Improvised Dialogues: Emergence and Creativity in Conversation

Published by Greenwood in 2003

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Improvised Dialogues is the first social-scientific study of Chicago improv theater. The book fills a unique niche as an ethnography of a popular and influential performance genre.

Improvised Dialogues focuses on the collaborative verbal creativity that improvising actors use to generate their unscripted dialogues. Sawyer spent two years as a performer, and he videotaped 15 different Chicago theater groups — both live performances and rehearsals — resulting in almost 50 hours of performance data. Improvised dialogues are the most improvisational genre of discourse, and to be properly understood, they require a theory of discourse that is fundamentally improvisational. The lack of such a theory perhaps explains why there have been no empirical studies of improvisational theater dialogues, in any academic discipline. To analyze these dialogues, this book presents the theory of collaborative emergence. The theory focuses on how different pre-existing structures guide improvisation, and how actors use dialogue to jointly create a novel, dramatically coherent performance. Although the dialogue is not scripted, a highly structured performance emerges. Because these elements of improvisation are present in all linguistic interaction, the theory shows how these dialogues are relevant to all researchers that study verbal performance.

Improvised Dialogues is thus positioned at the intersection of several fields, each of which includes a tradition of research on improvisation and conversation. In sociology, researchers such as conversation analysts have long studied how participants in interaction creatively product an orderly dialogue. In folkloristics and linguistic anthropology, researchers have begun to emphasize the importance of creativity in performance. In psychology, contemporary creative theory has begun to take account of interactional and social factors influencing creativity. All of these fields study collaborative, interactive creativity; no single performer controls the group, but each performer is subtly influenced by the actions of the others.

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