This chapter is part of a series of blogs about my personal opinions on the historical influences on improv, why it started when it started, why it survived and then flourished, and where it fits into the wider scheme of things.
CHAPTER 2: CENSORSHIP
Until 1968, British law required scripts to be approved by the Lord Chamberlain’s Office, a department within the British Royal Household, who then also sent bureaucrats to the performance to ensure the approved script was adhered to (thanks to Theatre Company Cartoon de Salvo for reminding me of this when I was putting everything together). Keith Johnstone encountered problems with this at the start, and had to put on improvisation as ‘open workshops’ rather than ‘shows’ to avoid getting in trouble.
Joan Littlewood, the English actress and director who was active from the 1930s to 1970s, made extensive use of improv in developing plays for performance. However she was successfully prosecuted twice for allowing her actors to improvise in performance. Prosecuted. For Improvising. In a Theatre. So in terms of the effect on the growth of impro, which is what this blog was about, it seems that until the 1960s improvisation on the stage wasn’t even legal! As far as I can work out this seemed to be mainly a British thing, there may have been an American version of the Lord Chamberlain but not that I know of.
But looking at history it appears spontaneous theatre will always fight back.
For instance in Shakespeare’s day he put on quite rowdy plays featuring love, death, comedy, tragedy, clowns. He even used many Commedia dell’Arte scenarios and improvisation within performance. The audience would boo, hiss and clap as the show went along. They would talk during the performance (it’s only recently that this became unusual), food and drink would be passed around.
However this incredible peak of British Theatre was soon followed by a banning of all public stage performances by the Puritan regime for 18 years. Shakespeare to nothing, just like that. But following the Restoration in 1660 theatre flourished. Theatres re-opened following a whole generation of nothing, and Restoration Comedy was born with its sexual explicitness, intricate plots and general naughtiness. Even when theatre hadn’t been in the national consciousness for so long it still came back with a life of its own, and the pressure cooker effect of extended censorship made it rowdy and naughty.
You can’t repress proper theatre for long, it is a basic human instinct. Theatre isn’t an intellectual political act in my opinion, it’s a human action like feeding, drinking and talking so we’re going to do it whether we have permission or not.
I believe that even if humans were brought up in isolation on some sort of multi-generation space ship trip to a distant galaxy, and even if generation 5 or whatever had been brought up solely on space education, that someone would still end up running a theatre in the basement. Except it wouldn’t be called theatre, because they wouldn’t know what the word was, which would actually make it better because they would be discovering it for themselves. Hopefully it would take the piss out of the Captain and they would laugh their space socks off, good on ya fith generation space dudes!
I actually think theatre is still heavily censored in Britain, but in an accidental way. The way theatres and the entire industry is set up economically means that to put on a major show these days most people need either Arts Council funding or Corporate Funding. So your show now has to be approved by someone in the Arts Council, or someone in a Corporation, both of whom therefore have ultimate power over what shows actually happen. The Arts Council can be a kindly giving father figure, but I worry this leads to seeking of approval and the almost Child/Parent relationship theatre has with mysterious overriding bodies.
Put on what the hell you want to put on, and if people don’t want to come and watch it then try again and put something else on. When you’ve got something good it’ll work, you don’t need someone giving you permission to make stuff up, so just do it now.
That’s why I love theatre in pubs so much, there’s something there that nobody can fuck with. But then again if I don’t bring in people to watch it, the pub would replace me with someone else who does, so I can’t escape censorship either. The Miller is my Arts Council.