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Abstract

The authors investigated improvisational theater and the possibilities that it presents for reconsidering reading pedagogy, with a focus on discussions of reading. The authors conducted empirical, qualitative studies of improvisa-tional practice and instruction and analyzed improv through the construct of worlding. In this article, the authors explore different dimensions of worlding, a concept that generally describes how ensembles make present and create unique events in time. Next, the authors offer a vision of reading discussions that emerges from rethinking and refeeling such discussions through forms of worlding found in improvisation. The authors conclude by offering five improv-inspired teaching practices for discussions of reading: (1) teaching as invoking the text, (2) teaching as exchanging offers, (3) teaching as attuning, (4) teaching as following lines of flight, and (5) teaching as activating embodied energy.
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Reading Research Quarterly, 0(0)
pp. 1–16 | doi:10.1002/rrq.304
© 2020 International Literacy Association.
ABSTRACT
The authors investigated improvisational theater and the possibilities that it
presents for reconsidering reading pedagogy, with a focus on discussions of
reading. The authors conducted empirical, qualitative studies of improvisa-
tional practice and instruction and analyzed improv through the construct of
worlding. In this article, the authors explore different dimensions of worlding,
a concept that generally describes how ensembles make present and create
unique events in time. Next, the authors offer a vision of reading discussions
that emerges from rethinking and refeeling such discussions through forms of
worlding found in improvisation. The authors conclude by offering five improv-
inspired teaching practices for discussions of reading: (1) teaching as invoking
the text, (2) teaching as exchanging offers, (3) teaching as attuning, (4) teach-
ing as following lines of flight, and (5) teaching as activating embodied energy.
Samuel Jaye Tanner
Pennsylvania State University,
Altoona, USA
Kevin M. Leander
Laura Carter-Stone
Vanderbilt University, Nashville,
Tennessee, USA
Ways With Worlds:
Bringing Improvisational
Theater Into Play With Reading
I1
don’t know what to do.
I’m ready to teach. My mind is blank. I dont really have a plan.
Yet, I do. My body does. I’ve taught this many times before. Practice
and repetition enter the room with me. The movements that students
will engage, the worlds that they will make, and the sense that they will
make of it all never happen the same way. Yet, the moment we are
about to share feels familiar to me even as I expect us to produce some-
thing new, something different. I am accustomed to this energy, even
as I am nervous, knowing that it is impossible to predict what will hap-
pen next.
The object is the energy, I think or maybe feel to myself. If there’s an
objective, it is to animate the energies between us and follow that energy
toward new possibilities.
I invite people to join me in a circle. People leave their phones and
walk to an empty space in the middle of a large room. It is early evening,
and our bodies are close. The improv class begins.
***
Fifty-five years earlier, Rosenblatt (1964) reported on a group of
readers, mainly high school English teachers, interpreting a four-line
Robert Frost poem, “It Bids Pretty Fair.” Rosenblatt focused on a groups
interpretive work, reading their social process as emergent. They did
not know what to do. Yet, they did. Rosenblatt paid attention to their
messy, divergent thought processes. She was fascinated by the ques-
tions and guesses in the group, the wild connections that they made (to
their experiences in theater, to the Elizabethan theater, to the weather,
and to the hydrogen bomb). She described the readers as active, as
2 | Reading Research Quarterly, 0(0)
“shuttling back and forth” (p. 125), and as saturated with
feeling; intensive affect and meaning making went hand
in hand.
Throughout this article, we sustain the juxtaposition
of a group of improvisers to a group of readers encounter-
ing a text. Readers, like improvisers, are collectively
involved in the process of making sense and in the magic
of feeling and wondering. Rosenblatt (1964) was taken by
the creative work of the readers engaged in a process that
was “at once intensely personal…and intensely social”
(p. 126). Speaking in a language that would feel familiar to
improvisers, she wrote of the poem coming to be as a kind
of happening, an event:
A poem…must be thought of as an event in time. It is not an
object or an ideal entity. It is an occurence, a coming-together,
a compenetration, of a reader and a text. The reader brings to
the text his past experience; the encounter gives rise to a new
experience, a poem. This becomes part of the ongoing stream
of his life, to be reflected on from any angle important to him
as a human being—aesthetic, ethical, or metaphysical. (p. 126)
The making of the poem is a set of text–world and
reader–world relations that create a new experience; there
will never be the same poem as there was in that moment.
Similarly, improvisers co-compose scenes, some world
that was never there before and would never be there
again. In both instances, something entirely singular hap-
pened. Then, the tide rolls in and pulls it out to sea.
What can we make of the connection between the
circled-up improvisers and Rosenblatt’s (1964) circled-up
readers? How might this connection spark something
new, something unknown? In this article, we engage in
an empirical and conceptual investigation of that
connection—tapping these two wires together, as it were,
looking for sparks. From Rosenblatt and others who have
seen discussions of reading as imaginative and joyful
world conjuring, our work recovers such sensibilities at a
time when the freedom and play of making new poems,
at every collective reading, is being squelched by increas-
ing trends toward standardization and uniformity in edu-
cation. As a recovery project of joy and imagination,
impulses that have been in the field of reading for a long
time, we offer an extended investigation and meditation
into the practices of theatrical improvisation.
Improvisational theater presents possibilities for
exploring worlding, a concept in affect theory and pro-
cess philosophy described in detail later, in relation to
reading discussions. Historically, research toward improv-
ing discussions, including but not limited to discussions
of reading, has approached the topic from many angles,
including structures of participation (Cazden, 1988;
Nystrand, 1997), the development of dialogic teaching
and learning (Matusov, 2011; O’Connor & Michaels, 2007;
Wells & Mejia Arauz, 2006), the prompting and sustaining
of intertextual or multivoiced relations (Bloome, Carter,
Christian, Otto, & Shuart-Faris, 2004; Kamberelis, 2001),
the development of higher quality teacher and student
questions (Nystrand, 1997; Raphael & Au, 2005), and the
implementation of dramatic methods to imaginatively
interpret texts (Edmiston, 2011; Taylor & Warner, 2006;
Wolf, Edmiston, & Enciso, 1997). Recognizing the signifi-
cance of these bodies of work, we take a different and
somewhat sideways approach in this article.
Discussions of reading, we posit, are lacking affective
vitality as much as they are lacking comprehension, ques-
tions, meaning, or anything else. What if reading class-
rooms were a space for playful social dreaming, where
completely singular events happened, never to be repro-
duced? What if classrooms were filled with potential for
thinking differently about the world outside the class-
room, all in relation to a shared text? To consider these
questions, we looked away from the reading classroom
and turned to improv. Importantly, we were not looking to
improvisation as a metaphor but as a dramatic practice
that has developed in idiosyncratic ways over the last hun-
dred years. Table 1 provides a brief overview of phrases
and concepts from improv practice that are used through-
out this article. Ultimately, we extend what Tanner (2019)
described as the “improvisational ethos” that can emerge
from sustained engagement with practices of improv and
might cultivate “a shared commitment to affirming and
validating the existence and experience of others” (p. 30).
Turning to these practices and this ethos in education
offered a way for us to think about facilitating and partici-
pating in discussions of reading as the affectively intense
work of shuttling toward the unknown as collectively
composed worlds come into being.
Before proceeding, it is important to acknowledge
some of the investments and politics at stake in this arti-
cle. All three of us are practicing improvisers and literacy
education scholars. Further, we are two middle-class,
cis-heterosexual white men and one middle-class white
woman. Our work grapples with power, privilege, and our
intersecting social identities and positions. We are com-
mitted to social justice and criticality through our educa-
tional work, during our previous years as secondary
school teachers and improvisers and now in our research
and university-level teaching. Although it is not explicitly
the point of this article, we see this work with improvisa-
tion as a critical contribution toward efforts to challenge
the status quo because it provides an alternative to ratio-
nalistic, teleological, and prescriptive educational tradi-
tions. The art of improv, illuminated by the concept of
worlding, helps us wonder how we might approach criti-
cal pedagogy and social justice education a little differ-
ently. What if at least one of the purposes of reading
discussions was not only to support students’ rational
analyses of social injustices in hopes of catalyzing their
involvement in social or political action but also to culti-
vate the capacity for students to engage different ways of
Ways With Worlds: Bringing Improvisational Theater Into Play With Reading | 3
encountering, being, and feeling together in the present
unfolding moment? What if, along with focusing on stu-
dents’ words in reading discussions, we sought to instruct
them in new ways of attending deeply to one another’s
affective experiences as they imaginatively think, feel, and
if just for a moment, create new worlds?
