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Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre

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In this landmark work Keith Johnstone provides a revelatory guide to rediscovering and unlocking the imagination. Admired for its clarity and zest, Impro lays bare the techniques and exercises used to foster spontaneity and narrative skill for actors. These techniques and exercises were evolved in the actors' studio, when he was Associate Director of the Royal Court and then in demonstrations to schools and colleges and ultimately in the founding of a company of performers called The Theatre Machine.

Divided into four sections, 'Status', 'Spontaneity', 'Narrative Skills' and 'Masks and Trance', arranged more or less in the order a group might approach them, the book sets out the specific approaches which Johnstone has himself found most useful and most stimulating. The result is a fascinating exploration of the nature of spontaneous creativity.

208 pages, Paperback

First published June 18, 1979

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About the author

Keith Johnstone

14 books41 followers
KEITH JOHNSTONE is one of the few internationally recognized authorities in the field of improvisation, great chunks of which he created, including improvisation forms that include Theatresports™, Maestro Impro© (or Micetro© Impro), Gorilla Theatre™, and The Life Game©. Keith has written two best selling books about his Theatre and Improvisation theories and practices, in addition to several plays and short stories.

Theatresports™ is known worldwide. The Life Game© was produced by London’s Improbable Theatre Co. (directed by Phelim McDermott). It toured Great Britain and the USA to great reviews.
His books Impro, and Impro For Storytellers, have been translated into many languages. His plays are produced world wide.

Keith’s ideas about improvisation, behaviour and performance appeal to a wide variety of groups. From Actors to Psychotherapists, Improvisation companies to Theatre Schools and Companies, Business and Management training specialists and Humanities Research Institutes, Universities and Film Production Companies have invited him to come to teach them about his ideas, and how they might apply them.
He founded the Theatre Machine Improvisation group in England in the 1960’s, touring Europe and North America , was the Co-founder and Artistic Director of The Loose Moose Theatre Company in Calgary, Canada in the 1970’s, 80’s and 90’s. He founded The International Theatresports™ Institute in 1998.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 281 reviews
Profile Image for Sara.
571 reviews17 followers
April 16, 2008
A book that changed my life. The idea of saying yes and being present, of not blocking and not needing to be the cleverest person on the room have made me more open to adventure and, I'm pretty sure, happier overall.
Profile Image for Nick.
183 reviews135 followers
August 11, 2007
This is going to sound corny: this isn't just a book about improvisation, IT'S A BOOK ABOUT LIFE!! Okay, terrible, but true. Johnstone writes about human psychology and the way we interact socially as a way into comedy and improvisation. That bestseller "Blink" shamelessly quotes from it, yet the surprising insights this book reveals make that book rather dull in comparison.
Profile Image for Sarah.
14 reviews8 followers
Currently reading
August 20, 2008
"Switch off the no-saying intellect and welcome the unconscious as a friend: it will lead you places you never dreamed of, and produce results more 'original' than anything you could achieve by aiming at originality."
23 reviews1 follower
October 12, 2010
A strange book with a lot of interesting observations, even for those uninterested in improvisational theater. Sometimes he fixates on a concept (like masks) which incrementally raises his new-age mumbo jumbo tally for me--but generally he tells an interesting story about his experiments, outcomes and thoughts about understanding characters and their motives.

For example, he talks about how he was finally able to get his actors to improvise realistic dialog when he had them imagine that, with every line, they were to try and change their social status in the group by the smallest amount possible. It is extremely illuminating and unsettling to pay attention to these status exchanges in your daily communications.

I highly recommend it!
323 reviews13 followers
October 25, 2010
The part about status was very good. The rest, meh.


"People think of good and bad teachers as engaged in the same activity, as if education was a substance, and that bad teachers supply a little of the substance, and good teachers supply a lot. This makes it difficult to understand that education can be a destructive process, and that bad teachers are wrecking talent, and that good and bad teachers are engaged in opposite activities."

"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."

"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. This ploy is supposed to make the onlookers have sympathy with them if they 'fail' and it's expected to bring greater rewards if the 'win'. Actually this down-in-the-mouth attitude almost guarantees failure, and makes everyone fed up with them. No one has sympathy with 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'. The attitude of the group may instantly change."

