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Review, Impro, by Keith Johnstone

2017 September 17
by Ian Welsh

The subtitle is “Improvisation and the Theatre,” but this is a book for far more than people involved in theatre, and one of the most profound I have read.

Johnstone started as a teacher, and specialized in “problem children,” whom he found to be the most imaginative and bright students, rather than those students who are simply compliant with teacher.

I have two favorite anecdotes from this book. The first is that when teaching drama students, Johnstone would sit on the floor, while the students were in chairs. He would tell them that if they didn’t achieve the abilities the class was teaching it was his fault, not theirs, because he was the teacher.

By the end of his introductory spiel, they would all be off the chairs, sitting on the floor with him, because they didn’t want to be “over” someone treating them as he was.

Johnstone would try and make students feel completely safe, and he found that as people learned not to censor themselves three layers would emerge.

The first was sexual: Often wildly, inappropriately sexual.

The second was a deep fear of God (remember he was teaching more than 50 years ago now) and of Hell, combined with anger and hatred.

The third and final layer was a deep tenderness.

(This is fairly similar to my experiences with meditation. Human nature, stripped of fear and desperate desire, appears to be essentially love. Most people never strip off enough to experience more than brief flashes of this, however.)

Johnstone has a long disquisition on status which is fascinating and useful far beyond the theatre. His analysis that higher status people own more space than lower status people, and that servants own no space, is brilliant.  His breaking down of conversational domination opened up whole vistas of understanding how people talk in real life.

But this is my favourite quote from the book:

I once had a close rapport with a teenager who seemed ‘mad’ when she was with other people, but relatively normal when she was with me. I treated her rather as I would a Mask – that is to say, I was gentle, and I didn’t try to impose my reality on her. One thing that amazed me was her perceptiveness about other people – it was as if she was a body language expert. She described things about them which she read from their movement and postures that I later found to be true, although this was at the beginning of summer school and none of us had ever met before.

I’m remembering her now because of an interaction she had with a very gentle, motherly schoolteacher. I had to leave for a few minutes so I gave the teenager my watch and said she could use it to see I was away only a very short time, and that the schoolteacher would look after her. We were in a beautiful garden (where the teenager had just seen God) and the teacher picked a flower and said: ‘Look at the pretty flower, Betty.’

Betty, filled with spiritual radiance, said, ‘All the flowers are beautiful.’

‘Ah,’ said the teacher, blocking her, ‘but this flower is especially beautiful.’

Betty rolled on the ground screaming, and it took a while to calm her. No one seemed to notice that she was screaming ‘Can’t you see? Can’t you see!”

In the gentlest possible way, this teacher had been very violent. She was insisting on categorizing, and on selecting. Actually it was crazy to insist that one flower is especially beautiful in a whole garden of flowers, but the teacher is allowed to do this, and is not perceived by sane people as violent. Grown-ups are expected to distort the perceptions of the child in this way. Since then I’ve noticed such behaviour constantly, but it took the mad girl to open my eyes to it.

Reality isn’t, mostly. That’s not  to say there aren’t real things, and objects and so on, most of it is filtered so heavily that we never see the world minus huge amounts of connotation and framing we picked up from other people and pass on, too often rather like a virus. A great deal of what passes for us as wrong, escalating to mad, is really just people who refuse to live in our particular reality. (Other madness is, of course, far more serious.)

There’s a vast amount of information here, of course, on how to do improvisational theatre and my theatre friends tell me it’s great, even foundational. The most important points are to always accept prompts (don’t shut down what your impro mate is doing, but run with it) and to not try to be too clever, because too clever doesn’t flow from whatever was given to you and the audience won’t buy it or get it.

But this book is one I keep coming back to because so much of it is about what it means to be human, how to retain our imagination, and how not to drown in social conditioning. It’s a fundamental book, one which deals with the deepest issues and illuminates them. Recommended for everyone.


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10 Responses
  1. atcooper permalink
    September 17, 2017

    I’m increasingly convinced ‘perception distortion’ as described in the excerpt is waste product of the Enlightenment. As language became more instrumental, it became easier to lead or guide thinking.

    Maybe there was a cost for the Age of Reason. I wonder if some of that cost is the loss of mystical traditions.

    I love the excerpt and love the expertly used parenthetical.

  2. different clue permalink
    September 18, 2017

    ( @Ian Welsh) . . .