We continue by gathering focus and energy around
the idea of worlding in our investigation of improvisa-
tional theater and the possibilities that it presents for
reconsidering discussions of reading. Drawing on theory
that moves outside the foci typically used for framing
discussions of reading, we apply an improvisational ethos
for the duration of this article to unframe these discus-
sions through process philosophy and poststructural
app roaches to worlding—the creation and presencing of
unique events in time by collectives. Next, we present
three movements that draw on our study and experience
with improvisational theater to animate concepts that we
explore in this article. Finally, we discuss how forms
of worlding in theatrical improvisation could inform
discussions of reading by describing practices of teaching
inspired by an improvisational ethos. We focused our
writing on two key questions:
1. What does an analysis of routine practices in
improvisational theater make evident about how
worlding comes about in improv?
2. How might the practices of worlding in improvisa-
tional theater guide us toward reimagining world-
ing practices in discussions of reading?
TAB LE 1
Improvisational Theater Terms
Phrase or concept General description
Theatrical improvisation or
improv
In this dramatic art, people create unscripted theater in groups through different games, exercises,
or forms.
Short-form and long-form
improvisation
Short-form improv uses games to create comedy. The popular show Whose Line Is It Anyway?
popularized short-form improv. Long-form improv, unlike short-form improv, does not rely on
games and is not inherently comedic. Long-form improvisers take a suggestion and create a set of
unscripted theatrical scenes that might last anywhere from 20 minutes to two hours.
A suggestion A suggestion is a word, phrase, sound, or physical movement that an improv ensemble elicits from
an audience in long-form improv to inspire a scene or set.
An opener An opener is a practice in long-form improv that generates content, attunement, and connectivity
that inspires the scenes or sets that follow.
An improv move or offer An improv move or offer is any spoken, embodied, or nonverbal utterance that happens during
improv.
Improv exercises Improv exercises are often used in improv rehearsals to cultivate improvisational practices.
An improv form Improv forms are different versions of long-form improv. Each form has logics and rules that create
a structure for improvisation. There are countless forms in improvisational theater. Improvisers
choose a form to do during a performance or what they refer to as a set.
Yes, and… “Yes, and…” is an improvisational philosophy that requires improvisers to accept and add to offers
made during the improv. This is the idea that everything that happens in an improvised scene must
be accepted, affirmed, and added onto. This does not mean that participants need to agree with or
like every idea that is offered; it means that they need to work in affirmation with the offering as
opposed to negating or playing against the material that emerges in a scene.
Nonevaluative participation This is an improvisational philosophy that requires improvisers not to evaluate, positively or
negatively, their work or the work of others during improv.
Scene partners Scene partners are any individuals involved in an improv game, exercise, or form.
Ensemble An ensemble is a group of people engaged in a particular improv exercise or form.
Groupmind This is the way an ensemble incorporates multiple, individual voices into a single text.
The ball of energy The ball of energy as described in this article is an imaginary focus that the group shares during
improv games, exercises, or forms.
Story swap opener This is a game used in this article in which the players are first given a prompting word or phrase
and then start to tell stories as a collective.
Collaborative storytelling Participants in this improv exercise stand in a circle and tell a shared story by adding one line at a time.
Small Town This long-form improv requires improvisers to play the same characters in a fixed location for the
duration of the set.
4 | Reading Research Quarterly, 0(0)
Evocations of Worlding
as Immanence
We call ourselves out: in the middle, in the milieu. We
write with and through theory to come before the data, to
stand above them and ask them questions. Yet, things are
not so simple, so separate, and so hierarchical. We read
theory with improvisation in our bodies, bodies wired to
practices, to repetitions, to already implications. These
pages before us connect, stories within them spark our
imaginations, most of what we know falls to the cutting-
room floor. A few things are kept and scattered within the
simultaneity: that sticky story, the feeling of that quote, an
image that will not shake. We read theory, we retell, we
move with it. Yet, we are not a theory mirror; we are not
outside concepts. We are like improvisers; we become, we
travel to know, and we resist our desires to know already.
In the background is improvisation. We read or frame
improvisation as practice, through a foreground of theory
to follow. Yet, such background–foreground relations are
just preferred, normalized accounts of an idealized
research march forward. In writing theory about world-
ing, we engage already in a process of worlding, spreading
our embodied experiences with improvisation out on a
plane with concepts and with the desire to evoke the
experience of worlding presently, for our readers. We
make four evocations with worlding in what follows, each
as an invitation to join worlding with some other concept.
These evocations are not intended to function as defini-
tions of worlding (each contributing to a known whole
concept) but rather as attempts to enliven the potentials
of the concept of worlding by bringing it into different
relations. First, and staying close to the concept of imma-
nence, we call up the relation of worlding and presencing.
Second, we stir up the relation of worlding to heterogene-
ity and movement, taking up the differences and intensi-
ties created in the assemblages made through worlding.
Third, we take up the idea of texts more directly and their
relations to worlding, asking how texts might be opened
up and enlivened through these relations. Finally, we con-
jure up the relation of worlding to attunement: How do
affective pushes and pulls shape worldings in a certain
way, with a certain feel?
Worlding and Presencing
Heidegger (1962) fashioned the term worlding to describe
the world’s dynamic presencing as experienced by human
beings. All organisms and environments live through
constant processes of flux; even rocks exist in states of
perpetual transformation (Watts, 2014). For Heidegger,
this worlding indicates the way the world presents itself
through human consciousness. Welten (worlding) and
dasein (existence) are mutually constitutive and coexten-
sive; “welten [worlding] means to exist, to be human;
conversely, existing is worlding” (Groth, 2004, p. 82). The
world is thus neither an object nor an entity; rather, in its
worldings, the world makes itself felt through a series of
events. The gerund captures the indeterminacy and emer-
gence of our experience of worlding, an ontological mode
of being that suggests the infinity and openness of possi-
ble meanings rather than their closure (Arnold & Keiling,
2016).
To explain further, Heidegger (1962) invited his stu-
dents to consider the lectern from which he delivered his
lecture. He asked them to note that the lectern was drawn
into their consciousness not in isolation but inextricably
interconnected with other objects (e.g., books) and posi-
tioned within a broader environment (the lecture hall),
imbued with social relationships (e.g., teacher, student,
friend, ex-lover) and memories (e.g., of their journey to
the school) and saturated with desires (e.g., the dreams
propelling them to study). Likewise, in A la Recherche du
Temps Perdu (In Search of Lost Time), Proust’s tea-
drenched madeleine cookie worlds by calling forth a host
of recollections spanning space, time, and place; “Proust
dunks his madeleine in his tea—and the universe of
Cambrai unfolds” (Safranski, 1999, p. 96).
Worlding and
Heterogeneity-in-Movement
Heidegger’s (1962) process philosophy later influenced
the work of Deleuze and Guattari (1987) and their phi-
losophy of processes through which different elements of
all kinds come into relation with one another into mov-
ing, temporary configurations of elements from entirely
different categories of how the world is commonly orga-
nized; objects, ideas, elements, materials, humans, and
nonhumans move into unpredictable relations. Moreover,
“semiotic chains of every nature” (Deleuze & Guattari,
1987, p. 7) are formed by connections among things of
different phenomenological statuses. Everything is always
plugged into assemblages through the eternal flow of
time, movement, and other material and semiotic rela-
tions. Assemblages are dynamic, assembling and reassem-
bling and reassembling again.
When heterogeneous elements are brought together
in the temporary coming together of an assemblage, these
things are experienced through their connections to one
another. The idea that interconnected differences, multi-
plicities, are formed through processes of movement and
connection is a significant shift away from a notion of
worlding that would consider separate elements of a
world to have identity prior to their relations. It is also a
shift away from a systems perspective on worlding that
would wish to hold the system still for analysis.
Deleuze and Guattari (1987) described the relations
within assemblages via the process metaphor of the rhi-
zome. The rhizome is a way of describing the qualities of
Ways With Worlds: Bringing Improvisational Theater Into Play With Reading | 5
movement, dynamism, and difference creation through
which assemblages of all sorts come together, qualities
that include “variation, expansion, conquest, and cap-
ture” (p. 21). Rather than having root (treelike) struc-
tures, rhizomes move in every direction. Perhaps one of
the most useful images of the rhizome that Deleuze and
Guattari offered is simply “when rats swarm over each
other” (p. 5). Here, we are offered pure movement, coming
together in an entangled mass, a temporary assemblage.
Worlding and Putting Texts
Into Movement
Two additional principles from Deleuze and Guattari
(1987) that create connection and movement for conceiv-
ing of worlding, especially in relation to reading, discuss-
ing, or creating texts, are mapping and tracing. Tracing
(decalcomania, associated with the term decal) is a pro-
cess of reproduction, whereas mapping (cartography) is a
process of movement and openness. Placing tracings
(e.g., reproductions, copies, texts) back into the field of
possibilities (movement) serves to “connect the roots or
trees back up with a rhizome” (p. 12).
