Improv and Memes

This is cross-posted from Brad’s own blog:

Variation, one of the essential parts of the theory of evolution, is all about mistakes. Selection is about those mistakes being discarded or used. Reproduction is how a mistake or variation is normalized, or how a normalized form proliferates. In improvisation, whether a mistake is useful or should be passed on depends on the social and contextual environment of the current or past play situation within a single performance. In biology, when a mutation/mistake serves to improve things for a particular organism in a particular context, it is selected for and becomes normalized through replication/reproduction/reuse. In improv it would be reincorporation and further exploration/integration of the themes and/or ideas in a single performance. A mutation/mistake that does not serve to improve things, is selected out, diminishes, disappears. The same could be said in an improvised piece of theater.

Effective improv players behave like cellular RNA through taking pieces of ideas, behavior, dialogue, and mime to knit together a meaningful and entertaining performance with form, substance, function, and some kick through the use of the tool of ‘yes,and’. However, when talking about active/ongoing processes like evolution and improvised performances, there are also issues of generations over time and changes in context/environment that occur due to the degree of dynamism in a context or environment. The biological processes of genetic mutation, selection, and reproduction are echoed in human interaction with memes, which is an idea pioneered by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene (1976). Memes are also acted upon by the abundance or scarcity of interaction, as well as the quality and depth of interaction. Learning how to improvise theater is one way to observe and experiment with the process of meme flow, in regards to relationships and identity, and become an engaged and aware producer and consumer within that system of memes.

In personal relationships, I would consider emotions, compatibility, and history as the context/environment that relationship and identity memes inhabit. This applies to developing character relationships in an improvisation; especially when being able to understand, react to, and embody emotions, as well as recognize chemistry, and rapidly develop/imply a history. These are all parts of the program in any kind of improv training. These are the variables that are mutable, which can fluctuate between being easy to adapt to or difficult depending on how dynamic the forces are affecting the relationship between the three factors: emotion, compatibility, and history.

Fear is to Comfort as Famine is to Feast. These are the extremes that cause all the turbulence in a natural system/human relationship. As you would guess, most of the time we’re somewhere in the bell part of the curve and don’t pay much heed to our routine. I think the processes of evolution and extinction come into play as adversaries in times of stress and abundance. Stress is a top-down force of change (rapid extreme environmental variability or a depletion of energy sustaining resources for an organism or dealing with emotional extremes and self-centeredness in any relationship, professional and/or personal), and abundance being a bottom-up force of change (Easily acquired energy for an organism or strong cooperation/collaboration in a human relationship), which is what Kieth Sawyer has asserted about improvised theater with his notion of collaborative emergence.

One could also extrapolate this thinking to the technological advancement of plant and animal domestication as ‘collaboratively emerging’ from the meme flow of our ancestors. This may also suggest that prevailing social and cultural forces would affect the rate of flow, variability, scarcity, interaction and abundance of memes, depending on the levels of fear or comfort present in any particular cultural system (where fear is an inhibitor and comfort is an enabler). Improvisation, in order to fall on the side of regularly successful, needs to happen amongst people that are in the zone of comfort. This would seem to suggest that one of the requirements of the rapid evolution of memes takes place in stress-free or minimal-stress environments. This might lend some more credence to the advice to ‘not panic’ in crisis situations. Stress constricts blood flow to the brain and diminishes our cognitive capabilities.

In my opinion, play is the opposite of panic. Strangely, they are both conditions that exist on the outer edges of reason and logic. Panic is a stress induced abandonment of our reasoning faculties, and play is a pleasure induced acceleration of the same faculties. For years, the fact that improvisation can bring people into or close to this state of heightened creativity and communication has led to the growth and expansion of the applied improvisation training industry for business clients. Applied Improv Professionals get called in to help people and organizations evolve to fit new challenges and new niches using the same basic plan, skills, and cognitive architecture that our ancestors used to weather changes and difficulties in the ancient environment for reasons of survival. Humans are built to do with memes what the rest of the organic universe does with DNA over time.

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