Nicky Woolf's Edinburgh Diary: Weeeird improvisational science

“It's usually a bit mental but maybe not that mental.”

Improvisation is often talked about bombastically as an environment in which “anything can happen,” especially up here at the Fringe, where each new show competes in its publicity and press releases to sound wackier and more out-there than the last. Certainly there are shows where the action takes unexpected turns, but much of improvisational comedy is grounded in practice, and has certain rules.

Comedian Thom Tuck is a former member of both improvisational troupe the Improverts, as well as a regular on late-night improvisation show Voices In Your Head. He's also up at Edinburgh with two shows of his own. “It depends on the format,” he tells me when I ask about the science and preparation involved. “There is short-form and long-form improvisation. Short-form – what the Improverts do, and [sort of] what Voices does, is usually based on games.”

Mike Slater is a founder member of No Shoes Theatre, whose show The Improvised Musical is currently in its fourth year at the Fringe. They, he tells me, are very much “long-form” improvisation, narrative arc and all, and preparation is key. “The main thing is being around each other a lot, and playing the sort of games that make spontaneity happen. We sit down and talk about how stories are constructed, and songs; what makes a story, what makes a song. We spend ten hours a day together.”

“We know a certain number of things from experience,” he goes on. “Stories are made up of problems and solutions, so we introduce a major problem early on, and try not to introduce them after half-way through. We know that we get about seven songs, and we know that we get about nine scenes. Occasionally we throw all of that out the window. The more we do it together, the more we get a feel for what the other person's doing, where they're going.”

In Voices In Your Head, rather than follow the instructions of a stage presence, or of the audience as in The Improvised Musical, the performers obey The Voice, embodied by Deborah Frances-White, who stands at the back of the auditorium with a microphone. It's her show, so what she says goes – usually.

The Voice is quite antagonistic in tone, and when she picks on Phill Jupitus, who had never been on the show before – performers have no preparation for the show, and don't know what to expect – an extraordinary scenario began to build itself. Improvisation encourages performers whole-heartedly to commit to their first instinctive responses. “What is your name,” asks The Voice, and the performers will come up with one on the spot, in the moment, and build a character and a scenario around these instantaneous associative responses.

This is quite unusual for an improvisation show. More traditional groups practice the games and structures involved before going on stage. “It's fun when you're put on the spot, though,” says Tuck. “You're excited to see where it's going to go.”

One particular episode went very off-piste indeed. A power-struggle developed between The Voice and the character Jupitus was building. The dialogue between the two became faster and faster, angrier and angrier, and more and more intense, and ended with Jupitus advancing through the audience, shirtless and mad-eyed, on an audibly terrified Frances-White at the back, the two of them screaming at each other at the top of their voices, their character arcs locked by Jupitus' responses into that of former lovers. The audience was electrified, The Voice audibly shaken. “This next one,” Tom Salinsky – another of the performers – muttered after the audience and The Voice had both had a chance to settle down. “Is called: Follow That.”

After the show I run into Tuck in the Pleasance's Brookes Bar, and ask if it's always that intense. “It's usually a bit mental,” he replies, “but maybe not that mental.”
 

Phill Jupitus had a baptism of fire at improv show "Voices in Your Head". Photograph: Getty Images

Nicky Woolf is a writer for the Guardian based in the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

Photo: Getty
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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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