Life is Improvised: Mission Improv

In August 2017 the handful of people that comprised BIT discovered we had a serious problem.

Not only did we not know where we were, we didn't know where we were going, or why. Our purpose had been to build an improv theatre… except we'd already done that. We had opened the doors of the Bristol Improv Theatre on the 3rd of March.

Mission Accomplished.

Deprived of a destination port, the crew of the good ship BIT found ourselves somewhat adrift. Every turn of the wheel was up for debate. After all, if you don't know where you're heading and you don't know where you are, you can't really say whether whether any individual move is good or bad. Exhausted and under-resourced, the temptation was to assume the worst. Here be dragons.

Go Tell It On The Mountain

I've always believed that all problems are essentially communication problems.

If that seems like a bold statement, perhaps it stems from how wide my improv training has made my definition of communication. Let's start with a simple Google definition… "the imparting or exchanging of information by speaking, writing, or using some other medium".

Not bad, but improv has long since taught me that this common usage needs a lot of unpacking. Communication, as they say, is a two-way process. How true: Many people focus on the element of transmission, but communication also requires reception, which is to say listening. Anyone who has played "Red Ball" in one of the BIT's Discovering classes and has thrown an imaginary ball at someone who wasn't looking at them knows how easy it is for information to be lost.

Which is why so much training in improv is about training in the art of listening, of staying open and present to what is happening right now, so that communication can happen.

Because it's so all encompassing, communication can fail in lots of different ways. People can fail to communicate with each other, but a person can also fail to listen generally and therefore fail to receive information from the world at large. This is also a failure to communicate.

In his book "Deep Survival" Laurence Gonzales reviewed hundreds of instances where climbers, pilots, sailors and many more operating on the fringes of survivable adventure, made the decision that killed them. Gonzales asked… why? Why did these people, many of them experienced experts, respected in their field, get caught out? Why did they make such terrible choices or fail to make a choice at all.

The factors, he concluded, are many: Lack of concentration, cognitive bias, self-denial, hubris, system complexity but the failure is ultimately the same – a failure to remain open an listening to what was really happening around them. As the model of the world held in the mind begins to diverge from the real world, evidence data and opportunities for salvation are shut out and then suddenly, it's too late.

"To deal with reality," concludes Gonzales, "you must first recognize it as such."

Mission Improv

Back in to Summer of '17. We needed a course and we needed an anchor. One to guide us through the trecherous terrain of arts organisational management, the other to tie us together and prevent our individual mental models drifting further apart or further from reality.

This was at the forefront of our minds going into the BIT's first ever Community Summit. What we asked was "How can we make the BIT better?".

Thankfully, what we got from our community was the thousands of things that the BIT meant to them as individuals. A picture emerged. Our toes touched organisational bedrock.

The summit produced hundreds of pages of written material which the BIT team sat down, analysed and discussed. This was our first measure of reality the reasons why and the ways in which individuals came together to form the theatre through work, study and play.

The BIT's mission is to be an institution of spontaneous, collaborative, and creative theatre, a resource for ambitious artists and audiences, and a home for all those whom improvised work touches.

That mission (as well as the vision and values statements) written in the wake of the summit, tried to capture the essence of what we saw in that feedback. What we had now was a picture of what we saw the future could look like and a set of values, which set out who we were.

Of course these things will forever be the subject of review, but once that first draft was found, the BIT could begin to build on this foundation. The building blocks of structure, strategy, policy, and processes are now being laid down; Decisions are becoming easier; Collected data is of a higher quality and more useful in decision making; Expectations (and realities) are diverging less.

Making the implicit explicit and writing the BIT's core of has become a central focus. But where to put it?

Source Code

It turned out that the answer was obvious, that universal system of information, the internet. There was even a WordPress plugin for what we were trying to do, since the clever ICT folks had long before figured out the importance of what we were trying to create. They call it "Single Source of Truth".

We call it Bristol Improv Theatre Organisational Knowledge Base

Although still in its initial stages, the Knowledge Base is going to be the home of information on the BIT. The mechanisms of indexing and searching need refinement and it needs to be filled with the libraries of written material still in the BIT vaults or as yet unwritten but we now have a place where people can get answers.

Whether it's helping to teach people about our volunteering programme, finding out about current BIT policy or downloading models of company agreements that can help people put together theatre projects and shows that may one day find their way onto the BIT's mainstage, the Knowledge Base is intended to empower our community.

In short, we are trying to build a new kind of arts organisation.

Article by Andy Yeoh, Community Manager

Photo Credits: Lee Pullen