A Quiet Word | A quiet word about…..performance and improvisation
Andrew Morrish, Improvisation, Dance
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A quiet word about…..performance and improvisation

Guest writer Andrew Morrish


The field of performance and improvisation is often considered to be dominated by “ego” and all its negative connotations.

In my 35 years of engagement in the field I have seen evidence of this, especially when the seductive clichés of “success” are evident. This “success” paradigm implies that to be successful you have to be come “bigger” and this expansion implies that others have to fall by the wayside in a neat Darwinian pile of losers.

However, my entrance into performance (and specifically improvisation which I will discuss later) was driven more by a need to explore my “vulnerability” rather than my ego.

This does not mean that there was no ego involved, especially in my desire to be recognised as “skilled” or “good” or taking pleasure in being watched. However at that time (the early 80”s) I was both professionally and personally, more concerned with vulnerability.

Phew, its great to have got this far without defining any of these words in “…”. I am hoping that they do not need too much definition, as I mainly mean them in a clichéd sense and I hope that any more particular definitions that I may intend are readable from the context of my narrative.

I also apologise for this annoying ” parallel text” device that I will use.

I am hoping you will hear a change in my voice as I switch from a discursive to a more subjective tone….tragically I have just discovered that discursive has 4 distinct meanings and …as for “subjective”!! Best if we just keep going rather than try to be clear about all this. 

I had been primary teaching since the late 70”s and was pretty much a disaster at that. I don’t need to talk too much about it here but suffice it to say that I think I was probably teaching the children how to be dyslexic in my chaotic and amateurish attempts at educating. Of course, as a male, I found my incompetence to be shameful.

I was by then working in the area of dance and disability as a specialist dance teacher, working with very young children with significant and severe sensory, physical and cognitive disabilities.

These children were extremely vulnerable both in terms of development and in the sense of mortality. They were the kind of children for whom learning, or growth was a slow and difficult process.

I was working in dance with them, and my job was to be empathetic and competent.

I am not sure that today such a job would exist, or if it did that I would be allowed to do it. It involved very high levels of physical contact, I was teaching through my body, usually working with individual children with an average of 24 individual sessions and 6 group sessions (with each child having a carer/partner) in a half time week. I am still deeply grateful to the inspired leadership of Margaret Bull director of the Early Intervention Services at the Royal Victorian Institute for the Blind for the chance to grow in such a professional environment.

To be in charge, professional and effective…

…all the things we men love..

I had been involved an the field of creative movement for 3 or 4 years prior to getting this job, and had engaged in workshops for my own experience as well as training in curriculum development and therapeutic practices. Neither of these forms of training had been done in a performance context and the work I was doing was happening in a developmental/therapeutic milieu that had very little to do with “performance”.

When I started this work I was very quickly aware that my own vulnerabilities were being pushed into the background of my “professionalism and competence”.

I think the issues of vulnerability were made even more intense by the fact that I was working in physical contact, through the body, which brings all sorts of subtle and complicated exchange of feelings. It was very touching to work with the vulnerabilities of the children, but I always thought that there was no benefit for children if I became emotional in my work with them… the job was to be in charge, professional and effective.

I began to be involved in performance improvisation at this time to redress the imbalance between what was happening for me personally and what I was doing professionally. I was searching for a context in my life where I could explore my own vulnerability so that I could maintain my professionalism at work in a healthy way.

I began to work with Al Wunder in workshops that he called “Theatre of the Ordinary”. I was studying ensemble performance improvisation as well classes in solo performance improvisation. I was also one of the original members of his company.

I was not using the improvisation work to deal directly with professional issues (this I would call professional supervision). Performance improvisation work was more a generalised balancing through an open exploration of my own expressiveness and creativity.

The importance of doing solo work at this time cannot be overemphasised. I feel this is where the vulnerability issues are most clear, similar to that moment when a weightlifter addresses the bar in competition, in a few seconds we will all know if he succeeds or fails.

This was more than 30 years ago, I am now engaged full time with performance improvisation, and in a normal year, working (i.e. teaching and performing) in 19 different cities in 10 different countries.

Whatever “ego” elements were present at the beginning of this journey, they would not have sustained me in the field for over 3 decades. It is the substantive exploration of my expressiveness, vulnerability and creativity that have been the significant nurturing factors in my continued and ongoing participation.

It has also become clear that I am primarily interested in Solo Performance Improvisation as an arts practice, which explores expressiveness, vulnerability and creativity in a communicative context.

I have learned that to sustain myself in performance I need to develop a skills base in noticing and developing material and content whilst communicating with an audience. I need to understand how my movement stimulates my imagination, how breath is part of movement and voice, and how language can be generated from sound exploration and imagination. These all become modes of working that can engage my associative brain as well as my logical or sequential brain. I want all these ways of working to interact so that I can find new and interesting material to work with. Part of my development is directed towards developing the emotional texture of how I work, and for this to happen it is necessary for me to “hold” myself in the performing state for longer and longer (now 45 -55 minutes after years of working in a 15 -30 minute solo context).

I believe that performing is always an act of vulnerability, no matter how competent or confident we become. Part of this vulnerability lies in the simple contract of agreeing to be watched by the audience. Improvisation adds another layer to this by deciding to allow myself to be watched and at the same time, not knowing what I will do.

The vulnerability I am talking about here is not necessarily visible as “uncertainty”, I both teach and practice skills which give me a superficial (and necessary) confidence but this confidence is a supportive veneer that facilitates the exploration of new, or reconfigured material. In this way performance improvisation is a form of productive, self-deception.

I have practiced working with language in such a way that more and more frequently my mouth seems to make one decision about what I will say whilst my mind is making another.

I can remember a solo, some years ago in which my mind was convinced that I would say that as a child “I always felt that I wanted to be an engine driver” whilst what came out of my mouth was “I always felt wanted”, which at the time was a profound insight for me into an essential dynamic of my early family life. In other performance contexts such an event could only be considered to be a mistake, whereas in improvisation it is a nugget of gold

Mistakes become gateways to truths, doubt, a platform for poetics and emptiness becomes filled with imagination.

I am deeply grateful for the chance to grow via this experience, and I have a lot of people to thank for it. I will not name them here but there are a series of colleagues, family and friends who have encouraged and inspired me to continue. After my first 7 years of working with Al Wunder, I have been able to follow my own path in developing my understanding of the process. There has not been a curriculum to follow apart from the curriculum of my own interests. Inadvertently it has become my career, as well as my passion and in this I feel especially fortunate. It is also an example of sustainable practice. The clear focus for me is not just to “grow” my business, but to manage it in a way where the primary focus is in making it something I can continue to engage in. Not something which burns me out, or which has too many “do or die” moments activated by survival stress. A certain financial size is sustainable, bigger or smaller than this is perhaps not.

Another supportive element (apart from sufficient money) is the development of numerous small communities of support (in nearly 20 cities in 9 or 10 countries in Australia and Europe). That is a numerous small client bases, rather than trying to squeeze a sustainable income out of one, and the consequent exhaustion of good will of a few accompanied by the constant pressure to find the new “customers”.

Others include the balance between teaching and performing, forms of feedback which support rather than undermine and ongoing (decades long in some cases) collaborations with peers.

It has been a fantastic journey, and can I say in conclusion, don’t expect my journey to work for you!

You have to work out your own way.

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