I’ve had people ask me to write something about working with Joe Bill and our impro show Our Play. So, here goes. This may feel like a long story to a simple point, please be patient, for me it is all a part of the journey.
In 2009 I went to Austin Texas to perform in the Out Of Bounds Festival. It was a really fun time with some great work.
It was also a slightly odd time. How? Well, here are some notes from my journal. They are comments people made when first meeting me.
‘so you’re the Johnstone chick. lets see what you got.’
‘I’d take your workshop but I already did a workshop with Keith, so I know his work.’
‘you must feel awkward being a Johnstone student with so many Del Close students here.’
‘you’ll have to change how you play, this crowd is Chicago style, they don’t like the Johnstone style.’
To think such things is one thing, to say them is interesting. Could it be a bit of status play? A few definitely were, others were just people trying to find a place to connect for a conversation. They didn’t bother me, they interested me which is why I wrote them down.
It is a reflection of the impro scene. This elbows up, jockeying for position and endless debate of who created improvisation. The North American scene seems obsessed with this. Conversations of this type are far less frequent in Europe. I find the debate over who created improvisation rather amusing. Are we honestly trying to define who invented create something from nothing? No one invented improvisation. Improvisation is something we naturally do. Children were improvising games and stories long before anyone named it as improvisation. Adults were improvising solutions to problems long before the term came into being.
The first use of the word, that I could find, dates back to 1826. It’s origins are the Latin Improvisus to the Italian Improvviso to the French Improviser and then onward.
The study of our natural improvisation ability and the work that came out of that exploration is unique to each teacher.
This exploration plus the results and discoveries are the teachers work and it is that the teacher can be credited with. NOT improvisation itself.
Battle lines are drawn from an ego need. My teacher is first! My teacher invented it so they are the best! These phrases yelled from the hilltop are secretly communicating if my teacher is best then I am better in association.
What is best when it comes to an artistic form? The arts are subjective. What I like you may loathe. What fascinates me may bore you to tears. Who is right?
It is good to have different approaches, styles, beliefs.
It is good to have different teachers, voices, point of view.
Work that touches people will thrive, work that doesn’t won’t.
When I was first exposed to other approaches I’ll admit I became defensive. Not because I feared one being better than the other, but because I felt creatively attacked. In the book I am currently working on I talk about my first impro festival and someone approaching my team saying ‘so….you are Johnstone’s group, well lets see if you are any good.‘ An interesting welcome.
Improvisation needs to observe the footsteps of world religion. Different teachers preaching wise words that inspire their followers. Centres form around the guru and these teachings. Each style with it’s own holy land be it Calgary, Chicago, London or where ever. Impro temples where we gather and chant “yeeeeesssss’. We preach acceptance then don’t practice what we preach.
If we continue on this path then how will our world impro community move forward? We can set up walls and fight against each other. Or we can be inclusive of different teachers and beliefs, respect choice, learn what we can, then believe in and follow what feels right for you.
I am a Keith Johnstone student. It his approach, work, beliefs and techniques that speak to me. His work that inspires me. This is my chosen path. Those of you who know me well, or been in a discussion with me about impro, will know I have strong opinions about what I like and dislike, what I think works and does not, what I enjoy and what I do not – however – I will always defend your right for you to follow, explore and create the work YOU wish to do. My opinion is only an opinion, my opinion should not influence your choices. The only thing that should influence your choices are YOU and the people you work with. If we do not question and explore then the form dies. We learn from people liking and disliking what we do.
Yes it is a delicate balance between actively accepting diversity and openly having an opinion. I think this is where intention and communication comes into play.
Let me go back to the Austin festival. I had the pleasure of meeting many wonderful people. One person in particular has enriched my impro journey. Introducing the delightful Joe Bill. Joe was trained by Del Close, is co-founder of Annoyance Theatre and Bass Prov and teaches at I.O. If we use the idea of different impro camps he should be my opposite or enemy but he is far from that.
Joe and I had many great open, honest conversations about improvisation. I remember the closing party we spent most of it sitting on the floor having a few beers and just diving deeply into each others history, beliefs, ideas and work. What we discovered was this amazing connection in what we both believed and this curiosity in our differences. We didn’t always agree, but where we didn’t agree was more on a choice, style, application or phrasing. We always agreed on the core of what we believe the work is, the heart of the beast. It was an amazing eye opening and inspiring experience for me.
Since that party many an email has been shared continuing our conversation. This connection and curiosity taunted us. Till in 2011 we had an opportunity to create Our Play and perform it at a festival in Würburg Germany. The concept was simple Joe was taught by Del, I was taught by Keith. What happens if we put someone from both camps on stage together? Can they work together? What if Joe puts me in Del style work, would I get it? What if I put Joe in Keith style work, would he get it? What would it be like for the audience to see our differences, our similarities?
Our rehearsal process was sharing our memories of our training and experiences with our teachers. Joe told me many wonderful stories about Del and what is was like to be in that creative process. What he taught, how he taught, what was the meaning behind some of his famous quotes, what was he trying to create and explore, the misconceptions in the world scene about Del’s work and how Harold has been so misunderstood. I shared the same from my experiences with Keith including how Theatresports™ has been so misunderstood. We were both deeply fascinated by each others journeys and there was a lot of laughter.
In many ways we learned that Keith and Del shared similarities in their desire and quest to release the improviser. How they went about releasing this and the type of work they found interesting becomes the defining factors in their style of work.
We decided that our show would start with the two of us sharing a few Keith and Del quotes or moments. Then the first half Joe would take the lead and I would play in his style, the second half we would play in my style. I felt completely safe with Joe and in good hands but I was terrified. There was a moment when I thought, “if I suck then people will think poorly of Keith’s work – oh God, what have I got myself into.”
The show was exhilarating. The first half was a long form based in characters and their relationships. Joe took the lead and I just gave myself to what was there. All I could do is what I was trained to do, listen, value, accept, be present, be obvious, inspire your partner, be changed, change the other person, etc. It was a delightful story and there were moments that really moved the audience.
It was a difficult challenge to go second. I was considering the shape of show, wanting to create variety and offer something different. The first half had some wonderful scenes about people connection and emotional change. This is in Keith’s work as well, but we’ve played that. Should we just do it again to show our similarities? Would the audience feel cheated? Am I trying to hard to be clever and original? We only had 1/2 hour for the second half, which added to my challenge. So I thought, a side of Keith’s work are some of his techniques that train attentiveness to your partner, and mischief. Also our natural curiosity with each other, our fascination with the human race and his quest to bring a meaning or point to the work on stage. For example Keith’s Life Game™.
With that in mind I decided to give Joe a Keith experience by putting him into some exercises which we would do in workshops and for performance. It was a delight watching his face and seeing where he rubbed up against it and when we pushed him through. I enjoyed it and hope perhaps Joe might have time to respond to this Blog from his point of view.
It was an amazing experience. The response from the audience was overwhelming and I still receive messages from audience members and other improvisers about the show. I know it kicked open some doors for me and that is exciting. Our difference became our connection and our similarities our communication.
I believe we need to be a multi-impro community.
Believe what you will, work how you want and respect other peoples right to do what they believe.
If we agree to our differences, focus on our similarities and find ways of communicating honestly then Our Play could be a global style.
Thank you Joe for your trust, spirit, joy, talent and faith. I’m looking forward to next time…which…is…where????