Full Spectrum Improvisation: Integrating Theatre, Dance-Movement and other Modalities

Joya Cory

Editor's note: This approach relates to a number of chapters, ranging from the Foreword to Related Methods dealing with dance. It reveals the potentials for creative integration in this emerging field.

I use these terms, “Full Spectrum Improvisation,” and “Full Spectrum Improvisational Theatre” (hereafter to be abbreviated as FSI) to describe a synthesis of forms that does not fit comfortably under the rubric of other related approaches. While drawing from these disciplines, FSI differs from comedy improv, Theatre Sports, Playback Theatre, ‘talking dance”, psychodrama, sociodrama (ie: Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed) and so forth.

Recently, a student in one of my beginning FSI classes said he’d heard that if you had a command of the skills of improvisational theatre, you could go anywhere where improvisers spoke the same language and perform with them. I told him that, from my point of view, that was true only in the sense that a Bluegrass fiddler could play music with a classical violinist: same instrument, same discipline: different style, different form, different esthetic. It would depend on the musicians’ range of skills.


Full Spectrum Improvisation has at its base structures differing from those used by actors doing comedy improv, (short or long form) or, at the other end of the stylistic spectrum, dance-based improvisation. Yet FSI has much in common with both of these forms. The performance pieces are spontaneously created and the basic assumption of ensemble co-operation (e.g., accepting your partner's impulses or “offers”, and building on what’s given---the "yes-and" principle) seem intrinsic to all successful improvised performing.


Beyond that however, lies a world of possibilities, one of them being: after having learned "yes, and...," FSI also offers the option to not accept your partner’s offer if it feels inauthentic, and to employ techniques to make that choice work theatrically, while honoring the intensely collaborative nature of improvisation.


I think of FSI as experimental theatre, a term used in the 1970s when I was coming of age as a performer/ director/ teacher. I am endlessly grateful for the sense of freedom I find in embracing an attitude of experimentation. I think of the “rules” of improvisation (YES AND is a core rule) as being necessary to master and practice, as a musician practices scales. In Improvisational Jazz, the “rules” of conventional musical structure are often put aside in favor of creative impulse and intuition. Players are able to return to the home base of known structure whenever that is needed to uphold the artistic integrity of the music. Impulse, imagination and intuition are highly valued in both FSI and improvised music.


In FSI, the need for behavioral choice is highly honored. Individuality is strongly encouraged. These values seem very much in tune with the values and purposes of psychodrama. Yet the final purpose of theatre performance is not that of psychodrama. (I address these differences later in this essay.)


The ongoing question we embrace is ”How do I express myself creatively and authentically while connecting and co-operating with my partner?” This, of course, is a question that’s alive in every relationship, on stage or off. Many exercises I use in training students are designed in response to this question. Of course, the need for clear and compassionate communication among the players in an ensemble is an ongoing challenge. Students and professionals may become “triggered” by a partner’s behavior. We regularly find ourselves needing to work out conflicts that arise during practice or performance.


I use techniques of Non Violent Communication, (developed by Marshall Rosenberg) which I study, to aid this process. I find that students who are engaged in a quest for self-awareness and self-knowledge outside of class, work with their partners in class with more ease and harmony.


Another familiar “rule” of conventional Improv: “Make your partner look good”, is not taught in FSI. We trust that each player is able to take care of him/ her self creatively. We focus on the quality of the connection between players. We try not to concern ourselves with the issue of anyone “looking good.“


Over the years, as I’ve developed my approach to improvisation as an art form, my challenge has been to meld the freedom, musicality and visual imagery of physical theater with the aspects of narrative improvisation that are the most resonant for me. As an actor who has often done scripted work, it's important to me that the improvised acting include the whole spectrum of emotion (as it would in psychodrama,) and that there is a commitment to developing meaningful material, satisfying stories, clear characterizations and felt relationships.


The scene structure for FSI could be described as dramatic improvisation integrated with non-linear physical theatre. We strive to reveal feeling through the actors’ conscious and expanded physical life, often using stylized movement within a “naturalistic” scene. When ever possible, we work with an improvising musician, who accompanies each piece. We start scenes in FSI with physical and emotional life. Although sound is welcome at any time, students are asked to refrain from speaking until they’ve taken time to sense for the atmosphere and emotional connection between their characters. The most successful pieces are born from impulses that come from the actual immediate realities of player and environment, which, of course, include the performers emotions, memories, dreams and fantasies. Often, the “given circumstances” of “where” and “when” are not defined, because defining them does not deepen meaning.


