History & The Death of Improvisation

Throughout history, Improvisation repeatedly became the cool thing to do on stage and then faded away as a practiced form.

Let there be Improvisation!

The first recorded ongoing reference to Improvisation was around 300 B.C. in the Roman Empire where the Oscan Performers developed what was known by a few names: Atellan Farce, Oscan Games etc.

The Atellan Farce was a masked farce that originated in Italy by 300 B.C.and remained popular for more than 500 years. Originally, the farces were improvised and not recorded. … the actors in Atellan Farce were known to be Oscan,

Check out the stellar research by JEFF MATTHEWS for more about the early development of Improvisation. There are also interesting hints about how it died in this early incarnation:

Atellan Fables were improvised by the Oscans and only later became written literature as the Romans gave up ad-libbing and attempted to write their own Fables in Latin. In taking over the Atellan Fables, however, the Romans abandoned the original Oscan improvisational form and developed the form into a literary Latin one.


The Romans pushed improvisation into more rigid literature as a way of controlling the messages. Controlling the content and its delivery meant that sanctioned ideas would be more likely to endure. The truth is that few of those words are heard by modern ears.

The words remain in dusty books on the shelves of libraries but the meaning of the stories live flexibly through modern packaging, on television, movies, and stage. It wasn’t the rigid attitude that saved the stories. It was the flexible nature inherent in improvisation.

The stories created through improvised forms endured in altered ways because the flexibility of improvisation gave them life in our times. Even as the art of improvisation “SEEMED” not to exist, it touches the classics and makes them flexible.


In the 1500s, Commedia dell’Arte evolved. There is no agreement on why or how it sprang forth. If you consider the age and the arts at that time, there are some hints.

In the early 1500s, the lower class experienced entertainment in the streets with jugglers, clowns, and traveling troupes. The middle class saw presentations of early theatre entrepreneurs telling the stories of the day. The rich had their Operas and Ballets. This was the background of the second wave of pure improvisation – Commedia dell’ Arte.

Imagine the irreverent interaction of the crowds with the performers (especially those in the markets or outdoor stages. These audiences were not likely to sit politely and applaud obediently for “the art”. They would walk away or yell out commentary and critique. Performers were forced to respond.

Entertainers lambasted what was immediate and relevant in society. Success came when the content was relevant to the watcher. “ART” could find it’s way onto the stage only when the audience saw that the artist performed for them and not just for performance sake. The show was for the people, not the artists.

The immediacy and flexibility of the improvisation had such a strong impact that Niccolò Barbieri, Andrea Perrucci, and other great performers and writers of the time wrote the manuals on WHAT IT WAS and HOW TO DO IT. (Innnnnnteresting! They were saying firmly, “Here is the WAY to be flexible…” )

Three books written during the 17th century—Cecchini’s [it] Fruti della moderne commedia (1628), Niccolò Barbieri‘s La supplica (1634) and Perrucci’s Dell’arte rapresentativa (1699—”made firm recommendations concerning performing practice.” Katritzky argues, that as a result, commedia was reduced to formulaic and stylized acting; as far as possible from the purity of the improvisational genesis a century earlier.

-Wikipedia, Katritzky 2006, p. 106.

Commedia developed from the first recorded performance in 1551, growing to its height in popularity into the early 1700’s when it was spread across the European Continent evolving into other defined forms. Improvisation’s death was an evolution into other forms, morphing into more clearly defined shapes. Interestingly, Napoleon took a stab at killing it when he outlawed the Commedia dell’Arte in 1797.

During the Napoleonic occupation of Italy, instigators of reform and critics of French Imperial rule (such as Giacomo Casanova) used the carnival masks to hide their identities while fueling political agendas, challenging social rule and hurling blatant insults and criticisms at the regime. In 1797, in order to destroy the impromptu style of carnival as a partisan platform, Napoleon outlawed the commedia dell’arte.


And so it “died” again. (More correctly, Improvisation never died. It just lost acceptance as an “artistic” form but remained, as always, the blanket behaviour in every-day life)

And then… there’s NOW.