This Saturday night I had the opportunity to partake in a live action role play (LARP) murder mystery party along with 30 other University of Chicago students. Having just covered the power of improvisation this week, I aimed to actively bring forth the material we learned and apply it in practice. Primarily I focused on the five characteristics of improvisation that Keith Sawyer draws attention to from John Dewey and R.G. Collingwood’s aesthetic theories in his article, Improvisation and the Creative Process: Dewey, Collingwood, and the Aesthetics of Spontaneity. The night began with each of us having already read our character’s backstories along with our motives and abilities. The setting was an Italian mob-ridden speakeasy in Chicago in the 70s. We all dressed in character, some people even going as far as to wear detailed makeup and glued on mustaches. My character was a secret intelligence agent posing as a news reporter, trying to lock up all the various criminals.
The first of Sawyer’s characteristics is the emphasis on creative process over product. Creative process as referenced by Sawyer is the process of actively participating in and experiencing an art medium rather than the focusing on the final product. (Sawyer, 152). Though I knew my character’s background and intentions, I made sure to utilize the first characteristic by not centralizing the completion of my motives one by one like a checklist, and rather focus on the process of actively experiencing the character I was embodying and learning about every other character in the room.
The second of Sawyer’s characteristics is an emphasis on problem-finding rather than problem problem-solving. Problem-finding utilizes a collaborative and emergent mindset to approach a problem or scenario at hand (154). As one can imagine, within a LARP thematically set around a murder mystery, there were no clear approaches to solving the several problems I had been tasked with. While bouncing around the room and meeting all the other characters, I found myself constantly forming new emergent questions and approaches to my character’s motives.
Comparing art to everyday language use was the third of Sawyer’s characteristics of improvisation. He believes improvisation is analogous to everyday conversation, almost like a branching conversation where two characters perpetuate a dialogue that is spontaneous (155). Embodying a secret intelligence agent undercover as a reporter allowed me to have some interesting impromptu conversations with the other characters because I was constantly creating novel excuses for my presence of a reporter at a crime heavy mob-ridden speakeasy.
The fourth characteristic and perhaps the most fun one that I was able to use during the LARP was collaboration with the other characters. With a murder mystery it was only a matter of time before alliances began to form and secret plans began to take place. One of my most brilliantly crafted rouses that night was to frame one of the criminals with having moonshine, as an experiment of manipulation for myself. As the night progressed, I received intel that one of the characters was an incredibly powerful mob boss. After solving who was secretly responsible for the illegal selling of moonshine, I made a bargain with them to confiscate all their paraphernalia and let them off the hook so long as they collaborated with me to take down the alleged mob boss. Along with this character, we devised a plan to have the moonshine dealer sell some of it to this character. Upon falling for the bait, I was able to finally arrest the other character. This was such a fun use of collaboration with the other characters and it all happened through improvisation.
The fifth and final characteristic is to use of ready-made in improvisation. Ready-mades, according to Sawyer are stock phrases that are drawn upon while improvising that help steer and structure the performance (157). I would argue that perhaps the fact that we had such detailed backgrounds and motives could be comparable to such ready-mades. We drew on them to give our character’s direction, supplementary to the constant improvisations we all had with each other.
Reference: Sawyer, R. K. (2018). Improvisation and the Creative Process: Dewey, Collingwood, and the Aesthetics of Spontaneity Author (s): R. Keith Sawyer Source: The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 58, No. 2, Improvisation in the Published by: Wiley on behalf, 58(2), 149–161.