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The improvisational performance of everyday life

Abstract: Goffman’s dramaturgical metaphor for everyday life emphasized the parallels between life and scripted conventional theater. In contrast, I argue that a better metaphor for life is improvisational theater. In the first half of the paper, I summarize some theories of social life that emphasize its structured, scripted nature, and I contrast these theories with several examples of improvised theater performances. In the second half, I develop a more complex performance metaphor, emphasizing that we combine both scripts and improvisation in everyday conversation.

Scripts even in the hands of unpracticed players can come to life because life itself is a dramatically enacted thing. All the world is not, of course, a stage, but the crucial ways in which it isn’t are not easy to specify.
(Goffman 72)

There is a long tradition that compares everyday life to stage performance, including thinkers such as Erving Goffman, Richard Schechner, Victor Turner, and Kenneth Burke. The sociologist Erving Goffman developed an influential dramaturgical theory of social life, starting with his 1959 book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. In a career spanning three decades, Goffman worked out a theory of how our everyday actions are dramatic. Goffman, like all of these writers, based his metaphor on conventional, scripted performance, and neglected improvisational creativity. Of course, Goffman realized that the performances of everyday life involved creativity. By treating interaction as a kind of game—focusing on an individual’s strategies and moves during interaction—Goffman explored the creative options available to individuals. Although his game metaphor acknowledged the creative potential of interaction, Goffman preferred to emphasize that our everyday performances are highly constrained by the scripts that we learned from our culture, and that we are a lot less spontaneous than we like to think (Goffman 73-74).

This article extends Goffman’s performance metaphor by emphasizing the improvisationality of everyday performance. Because we don’t have a script for our conversations, we have to improvise our lines. This makes our everyday conversations fundamentally different from stage performance. So what was Goffman getting at in the above epigraph—What do scripts have to do with everyday conversation? In this paper, I extend Goffman’s metaphor to explore how scripts and improvisation are combined in conversation. I begin by describing the script theory of social life—a theory which proposes that we all have mental scripts of the social world, with a different script for each type of social situation. This kind of theory seems to work for some sorts of social situations, but doesn’t work very well for conversations where there is no script. To gain insight into the improvisationality of conversation, I then describe improvisational theater, where the actors do not use a script, but instead generate their dialogue on stage in front of the audience.

In the second half of the paper, I show that scripts and improvisations are not mutually exclusive opposites, but that both play a role in everyday performance. Even though our conversations are improvised, we still use small bits of structure that seem almost scripted. Exploring the nature of this tension between script and improvisation can result in a more robust performance metaphor.

Scripts

Many of the situations of everyday life are relatively structured and predictable. Visiting a restaurant is one of those everyday situations where we are aware that there’s a standard sequence of events to be followed. In an influential 1977 paper, Schank and Abelson proposed a computational version of the performance metaphor, which they called the script model of everyday action. Scripts are loose outlines that guide social behavior in a situation; other researchers have called these loose outlines routines or event schemata (Mandler, Tannen).

Schank and Abelson demonstrated the script theory by using the restaurant example. Their computer version of the restaurant script looked like this:

Script: Restaurant
Roles: Customer, waitress, chef, cashier
Scene 1: Entering. Enter restaurant, look for an empty table, decide where to sit, go sit down.
Scene 2: Ordering. Receive menu, read menu, decide what to order, give order to waitress.
Scene 3: Eating. Receive the food, eat it.
Scene 4: Exiting. Ask for check, receive check, tip waitress, walk to cashier, pay cashier, leave.

But not all restaurants have the same script. First of all, this simple script applies only to certain kinds of restaurants. Some restaurants don’t use a host, and expect you to seat yourself, thus altering Scene 1. Some restaurants are buffet style, like Boston Market, where you get your own food before sitting down, changing all four scenes. In some restaurants, in scene 4 you’re expected to pay the waiter, rather than paying at the cash register.

