Another featuring text in the blog, this time as part of the writing project of the SIN network—an international improv network I co-created a few years back.

The text below is a teaser section from the chapter “Improvisation and the Scientific Method” by Ben Verhoeven and myself. The book where it belongs will be published later this year, and will integrate other essays, including Biology of Improv in its full version.
You can find another teaser of the chapter, on reproducibility, on Ben’s blog.

Both Ben and I have a scientific background—Ben as a computational linguist and myself as a geologist—and we love improv.

Entropy and improvised theatre

As a player but also when creating a format, our aim is to reduce the entropy of our show. But what is the concept of entropy, and how does it apply to improv? In thermodynamics, entropy is a parameter representing the state of disorder of a system […] the greater the disorder the higher the entropy. Another definition of entropy comes from information theory, where it is the average level of “surprise”, or “uncertainty”. If we draw the analogy to improv, the level of entropy would represent the disorder or chaos in the scene or a show, i.e. the unknown parameters.

For us as a player, the entropy will be maximal right at the beginning of the scene, and reduce as the scene is going. We will also observe a burst of entropy everytime a new “information door” is open: introduction of a new character, the scene being edited, etc. The more we know about the scene and its protagonists, the more we have to respect the logic and coherence of what we created.

When it comes to show creation though, the entropy can be a parameter we can decide as part of the format. For instance, a format with only two-person scenes will have a low structural entropy, even if it still keeps a high narrative entropy, as the content of the scenes is completely free. The opposite is true for formats that have a genre but no structure, where we then have a very high structural entropy.

The level of entropy is influenced by the set of—spoken or unspoken—rules we either discover while playing or determine beforehand. Lowering the level of entropy in a format can give a feeling of safety, and sometimes lead to some aspects of reproducibility. A scripted play has a very low level of entropy, both narrative and structural. A freeform show has a very high level of absolute entropy that drops with the show being played. The role of a director is to find the right amount of entropy, and the role of a performer is to accept and accompany the decrease in entropy as the scene progresses.