Is improvised theatre a game of linguistic strategy?

Lochlan Morrissey is a PhD candidate at the Griffith University School of Languages and Linguistics

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Can you predict improvisational theatre? That’s the question one Doctoral candidate is asking, challenging the idea that improvised theatre is spontaneous and unexpected.

Griffith PhD candidate, Lochlan Morrissey aims to delve into a highly creative and intuitive process to reveal the strategic decision-making that underlies improvisational theatre.

According to Lochlan, improvisational actors are challenged to entertain their audience by conjuring a plot and staying in character the whole performance.

“Actors must work together on these different objectives without any planning or communication while on stage,” Lochlan says.

He says, actors who do this successfully are making rational and strategic ‘linguistic decisions’ on stage, and that process of strategic decision-making opens up improvised theatre to being mapped by the science of game theory.

Lochlan’s research examines theatre which occurs in front of an audience, rather than filming actors going through theatre games or rehearsals, because the way actors make the plot is totally dependent on the audience and the feedback they receive.

“Actors are very aware of what the audience expects and what the audience likes, and what kinds of jokes the audience is going for on that particular night of the performance,” says Lochlan.

“Actors are also very aware of where the other actors in the troupe are trying to take it and are always trying to do the best thing by the troupe.”

While Lochlan admits to being a mathematically minded researcher, he is aware of the dangers of demystifying the creative process and how his research might be perceived or misinterpreted by actors.

“There are certain things in improvisation that are good practice. For example if someone blocks a direction, that’s generally considered bad strategy, unless you’re able to lead it in another way which is even more beneficial to the story.”

“Often when improvising you’re not aware of these strategies but they’re definitely there. As a jazz pianist, I understand that as well,” says Lochlan.

One of the aims of the research is to create clear models on the strategies that actors use on stage.

Lochlan’s PhD initially focused on the Italian style of improvised theatre, the commedia dell’arte, but has since shifted to consider improvised theatre more broadly.

The commedia dell’arte grew out of a group of stock characters represented by bawdy masks and the desire of travelling troupes to keep performances from growing stale.

Actors had to adapt their performance to the stock character they were playing and the relationship they had with other characters. This made it possible to map what actions were likely says Lochlan.

Please note: References made to Lochlan’s PhD title were correct at the time of recording this podcast, however, he has since shifted his thesis to consider the topic more broadly.