(Inspired by a conversation with Joerg Hassman over breakfast during the 2012 Kiev Festival of Contact Improvisation)
In “Impro for Storytellers”, Keith Johnstone says, “The truth is that people come for a good time and nobody cares how the scenes are created except other improvisers… Why should an audience be expected to lower its standards if they know that a show is unscripted? Would a disgusting meal taste better if the waiter said, ‘Ah, but the chef is improvising!'” And yet, when I hear that a performance is being created on the spot before my eyes, a part of me gets excited. Now, it could be a lie, of course, and one could choreograph the illusion that an outcome has not been pre-determined, without detection by the audience.
But when the audience *believes* that performers are risking the act of creation before them, an extra level of engagement comes into play. They identify more strongly with the performers and their choices, and are often more forgiving of perceived mistakes (although this probably depends on each audience member’s attitude towards his or her own making of mistakes). This identification is especially strong if the risk involves making visible decisions and is not simply a test of physical skill. The pleasure of the performance, as an audience member, is then watching your surrogates on stage deal with the situation at hand. On the flip side, there is almost nothing more painful than watching anxious performers struggling and attempting to hide their struggle, shutting the audience out.
With set work, you have the pleasure of watching distilled performance, in which the director has presumably refined raw material down to its most essential, crystalized form.
So, as an audience member, which do you prefer — improvised or set performance? What about as a performer?