If we programmed a word-for-word script into a robot, it wouldn’t be able to handle the slightest variation from the script—just like an actor stumbles when a fellow actor flubs a line. To handle variation, our everyday scripts must allow for a range of common possibilities, almost like a flow chart that represents each possible scene as one of several paths leading from the prior scene. The script program is a way of describing a variety of possible restaurant experiences. To use a musical metaphor, the most common restaurant script is the theme, and the flow chart describes the variations.

The script theory is appealing because there are many everyday situations that have a conventional pattern. The psychologist Ellen Langer has drawn on the script model, proposing that each of us has a repertoire of thousands of scripts that are cued by certain situations. We form a mental script when we overlearn a task, and we “automatize” the sequence of behaviors. Langer observes that once we start performing one of these scripts, we can do it mindlessly, without conscious thought; and her research explores how often this can lead to mistakes, and how we can become more mindful in everyday life.

Although we all use these scripts, many of the situations that we find ourselves in are much more unstructured, with no conventions about what events will occur and in what order they will occur. Most of our everyday conversations occur in unstructured situations: gossip, mealtime conversations, or party small talk. Improvisation is perhaps the most remarkable and important aspect of these conversations. Rather than scripts, I draw on improvisational theater as a metaphor for these everyday performances.

Improvisation

The following brief transcript, taken from my own videotape data, is the beginning of a two-minute scene that the actors created at the Improv Institute, a theater in Chicago:

(1) (Andrew steps to stage center, pulls up a chair and sits down, miming the action of driving by holding an imaginary steering wheel)
(2) (Ben steps to stage center, stands next to Andrew, fishes in pocket for something)
(3) Andrew On or off?
(4) Ben I’m getting on, sir (continues fishing in his pocket)
(5) Andrew In or out?
(6) Ben I’m getting in! I’m getting in!
(7) Andrew Did I see you tryin’ to get in the back door a couple of stops back?
(8) Ben Uh…

The first actor to jump to stage front and start the scene can do almost anything. Nothing has been decided, no plot, no characters, no events. The first actors can take on any role, perform any action, and create any relationship between their characters that they like. But only a few seconds into the scene, the actors quickly establish a basic dramatic framework.

By the end of this exchange, Andrew and Ben have developed a reasonably complex drama. They know that Andrew is a bus driver, and that Ben is a potential passenger. Andrew is getting a little impatient, and Ben may be a little shifty, perhaps trying to sneak on. But it’s important to emphasize that this tiny bit of dialogue could have gone in a hundred other directions. For example, at line (2), Ben had a range of creative options available. Ben could have pulled up a second chair and sat down next to the “driver,” and he would have become a passenger in a car. At line (3), Andrew had an equal range of options. He could have addressed Ben as his friend, and Ben’s hand in his pocket could be searching for theater tickets: “Don’t tell me you forgot the tickets again!” These are just the most obvious of the dramatic options that can occur on stage. For a crazier example, at line (2), Ben could have addressed Andrew as Captain Kirk of Star Trek, creating a TV-show parody. Look back over these eight lines and you’ll discover more and more possible directions that Andrew or Ben could have suggested. Because each line provides its own unlimited possibilities, a combinatorial explosion quickly results in hundreds of other performances that could have been. This is why the script theory can’t easily be extended to account for improvisational situations.

To learn more about improvisation, I joined an improv group as its pianist and performed with this group for almost two years. I attended rehearsals and training classes, interviewed the actors and directors, and videotaped all of their performances. At the end of this two-year period, I visited most of the major professional improvisational groups in Chicago, videotaping performances and interviewing actors and directors. While performing improv theater, I discovered that the actors use two important rules to help them create better improvisations.

The First Rule of Improv: Yes, and…

The single most important rule of improv is “Yes, and.” In every line of dialogue, an actor should do two things: Accept the material introduced in the prior line, and add something new to the emerging drama. Everything that is introduced by an actor must be fully embraced and accepted by the other actors on stage. To deny a fellow actor is to reject whatever he has just introduced into the dialogue, and denial stops a scene dead. In a scene at the ImprovOlympic theater in Chicago, a man and a woman were taking a romantic stroll through the park (example from Halpern, Close, and Johnson). The woman had the idea that she would find a lottery ticket—a scenario rife with romantic possibility—but it didn’t turn out like she planned. She initiated the scene change by pointing at the ground and saying, with surprise:

Woman: What’s that?
Man: It’s just a pile of shit.
Woman: (Frustrated) No, it’s a lottery ticket!