"If someone points a camera at you you're in danger of having your status exposed, so you wither clown about, or become deliberately unexpressive. In formal group photographs it's normal to see people guarding their status. You get quite different effects when people don't know they're being photographed."

"Such animals confront each other, and sometimes fight, until a hierarchy is established, after which there is no fighting unless an attempt is being made to change the 'pecking order'."

"Normal people are inhibited from seeing that no action, sound, or movement is innocent of purpose."

"Breaking eye contact can be high status so long as you don't immediately glance back for a fraction of a second. If you ignore someone your status rises, if you feel impelled to look back then it falls."

"Again I change my behavior and become authoritative. I ask them what I've done to create this change in my relation with them, and whatever they guess to be the reason - 'You're holding eye contact', 'You're sitting straighter' - I stop doing, yet the effect continues. Finally I explain that I'm keeping my head still whenever I speak, and that this produces great changes in the way I perceive myself and am perceived by others."

"It's very likely that you will increasingly be conditioned into playing the status that you've found an effective defense. You become a status specialist, very good at playing one status, but not very happy you competent at playing another. Asked to play the 'wrong'status, you'll feel 'undefended'."

"Non-defense is exploited by the wolf who exposes his neck and underbelly to a dominant wolf as a way of ending a losing battle. The top Wolf wants to bite, but can't. Some Congolese soldiers dragged two white journalists out of a jeep, shot one and were about to shoot the other when he burst into tears. They laughed and kicked him back to the jeep and let him drive away, while the waved and cheered. It was more satisfying to see the white man cry than to shoot him."

"He believed that it was necessary to play low status within his working-class community, not realizing that you can play high or low in any situation. His problem is that he plays low status well and he won't experiment with other skills."

"'Ten golden rules' for people who are Number Ones. He says, 'They apply to all leaders, from baboons to modern presidents and prime ministers.' They are:
1. You must clearly display the trappings, postures and gestures of dominance.
2. In moments of active rivalry you must threaten your subordinates aggressively.
3. In moments of physical challenge you (or your delegates) must be able forcibly to overpower your subordinates.
4. If a challenge involves brain rather than brown you must be bale to outwit your subordinates."
5. You must suppress squabbles that break out between your subordinates.
6. You must reward your immediate subordinates by permitting them to enjoy the benefits of high ranks.
7. You must protect the weaker members of the group form undue persecution.
8. You must make decisions concerning the social activities of your group.
9. You must reassure your extreme subordinates form time to time.
10. You must take the initiative in repelling threats or attacks arising from outside your group."

"Many teachers think of children as immature adults. It might lead to better and more 'respectful' reaching, 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."

"Sanity has nothing to do with the way you think. It's a matter of presenting yourself as safe. Little old men wander around London hallucinating visibly, but no one gets upset. The same behavior in a younger, more vigorous person would get him shut away. A Canadian study on attitudes to mental illness concluded that it was when someone's behavior was perceived as 'unpredictable' that the community rejected them."

"There are people who prefer to say 'Yes', and there are people who prefer to say 'No'. Those who say 'Yes' are rewarded by the adventures they have, and those who say 'No' are rewarded by the safety they attain. There are far more 'No' sayers around than 'Yes' sayers, but you can train one type to behave like the other."

"You have to trick students into believing that the 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 just just a shell. You have to misdirect people to absolve them of responsibility. Then, much later, then become strong enough to resume the responsibility themselves. By that they they have a more truthful concept of what they are."

"There is a box that we are forbidden to open. It contains a great serpent and once opened this monster will stream out forever. I lift the lid, and for a moment it seems as if the serpent will destroy us; but then it dissipates into thin air, and there, at the bottom of the box, is the real treasure."
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Chip Huyen.
Author 7 books3,167 followers
November 26, 2015
The merit for this book's four star came entirely from the chapter "Status". Johnstone saw life as nothing but a series of transactions of status. This chapter made me conscious about how I carry myself and what I do with the space around me. Space has everything to do with status. The more space you take up, the higher you put your status. The more uncomfortable we are in a situation, the less we know what to do with space around us. What Johnstone wrote about status suddenly made me understand why we are so awkward around people we have a crush on. When we have a crush on someone, our status goes lower in regard to that person, yet we try to act higher status to impress that person.

