Carla Keen from The Ministry of Unplanned Occurrences explains why they love to craft shows in the moment.
I hadn’t realised how much my training in improvisational theatre had seeped into my bones until I recently took up pottery, and some of the aspects I love about improv really help when learning a new skill.
Things like: being in the moment (enjoying the feel of the clay when the wheel moves); knowing that if a pot comes out wonky it’s OK because I’ll make another 500 pots; and, as my pottery teacher so poetically puts it, developing a ‘healthy nihilism’ when it comes to throwing misshapen ones into the reclaim bucket.
What I didn’t expect was how much I have learnt about the difference between process art (things like improv), and product art (most fine art).
Process art vs Product art
The Tate defines process art as something where the making ‘is not hidden but remains a prominent aspect of the completed work, so that…even the whole of its subject is the
making’; this is a great definition of improvised theatre. When watching improv, what the audience experiences is a form of instantaneous writing/directing/acting and the joy for many is experiencing the unfiltered and electric moments that only true liveness can produce.
In contrast, something like pottery is a product art. That is, we are concerned with experiencing the finished piece of art, and while our feelings towards it might change over time, the object itself always remains the same. Admittedly, while there is something very relaxing about watching a potter work, unless you are Keith Brymer Jones*, a potter isn’t performing the process. (Though I still kind of want a round of applause when I finish a mug.)
*The guy from The Great Pottery Throwdown who cries when he sees beautiful art.
Improv is a collaborative art. The backbone of the artform is ‘yes, and’, which translated means: ‘I’ve heard what you’ve said, and here is something else which builds on what you’ve
given me’. Most fine art is not collaborative, which means that the only artistic voice you need to focus on is your own. Killer for improv, but great for pottery.
When I started making pots, I found I was trying to ‘listen’ to the clay; I allowed it to guide me, rather than the other way around. This is great when improvising because we’ll both build the scene together, but clay can’t hear you, and it will always want to do its own thing. Without an idea in mind, you’ll end up with an object which makes people tilt their heads, furrow their brow, and say ‘well, it’s interesting’.
Bridging is when an improviser (or group) has already collectively decided the outcome of the scene or show. It doesn’t have to be said explicitly, just known. In pre-determining the outcome of a scene, we leave no room for joyful surprises. Improv must leave room for risk because it is that openness to risk, the vulnerability of the performers, that generates some of the excitement.
In pottery, I must have an idea of what I want to make and prepare the clay to do that. If I want a symmetric bowl, it must be centred correctly; if the wheel is too fast, or I push too hard on one point, I will introduce a wobble. There are right ways and wrong ways to achieve a bowl so that it still has the ontological definition of a bowl. (Clue: holes in the bottom are not often part of this definition.)
The biggest difference I think though, is that improv is deliberately ephemeral. Unless it is captured on film, it doesn’t even live on as written or recorded text. Even then a text can’t capture the entirety of a performance. This is part of the joy.
Ceramics live forever. Once you have bisque-fired clay it doesn’t change. The only way you can change it is if you grind it back to the dirt particles, which is very hard to do. The chemical composition changes so much that it is utterly fixed, and the only thing that can change is where we display it, and how we feel about it.
I don’t think I’ll be open for ceramics commissions anytime soon, but you can come and see our show, The Grand Cosmopolitan Hotel, this week. It’s unlikely to contain any pottery, but who knows!
The Ministry of Unplanned Occurrences present
The Grand Cosmopolitan Hotel
Wed 10 - Sat 13 January 2024, 7PM