This is an outright denial. Once the man has defined “it” to be a pile of shit, the woman has to forget her preconceived idea about the lottery ticket plot, and accept that it is now a pile of shit. The problem started with her first turn, when she broke the “Yes, and” rule by asking a question; this question does not contribute anything new to the dramatic frame. She should have simply said “Look! A lottery ticket!” Good actors keep the scene moving by introducing something new to the dramatic frame with every turn. If an actor fails to add something, he is forcing the other actors to do more than their share of the creative building of the frame.
The “Yes, and” rule encourages a democratic, collaborative performance. Performances are more effective if the frame is created collectively, emerging from everyone’s creative input.

The Second Rule of Improv: Don’t Write the Script in Your Head

The second key rule of improv is “Don’t write the script in your head.” The lottery ticket/shit confusion is an example of what happens when this rule isn’t followed. When the woman pointed to an imaginary lottery ticket and said “What’s that?” she simultaneously began to imagine a fairly elaborate scene, a romantic scenario of a couple finding a lottery ticket in the park. She was probably thinking that it would be a winning ticket. Improvisers call this “writing the script in your head.”

Imagine a scene that begins with a man and a woman on stage (from Halpern, Close, and Johnson). The woman starts the dialogue by saying:

Woman: I’ve missed you, dear.

If the woman were writing the script in her head, she might have initiated this exchange thinking that the man was her husband, in the navy and just back from a 6-month tour. Her mind would already be working on the romantic implications of the scene. But her line is compatible with several different plots. Here’s what the man said next:

Man: Yeah, sorry I haven’t called more often, Mom.

Now we can see that the woman’s opening line could have been spoken by a wife or by a mother. Because of the “no denial” rule, she has to proceed as “Mother” now. But because she had already started writing a different script in her head, she’ll have to take a second to recover, and the scene won’t flow as naturally.

The “don’t write” rule encourages the collaborative creation of a performance. It forces the actors to stay in the moment, rather than thinking ahead to the rest of the scene. It also involves a great deal of trust: The actress has to trust her partner to select the relationship. It involves relinquishing control to the group process, to trust that creativity will emerge from the conversation.

These examples emphasize the paradoxical kind of non-planning, non-directing mindset in which improv actors have to be. Improvisation cannot be written ahead of time, and it cannot be explained by appealing to shared mental scripts.

Improvising with Scripted Lines

Of course, we all know that conversations can be more or less creative. When you’re buying stamps at the post office you won’t try to be all that creative. If you are, the clerk will think you’re weird, and the people waiting in line behind you will get impatient. You’re expected to stick to predictable lines that anyone would say. It seems like the script theory is more accurate in situations like the post office and the restaurant visit, where there is less room for improvisation (Sawyer, Creating Conversations).

In everyday situations, we often use lines that we’ve heard other people use; we don’t always make up completely new things to say. When you visit the salon to get your hair done, and the stylist asks “How are your children doing?” no one would claim that she improvised that line; thousands of people have said exactly that line in exactly that situation before, so in a sense it is a scripted line. We often use catchphrases in conversation—phrases like “Could I talk to you for a minute?” or “Give me a break.” Linguists call these little bits of script formulaic speech. But the use of catchphrases still requires improvisational creativity; a catchphrase can send many different implicit messages, depending on the situation. For example, many service workers—like your hair stylist—use catchphrases to send the message that this is a casual, friendly, relatively superficial conversation—the implicit message is that they are politely interested, but not being nosey. And in the same way, we often use catchphrases as a distancing mechanism, to indicate to the other person that we don’t want to enter a truly creative, conversational performance. When we speak more spontaneously, improvising rather than using formulas, it sends the message that we are ready to enter into a more intimate conversation—fully focusing on our listener, our words personalized and created just for them.

