Chaos in Theater

Improvisation and Complexity – Translated by Anna Grazia Cafaro and Melina Masterson

by Anna Grazia Cafaro (Author)
©2017 Monographs X, 108 Pages


Have you ever prepared a speech until you knew it by heart and then found out that, when the moment arrives, the surprise and uniqueness of hic et nunc are inevitable? No matter how much you prepare a text, it will need improvisation to be used on a stage or in the street. But, what is the limit between improvisation and technique, experience and training? Can we scientifically measure the improvisation of a text?
This work aims to investigate in which dimension art meets science and how it happens. Artists need to discover new conceptual instruments that contribute to the probing of the laws of matter, social existence, and the human mind. The rigorous and fascinating trip that Anna Grazia Cafaro proposes to capture the sense, function, and nature of the actor’s improvisation is a splendid and a unique example of a “new alliance” between art and science, predicted forty years ago by the scientist Ilya Prigogine and the philosopher Isabelle Stengers.
Thanks to the application of Chaos Theory to the theatrical processes, attempted here for the first time, the actor and the performance are analyzed as “complex dynamic systems” like a cell, in which, paradoxically, chaos and order coexist and maintain the system in balance; the continuous passages from chaos to order, create the necessary tension and energy that allows the spectator to build his own meaning.
Despite the complex theoretical concepts this book is written in an accessible language and includes clear examples that make it comprehensible to a wide audience. It is perfect for students of theater, practitioners, scholars, and anyone who is curious about communicative mechanisms. It can be used in theater, science, comparative literature, and philosophy departments.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Prologue by José Sanchis Sinisterra
  • Introduction
  • I The Actor’s Improvisation and Its Complexity
  • 1. Premise
  • 2. Observations on the Theatrical Work of José Sanchis Sinisterra
  • 2.1 Improvisation in Sinisterra’s Laboratory
  • 2.2 Less Is More: Aesthetics of Subtraction
  • 2.3 The Tip of the Iceberg: Aesthetics of Reception
  • 3. Reflections on Improvisation, Border Zones
  • 3.1 Improvisation Between Text and Performance
  • 3.2 Improvisation Between the Real and the Non-real
  • 3.3 The Subtext: Between the Explicit and the Implicit
  • II Improvisation and the Philosophy of Science
  • 1. Interpretative and Methodogical Hypothesis
  • 1.1 Philosophical-Cultural Implications
  • 1.2 The System and Complexity
  • 2. Analogies Between Theatrical Systems and Biological Systems
  • 2.1 Actor and Performance: Complex Systems
  • 2.2 The Actor as Dissipative Structure
  • 2.3 Self-organization and Self-poiesis
  • 2.4 Deterministic Chaos and Chaotic Systems
  • 2.5 Holism
  • 2.6 Nucleation
  • 2.7 Fractals and Tension
  • 3. Final Reflections
  • III Improvisation Beyond Science
  • 1. Introductory Remarks
  • 2. Improvisation in Interpretation
  • 3. Hypothesis on the Process of Acting
  • 3.1 A Practical Example
  • 4. From Chaos to Order in Theater
  • 4.1 Graphic Hypothesis of the Receptive Process
  • 4.2 Improvisation and Invention
  • 5. Improvisation in Sinisterra’s Minimalist Exercises
  • 6. Final Reflections
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • Series index

← vi | vii →



The divorce between arts and sciences would seem understandable if we were to consider them in their respective realms, but this divorce should not be justifiable in the context of theory or, at least, in that of philosophy or knowledge. Considering that both art and science are two methods of investigating, comprehending and transforming reality, in the twenty-first century, it is not possible to maintain or to fuel this apparent incongruity.

In particular, if the artist, preoccupied with adapting his thought and his work to the growing complexity of a world in transformation, did not try to approach the paradigms that the new scientific research offers to the astonished modern man, he would fall into a sterile narcissism. Artists need to discover new conceptual instruments that contribute to the probing of the laws of matter, life, social existence, and the human mind.

As early as 1948, Bertolt Brecht had suggested to consider ourselves “children of a scientific era” since he was convinced that “sciences determine our social life in a totally new way” (Small Organon for Theater). He was basically referring to the “new social science” (dialectical materialism) whose purpose was to allow human beings to understand their reality and to be able to change it. Nevertheless, he was also invoking a necessary and fruitful symbiosis between art and science as a foundation of the new theater. ← vii | viii →

More recently, John Brockman condemned the indifference that several ‘humanity’ intellectuals were showing towards many scientists’ great ability to divulge and to mold the thought of the new generations. The latters are the ones who face the big questions that have troubled humankind and who are still in search of answers. According to Brockman, the humanistic knowledge that very often “refuses science and often lacks an empirical basis is characterized by rhetorical comments in a spiral that broadens until one loses the sense of the real world” (Third Culture).

