Video Game Design and Improv

Discussion of the art and craft of improvisation.

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Postby Rev. Jordan T. Maxwell » March 24th, 2011, 12:11 pm

Brad Hawkins wrote:The question is valid as it relates to video games, but somewhat silly as it relates to improv. I echo Jordan's initial statement: Of course improv can (not necessarily does, but can) qualify as sublime art. To say otherwise would deny that distinction to scripted theater as well. Improv is nothing but theater with one of the steps in the process (the writing of the script beforehand) removed. If a classical painter applies his oil to the canvas without doing a sketch first, this does not change the fundamental nature of the art.

Now, it's important to note that what we're talking about is potential rather than actual merit. Of course improvisers who aspire to sublimity have a steep challenge ahead of them. Playwrights can labor over a phrase, edit and re-edit, rework their themes and approaches as they see fit before a line of dialogue is ever spoken on stage. Obviously, improvisers have no such luxury, and as such the vast majority of improvised theater will always remain in the realm of entertainment*.

But is it possible that the stars can align and a moment or a show can be elevated, by the combined efforts of the improvisers involved (and a talented tech director) to the realm of the sublime? Can five or six monkeys, banging away at a stage, produce Hamlet? Yes, I believe so.

Has such a thing been done? I have no idea, and no way of knowing. That's the final hurdle, which is that one definition of sublime art includes its ability to stand the test of time, a definition that locks out the vast majority of improv from the get go. No doubt many improvised performances might well stand the test of time, if only they were not ephemeral. We should give special thanks to Peter Rogers and the other camera-wielding obsessives in our midst for being the Robert Bridges to our Gerard Manley Hopkins**. There is a chance that sublime art could manifest itself on stage and thereafter exist only on Vimeo, which as a concept is profoundly weird.



*God willing
** Hopkins, upon entering the seminary, famously burned all his poems. Only through the efforts of his friend Bridges, to whom he had sent some of his work, does his poetry survive today.


the paradox here, that i see, is that improv is (and should be) by its very nature temporal. it can be fun to go back and watch a taped show for archival or nostalgic purposes, or to study what one did onstage in that show to see what can be improved or built upon (the "game tape" approach). but there is something inherently missing and removed from that because so much of the strength and magic of improv comes from the energy and the experience in that particular moment in space and time, with that audience, with those performers. a taped performance can't capture that. you've recorded the trick, but lost the magic so to speak.

for that reason, i'm not sure improv can be (or, again, SHOULD be) "sublime" according to the definition given here. improv's strengths practically defy it. as an experiential form so reliant on connectivity, improv is fundamentally (possibly moreso than almost any other medium) transcendent in nature.

but then, by the definition given, i don't know that i'd ever want to experience "sublime" art. it sounds too depressing. ;) so perhaps my own biases are sweeping in...
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Postby samples » March 24th, 2011, 3:50 pm

Improv is nothing but theater with one of the steps in the process (the writing of the script beforehand) removed.

I would argue that there's a little more going on than that. Since the improv show is being created in real-time in front of the audience, the audience is a participant in the creation. Obviously not to the same degree as the performer, but I think it's reasonable to state that every improviser's decision-making is affected to some degree by the audience. There is no actual fourth wall separating us, nor is there a script that demands we proceed inexorably down a set path. We react to how we feel, and the audience makes us feel things because we can hear and see them as much as they can us. (Basically what Bill Arnett says in this blog post but reversed.)

And that's why I question its sublimity. The temporalness is another stumbler too.

But it's interesting that Jordan's idea of transcendence could maybe make it arguable that if the above is true improv is one of very few art forms that actually CAN be transcendent.

(Also, not to be nit picky, but:
to borrow your metaphor, a transcendent experience would perceive that not only is the lever connected to the lights

the metaphor actually was based around the realization that the lever is NOT connected to the lights, that we're falsely believing it to be. I understand your point though.)
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Postby Brad Hawkins » March 24th, 2011, 4:30 pm

samples wrote:
I would argue that there's a little more going on than that. Since the improv show is being created in real-time in front of the audience, the audience is a participant in the creation. Obviously not to the same degree as the performer, but I think it's reasonable to state that every improviser's decision-making is affected to some degree by the audience. There is no actual fourth wall separating us, nor is there a script that demands we proceed inexorably down a set path. We react to how we feel, and the audience makes us feel things because we can hear and see them as much as they can us. (Basically what Bill Arnett says in this blog post but reversed.)

To a degree, that's true of any live performance. Yes, it's true that a script supposedly dictates how the thing goes, but in every performance there's a degree of randomness introduced by the presence of the audience, in ways ranging from as subtle as the way they react to particular characters shaping the performance to... well, Our American Cousin.

By your argument, might it not be fair to say that while Death of a Salesman might be great art, any given performance of Death of a Salesman cannot be?
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Postby Rev. Jordan T. Maxwell » March 24th, 2011, 4:48 pm

samples wrote:(Also, not to be nit picky, but:
to borrow your metaphor, a transcendent experience would perceive that not only is the lever connected to the lights

the metaphor actually was based around the realization that the lever is NOT connected to the lights, that we're falsely believing it to be. I understand your point though.)


sorry my grammar was unclear, i didn't mean to imply that the lever was connected in YOUR example, only in mine. though from a transcendental viewpoint, even if there were no wires or direct connection between the lever and lights, they would still be interconnected. ;)

Brad Hawkins wrote: To a degree, that's true of any live performance. Yes, it's true that a script supposedly dictates how the thing goes, but in every performance there's a degree of randomness introduced by the presence of the audience, in ways ranging from as subtle as the way they react to particular characters shaping the performance to... well, Our American Cousin.


remind me to tell you about my improv format idea for that at some point...or look in the OOB section of the forums in the WHJ scholarship threads. ;)

Brad Hawkins wrote:By your argument, might it not be fair to say that while Death of a Salesman might be great art, any given performance of Death of a Salesman cannot be?


well, let's draw a delineation between "great art" and "sublime art."
but yeah, this occurred to me earlier...the script of a play could be considered "sublime" (as there is a bound and tangible artifact of text), but a performance of that text, under this definition, would not...though it could still be great and, potentially, transcendent.
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Postby Spots » March 24th, 2011, 6:06 pm

I contend that the artist's intended reaction from the audience is a redundant factor. In many cases it's a crutch-- I'd rather be a voyeur between the artist & the greater concepts they are exploring.

With my thoughts and anticipations being an afterthought. Or no thought at all. Because the viewer will always create their own meaning. In this way a scripted performance carries as much force as a *random* collaborative effort such as improv.

Then the argument boils down to the static, unchanging element of a scripted play which seems to me unlikely unless carried out under sterile, scientific conditions.

Like Jordan says -- I could do without.
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