A scene (or piece, as I prefer to call them) may run from 5 to 45 minutes in length. Shows contain several structures and run 60-90 minutes.


We often use a technique called “Breaking the Frame” in which the actor steps out of the fictional role she is playing and tells the audience, or her partners, what’s in her mind and heart. “Breaking the Frame” is used as a tool in the quest for authenticity. The actor may make a request of his partner, ie: “Let’s start this piece over” or “ How about you playing the Mother? I want to play the sexy young thing for a change” (role switching, often used in psychodrama) Or a confession to the audience “I have no idea what’s going on. It’s like they (the partners) are in one world and I’m in another.” She may then return to the fictional character and setting of the piece or change it entirely.


 The idea is to name the actual inner life and relational dynamics of the players. To be totally self-revealing. (A commonality with psychodrama) This easy moving in and out of fiction is a core stylistic marking of FSI. In experimental improvisational theatre, the “fourth wall” is either very porous or, in the case of solo performance, often doesn’t exist at all.


The audience is included in this way: At the top of each show the MC (usually me) asks audience members to call out a word that represents something about which he/she is concerned or inspired. Asking for a word of concern or inspiration helps to guide audience members away from such words as “artichoke” or “buffalo penis” (an audience word we received years ago that stimulated me to phrase my audience request more specifically) As there are usually several words offered, the MC picks the one she finds most interesting. The given word is used as a theme for the Inter-Cut Stories that three or four performers deliver to the audience. These stories are autobiographical or a mix of memory and fiction or wholly fiction. They draw on familiar narrative techniques, with rhythmic and movement elements added.


After Inter-Cut Stories we perform pieces with two or three players, and later expand to up to five players at a time. We may do scenes with two or three principle players and a “chorus” of movers / sounders. I prefer my performing improv ensembles to be between 3 and 7 people. Classes have between 6 and 14 people.


We use real props and costumes, grabbing what we need as we need it. We use mime sometimes but most scenes contain few or no "space objects". We sometimes get audience members to pick out props from a basket and use the props as prompts.


We also often perform a solo structure called “Living Sculpture” in which, after a brief demonstration, an audience member will “sculpt” one actor into a transformed shape, including the facial mask. The solo actor will then discover a character inhabiting his newly shaped body and sense for what that being has to say. Through this exercise, I’ve discovered characters (and their stories) who later became the core of new scripted solo pieces.


I’m actually happy to improvise without asking the audience for input at all. But I’ve found advantages to including them: We demonstrate that the material is actually made up on the spot, not rehearsed. We narrow down the myriad possibilities for content. When one is flooded with impulses, this can be a welcome help. And we create an informal atmosphere of inclusion.


One of the primary reasons to perform improvisationally is to take your audience with you on a journey of discovery and surprise. It’s essential to develop an enormous faith in the unconscious as the source of creative impulse. As I work with my students to develop the skills of "writing on your feet," I request that they read and see as much theatre as they can. I also recommend reading short stories and memoir. I urge them to keep a journal and to make lists of stories from their lives. I'm most satisfied when the style and shape of the pieces is more elliptical than linear, yet has an underpinning of a narrative arc. We also often use direct address (as in a Shakespearian "asides") for characters to speak their subtext or inner monologue to the audience.

Personal History


Perhaps a bit of history might help in appreciating my developing Full Spectrum Improvisation: In 1969 after years of studying Ballet as a teenager, and having decided that I hated doing it, I enrolled in Anna Halprin’s Dancer’s Workshop in San Francisco. I loved the work there. We explored making performance pieces through movement, sound, language, imagery, in a way I had never experienced or even seen. We were learning a performance form that seemed to dance along the borders between post-modern dance, theatre, performance art, and ritual, often with an anarchistic feel, based in the body.




Around 1970 I started taking classes in San Francisco at The Committee, a spin-off of the pioneering Second City improvisational comedy group in Chicago. Their focus was topical and satirical. This is a completely different approach to Improvisation with impulses coming from the intellect, and concerned with timely themes, as well as a primary commitment to entertain. Since that time, I have studied with Keith Johstone, Jerzy Grotowzski’s Polish Laboratory Theatre, Joseph Chaikin and various and sundry other improv, movement, acting and voice teachers and have found something of value in most approaches.




