What is Improvisation Not?

With respect to the rich world of musical improvisation and wonderful physical contact improvisation, I’m going to focus on theatrical improvisation.

Too many definitions, Too limiting.

Search the internet or numerous books written about improvisation and you quickly discover that definitions are as varied as they are numerous. I have yet to find a definition that takes the variety and possibilities into account.

Stage improvisation is different than Applied improvisation which is different than Jazz improvisation, Contact improvisation, or general life improvisation. And within each style of improvisation are various categories that differentiate themselves from each other.

The need to define is everywhere but the problem for improvisation is that strict defining, limits Improvisation to a specific style and misleads us about other possibilities.

The globe is littered with the effects of arrogant improvisation teachings that did not take into account the cultures that they were invading. Like ministries, teachers went in and spread their definition of improvisation, ignoring the history of improvisation that existed especially in Asia, Africa, and South America.

“American Improvisation” is a STYLE. It’s popular but it’s not the final definition of “IMPROVISATION”

IDEALLLLLLLLY… Stage improvisation can be anything BUT it probably it won’t be. You probably need to sing if you do musical Improvisation and you will definitely experience something different between the machine gun comedy style of Bar-prov or the variety of emotions and topics that Johnstonian Impro looks for. Is it “Long-form”, “Short-form” (two poorly defined terms) or is it something else?

Here’s a definition from the web:

IMPROVISATION: a performance that an actor, musician, etc. has not practiced or planned


With MOST stage improvisers, there is a great deal of practice. And in some styles, planned pieces of the performance or planned pieces of structure are common. Consider the improvised art form of Commedia Dell’Arte. There are structures within it that are highly planned called Lazzis.

Improvisation is not one thing. Improvisation is behavior combining various elements such as spontaneity and adaptability. Improvisation ranges from very purely unplanned forms all the way through highly structured forms that might include very few improvisational behaviours.

When suggestions and definitions become scripts they damage your ability to truly improvise.

Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu (c.500 BCE) was certain that people would misunderstand, misinterpret and define-to-death, the meaning of “TAO” so he wrote the very first line as a brilliant warning:


Lao Tzu

Everything after that hints at “The Tao” by showing the shadows it casts. Thanks Lao.
(Improvisation is the same.)

There is a target but it’s not where you look. It’s where you are.

As “Dance” is not limited to one expression, (Jazz, Ballet, Hip Hop, etc.) Improvisation’s branches are evolving as well. Improvisation can be Stage, Applied, Comedy, Structured, Musical, and more… “IMPROVISATION” IS NOT ONE THING”.

Check, “What Is Improvisation” – Here