Improv is Agile Theatre

I’ve been improvising for about 17 years now. The last 3 or so have also seen me take on a position as a software developer. In this position, I’ve been working with a team that has been utilizing an Agile method of software development. For the past few days, I’ve been rolling the idea around in my head that the reason that Agile development clicks so well with me is that it is actually quite similar to improvisational theatre.

I think the analogy works particularly well when you compare improvisational theatre to traditional scripted theatre (much as you would compare Agile development to traditional Waterfall development), so let’s do that. In all these cases, I’m letting the actors play the role of the developers, while the audience and/or the production crew play the role of the business folks.

First off, let’s be clear: there’s nothing wrong with Waterfall development, just like there’s nothing wrong with scripted theatre. Agile and improv are simply a different way at looking at how the goal should be accomplished. Improv does not make every theatre experience better, just as there are projects wherein Waterfall development is absolutely the correct choice. Also, whenever I talk about improv here, know that I am really referring to some platonic ideal of improv. In practice, some of these things fall by the wayside or are forgotten entirely, usually to the detriment of the show. That being said, remember that I am heavily biased towards improv, so keep that in mind as we look at the differences.

The Agile/Improv Manifesto

The Agile Manifesto was written in 2001 and contains the guiding principles of Agile development. I would suggest going to read it, but I’m just going to put it right here, in it’s entirety:

We are uncovering better ways of developing software by doing it and helping others do it. Through this work we have come to value:

Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
Working software over comprehensive documentation
Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
Responding to change over following a plan

That is, while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more.

The first point there is kind of a wash. All theatre is really about individuals and interactions, improv included. Those last two are the big ones for me. Customer collaboration and responding to change has improv written all over it.

Improv as collaborative theatre

hands making cat's cradleIn improv, we invite the audience to contribute to their own experience, and hopefully value their contributions equally to those of our fellow actors. Creating a good collaborative environment means that everyone should be able to see that their contribution has an effect on the project/show. Dismissing offers from your audience or your cast mates is a good way to cut off the flow of those offers.

Scripted theatre tends to value the contract negotiation end of the spectrum a bit more: when you go to a scripted show, you are pretty sure you know what it will be about. Rare is the occasion that you go see Oklahoma! and there are no cowboys and no singing; cowboys and singing are part of the contract that the production has made with the audience. In software terms, the requirements of the show have been set before the audience arrives at the theater, and those requirements are not going to change, regardless of your desire to see cowboys and/or hear singing. When you attend an improv show, you as a member of the audience can change the requirements of the show and the improvisers will dutifully attempt to provide you with a show that fulfills those requirements, for better or worse. If you as an audience decide that this 30-minute Harold should be about proctology, then guess what – that’s the bed you made and the improvisers are going to deliver that [probably gross but expertly constructed] bed right to your doorstep and watch you as you fitfully sleep in it. Next time you come, maybe you won’t be in that mood, so you won’t see that show. Improv is able to deliver the show that each individual audience wants by treating the audience as a collaborator and incorporating the audience’s requirements into the show it delivers.

Improv as responsive theatre

As for responding to change, again, improv is great at that. At most of the shows we do at Jet City Improv, there is an intermission. During this intermission, it is common practice for the players to quickly talk strategy for the second half of the show. Often, that strategy is talking about what the audience seems to be reacting to, and how we can deliver more of that in the second half. If we notice that the audience is really digging the scenes where we make up songs, then bam: Act 2 all of a sudden has a lot more musical games. If the audience really has no connection to one of the main characters in our Shakespeare play? Kill him off in a suitable hilarious/horrifying way and elevate the clown that everyone is loving to a new main character! Even without an intermission, there is plenty of room to respond to fluctuating audience desires within the show itself. If you can pick up on the audience not enjoying a particular character you are playing or a style of game that is being played, then you have the power as a player/MC to no longer play that character/those games. No conference with other players needed, just make the call.

chameleonGoing back to Oklahoma! (for some reason), what if you as an actor/director notice that a large section of the audience whipped out their phones and started surfing the internet during the dream ballet at the end of Act 1? Well, first of all, those guys are dicks. You told them to turn those phones off. More importantly though, Act 2 starts off with another dance! They hate dances as they have just passive-aggressively told you! But there’s no room to change that, the dance must go on. You’ve made a promise that there will be a dance, and the rest of the plot depends on it. The developers showed the business folk the great Dance module they created because the requirements called for one, but the business folk hate it. Unfortunately, the Dance module is a linchpin in your design, and removing it would be more difficult than starting over on a brand new project.

So improv, by valuing responding to change over following a plan, is able to bend to changing audience desires even throughout the course of a single show. Not only is each show different (and therefore able to cater to each audience, which is also different), but each show can go wherever the actors/audience feel it should go in the moment, since the plan we are following is somewhere between a loose outline and non-existent.

Improv as entertainment

So here’s where I might be stretching a little for the purposes of maintaining my analogy. I’m claiming that “working software” is analogous to entertaining the audience, while “comprehensive documentation” is delivering a coherent message. So what I’m really saying is that improv puts more value in entertaining the audience, while scripted theatre tends to value delivering a coherent message to that same audience.

Here also, we see that improv and scripting are simply two different processes that accomplish the same goal: delivering a theatrical experience to an audience. As much as I love improv, I’m not going to stand here and tell you that if you have a specific message that you are trying to impart to your audience, then improv is the right tool for the job. In fact, in most cases, I bet it’s not. If you have a message to get out, then the collaborative, responsive nature of improv will probably hamper your ability to communicate that message, as it will get muddied by the feedback response given by the audience.

audience laughing

After an improv show, the most common measure of success we gauge ourselves with is “was the audience laughing/having a good time?” Nights where you have a small, quiet audience can feel like utter failures, just because as improvisers we are used to that feedback loop that is so often closed with laughter. Obviously we as improvisers very highly value entertaining the audience, since failure seldom comes from feeling like the audience didn’t really get what the show was about.

Scripted theatre, on the other hand, can really dig down and easily get as specific as you want. If you really want to tell the world about the plight of the people of [very small area of land X], then you can script a show that does exactly that: each time, every time. The consistency of the script aids in the ability to get the message to the largest number of people.

SO WHAT?

Good question. I think the value here comes from looking at the benefits of Agile development and see how they apply to improvised theatre:

  1. Rapid prototyping. Agile encourages developers to get barebones software up and running to show to clients. This allows you to fail early and fail often, lowering the risk of failure, while maintaining the reward of learning from that failure. In improv, the time from show conception to actualization can be as little time as it takes to round up enough people to decently fill the theater.
  2. Adaptability. Agile allows the team to incorporate previously unknown or shifting requirements at a much lesser cost. As an example, when we did Election Show 2012 at our theater, we made fun of the presidential election process while said process was occurring. So when the ridiculousness of the week occurred in real life, we could easily plug that into our show, basically satirizing it in real time!
  3. Highly satisfied customers. Agile takes in constant information from the client in order to deliver exactly the product they want. If you’ve been keeping your interactions with the audience collaborative, responding to their desires, and performing with a high level of skill, then you should be delivering to them exactly the show they wanted to see.
These ideas aren’t just floating around in software development, either. A whole lot of creative fields are looking towards this more collaborative, highly cyclical approach to creating. Improv is just a great way to take these ideas and apply them to the field of theatre. So if you want to learn something about improv, don’t count out looking to modern design practices, software development, or any of these highly creative fields.

Of course, this is just the tip of the iceberg. Let me know if you can think of other benefits that improv brings to the table. And I hardly touched on the weaknesses. Hit me up with some of them as well!

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