The other chapters are just "meh". It was difficult for me to finish the first chapter “Notes on myself”. The author’s self-absorbedness bothered me, and I had to constantly remind myself that a work of autobiographical nature would inevitably suffer from self-absorbedness since it requires a certain degree of self-lovingness for someone to write about himself.

The chapter “Spontaneity” struck me as politically incorrect. Keith Johnstone kept talking about “carving coffee tables” as a degrading job and I wonder what’s wrong with carving coffee tables. The way he talked about artists of different cultures is not how I would be comfortable with saying in public. The book was written in 1979, so people probably different values back then. I also don't quite agree with Johnstone's belief that education was the sole culprit for our loss of spontaneity. He argued that we all had spontaneity as we were kids, but school gradually killed it. I think think another huge culprit is time. We grow up. When we start having responsibility, we have to think about consequences of our action, and subsequently spontaneity becomes a luxury.

I had expected more from the chapter “Narrative”. Narrative techniques Johnstone talked about are very helpful when we encounter writer’s blocks. However, Johnstone also noticed that most of these techniques would be considered tricks that don’t have a lot of literary value.
Profile Image for Cassidy Barnes.
5 reviews5 followers
February 12, 2009
Definitely a book to reread every few years. I feel a revival of my inner-contrarian and I've gotten a few improv games out of it to boot! The chapter on status is hiLARious. I believe I now have a new perspective on self-expression as not really being about the individual, especially in theatre. I had a lover once who said making art and becoming an artist were peculiar to the West. Johnstone expanded on this idea in a way that made me a bit uncomfortable at times, making broad claims from what seemed to me an imperialist perspective. But at least he was trying not to apply European standards of art to the rest of the world.
Profile Image for Martin Sebesta.
36 reviews9 followers
April 6, 2017
Není to kniha, ale životní filozofie. A divadla se taky týká vlastně jen napůl. Nejvíc ze všeho je to boj proti extrémní racionalitě západní civilizace, která se projevuje selháváním i v bytostně lidských situacích, jako je dostat se do tranzu (přeneseně i nepřeneseně) nebo vyprávět příběh. Svým způsobem je to návod, jak se poprat s prokrastinací, který byl napsán, ještě než se slovo prokrastinace vůbec objevilo. A možná úplně ze všeho je to příručka pro západního člověka, jak žít zase o trochu přirozeněji a občas ten všudypřítomný rozum vypnout.

Rozhodně se vyplatí přečíst, i když se nechystáte na divadelní prkna.
Profile Image for Julia.
284 reviews14 followers
October 19, 2021
I read this book after seeing it referenced on Ribbonfarm and I'm glad that I did. It speaks to both theatre and life, and I benefited from Johnstone's reflections on education and creativity, his explanation of how status interactions work, and the sections on 'accepting' and 'blocking'. Reading this was entertaining, educational, and eye-opening!

There are people who prefer to say 'Yes', and there are people who prefer to say 'No'. Those who say 'Yes' are rewarded by the adventures they have, and those who say 'No' are rewarded by the safety they attain. There are far more 'No' sayers around than 'Yes' sayers, but you can train one type to behave like the other.
Profile Image for Philipp.
619 reviews180 followers
December 28, 2021
I found this one on a few 'life-changing books' lists - parts autobiography, parts 'how-i-do-it' by the founder of the improv theatre movement.

The basic gist is - say yes to everything. Don't block, don't think, go with the flow. To me, more interesting was the stuff on 'status', and how good theatre is mostly status games, where people put themselves above others, or try to put themselves below others, all depending on social status. That made me see status games more often at work, especially those who are terrible at status games. It's a thing in my native Germany - we're obsessed with status, much more than here in Australia.

Many writers of great talent have failed to write successful plays (Blake, Keats, Tennyson, among others) because of a failure to understand that drama is not primarily a literary art. Shakespeare is a great writer even in translation; a great production is great even if you don’t speak the language. A great play is a virtuoso display of status transactions—Waiting for Godot, for example. The ‘tramps’ play friendship status, but there’s a continual friction because Vladimir believes himself higher than Estragon, a thesis which Estragon will not accept.
If you observe the status, then the play is fascinating. If you ignore it the play is tedious. Pozzo is not really a very high-status master, since he fights for status all the time. He owns the land, but he doesn’t own the space.