The relations of tracing to mapping create ways of rei-
magining the relations of the text (or book) to the world,
in a process of worlding. In fact, for Deleuze and Guattari
(1987), much of their own consideration of the rhizome is
a discussion of how to consider their own text, A
Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, in its
relation to the world. For them, the book is not a deep
structure or history of the world (a tracing) and does not
represent the world:
Contrary to a deeply rooted belief, the book is not an image of
the world. It forms a rhizome with the world, this is an aparallel
evolution of the book and the world; the book assures the
deterritorialization of the world, but the world effects a reter-
ritorialization of the book, which in turn deterritorializes itself
in the world (if it is capable, if it can). (p. 11)
The world(ing) of the world and the world(ing) of the
book are always already connected, rhizomatically. These
worldings enter into relations with each other, creating
new assemblages, relations of energy and affective inten-
sity. Such relations are not reflections, hybrids, or alterna-
tive worlds. Rather, such relations are movements of
connection and multiplicity, creating emergent assem-
blages that resist prediction, that escape (deterritorialize),
that reproduce patterns (reterritorialize), and that are at
play on the same plane of becoming. Drawing from
Grosz’s (2017) theory of the incorporeal (her thinking
was inspired by Deleuze and Guattarri), these movements
might be thought of as orientations of concepts and
thoughts, entwinements, that enable “the creation of a
philosophy or a work of art…[through] emergence and
evolution of life in its growing complexity” (p. 250).
In relation to discussion of reading, the readers and
the text come together in joint worlding. Breger (2017)
illuminated these relations, writing from narrative
theory:
Through the distributed agency of nonsovereign actors—
including but not limited to authors, narrators, characters, and
readers in the literary circuit, these processes constitute narra-
tive worlds as multidimensional, ‘multivectoral’ assemblages:
configurations in which the presumably interruptive, variously
vertical, horizontal, and orthagonal axes of affect and sensa-
tion, along with association and memory, intertextuality and
trope all contribute to…action and analysis. (p. 231)
The idea of “multidimensional, ‘multivectoral’ assem-
blages” brings together well the concepts of heterogeneity-
in-movement and putting texts into movement.
Worlding and Affective Attunement
In worlding, “things matter not because of how they are
represented but because they have qualities, rhythms,
forces, relations, and movements” (Stewart, 2011, p. 445).
Sensing the circuits of affective energy that are lit up as
worlding happens is one way to describe attunement. Stay
with that image: Some sensory equipment (e.g., eyes, ears,
arm hair) become ready, vigilant, active:
One moves around with a sense that the world is at once
intensely present and enigmatic, such that the activity of living
demands both a wandering absorptive awareness and a hyper-
vigilance that collects the material that might help to…main-
tain one’s sea legs. (Berlant, 2010, p. 4)
This activity is relational: The hairs on the arm are
responding to the cold shower water, to the sand, to the
hairs on another’s arm. Such affecting and being affected
feels like attunement when it is keyed up, responsive,
most vibrant.
Still, attuning is not merely action and reaction. When
bits of the assemblage are taken up in relation to one
another, are connected by rhizomatic circuit, that connec-
tion has some quality, some feel, some sense that this con-
nection in this moment is unique, is singular. Also, across
the assemblage, attuning happens among bodies, words,
and objects of all sorts, human and nonhuman: “The
orchid does not reproduce the tracing of the wasp; it
forms a map with the wasp, in a rhizome” (Deleuze &
Guattari, 1987, p. 12). A child attunes to her mother’s tense
face, the mother attunes to the news on the television, the
news announcer attunes to the term “street gang” on-
screen, and the child, mother, news announcer, and term
transfer a circuit of fear becoming.
Amid their relations to other bodies, some bodies are
evocative of world becomings, circuits of a certain kind, a
certain affective push. As if worlding sometimes picked
up fractals, and these fractals energized world becomings
of a certain kind, “someone utters ‘Springtucky’ out of
6 | Reading Research Quarterly, 0(0)
context and an attunement cascades. [Lines of articula-
tion provoke an] entanglement of bodies, histories, class-
rooms, spaces, accents, futures, clothing, coal dust,
wordings” (Stewart, 2016, p. 97). Something small can
evoke and provoke an atmospheric attunement (Stewart,
2011) of a particular kind; the opener in an improvisa-
tional long-form sequence is similar to the opening of
everyday attunements:
The worlding of the place accreted out of opening events. A
story, a gesture, a look, or an outbreak of the nerves would estab-
lish a trajectory and pick up crazy speed or disperse, or settle
into a still life, or blanket the place like a premonition spontane-
ously generated in the lives of all those attuned. (p. 447)
Such openings, in a Deleuzian sense, are not centers but
rather ignited worldings in an early moment that are on
the move to collect and connect; they are dust devils on
the plain, stirring and sucking up dirt, moving things
that were not even visible on the horizon before they
began to spin.
Still, the evocative energy of movement in world-
ing, and the affective attunement in a world’s becom-
ing, is entirely different from the representational
tendency to name, identify, encapsulate. Writing of her
stepsons movement into homelessness, for instance,
Stewart (2011) recounted a kind of commonplace sim-
plification of homelessness as “abject poverty without
a safety net or as if it’s just a matter of personal blame
or failure” (p. 450). Such external representations leave
out the unique affective attunements of what her step-
son John was experiencing in becoming homeless:
“[Homelessness] is also an attunement to a singular
world’s texture and shine. The body has to learn to
play itself like a musical instrument in this world’s
compositions” (p. 450). We might come to sense out,
sniff out, the immanence of world becoming, that
sense of something that is powerfully ripe to pick up
motion, to collect. In this way, we might become
attuned to the horizon of possibilities. Another meta-
phor of attunement that inspired us is that in the
following lines (Ehret, 2018; Ingold, 2015):
Like the stems of plants growing from their seeds,…such lines
trace the paths of the world’s becoming—its ‘worlding’—rather
than connecting up, in reverse, sequences of points already
traversed. Moveover, what goes for the kite-in-the-air, it its
thinging, also goes for the flyer-on-the-ground. (Ingold, 2011,
p. 215)
Lines, not points, become energized in circuits of
affect; lines vibrate, lines have qualities of this type of con-
nection rather than that, lines trace the movement of
energy in all directions, lines lead toward becoming. For
Ingold (2011), drawing helps us reimagine worlding,
where, in real time, there is a becoming of “an ever-
unfolding relation between observant eyes, gesturing
hands and their descriptive trace” (p. 225). To think of
worlding as drawing, rather than worlding as a drawing,
moves us out of a representational perspective and allows
affective attunement to come alive in the midst of process,
along the lines of the drawing’s becoming. Following
lines, as a mapping of attunement, leads to a sense of the
directionality of the line in Deleuze and Guattari’s (1987)
sense. Is this a line of articulation and segmentarity,
reproductive and reterritorializing? How is that attuning
other lines of segmentarity to join up? What is the feel?
Or, is it a line of flight? What new attuning is coming to
be? Moreover, the movement of energy along the lines has
qualities of attunement. Sensing these circuits involves
sensing “comparative rates of flow[,]…relative slowness
and viscosity,…acceleration and rupture[,]…and mea-
surable speeds” (Deleuze & Guattari, 1987, pp. 3–4), and
“lived affects with tempos, sensory knowledges, orienta-
tions, transmutations, habits, rogue force fields” (Stewart,
2011, p. 446).
Three Movements: Improvisers,
Improv, and Improv Pedagogy
There are, for us, countless ways to connect the previous
discussion of worlding with the practice of improv and,
from there, the work of participating in or facilitating a
discussion of reading. Intuitively, we feel that making
these connections is important; they certainly have been
central in our work as teachers, thinkers, and scholars.
Yet, we resist the representational compulsion to sort and
organize the data that we have gathered concerning
improv and teaching in relation to the prior review of lit-
erature. Instead, we continue by turning to conceptual
writing grounded in empirical evidence that brings the
reader into relation with improv, improvisers, and improv
pedagogy. Our writing in these movements is intended to
presence the reader in practices of improv that we closely
studied in collaboration with our peers, teachers, and stu-
dents to animate our thinking about worlding in relation
to the research questions we asked at the outset about dis-
cussions of reading. Our two-year study of improvisers
included field notes about our teaching and practice,
autoethnographic journaling, and interviews with impro-
visers. Still, we do not offer some comprehensive report of
this activity, as we feel that doing so would limit the vital-
ity of the practice. Instead, we share three different data
movements, not to create an exhaustive list of connec-
tions and implications between improvisation and dis-
cussions of reading but, rather, to move toward new
assemblages with the reader, in the same way that impro-
visers work together in an ensemble.