A lot of small talk is formulaic, especially short interactions with people you don’t know well—talking with the waiter, or talking about the weather with a stranger in the elevator. These catchphrases are not really your own words; they are like little bits of scripts that we all share. Each time we use a catchphrase, it reminds us subconsciously of all of the past occasions when we used it, or when we heard it used. This basic idea was an important theme of the Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin. Bakhtin argued that even though each speaker intends his words to have a novel, personal meaning, those words have unavoidable connotations associated with past situations of use. A catchphrase demonstrates this point particularly well because it is so obvious that the line has been spoken before by others. When we use a catchphrase, or say something with a stereotypical inflection or accent, everyone can’t help but think of all of the other occasions on which they’ve heard the same thing. These connotations are like unavoidable baggage that the words bring with them from past situations of use; they’re built into the catchphrases, the price we pay for using them. Bakhtin coined the term dialogic to describe this two-leveled nature of language; the two levels are the speaker’s own meaning, and everyone’s memory of how these words have been used in the past.

In improv theater, when the first actor steps to the front of the stage and starts to enact a Mad German Scientist character, a whole set of script possibilities is immediately suggested, and other possibilities get closed off. Sociolinguists refer to these distinctive ways of talking as codes, registers or speech styles (Gumperz, Hymes). Actors use these styles of talking to communicate characters and situations, quickly and implicitly communicating to each other about the emerging drama. Bernie Sahlins, a founder of The Second City theater in Chicago, explains that these references are a shorthand way of communicating quickly with your fellow actors and with the audience (Sweet). Improv actors know that each social group has its own distinctive speech style and catchphrases; a well-chosen catchphrase or a distinctive accent can implicitly tell us a great deal about a character: ethnic background, profession (lawyer or doctor), family role (father or son), status (an authority figure such as a policemen or the boss), distinctive cultural stereotype (cowboy, Southern redneck, or gay male).

This kind of implicit communication is an example of what linguists call indexicality, from the Latin word for “point to” or “indicate.” Your words are indexical when they indicate something about the situation that isn’t in the literal meaning of the words. Using a well-known catchphrase or speech style is indexical, because it implicitly communicates so much about the situation; for example, if an actor starts speaking in a Southern accent, he implicitly communicates to the audience that the scene is set in the South, without ever having to say “Here we are in Ole’ Mississippi.” Some linguists estimate that as much as 90% of all of our spoken language is at least partially indexical—in other words, very little of what we say is completely context-free (Bar-Hillel).

Although a catchphrase is a scripted line, choosing to use a catchphrase is an improvisational choice, and these lines are woven into dialogue that is otherwise improvised. It would be considered a little weird if someone spoke only in catchphrases and cliches. But there are some situations that require speakers to use catchphrases, such as high-pressure, performative jobs—a sportscaster, a radio DJ, an auctioneer. Even though these speakers use a lot of formulaic speech, their speech is still creative and improvisational. The Australian linguist Koenraad Kuiper proposed an intriguing hypothesis: as the demands of the speaking situation increase, the speaker will use more and more formulaic speech during the performance. Kuiper observed that “smooth talkers”—those with a unique fluency required in certain speech performance situations—draw on a large repertoire of formulas during their speaking. Kuiper tested his hypothesis by examining speech performance in two situations that demand high fluency: sports announcing and auctions. In each case, he examined a low-pressure context and a high-pressure one. For example, in sports announcing, he examined cricket announcing (slow, low pressure) and horse race calling (fast, high pressure). And in auctions, he examined real-estate auctions and antique auctions at Sotheby’s (low pressure), and tobacco auctions in North Carolina and wool auctions in Christchurch, New Zealand (high pressure). In auctions, for example, Kuiper’s measure of “pressure” was the number of seconds it takes to make one sale. In both of the low-pressure auctions—real estate and antiques—one sale typically took well over one minute. In contrast, the high-pressure auctions took only seconds; in wool auctions, one lot is sold every 10 seconds, and in tobacco auctions, a sale is made every five seconds—a dramatic contrast with the slower, refined pace at Sotheby’s.