The other interesting thing is Johnstone's observations on destructive teaching, something I feel I've suffered a lot from. A good teacher can lift students up and supply substance, a bad teacher can destroy talent.

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.
People trying to be original always arrive at the same boring old answers. Ask people to give you an original idea and see the chaos it throws them into. If they said the first thing that came into their head, there’d be no problem. An artist who is inspired is being obvious. He’s not making any decisions, he’s not weighing one idea against another. He’s accepting his first thoughts.
Striving after originality takes you far away from your true self, and makes your work mediocre.

I feel very similar about contemporary German culture. If you're within Germany and watch German TV or German movies, there's this weird obsession with being Leitkultur, with being a descendant of Goethe or Schiller, with being some kind of cultural capital. The truth is that the large majority of what the well-funded German culture puts out is boring and wooden. Or do you remember a recent German movie or book?

Wait, now I got ranting about Germany again. There's this Australian kids TV show, highly successful, called Bluey. It's about two little dogs who live with their parents in an Australian (Brisbane?) suburb, having adventures of fantasy together. Especially the dad embodies the main principle of Johnstone - never block, always say yes, always go with the games the kids invent. "It's good exercise." What I'm trying to say is: Johnstone's concept works outside the theatre, and it may make you a better person.
Profile Image for Michael Roman.
69 reviews2 followers
November 23, 2017
I like books that help you think differently about the world.
There are some key insights in this book about "status" and body language that I haven't read elsewhere. Those ideas alone make the book worth reading - eye contact, trading in status, what your status is to others and how that affects your interactions.
There are also some great insights about education in the book.
My favorite quote I shared right away on social media: "When I hear that children have an attention span of ten minutes, or whatever, I'm amazed. Ten minutes is the attention span of bored children."
Isn't that true for all of us? When we're bored, our attention span shrinks.
Don't bore people is great advice.
Profile Image for Mark Moon.
137 reviews83 followers
March 13, 2016
This was a fun read. I will probably do some of these improv exercises with my partner. The last section, on "Masks and Trance", contains some good anecdotes about trance states, hypnosis, and general suggestibility, which I found particularly interesting.
Profile Image for Sunny.
739 reviews36 followers
January 13, 2023
I loved this little book. As i may have said countless times, i love those books that take my thoughts by the hand and take them to places that they have never been before. This made me think about acting and improvisation and comedy in a way that i had never considered. The coincidence was while i had randomly picked this book up to read (or was it just subliminal thinking) i was attending a training session in NYC and the first evening of the training session a group of improvisation people from nyc had been bought in to give us some team building training. Anyway this book is about a bloke called Keith Johnstone from the UK who had some random job and then suddenly got a breakthrough to do a few plays and he did them in his own unique way which was loved by many people. The book is a book of 1001 different little improvisation games you can play and the one's i like i will try to capture in my review. Here are my best bits then:

The implication of sterling's attitude was that the student should never experience failure. The teachers skill lay in presenting experiences in such a way that the student was bound to succeed.

I began to see children not as mature adults but adults as atrophied children.

Even criminals about to be executed were supposed to make a good end ie to play high status. When the executioner asked raleigh if he wouldn't rather face the light of dawn he said something like, “what matter how the head lie if the heart be right”.

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 surprised 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.

Some congolese soldiers dragged two white journalists out of the jeep, shoots one and were about to shoot the other, when he burst into tears. They laughed and kicked him back to the jeep and let him drive away, while they waved and cheered. It was more satisfying to see the white man cry than to see him killed.

There is no insulating bit of air between man and the outside world. Like the butterfly effect. Any man who moves about causes ripples in the ambient world in the same way that a fish does when it moves in the water.

I asked students for homework to go and watch people in coffee shops and to notice how someone's attitude changes when someone leaves or joins the group. If you were to watch people talking and then wait to see one of them leave you can see how the person remaining has to alter his posture. He had arranged his movements to relate to his partners. And now that he's alone he has to change his position in order to express a relationship to those around him.

