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All The Perfumes of Arabia: Improvisation as Art, Learning, and a Bloody Good Time
Artistic Processes as Learning Processes · FALL 2006
Written by Arika Cohen


When Lady Macbeth is up to her wrists in a bottle’s worth of sugary Karo corn syrup and red food coloring, how to “sweeten her little hand” is not the issue. For John Carr, the director of photography for an 8th grade multimedia production of Macbeth, the real issue was how to keep his camera from being splattered with saccharine gore. When the four students participating in the shoot amusedly inquired why Carr’s camera was swathed in plastic bags, he explained that they were there as a precaution because he “wasn’t quite sure what was going to happen.” Unpredictability is not often embraced in classrooms, but Carr felt that both the artistic quality of the montage and what students stood to gain from the experience hinged on improvisation. In the creation of the montage, improvisation proved to be a process that infused art with primal energy, fostered benevolent social behavior, and facilitated learning through self-reliance and collaboration.

Improvisation as an art making process: raw energy, fodder for scene work

The multimedia setup of the theatre (a movie screen at the curtain line and rear-projection capability) allows students to choose, scene by scene, whether to act in front of or interact with a projected image (or to not use a projected image at all). Students unanimously decided to project Lady Macbeth’s hallucination of her bloody hands during Act 5, Scene 1 as an interactive element. Though the students had generated a specific concept, Carr eschewed storyboarding, rehearsal, and all other forms of preparation. “I set it up so that we could improvise. It’s one of those scenes that really lends itself to experimentation” (Carr). Carr trusted that a combination of rich materials, collaboration, free reign, and necessity would engender genius.

After the students created the blood mixture, Carr positioned Betty in front of the camera with her hands poised over a large dish. Mario, Sandra, and Nancy were in charge of the blood and the blood splattering implements. While the camera rolled, they used the materials to create different effects as Betty affected different poses with her hands. The enthusiasm with which Mario, Sandra, and Nancy doused their classmate with blood produced footage that was high-energy and visually stunning. Carr is certain that these elements would have been compromised if the scene had been planned or rehearsed. “The montage draws raw energy from the improvisation. The image we set out to make is very primal, and preparation would have detracted from that rawness” (Carr). This improvisational process actually turned out to be preparation for the staged scene. Betty’s movements were natural responses to the stimuli of the syrup being dripped on her hands, and by actually experiencing “bloody” hands (i.e. learning the act of rubbing only creates a bigger smear), Betty and her scene partners began to generate new ideas about how Lady Macbeth might behave in Act 5, Scene 1.

Betty: (scratching at the blood) What if I did this?
Nancy: Make it like a claw and scrape the rest.
Betty: See! See there! See, some of it comes off but the rest just goes back in.
Mario: You really are Lady Macbeth now!

This exchange prompted the group to have Lady Macbeth violently scratch at her hands in the staged scene, rather than rub, which they all preferred as a more interesting and dramatic choice for that character.

The art making process as a learning process: benevolent social behavior

Though improvisational art making was certainly happening, it was far from the only process in which students were engaged, and the knowledge being acquired was not limited to the arts. Both the acts of improvisational art making and improvisational learning (learning without a script: learning that is dictated by student interest and the ever-changing demands of the activity) necessitated that students be working towards proficiency in a number of domains, particularly in benevolent social behaviors.

By definition, improvisation is simply the act of extemporaneous creation, but artists (especially dramatic artists) assert that agreement is the quintessential component of the process. William Ball calls this “positation” (18) and discusses the importance of its role in collaboration. “We accept this principal as a discipline because we have found that doing so yields practical results… [it] sends a message to the intuition that every creative idea will be valued, respected, and used; and when the intuition gets that message often enough, it will send us its most perfect and its most pure creative ideas… Saying yes to everything is the most creative technique an artist can employ” (18-19). Johnstone accords, “There are people who prefer to say ‘Yes,’ and there are people who prefer to say ‘No.’ Those who say ‘Yes’ are rewarded by the adventures they have, and those who say ‘No’ are rewarded by the safety they attain" (92). Due to the fact that the syrup, once applied, could not be washed off or wiped away, students were literally committed to this “yes and” approach and the adventure it provided. Students learned that focusing their energy on acceptance and what to do next (developing action) was more productive than disagreeing (blocking action) (Johnstone 95).

