Bruce McConachie


Bruce McConachie

Theatre Arts
University of Pittsburgh


Improvising Communication in Pleistocene Performances

In his essay for The Social Origins of Language (2014), Jordan Zlatev effectively synthesizes much of the relevant scholarship on the topic to argue that the co-evolution of human intersubjectivity and morality preceded the emergence of symbolic language.  My talk accepts the outlines of Zlatev’s overview, including his assumptions about multi-level selection and cultural group selection, and examines the period near the beginning of the narrative he sketches, when hominin performances significantly departed from primate play.   Several scholars, including Zlatev, have adopted a version of Merlin Donald’s mimesis to explain this break and I agree that the ability to imitate must have been important for early proto-human communication.  But before a gesture and/or a sound could be widely copied, the group of hunter-gatherers that invented that particular visual-aural sign must have provisionally accepted it before the sign could carry communicative value.   My paper will introduce a theatrical-musical term to explain this process: improvisation.  In short, I will argue that selected bands of Homo ergaster, the species from which we evolved, improvised their way toward the sharing and understanding of communicative intentions and meanings that eventuated in performances of proto-languaging.

Like their ancestors a million years ago, professional improv actors and musicians today rely on playful intersubjectivity and behavioral norms to shape their collective creations.  Improvisers in both art forms do more than exchange information; they generate a world together based in mutual trust and cooperation.   In other words, contemporary improvisers require the same kinds of mirror neuron systems, joint attention abilities, and turn-taking morality that our proto-human ancestors likely began to practice during the early Pleistocene period.

Alloparenting, the sharing of parenting responsibilities among trusted others, was likely a necessary first step to enable the kinds of empathy and norms that facilitated communicative improvising within bands of our ancestors.  The evidence presented by Sarah Hrdy in her Mothers and Others (2009) is quite persuasive regarding the importance of alloparenting among  Homo ergaster for the kinds of trust and cooperation that early improvisers required.  I will also draw on the impressive field work of Jerome Lewis, who details the evolutionary significance of play, the easy mixing of musical and gestural communicative codes, and the important morality of “reverse dominance” in the lives of contemporary hunter-gathers, the Mbendjele of the Congo.  In addition to practicing a fully symbolic language, groups of these African pygmies continue to engage in iconic modes of communication to perform what Lewis calls “spirit plays,” rituals of collective singing and dancing that employ a surprising amount of collective improvisation.   These spirit plays, which involve a wide range of meanings and functions — from learning key skills in hunting and gathering to representing their social and spiritual hierarchies — are intended to charm the spirits of the forest.   While recognizing that Mbendjele culture is fully modern in most respects, Lewis reasons that their mixed modes of traditional communication probably offer clues to the proto-languaging practiced by Pleistocene hunter gatherers in Africa a million years ago.

Professor Bruce McConachie has written widely on the history of popular entertainment, theatre historiography, and cognitive approaches to performance.  His major publications include INTERPRETING THE THEATRICAL PAST (with Thomas Postlewait, 1989), MELODRAMATIC FORMATIONS: AMERICAN THEATRE AND SOCIETY, 1820-1870 (1992), AMERICAN THEATRE IN THE CULTURE OF THE COLD WAR (2003), ENGAGING AUDIENCES: A COGNITIVE APPROACH TO SPECTATING IN THE THEATRE (2008), THEATRE HISTORIES: AN INTRODUCTION (with Zarrilli, Sorgenfrei, and Williams, 2nd edn., 2010), and EVOLUTION, COGNITION, AND PERFORMANCE (2015).

Professor McConachie has served the academic field of theatre studies on several boards of directors and as the Presidents of the American Theatre and Drama Society and the American Society for Theatre Research. In addition, he acts and directs occasionally in Pittsburgh. Most recently, he directed Uncle Vanya for the University of Pittsburgh Repertory Theatre.