These data movements assembled in this section—
indeed, our writing as a whole—is intended as at least a
Ways With Worlds: Bringing Improvisational Theater Into Play With Reading | 7
partial experimentation with writing that welcomes the
way heterogeneous elements, ourselves, our data, and the-
ory are brought together in the temporary coming
together of this assemblage, this singular worlding. An
orientation exists, but it does so in relation to what Grosz
(2017) described as “an entwinement with a material
order, planets, stars, constellations, nebulae, and so on,
beyond us, and a world of objects, things, processes, and
events that constitute materiality on earth” (p. 250). We
are both the materiality available to us and the world
beyond us. The idea that differences (multiplicities) are
formed through processes of movement and connection
is a significant shift away from a notion of worlding that
would consider separate elements of a world to have iden-
tity prior to their relations. It is also a shift away from a
systems perspective on worlding that would wish to hold
the system still for analysis. The method or orientation of
our writing was inspired by Stewart’s (2007) work that
does not find magical closure or even seek it,” instead
laying out links between theory and experience “as a
point of impact, curiosity, and encounter” (p. 5).
We expect that our conceptual method here, as writ-
ing practice, research, and theory, could be disorienting
for the reader, so we are explicit about our form. In this
section, we move between active and passive voice and
use three asterisks (***), as we did at the outset, to signify
jumps from narration to interpretation or from one
moment or location to another. We begin with improvis-
ers talking about their improv practices, then move to a
specific improv troupe reflecting on a set, and finish
with an improv teacher describing his pedagogy in first
person. These movements are based on interviews,
recordings of improv, and autoethnographic field notes.
The improvisers are our friends, colleagues, teachers,
and students; we move, imagine, and play with them
here as we do when we improvise with them in our lives.
We make slight interjections and interpretations in our
movements, but for the most part, we save our discus-
sion of our research questions until after we finish the
three movements.
Movement 1: An Assembled
Dialogue on Worlding
As a first data movement, we created a movement that
both illustrates and animates the practice of an opener in
long-form improv. An opener uses a suggestion from the
audience to generate energy, material, and attunement
that cues the improv to come. In this particular case, we
use a story swap opener, in which the players are given a
suggestion and then share a few short story monologues
that respond to the prompt. After these stories, members
of the ensemble offer increasingly shorter contributions
(story segments or ideas), jumping in on one another’s
talk more rapidly. This opener typically finishes with two
or three of the players moving out of the story swap and
into an improv scene, which will develop the world build-
ing already begun into a particular direction.
We constructed the following opener out of extensive
interview data gathered from five highly experienced the-
atrical improvisers, three of whom have been improv
instructors for the second and third authors. The other
two performers interviewed are members of the same
improv company. We put the improvisers into dialogue
with one another in our opener as an attempt to convey a
felt sense of the practice (its affective intensities, as move-
ment). We did this to avoid overrationalizing the prac-
tices of improvisers with themes or codes that would
likely diminish the energy of the work. Additionally, pre-
senting these data as individual interview segments alone
could do a different kind of damage to thinking and feel-
ing the practice by locating the practice in the individual
rather than the ensemble. Therefore, we offer our con-
structed opener, an imaginative reconstruction of data
intended to evoke an experience, while also providing
material for analysis and reflection that will serve us in
thinking about discussions of reading. Our story swap
opener is punctuated by interpretive comments, in italics,
where we analytically describe some of the improv prac-
tices and worlding concepts that are (made) available in it.
This movement begins with the suggestion “scene world,
and all names that appear in all three movements are
pseudonyms except Sam’s.
***
Director: OK, let’s get started. Your prompt from the
audience is the phrase “scene world.
Phil: Just the other night, I started out with—
my scene partner was onstage, and she was
holding something out in front of her. I
didn’t know what it was, but my first reac-
tion was—to what she was holding, a little
off in the distance—we probably spent a
good minute, maybe a minute and a half,
without identifying what it was but gain-
ing fear of it. And it turned out, it was a
lemon. And I was scared of the lemon
because I didn’t like the way it stared at me
with its one eye. And she was just trying to
get me to be a grown man, because how
are we gonna have a lemonade stand with-
out lemons? And then at one point, the
lemon—you know, another person in the
group—stuck his head up on her hand and
became the talking lemon, and was threat-
ening me, but showing her how nice he
was, you know? That two-faced sort of
deal. That was a lot of fun. It was very sim-
ple, you know. Fear got brought in, to me,
by the way she was postured. It was the
8 | Reading Research Quarterly, 0(0)
way she was holding whatever it was that
she had. It looked like she wasn’t 100%
comfortable with it, or maybe wasn’t 100%
comfortable with me, and this was her
safety net, and so I decided to absorb all
the fear and take low status, let her have
high status, and be afraid of whatever it
was. And shes the one that identified it as a
lemon, you know, and that was perfect.
And I was her husband, and so the rela-
tionship came right out of that. The rela-
tionship and what it was came right out of
that initial posturing and taking our time
to really settle into what it could be….So, I
just decided to settle in the silence of that
fear, and I started walking around the stage
at different vantage points to what this
object was, just trying to find a safe place
where I could actually look at it, and—and
try to not be afraid of it.
Andy: Worldmaking for me is not important as a
goal. What’s important for me is that I gen-
uinely feel the perspective of my character,
this version of me thats repressed or edited
out in the day-to-day. But onstage, theres
permission to be your most visceral, emo-
tive ID something. So, once those glasses
are on, those colored glasses of whatever
that emotion is—and they’re firmly there,
and that’s the commitment, and I’m just
only seeing and hearing through that
lens—the world comes into being. But I
see it; it’s already kind of there. I just—
there’s no thought. It just somehow instinc-
tively starts to emerge. And its almost like,
um—I don’t know what video game it was,
but the characters were—it was like you
were looking down on them as they
walked through a maze. But only the area
around them was lit up? You can only see
the areas you’re moving around? I feel it’s
kind of like that. I feel like wherever I walk
around with my scene partner, I start to
see things in our immediate environment.
I don’t necessarily see anything larger….It’s
almost like you’re walking through this
dark place of unknown. And then you see
where you’re going, and you see where
your characters are going, and then, Oh,
heres an opening over here! Lets go down
here! If I dart down this side passage,
because now it’s available. Previously, it
wasn’t available. It was just a wall. But now,
there’s an opening. Let’s go in here! It’s like
we’re exploring. And we go down explor-
ing, and hopefully he or she comes with
me, and if my scene partner goes, I go with
them. Once we split apart—again, the
analogy is very helpful—we’re just kind of
alone in the scene. We’re not really feeding
off of each other. We’re not really inform-
ing each—
Laura: Let’s say that a player—you’ve set up this
cathedral scene, and they are sipping a
Miller Lite, sitting in a hot tub. I would not
say that that’s always a great move. That
might be a bit of a steamroll move, which
is that—the reason that improv’s golden
rule is “yes, and…” is that we have to say
that makes sense in that space. And so, you
have put some onus on your scene part-
ners to justify that. And so when you
choose such a disparate choice, it is mak-
ing it more difficult, especially if the scene
has already progressed forward quite a bit,
and that’s like such—it’s so out of left field?
It just makes a challenge for everybody
else. But it’s—if it’s at the beginning,…then
it still can become something amazing,
which is we now. It has to be about that. It
has to be about how strange it is that theres
this hot tub, and we have to figure out why
there’s this hot—
***
Let’s first consider some of the elements of improv
practice embedded in the opener thus far. As the opener
begins, we have three different offers prompted by the
phrase “scene world.” At this point, the activity is some-
what parallel play: Offers are built more or less around the
opening concept. Andy and Phil both express how much of
their practice is built around character—how an emo-
tional commitment to character drives the sense of what
could unfold and also how characters make offers to one
another that contribute to their emotional becoming, such
as Phil’s account of the threatening lemon voice helping
him move into the character of the low-status husband.
Laura’s offer also makes evident how the idea of “yes,
and…” can be highly challenging when a scene partner
makes a disparate choice (which may feel like a “steamroll
move”), and yet the rule of doing “yes, and…” binds one to
say and act as if “that makes sense in that space.”
Perhaps the best evidence of attunement is in the scene
account given by Phil, who describes how he and his scene
partner were creating a common feeling of something
while cocreating that thing itself: “We probably spent a
good minute, maybe a minute and a half, without identi-
fying what it was but gaining fear of it.” An attunement to
the fear of the lemon provided for the emergence of
Ways With Worlds: Bringing Improvisational Theater Into Play With Reading | 9
characters (husband, wife, and one-eyed lemon), status
relations, and actions (distanced walk) in the emerging
scene world. Andy’s description of exploring an emergent
scene is a wonderful illustration of worlding and presenc-
ing as practice that is distributed among scene partners.
