Book Review: Impro by Keith Johnstone
Impro is a book that frequently appears right at the top of books to read in both the rational and sensemaking online communities, which is intriguing for a book ostensibly about improvisational theatre.
One reason why this book is so interesting is that it focusses on teaching creativity via the medium of physical/embodied expression. Since physical performance is what we as social animals are constantly doing, mostly in public but also in private, the methods in the book have big implications for all of everyday life.
The book has a context chapter and then four chapters with different themes, but throughout the book there are three main types of useful info:
- Advice on being a good teacher, with impressive and unusual thoughts on teaching derived from Johnstone’s emapthy skills and unconventional approach.
- Insight into deeply ingrained performance of social behaviours, many of which serve to “block” or hinder people, especially creatively, and how to escape from them.
- Stuff that’s useful if you want to be a theatre performer.
The sheer quantity and novelty of subjects 1) and 2), IE generally applicable advice, that is available in this slim volume is probably why this book ranks high on recommended lists.
‘Notes on Myself’
Here’s one of my favourite bits on teaching/social behaviours from one of the first few pages, in the intro chapter. It’s long, but the themes here are presented in other ways several times, so it’s worth typing out one example (I’ve omitted a few sentences for clarity):
“I’ve seen many teachers who concentrate their eye contacts on only a few students, and this does affect the feeling of the group. Certain students are disciples, but others feel separated, or experience themselves as less interesting, or as ‘failures’…
… Students will arrive with many techniques for avoiding the pain of failure. John Holt’s ‘How Children Fail’ (Penguin, 1969, Pitman, 1970) gives examples of children learning to get round problems, rather than learning to find solutions to problems. If you screw your face up and bite on your pencil to show you’re ‘trying’, the teacher may write out the answer for you… I explain to the students the devices they’re using to avoid tackling the problems – however easy the problems are – and the release of tension is often amazing…
For example, many students will begin an improvisation, or a scene, in a rather feeble way. It’s as if they’re ill, and lacking in vitality. They’ve learned to play for sympathy. However easy the problem, they’ll use the same old trick of looking inadequate… [however] no one has sympathy for an adult who takes such an attitude, but when they were children it probably worked. As adults they’re still doing it. Once they’ve laughed at themselves and understood how unproductive such an attitude is, students who look ‘ill’ suddenly look ‘healthy’.
Another common ploy is to anticipate the problem, and try to prepare solutions in advance. Most students haven’t realised –till I show them– how inefficient such solutions are.
In exchange for accepting the blame for failure, I ask the students to set themselves up in such a way that they’ll learn as quickly as possible. I’m teaching spontaneity, and therefore tell them they mustn’t try to control the future, or to ‘win’… they’re to come out and just do what they’re asked to and see what happens. It’s this decision not to try and control the future which allows the students to be spontaneous.”
This realisation that as adults we are avoiding problems by play-acting “please be nice to me” signals, signals we learned as children to please overworked teachers, that are a pointless distraction from actually doing something seems an excellent insight.
Johnstone continues with examples throughout the book of how to unblock or stop doing the useless things we might do for social reasons that stilts one’s spontaneity and creativity.
The rest of my bullet notes from the context chapter, ‘Notes On Myself’:
- shout wrong names of anything you see to awaken the senses
- imposing categories is a kind of violence
- as a teacher, don’t impose the form or outcome or values – “this is good, this is bad”
- things invented on the spur of the moment can be as good or better than pre-worked stuff
- received knowledge of a job or system kills spontaneity
I’ve heard that it’s common for people to focus heavily on this chapter when discussing the book. I’ve included lots of quotes here that are mostly at the beginning of the chapter. I strongly encourage reading the chapter as a whole to get a real feel for what Johnstone is getting at.
Johnstone came up with the idea of Status when finding a problem with his actors in the studio – ordinary conversations on the stage seemed to be incredibly dull and lifeless. At one point while watching another play, he was inspired to think of strong or weak motivations for characters to do things, and eventually asked his actors to try to seem very slightly higher or lower in status than their partner. This method transformed the work.
