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Theatre and the Art of Improvisation

There is a lovely saying by Flavia Weedn: If one dream should fall and break into a thousand pieces, never be afraid to pick one of those pieces and begin again.”

In theatre we use improvisation a lot, specially in recreating situations and characters. In recreating time lost... as Proust would say, a remembrance of things past. For Proust, the only way to rediscover lost time is through memory. So the true wealth of a good actor is the richness of his memory. The richness of his imagination. While we are living an experience we are incapable of fully and deeply understanding it, as subjectivity  creeps in. For example, if you love a woman, the love affair is so filled with small incidents  that one cannot enjoy and live it fully.....unless in the act of remembering one’s memory recreates the love affair intensely. The interesting thing about memory is that it can get rid of all the nonessential details — like maybe the fights, the broken down car, the torn dress, the lack of money...

On stage every time an actor plays a character, he or she plays it for the first time.  Like a new minute in your life! Even after 10 shows of the same play, an actor is told, “Imagine! Bring new life to an oft played role. Get rid of the staleness...” Here the risk often is, the actor moves away from the live experience. Theatre is a conflict between or among characters confronting one another in the here and now.

Often I have worked with actors who have such a rich imagination, that they also imagine and improvise for their co-actors! They can be dominating, if not controlled. It’s interesting to note that in the 1950’s and 1960’s the actors who came out of the Actors Studio ( in New York), improvised so much, they “over thought” every role, every gesture, every word! They weighed down their performance with thought, like how to stroke the glass, or how to scratch their arm, or clear their throat, twist their back, before a line delivery. Becoming stodgy and overbearing. Acting over burdened with motivation. Though this was the same school that produced  the Marlon Brandos and Deans of the world.

Improvisation is wonderful when it connects with other actors onstage, when the interconnectedness becomes part of a whole. Emotion, is wonderful to have, great big lakes of emotion in the soul; but empathy, the link between actor and audience is far more alluring. Far more dynamic. Our aim onstage, in the unravelling of a story, which is not to show static emotions rather create great rivers in flux. Theatre is full of conflict, struggle, movement, resolutions, transformations... it’s a “doing” state! A verb!  To “act” is to produce an action, and every action produces a reaction.

We all  know, human beings are capable of “emitting”  many more messages than they are aware of sending. They are also capable of receiving far more than they think they can receive. Communication between two human beings can take place on multiple levels: consciously and unconsciously. The undercurrents so often felt in a room. That is  why an actor must never lose concentration, it is so easy to become mechanical and perform the same actions in a robotic fashion. Children often fall prey to this.  If a play is having it’s eighth performance, children can get bored and give mechanized performances.

When teaching children about “character building”, the five W’s are so important. Who is the character. Where is the character. When did the action happen. What is he/ she doing. Why are they doing the action. This will motivate the actor to put the character into perspective. So character is a static notion. Characterisation  is a combination of motivation and Improvisation, so is dynamic.

Also, important to know: abstracts onstage are of no use! For example, if an actor has an abstract desire for happiness , love, power .. it is useless. He needs to have specifics — he needs to be with that person in that room to be happy. For example, why does Macbeth want to kill Duncan and take over his position? Duncan signifies a feudal way of life, Macbeth is an upstart bourgeoisie. One has a birthright, the other has the Machiavellian rights of personal gain and power. This makes for great dramatic conflict!  The stage indeed is a place where wonderful transformations happen, where the journey moves in so many directions, and where, like the mighty Amazon river, we are all swept away in it!

(Bubbles Sabharwal is a theatre director and author)

Bubbles Sabharwal