Kuiper’s hypothesis was supported: In the high-pressure situations, the speech was different from everyday speech because it depended on formulaic phrases that had to be learned. High-pressure speakers drew from a stock set of standard phrases, unlike low-pressure speakers, who created sentences from scratch much like we do in everyday speech. And in high-pressure situations, the overall speech performance had a higher-level structure—with standard beginning, middle, and ends to the performance, and standard formulas for transitions between the sections. But even then, these auctioneers don’t just spout catchphrases like a robot—their creativity is still improvisational, because they have to respond immediately to all of the bidders, choosing exactly the right catchphrases at each moment.

Many professions are heavily dependent on specialized catchphrases that only have meaning for other experts in that area. For example, most of us have trouble understanding legal language—because of the many legal catchphrases that lawyers use, especially when they are in the courtroom. Defendants become understandably upset if they sense that the judge is simply spouting stock phrases at them; the outcome will affect their lives immensely, and they want to be treated like an individual. So why do judges keep using legalese? It’s because judges have to balance the demands of two very different audiences: The laymen in the courtroom, and the court record, which will be analyzed by other lawyers. Although the judge’s job is to communicate with the defendants and the jury, judges also know that their words will be written into the court record, and that anything they say could be used as grounds for an appeal. They are speaking not only to the laymen in the courtroom, but also, as they say, “to the record.”

Even when they use legal catchphrases, some judges still try to give the impression that they are speaking spontaneously. The linguist Susan Philips analyzed the courtroom language of 9 different judges, over the course of many different cases. She found that all 9 judges use the same formulaic speech—the same scripted lines—to every defendant. But most of the judges try to make the defendants think that they are speaking spontaneously, just for them. Even though they use the same scripted lines over and over, they use special speech techniques to make their speech sound more spontaneous: They pause, as if they are formulating their words; they pretend to make mistakes, starting their sentence again. Even though they used extremely formulaic speech, they managed to speak in such a way that they sounded unrehearsed and spontaneous. If you were in the courtroom for only one trial, you would get the impression that the judge was improvising; it’s only when you listen to repeated trials that you see that they are using formulaic speech, but making it sound unrehearsed.

This example shows the extent of our cultural bias towards spontaneous, personalized, improvised speech. Goffman, who thought that a great deal of our speech was scripted and ritualized, noted that we nonetheless try to hide this fact: “Performers tend to foster the impression that their current performance has something special and unique about it. The routine character of the performance is obscured and the spontaneous aspects of the situation are stressed” (49). All of us, not only auctioneers and lawyers, have our own personal scripts and catchphrases that we use repeatedly. Although using scripted lines is completely natural, and everyone does it, it’s still uncomfortable when it becomes so obvious—we all share an unspoken agreement that conversation will be spontaneous expression.

Theme and Variations

The restaurant script is an overall structure; although there’s a certain order of events that you have to follow, it’s not as if you’re reading from a script—you still get to perform “the restaurant play” your own way, creating your own lines. But improvisation doesn’t mean that anything goes; improvisation within a structure is, in fact, harder and more creatively challenging than just saying any old thing you want, because you have to balance structure and creativity. The conversation analyst Emanuel A. Schegloff showed that many routines that seem highly scripted are actually improvised. Schegloff chose to analyze a segment of conversation that most of us think of as mechanical and routine—the first few standard sentences that we exchange at the beginning of a phone conversation. After observing hundreds of different phone calls, he had identified many variations of this “phone greeting script.” Schegloff realized that although each one seemed scripted, the two participants had to collectively improvise their variation; each speaker had a wide range of possibilities available from turn to turn.

How do we learn to improvise in everyday conversation? Children’s pretend play—the most silly and unimportant-seeming behavior—is where we learn how to improvise. That’s why I spent a year, silently observing free play in a preschool classroom (Sawyer, Pretend Play). On occasion, children seem to be enacting a story from a single movie or TV show. However, it’s much more common for them to blend themes, characters, and events from many different sources, working together to create a unique, improvised performance. When children combine and embellish movie plots, is this still the same script, but with a minor variation? Or is it a uniquely new improvisation? William Corsaro, a sociologist who studies how children’s play varies in different cultures, has studied how children embellish the routines of their preschool classroom (Corsaro 192-208). A routine is a type of script, but it’s a more general description of events than something like the restaurant script; it’s a game with a loose framework that has room for embellishment and improvisation.

