The purpose of this paper is to illustrate how reshaping community development practice as improvisational performance can dramatically improve even the most challenging of community development situations.
Jnanabrata Bhattacharyya (2004) defined community development as "solidarity" and "agency" in which solidarity is defined broadly as human connectedness, and agency is defined as the capacity of human beings to act and change their environment. (This paper: how to advance the continuous creation of solidarity and agency.)
This paper tells the story of how the framework of improvisational performance created the environment in which extraordinary conversations developed among unlikely allies, a truce was negotiated, and conflict declined. These accomplishments did not happen because of any one person, but they were the result of creating a context in which all participants would improvise a new performance without knowing what the outcome would be. The value of improvisational performance is that professionals, community members, and activists can create an environment to work together to be open, to welcome the unexpected, and to lead without a commitment to a particular pre-conceived product or outcome.
Vygotsky showed that children learn by being supported to perform ahead of themselves (1987, p.213). In like manner, when adults learn something new, they have to go a little beyond themselves to learn it. More precisely adults have to create environments with others--what Vygotsky called "zones of proximal development" (ZPDs)--that make such performing and development possible. These ZPDs are the environments in which people experience the social nature of their existence and the power of collective creative activity (1987, pp. 208-209). Performance is a toll that helps us create these developmental environments.
It is useful to envision the work of community building in a similar way to that of improvisational ensemble building. Every activity in the ensemble (community) has an impact on the overall development of the ensemble (community), and everyone involved has responsibility for strengthening the ensemble (community performance). Community building is a collective, creative process--of people relating, conversing, performing, and bringing new social units into existence and at the same time, sharing a collective commitment to their sustainability; a sustainability that demands a commitment to continuous growth.
The problematic we are dealing with in contemporary culture is that we tend to see experience and respond to people as products (identities, labels, and members of a category) rather than ongoing process. We see ourselves and others as "who we are" (products) and not as simultaneously "who we are" and "who we are becoming". Yet, each of us is, at every moment, both being and becoming (Lois Holzman, 2004, p.2)
A performance is an instance of a politics of action, a circulation of power. A performance is a de-centering of agency and person through movement, disruption, action that incessantly contests, breaks, and remakes. Personal narrative and personhood are constituted in the moments of performance. Every performance becomes a way of questioning the status quo, and even as performance reproduces the status quo, it does so in novel ways, in ways special to the performer (Denzin, 2001, p.20)