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Improvisation: That spontaneous thing that you do

Updated on July 16, 2011

Improvise:

to extemporize, ad lib, play it by ear, take it as it comes, make it up as you go along

An improvised method of transportation

Simply put, to improvise is to make something up on the spur of the moment. That something could be just about anything from a song, to a cake, to a headdress, to a lie. When you improvise, you invent something, which usually results in new patterns or ways of acting.

The word or the act of improvisation can "apply to various forms of communication and expression across all artistic, scientific, physical, cognitive, academic, and non-academic disciplines" (from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia).

We frequently see examples of it watching the media, when news reporters improvise, especially if something goes wrong or they lose their place or train of thought. It happens when persons are up in front of an audience; such as professional speakers, presenters and stand up comics, for example. Improvisation is commonly used in performing arts such as jazz, dance, theater and film.

MOZART
MOZART
CHOPIN
CHOPIN
JS BACH
JS BACH
DAVIS
DAVIS
COLTRANE
COLTRANE
EVANS
EVANS

Music

Improvisation has been strongly present in both vocal and instrumental music since the early troubadours and minstrels roamed the countryside making up all kinds of ditties to sing to the listening country folk. As music progressed and became more "refined" it found its way into the drawing rooms of the elite. Musicians and composers like Mozart, Beethoven, Listz, and Chopin, among others, all improvised at the piano for enjoyment, to entertain, and as they invented new pieces of music. Improvisation has been commonly defined as "composing music while playing an instrument at the same time." The well-know Baroque composer, Johann Sebastian Bach, was a master at creating (improvising) "variations" on specific themes.

Music improvisers often understand the idiom of one or more musical styles—e.g. blues, rock, folk, jazz—and work within that idiom to express ideas with creativity and originality. Improvisation can take place as a solo performance, or interdependently in ensemble with other players. Some of the greats in jazz are Miles Davis, innovative trumpet player known for his spare style, John Coltrane, unparalleled saxophonist, Charles Mingus, extremely imaginative bassist and composer, Bill Evans, the revolutionary pianist heavily influenced by Ravel and Debussy, and Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald, both accomplished jazz singers, to name only a few. Musicians and singers of other styles, who have mastered the skill of improvisation, are too numerous to mention here.

Innovative Choreographer Twyla Tharp, 66, is featured in the fall Gap ad campaign

Dance
When choreographers set their dance creations to music or create a dance performance on stage, they utilize the shape and space of that stage or area to create moves within a certain allotted time, with or without music. As they begin their creation, the improvised dance is affected by the amount of given space, the energy of the dancers and the various moves the bodies of the dancers are capable of making, often juxtaposing two or more dancers in imaginative ways. A form of dance improvisation referred to as "contact improvisation, originated by Steve Paxton in the 1970s is based on sharing weight, partnering, playing with weight and unpredictable outcomes. Martha Graham and more recently Twyla Tharp have used innovative improvisation extensively in their choreographed pieces.

Robin Williams in "Good Morning Viet Nam
Robin Williams in "Good Morning Viet Nam
Steve Carrell in "40 Year Old Virgin
Steve Carrell in "40 Year Old Virgin
Bill Murray in "Ghost Busters"
Bill Murray in "Ghost Busters"
Graduates of Second City became original cast of Saturday Night Live
Graduates of Second City became original cast of Saturday Night Live
Tina fey and Amy Poehler on Saturday Night Live
Tina fey and Amy Poehler on Saturday Night Live

Improvisational Theater

Also known as "Improv", improvisational theater is a form of theater in which actors use improvisational techniques to perform spontaneously. It allows for an interactive relationship with the audience and is unscripted. There are no props, in fact most improvisers would rather not use props in favor of using mime. Improvisers typically use audience suggestions to guide the performance as they create dialogue setting, and plot. These performances tend to be comedic, although some forms are not necessarily so. Many improvisational actors/ improvisers also work as scripted actors, and "improv" techniques are often taught in standard acting classes. The basic skills of listening, clarity, confidence, and performing instinctively and spontaneously are considered important skills for improv actors to develop. A few well known actors who are brilliant improvisers are: Robin Williams, Steve Carrell, and Bill Murray.