Children’s embellishments are often based on common emotional themes, such as fear of a bad guy. On one Friday morning while I was observing a preschool class at play, a danger-escape theme is the theme-with-variation. Kathy is playing again with her usual friends, Yung-soo and Rachel, and Jennie as well. This play starts out with Kathy announcing in a scary voice: “Santa Claus is coming!” The other girls scream. The only protection is for them all to go to bed. Eventually Santa Claus arrives, and the children open presents for just a few seconds before Kathy warns them of the next threat: “It’s a bunny! Easter rabbit!” All of the girls hide underneath blankets, as Kathy enacts the evil Easter bunny, chanting in a deep voice, “I am the Easter bunny!” After the girls play out this variation of the theme, Yung-soo asks, “Now what comes after Easter?” Kathy immediately replies, “Uh oh. Here comes the Halloween people!” They all scream and hide once more.

Like improv theater, these variations are improvised by the group. The danger-escape routine is woven together with two other routines: going to bed, and opening presents. The children cooperatively improvise a novel performance. The script metaphor doesn’t do justice to the richness and complexity of improvisational play; combining three themes to create a play performance is not a performance of any one single script.

These examples—restaurants, phone conversations, and children’s play—are improvised performances that are guided by rough outlines. Are they scripted, or improvised? Is each performance a trivial variation, an embellishment of the basic script, or is it an entirely new performance each time? What counts as improvisation? How much structure can a conversation have before we stop calling it improvisation?

Toward a New Performance Metaphor

I started this paper by emphasizing that conversations are not scripted, and I proposed improvisational theater as a better metaphor for everyday conversation. In both, there is no script—like improv actors, we collaboratively create our everyday conversations. But although our conversations are not fully scripted, there are two kinds of structures that we use in conversation. First of all, we often weave in catchphrases—little pieces of script that are building blocks in our improvisations. Second, some of our conversations are created within an overall framework—a common situation like the restaurant or the post office—where the flow of the conversation is predetermined.

The tension between script and improvisation is found throughout our lives, not only in conversations. Our drive to be creative is often opposed by fixed structures—our job, our neighborhood, our social class or education level, the conventions of how things have always been done. Sociologists and anthropologists known as structuralists study these fixed structures. By focusing on the structure of our lives, we end up neglecting the creativity and freedom that we are all capable of. Structure is static and stable; improvisations are free-flowing and open-ended.

Of course, everyday discourse is much more improvised than scripted theater. Our daily conversations are not exact imitations of any script, and our daily lives do not exactly follow the structure of anybody’s social theory. Researchers who explore these issues are often called post-structuralists, since they are concerned with those aspects of social life that can’t be explained by fixed structures: individual creativity, variation across performances, and change over time. Post-structuralists focus on the balance between structure and improvisation. Improvisation was a central concept for two influential French social theorists; Pierre Bourdieu focused on “regulated improvisation” (which he also called habitus), and Michel de Certeau’s central concepts were improvisation, strategy, and contingency. These theorists were nonetheless careful to point out that we aren’t making up everything about the social world from scratch in each conversation; there is structure guiding the improvisations of everyday life.

I have argued that we need a new performance metaphor, one that recognizes that conversations are improvised performances, even when they are improvisations within structures, and even when they incorporate scripted lines. To understand the performance of everyday life, we have to be careful not to think it’s more predictable than it really is. We have to stop thinking that we are enacting scripts—and start focusing on the flow of free improvisation.

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Author: Dr. Sawyer is an Assistant Professor at Washington University in St. Louis. His areas of expertise include creativity research, children’s play, everyday conversation, and sociological theory. He is the author of Pretend Play as Improvisation: Conversation in the Preschool Classroom, and the editor of Creativity in Performance. This article is based on an ongoing study of improvisational theater dialogues, and draws on his latest book, Creating Conversations: Improvisation in Everyday Discourse.

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