On Impro

Earlier this year, famed author Dan Pink posted an article titled: Rebirth of a Salesman–Six Books on the Art and Science of Sales. One of the books on that list that I had not read yet and that caught my attention was: Impro – Improvisation And The Theatre – by Keith Johnstone. In his commentary, Dan wrote:

A work of drama theory? Yes – and that’s why you should read it. Smart sellers, like good improv actors, know how to hear offers. 

So I decided to order this book, read it, and share with you some of my key learnings. Keith starts by explaining the tenets of his teaching philosophy. First, on the importance of focusing on improving the overall team performance:

Normal schooling is intensely competitive, and the students are supposed to try and outdo each other. If I explain to a group that they’re to work for the other members, that each individual is to be interested in the progress of the other members, they’re amazed, yet obviously if a group supports its own members strongly, it’ll be a better group to work in.

Second, on the responsibilities of the teacher and his/her role in removing the fear of failure:

The first thing I do when I meet a group of new students is (probably) to sit on the floor. I play low status, and I’ll explain that if the students fail they’re to blame me. Then they laugh, and relax, and I explain that really it’s obvious that they should blame me, since I’m supposed to be the expert; and if I give them the wrong material. they’ll fail; and if I give them the right material, then they’ll succeed. I play low status physically but my actual status is going up, since only a very confident and experienced person would put the blame for failure on himself. At this point they almost certainly start sliding off their chairs, because they don’t want to be higher than me. I have already changed the group profoundly, because failure is suddenly not so frightening any more. They’ll want to test me, of course; but I really will apologise to them when they fail, and ask them to be patient with me, and explain that I’m not perfect. My methods are very effective, and other things being equal, most students will succeed, but they won’t try to win any more. The normal teacher-student relationship is dissolved.

Third, on the importance of maintaining eye contact with all the students:

When I was teaching young children, I trained myself to share my eye contacts out among the group. I find this crucial in establishing a ‘fair’ relationship with them. I’ve seen many teachers who concentrate their eye contacts on only a few students, and this does affect the feeling in a group. Certain students are disciples, but others feel separated, or experience themselves as less interesting, or as ‘failures’.

And last but not least, on the importance of providing constructive positive feedback:

I’ve also trained myself to make positive comments, and to be as direct as possible. I say ‘Good’ instead of’That’s enough’. I’ve actually heard teachers say ‘Well, let’s see who fails at this one’, when introducing an exercise. Some teachers get reassurance when their students fail. We must have all encountered the teacher who gives a self-satisfied smile when a student makes a mistake. Such an attitude is not conducive to a good, warm feeling in the group.

Following the introductory section, Keith, begins addressing the four areas of improvisation: status, spontaneity, narrative skills, and masks and trance. STATUS On the role of the teacher in establishing safety and enabling his/her students to stretch beyond their comfort zone – in this case the ‘preferred status’:

If you wish to teach status interactions, it’s necessary to understand that however willing the student is consciously, there may be very strong subconscious resistances. Making the student safe, and getting him to have confidence in you, are essential. You then have to work together with the student, as if you were both trying to alter the behaviour of some third person. It’s also important that the student who succeeds at playing a status he feels to be alien should be instantly rewarded, praised and admired. It’s no use just giving the exercises and expecting them to work. You have to understand where the resistance is, and devise ways of getting it to crumble. Many teachers don’t recognise that there’s a problem because they only exploit the ‘preferred’ status. In a bad drama school it’s possible to play your ‘preferred’ status all the time, since they cast you to type, exploiting what you can do, instead of widening your range.

On status, as the central element of any exchange:

Although this short essay is no more than an introduction, by now it will be clear to you that status transactions aren’t only of interest to the improviser. Once you understand that every sound and posture implies a status, then you perceive the world quite differently, and the change is probably permanent. In my view, really accomplished actors, directors, and playwrights are people with an intuitive understanding of the status transactions that govern human relationships. This ability to perceive the underlying motives of casual behaviour can also be taught.