    ( I think the post you wrote about short term storage of small amounts of water for short term shortages or emergencies has dropped off the blog . . . )

  3. Ian Welsh permalink*
    September 18, 2017

    Yes, it had, got deleted (but not permanently) somehow. I’ve restored it. Thanks for letting me know.

  4. September 18, 2017

    I love the way that teenage girl had such a shit fit over the teacher’s subconscious favoritism and pigeonholing.
    Even if the teen couldn’t put into words what she was instinctively realizing, her subconscious mind knew damn well what it was she was actually seeing.

  5. EmilianoZ permalink
    September 18, 2017

    The anecdote about the teenage girl seems to be a defense of post-modernism. I dont know much about post-modernism. All I know about it comes from a few posts at Naked Capitalism. My understanding is that one of its central tenets is that nothing is universal, everything is a social construct and therefore only the subjective experience matters.

    If what the teenage girl says is true (“all the flowers are beautiful”) and extended into art, then it means that anything that pretends to be art is equal (Duchamp’s famous urinal is and good as any Michelangelo’s sculpture). Museums like the Louvre or the Metropolitan can toss out their Da Vincis and Rembrandts. Everybody should be allowed to expose there. If too many people want to expose there then it should be decided by lottery.

  6. atcooper permalink
    September 18, 2017

    I almost mentioned post-modernism myself, but the term is almost useless with today’s politics. I mean, funds have been moving from the humanities to business school’s for decades now, so I’m hard pressed to believe humanities based post-modernists are all that powerful. In truth, it’s the post-modernists in advertising and marketing that have power.

    Despite the political warping, there are core ideas in postmodernism that are much older than the history implies. For example, using literature, Moby Dick and Don Quijote both have post-modernist stylings.

    Moby Dick, for the most part a straight forward sailor adventure story, has some passages that are entirely about the anatomy of the whale. It’s the deliberate breaking of the narrative dream state, a kind of breaking the forth wall, that make it ‘post-modern’-ish.

    Don Quijote in it’s use of a ‘based on a true story’ intro, and authorial insertion, has characteristics of post-modernism. Who knew Truman Capote and Cervantes have some common strains of tradition?

    So at the core of it, post-modern thought’s most useful contribution is that one’s perspective has an incredible influence on one’s reality. It’s not that one can forcibly shape reality this way. Gravity will still kill regardless of one’s perspective. But there is still a great deal one can change by a change in perspective. Even more can be changed with a change in a collective’s ‘shared reality’.

    To take it a step further, more recent western philosophy like existentialism, which seems to get lazily lumped into post-modernism, seems either heavily influenced by eastern thought, or contain within it rediscovery of similar principles. Sartre is closer to Chogyam Trungpa than Plato.

    Shoot, even the Bible has elements of post-modernism. You want to blow up the heads of some folks, point out the repetition and change in perspective of Christ’s history present in the four gospels. Or the repetition and minor differences of two King David accounts in the Old Testament. You don’t even have to pull in occultist or apocrypha for the argument.

  7. Ian Welsh permalink*
    September 18, 2017

    Entire garden full of flowers is the key point. If there were 3 or 10, perhaps the teacher looked closely at all and decided which one was most beautiful. In this case, unlikely. Even in that case, there would be room for questioning: perhaps the mad girl appreciates beauty better than her, after all, or they have divergent models of what is beautiful.

    Human models of the world are not truth. They may come closer and closer to truth, but we can never be 100% sure they are it. This goes right down to the problem with human sense representation to consciousness.

    Post modernism made some important points. Like a lot of paradigms it needs to be used with care, it is not a call for paralysis. We may not know the TRUTH but we can, pragmatically, come close enough to it for action often enough.

    But even then, we should know that perhaps we are wrong.

  8. nihil obstet permalink
    September 19, 2017

    To go all philosophical on it, there is no such thing as objectively existing truth. As quantum physics points out, matter, space, time, and gravity have a finite number of possibilities but each incident only actualizes by interacting with another possibility. Meanwhile, Newton’s close enough for jazz.

  9. September 19, 2017

    Sounds like a nice book, and I’m sure I would learn from it, but none of what you described can be counted as “violence”. We have to be really careful about distorting language to make a point. And in my opinion, “all flowers are equally beautiful” and “one flower is more beautiful than the others” are equally valid opinions. They are judgment calls, equally unprovable. Throwing a fit because someone disagrees about flowers is unfair and no way to act in a society.

  10. September 22, 2017

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