Free improv

Everyone would like a school that produces people who are happy, open, spontaneous, in touch with other people and themselves. How to achieve this?

Change one thing. For one semester, get rid of incessant tests and evaluations. Ditch math, biology, English. Replace all this with classes of free improv.

What is free improv?

photo: Michał Kotowski
photo: Michał Kotowski

Free improv is a technique of improvisation that I learnt recently at a workshop taught by Piotr Filonowicz (, in Polish). It’s a bit hard to describe, but in its essence, it’s a method of spontaneous action, mostly via physical movement and voice, using cues from our body, surroundings and other improvisers. It has something in common with improv theater, but there are important differences: free improv does not require an audience and is not stage oriented; emphasis is on authenticity, not acting; free improv is mostly nonverbal (although words can appear from time to time).

I’ll describe a couple of different exercises, but the underlying rules are the same:

  • Action should come from the body or emotions felt at the moment, not from the intellect.
  • Be spontaneous, follow fleeting impulses and sensations.
  • Constantly be “in the present”, at each moment be totally aware of yourself and your surroundings.
  • Do not judge, criticize, evaluate (yourself and others). Anything goes.
  • React, don’t plan.
  • Allow yourself to play and be surprised by yourself. If you have an “idea” what to do, abandon it and do something else.

The goal is to achieve a frame of mind where one can perceive and act with childlike innocence and curiosity, without plans, preconceptions and evaluations. Always reacting, without hesitation or fear of judgement. Perceiving the world in a fresh and intense way. The description may sound cliched, but this is what actually happens and the experience is incredibly liberating and refreshing.

To be spontaneous, one needs a relaxed body. A lot of time each day was devoted to physical warmups, massages and exercises helping to let go of physical barriers, tensions, apprehension of physical contact etc. After that, one is ready for improvising! One of the first exercises was physical improvisation in pairs. Person A is passive and person B touches A in any way they like. B then freezes and A immediately reacts physically  – ideally, the reaction should be without forethought or “censorship”, coming from the body itself. After A freezes, B follows with another touch, and so on. Even such a simple exercise can be surprisingly rich with emotions and expression. An ideal state is when the mind and body of the passive partner are like a gas canister, waiting for a spark to set it on fire. This doesn’t mean that physical reaction should be dynamic or abrupt – it could be a subtle movement, but with maximal internal intensity. Even micro-movements, even silence can be vibrant with the same or bigger energy as screaming and flailing.

photo: Michał Kotowski

Another exercise I liked a lot was “the tamer and the beast”. One of the people is the “beast” and has to act physically and vocally (in any way). The “tamer” concentrates 100% of their attention on the beast and whenever they notice a pattern in the beast’s behavior, they shout: “Change!” and the beast should immediately change everything (use different speed, different dynamic, change position, use other limbs etc.). The tamer can use “change” whenever they want, and as the exercise continues and the intensity rises, it’s usually used more and more, until the beast has no time to  cling to any fixed pattern. One of the goals is to make the beast as tired as possible, to get rid of control and make it more difficult to think and plan. So the tamer has to be like a good sadist (just like God, in a sense…).

There were many more pair and group improvisations. A lot of singing, telling stories using nonsensical words, improvisation using touch, smell and sound. A full tour through sensual and physical experience.

Each day ended with “the aquarium”. The room was divided into a central space and margins for the spectators. At any time, anyone can enter the space and act; once they feel they are not needed anymore, they leave. In one of the variants, actors in the aquarium should obey rules: there can be at most 4 people at the same time and they may only stand, walk, run or sit, with neutral expression (so as to build tension and energy using minimal means). The audience should keep full awareness of what’s going on in the aquarium and what arouses their curiosity. At any time, it may happen that the situation needs you, that you will feel the impulse to enter and act. As the time goes, more and more rules are broken and in the end the aquarium becomes the stage for “free improvisation” where everyone participates and everything is allowed. The idea that  an empty room with a bunch of people watching can induce enormous intensity may seem far-fetched, but after a whole day of free improv, the “empty space” is teeming with sparks and impulses, is radiant with strange energy and pressure.


photo: Michał Kotowski
photo: Michał Kotowski

All the participants said the workshop was a unique, fantastic experience. An experience after which it was hard to come back to normal life, with its dullness and limitations. The mix of unpredictability, “letting go” and having a safe playground created free flowing emotional expression, sharp perceptions, feelings of closeness and intimacy among participants. One participant wrote: “Imagine that two people meet on a desert and don’t know any conventional reactions or rules of communication. The very fact of meeting another human being would be a grand event that unleashes curiosity and imagination. This is what happened during our exercises.” This reminds me of a scene from one of my favorite movies, Waking Life, the scene about “not being an ant” (couldn’t find it on YT, here is the script:

Time for my impressions. For me, the most interesting and intense were short moments of heightened perception, when I thought “I don’t know what will happen with me in 3 seconds, but it’s all right”. A few times I felt connected to the aquarium’s energy, the space inside felt dense with some magical substance. It felt like a sacred area that calls me to act, do something that only I can deliver. Sometimes I was so focused on the present that after leaving the aquarium I didn’t fully remember what I did there. I was also exhilarated by lack of “second guessing” – whatever you do, you do with full certainty. If you don’t know what to do, be fully lost, amplify this feeling, let your utter confusion be an impulse to act.

During the 3rd day the instructor said: “Think that the aquarium is a safe space. Anything can happen there. Maybe I’ll enter and after two seconds I’ll be killed by a landmine – but it will be a good, cool kind of death”. I found that very inspiring – for me, the best metaphor for the aquarium is a “waking dream”. Various things happen and one can experience everything intensely but safely, assured that in a while the waves will flow and wash everything clean – a new scene will begin, I’ll be someone else. I’m free to allow myself not to be “me”, to act without sense or purpose, like in a dream. A couple of times I felt that the aquarium is like the room from Tarkovski’s “Stalker” – a place where dead phones ring, where anything can materialize, from death to ecstasy, but I can safely submit to whatever happens.

What I like about free improv is that there is no need for plot or characters. Of course one can imagine some context for a situation (that it happens in a prison or a garden etc.), but for me it was sufficient to observe abstract actions, the dance of shapes, motion and human dynamics without any particular sense or context. Maybe even more than the aquarium I liked the meetings before, when we sat in the hallway and the instructor told us what the exercise would be about. It felt like “something big is going to happen now”. The school where the workshop took place became something mysterious, magical, everyday objects looked out of ordinary. A very subtle, cursory feeling like from a high school summer camp, when friends sit in a dorm’s hallway, everything around is silent, the air is warm, nothing happens but maybe the wind will bring the scent of evening, Boris Vian, love, playing music together, going somewhere deeper, deeper…

Bottom line

Free improv changed something in me. For a large part of my life, I was a typical nerd 😉 and ignored physical activity as something irrelevant, a waste of time. At the workshop, I saw very concretely how physical action, being flexible and relaxed, can lead to soft, free, spontaneous action, to deep feelings and connection to other people. The experience of free improv is so unlike everyday life, dominated by planning, controlling, deliberating, by intellect, distance and irony, that I’m sure there are many more lessons to be drawn from here.

After the workshop, I came back to Budapest on a night train and listened to music. Every song, from Metallica to The Doors, sounded like if I was listening to something called “music” for the first time in my life…

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