“Let’s not get rid of Shakespeare!” I found myself saying.
Part way through this fifth Västerås Conversation, after Alex Fradera and I had been enthusing for some time about improvisation – and after he had led the group, with much laughter, through a couple of exercises to give them a taste of what it means in theatrical practice – we hit up against something familiar.
Throughout this series, we have often relied on oppositions, in which one side of the opposition is being critiqued, either explicitly or by implication. In such a situation, it is easy to sound like you’re saying that the thing under critique should be eliminated. To speak up for the unmeasurable can be taken as a denunciation of measurement. To bring into question the idea of history, as it came into being in the 19th century, can be heard as a suggestion that we shouldn’t teach or study the past. Enthuse about the importance of improvisation and it can sound like you want to get rid of Shakespeare!
To make strong arguments in areas like these requires a particular kind of subtlety, and perhaps that is the common theme to the series – a theme which, once more, taps into Anthony McCann’s reflections back in April on the dangers of the desire for ‘the elimination of uncertainty’. To speak up for the unmeasurable can also be to speak on behalf of measurement – to ask that it is treated with respect, rather than required to do more (or other) than it is capable of doing.
And likewise, to speak up for improvisation, as we do in this conversation – improvisation as something more than a specialist performance skill, as an attitude to the situation in which we find ourselves, an attitude which has been marginalised in a world of directed, controlled and managed processes, processes planned in advance – need not mean speaking against direction, control or planning in all circumstances. I think it would be possible to follow the course we start out on here and come to an account of such things which has more respect for their difficulty, for the scale of the achievement when they work, than we have generally had in societies where they have been taken for granted as the norm.
Because, at a basic level, improvisation is the norm – the thing we start doing without thinking about it when we come together as humans, as sociable animals, sitting around a campfire or a table in the pub. And this is one thing that comes out strongly in the work of Keith Johnstone, the improvisation teacher who Alex and I discuss in this conversation, that the challenge is not to learn techniques that equip us to improvise, but to unlearn the habits that get in the way of an ability which we already have.
I’ve got behind in posting these conversations – there is another recording to come soon from last week’s fascinating discussion with Hassan and Seliman on being an immigrant in Sweden. This Wednesday (18 June), we have the last in the current series, when I’ll be joined by Steve Wheeler to talk about what he calls ‘The Depth Hypothesis’, the gap between the rational surface of our debates (including over issues like climate change) and the depths hidden beneath that surface, not least the biological depths of the bodies and brains within which our rational thinking takes place. We’ll also be inviting everyone to join us in the comfort of The Bishops’ Arms, afterwards, to celebrate the end of the series.
If you’re not able to join us on Wednesday, or even if you are, you might also be interested in the conversations taking place over 14-17 August at Futureperfect festival, where The Västerås Group (hopefully including several of the contributors to this series) will be hosting the Cocreation Space and, with the help of our Festival Faculty, aiming to bring the spirit of the Västerås Conversations to a festival environment.