Paolo Busi – Interview (Part 1)

Improv in Bologna (Italy)

Photo credit: Viviana Porru

1. Please tell me how did you fall in love with the theater improvisation?

I started in January 1991. A girl I liked told me: “I heard there is an “improv course”: would you like to accompany me there and see what they do?”. I was interested in her, not in improv and twenty six years later I am here doing and teaching improv: love at first sight. At that time, in 1989 improv had it’s official start in Italy.

Improv begun in Tuscany, between Siena and Florence, with the Impro Match, a format from Quebec. Bologna had been the first city were improv spread. We were a small group and our teacher was an actor with little experience in improv. It was a regular course and still now in Italy the “default mode” of training is the improv course, not the workshop. At first it was a two year course, but around 2001 it was extended to three years (and it was my idea, but this is another story).

The first year was about improv, the second year was mostly a study of genres and Impro Match. In reality it was more training for the Impro Match than an Improv course, but it was all we had in Italy at that time: internet was not so widespread, there was no European Union, no Euro, Italians and English language don’t fit, so exchanges were not so common as today; we were almost unaware of what was happening abroad.

2. How big was the improv community those days?

We were a small community, performing mostly in Bologna and Florence, but during the ’90s improv spread to Milan, Turin and Rome and with the new millennium improv spread all over Italy. Around 1994, even if the community was small, emerged the need for a separation between professionals and amateurs, so two leagues were formed.

It is important to say that Impro Match is a copyrighted format, so one man had (and still has) the rights for the format in Italy. I know that a lot of improvisors will dislike this, but this shaped the Italian improv scene in an unique way.

3. And how does it look now? You said there are national associations.
What is their role? Do they have any specific teaching and certification system?

In 2006 there was an huge schism in the italian improv community: some group decided to go by their own and leave the Impro Match. The result was such that even now we have a sort of post World War II world: two huge blocks – Ares with Impromatch and Improteatro with an alternative format – and a myriad of non-aligned groups.

The result is that italian improv is very format focused and the improvisors are mostly focused on a specific format than on improv in general. There are exceptions, of course, we have some amazing groups and teachers, but the legacy of seventeen years of Impro Match is still present, even in those who disown that experience. What we lack is awareness of what we have.

And what we have are the numbers: having two national organisations could translate into being able to talk to public institutions standing on the force of the number of their members and of the shows those members produce each week, but we still haven’t found a way to cooperate.

We have also a well developed training system: the two blocks create a solid learning base and the “not-aligned” groups offer a lot of specialised training increasing the offers.

In the last four years Improteatro (one of the two blocks) started an improv teachers certification path: the Scuola Nazionale Improvvisazione Teatrale certification (SNIT).

This was welcomed with a lot skepticism, when not with hate (someone insulted it renaming it SHIT on Facebook hoping to get some Likes, just to give you an idea of the cultural level of the debate!), but I think it is one of the best thing Italy could in the future offer to the world.

This certification is not about what to teach – as most of the haters think – but about how to teach. And because almost every improv teacher in Italy is a self-styled teacher, having someone from the outside teaching people how to teach is good, in my opinion.

Being a certified teacher means to follow a common procedure and using a common language and assessment method, so that we can compare classes not on the “how good my pupils are” principle, but with a more objective one.

For me, as a teacher, the most important thing has been the passing from Skills teaching to Expertise teaching. Before the certification process (and training), the passing of expertise was more a collateral aspect: I was teaching you how to edit a scene, now learning how to change a scene is a skill that is a step into teaching you the Reframing. And this is extremely important, because “editing improv scenes” is not something you can do outside improv, Reframing is. And you can put it on your CV, because I can tell you, in a measurable way, how you learned it and how good are you at it. Can you see the potential in this?

We have identified eighteen expertise improv develops , and for each of them we have identified the skills and knowledge the pupil needs to learn to gain the expertise, the timing of the teaching of each of those skills and knowledge, the exercises and evaluation grids to assess the proficiency in each expertise.

I don’t know what result this certification will get, if the Public Institution will ever recognize the value of this certification or not, but I strongly believe that what we developed so far is justifying the effort done. Those one hundred (more or less) pages certify the pedagogical value of improv.

4. Do you see something characteristic in the Italian way of improvising? Anything what is more common in Italian improv then in other countries?

The main aspect is the separation between professionals and amateurs. This has old roots, but the main business model in Italy is that improv schools give you a three year training, than you become Amateur and you perform in the school shows, then you can become a Professional and get paid. Not all the Amateurs rise to the Professional level and sometimes the promotion criteria are obscure. Apart from our structure what I see is that we are more focused on genre then other countries. An Italian improvisor is able to pretend he is proficient in Shakespeare, Greek Tragedies, Quentin Tarantino’s movies, rhymes, poetry, almost any genre you can think of. And of course people gesturing on stage, often too much.

5. How do you see changes over the years and how do you see future of improv in Bologna and Italy?

Well, Bologna in the past decades was a sort of Athens of improv, being able to deliver high quality training and being a forge for important advances to evolve from the Impromatch. Now the proficiency has spread to different cities, but Bologna still is an important learning center: it is enough to say that Bologna has almost the same number of improv schools that are in Rome, but with one tenth of the inhabitants.

I see that divisions between blocks are falling down with the new generation less involved in personal issues, so Italy could be an interesting laboratory should the Impromatch tradition melt with the Improteatro experiences and the “not aligned” vitality. I think that a new impulse to improv could come from the Mediterranean countries in the future, we are incubating at the moment.

6. And last but not least question! You are involved in Scuola di Fallimento and a brand new book forwarded by Patti StilesThe Art of Making Mistakes”. Can you tell me more about that project?

With the certification process, a reflection about the role of mistakes in improv came. In improv the Process is the Performance, but the nasty legacy of the Impromatch has been the predominance of the Performance over the Process.
Audiences love Impromatch, but improvisors are trained into doing things in the “right” way and this is a strong underground theme in the Italian improvisation.

Then the opportunity to write down my thoughts came from Finland: a Finnish improvisor – Saija Laukka – asked me to write a chapter in a book she was writing, “The Art Of Making Mistakes”. The foreword was written by Patti Stiles and the afterword by Frank Totino, but a lot of authors coming from the different branches of Education contributed to it.

Once published the book ended in the hands of a friend of a friend, who was ready to launch her Startup, the Scuola di Fallimento, a school to teach people the importance of failure and how to use failures to gain successes. My vision was complementary to the one of the School: they were focusing on learning from mistakes, I was focusing on using them as opportunities. They were using board games and role playing games to train people, so improv was the ideal complement, because of its joyful aspect.

So in the school we have improvisors, coaches, ludologists, psychologists, neuroscientists, teachers of Game Design at the Polytechnic institute in Milan and business trainers. We work with Public Institutions and private companies. In this moment we are the benchmark in Italy for anything regarding failures.

Contact Paolo by:

Interview by Monika Ozdarska
Photo credit:
Viviana Porru
Edited by: Katarzyna Anna Dąbrowska
Part 2: comming soon…