Jun 1, 2007

improv and the art of the discussion

My brother, who's been laying down a theory-and-practice of effective class discussions, makes a useful analogy between improv theater and facilitated conversation.
The actors are everyone who participates in a discussion, including the discussion leader.

There stage is twofold: 1) The room that the discussion occurs within, and 2) the text that the discussion is about. The text is a type of metaphysical meeting ground for the discussion, and as such can function as a stage.

The script is the discussion itself, which makes improv theater a better metaphor than traditional theater. In improv, the script (including the conflict and the resolution) emerge from the actors’ contributions. It’s not fixed.
Another point of contact is the ethos of improv: the fundamental acceptance of whatever world the improv artists create while within the scene. "Yes" is always implied. (The denial of that world's reality, or "blocking," is a great obstacle to effective performance.)

However, this is also where improv and discussion part ways. Discussions require the basic acceptance and respect necessary for intellectual risk-taking, but participants aren't obligated to adopt their colleagues' hypotheses. A major purpose of the dialectic is to refine and sharpen ideas, which requires junking bad ones.

To take it further, as a teacher, it's therefore important to act out the acting--to model how to disagree without discourtesy, how to move forward without pushing others back. Improv takes practice.


Matthew Anderson said...

Great, Jim. Thanks for stealing my next post. : )

I tend to think, however, that discussion and improv actually overlap a bit more than you do, though. While "junking bad [ideas]" is clearly a goal of the discussion, the conversation really only goes forward in the case that there is a provisional acceptance at the moment the hypothesis is proposed. But more of this anon. Now, back to packing!

Jim Anderson said...

Provisional acceptance, certainly--but what I'm talking about is an ethical commitment to the "world" created in improv that simply doesn't extend as far in a discussion. For a perfect example, look at how quickly you rejected the initial phrasing of my hypothesis. ;)