We suppress our spontaneous impulses, we censor our imaginations, learn to present ourselves as ordinary, and we destroy our talent and then no one laughs at us - we’re safe.

We are not as we are taught to think, our personalities, but that the imagination is our true self.

The best way to think up questions is to start up sentences without knowing how that question is going to end.

Most europeans place themselves in the head because they have been taught that they are the brain. In reality of course the brain cannot feel the concave of the skull, and if we believed with lucretius that the brain was an organ for cooling the blood, we would place ourselves somewhere else. The greeks and romans in the chest, the japanese a hand's breadth beneath the naval, Witla Indians in the whole body and even outside it. We only imagine ourselves as somewhere.

Try a few experiments for a while. Put a soft warm not too small centre in the region of your abdomen and you may experience a psychology that is self satisfied, earthy, a bit heavy and even humorous. Place a tiny hard centre on the tip of your nose and you will become curious inquisitive prying and even meddlesome. Move the centre to one of your eyes and notice how quickly it seems you have become sly, cunning and perhaps hypocritical. Imagine a big heavy dull and sloppy centre placed outside the seat of your pants and you have a cowardly not too honest droll character. A centre located a few feet outside of your eyes or forehead may invoke the sensation of a sharp, penetrating and even a sagacious mind. Santiago, which one are you?



Sometimes we got the students to feel an object with their eyes shut and then we got them to play on a piano what the object felt like so that the others could guess from the music what the object was!

If i have a group of students and they are feeling quite comfortable, i get them to pace around the room calling everything that they see by the wrong name. They can be as creative as they want but the name of the object that they point to has to be incorrect.

I have a simple way of telling if people are visualisers. I ask them to describe the furniture in their sitting room. Visualiser move their eyes as if seeing their object as they name it. Conceptualiser look in one direction as if they are reading off a list.

That sense of domination you get from eye contact. Almost a pride in being able to look at someone else and have them look away.

Imagine a man walking in the street. Suddenly he turns because he hears a sound and then sees someone / something moving in the doorway. I stop and ask my students at this point what is the man wearing? Are there other people in the street? What was the weather like? What was the street like? Were there any cars? Etc.

Swearing game .. ask people to get into groups and swear as much as they want! Individually and then as a group. Very exhilarating feeling.

Get people into pairs and act out exchanging presents to each other of different shapes and sizes.

It's tuesday. A game where one person says it's tuesday and then the other says it cannot be “that's the day the gypsey predicted my death” - the answers have to get funnier and funnier.

One person has to think of a name place or thing and the other has to try to work it out but the person being asked the questions has to totally make up the answers based on the questions. Eg if the question ends in a vowel he has to always answer yes. If it ends in a consonant he has to answer no and he has to answer maybe to any question that ends in y.

One way to bypass the sensor who holds our spontaneity in check is to distract him. I might ask someone to write out a paragraph on paper without any premeditation while they are required to count backwards from 100 down to 1.

Ask someone to take an imaginary poetry book out of the book shelf and slowly get them to describe it and then get the to read the first poem they visualise in their minds.

Get everyone to tell a story at the same time. Start with “we” and then work your way through it. Not sure why it works but it does. The minority who are saying things which are out of kilter with the majority get swamped. People have a tendency to say the same things when it comes to stories anyway!

And a few additional games i picked up at the improv session we had in NYC:

Pair up with a partner. Partner one says a random sound number 1. Partner 2 says random sound number 2. Partner one then says random sound number 3. Partner 2 then goes back to random sound number 1 then partner one does random sound number 2. And so on looking at each others.

Line people up in a line of 5 people and get a person each to start rambling about something that really annoys them. Then get them to do it one by one. Slowly bring more and more people into it so you have 2 people talking at the same time then three then all of them! It's hilarious.

Yes and game … group of people and you have come home late and you have to make excuses to your dad and each person has to build on what the other person is saying …

I love it game … you are trying to think up something to do for someone's birthday and everyone has to say i love it and then add to the idea when anyone says anything!!!

