Improv and activism

Adam talking about the power of improv for social change in another thread got me thinking, and I dug this up.

What follows is a manifesto I wrote in the very distant past, which I intended to use for recruitment for an improv/art movement I tentatively named Fou-co-co Puffs.

Of course, I never showed it to anyone. I decided it more meaningful and organic to try to show rather than tell. Luckily I was able to find and attract people who show me that improv is still a world of potential for love and social change.

But I thought this might provoke some improv discussion. Fire away!


The Fou-Co-Co-Puffs Manifesto

What Good is Improv?

The only answer to that question has to come from each individual, who must try to answer it the same way one would answer: “What good is art?” Then strive to make art that leans toward that definition.

Nothing is art simply because we say it is, whether it is produced by one individual, by six to eight people, or by entire movements and nations of people. Nothing is valuable just because we say it is Art. Nothing is defensible because we say it is just improv, just comedy, just a joke, or reality. But beyond that, nothing is forbidden.

Where does art come from?

Art rises out of the social milieu in which it is created, and so must both reflect and challenge that time and place. The Compass rose out of two contemporary trends of the 50s, towards a more political theater, an anti-elite working class cabaret, and Viola Spolin’s touchy-feely, psychological approach to freeing the intellect of its economic and social constraints. And Second City was the synthesis of these two antithetical movements, and the divergent goals of the people involved (Shepherd and Sills). That thesis has remained, challenged only a few times by a few antithetic people, its best minds appropriated by Entertainment. Longform improv happily remains in the periphery. And there is work to be done.

Severn Darden once put bassist Charles Mingus on a donkey, stuck a sombrero on his head, called him Poncho Villa, and told him to improvise. Mingus, who had long been composing and pioneering musical improvisation responded: “You can’t improvise from nothing. You gotta start with something.”

So using your body, your words, as your instrument, you must ask before you play: what’s the point of any of it? Ask: Do I have anything I need to say? The author of the Border’s “Only Connect” bookmark, EM Forster, once threw away a novel he was writing because “there was nothing to be done, only endured.” Ask yourself: Is there anything to be done here? Or only endured?

Seek the truth, tap into the most raw and unprotected part of your soul, and see if there is some universality in the particulars of what you have to say, what you have to do. If you can do that, if you must do that, if – to paraphrase Rilke – you would die if you were not allowed to do that, then you are an artist.

So what good is improv to an artist?

My straight-up theater friends say it is a means to an end – a rehearsal tool for acting. My first improv teachers pushed for the idea that improv was an end in itself. Some modestly claimed that the end was improvised entertainment, or sketch writing derived from improv, while others pushed for much grander ideas, that what we were doing was art, even religion. (Del said, shoot for art, if you fail you’ll at least get good satire, shoot for satire and fail and you’ll just wind up with parody.)

If we’re gonna do art, then we need to nourish the characteristics found in other art communities, the environment of free exchange of ideas, research, criticism, and above all, a seriousness of personal artistic and social responsibility. For artists, unlike athletes, cannot live isolated from the world that gives art meaning, context, the world that art must serve. They have a responsibility, like the dreamer-heretic Einstein, to see farther than others, on behalf of others, by “standing on the shoulders of giants.” And not in their shadows.

While on some rare occasions improv seems like an end in itself, instant, disposable art, I still hope it is a means to an end, but an end beyond our limited expectations – an end we can’t see yet. It can be used as a tool or a process to create something else- it might be comedy, it might be tragedy, it might be a new philosophy, a religion or a political system.

This is not a manifesto

Foucault wrote a lovely and amusing essay on Magritte called "This is Not a Pipe," which brings us back to history. The Surrealists tried to bring art into the “praxis of everyday life,” even if that just meant everyday dream-life. Larchmont said, “Poetry should be made by all.” Their art served to legitimize the destruction and subversion of established art, making the act of subversion the art itself. The Dadaists tried to do the same thing, provocation and shock as art, in order to overcome the control of Art as Institution.

