The Difference in Performance: Interpretation and Improvisation

When I receive my daily Google Alerts, I usually cringe when I need my name invoked in web properties beyond which I control because it usually means I’m dead again, or being accused of something that isn’t true.

Today, unfortunately, we have to take on the latter in order to straighten the record of what I really said and what I really think.

Here’s the larger text quote of how I was invoked yesterday in an Omar Willey pontification on —

So here is a radical opinion to consider: All performance is by definition improvised.

While academic types like Gary Peters and David Boles may dispute this, it remains, in my experience, patently obvious that even within the most tightly-scripted musical, theatrical or Labanotation score improvisation must of necessity exist.

Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” speech offers an example. One of the most recognizable monologues in world literature, its performance nevertheless changes from night to night. The words, true, remain the same. But beyond the words – which constitute only about 15-20% of the meaning of communication anyway – subtler factors are at work. Intonation, basic volume and emphasis will change from performance to performance based simply on the number of people in the audience and their relative sympathy with the show at hand, and these both will change based on weather, social events and biological factors (I’m hungry, I’m sick, pero estoy muy borracho). These ephemeral, instantaneous factors nevertheless require a response. Performers simply feel “something isn’t working” and they change their delivery to compensate – and that, too, is improvisation.

— and here is the the original textual gist of my argument against student interpretation in performance that Willey incorrectly, but conveniently, surmised:

Student improvisation tends to be predictable, unshaped and imitative. Improvisation does not serve or require creativity or imagination and that is a bad thing.

If the instructor is looking for an easy out in the teaching — then let the students improvise at will. Everyone will look busy even though nothing is being taught or caught.

Inspiring the imaginative student — by providing strict rules and conditions for the assignment — is precisely the role of the rightful instructor and the only path we must tread if we hope to remove our children from the busywork morass of attempted and failed mind conditioning.

Here’s where Omar’s argument against what I said goes astray.  He’s confused improvisation with interpretation.  What he describes in his article in the Hamlet example is one of an actor’s elastic interpretation of the text in performance, not one’s improvisation of said text.  An improvisation of that originating text would be to replace portions of the text with new text — and that would not be Shakespeare.

Here’s a dictionary definition of “improvisation” that makes it clear the word means “created without preparation” and that the word has nothing to do with “changing delivery to compensate” as Willey unwittily argues:

Improvisation is a difficult task to master with effectiveness and longevity and that is why I originally argued against that mentality for students in the article Willey linked.

Improvisation in Jazz is both necessary and a part of the core value of that musical genre.

You see little improvisation on the serious live stage because you can’t easily get out of a scene with a laugh.  That’s why improvisational comedy is so popular in the mainstream aesthetic:  It’s corruptingly simple to pretend to invent — but impossible to replicate and later save for interpretation by others — because once the improvisational laugh escapes the gut, the only thing left of the curse is a cure that ruins dramatic intent and rusts the springs of human tension with the execution of sloppy theory in the guise of making it up as you go along into the darkness.