Random scenario games with 2 people. (boss firing someone for something really innocuous, dog sitter did something to the dog and has to own up, fork in the path and both was thinking that the other knew where they needed to go, 2 people waiting for an interview in the same room for the same job, get home and room mate has eaten your doughnut.
Profile Image for Alejandro Sanoja.
313 reviews12 followers
November 28, 2017
In life we are taught to be polite, to not always express what we are thinking. In business, it is wise to conceal emotions and reactions so that we don't give away information. In improvisation and acting... we have to do the complete opposite! What a challenge.

Thanks to my friend José for giving me this book, it has expanded my mind and perception in many ways. Hopefully, it will make me a better improviser and overall better human.

This is also a great book if you want to be better at public speaking. Yet, it is most valuable if you want to be great at listening. Especially listening with your eyes.

Some of my highlights:

"An artist has to accept what his imaginations gives him, or screw up his talent."

"An artist who is inspired is being obvious. He's not making any decisions, he's not weighing one idea against another. He's accepting his first thoughts."

"Once you understand that every sound and posture implies a status, then you perceive the world quite differently, and the change is probably permanent... This ability to perceive the underlying motives of casual behavior can also be taught."

"I began to think of children not as immature adults, but of adults as atrophied children."

Profile Image for Lisa.
30 reviews8 followers
April 25, 2018
This book was recommended to me by a friend who was acutely aware of my interest in the occult and my active practice of magic. I was surprised to find that many of the techniques used and goals sought after are the same. I started with little interest in theater but this book was incredibly hard to put down, and actually may inspire me to pursue improv in the future.
Profile Image for Bejinha.
86 reviews12 followers
August 26, 2021
It’s not about theater. It’s about trying to discover what did you buried in trying to fit in.

“My feeling is that sanity is actually a pretense, a way
we learn to behave. We keep this pretense up 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.
Most people I meet are secretly convinced that they're a little crazier than the average person.
Sanity has nothing directly to do with the way you think. It's a matter of presenting yourself as safe.”

He continues:

“I once read about a man who believed himself to have a fish in his jaw. (The case was reported in New Society.) This fish moved about, and caused him a lot of discomforts. When he tried to tell people about
the fish, they thought him 'crazy,' which led to violent arguments. After he'd been hospitalized several times--with no effect on the fish—it was suggested that perhaps he shouldn't tell anyone. After all, the quarrels were getting him to put away, rather than the delusion. Once he'd agreed to keep his problem secret, he was able to lead a normal life. His sanity is like our sanity. We may not have a fish in our jaw, but we all have its equivalent.”

Most of us can’t say the first word that comes to our mind without censoring it. Without check if it’s appropriate, if it will convey the right message about us.

Our life is this constant projection of a made-up persona while we bury our true selves.

Profile Image for Kajoch Kajoch.
Author 4 books5 followers
January 21, 2023
Why am I reading this?
"Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing."
- Macbeth, William Shakespeare

I believe we all act and dance, masked in performance.
“Whether an honest performer wishes to convey the truth or whether a dishonest performer wishes to convey a falsehood, both must take care to enliven their performances with appropriate expressions, exclude from their performances expressions that might discredit the impression being fostered, and take care lest the audience impute unintended meanings.”
- The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, Erving Goffman

This is sociological dramaturgy.
"All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts..."
- As You Like It, William Shakespeare

And I also believe it is perspective, alteration of lenses, that determines reality.
“The mind is its own place
and, in itself can make a
heaven of hell or a
hell of heaven.”
- Paradise Lost, John Milton

This is the theory of general relativity.
This is observational quantum mechanics.
“External perception is an internal dream which proves to be in harmony with external things; and instead of calling ‘hallucination’ a false perception, we must call external perception ‘a confirmed hallucination.”
- Helgoland, Carlo Rovelli

I don't want to lose myself to myself in a search for self but...
“In the end, we self-perceiving, self-inventing, locked-in mirages are little miracles of self-reference.”
― I Am a Strange Loop, Douglas Hofstadter

While exploring these thoughts, I reasoned that understanding improvisation - spinning a bad hand into a good thing, attuning my reactions to my environment - would only better a performance (which I believe we all enact).

On with the show!


"At about the age of nine I decided never to believe anything because it was convenient. I began reversing every statement to see if the opposite was also true."


