“You need a door”: Improvisation and the art of the possible

A theatre professor and two theatre companies together developed a play designed to provoke public debate about the social service systems that women living in poverty need to negotiate. This case illustrates the power of feedback loops between focused improvisation and critique for the collaborative process.

Project

Les Femmes et La Marchandisation des Besoins (Women and the Commodification of Needs.)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MCK9LtjgOBQ

Research Lead

Dr. Catherine Graham

Associate Professor, Theatre and Film Studies, Faculty of Humanities

Case Contributor

Dr. Catherine Graham

Associate Professor, Theatre and Film Studies, Faculty of Humanities

Partners

Théâtre Parminou, Compagnie du Campus

Research funded by

Commission International du Théâtre Francophone (International Commission of Francophone Theatre)

McMaster Arts Research Board

Impacts

The theatre companies’ process of play creation became more focused through the collaboration

The play has engaged audiences, including social workers, in Quebec and Belgium

Knowledge Exchange Strategy

Co-creation; theatre performance

Goals

  • Develop more focused modes of improvisation for play creation around social issues
  • Influence the way social workers and others see the relationship between women living in poverty and the social workers whose job it is to provide services to these clients.

Activities

  • Multiple improvisations with critique and discussion
  • Performed the play before test audiences and made changes based on audience feedback
  • Performed the play and facilitated dialogues with audiences across Quebec and Belgium

Keys to making it work

  • One person with experience and expertise in theatre
  • A willingness to improvise
  • Knowledge users who are open to arts-based methods of knowledge sharing
  • a clearly defined audience

Resources

  • a large space with minimal furniture and a clean floor in which it is safe to engage in physical activity
  • appropriate props and set pieces
  • video and audio recording equipment are sometimes useful, but not absolutely necessary

Revenez Lundi, the result of collaboration between Professor Catherine Graham, Théâtre Parminou and Compagnie du Campus de Belgique, blurred the traditional separation of academic critic and practitioner.

Théâtre Parminou and the Compagnie de Campus had already developed a proposal for an international collaboration to create a play about the ways neo-liberal social policies were affecting professional helping relationships when writers Maureen Martineau and Patou Macaux attended a presentation by Dr. Graham on theatre, embodied norms, and social change. What they learned prompted them and their colleagues to bring Graham into the creative process. Graham saw this as an opportunity to reflect practitioner knowledge back to those who created it in the first place and to create direct links between theoretical analysis and artistic creation.

The goal of the play was to provoke public debate about women living in poverty and the social service systems they need to negotiate. The play has reached audiences of social workers, social work clients, and social justice advocates across Quebec and Belgium since 2006.

“You need a door”: Improvisation and what is possible

The process of collaboration involved a technique common in theatre: improvisation. Graham explains that like many creative processes, improvisation works by setting limits within which you can be free. In this case, one of the first “limits” they established was a door. To start thinking through the possibilities, the group together reviewed material from various workshops that Theatre Parminou and the Compagnie de Campus had conducted with social agencies and their clients. The set designer looked at this material and said “you need a door.”

The first workshop started with the frame of a door—around and through which Martineau and Patou improvised. The basic question here was: How do social norms affect the ways two people establish a relationship in the vicinity of a door? The technique relied on two members of the group trying actions, dialogues, different solutions to problems, while those watching discussed what they were seeing , then changed the “rules of the game” to expose unconscious social norms underlying the improvised action.. These acts of improvising and discussing, dismissing some choices and selecting others, are integral to theatre practice and may also be a defining aspect of creative work.

That’s maybe a bit different about creative collaboration. We always say ‘Do it and then we’ll talk about what it means.’ We do it this way because our test is never ‘is it true?’ Our test is ‘is it possible.’ It’s a different kind of test that we’re applying.
Graham

As in any collaborative endeavour, the group did experience tensions and people were sometimes frustrated with each other. For Graham, the questions most important to ask at that point included: “What pressures do you feel we’re under? Where do you see us being at in this project? What do you think still needs to be done?”

If everyone tries to understand the other’s pressures and realities or consequences, then collaboration will continue to work. She also hypothesizes that creative workers are more willing to critique and to face critique; it’s all just part of the process. This also may reduce tension.

In creative work we’re more willing to just put it on the table; it’s not an accusation, nobody has done anything wrong, it’s more, it’s something about this set of conditions, that these pieces don’t fit.
Graham

Theatre as mode of communication

Graham asserts that one role of theatre is to make different realities and futures possible—at least on stage. It’s this role or quality that can make theatre a powerful tool for social change. At the same time, Graham points out that it’s a mistake to think of any communicative act, including theatre or knowledge mobilization, as a mechanistic process whereby meaning is transmitted, like a package, between sites.

Meaning is always co-created. It’s not that the truth is on the stage, and the audience has to figure out the truth, it’s that I provide certain signals and you in the audience use the signals to imagine a fictional world that doesn’t exist... You can’t go into a collaboration or to an audience … saying this is the truth, and are you going to pass the test? You have to let it [the audience’s understanding] affect your own meaning-making.
Graham

Graham and the artistic team experienced one effect of meaning’s co-creation with their test audience. When presenting the work to social workers and clients, the group heard from social workers that the play was not realistic, that a social worker would never, for example, divulge details of her personal life. The audience had expected the play to be a realistic representation of their experiences; the playwrights had not expected realism to be an audience expectation. As a result, the play did not at first spark the discussion or debate they hoped it would. In order to make the play more effective for its audiences or knowledge user groups the theatre group began to introduce the play as a “thought experiment,” an exercise in possibilities.

The play asks, what would happen if social workers didn’t take a professional attitude. If it became a relationship between two women instead of an application of policy, what would happen?
Graham

The introductory framing made it clear that the play was not meant to be a realistic portrayal of life, or of service-provider/client relationships. Calling it a thought experiment made it more possible for audience members to engage with the play’s ideas. Turning an exploration of social justice into theatre made it possible for social service providers and service users to imagine other, as yet unrealized, possibilities, thus opening the door to shifts in attitudes and perceptions.