Too quickly this became the institution, with people showing up with the expectation that they were going to be shocked. Ready to protest, ready to be provoked. When the Dadaists became part of the establishment, there was no new growth or discovery to be made by the artists or the audience. The original Dadaists recognized this, and dismantled themselves immediately.

When any form of art becomes institutionalized, it loses its power. Institutions are geared towards preservation, conservation of power, not innovations or change. (An aside: Performance [and to some degree visual] art in the eighties seemed to me a self-indulgent reapplication of the techniques, though not so much the goals, of the Dadas, with the focus instead on the individual as the art commodity, individual as institution. And not so many laughs!)

The state of the art

I have seen the power of improv, the beauty, the pure magic (rarely and often fleetingly), when a bunch of people drop the smug knowingness and arrogant cynicism which is so hip and marketable nowadays, and risk their emotions and ideas to the moment, trusting that they will be respected and validated.

But I have often seen the best minds and ideas of my generation hung out to dry by neurotic loud children with stars in their eyes, the funny on their tongues, and applause ringing in their ears.

Sadly, between these two extremes lies a sort of mediocrity – encouraged by our silence and the audience’s laughter – that we call compromise, politics, and being a team player. We call it success and talent. We call it the funny. We know it is safe, we know what works. This is a vulgar way to moderate emotions and creativity if we intend to create and present art and not just entertainment. So let’s shoot for the first extreme, the one that requires risk, and has a bigger payoff. And let the universal funny that lurks beneath the rhythm of life find its way out on its own. It will emerge undeniably stronger, hipper.

Poetry Should be made by all, but Not everybody is a poet.

Within this framework, and in the broader label of performance art and “alternative comedy,” I am tired of the same tired people telling the same tired stories. Their faces change, but the tune is the same. Personal narratives are only interesting and useful when there is some more universal meaning attached. Which means you have to examine your life, your prejudices, your actions first. If you still can’t make sense of something in your experience, why share it with a crowd? This isn’t therapy, this is art and performance, and improvised or not, you must think, or have thought, first about what you have to say. That sort of performance is better suited for that other confessional medium- the talk show. The audience comes for inspiration, enlightenment, not to analyze the performer. If the unexamined life is not worth living, it is certainly not worth staging. Unless there are flying chairs involved.

The new antithesis

I would like to see assembled a cabal of politically and comically sentient artists who want to strive together to create something aesthetically abrasive and beautiful at the same time, something that grooves in, grows out of and builds on the concerns and culture of our own times. Something that requires a manifesto. This is an approach to a manifesto, which I hope will take many forms. I would love to see smart, passionate people who are varied, differently-minded yet united in spirit, who share some basic beliefs about the use and abuse of life and power. People who are starting to wonder if it is enough to just make people laugh are asking the right questions.

A cabal so assembled should make artistic decisions just by speaking up. Of course I anticipate trouble with this approach. I welcome trouble. As Jules & Jim & Catherine discovered: "we both know that a couple is not ideal. We tried to be pioneers, but pioneers must be unselfish.” We must be unselfish. We must stay vigilant. We must stay honest. We must be knowledgeable. We must use that knowledge to empower others. We must do it with laughter. To make truth laugh.
[continued in next post]

Yes and Hitler

Art needs diversity, tolerance, debate and criticism to live. So does comedy. When engaged in collective activity, agreement is key, but Yes Andism carried over into life, blindly following convention, stupid opinion, or leaders, is dangerous. Instead of standing on shoulders of giants, and emulating, this ends up appealing to and following the lowest common denominator. Don’t ever show up as an empty vessel. That is not honest. Show up with ideas big and small. Show up to life and this work with your eyes and ears open.

