Viewpoints is a vocabulary for co-creation originally invented by Mary Overlie as a way of reinventing dance improvisation and choreography. The six original viewpoints were Space, Shape, Time, Emotion, Movement, and Story. Viewpoints was later expanded and repurposed for theatre by Anne Bogart and Tina Landau, and split into two categories: Physical Viewpoints (Spatial relationship, Kinesthetic response, Shape, Gesture, Repetition, Architecture, Tempo, Duration, and Topography) and Vocal Viewpoints (Pitch, Dynamic, Acceleration/Deceleration, Silence, and Timbre). I find Viewpoints particularly well suited to improv because of the emphasis on co-creation, and on seeing and honouring everyone and everything in the space equally. There are a few of us teaching Viewpoints for Impro(v) in the world- myself, Luana Proenca, and David Razowsky (from whom I initially learned them years ago), but I’d love to see it become a common language.
One of the most helpful qualities of Viewpoints is that it gives us so many things to pay attention to. You’ve heard that good improvisers listen well, and that’s true; Viewpoints lets us listen with our ears, eyes, depth perception, sense of movement, spidey senses, and more. There’s a meditative quality to this kind of deep listening, one that leads to a very intuitive kind of creativity. In improv, we often see beginners try too hard, especially when aiming for humour, and we start to settle in a bit as we become more experienced. For me, the Viewpoints journey is the next step of that progress, where we take in everything in soft focus and notice more than we create. Using Viewpoints, we allow space for improv to occur rather than forcing it to happen.
Another effect of increasing awareness is a feeling of abundance of choice. It’s very easy in improv, regardless of experience level, to feel protective of your good ideas, or to feel like the end point of a scene or story is obvious. A scarcity mindset can lead us to believe that we need to protect anything funny or original, that the ‘game’ must be the first ‘unusual’ or shiny thing and must be played over and over, that the plot must be sensible or follow a formula if we are to resolve a story in a satisfactory way. This is often tied to a worry that our own creativity or skill won’t be adequate, because we’re still trying to make improv happen rather than allow it. Awareness leads to a huge abundance of choice, and that leads to freedom.
Basing our improv practice on awareness is also a good way to help make sure voices in the ensemble are balanced equally, because it means that offers of all kinds (eg verbal, physical, emotional, sound/movement) are equally weighted. Part of why we are often blind to these offers, or to the possibility of a scene moving in a way we don’t expect, is the desire to be a driving force. Bringing an idea and pushing it often means we’re bringing in our own background and baggage, and though I don’t believe it’s possible to completely stop doing this we can certainly move away from pushing an agenda consciously. Being led by a rich perception of what is already happening can help with this.
I’ve chosen a handful of the Viewpoints to elaborate on below, as a gentle taster of what their impact can be on our improv.
Architecture refers to the physical objects in your space, including clothing and anything on your person, and to the space itself. In improv we tend to ignore these things in favour of suspending disbelief, but in a play they’ll all be carefully planned. Take a moment to consider, though; what do you want the audience to see? Does your stage have two wooden chairs against the back wall in the centre? If so why? Are the performers wearing similar clothes, or do they all look different? Is there a costume? If you put something in your pocket do you use your real pocket or a mimed one? Which objects are mimed and which should be real props? There are no wrong answers to these, but it’s worth taking the time to think about them and make sure everybody in your group is on the same page. Although we as improvisers tend to disregard the physical architecture of a space, rest assured the audience can still see it.
We should also assign the same importance to imagined objects. For example, when doing object work/mime, take some time to imagine the object and/or its history and importance as vividly as you can. If you’re chopping a carrot, who are you cooking for and why? If you’re holding a toy, where did it come from, who owns it, what’s it’s story? Could your object or activity be a metaphor for anything? Try doing a show and tell with actual important objects and feel how much they give you emotionally; then do it with imagined objects, keeping the level of importance. If we choose to assign value to the physical objects we use onstage (real or imagined), they can be powerful emotional tools.
Spatial relationship is about the physical relationship between actors on stage, and (perhaps to a lesser extent) between actors and architecture. This is important because how close your are to somebody, and whether or not you’re touching them, can provoke a strong kinaesthetic/emotional response for both you and the audience. As improvisers we often get stymied at ‘elevens’: standing upright, arms-length apart, facing each other, and roughly centre front stage. There’s no rule against standing there, of course, but if it’s become automatic you’re not using your body and impulses to their fullest extent.
For me, and I think for many people, emotion and physicality are inherently connected. We often talk about a ‘gut punch’ or similar feeling when something bad happens out of the blue. We talk about butterflies in our stomach, having goosebumps or raised hair, having a stick up our ass, feeling the back of our neck tingle. These are all physiological responses to emotional situations; our body helps us process and even recognise how we’re feeling. It’s an incredibly valuable mechanism. This is one of the reasons I’d advocate doing a proper physical warmup, too; taking time to check in with your body can make these signals much easier to notice.
Topography refers to the path you move on onstage, almost like making a map. It can also be used to create or reinforce ‘zones’ of the stage, for example a fire might happen on the same area of the stage where ‘hot’ scenes happen, for example arguments or flirting. Topography intersects heavily with other Viewpoints, for example if you’re walking the same path you’re in repetition of gesture and shape, you’re moving in relation to the architecture and to other bodies in the space, you’re following your own impulse to move. It’s also one of the most easily forgotten Viewpoints, and one well-worth observing.
Behavioural gesture (as I’m using it) refers to the more concrete facts: the skill sets the character has, and the choices they make. Behavioural gesture includes point of view, beliefs, motivations, and anything that affects what the character does as a human. For example, if your character asks for a raise at their job, gets angry at someone, chain smokes to deal with anxiety, goes to church, gives out sandwiches at a food bank, stays home to raise their children, knits their own socks, etc., that’s behavioural.
Expressive gesture (as I’m using it) is what you see on the outside of a person or character. How they speak, how they move, how they interact, how they sit and stand can all make up our impression of a character. These are the bits that we usually notice first, or need to choose first when going on stage, and so they tend to get the most attention when we choose to play a character with a big presence or who is markedly different to us.
These last two I’ve adapted slightly to look at character from inside and outside, but simple physical gestures (the movement from one shape to another) are a delight to work with as well. More abstract movement based work like that works particularly well with groups, because movements that contrast or compliment can help us find focus without a cluster of verbal ideas.
Every Viewpoint exists in every scene, whether we notice it or not. I find it particularly satisfying when viewpoints echo through a show, for example one place on the stage is where all of the ‘hot’ interactions/events happen in a show, or there are simple gestures at similar rhythmic points throughout, or a particular body shape has the same significance throughout. A show that uses Viewpoints successfully probably has elements in it that few if any audience members will notice 100% of, but they’ll often leave thinking that the whole show had a unified tone, sat comfortably together, and that the scenework had a beautiful depth and rhythm to it. I personally love a tool that can be used subtly, inclusively, and deeply by anyone, and that’s why I love teaching Viewpoints.