“The scenes became ‘authentic’, and actors seemed marvellously observant. Suddenly we understood that every inflection and movement implies a status, and that no action is due to chance, or really ‘motiveless’. It was hysterically funny and at the same time very alarming. All our secret manoeuvrings were exposed.”
Johnstone briefly treats the choice of the word “status”. He says the actors instantly understand what he means when he says it.
“I should really talk about dominance and submission, but I’d create resistance. Students who will agree readily to raising or lowering their status may object if asked to ‘dominate’ or ‘submit’.
Status seems to me to be a useful term, provided the difference between the status you are and the status you play is understood.”
His concept of status can only be understood with examples. Here is one:
“I ask a student to lower his status during a scene. He enters and says:
A: What are you reading?
B: War And Peace
A: Ah! That’s my favourite book!
The class laugh and A stops in amazement. I had told him to lower his status and he doesn’t see what’s gone wrong.
I ask him to try again and suggest a different line of dialogue.
A: What are you reading?
B: War And Peace
A: I’ve always wanted to read that.
A now experiences the difference, and realises that he was claiming ‘cultural superiority’ by implying that he had read this immense work many times.”
The rest of the chapter has many examples of status, and games to play to become used to changing status as an actor. Here is one insight:
“We soon discovered the ‘see-saw’ principle: ‘I go up and you go down’. Walk into a dressing-room and say ‘I got the part’ and everyone will congratulate you, but will feel lowered. Say ‘They said I was too old’ and people comiserate, but cheer up perceptibly.”
This quote summarises a few techniques for seeming high or low status:
‘These are just tricks to get students to experience status changes. If I speak with a still head, then I’ll do many other high-status things quite automatically. I’ll speak in complete sentences, I’ll hold eye contact. I’ll move more smoothly, and occupy more ’space’. If I talk with my toes pointing inwards I’m more likely to give a hesitant little ‘er’ before each sentence, and I’ll smile with my teeth covering my bottom lip, and I’ll sound a little breathless and so on. We were amazed to find that apparently unrelated things could so strongly influence each other; it didn’t seem reasonable that the position of the feet could influence sentence structure and eye contact, but it is so.’
And these small tricks are just the beginning of the discussion.
I strongly encourage actually reading this chapter as the concept of status is not as intuitive as it first appears,
‘As soon as I introduced status work at the Studio, we found that people play one status while convinced that they are playing the opposite. This obviously makes for very bad social meshing… and many of us had to revise out whole idea of ourselves. In my own case I was astounded to find that when I thought I was being friendly, I was actually being hostile! If some had said ‘I like your play’, I would have said ‘Oh, it’s not up to much’, perceiving myself as ‘charmingly modest’. In reality I would have been implying that my admirer had bad taste. I experience the opposite situation when people come up, looking friendly and supportive and say, ‘We did enjoy the end of Act One’, leaving me to wonder what was wrong with the rest.’
He goes on to give examples and asides about real life, such as how to take insults, why people behave strangely for photographs, teachers that can or can’t maintain discipline, whether they are likable or not, use of space and much else.
Rest of my notes on ‘Status’
- people tend to either play low or high status (I play high, but with some hangovers of low)
- defence of no-defence. Wolf exposing the neck. Playing low status can powerfully deflect anger.
- Can play status to people but also to objects. And space.
Anyone with a suspicion that school is somehow bad for children will enjoy the intro to this chapter. I like it because it gives a general feel for exactly why and how it is bad.
‘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.’
Johnstone spends some interesting paragraphs on the ways in which spontaneous and creative action is punished in anyone over the age of about 10, and how our belief that art is “self-expression”, (rather than channeling an exterior force), is a means to shut artists down.
‘It’s not surprising that great African sculptors end up carving coffee tables, or that the talent of our children dies the moment we expect them to become adult. Once we believe art is self-expression, then the individual can be criticised not only for his skill or lack of skill, but simply for being what he is.’
He goes on to talk about blocks to spontaneity. He mentions the needs to avoid seeming ‘obscene’, avoid seeming psychotic and avoid being unoriginal.
‘The truth is that the best ideas are often psychotic, obscene and unoriginal.’