We’ve all been around long enough to know what we find important and interesting. We don’t have to follow dumb ideas out of respect for the most outspoken members. We can all say no. We are all free to abstain and object to the group mind. Group mind does not mean Borg-like mindless mob action, but rather respecting each player in the group, playing to their strengths and vulnerabilities, committing to making the group look good above yourself, without sacrificing your own identity. Then magic can happen. All spontaneous ritual process, wrote Victor Turner, creates this spirit of comunitas, which does not merge identities, but liberates identity from conforming to general norms. No heroes! No Hierarchy! No Competition! No Committees! No sheep!

(Yeah, But)

I do expect everyone share some basic views:

Things are fucked up right now and that we need to stage a revolution.

Life’s too short to hold your peace.

Social, racial, sexual, and economic inequality are the core evils in society and through comedy we can poke holes and upset the institutions that perpetuate these inequalities, whether they be political, corporate, or legal.

“The comics have a duty to rock the boat,” said Lenny Bruce. The boat is not the two-party system, or the judicial system. The boat is the whole system, from the words we use and read to the movies we see.

Fou means crazy in French

Michel Foucault (1926-1984) was a French philosopher, historian and literary and art critic whose name is usually linked with a movement we call deconstruction. Not unlike the improvised long-form by that name, he used semiotics (language and meaning in context) to break down big impenetrable ideas and institutions into their core meanings, historical manifestations, and deeper implications. Rather than leading to a reductive kind of thinking, this process opens up new ways of thinking, of turning everything upside down, and making sense of it in a whole new way, of imagining alternate realities, alternative possibilities outside of the traditional interpretations.

This is a whole lot like comedy; turning ideas upside down to see what they look like from another angle. Taking apart and recombining incongruous ideas, images, and objects to see how they ‘play’ with one another, in another context, or from another angle.

To those of us who played in the fields of academia, deconstruction provided hours of serious amusement which often degenerated into silly word games and puns like: De-limiting (his)torical re-present-ations of t(he) Past. I did historical writing about US History that allows for a lot of what ifs, like Gore Vidal, and used deconstructionist tactics to expose the hegemonic use of knowledge to control thought and identity in traditional historiography. I tried to put the past in an equal and interesting relationship with the present, a relationship that is by no means certain, and is certain to change with the next generation of scholars. Well, that was my plan anyway, but then life intervened.

Ultimately what Foucault was all about was showing how those in power control knowledge in sometimes subtle but effective ways. No duh, you say, only he made this sort of discourse legitimate, and in certain fields, necessary. His method involved examining, and deconstructing with a historical eye, the "institutions that delimit contemporary life" whether these institutions are the church, the family, the nation, or the language, systems of punishment and systems of procreation, instead of accepting them as a timeless societal given. He found that the institutions that regulated morality, sexuality, medical/psychological practices and virtually every way that belief and behavior are manipulated, are designed to keep reins on knowledge for the benefit of those in power, to maintain the status quo. Or, even more today, to maintain the appearance of the status quo while the filthy rich get filthy richer and the poor are too distracted to notice they are poor.

Yes (and)

Part of the reason I was drawn to longform improv and to theater and entertainment in general was because I spent so much time academically arguing about how much manipulative power popular images have in our culture, how they determine – not merely result from – popular beliefs and institutions. How much more useful if those of us who give a shit about this sort of thing stop arguing about where the power is located, how it is controlled, how we are manipulated, and instead start making these images ourselves, start determining culture, determining history. Creating a new world, better than the present one. Facilitating the shift from manipulated consumerist cows to a nation of critical, conscious, and conscientious citizens.

And I am not coo-coo for cocoa puffs. Or the many manifestations of garbage in the war waged against us in images. Counter-attacks have been launched – Consumer Culture, Mark Derry’s seminal piece on Culture Jamming, and now carried on by Adbusters. The goal there is to use images of mass culture to battle manipulation by capitalist dream-makers. My contention is that the rule of the military/industrial/entertainment complex has the supreme power over perception. And that, in turn, affects our identity, confidence, vision, because as Vico says, “Belief is nothing but the vivacity of our perception.” And how vivacious these images are! The question becomes, how to create a perception of life and art that, instead of enslaving, empowers and enlightens and thoughtfully amuses the viewers.

