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Phantom scripts: The censor’s archive and the phantom scripts of improvisation

Phantom scripts: The censor’s archive and the phantom scripts of improvisation

McLaughlin, James ORCID: 0000-0002-2146-6884 (2018) Phantom scripts: The censor’s archive and the phantom scripts of improvisation. Performance Research, 23 (2). pp. 105-109. ISSN 1352-8165 (Print), 1469-9990 (Online) (doi:

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Improvisation is performance ‘written’ through action in the moment of its performance. It is a collaborative act of spontaneous expression between performers and audience in a particular place and time. Any attempt to dictate the content of that expression with a written script destroys the defining quality of improvisation – spontaneity. In this sense writing and improvisation are antithetical.

Until 1968 The Lord Chamberlain’s Office was an official instrument of state by which all performance was legally bound to a written text. If there could be no written script, there could be no performance. Like mortal enemies, improvisation and censorship were therefore defined by the absolute rejection of the other.

As the censor’s authority was eroded by public disputes their correspondence with improvisation groups highlighted the inherent incompatibility of improvisation and text-based conceptions of performance. These communications, held in archive by the British Library, forge a different relationship between performance and writing, made up of letters, outlines, and descriptions. These phantom scripts, revealing the performance in negative, evidence the desire to improvise and the attempts to control that impulse. This is the untold story of how the radical spontaneity of improvisation infected the process of text-bound censorship and played a role in its overthrow.

This article uses the relationship between writing and performance to foreground the irresistible challenge radical spontaneity poses to social control, an argument with significant consequences for contemporary performance’s function in society.

Item Type: Article
Uncontrolled Keywords: improvisation, comedy, keith johnstone, censorship, writing and performance
Faculty / School / Research Centre / Research Group: Faculty of Liberal Arts & Sciences
Faculty of Liberal Arts & Sciences > School of Humanities & Social Sciences (HSS)
Faculty of Liberal Arts & Sciences > Literature & Drama Research Group
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Last Modified: 03 Feb 2020 01:38

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