Doc Prov Sez...
On May 26th, 2011, I became a Ph.D. My good friend, Jeff Michalski, likes to say that I'm improvisation's only Ph.D. I don't know if that's true and chances are, I'll get a lot of comments on this blog from other improv scholars. He also calls me Doc Prov, which is a title bestowed on me by another friend, Chris Booth. Hence the title Doc Prov sez...
In my wildest dreams, I never envisioned myself getting a Ph.D. In fact, I had thought that a BA was't even within my reach. In 1971, when I was graduating from high school, the song, I AM WOMAN was the anthem of the women's movement, and Congress had designated August 26th as "Women's Equality Day." Women in the United States were given the right to vote on August 26th, 1920, when the 19th Amendment was passed. But I was a first-generation, south side Chicago Irish American girl. Sending me, a girl, to college was simply out of the question because it was, as my mother stated at the time, "a waste of money."
In 1973, I was working as a secretary at the Chicago Transit Authority. At that time, I had never heard of Second City and “improvisation” was not part of my lexicon. But I did know that I wanted to be an actor and performer. I had known this for as long as I can remember. So, when a co-worker told me that he was going to be taking “acting” classes at The Players Workshop of The Second City, I asked if I could go along. I could not know at the time that this choice would have a major impact on my life.
So, off I went to my first class with Josephine Raciti Forsberg, one of the greatest improvisation and theatre arts teachers in the world and one of the women who were instrumental in the development of the art of America improvisation. During my two years with Forsberg, I performed in Land of the Stage II, one of her Second City children’s theatre productions. I was also a performer in many of the revues at the Players Oe, Forsberg’s small cabaret-style theatre housed in a Unitarian Church in Chicago’s Old Town.
The moment you became a Forsberg student, you were also given the opportunity to improvise every Saturday night at the Oe. Forsberg also featured her students other talents, such as sketch writing, singing, and playing music. We may have even had a few magicians in there. No one ever had to wait to be ready to perform. In fact, isn't that really anathem a to improvisation? Lastly, with four male players, two of whom would become Second City players, Jeff Michalski and Jim Fay, I became an improv-comedy performer in The St. Vitus Dancers comedy troupe. The St. Vitus Dancers was one of the first improv comedy groups to emerge in the 1970s. Every weekend, we played the comedy clubs in the Chicagoland area. I stopped studying with Forsberg when I was hired to play Frenchy in the National Tour of Grease.
One of Forsberg's goals in teaching improvisation was to help her students find their creative voices. Working with Forsberg and learning the art of improvisation did not help me find my creative voice – I already had that. It did, however, teach me that I, like everyone else, have a right to use my voice – something for which I will always be indebted to Jo. And something that I teach all my students.
When I had an opportunity to teach improvisation at City College and saw how my students were responding to the work, witnessing their explosions of creativity and observing not only the emergence of their creative voices but a stronger sense of self, I wanted to understand how improvisation actually worked. As a practitioner, it was wonderful to think: "It's magical." But as a teacher and scholar, I needed to understand it on a deeper level. I didn't just want to reiterate the rules and enforce the models that have become de rigeur. I wanted to know improvisation from inside and outside and to be able to use it to help my students become better performers, actors, writers, and human beings.
As I began researching theatrical improvisation, I noticed that Jo Forsberg was not really in the literature. A history of improvisation in America was emerging and Forsberg was being disappeared. Her voice and her contributions simply were not there. So, I thought, why not use her and her work as a basis for understanding what improvisation does.
In my dissertation, The Roots of American Improvisation: Play, Process, and Pedagogy, I trace the history of the art of improviation as it developed in the United States. This history began with Neva Boyd who taught Viola Spolin who taught Jo Forsberg who taught me, Meghan Duffy. What I learned from researching the work of Boyd, Spolin, and Forsberg is that the art of improvisation as it developed in the United States in the twentieth century does not have its roots in theatre. The origins of improvisation lie in social group work, which developed out of the social settlement house movement in the early decades of the century.
Through this blog, I hope to create a forum where the art of American improvisation can be discussed; where new ideas about improvisation are voiced; and where we can debate all notions and conceptions of what improvisation actually is and how it works. There is not a right way in improvisation. There is only a way....the process of improvising.
So, let the blogging begin...