And if we can create from nothing, if anyone can create from absolutely nothing but passion, practice, listening, and feeling, we would be on the verge of creating something beyond art, education, or entertainment, beyond our current definitions of community.


I want to remain in the realm of comedy, or at least some version of it, because used correctly it is perhaps the most subversive form of communication. It is a world where all things are possible and possible worlds and alternatives can be presented on stage, on screen, or in print. The comic artist can not only reflect inequalities of society but subvert the power arrangements. “Comedy involves a sense of triumph over whatever is inimical to human or social good.” (Elder Olson) There are no institutions that determine what is funny, or decide who gets to be funny. No one can stop the funny. We don’t have to depict life as it is, or as it ought to be, but as we see it in our dreams.

And instead of inequalities of society simply reflected and reveled in on stage, preyed on for mean laughter, comedy can instead be used to subvert these power arrangements.

Lenny Bruce said that "the only honest art form is laughter, comedy. You can't fake it…. Try to fake three laughs in an hour – ha ha ha ha ha – they'll take you away, man. You can't." Musicians tell me that honesty is the main requirement after mastery of your instrument, and no one wants you to play like someone else, only yourself. Some musicians, like the Mekons, made up for what they lacked in skill with honesty alone. That’s how you connect, like EM Forster. Fake it till you make it when it comes to confidence but make sure there’s truth to what you’re faking.

I dropped out of art school when I was 17 because my drawing teacher wouldn’t teach me to draw. He wanted me to keep doing what I was doing: high concept stick figures, usually of cows. “I could teach you to draw like Raphael,” he said, “but that wouldn’t be you, that wouldn’t be honest.” It took me 10 years to realize he was right about that, but that should have been my own discovery. I still can’t draw a straight line, but I am painfully, irritatingly honest. Too honest for some people’s taste, but as the great Elaine May wrote into the great Ishtar: “Telling the truth can be dangerous business, Honest and popular don’t go hand in hand. If you admit that you play the accordion, You’ll never get hired in a rock ‘n’ roll band.” (I now also play the accordion.)
...Final post!
Thoughts on (love and revolutions)

I have no idea where this will take us. But I do believe that if we start with what we know, and with who we are, and what we believe, and commit to it with honesty and integrity, we’ll get there.

Cue MLK.Jr’s I have a dream speech: “I may not get there with you.”

Cue Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount: “Fuck the 680 old rules. Love God. Love yourself. Love one another. That’s it.”

Cue Che Guevara: "Let me say, at the risk of seeming ridiculous, that the true revolutionary is guided by great feelings of love."

In improv, love is a survival skill, at least for the time you share the stage. Any more than that, says Del, would be crazy.

All great revolutions have succeeded because their leaders were thinking of something else. Then everyone gets distracted, gets thinking about the real possibility of change, so plans change, and the original leaders get beheaded and martyred or vilified. That’s why we shouldn’t ever get to attached to the old guard, or even the avant garde. Attach yourself to the possible. To the truth. Your truth. Even when it changes. Especially when it changes. A Mingus callback: “I try to play the truth of who I am. The reason that’s difficult is because I’m changing all the time.”

This is just what I am thinking about now. I hope it will change. I invite others to help me change it. We need visionaries, we need villains. We need change. Improv made the skills of good stage conversation a legitimate art form. Now let’s move on…to the guillotine.

Shannon Manning

El Jefe

Staff member
Anyone of you pinkos have any ideas for guerilla activist improv to protest this war we've got coming up?

A good friend here in New York has done a lot of agitprop theater on the streets -- maybe I should get in touch with him and see if he wants to do a joint project with the UCB's angry leftist contingent.

PS - I just read one of your mags for the first time the other day, Shannon. Good on ya.

- Jeff