There are at least six versions of Instant Theatre in vogue in different parts of the world.
My addition to the genre, first explored by the Grove Children’s Theatre Group, consisting of teachers from The Grove School, Market Drayton and other members of the town Community.
It was tried out in Shropshire Schools between 1968 and 1970, but became a more competent style of performance when I shifted to Dorset in late 1972 and set up Word And Action (Dorset) – the community and touring theatre company – which lasted for more than thirty years and toured throughout the British Isles, and many countries abroad, including, in its final years, brief visits to Asia, Australia and North America – adding up to thousands of performances.
Stupid or Collaborative drama?
This kind of Instant theatre was written off by a national critic as more or less stupid. Far from it though. In standard theatre, throughout the centuries, playwrights, mostly singularly but sometimes in collaboration with each other, provided the dramatic text.
Improvisation of the script crept in, in a formal sort of way, with commedia dell’arte, and other touring groups from the Middle Ages on, but it was not until the mid-twentieth century that spontaneity began to exert itself in the making of plays, largely through the schools’ drama movement (in Britain).
Actors began to have more say in the making of plays, even if there was still a company scribe, in whose name the play was eventually presented. Improvisation more or less took over in educational drama classes, but this was spurred on within a lesson’s framework, seen as a confidence-building process, and rarely given public performance.
Encouraging audience participation
Touring educational theatre companies began to introduce (on a wide scale) the idea of audience participation, where visited schools’ audiences were encouraged to join in the action at designated moments in the performance, but in a manipulatable manner, in order to conform to the company’s already worked out climax.
The Grove Children’s Theatre Group and its follow-on Word And Action (Dorset) were the first to risk their own complete ignorance of the outcome of a play.
The principle was simple: To get an audience to make up an act-able story.
Instant Theatre – How it works.
The group had to be asked questions. The questions had to be “neutral” (open to any answer) and whatever answer was given had to be accepted.
Contradictory answers were both true. Out of such conditions, Instant Theatre developed its insistent techniques, which were applied consistently over three decades.
The audience became the collective playwright, not through consensus, but through an ad-hoc gathering of bits of information that added up, each time, to an original contemporary folk-tale, feeding off a deep sense of buried memory.
In The Group Dream (still looking to be published, though written between 1988 and 1996) I took 130 Instant Theatre stories, gathered between 1981 and 1981 from a wide range of audiences, and wrote commentaries on them, with reference to all sorts of “divinatory” sources, exploring the significances of myths.
Each story responded, in increasing detail, to the treatment, adding up to a repository of wisdom, stored in the psyche, but rather at odds with the modern intellectualised sense of what it is to be a human being.
A performance of Instant Theatre may seem a gathering of nonsense and triviality, garnished by surprise, laughter and excitement. Its gathered story is often full of fathomless implications.
Some people argue that the performance should be enjoyed and taken for what it is, without probing into what may be illusory depths (since human beings aren’t structured like that).
The same, of course, could be said about common folk tales, and their hosts of commentators, though they are said to have enriched our understanding of the human mind-set.