He then discusses these three topics. On sanity:
‘My feeling is that sanity is actually a pretence, a way we learn to behave. We keep this pretence because we don’t want to be rejected by other people –and being classified insane is to be shut out of the group in a very complete way’
‘When I explain that sanity is a matter of interaction, rather than one’s mental processes… the students agree that for years they have been suppressing all sorts of thinking because they classified it as insane.’
His insight for improvisers –
“the more obvious he is, the more original he appears. …audience(s) like someone who is direct… and always laugh with pleasure at an ‘ordinary’ idea.”
The rest of the chapter has reams of examples, exercises and even appendices for, if not increasing spontaneity then removing blocks to it.
‘Reading about spontaneity won’t make you more spontaneous, but it may at least stop you heading off in the wrong direction; and if you play the exercises with your friends in a good spirit, then soon all your thinking will be transformed.’
Here is an introduction to the thinking behind spontaneity:
“Suppose I say to a student, “Imagine a box. What’s in it?” Answers will flash into his mind uninvited. Perhaps:
‘Uncle Ted, dead.’
If he said this people would laugh, and he’d seem good-natured and witty, but he doesn’t want to be thought ‘insane’ or callous.
‘Hundreds of toilet rolls’, says his imagination, but he does not want to appear preoccupied with excretion. ‘A big fat, coiled snake?’ No – too Freudian. Finally after a pause of two whole seconds he says ‘Old clothes’ or ‘It’s empty’ and feels unimaginative and defeated.
I say to a student ‘Name some objects.’
He tenses up. ‘Er… pebble … er… beach… cliff er… er….’
‘Have you any idea why you’re blocked?’ I ask.
‘I keep thinking of “pebble”.’
‘Then say it. Say whatever occurs to you. It doesn’t have to be original.’
Actually it would be very original to keep saying the same word.’Pebble. Another pebble. A big pebble. A pebble with a hole in it. A pebble with a white mark. The pebble with a hole in it again.’
‘Say a word’, I say to someone else.
‘Er…. er… cabbage’ he says looking alarmed.
‘That’s not the first word you thought of.’
‘I saw your lips moved, they formed an ‘O’ shape.’
‘What’s wrong with the word orange?’
‘Cabbage seemed more ordinary.’
This student wants to appear unimaginative. What kind of crippling experiences must he have gone through before he came to me?
‘What’s the opposite of “starfish”?’
‘Answer, say it’ I shout, because he did think of something.
‘Sunflower’ he says, amazed because he didn’t know that was the idea that was about to come out of him. […]
I ask a girl to say a word. She hesitates and says ‘Pig’.
‘What was the first word you thought of?’
‘Tell me a colour’
Again she hesitates.
‘What colour did you think of first?’
‘Invent a name for a stone.’
‘What was the first name you thought of?’
Normally the mind doesn’t know it’s rejecting the first answers because it doesn’t go into long term memory. If I didn’t ask immediately, she’d deny that she was substituting better words […] this girl isn’t really slow, she doesn’t need to hesitate. Teaching her to accept the first idea will make her seem far more inventive.”
I won’t summarise all the techniques in the rest of the chapter but here are some titles: “Saying Yes and No”, “Working Someone”, “Blocking and Accepting”, “Blind Offers”, “Yes, but”.
Here is the concluding paragraph:
‘The stages I try to take the students through involve the realisation (1) 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.’
My other notes on ‘Spontaneity’:
- have to be stubborn to stay an artist
- art as self-expression is weird. Used to be that artist was a medium channeling something already there.
- when art is self-expression it’s easy to criticise and crush the person.
- people can be opened up easily – bankers asked to think like ‘hippies’.
- have psychotic, obscene, unoriginal thoughts
‘Once you decide to ignore content it becomes possible to understand exactly what narrative us, because you can concentrate on structure.’
In the dictionary a story is described a series of events. Johnstone points out that this is not true.
Even a small child knows that a story isn’t just a series of events, because he says ‘And is that the end?’
He gives an example along these lines: walking in a forest, running from a bear, finding an island and so on. He points out that he is storytelling, but he is not telling a story.
Everyone knows it isn’t finished. I could continue forever in the same way.
A series of events is not a story because the events have to be relevant to the listener in some way, or chosen to be in the story for some reason.