I like the visual sharpening technique he starts with. Not just as a technique in general, but as an introduction. Immediately grabbing. And he then leveraged it into a laugh from me -
"One afternoon I was lying on my bed and investigating the effects of anxiety on the musculature (how do you spend your afternoons?)"

I'm using this review to cultivate quotes and segments I feel profound enough to save and share.

"People think of good and bad teachers as engaged in the same activity, as if education was a substance, and that bad teachers supply a little of the substance, and good teachers supply a lot. This makes it difficult to understand that education can be a destructive process, and that bad teachers are wrecking talent, and that good and bad teachers are engaged in opposite activities."

Already, I'm noticing a rhythm of good perspectives - and that's the takeaway from the beginning: the alteration of a paradigm, the shifting of a view.

"One day, when I was eighteen, I was reading a book and I began to weep. I was astounded. I’d had no idea that literature could affect me in such a way. If I’d have wept over a poem in class the teacher would have been appalled. I realised that my school had been teaching me not to respond.
(In some universities students unconsciously learn to copy the physical attitudes of their professors, leaning back away from the play or film they’re watching, and crossing their arms tightly, and tilting their heads back. Such postures help them to feel less ‘involved’, less ‘subjective’. The response of untutored people is infinitely superior.)

Fucking stellar. Just... Spot on. Even in the high school I experienced from 2008-2013. Even in colleges and universities of the UK today. I'm glad to have had a handful of emotional teachers throughout; ones I'll never forget (in particular: Winters, Stone, Wake, Stretch, and Hope Staff). Otherwise, the majority have been robotic in their elocution and passion, leading teacher and student alike to wonder why they were there.

"I tried to resist my schooling, but I accepted the idea that my intelligence was the most important part of me. I tried to be clever in everything I did. The damage was greatest in areas where my interests and the school’s seemed to coincide : in writing, for example (I wrote and rewrote, and lost all my fluency). I forgot that inspiration isn’t intellectual, that you don’t have to be perfect. In the end I was reluctant to attempt anything for fear of failure, and my first thoughts never seemed good enough. Everything had to be corrected and brought into line."

Look, mate, we're only, like, six out of two-hundred pages in. Do you want to slow down with the synchronicity, a bit? Bloody hell. The whole section concerning Stirling is a masterclass in deconstructing the adult hubris instilled within us in this post-industrialised educational environment. We're pushed from imagination and freedom.

"I began to think of children not as immature adults, but of adults as atrophied children. But when I said this to educationalists, they became angry."

Again, something I have needed to learn in life. Likewise, that a philosopher is a child, refusing to stop asking Why?, peeling layer after layer back to see the innards. "Why? Why? Why? Why? Why?" and "Why? Why? Why? Why? Why?" but they will not take, "Because I say so!" for an answer. The annoying trait of every innovator.

"Instead of seeing people as untalented, we can see them as phobic, and this completely changes the teacher’s relationship with them."

People are frightened of 'failure,' but 'failure' is a necessary rung to relative 'success.'
Riding a bike required falling off it. And all that.



"‘Try to get your status just a little above or below your partner’s,’ I said, and I insisted that the gap should be minimal. The actors seemed to know exactly what I meant and the work was transformed. 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, but at the same time very alarming. All our secret manoeuvrings 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."

Here, status means the perspective of one's worth or importance relative to another's. This segment is profound, a wonderful allegory for why people flounder among the famous, wrangle with royalty, or experience imposter syndrome. To speak little of simple miscommunication.
Status is an illusion... One can play with illusion.
Remember: Frank Abagnale. And, also, that your idol suffers from diarrhoea on occasion.

This is explored here:

’Ere! Where are you going?
I’m sorry, I didn’t quite catch …
Are you deaf as well as blind?

Audiences enjoy a contrast between the status played and the social status. We always like it when a tramp is mistaken for the boss, or the boss for a tramp.
Chaplin liked to play the person at the bottom of the hierarchy and then lower everyone."

And here:

"[...] we found that people will play one status while convinced that they are playing the opposite. [...] many of us had to revise our 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 someone 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."

Likewise, the 'War and Peace' dialogue experiment was incredible.
How, with the reduction of status or perceived social class, comedy/grace is permitted.

