The Garden Or The Machine

by Wells

This idea is lifted nearly directly from Finite and Infinite Games.

Improv shows approximate a garden, a machine, or something in between these two.

A perfect machine is one that responds with complete accuracy to the inputs given to it by its operator, or operators.  A powerful machine, one that is well-designed, needs only a nudge and an iota of information before it practices its task and does all the work for you.  Plenty of great improv groups can be described as functioning “like a well-oiled machine.”  And still, no matter how much thought went into the design of an improvised show, the operators, the improvisers, still have spontaneous imagination and free will and the power of choice.  Because of this, no two shows are ever identical.

A perfect garden has no walls and surprises us with its power to cultivate itself.  The less attention we pay to it, the more nature takes its course, and hardy plants become plentiful while fragile plants are overtaken.  Look away from the garden for any amount of time, and upon looking back you’ll find that not only has the garden itself changed, but the character of the work that will be needed to exert any influence on it has also changed.  A garden is a model for life itself.  Garden groups in improv get described as “organic.”  Though they may train their skills, they can begin a performance with no plan at all about the form of the show and see where the show takes them.

There’s the crucial difference.  “Where are we going to take the show?” versus, “Where is this show going to go?”  Of course no improvised show is ever perfectly planned out, otherwise it wouldn’t even be improv.  And no improvised show is ever allowed to run its course perfectly wildly, without measured input from its performers, or it wouldn’t exist to begin with.  A garden begins because a gardener plants a seed.

When your coach asks you to consider what the voice of your group is, factor this dichotomy into it.  Are we operating machines or growing gardens?  Neither way is right, and both camps have their heroes.