One technique when improvising stories is re-incorporation, IE to bring previous events back into the story: walking in a forest, running from a bear, taking a boat to an island, hearing the bear outside, the bear is in the boat, he makes it to the island, I kill the bear, I wear his skin, I go back to the forest.
Johnstone observes once again that the content of the story doesn’t really matter, and that principles of narrative structure are what gets one moving. He also mentions again the blockages people experience when being ‘creative’:
“If I tell a student ‘say a word’ he’ll probably gawp. He wants a context in which his answer will be ‘right’. He wants his answer to bring credit to him, that’s what he’s been taught answers are for.”
Here’s a list of some of the techniques in the chapter about how to begin to improvise stories: ‘Lists’, ‘Associating images’, ‘Automatic Writing’, ‘Dreams’, ‘Expert’, ‘Word At aTime’, ‘Characters’, ‘Verbal Chase’.
Again the chapter is littered with psyhcological insight:
When you act or speak spontaneously, you reveal your real self, as opposed to the self you’ve been trained to present.
At the end he makes a very interesting statement that although he said the content doesn’t matter, and that the writer cannot tell you what the meanings of the content were the way a literature critic might, in fact the best improvisers know, on some level, what their work is about, and so do the audience.
“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 are not anything to do with them, and that they are 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 a shell. You have to misdirect people to absolve them of responsibility. Then, much later, they become strong enough to resume responsibility themselves. By that time they have a more truthful concept of what they are.”
‘Masks and Trance’
“To understand the Mask it’s also necessary to understand the nature of trance itself.”
This final chapter is in many ways a culmination of the themes that have gone before, plus plenty more. It’s the most woo-ey of all, but in my view incredibly compelling. The chapter makes reference to a myriad cultural practises and anthropological asides on trance states, possession, ritual and all the good stuff, alongside many examples of teaching Mask work for the theatre that show the theory in vivid practical examples.
Anyone who has had an intellectual interest in trance states and ritualistic cultures will see familiar references here but I also think there are many that are lesser known and surprising.
The beginning of the chapter is long anecdotes on the difficulty of teaching Mask work, as the students must get into a ‘trance’ to really get into it.
The most quotable section comes next in ‘Destroying Masks’:
“we don’t realise how much of our lives is spent in some form of trance, i.e. absorbed. What we assume to be ‘normal consciousness’ is comparatively rare”
“We don’t know much about Masks in our culture … because [it] is usually hostile to trance states. We distrust spontaneity and try to replace it by reason.”
“It’s difficult to understand the power of the Mask if you’ve only seen it in illustrations, or in museums… Many masks are beautiful or striking, but that’s not the point. A Mask is a device for driving the personality out of the body and allowing a spirit to take possession of it. A very beautiful Mask may be completely dead, while a piece of old sacking with a mouth and eye-holes torn in it may have tremendous vitality.”
And in the next section on faces:
“We have instinctive responses to faces… we learn to hold characteristic expressions as a way of maintaining our personalities, and we’re far more influenced by faces than we realise.”
There are then several sections on inducing trance states, including stories from past actors as well as anthropological accounts of tribal customs that are fascinating in and of themselves.
Eventually, Johnstone gives many examples of teaching mask work, and kinds of masks available.
The last section of the book ruminates on whether Mask work is ‘dangerous’. He doesn’t think so.
“My advice is that you understand the nature of the transaction between you and the class, and if you go into the work gently, Mask work is much less dangerous than, say, gymnastics.”
“A teacher who is secretly frightened of the Masks will teach himself and his students to avoid Mask work. I know several teachers who say that they’ll ‘never touch mask work again’, but they won’t tell me what happened! If someone had got their arm broken, or was rushed off to a mental hospital, then they’d tell me. What must have happened is that the teacher’s status suffered. He got himself into a situation he couldn’t understand or control, and it deeply disturbed and embarrassed him.”
“As to the fear of madness… Ordinary people can face the death of the people they love, or their house burning down, without having their sanity threatened. The fear that the Mask will somehow drive people out of their minds stems from the taboo of trance states.”