When I first encountered Improvisation, it was a revelation to me. I learned techniques that helped me make peace with my own harsh inner critic. I found the form intoxicating and very healing. I discovered a sense of power and freedom in trusting my own creative impulses. I love the sense of belonging to two worlds at the same time: the inner world of the psyche and spirit and the outer world of material reality. It is the simultaneous awareness, and the merging of these realities, that I find most exciting about theater, especially improvisational theatre.




It was surprising to me that this work felt absolutely natural. There was a deep level of connectedness with my fellow “players” that had little to do with the usual rituals of conventional conversation.




I noticed, however, that when studying comedy improv, I had many more moments of feeling competitive, when my work felt untruthful or forced. I observed that one could develop a bad habit of squelching the darker emotions while “trying to be funny”. Eventually I learned that humor isn’t created by “efforting” but rather by releasing.




I also took improv classes from other teachers in the area, and studied improvisational dance with John Graham, who imbued his approach with spirituality and mysticism. This fit with a parallel study of Buddhism and meditation at that time.


At the Dancer’s Workshop I met Suzanne Hellmuth, the performer with whom I would later found Motion: The Women’s Performing Collective, an experimental physical theatre troupe that performed improvised evening-length pieces. Two years later we were joined by performer, Nina Wise. We worked as a threesome until 1979, with short intervals of other women actors joining us. We spent years exploring and experimenting in the studio, sensing for new forms and structures. In the San Francisco Bay Area, as in some other regions, the atmosphere for artists in the 1970s was fecund with freedom and possibilities. Other early influences included Grotowski’s “Theatre Therapy”, Mary Overlie and Bay Area colleagues: Jani Novak, Ruth Zaporah, Terry Sendgraff, The Blake Street Hawkeyes and The Firehouse Theatre. I’m grateful to Steven Wangh, of NYU, who I jammed with exactly once, for his book, An Acrobat of the Heart, which contains exercises similar to ones I’d used for years and others I’d never heard of and have since adopted.


In the late 70s-early 80s I took a series of summer intensives with Keith Johnstone, who came down each year from Canada. He, of course, taught Theatre Sports, but he emphasized acting and narrative skills and told us he made up the "Sports" part just to get audiences involved. I don’t care for the competitive “tournament” aspect of TheatreSports, so that isn’t part of FSI.


Meanwhile, I continued regular acting training at San Francisco State University and with Jean Shelton School, John Argue, Joe Chaikin, Abigail van Alyn, Richard Seyd and others—mostly in my area, but occasionally I’d travel to New York, Los Angeles, or other locations.


In 1978, I returned to college and got a BA in theatre arts / acting (I had previously studied psychology) and in 1983-84 spent a year in graduate school. In 1982 I stopped performing publicly as an improviser, although I never stopped teaching it and thinking about it. I focused on acting in scripted pieces and directing and writing new plays. I had become frustrated with the limitations of Improvisation: it’s lack of reliability as a performance form and the ever present risk of creating either incoherent or shallow theatre in the service of spontaneity.


In 1992, when I founded my troupe, Lucky Dog Theatre, I returned to improvised performing with a renewed and clearer sense of its possibilities. It is what Susan Sontag calls “small audience art”: intimate, informal, potentially very personal and very much worth doing. In Lucky Dog shows content spans the full emotional and thematic palate, including, but not limited to, the comic. We also create scripted work developed from improvisation.


I'm currently also teaching Solo Performance in which folks develop written pieces with the help of Improvisation and writing technique.

Therapeutic Benefits of Improvisational Theatre Practice


I’ve been thinking about the difference between Improvisational Theater as art and Improvisation as therapy. Renee Emunah in her wonderful book about Drama Therapy remarks that the most authentically felt and self-revealing acting also makes for the most artistically satisfying theater. I agree with that, but only to a point. It’s clear to me that when we bring our performances to a paying audience, the goal of the work takes a turn away from being an activity primarily (or entirely) for the benefit of the participant actors. As performers, our job is to inspire, entertain, and/ or educate, even to disturb, our audience. We actors may (gratefully) experience catharsis or healing as a by-product of the performance, but that is not our primary goal. We want the audience to feel that they are in good hands, that they can trust the performer to be in control of what happens, so that they, the audience, can experience catharsis. This requires skill. We do not want the audience to feel that the actor needs help, though they may feel that a character does.


We’re all familiar with the pervasive, phobic fear of public speaking that is held by many “normal” people. The fear of being witnessed is the fear of being judged and found inadequate. People talk about wanting to disappear, to become invisible, when in front of an ”audience”. There is a profound and corrosive sense of shame when we “make fools of ourselves.” The relationship between performer and audience is fraught with adversarial and threatening language: “I died last night” (i.e., on stage); “ I killed em”; “I bombed”; “ I knocked em dead." Stage fright is a very real and sometimes debilitating condition. I’m repeatedly touched by the courage of students who chose to stand up in front of a group and perform, risking triggering this acutely painful sensation.


One of the most obvious benefits of participating in carefully taught theatre training is the transformation of the experience of being seen. It is a fundamental human need to be seen, to be heard, to be recognized. To matter. When a person feels the attention of the audience as empathy, it is a transforming experience. It is a kind of victory over fear. It creates an amazing “high”. This is one of the joys of theatre for the performer.


I’ve taught children, adults & seniors, most often people between the ages of 20 and 70. My students come from the ranks of the “normal neurotic”. I’ve worked with very few people who are considered mentally ill, (unless we think of addiction as mental illness) Over many years of listening to student’s personal stories, it’s clear to me that many functioning folks struggle with extreme shyness, depression, anxiety, phobias, obsessive / compulsive behaviors and the frequent presence of rage and fear. I’ve been touched to witness revealing stories of chaotic or brutal childhoods. Students in my Ritual Theatre workshops or in a Full Spectrum Improv class will likely encounter and reveal current issues in their lives. The workshop is a safe place to do this and the non-judgmental atmosphere encourages vulnerability.


In developing skill as an improviser we learn to listen inwardly to what wants to be expressed moment by moment. We heighten our awareness of the voice of intuition, distinguishing it from the often louder voice of the inner critic. Though that voice inevitably arises, it need not deter us from responding to our creative impulses.


Of course, there are many common elements that may be found in both improvisational theatre and drama therapy. Many exercises used in drama therapy are drawn from improv theatre or acting technique. We can use similar structures and tweak them for the purposes of facilitating psychological growth or to create performance art. The creative process itself and the expanding of self- expression are intrinsically therapeutic. It provides safe release for pent up emotions, engages the whole psychophysical self, models many ways to connect with others and expands participants self awareness and self image.


Acting training deals with each artist’s ability to access and portray every conceivable emotion. If you don’t cry, scream, show tenderness, etc… in real life, you can’t do it convincingly on stage. So another therapeutic function of this training can be the experience of all emotions as aliveness, as vibrant energy, which we can be guided by choice.


Therapists who take my classes tell me that this work is helpful in their clinical practice. I think that they are helped to sharpen their powers of observation and intuition. The work helps clinicians to be more aware of nonverbal elements and other factors in their responses so they can serve their clients better. The therapists themselves need an outlet for their own creative self -expression. They need to play, to laugh, to act wild and silly and angry and stupid. In FSI, participants get to express their impulses freely, serving their own need for transparency and release, using their intuition to meet their own need for creativity.


In my performance classes, I encourage students to use personal history as theatre material if the experience has been psychologically resolved. (Stanislavski instructed students to use emotional recall to trigger present time feeling only if the remembered events happened seven years before or more.) This is markedly different than the way life issues are approached in Drama Therapy, where the “acting out” of life dilemmas is done for the purpose of dealing with and possibly transforming those issues.


I taught movement and sound improv for 10 years at two different alcohol/ drug treatment residential centers and found that offering addicts techniques that could alter their psychophysical state without drugs, was a valuable part of their recovery. They could learn how to play and get ”high” while sober, a new experience for many of the clients. I rarely dealt with the content of these folks’ lives. There were therapists on staff for that.


I use improvisation for myself to uncover what’s going on in my unconscious. When I find myself feeling emotionally or spiritually disconnected or deadened, I trust that if I make time to go to the studio, preferably (but not necessarily) with other improvisers, our practice will release themes, issues, fears, grief, celebrations, images & stories that were not previously available to me. We move into the territory of our own subconscious and emerge altered from the journey.


My students often have that Ah-Ha experience as well. Although the work that emerges from the practice of FULL SPECTRUM IMPROVISATION is often hysterically funny, it’s a relief to feel no pressure to be funny. Pressure to be funny, I find profoundly un-therapeutic.

I’m grateful for the happy accidents, for the endless surprises, for the many gifts of free play that is improvisation.