“An actor, being in a social situation, has to agree not only with himself but with the director and the other actors” (Ball 19). By creating on the fly, students learned that cooperation was not only necessary to forward momentum, but actually developed richer and more interesting work. Through a process of building on each other’s ideas (“Let’s drip the blood.” “How?” “Mario, use the straw.” “Betty, try lifting your hands so we can only see your fingertips on the view finder.” “No, drip it so it rolls down and drops off.” “Awesome!”), the kids experienced collaboration as a positive generative process. Soon, students were asking each other, “Any other ideas? Anybody want to do anything else?” Just like in theatrical improv, the “scene” of these students working together “spontaneously generated” itself because all the students engaged in “making offers and accepting them” (Johnstone 99).

As improvisation allowed students to recognize the benefits of agreement and collaboration, they began to feel comfortable sharing responsibility and sharing credit. This also helped them to more fully acknowledge and articulate their own contributions to the group effort. For example, the following exchange occurred when an administrator stopped by:

Mario: Look. What I did- this was my job- I was here with the corn syrup and the food coloring. And I sucked some up through the pipe and I came over with Betty’s hands underneath and I just started pouring it on top of her hands. And the background- it’s pitch black! It looks so good!
Larraine: That’s great! Who thought of that? Was it your idea?
Mario: No, it was Nancy’s.

Improvisation as a learning process created a respectful and functional community in which students could simultaneously feel proud of themselves and proud of each other.

What improvisation implies about how people learn: the ZPD and the mantle of the expert

“It’s important for a director to know when to keep his mouth shut” (Ball 20). Improvisational art-making and learning afford students a level of responsibility and require a degree of self reliance that is unusual for most classroom activities. Carr immediately established that the kids were in charge by answering their first question- whether Betty should sit or stand- with “Whatever you guys think is easier.” Though Carr would supply his opinions when solicited, and would answer technical questions and occasionally model art language, the students recognized that, as improvisers, they had been given creative control. They warmed to their status quickly. Carr believes, “If you can create a scenario where kids can find things out for themselves, where you don’t have to tell them or show them, they learn better.” John’s idea that students have much to gain from relying on their own resources- specifically in collaborative situations in which they are challenged to generate new ideas/attempt new tasks in the presence of a more knowledgeable person- is a familiar tenant of pedagogy (Vygotsky 84).

“Film is collaborative, but the more specific an idea the director has, the less input the collaborators have. [In this activity] the kids got to make it their own.” Though Carr was undoubtedly the expert on photography, he stepped down as a director so that the students could hone their artistic vision, take chances, and make choices. Carr believes this learning would be hindered by a leader who called the shots. “Giving kids [laughs], well, kind of forcing kids to take responsibility is very important. Otherwise they’re too conservative, they rely on the director, especially in a scene like this, where they’re improvising and they’re nervous about doing the “right” thing. They have to practice trusting themselves” (Carr). This seems like a real-life application of Heathcote’s mantle of the expert (Wagner). Carr allowed students to have expert status, and thus they were able to exhibit the knowledge they already had about the task while making new discoveries along the way (Heathcote and Bolton).

As hands were washed, buckets scrubbed, and the syrup allocated to an inconspicuous spot on a high shelf, the effervescence of the students made it clear that Something Successful had occurred. As an art-making process, improvisation imbues the medium with a rawness and a vitality that is difficult to create by other means. The process demands that students work collaboratively to identify a common goal and work towards meeting it; as they work, they begin to trust themselves and each other as essential members of a team. The opportunity for this learning is provided by improvisation's inherent reliance on both the strength of the individual to supply the group with creative material and the strength of the group to accept that material. Improvisation is a powerful educational tool that generates powerful art experiences.

Works Cited

Ball, William. A Sense of Direction. New York: Drama Publishers, 1984.
Carr, Johnathan. Personal Interview. 27 Nov. 2006.
Heathcote, Dorothy and Gavin Bolton. Drama For Learning. Portsmouth: Heinemann, 1994.
Johnstone, Keith. Impro. London: Methuen Drama, 1981.
Vygotsky, L. S. Mind In Society. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978.
Wagner, Betty Jane. Dorothy Heathcote: Drama as a Learning Medium. Washington: National Education Association, 1976.