Improbable began in 1996 as a collaboration between artistic directors Phelim McDermott, Lee Simpson and Julian Crouch, with Nick Sweeting as producer, from a shared an interest in improvisation as the basis of theatre-making. It’s still based in London and led by McDermott and Simpson, alongside executive director Ben Monks, who joined in 2016; all three were interviewed for this case study. In addition to its work with improvisation, since 2006 Improbable has been using Open Space Technology – a non-hierarchical framework for discussion – to facilitate conversations within the theatre industry and other settings. Its turnover is roughly £450,000 per year, of which approximately 38% is received from Arts Council England as part of the National Portfolio, 35% a combination of income received through fundraising, donors and corporate engagements, and the final third box office and touring income.
Mission: connecting artists and audiences to their own sense of agency around creativity and change
Improvisation has always been at the heart of Improbable: “as a practice for creativity and change, and creating art that has a particular sensibility in its interaction and engagement with its audience”. This commitment “wasn’t explicitly political” in the first years of the company but – particularly since it started working with Open Space Technology in 2006 – it has become more clear in articulating the necessity for “interacting with your audience, your collaborators, on an authentically conversational level, so that the agency is going both ways. Are you being changed by them? Are they being changed potentially by you? And are you really engaging with that?”
The same principle applies across all of its work, whether “creating shows that are literally, ‘tell us what this show is about and we’ll do it’, or going into an organisation like an opera house and trying to use the same practice to address putting on an opera, which is a potentially incredibly fixed, ossified process”. Having worked across a number of contexts outside of Improbable – Lee Simpson in comedy, including as one of the Comedy Store Players, and Phelim McDermott as a freelance director, notably with English National Opera and the Metropolitan Opera in New York – the co-artistic directors are aware that there are ways in which theatre is made “that perpetuate potential for oppression and abuse”, and believe “improvisation is one of the ways of examining that, because you have to step into a space and not know what’s going to happen or who might take control, or how you’ve got to give up control”. And while accepting that improvisation is itself potentially problematic in its “powered dynamics around the male dominance of the comedy world”, the company still believes in it as “a place where all those things are present in the practice: it’s out there in the open, and it’s a conversation, and if you really want to wake up about it, you can”. And not only wake up but speak up: Improbable’s aim is to “be the company that creates spaces of possibility where people have agency – which means that, when they feel the impulse to say ‘this isn’t right’, they feel empowered to say it”.
A practice of living in chaos
One of the key developments in Improbable’s existence has been its adoption of Open Space Technology: an approach to non-hierarchical leadership and self-organisation attributed to business consultant Harrison Owen. Open Space is a method of organising conferences and other public gatherings without a specific agenda: instead the event is devised by participants over the course of the day itself. Says McDermott: “One of the reasons Open Space came so naturally to the company is because of the improvisational training we’d been doing for 20 years before it appeared. What have the shows got to do with that? It’s a practice of living in chaos, being awake in chaos, being kind in chaos, being brave in chaos, and being lost. On stage is an amazing place to practice that.”
“It’s a practice of living in chaos, being awake in chaos, being kind in chaos, being brave in chaos, and being lost. On stage is an amazing place to practice that.”
Improbable are aware that the freedom of Open Space inspires anxiety: “There’s an idea that you can create more safety with directives – that if everyone can do anything, there’ll just be a riot, it’ll be anarchy. Actually rules create less safety, because you take people’s agency away. A space in which everybody is potentially connected to their own impulses is potentially much more safe than a space in which, for instance, when the fire alarm goes off no one does anything until someone says, ‘Do this.’”
The company first began publicly using Open Space in 1996, with the first of a now annual gathering titled Devoted and Disgruntled, which invites anyone working in or with an interest in theatre and live performance to discuss problems together openly. It now sees this technology – as well as improvisation and other related dialogue practices, including conflict facilitation techniques – as a tool used to ensure that “real conversation” is at the heart of its work. This plays out in a variety of settings:
- Within its own creative processes
Improvisation combined with Open Space has encouraged Improbable to reject the ethos of “the show must go on”. Says McDermott: “I grew up in rehearsal rooms where you have to leave all your problems outside the door. But we turn that on its head. If there is something that we need to deal with, we will work on it, trusting that it will solve the scene that we should be working on. If someone has had an argument with someone else in the rehearsal room, we have to work on that – and it’ll be part of what the show is about.”