As they walk together and explore, Andy notes, “I start to
see things in our immediate environment.” The activity of
being with another, in character(s), activates the scene in
the practice of worlding, which in turn activates a set of
possibilities for the characters: “Previously, it wasn’t avail-
able. It was just a wall. But now, there’s an opening. Let’s
go in here!”
Let’s return to the opener as it continues.
***
Andy: I was in a scene, in a restaurant, with my
scene partner…, and you know the round
thing that’s often in a window at a restau-
rant, you know, like Mel’s Diner? And it’s
like “Order up,” and you put the ticket in
there, and you spin it around. And my
character grabbed it. And in my imagina-
tion, it was so vivid, I saw it, but all the
paper flew off. And before I even knew it,
my hand was chasing all the papers every-
where. And then it affected me because
then they got on the floor of the kitchen,
which is greasy and mucky with, like, egg
white and spilled oil and like, shoe goo and
whatever’s on there. And they just were,
like, illegible. And it just affected my char-
acter. It was like, “God dammit! We got a
house full of people and I don’t know what
to cook!”
Sid: So, even if I have a concept for how this
could go, or even if I have an idea for the
relationship that’s going to be present,
that’s only gonna go as far as what the next
line of dialogue is, because that next line of
dialogue could completely reorient what-
ever sense of reality we’re creating. And at
times, that’s frustrating, sure, but I think
that’s part of the art, too, is learning to be
OK with, “Hey, we’re making this together.
Phil: When you go into a scene, you’re walking
into the unknown, and there’s always an
element of fear in the unknown. Even the
most seasoned improv performers have
that first initial—heart beats a little faster,
you don’t really know what you’re getting
into, and once you settle into it, its com-
fortable. Its very warm, it’s very welcom-
ing, it’s very familiar. It becomes a place of
confidence instead of a place of fear or
Laura: It feels scary, sometimes, when you’re the
one to—cause often there’s the line that is
said that really changes everything, and its
like you know that it—you can feel it.
When it happens, the best way for me is
that you know its gonna be you, and like
when you’re playing outfield, and—ugh!—
you see this ball coming, and you know
you’re the one that has to catch it, but there
is some time, right before, when you know
it’s happening? You feel it coming, and it
gets kind of—that anticipation is scary,
and that’s why being in the scene and being
present is so import—
***
Andy’s account of the scene, like Mel’s Diner where the
ticket holder spun off all of the paper orders onto the
“mucky” floor, is a compelling illustration of how players
presence a world. In the midst of Andy’s account, it is easy
to forget that there is no diner, no orders, no mucky floor;
these are all made present in the scene, moving from Andy’s
imagination, through his hands and expressions, into the
space, onto the floor, and into relationship with his scene
partner as an offer of a world that is becoming. Also note in
Andy’s account that his character is coming to be in rela-
tion to the material world that Andy is creating through
his actions in space: The character intra-acts with these
materials, becoming angry and exasperated. Yet, the con-
tributions of Sid, Phil, and Laura in turn bring out how
contingent any assemblage in improv is: Things can
become pulled apart and reordered quickly from a next
line of dialogue (Sid) or from catching or not catching an
offer thrown out to you (Laura). Worlding in this way
involves the temporary coming together of heterogeneous
elements that can be reordered, and in the midst of this
reordering, players are often anxious and excited, and
sometimes frustrated in their attempts to bring order. In
contrast, note that Phil talks about becoming “settle[d]
into” these unpredictable and heterogeneous movements
as something that inspires confidence over fear.
***
Andy: There’s a way in which a scene might raise
those stakes emotionally and then trans-
form into something else, a way in which a
scene might raise them again and then
transform and then raise them again, like
this kind of returning to it. And that could
be a gesture, that could be a phrase, that
could be pause, it could be anything….
Allow the emotions to kind of wave—rise
and then fall, and then rise and then fall.
And we did a lot of repeats where we were
in two-person scenes, and we were work-
ing together to feed off—
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Corey: If you’ve got an engaged audience that’s
really enjoying it, you can feed off of that,
and that gives you more confidence as an
actor. And in improv, you can go, “This
isn’t working. We’re gonna try this.…The
audience, really how they relate to the
energy, really changes—
Sid: Audience members can see, OK, that dude
clearly preloads his jokes, or that was clearly
rammed in there because that person
wanted to make a Parks and Rec[reation]
reference. Um, but every time those things
are done, they almost break the sanctity of
this new thing that we’re creating—
Phil: Changes in energy are important because
that’s, again, reality. How many times have
you been in the course of your day, and
you think it’s gonna go one direction, but
then it goes six different directions, all
within, you know, a couple of hours of
each other? And you gotta shift and move
and bob and weave and do all that—
***
Our constructed opener is intended to create some feel-
ing of building energy across the players. In their talk turns,
the improvisers emphasize the ebbs and flows of energy in
scene work as something that happens, as true to life (Phil)
and as something that is also a desirable affect of scene
work (Andy). The course of affect rising and falling is asso-
ciated by Andy with transformations through movements
of heterogeneous elements in the scene, such as the move-
ment of gesture or the speaking of a phrase. Along with
these, and as affected by their movements, energy itself is
undergoing transformation in the scene. With respect to
energy, the boundary between the players and the audi-
ence is weak: The audience response changes the energy of
the scene (Corey), and contrived moves by improvisers can
break these modes of attunement in affective worlding; a
relationship of world, players, and audience that is
described as having a kind of “sanctity” (Sid).
***
Corey: Just like anything else, you have to rehearse,
you have to get comfortable, you have to
keep stretching that brain. It’s almost
like…you can’t keep a tree from setting
deep roots unless you keep disturbing it.
Unless you keep rehearsing, you’re going
to have those roots of life dig in. And while
life tells you to do X, Y, and Z, improv on
the other hand tells you to—
Sid: You can set people up for these moments,
and that thing feels just so flawless and so
magical. And I guess the best way to really
describe it is that it is like going back to
that cafeteria table in high school, where
you’re just riffing, and those moments
when you’re laughing so hard with your
friends and you can’t breathe—
Corey: One of the guys who’s in the troupe now
was watching and goes, “That was just
amazing!” and it was just because we
were connected to each other. We weren’t
two individuals—
Laura: Just if you kind of have this idea that we’re
working together, and it’s sort of pulling—
it’s all making sense. It feels like magic, it
feels fun, it feels easy. All it feels like is I
don’t have to think—
Corey: It was this weird little magic in a bottle
moment. It was just so intense. It was just
the two of us and each doing that—
Andy: They’re really close to each other. And
even if you just did nothing else, it would
be entertaining. It seems like a magic thing.
How do they do that? And its so simple….
It’s not pushing, it’s not driving, it’s not
agenda-driven. Its just opening your eyes
and almost passively being accepting of
what’s there.
Director: End scene!
***
As our opener comes to a close, Corey offers the meta-
phor of unsettling the rooted tree through rehearsal.
Although rehearsal may often be associated with rooted-
ness (repetition and mastery), Corey sees these “roots of
life” as in need of unsettling. His description nicely paral-
lels Deleuze and Guattari’s (1987) contrast of the deep
rootedness of a tree to the rhizome-like connections,
branching off, just under the soil, in every direction.
Rehearsing improv leads to unsettling as routine. Also,
these forms of unsettling, and comovement with and
through the emergence of the scene, can feel like “magic”
(Laura, Corey, and Andy). What are the qualities of
magic? Among them are surprise, wonder, and a lack of
understanding of how all of the singular movements make
up the whole. Our opener began with “scene world” and
ended with “magic.”
Let’s see how this movement carries the improvisers
into their scenes to come.
Movement 2: Worlding
in an Improv Performance
Our second movement animates an ensemble that Sam
has performed with for over three years as they partici-
pate in a 20-minute long-form set called Small Town.
Ways With Worlds: Bringing Improvisational Theater Into Play With Reading | 11
Small Town is a form in which Sam, Angela, Jason, and
Pete explore the relationships between characters in con-
nected scenes who share a common location elicited as a
suggestion from the audience at the opening of the set—
in this case, “golf course.
Jason and Pete open with a group move: They are two
young, male entrepreneurs who created an innovative
catheter. In the next scene, Angela and Sam discover that
they are two middle-aged women. They lament about
experiencing menopause. Sam’s character admits that she
discovered feminism at a local bowling alley and became
upset with her son, Jason’s character, for his patriarchal
participation in capitalism. Angela’s character is Petes
character’s big sister from the Big Sister/Litter Brother
program. Angela’s character grows concerned about
learning that her little brother is in a romantic relation-
ship with Sam’s character. The piece ends with Sam’s char-
acter revealing the affair to her son and attempting to
make peace with Jason’s character. This Small Town lasted
roughly 30 minutes and included eight scenes.
