Translating Improvisation brings together researchers across the disciplines of Anthropology, Architecture, Dance, Drama, Law, Modern Languages, Music, Psychology, Social Policy, Social Work and Translation. Our interdisciplinary research group was formed out of recognition that improvisation is primarily a tacit practice within many professional fields outside of the performing arts, regularly used but largely unacknowledged, with few opportunities for appropriate training or critical reflection. Furthermore, we assert that the diverse models of improvised practice found in music, drama and dance can be useful in better understanding improvisation in other domains. This process of exchanging practical knowledge between disciplines is necessarily two-way in that each area of practice must change in order to apprehend the other, thus offering the possibility of cross-disciplinary ethical and social transformation.
We are committed to informing theory through critical practice – in fact we can’t see how one can theorise about improvisation without experiencing it directly. From this position, we continue to run practical workshops, concerts and symposia where people have the chance to experience improvisational skills at work.
Recent decades have seen a widespread adoption of risk-adverse bureaucracy that has largely failed to deal with the complexities of modern society. What has resulted is the de-professionalization of skilled workers through an over-reliance on targets and procedures. We contend that in many areas of professional practice, no amount of predetermined procedure or technological assistance will successfully replace the ability of a skillful practitioner to adapt to the unique demands and contingencies of individual situations. Therefore, we must better understand how skill is acquired and how expertise can be updated when faced with changing circumstances. Improvisation can provide an alternative model, which prioritises human adaptability above inflexible or unenforceable procedures, providing alternative mechanisms for addressing the challenges of specific dynamically unfolding situations. In many areas it is clear that improvisation is the modus operandi even when it is common practice to claim that decisions are entirely directed by procedure, precedent and other regulatory controls. Therefore, the root of the challenge is not a lack of improvisation, but a significant gap between improvisatory practices and our understanding of how these practices are learned, constrained and ideally critiqued and reinvented.
Our research sits within a new emergence of critical improvisation studies, an interdisciplinary field of scholarship that has its origins in the performing arts and which continues to expand to fields as diverse as law, architecture, behavioural psychology, anthropology, business management, healthcare and social policy. We aim to overcome the popularly held misconception that improvisation is simply ‘making it up as you go along’. Rather, we argue that improvisation is more productively understood as a skilled practice that transcends disciplinary boundaries and promotes new approaches to creative decision- making, critical dialogue, risk-taking, and collaboration across diverse domains and levels of expertise (e.g. how judicial discretion is applied on a case by case basis, or how architectural designs interplay with the agency of builders and inhabitants). Our aim is to rethink how best to cope with future events that cannot be predicted with a sufficient level of certainty, or for which a single correct response does not exist.