Improv Languages

I’ve been thinking about the DeFrancisCO, in which Tara DeFrancisco pulls an audience member to become her CO-star. This requires Tara to improvise with the audience member who is picked, possibly a stranger to her and perhaps improv, which raises questions about how improvisers communicate.

People, including non-improviser Muggles, typically communicate via language, and there exist many. Some years ago, I was watching a Nova documentary with my mother, who happens to be fluent in ASL, about the birth of Nicaraguan Sign Language:

According to the documentary, the language arose organically from a group of deaf children, who were sent to a school to learn a codified sign language but instead came up with one of their own.

As improvisers, we seek to communicate something about the fiction we are creating while simultaneously creating and existing in that fiction in a way that’s compelling for an audience. To simultaneously develop the means of communication while creating that fictional world creates an additional challenge.

Thankfully, there are many options available that help with this. A tag or a sweep can serve as means for improvisers to express this information, as can forms like the Harold. Books like the Upright Citizens Brigade Comedy Improvisation Manual have codified specific ways to facilitate this communication, which are akin to improvisational languages. Other schools teach their own improvisational languages.

As with Nicaraguan Sign Language, these improvisational languages can also arise organically. In the first improv class I took, the focus wasn’t on teaching a codified improvisational language, but instead on becoming comfortable improvising with our classmates. At the end of seven weeks, we put on a show with a very many of us having a fairly limited understanding of any improvisational language. That’s not to say it was the most compelling improvisational show the world had ever seen (we didn’t tape it, so we’ll never know), but the audience was certainly reacting to it.

To be able to improvise with everyone, it would not only help to be an improvisational polyglot, but to likewise be able to find a quick means to communicate with someone who may not share a common improvisational language. That’s a feat I’d love to master.

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