Sam and Pete recorded their conversation about the
set one year later, after they both watched a video of the
performance. The following short vignette, inspired by
Petes reflective memos about his participation in this set,
is intended to give a partial account of how he understood
his participation in the improv. Petes memos are in italics.
We make sense of his thinking with analytic memos after
the vignette.
***
The initial offers by two of the improvisers, Pete and
Jason, orient the movement of the group and the subse-
quent orientation of the set. Jason steps onstage confi-
dently. Pete matches his energy. They are similar and
celebrate their physical attunement. They discover that
they have created something: a new catheter that will make
them rich. Thirty seconds into the opening scene, one of
them asks who accomplished this feat. Pete and Jason
match intensity and, at the same time, shout, “We did!”
Damn, that was awesome group mind, Pete thinks.
There wasn’t a single pause, no hesitation. I just came up
and matched Jason’s energy, and then we built a similar
way of thinking because we were both embodying similar
characters.
The second scene of the set involves Sam and Angela.
Angela steps out and begins moving a single chair onstage
around. Sam does the same thing. They play with the
chairs for a moment before sitting down. The energy is
different from the first scene, but there is a similar attun-
ement. Sam and Angela are playful, but they play slowly.
They discover that they are old friends, older women.
They met at a carnival and rode bumper cars together.
Sams character has something she needs to talk about
with Angelas character.
“Your breasts?” Angela asks.
“Yes,” Sam says without pause, “my breasts.
Pete watches from offstage, imagining his relationship
with these new characters as the story emerges.
Sam slow-played this scene like he usually does, Pete
thinks. Sam wasn’t expecting Angela to say breasts. But he
did, and he said “yes, and…” to Angela’s brilliant move.
This is going to drive the scene forward, probably drive the
whole set forward.
The energy becomes frenetic during the middle of the
set as the four improvisers begin to jump out quickly.
There is a flow as they comment on one another’s offer-
ings. Jason jokes that the bumper cars that Sam estab-
lished should have been golf carts because that was what
he thought they were at first. Sam comes out and loudly
reminds the group that they are in bumper cars. Pete
laughs and sets the next scene in a Ferris wheel. The four
play with the setting.
We’re messing with each other now, Pete thinks. We’re
having fun, reestablishing worlds to comment on each oth-
er’s moves. This group has such trust in each other. We can
mess with each other onstage. There’s a kind of underlying
flow of us surprising the audience, surprising each other,
and just messing with stuff. This is so much fun.
***
We step back from the improvisers to make a few ana-
lytic comments about this improv. The orientation of this
Small Town set was discovered in the first 30 seconds due
to the mutual attunement between players within the
ensemble. Pete and Jason used their bodies to match each
other’s energy. Sam responded affirmatively to Angela’s
surprising line of dialogue, “Your breasts?” An assem-
blage emerged as certain material was presenced: femi-
nism and the relationship between young men, older
women, and capitalism. The improv group described here
rehearses weekly and uses games and activities to practice
group mind, or the ability to move, feel, and think
together during improv. The repetitions that this group
brought with them into this set fostered an expectation of
heterogeneity-in-movement, a presencing that facilitated
disciplined attunement to the fluctuations of the co-
composed text. As Grosz (2017) suggested, “thought…
does not simply erupt into existence from a mechanically
regulated, thoroughly material world, no matter how com-
plex” but, instead, comes from the “bodily organization of
earlier and contemporaneous forms of life that come
before and did not carry ideality, one of the conditions for
human thought, within them” (p. 250). The worlding
described in this second movement did not simply erupt
but, rather, was plugged into a specific entwinement with
materiality and thought, practice and repetition. The
worlding emerged out of what Nate described as the
groups trust and allowed the improvisers to surprise and
be surprised by each other as they shuttled toward the
unknown in their improv, and surprisingly, the group
engaged in a playful exploration on patriarchy, feminism,
and entrepreneurship on a golf course.
12 | Reading Research Quarterly, 0(0)
Practicing attunement, as improvisers do, might cul-
tivate orientations that help teachers pay attention to the
worlding that happens when readers discuss texts.
Certainly, there is something of Rosenblatt’s (1964) dis-
cussion of the magic of making a poem together in the
movements that we have presented thus far; the making
of an improv scene is a set of relations of text–world and
reader–world that create a new experience. Similarly,
Rosenblatt showed us that readers co-compose a world
that was never there before and will never be there again.
Interestingly, improvisers rehearse embracing and creat-
ing these surprising singularities. Couldn’t young readers
also learn to move, feel, and think together in their dis-
cussions of text? Our final movement animates cultivat-
ing the capacity to move toward the unknown by turning
to the pedagogy of a veteran improv teacher.
Movement 3: Worlding as Pedagogy
in a Rehearsal
The improv class mentioned at the outset of this article
continues as our third movement of data. Sam is the artis-
tic director of a professional improv theater company. He
leads weekly rehearsals for this group that are rooted in
an improvisational pedagogy that emerged from his 20
years of teaching and directing improv. Kevin observed
and took notes on the session described here. Those
notes, in concert with Sam’s reflective journal after the
class, were used to inspire the following vignette. The
improvisers described in this movement are members of
Sams company. We return to first person in this move-
ment to capture Sams narration and interpretation of
their teaching before moving into our discussion.
***
I orient the group by naming two intentions as we
stand in a circle.
“We are working to delight in the offers of our scene
partners,” I remind us, “to radically say, ‘Yes, and…’ to
whatever happens.
Recall that “yes, and…” is the central idea of improv
that everything that happens in an improvised scene must
be accepted, affirmed, and added onto.
“We are practicing nonevaluative participation,” I
remind the group.
Energy is deflated when improvisers devote energy to
critique their work or the work of others at the expense of
their participation.
I read aloud a quote from Nachmanovitch (1990):
To either like or dislike our work for more than a moment can
be dangerous. The judging voice asks, “Is this good enough?”
But even if we create something really stupendous, sooner or
later we have to perform again, and that inner judging voice is
back again, saying, “It had better be better than the last time.
Thus ones very talent can be a factor in blocking creativity.
Either success or failure can turn that voice on.
The easiest way to do art is to dispense with success and
failure altogether and just get on with it. (pp. 134–135)
“Eliminate the judgmental voice,” I say. I’m saying it to
myself, too. It is so easy to evaluate the improvisers as they
work—their personalities, their quirks. “This voice that
limits the universes we might make.
I’m anxious. There is always a frenetic feeling inside of
me when I teach improv. I need to be present, to relax as
we shuttle into the unknown. We need to prepare our
bodies and our minds for that work.
“Please take one step back and stand up straight,” I
prompt us. “Let your arms rest at your side, and close
your eyes.
I close my eyes, too.
“For better or worse,” I tell us as we stand together in a
circle, “we have an hour and a half to be together. So,
when I count to 3, take a deep, energizing breath and
quiet everything happening inside of you and around
you. Try to be empty.
We breathe together three times. Kevin watches us.
In his field notes, he writes that these breaths were
“yoga-like” and signaled our entrance into an “event of
energy.
Things began to emerge in the improv class.
“Let’s practice saying ‘Yes, and…’ with delight,” I tell
the improvisers. I sense attunement in the group. They
probably do, too. We are ready to enter into worlds
through our improv after 45 minutes of participating in
different improv exercises.
We stand in a circle. I hand an imaginary ball of
energy to a person standing next to me.
“Give us the first line of a story,” I tell the improviser.
“Create a core for this world.
This person steps out and says something about
brushing teeth. Bits of laughter sound around the circle. I
try to avoid laughing. I do not want to give feedback or
influence the work. This never really works. I giggle as the
initiator hands the ball of energy to another person in the
circle and takes the initiators place. Another person
makes an offer.
I pay close attention both to the person adding a line
and to the people standing in our circle. I try to measure
the intensity of the story and the group as the narrative
grows, as the story emerges, as the energy sizzles and
expands.
Eventually, after seven lines, somebody offers a line
about being a world-class tooth brusher. People in the
circle laugh. I sense that the world of this text is height-
ened to a reasonable conclusion. I clap my hands loudly
to signal the end of the story.
“Take one step in!” I shout loudly. The attention
comes back to me. I am worried that I am disrupting their
flow, but I want to give some gentle feedback, an affirma-
tion of what they have just done. The circle closes.
Ways With Worlds: Bringing Improvisational Theater Into Play With Reading | 13
“Is there such thing as a world-class tooth brusher?” I
ask the group with enthusiasm. I do not wait for an answer.
“There absolutely is, in the world that you just created.
Whatever gets stated in the circle becomes a truth in
the moment, in our world.
“Take one step back!” I shout. “Lets do it again.
