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Improvisation & Anthropology

Our volunteer and anthropologist-in-training, Nina Walter tells about her fascination for the connection between two of her favourite subjects.

When I was growing up I was fascinated by any sort of theatre performances. I loved the people on stage, the “mood” that was created during a performance, and being blown away by the new worlds that the actors portrayed.

However, my parents would not support the idea of me starting to do theatre in any way and they kept on saying “You will never earn the butter on the bread with this craft”. At some point I gave up and decided to study anthropology instead. Anthropology is about people, how they behave in a society, why and what patterns they follow.

Now that I'm at the end of my studies, it is time to write a bachelor thesis. I was checking online different topics that I was interested in in order to decide what I want to do this research about. My heart made a little jump when I saw that Brad Fortier wrote his master dissertation on the connection between improv theatre and anthropology. I read his paper and I thought “Wow, what a smart move he made”. Brad did research in Rochester, New York over 14 weeks, in which he had interviews with many performers, organisers, audience members. He also performed himself and watched many shows.

He found many connections between the two disciplines.

One in particular that I found the most interesting is called “liminal space”. A liminal space is an imagined space in which our regular social and cultural norms and values don't apply and are replaced by newly taught rules. Off-stage we follow a set of rules; what topics to talk about or how to behave in a group, to think critically, and to not blindly follow what others say or do. However, once you are on stage you enter this new space, the liminal space, in which you can be whomever you want, do whatever you want, and say whatever you want, based on an established new set of rules such as yes-anding your scene partners ideas. As soon as you leave the stage, the old set of social rules have to be followed again.

One example is that you can not enter a room screaming like a lion and expect other people to understand what you mean, support this action and make sense of this idea. However on stage, this is possible and your scene partners will help to justify this idea, while in “real” life people will look strange for not following pre-established social norms. Another great example is, in our regular social rules a person can't start kissing another person without some sort of a personal incentive. However, one stage during a performance is possible. Both parties know that this only happens on stage, in a liminal space, and will support each other's idea of the scene. After the performance when the liminal space is gone, players will start following the regular social rules again and won't consider the kiss as something “real” that needs further discussion.

I was lucky enough to get in touch with Brad Fortier. He is still making a living out of the connection between the two disciplines. Currently, he is working on the subject of diversity and inclusion in Portland. Next to many other things, he is using techniques and games of improv theatre to create a bond and strength between groups of people and teaches people how to deal with differences in for example status and how to create an inclusive space. He is doing applied Anthropology and applied Improvisation. This is very inspiring for me to see and brings me some hope again, for my childhood dreams to become true.

If you are interested in Brad's work, check out his website HERE.

1 Comment

Domenico Gemoli
Domenico Gemoli
Jun 02, 2021

This is so cool. I am happy to have learnt that I am in love with the liminal space that performing provides me.

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