallies. We set up workshops at which key members of the audience learn to do what we do. We keep asking for suggestions that can serve to mirror and explore our life together.

It will all become clearer when we begin to use videotape and other media at our base – the Responsive Scene on the street floor of the Manhattan Theatre Club. There we hope to discover how anyone can as a member make not only his own live theatre, but also his own filmed theatre, poetry, songs, music, lightshows, murals or even novels.

There we hope to go on training young producers how to start theatres responsive to the community. There we hope to train both our staff and many dozens of our regular patrons how to be more and more sensitive and responsive to what really concerns viewers – as a group.

Queens House of Detention. Inmates asked to see a scene about a Prison Doctor and an Inmate.

And when we’re through, sometime a long time from now, people will ask “how can theatre express the most personal feelings of any individual in the audience?”

Or: “How can a group cut the time gap between when they conceive and when they produce a full-scale responsive production – for the public?”

For ourselves, we are satisfied to be working to start more Responsive Scenes for a more responsive society, today. 

Michael Golding is a writer, director and improv teacher.  He can be contacted for workshops, festivals and private consultations at Michael participated in the evolution of the Improv Olympics & Canadian Improv Games. Artistic director of the Comic Strip Improv Group in N.Y. & created the Insight Theatre Company for Planned Parenthood, Ottawa.  He is a faculty member at El Camino College in Los Angeles, working with at-risk teens and traditional students. He wrote and co-produced the documentary "David Shepherd: A Lifetime of Improvisational Theatre" (available for free on YouTube).  His book, Listen Harder, a collection of essays, curriculum and memorabilia on improvisation and educational theatre, is available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble and CreateSpace. Michael holds a BFA degree in Drama from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts & an MA degree in Educational Theatre from NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education & Human Development. 



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