There are many improv theaters through the united states and Canada. One of the most well known, Second City, is in Chicago and also in Toronto. Many of the original cast of Saturday Night Live came from Second City and the franchise has produced such comedy stars as Mike Myers, Chris Farley and John Belushi The Chicago theater has turned out improvisational comedians and actors such as Alan Arkin, Bonnie Hunt, Tina Fey, Bill Murray, and Gilda Radner, to name a few. Second City was begun by Viola Spolin, a pioneer in the field. She first wrote the book "Theater Games", a handbook for students of improv, filled with games and techniques for developing the skill. A second book, "Improvisation for the Theater", is still popular. "The Second City Almanac of Improvisation, a recent publication edited by Anne Libera, is a collection of diverse ideas, viewpoints, and memories by teachers, actors and directors who all got their start in comedy theater.

Seth Rogan and Catherine Hegel in "knocked Up"

Film

There are many different ways of using improvisation in film and directors have always allowed gifted actors to do so, if it enhances the script or the experience. It is more prevalent today than ever. Mike Leigh (of the London theater) uses lengthy improvisations developed over a period of weeks to build characters and story lines for his films. Judd Apatow, writer-producer-director, well known for his comic films (eg: 40 year Old Virgin" and "Knocked Up") allows his actors great leeway with their scripts. Directors Michael Mann and Christopher Guest both use improvisation to gain strong performances from their cast.

"Wheel of Fortune" game show hosts: Pat Sajak and Vanna White
"Wheel of Fortune" game show hosts: Pat Sajak and Vanna White
Talk show host: Ellen DeGeneres
Talk show host: Ellen DeGeneres
Reality TV: Survivor
Reality TV: Survivor

Television

Sitcoms and game shows

In the 1990s, a TV show called Whose line is it anyway? popularized comedic improvisation in England. It was popularized in the US by Drew Cary, who was the host. More recently, HBO's Curb your enthusiasm with Jerry Seinfeld and the Bravo series Significant Others have used improvisation to create longer programs with a dramatic edge. Most game show hosts and sitcom actors are quite adept at improvising. And, it'd fun to try to figure out when those moments occur. You can usually tell by the reactions of the other actors when something unexpected is said.

Talk Shows
Talk show hosts, like Ellen DeGeneres, Jay Leno, Dave Letterman, Carson Daly, and Rosie ODonnell are famous for their ability to improvise. Many have been trained in improv theater and are comedians and actors as well. They all know how to deliver a good punch line.

Reality TV
A fairly new genre of improvisational theater is Reality TV. Most of these shows have some kind of script to follow loosely and I would surmise there is a lot of editing going on, after the fact; but much of these shows is improvised, with many captured moments, the actors may or may not be aware of. The editing is usually done to achieve certain story lines, attitudes, and emotional contrivances.


All-time great jazz singer (1924-1990)

Scat was the ultimate in improvisation (Ella: 1918-1996)

Contemporary jazz singer

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    • fastfreta profile image

      Alfreta Sailor 7 years ago from Southern California

      This is one well written and researched article. The videos are a good touch. Keep 'em coming.

    • alekhouse profile image
      Author

      Nancy Hinchliff 7 years ago from Louisville, Kentucky

      Thanks Freta, 1 always appreciate you comments.

    • Dolores Monet profile image

      Dolores Monet 7 years ago from East Coast, United States

      In the book, 'Citizen Soldier,' Steven Ambrose pointed out how improvisation, or yankee ingenuity, actually won the war. While the Germans needed specialists to make repairs on tanks and such, the Americans were able to make emergency repairs and adjust quickly to unplanned situations. Improvisation is what made humanity successful!

    • Cris A profile image

      Cris A 7 years ago from Manila, Philippines

      Aha! Now I know what I'm missing in my life - improvisation! (read: excitement LOL)

      An entertaining and informative read! Thanks for sharing alek :D

    • alekhouse profile image
      Author

      Nancy Hinchliff 7 years ago from Louisville, Kentucky

      Cris...are you kidding me? You are constantly improvising with your poetry and your artistic way with photography. If that isn't improvisation personified, I don't know what is.:)

      Glad you liked the hub

    • alekhouse profile image
      Author

      Nancy Hinchliff 7 years ago from Louisville, Kentucky

      I'm sure you have an art. Maybe you're not even aware of it. Everyone is creative or artistic in some way. Am I wrong?

    • tonymac04 profile image

      Tony McGregor 7 years ago from South Africa

      What a great Hub Alek. I am sure that improvisation is the greatest way of creating in any art form. Loved the way you have put this all together. I confess I don't know many of the TV people you have shared here but the film, music and other art forms you have shown here I do know - especially the jazz, of course!