We tell a story about two people blowing bubble gum.
The first person stumbles over words while offering the
opening line. Instead of saying “bubble gum,” the person
says, “Hubba bubba gubba.” Laughter fills the circle, and
the group accepts this line and tells a story about “Hubba
Bubba Gubba,” a gum that causes people to fall in love
with each other.
There are no mistakes in improv, only gifts that, if the
group accepts, create new possibilities. The only mistake
is to assume a script, to name something as a mistake,
thereby deflating the rise of energy. Strengthening and
broadening the powers of the group, its capacity to enter
into worlding, requires affirmation of the reality being
presenced in the assemblage. The improv class described
here is a space where worlding magic is possible. This is
not a rational set of strategies that a teacher could use. No,
it is an orientation, a way of being, that has emerged out
of 20 years of a teacher’s improvisational practice.
Discussion
We want to reimagine classroom discussions of reading as
more than tools for upacking a text. Building on a long
history of conceiving the experience of reading as emer-
gent, and as moving well beyond the text, we want to
reimagine classroom discussions as processes of becom-
ing, where the reader, text, and event are becoming
through their relations to one another. Getting closer to an
experience-like sensibility for discussions of reading is a
difficult shift, requiring more than a tweaking of conven-
tional classroom practices. Toward that end, improvisa-
tional theater, and the teaching of it, has the potential to
help educators move toward different qualities of discus-
sion practices with texts.
We are not conceiving improvisation as a meta-
phor for teaching. Instead, we see improv as a practice
that cultivates a way of being that offers an alternative
for what a teacher might be in relation to a student, a
classroom, and the world. The improvisational practices
and ethos that we animated in our three movements
offer a way to think about pedagogy as an ongoing
rehearsal of the uprooting of reality, the cultivation of
comovements by groups of people toward emergence,
surprise, wonder—toward magic.
In this section, we extend our juxtaposition of reading
discussions and improv by imagining a teacher and stu-
dents as improvisers participating in events of worlding as
they encounter texts together. Reaching back to the three
movements, we reimagine the teacher as an improviser and
consider how discussions of texts could be transformed
through the following improv-inspired teaching practices:
teaching as invoking the text, teaching as exchanging offers,
teaching as attuning, teaching as following lines of flight,
and teaching as activating embodied energy.
Teaching as Invoking (Not Owning)
the Text
In an improvisational, emergent practice, the text is a
point of departure. An opening text is also often a point of
return. Yet, there are no guarantees. Entanglements with
the text are vital because every reading is a new reading
oriented by the movements that come before, situate the
moment, and will come later. The improvisational teacher
is as much a part of this entanglement as the students.
In worldings with the text, through the play of the
ensemble, meanings and affects are infinitely multiplied.
Present in the group are its members, of course, but also
all sorts of possible characters who emerge: that guy sip-
ping the Miller Lite in the hot tub in a cathedral and those
two older women at the carnival riding bumper cars. So,
we can describe the ensemble as the group members, but
the power and vitality of the ensemble are in its multipli-
cative worlding of characters and their relationships. The
text offerings are rich and heterogeneous, spread out as
movements on a plane with other potential worldings.
For literacy scholars and teachers, a position of invit-
ing rather than owning the text likely makes many ner-
vous. Even though we may celebrate multiple or divergent
readings of texts, we like to have a text ground to return
to. To this convergence game of constant return to the text
in practices of reading discussion, we introduce a differ-
ent game: a divergence game. Here, the text is treated as
nonsovereign (Breger, 2017) and engaged in an unstable,
emergent ensemble. In this game, the ground of activity is
only the ensemble and its ongoing play of energies. The
ensemble uses or creates a first text to work with, a few
steps forward to tell a story.
Teaching as Exchanging Offers
In improvisational worlding, talk moves forward by making
offers, like gifts, rather than posing questions. Discussions
of reading are often given to patterns of question and
answer. In fact, much of the innovation around discussion
has involved either disrupting teacher initiation-response-
evaluation patterns and/or enriching the nature of teacher
questions such that student responses will involve higher
order thinking. Questions rise out from the text and fall
back to it. Questions take the text apart or sometimes take
the person who poses an answer apart.
We “yes, and…” this analytic disassembly of the text,
and the many ways in which question/answer structures
14 | Reading Research Quarterly, 0(0)
classroom talk and power, with an alternative: leading
discussion as an exchange of offers. Offers build some-
thing, going somewhere, right now. “Yes, and…” cannot
happen without the first turn at talk being an offer and
the response to it being another offer, gift following gift.
Corey’s partner is bringing a hammer and a can opener
into the scene. The improvisers take these up but then add
(“yes, and…”); these are not just tools but rather precious
objects that the character was supposed to inherit from
his grandmother. The characters feel the use of the tools
as a violation. Offer builds on offer. The teacher and the
students are building something together—something
uncertain, something collective. In the flow of this work,
each must listen intently to the other so offer fits or
attunes to offer. This kind of listening is cooperative, ori-
ented toward cooperative construction. This is a radically
different way to imagine the potential and the purpose of
discussing texts in classrooms. These exchanges of offers,
in which the teacher is both participant and facilitator,
unfold as collective works that become worlds unto them-
selves. This improvisational exchange lives for a moment
and serves as potentiality for the individual and collective
movements alive in the classroom.
Teaching as Attuning
The reader is moved: A hint of thought, the shift of a pos-
ture, and the rise of intensity felt from the others in the
scene offer a hint of the next move—only the next. An idea
bubbles up. The improvisers lift their hands, stirring in a
bowl. What are they stirring? Cookie dough. This they did
not know, but a scene partner offers it up. Cookie dough
emerges, and the kitchen takes shape. Nothing is clear but
right now, this present right now, that next move. The
improviser reads the scene partner’s offerings—utterances,
gestures, movements, and sounds—and responds to these
cues by contributing an offer. They attune to each other,
they attune to the objects that they are bringing to life in
the scene, they attune to the collectively built scene world,
and they attune to each others characters and character
histories, even as those histories are made in the process
of becoming. As such, the improviser and the scene part-
ner have no preconceived notion of preferred outcomes,
and when they do, they attempt to honor an improvisa-
tional ethic by setting them aside to serve the practice of
collective worlding. As Phil recalled in data movement 1,
attunement meant sensing and then amplifying the feel-
ing of fear provoked by the duplicitous, one-eyed talking
lemon. His initial attunement to a whisper of nerves that
grew slowly into terror, a developing feeling sensed and
affirmed by his scene partner, sparked an entire scene
world that neither could have predicted at the outset.
There is no right way to create; an improv scene always
becomes, by virtue of the form, what it is supposed to be.
Hubba Bubba Gubba gum, innovative catheters, egg
white, spilled oil, and shoe goo—these moments will
never happen in the same way for the same people again.
Discussion as attunement is not about being right,
about argument, or about analysis in any direct way.
Rather, such discussion is about being present, about pres-
encing a world, and about feeling that presencing as it is
coming to be. In teaching as attuning, teachers pay atten-
tion to energies and imaginations as much as anything
else. The reader is at work, the author is at work, and the
characters are at work—all of them making offerings. This
particular occasion offers up its sensations: The room
smells funny, the bell is going to ring, somebody’s stomach
is growling, the classroom poster says “Proofread.” Still,
there is an orientation. The author and text do not disap-
pear; they are here, present, among others, along with
the reader, as assemblages rise up and drop off. All of it
is potentially full of a nearly infinite number of possible
meanings. Leading a discussion as an event of attunement
is about paying attention to the idiosyncratic energies in
motion, attending to the singular entanglements between
the emergent relations of classrooms and moving with
them.
Teaching as Following Lines
of Flight (Wandering)
The improvisational teacher may notice and follow lines
of flight in the course of a reading discussion. Our three
movements animated ways in which convergence and
divergence are welcome in improvisation. Improvisers are
rewarded when they follow a line of flight, such as the
surprising meditation on the nature of patriarchy or a hot
tub in a cathedral. In movement 2, Sam affirmed his scene
partner’s unanticipated offer of “Your breasts?” and the
two players embarked on a multisite journey that brought
them from the carnival to the bumper car course, the
kitchen and the bowling alley, exchanging offers as they
shuttled along together, gathering other adventurers
along the way. What rewards await a discussion group
that, rather than saying what the teacher wants them to
say, seeks after the divergent lines of flight that emerge
when they world in relation to text?
When end-of-chapter or teacher-composed questions
open discussions, teachers often struggle with the ques-
tion of how to keep such discussions open to students and
their lives. Instead, improvisational openers could do
much more to engage students with worlding a text. Story
swapping (movement 1) or building an improvisational
scene, prompted by a title or a set of characters, could
serve to create genuine openings with possibility for
movement and flight, rather than openings with a prede-
termined closure.