“I grew up in rehearsal rooms where you have to leave all your problems outside the door. But we turn that on its head. If there is something that we need to deal with, we will work on it, trusting that it will solve the scene that we should be working on.”
On the one hand, says Simpson, this affected the company’s approach to working with, for instance, disabled performers: “You have to say that the rehearsal will change around that voice that usually doesn’t have power”, whether by calling additional breaks or having a bed in the rehearsal room. And on the other, that inclusivity of voices can change the work itself. Simpson offers the example of making a show called The Paper Man with three performers who, during rehearsals, expressed their lack of interest in the story he was attempting to adapt, about an Austrian footballer defying Nazi rule. That conflict became the materials of the show: “It’s now a conversation about, if you’ve got a bloke who wants to tell a story about another bloke supposedly defying the Nazi’s, what does that mean to a working-class white woman, a Chinese Malay woman, and a Ugandan British woman, who are 20 years younger than me? What do they think about the Nazis? Are they going to stop me telling the story?”
Properly addressing conflict and opening up to conversation, Improbable admit, might result in the work not happening at all – but also might lead to work “that has integrity”.
- In opera
McDermott has been directing opera since 2007, and his approach is to create an inclusive rehearsal room in which anyone who is “part of the whole process, not just the singers but the guy in the corner who has made the prop” can contribute to its making. His first experience in opera was directing Satyagraha with English National Opera and he immediately experienced conflict with the chorus: “I was going into a building that was incredibly white, to do an opera about Ghandi, sung in ancient Sanskrit, at a time when the company was going through a big wave of redundancies.” To be able to work with them at all, McDermott realised “I have to drop my plan, I have to improvise”, which meant using conflict resolution and role-playing techniques to bring all tensions to the surface. It has meant that he has been able to work in looser ways in opera than is generally the case.
- In corporate settings
Using Open Space to facilitate discussion in organisations and communities beyond theatre – including charities such as the Wellcome Trust, universities including Kings College London, and multinational businesses – has become an element in Improbable’s financial model, as well as allowing it to advocate for this non-hierarchical approach across a variety of contexts. Again, the impact is never one way; executive director Ben Monks particularly remembers an Open Space event with Wellcome focused on “scientists and artists and how to broker those conversations: that’s a great conversation to be hosting, as it will help us fund other work but is artistically interesting as well”.
Although for Improbable the connections outlined above are “very tangible, we’ve always struggled to articulate it. Not only does improvisation not, for a lot of people, conjure up [conflict resolution] processes, it doesn’t conjure up the depth of the application of those processes. The challenge is to find ways of articulating these things as part of improvisation and a tool kit that can apply to all those different strands of work.” It sees its work as “a journey to find out what real collaboration is, what real processes question those traditional hierarchal structures, and how can you make them more fluid? Not just throw them all out because you can’t get away from power: in any moment there will be some power structure going on. But awareness of power can be a creative thing rather than destructive and oppressive.”
And so the articulation is also necessary because the ideology Improbable have built around those processes can inspire discomfort: “If you show people that their work can be done a different way, then their role, their identity, which they are attached to, their power is put under question. Very often in Open Space, people feel they have to get out of the room as quick as they can, because the entrenchment of their role is under question. Open Space asks our leaders to be more fluid and asks them to let go of something – and weirdly, if they do let go, they might get a much more interesting kind of power, a power that’s not given to them by the structure, but a sense of personal power around their own creativity.”
“Open Space asks our leaders to be more fluid and asks them to let go of something – and weirdly, if they do let go, they might get a much more interesting kind of power, a power that’s not given to them by the structure, but a sense of personal power around their own creativity.”
Improbable want to get “better at telling that story of improvisation, so that we can take it out into the world” – not so much as a way of drawing attention to its own work, but out of a deep political belief that “if anything’s going to save the world, it’s that”. McDermott immediately qualifies this as talking not about the Earth itself – “when humans are gone, the planet is still going to be a planet” – but human relationships. “We can make directives and laws about racism, sexism, abuse, until we’re blue in the face: it’s not going to change things unless we create a new way of relating to each other that involves looking at ourselves and how we interact with people. Democracy is so simplistic that it can easily be oppressive: we have to find a language for sustainable change, and the only thing that is going to help us is if we learn how to do it in relationship.” In improvisation and Open Space, Improbable argue, it’s possible to find “open democracy and a different kind of politics”. And it’s intention is to take this toolkit out of theatre into business and government to begin to build social change.
Image courtesy of Improbable.