      Love Ella and the Divine Sarah (after whom my first daughter was named - and we still call her "Sassy"!).

      Love and peace

      Tony

    • alekhouse profile image
      Author

      Nancy Hinchliff 7 years ago from Louisville, Kentucky

      Tony, thanks so much for the great comments. Really glad you enjoyed the hub. I know your a jazz officianado; was hoping you'ld read my hub and comment. I have a lot of respect for you, your knowledge, and your writing.

    • SweetiePie profile image

      SweetiePie 7 years ago from Southern California, USA

      Improvisation is great because it allows us to see what each individual actor can bring to the script. Curb Your Enthusiasm is one of my favorite shows, and I always love the skits when everyone is mad at Larry, as only he could get in those situations.

    • alekhouse profile image
      Author

      Nancy Hinchliff 7 years ago from Louisville, Kentucky

      You're right about individual actors...and some of them are so so good at improvising. I love Robin Williams, for that reason. I've noticed lately that most of the popular talk show hosts are great at improvising...a lot of them graduated from Second City and have been on SNL, like Bonnie Hunt. She has her own talk show now. I never realized how funny she was...found out she studied at Second City.

    • Tom Cornett profile image

      Tom Cornett 7 years ago from Ohio

      Wonderful job on this Alek....improvisation is the purest form of creativity...it's why I love writing songs. The first time I sing it...is the most beautiful time it will ever be.

      I loved this hub...thanks! :)

    • alekhouse profile image
      Author

      Nancy Hinchliff 7 years ago from Louisville, Kentucky

      Love your comment, Tom. I can tell how creative you are by just reading your hubs. I really enjoy them. Glad you enjoyed this one. And you are so right about creating a song, or anything, for that matter.

    • Sue Adams profile image

      Juliette Kando 7 years ago from Andalusia

      I loved reading this well illustrated hub alekhouse. You are bringing back all my favourites in Jazz, Comedy, Film and Dance with innovators like Steve Paxton, Twyla Tharp. Perhaps one could say that all art and culture is born in the realm of improvisation which is the expression of spontaneity and intuition, two least recognised, yet perhaps most crucial of all human faculties.

    • alekhouse profile image
      Author

      Nancy Hinchliff 7 years ago from Louisville, Kentucky

      Thanks so much for the nice comments. Glad you enjoyed the hub

    • profile image

      ActorGirl27 7 years ago

      I love this. Thanks for clarifying all the ways improv plays into many aspects of art!

    • profile image

      Le Fear 6 years ago

      Excellent Article very refreshing to read my Debut Feature Film Le Fear used some Improvisation and it worked a treat, I believe its a tool that should be open to all actors in all films, since Le Fear I have co-directed another Feature film

      Demons and Doors we let the cameras roll and managed to get 48 hours footage in 8 days filming sometimes you have to be be brave and let the cameras roll

      Jason Croot

    • alekhouse profile image
      Author

      Nancy Hinchliff 6 years ago from Louisville, Kentucky

      Re: 8 days of filming: Very cool. I'm from Chicago and trained at Second Ciry...worked in an offshoot theater with Jo Forzeberg: "The Theater O" for a couple of years before moving to KY and opening a B&B...Used "theater games"(Viola Spolin) with HS students when I taught in Chicago.

    • Paraglider profile image

      Dave McClure 5 years ago from Kyle, Scotland

      I think improvisation is often at its best when working in a restricted framework where not anything goes. Like when you're accompanying a dancer, you can't break the pulse and rhythm but you can play with harmony and melody within that framework. And so on. I enjoyed this hub. You got me thinking about improvised fields I'd never really considered before.

    • alekhouse profile image
      Author

      Nancy Hinchliff 5 years ago from Louisville, Kentucky

      I totally agree about the frame work. You take a melody and turn it upside down, or leave space in between some of the phrases, or play around with the rhythms and meters, as Dave Brubeck did. Improv. is what jazz is all about, but Bach and Beethoven were also masters at it...just listen to their development sections in their larger pieces.

    • Paraglider profile image

      Dave McClure 5 years ago from Kyle, Scotland

      That's right. They never used to write the cadenzas. Any competent soloist was expected to be able to make it up on the fly. Incredible skill.

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