Through lines of flight, the meanings and intentions
of the discussion lean forward in time and are shared by
the group, cascading forth through its unfolding energy.
Ways With Worlds: Bringing Improvisational Theater Into Play With Reading | 15
The teacher strays off topic, and the students sit up. The
author stumbles. The readers explore, making productive
links, feeling the relations. Members of the ensemble
watch for opening attunements and what they evoke,
what worldings they stir up into existence. One builds the
worldings and waits for others to add or waits for them to
drop away. The readers dial up their own attention, light
up all of their capacities to feel the heterogeneity on the
plane before them: this day, these pages, these objects,
these relations, the singularity of now. What comes
together? Yes, and what else? Every coming together is the
right one, for the next one—life in its growing complexity.
The readers are together, always in the middle, along the
lines: They do not stay in the lines but on the lines, feeling
the lines and their reverberations. Feel the text becoming
of the lines.
Teaching as Activating
Embodied Energy
An improvisational approach to discussion asks the
teacher to be a reader of the readers and a mover of
them, an activator. In this teaching game, affect is not a
bonus to pedagogy; it is the essential outcome of a peda-
gogy with/by energy. In movement 3, Sam senses the
swell of energy that grows through his students’ laughter
upon the emergence of Hubba Bubba Gubba gum. He
attends closely to the rising arc of the story of the world-
class tooth brusher that his class collectively composes
into being, following its natural decrescendo. He claps
his hands; the story settles into its conclusion. The
teacher adopting an improvisational approach feels for-
ward and back along the lines of intensity: Where is this
moving? Where could it go? What could provoke move-
ment? What attunements are being made? How can dif-
ferences be provoked, along the lines that we are
collectively exploring, to break repetitions? The teacher
coaches from the side, from within: What if you height-
ened the emotion here? Experiment. What if that char-
acter you are taking up right now shifted to low status
relative to the others?
Improvisers know that bodies are as important as
ideas when offers are made during a scene. So too, the
improvisational teacher might pay attention to bodies, not
in the sense of scripted, classroom drama but in the ways
that the teacher notices, animates, and interprets the ener-
gies being exchanged during a discussion of text—an
event of worlding. Where are the students’ bodies at this
moment? What possibilities of the ensemble are activated
by their physical relations to one another, and how could
new possibilities be afforded or provoked? Indeed, the
improvisational teacher would design pedagogy that
would allow students to practice an affirmational exchange
of energies. It might be as simple as imagining a ball of
energy to share or as complex as designing different
physical routines and setups for different possible rela-
tions to worlding the text.
Toward Improvisational Pedagogy
An improvisational approach to reading discussion is
less about specific strategies and more about ways of
being together, an ethos. It takes seriously Rosenblatt’s
(1964) claim from over 50 years ago: The making of a
text with a group is a singular experience, an occur-
rence. Our work is a movement toward a pedagogy of
body and breath, of affective extension, of broadening
the powers of the group. Whether or not we account for
them, the affective energy that contextualizes discus-
sions of reading and reading pedagogy is always already
there. It just might be that teachers are pushing so hard,
driving to forward rational agendas, that they are miss-
ing the magic that is already and always there between
people and texts. Teachers with an improvisational ethos
work on their practice to explore how they might
expand their ability to accept, understand, and build off
the text world that emerges in the encounter between
the improviser and the improvised world in the next
iteration, the next repetition. Improv is never finished; it
is always about what happens next. It is alive. Facilitating
such transactions has more to do with building a con-
text and then understanding, conjuring, and managing
shared affective intensities than it does with what a text
is or how it ought to mean.
By embracing an improvisational ethos, teachers are
attuning to the subjectivities of young people, who are
entangling their personal narratives with the unfolding
stories of an emerging world. Such processes are acti-
vated through desires and currents of energy, shimmer-
ing with atmospheric and bodily intensities and
saturated with emotion that readers charge through
narrative paths shuttling toward destinations unknown
as they collectively compose a world into being. These
discussions escape the intention of any single individual
(author or reader) and arise from the idiosyncratic
alchemy of artifacts, environments and atmospheres,
refrains, and sensations, gathered together, ever emer-
gent, indeterminate.
***
The improv class is over.
The improvisers are laughing and smiling, gathering
their things. They prepare to leave a space that was famil-
iar in its ability to produce something new. Were they
changed by the worlds they made, the universes they
entered? There is something that they cannot put their
finger on, not quite, but they feel it: They were powerful,
entangled for a moment, and now they leave the space
with more than when they entered.
As Andy said earlier, there is something almost simple
about improvisation: The participants give up their
16 | Reading Research Quarterly, 0(0)
agendas as they world together. They do not push; they
do not drive. They just open their eyes and accept what
is already there. Any pedagogy applied to such an ap-
proachto worlding would, for us, only seek to animate and
facilitate that energy—that life emerging in its growing
complexity.
NOTE
1 All first-person writing is intended to capture the voice of Sam (first
author) in describing and reflecting on an improv rehearsal that he
directed. We describe our choice to move between first and third per-
son later in the article.
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Submitted April 15, 2019
Final revision received January 17, 2020
Accepted January 22, 2020
SAMUEL JAYE TANNER (corresponding author) is an assistant
professor in the Department of Elementary and Early Childhood
Education at Pennsylvania State University, Altoona, USA; email
sjt20@psu.edu. His research concerns critical whiteness
pedagogy, improvisation, and literacy education.
KEVIN M. LEANDER is a professor in the Department of
Teaching and Learning at Vanderbilt University, Nashville,
Tennessee, USA; email kevin.leander@vanderbilt.edu. His
research is rooted in adolescent literacies and English
education and is focused on spatial approaches to the social
sciences.
LAURA CARTE R-STONE is a doctoral student in the
Department of Teaching and Learning at Vanderbilt University,
Nashville, Tennessee, USA; email laura.j.carter-stone@
vanderbilt.edu. She explores what researchers and educators
might learn from the performing arts and other community
practices in efforts to make educational institutions more
engaging, equitable, and alive.
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Although nonrepresentational theory has enriched anthropologists' understanding of affect in social and cultural life, it has a short history in education research, where representational paradigms dominate. This article develops nonrepresentational theories of moments, temporal textures, and affective pedagogies in order to evoke affects of teaching and learning in a children's hospital. Moments are expressed through experiments with fictocritcism as an emergent mode of critique. These expressions compel nonrepresentational anthropology and education as an ethical charge.
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In this essay, I propose a new model and methodology for investigating the productive, layered ways in which affects operate in and through narrative texts in the communicative loops of reading and writing. I delineate this model by way of a dialogue between different concepts of worlding, world-building, and worldmaking circulating in narrative and affect theory, which provide connecting points between the two fields as well as diverging (Deleuzian, neuroscientific, phenomenological) approaches to affect. In developing these connecting points, the proposed syncretic model addresses the shortcomings of current uses of affect, including the foreclosure of textuality and subjectivity in Deleuzian conceptualizations and the narrow emotion concepts and generalizing tendencies of neuroscientific approaches. In reconceptualizing narrative worldmaking as a multidimensional, ‘multivectoral’ assemblage of heterogeneous elements, I detail how the rhetorical processes of narration and reading engage affects, bodily memories, and associations in layered transactions between characters, narrators, implied and actual readers and authors. Probing the model’s productivity through a reading of Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, I spell out three sets of implications for narrative theory: I consider fictionality’s affective engagement in the world, the workings of distributed, nonsovereign agency in the loop of literary communication, and the potentials of reconfigurative reading as a methodology of ‘following’ affective complexity. Abstract In this essay, I propose a new model and methodology for investigating the productive, layered ways in which affects operate in and through narrative texts in the communicative loops of reading and writing. I delineate this model by way of a dialogue between different concepts of worlding, world-building, and worldmaking circulating in narrative and affect theory, which provide connecting points between the two fields as well as diverging (Deleuzian, neuroscientific, phenomenological) approaches to affect. In developing these connecting points, the proposed syncretic model addresses the shortcomings of current uses of affect, including the foreclosure of textuality and subjectivity in Deleuzian conceptualizations and the narrow emotion concepts and generalizing tendencies of neuroscientific approaches. In reconceptualizing narrative worldmaking as a multidimensional, ‘multivectoral’ assemblage of heterogeneous elements, I detail how the rhetorical processes of narration and reading engage affects, bodily memories, and associations in layered transactions between characters, narrators, implied and actual readers and authors. Probing the model’s productivity through a reading of Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, I spell out three sets of implications for narrative theory: I consider fictionality’s affective engagement in the world, the workings of distributed, nonsovereign agency in the loop of literary communication, and the potentials of reconfigurative reading as a methodology of ‘following’ affective complexity.
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