Book Review: Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre

RfG Newsletter, Volume 1, Number 1 Fall, 1991.

Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre
by Keith Johnstone
New York: Theatre Arts Books, 1979.

As the work of Keith Johnstone is the foundation of our own, we think it important to urge all persons interested in our work to acquaint themselves, if not study, this book. In view of our immense debt to Keith, both personally and professionally, we include this frankly biased review in this our first issue.

Impro is an intimate book in that Keith narrates his own insights and experiences, deriving many sound (and often counter-intuitive) principles in the process. Starting as a writer who became blocked, and later as a theater director who lost his creative ability, Keith began to heal himself by “…rediscovery of the imaginative response in the adult; the refinding of the child’s creativity.” (quotation by William Gaskill, Keith’s co-director of London’s Royal Court Theatre, from the book’s Introduction by Irving Wardle). Keith retraced many of his creative difficulties to middle-class social attitudes, particularly to the destructive effect of the conventional schools. For a while (in the early 1950’s) he taught a class of working-class children, half of which were labeled by the school as “ineducable.” Guided by the example of a brilliant art teacher he had had, Keith succeeded in generating great enthusiasm and creativity from this class by inventing and improvising ways of following and provoking the students’ interest and promoting a failure-proof context.

Later, Keith began to train actors and developed most of the improvisation work described in Impro (around 1963). “What I did was to concentrate on relationships between strangers, and on ways of combining the imagination of two people which would be additive, rather than subtractive.” (p.27) He decided to perform in front of real audiences, forming a troupe called “The Theatre Machine” that toured Europe doing pure improvisation. In more recent years, as a professor of Theatre at the University of Calgary, he devised TheatreSports, a mock-competitive team improvisational comedy event that has spread rapidly around the globe.

In a section called “Getting the Right Relationship” Keith explains how he creates a context for teaching and learning that involves creating an empowering group. He accomplishes this first by lowering his own status as teacher, asking students to work for the other group members rather than trying to outdo them, and by changing the “game” away from “winning” to “finding out what happens.” He writes, “It’s this decision not to try and control the future which allows the students to be spontaneous.” (p.32) Therapists will find this directly applicable to their work.

The major chapters of Impro are titled “Status,” “Spontaneity,” “Narrative Skills” and “Mask and Trance.” Each offers vignettes drawn from the teaching of improvisation that effectively reveal (and often solve) the same problems therapists face in facilitating growth and change with their clients, but from an unfamiliar angle.

” Status” [covered in detail in the article on page 3 of this newsletter] looks at human social behavior as permeated by status transactions. When Keith began teaching actors to create minimal status differences (maximal differences usually produce absurd, comic effects) their work ceased to be “stagy”:

“The scenes became ‘authentic’ and actors seemed marvelously 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, but at the same time very alarming. All our secret maneuverings were exposed. If someone asked a question we didn’t bother to answer it, we concentrated on why it had been asked. No one could make an ‘innocuous’ remark without everyone instantly grasping what lay behind it. Normally we are ‘forbidden’ to see status transactions except when there’s a conflict. In reality status transactions continue all the time. In the park we’ll notice the ducks squabbling, but not how carefully they keep their distances when they are not.” (p.33)

Keith gives verbatim examples of how he works with actors to get them to shift status; much of this work could pass for competent, even brilliant, therapy.

In “Spontaneity” Keith again offers marvelous insights into the ways he frees himself and others from being guarded (by staying with the familiar and trying to please others), playing it safe (avoiding even imaginary dangers), or evading the task at hand (e.g., looking miserable as a way of signalling others not to expect too much). “Narrative Skills” deals with the pragmatics of storytelling; here Keith illumines the principles of creating and breaking routines, advancing the action and re-incorporation. The final chapter, “Mask and Trance” is an incomplete but utterly absorbing look inward at the creation of the social self and its outward expression as explored by actors performing behind and through masks (Our word “person” is derived from the Latin for a mask worn by an actor).

Rereading parts of these chapters again while preparing this review made me aware of how often therapy overlooks its own social context and becomes a routinized “performance” by all involved. Only by the therapist keeping his/her Self open can client(s) be supportively challenged to reclaim imagination, purpose and enthusiasm for living. Impro is an inspiring call to action for enlivening our creative Selves.