“[students] judge the danger by the calmness, or the jumpiness of the teacher… The Mask teacher must develop a coolness, a therapeutic blandness. There is nothing the student can do that will surprise or disconcert him. Like the meditation teacher, he conveys the feeling that nothing really alarming is happening. If he doesn’t project stability and confidence, then his students will be frightened away. “
“In reality the work is very therapeutic, but in this culture any irrational experience gets defined as ‘mad’… Mask work, or any spontaneous acting, can be very therapeutic because of the intense abreactions involved: but the teacher’s job is to keep the student safe, and 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.”
My notes on ‘Masks and Trance’
- you can/have to enter a trance state to wear a Mask
- our Western culture doesn’t understand Masks because it distrusts trance states (confiscated Masks in the Vatican)
- education may be seen as primarily an anti-trance activity
- consciousness is like the light in the refrigerator (“when you look in, there you are ON, but what’s happening when you don’t look in?”)
Peppered throughout the book are examples of a student saying they are not creative or they are unable to do a task and then Johnstone figures out a way to draw them out.
Two things come across strongly from these examples. One is, as I mentioned at the start, that the words and gestures we use to capitulate in these situations are socially encoded. They are deeply embedded learned behaviours from childhood, enacted in order to get out from under the gaze of a teacher or parent, or to be thought of as ‘normal’ and accepted in a group. The tragedy of this is that we automatically use them as adults, even if we don’t really want to, and then say to ourselves that we are “just not creative”. Johnstone’s ingenious ways of short cutting these learned social behaviours seem extremely beneficial as a way to disrupt ingrained habits that are getting in the way of desired outcomes (e.g to be more creative).
The second thing is that when students really open up and get into a task, extremely potent, powerful, vulgar, sexual or shameful things can come pouring out of a person. It often seems as if the person is possessed, or they claim afterwards that it was “not them” speaking. In some examples, Johnstone then talks about the maturity in students doing these exercises, about having learned about themselves, greater awareness of themselves and so on.
It seems to me that all of Johnstone’s games and techniques could be seen as methods for doing shadow work.
Johnstone always stresses that like a therpaist, a teacher must give no judgement on the content of what comes out of the sessions, indeed to totally ignore the content that comes up for each person and instead praise the spontaneity and willingness of the person to participate in the exercise.
As a teacher he is attempting to unblock powerful creative energy that is present in all persons for use on the stage and in successfully doing so, I think he is also unblocking a person’s not-me shadow self. It is incredibly interesting that Johnstone is looking to unblock the creativity, and the side-effect is seeing the student’s shadow-self. Whereas in shadow-work people are focussed on seeing and reincorporating the shadow self, and get the beneficial side-effect of extra creative and emotional energy.
It could be that I’m obsessed with shadow at the moment, and therefore see it everywhere, however if there is some substance to this observation then this book is a Big Deal.
One of the big problems that writers seem to encounter when describing shadow work is describing reliable techniques for seeing and working with the shadow. Buddhism for Vampires goes into detail about this problem here: https://buddhism-for-vampires.com/romancing-the-shadow
So if I’m right to guess that Johnstone has “accidentally” found multiple secular techniques for working with shadow because his quest was to unblock creative energy, then this book is somewhat of a miracle for people working with the darkest parts of themselves, because it’s essentially a manual of techniques and exercises to do this work.
I read four of the five sections of this book on holiday. I conducted only two of the exercises in the book, one alone in my hotel bedroom (shouting wrong names for things) and trying not to “block” the imagination of a four year old who was talking to me on a train. Otherwise I did nothing else consciously that the book suggests. However, reading it put me into a contemplative mood and, combined with being in a different place where no-one knew me, I feel it created a profoundly fertile, fresh ground for thinking about myself and relating to others.
I came away from the holiday refreshed and with an unusual item as my top priority for life goals!
I am still keen to try out the exercises with close friends, and I think the most benefit would come from practising regularly.
This style of review feels a bit different from the style of review I tend to like. Those reviews distill the best insights from the book, such that you probably don’t have to read it yourself. This review does not do that, because I think the book is already short and insight-dense, and it resists attempts to summarise it further without copying out even larger sections, but in the end I’m happy with it.
I hope that this review gives a flavour of what the book contains. I encourage you to elevate the book to the top of your reading pile, especially if you’re working on self-transformation.