This is not the case with Anna G. Cafaro, whose refined analysis of theatrical improvisation, from the perspective of complexity sciences, represents an original contribution to this desirable reconciliation of artistic expression and scientific reflection, rigorously pertinent to the ‘real world’ of theater.

I want to emphasize, from the beginning, the audacity of her intent inasmuch as the actor’s art is the most ephemeral and fleeting element of the whole theatrical system. We all know that this art does not leave tangible traces as text, setting, costumes and music do; we know that it blooms hic et nunc from the versatile subjectivity of the actor and aims to reach the more elusive subjectivity of the spectator, who is a multiple and formless being, every night different.

However, herein lies the value of Dr. Cafaro’s original epistemological approach: she submitted this complex interactive web of subjectivity to the objective parameters of chaos theory, through the analysis of complex dynamic systems. The two deterministic and aleatory vectors that structure her fertile hypothesis indeed support an infinite variety of natural and cultural phenomena (and aesthetic ones), able to provide explanations and clarifications.

I find particularly illuminating her exploration of the concept of improvisation, which always has fluctuated in a limbo of general vagueness or in one of reductive technicality.

In Dr. Cafaro’s analysis, by identifying and broadening its borders, improvisation reveals itself as the concrete and, at the same time, unpredictable territory in which the specificity of the theatrical phenomenon occurs.

Since every theatrical event is an unlimited semiotic source and therefore, not limited to Semiotics, each event can be conceived as a “system far-from- equilibrium” formed by two asymmetrical but complementary subsystems: the stage and the audience or, better, the area of representation and that of expectation. The fluxes of information and energy that, according to the feedback principle and homeostatic models, connect these subsystems, find in the actor their main catalytic element. ← viii | ix →

As we clearly deduce from this dense and brilliant study, which I have had the honor and the pleasure to recommend, it is in the actor’s ability of improvising where the organic (biological) nature—neither mechanic nor semiotic—of this complex structure of interactions shapes the theatrical system. The actor’s ability is linked to inevitability if we consider that the actor is, as a human being, a system open and far-from-equilibrium.

In the deterministic context formed by the preset stage codes, this inevitable and desirable transience of the actor generates continual upheavals that open the way—to a major or minor extent—for the fertile unpredictability of the theater event, to the uncertainty, ambiguity and unrepeatable apotheosis of the present. As life itself !

The rigorous and fascinating trip that Dr. Cafaro’s proposes through the science of complexity to capture the sense, function and nature of the actor’s improvisation is, with no doubt, a splendid and—I would say—a unique example, with reference to theater, of a “new alliance” between art and science, which forty years ago the scientist Ilya Prigogine and the philosopher Isabelle Stengers were hoping to reach.

José Sanchis Sinisterra,

author and director,

Madrid, Spain
← ix | x →

← x | 1 →


X, 108
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2016 (November)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2017. XV, 108 pp.

Biographical notes

Anna Grazia Cafaro (Author)

Anna Grazia Cafaro is Professor of Italian and Spanish Language and Culture. She received her Ph.D. in Romance languages from Boston College in Massachusetts where she specialized in history and theory of theater. Her current research includes the representation of contemporary immigration and the abuses of human rights in theater and cinema. From 2009 to 2015 she taught Italian and Spanish at Bard College in New York where she directed the Department of Italian Studies and the Study Abroad Program in Taormina, Sicily. Her publications include L’improvvisazione dell’attore nel teatro di Ricerca Contemporaneo (2009) and “An Imploding or Exploding Society? The Honor Killing in Saverio La Ruina’s Theater” and the introduction to Honor Killing on Screen and Stage (2012).


Title: Chaos in Theater
book preview page numper 1
book preview page numper 2
book preview page numper 3
book preview page numper 4
book preview page numper 5
book preview page numper 6
book preview page numper 7
book preview page numper 8
book preview page numper 9
book preview page numper 10
book preview page numper 11
book preview page numper 12
book preview page numper 13
book preview page numper 14
book preview page numper 15
book preview page numper 16
book preview page numper 17
book preview page numper 18
book preview page numper 19
book preview page numper 20
book preview page numper 21
book preview page numper 22
book preview page numper 23
book preview page numper 24
119 pages