SPONTANEITY Keith believes that we all start out with more spontaneity as children, but our education system plays a big role in reversing that:

1) Most children can operate in a creative way until they’re eleven or twelve, when suddenly they lose their spontaneity and produce imitations of’adult art’…Many teachers think of children as immature adults. It might lead to better and more ‘respectful’ teaching, if we thought of adults as atrophied children. Many ‘well adjusted’ adults are bitter, uncreative frightened, unimaginative, and rather hostile people. Instead of assuming they were born that way, or that that’s what being an adult entails, we might consider them as people damaged by their education and upbringing. 2) Imagination is as effortless as perception, unless we think it might be ‘wrong’, which is what our education encourages us to believe. Then we experience ourselves as ‘imagining’, as ‘thinking up an idea’, but what we’re really doing is faking up the sort of imagination we think we ought to have. 3) At school any spontaneous act was likely to get me into trouble. I learned never to act on impulse, and that whatever came into my mind first should be rejected in favour of better ideas. I learned that my imagination wasn’t ‘good’ enough. I learned that the first idea was unsatisfactory because it was (1) psychotic; (2) obscene; (3) unoriginal.The truth is that the best ideas are often psychotic, obscene and unoriginal. My best known play—a one-actor called Moby Dick—is about a servant who keeps his master’s one remaining sperm in a goldfish bowl. It escapes, grows to monstrous size, and has to be hunted down on the high seas. This is certainly a rather obscene idea to many people, and if I hadn’t thrown away everything that my teachers taught me, I could never have written it. These teachers, who were so sure of the rules, didn’t produce anything themselves at all. I was one of a number of playwrights who emerged in the late 1950s, and it was remarkable that only one of us had been to a university—that was John Arden—and he’d studied architecture. 4) Students need a ‘guru’ who ‘gives permission’ to allow forbidden thoughts into their consciousness. A ‘guru’ doesn’t necessarily teach at all. Some remain speechless for years, others communicate very cryptically. All reassure by example. They are people who have been into the forbidden areas and who have survived unscathed. I react playfully with my students, while showing them that there are just as many dead nuns or chocolate scorpions inside my head as there are in anybody’s, yet I interact very smoothly and sanely. It’s no good telling the student that he isn’t to be held responsible for the content of his imagination, he needs a teacher who is living proof that the monsters are not real, and that the imagination will not destroy you. Otherwise the student will have to go on pretending to be dull. 5) Reading about spontaneity won’t make you more spontaneous, but it may at least stop you heading off in the opposite direction; and if you play the exercises with your friends in a good spirit, then soon all your thinking will be transformed. Rousseau began an essay on education by saying that if we did the opposite of what our own teachers did we’d be on the right track, and this still holds good. The Stages I try to take students through involve the realisation (i) that we struggle against our imaginations, especially when we try to be imaginative; (2) that we are not responsible for the content of our imaginations; and (3) that we are not, as we are taught to think, our ‘personalities’, but that the imagination is our true self.

NARRATIVE SKILLS One technique for generating stories, that resonated with me, is to think of them as events that interrupted an established routine:

An improviser can study status transactions, and advancing, and ‘reincorporating’, and can learn to free-associate, and to generate narrative spontaneously, and yet still find it difficult to compose stories. This is really for aesthetic reasons, or conceptual reasons. He shouldn’t really think of making up stories, but of interrupting routines. If I say ‘Make up a story’, then most people are paralysed. If I say ‘describe a routine and then interrupt it’, people see no problem.

In concluding the narrative skills section, Keith offers advice on the necessity to distract the student’s initial focus away from the content so as to release their imagination:

You have to trick students into believing that content isn’t important and that it looks after itself, or they never get anywhere. It’s the same kind of trick you use when you tell them that they are not their imaginations, that their imaginations have nothing to do with them and that they’re in no way responsible for what their ‘mind’ gives them. In the end they learn how to abandon control while at the same time they exercise control. They begin to understand that everything is just a shell. You have to misdirect people to absolve them of responsibility. Then, much later, they become strong enough to resume the responsibility themselves. By that time they have a more truthful concept of what they are.

MASKS AND TRANCE On masks and trance, Keith summarizes the role these two tools can play not only in acting but also as therapy but cautions on the importance of having a teacher who’s role is to keep the student safe during his regression:

If you were to use Mask work literally as ‘therapy’, and to try and psychoanalyse the content of scenes, then I’ve no doubt you could produce some amazing conflicts, and really screw everyone up. Mask work, or any spontaneous acting, can be therapeutic because of the intense abreactions involved; but the teacher’s job is to keep the student safe, and to protect him so that he can regress. This is the opposite of the Freudian view that people regress in search of greater security. In acting class, students only regress when they feel protected by a high-status teacher. When the students begin Mask work, and ‘characters’ inhabit them for the first time, it’s normal for everything to be extremely grotesque…. But when you give the student permission to explore this material he very soon uncovers layers of unsuspected gentleness and tenderness. It is no longer sexual feelings and violence that are deeply repressed in this culture now, whatever it may have been like in fin-de-siecle Vienna. We repress our benevolence and tenderness.

This book, while primarily written as a practical guide of techniques for improvisation, has numerous lessons that extend into other areas such as psychology and influence.

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