When a child feels bored what they are often actually feeling is overwhelmed by too many (or in some cases too few) options. When you can literally do anything it can be difficult to pick the one thing to do first or next (for adults read: time management). Well chosen rules can remove this anxiety. "Go play with your new legos in your room for 45 minutes and then we're going to have some peanut butter." Bam, I know what to do and it sounds pretty wonderful.
Artists behave just like this in many respects. How many of you work better with a deadline? With a defined set of tools? With a predetermined goal? Perhaps not always, but I bet if we let you loose in a full-stocked, state-of-the-art studio and said "go for it" you might be shutdown for a while. Or at least until you set some rules for yourself.
This is how we approach the concept in my improvisation course: I draw a box on the whiteboard and inside of the box I write the rules for our first improvisation together. I also say something along the lines of "we are going to do this many times, so try not to worry about this first try defining who you are as an improvisor." Sheer quantity of attempts reduces the stress level a bit - as with anything.
- We will improvise for 1 minute at a time (I secretly measure the time, but the group needs to feel the time and try to end after about a minute has elapsed)
- We will improvise with our voices
- We will improvise together as a group at the same time
And that's it (to start).
As the game progresses, I introduce new and slightly more complex or interesting (depending on how you look at it) rules to the scenario. These rules typically take the form of additional stimuli - the other toys thrown in the sandbox. First, we improvise while all looking at the same color, then simple shapes, then images and finally video. The time rule changes as we progress and finally can be eliminated entirely and replaced by a more highly developed sense of when a song or piece has been organically completed.
This semester, the class culminated its study of free improvisation by improvising a soundtrack to a small portion of the film 2001: A Space Odyssey live on campus.
Here's the video of that performance: