Goal Orientation, Process Orientation, and Improvisation … Oh My!


In general semantics, you will hear championed “a process orientation.”  It struck me recently what kind of orientation might contrast a process orientation.  If you haven’t guessed by the title of this entry, it could be the goal orientation.

In my recent life, and less clearly in the last decade, I’ve been focused on the topic of goals.  In my work in long-form improv, I’ve long talked about wants.  Really, I was talking about goals.  I’ve learned over the course that, hey, I’m a goal-oriented person.  By being oriented to goals, I’m able to get so much done in my life and get it done pretty swiftly.  In fact, I regard my goal orientation as one of the secrets to my success.

What does it mean to be “goal-oriented”?  For me, it means I live life ultimately relative to my goals.  I’m not a goal robot by any means, but I focus a lot on my goals and I measure my life and activities against them.  I evaluate my time and other influences on my life relative to my goals.  My value system is hinged upon my goals.  When I change my goals, my values shift.  How I organize my life is hinged upon my goals.  How I organize life shifts when I shift my goals.  I measure people and their influences relative to my goals.  I measure technological devices and their influence relative to my goals.  Ultimately, I am asking the question, “How will this help me achieve my goals?”  I also ask, “Is this interfering with the achievement of my goals?”  I ask, “Should I cut this influence out in light of my goals?” I even ask, “Given my insistence on having this in my life, what does this say about my unconscious goals?”  For me, it often comes back to goals.

Only recently, through the wonderful power of hindsight, have I realized that I’ve applied this goal orientation to long-form improv.  I’ve identified unstated goals in long-form improv, and by identifying them, I’ve made them clear.  By making them clear, I’ve made them more achievable.  I’ve made it so that there is something specific to pursue when performners improvise.  I’ve clarified the pursuit.  So, when improvisers get on stage, their performance is not random and their success is not accidental.  Instead, their performance is organized and their success is regular, and if not regular, it can get more regular with practice.

My goal orientation to long-form improv is largely in contrast to the process orientation that infects long-form improv performance.  Process orientation is definitely of value.  It is of value in the classroom.  In the classroom, you explore your abilities and you avoid judgment.  You see what you’re capable of and experiment with different techniques.  There is no such thing as failure when operating under a process orientation because, note, there is no goal.  You are focused more on the journey than on the apex.

But for the sake of improvisation, a process orientation is not of value in the performance setting.  When you are in an improv group who is up for performance, achieving goals becomes important.  An audience does not come to see process (except maybe in a rare case of an audience of improv connoisseurs).  Instead, they have paid money, even risked money, to see a well-done show.  They generally do not pay money hoping for a show that does not entertain them.  They pay money to see a show that guarantees entertainment.  Their time is important to them, and they don’t want you to waste their time.

In my opinion, the process orientation often developed in improv classes carries over into many improvisers’ performances.  As a result, improv gets a bad name because improv performance diminishes its entertainment value and irritates its audience.  Improv gets a reputation of being “occasionally funny,” or even “rarely funny,” unless a group has a decent reputation.  But even if there are groups with good reputations, the greater whole of improv is frowned upon.  And this is largely the result of an inappropriate emphasis on process when it comes to improv performance.

When we talk about goals and process, we start to get into the realm of meaning.  We call something “meaningful” if it influences the achievement of a goal.  If something has no influence on the achievement of a goal, we call it “meaningless.”

More specifically, we call something “meaningful” if it benefits the achievement of a goal.  That is, if something is seen as meaningful, generally it is not seen as something that obstructs the achievement of a goal.  A minotaur in the maze is meaningful in that it can obstruct the achievement of your goal to exit the maze, but it is not considered meaningful in that it gets in your way.  A doting god would be considered meaningful in that case, especially if that god could get you out of the maze.

With this understanding, what we call “a meaningful life” is really just a life filled with factors that benefit to the achievement of our goals.  Oftentimes a brush with death can trigger the pursuit of a meaningful life.  When we have a brush with death, we start to appreciate the brief amount of time we have in our lives, and decide that we shouldn’t waste that time, and a waste of time would be spending time on things that do not aid in the achievement of our goals.

But what is meaningful to you is not necessarily meaningful to everyone else.  What is meaningful is relative to your goals.  It is not absolute.  When you have a goal, say, to take a shower, particular objects in your life become meaningful to you.  Soap becomes meaningful.  Shampoo becomes meaningful.  A towel becomes meaningful.  But when you change your goal, these objects are not necessarily meaningful.  If your goal is, say, to type this blog entry, soap, shampoo, and a towel become relatively meaningless.  Instead, a computer becomes meaningful.  A keyboard.  Fingers …

Having a goal in improv performance may sound antithetical to the notion of improv.  It may sound as if it makes improv performance planned.  However, it does not.  It makes improv performance no more planned than planning to get on a stage, planning to play characters, planning to do a Harold or play an improv game, planning to address the audience for a suggestion, etc.  This is to say that having goals in improv performance is not any more planned than conventionally accepted planning done for an improv performance.  In fact, having goals in improv performance makes for more meaningful improvising.  Having goals when performing does not mean scripting a scene beforehand, or determining a character beforehand.  Having goals just gives set directions to go in when improvising in a performance.  It forces improvisers to make their improv more meaningful, to evaluate their actions relative to their goals.  Having goals in improv performance is contrasted with not having goals–i.e., revering process.  In such an approach, improvisers usually create improv that lacks a lot of meaning, or when it does become meaningful, it was a rather accidental, “magical” happening.

It should be noted that the need for a goal orientation in improv performance comes from the appreciation that you don’t have all day to perform improv.  You usually have a set amount of time.  And in that set amount of time, you want to engage the audience from beginning to end.  You need meaningful improv, and you need to know how to create it, and you don’t need to be slave to chance.

You wow the audience when your improv is rife with meaning.  If the audience sees a meaningless show–a show that seems to have no respect for any goals–an aimless, drifting show–the audience will want to leave.  Get some goals when you’re out of the classroom and in a performance, make as much as you can do meaningful relative to those goals, and the audience will want to know how you did such a surprisingly successful show.

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