“Its easy to make frends if you let pepul laff at you.”
- Flowers for Algernon, Daniel Keyes

If you put someone on a pedestal, they will look down on you or away.
And if you put yourself on a pedestal, well...

"A further early discovery was that there was no way to be neutral. [...] The messages are modified by the receivers. [...] You can see people trying to be neutral in group photographs. [...] If someone points a camera at you you’re in danger of having your status exposed, so you either clown about, or become deliberately unexpressive. [...] If status can’t even be got rid of, then what happens between friends? Many people will maintain that we don’t play status transactions with our friends, and yet every movement, every inflection of the voice implies a status. My answer is that acquaintances become friends when they agree to play status games together."

This book is an incredible work of sociological naturalistic observation and group case studies, particularly regarding interplay through action and emotion. And Johnstone is a master observer; these are some well elocuted, brilliant summarisations of group dynamics.

"I can achieve a similar effect by saying ‘I smell beautiful’ as ‘You stink’. [...] Tragedy is obviously related to sacrifice. Two things strike me about reports of sacrifices: one is that the crowd get more and more tense, and then are relaxed and happy at the moment of death; the other is that the victim is raised in status before being sacrifice."

Execute: Looping Thoughts -
'Execution' means both the
beginning and conclusion of
a performance
so a balance is needed
in 'observation' and 'disposition,'
observation of disposition,
disposition of observation,
by all parties to maintain
a performance in play.

"This is because normal people are inhibited from seeing that no action, sound, or movement is innocent of purpose. Many psychologists have noted how uncannily perceptive some schizophrenics are. I think that their madness must have opened their eyes to things that ‘normal’ people are trained to ignore."


"One way to teach transitions of status is to get students to leave the class, and then come in through the real door and act ‘entering the wrong room’. It’s then quite normal to see students entering with head down, or walking backwards, or in some other way that will prevent them from seeing that it is the wrong room. They want time to really enter before they start ‘acting’. They will advance a couple of paces, act seeing the audience, and leave in a completely phoney way."

Wonderful technique to employ in literature; how a character enters a room can define them at that current point in time. Particularly their reaction to what's in the room. So many infinite varieties.

"You then have to work together with the student, as if you were both trying to alter the behaviour of some third person. [...] The movement teacher Yat Malmgren told me that as a child he’d discovered that he didn’t end at the surface of his body, but was actually an oval ‘Swiss cheese’ shape. To me, this is ‘closed-eye’ space, and you experience it when you shut your eyes and let your body feel outwards into the surrounding darkness. Yat also talked about people who were cut off from sensing areas of themselves."

Incredibly, I wasn't expecting to see my experiences of 'realizing I have a body' mirrored back to me so eloquently. That, and my dissociative tendencies. I connect with this quote completely, but I'm unsure what shape, exactly, my non-corporeal body has. It's not a PK/telekinesis thing, but it's definitely a sensation I have felt.

"The mime must first of all be aware of this boundless contact with things. There is no insulating layer of air between the man and the outside world. Any man who moves about causes ripples in the ambient world in the same way a fish does when it moves in the water.

I can understand this. There's something about it associated with physics. The difference between holding a rope and not holding a rope is purely perceptual, sensory. If one can convince themselves of that illusion even when there is no rope, they can convincingly act as though they are holding one.
Otherwise, a lot of this chapter comprises relationship dynamics (for instance: master-servant) and the see-saw effect that incurs comedy when one manipulates that see-saw in unexpected or subversive ways.
"In life, status gaps are often exaggerated to such an extent that they become comical. Heinrich Harrer met a Tibetan whose servant stood holding a spitoon in case the master wanted to spit. Queen Victoria would take her position and sit, and there had to be a chair. George the Sixth used to wear electrically heated underclothes when deerstalking, which meant a gillie had to follow him around holding the battery. I train actors to use minimum status gaps, because then they have to assess the status of their partners accurately, but I also teach them to play maximum status-gap scenes. [...] Maximum-status-gap exercises produce ‘absurd’ improvisations."

I like the way he then discusses Waiting for Godot:
"If you observe the status, then the play is fascinating. If you ignore it the play is tedious. Pozzo is not really a very high-status master, since he fights for status all the time. He owns the land, but he doesn’t own the space. It must be clear, I think, that even the stage directions relate to status. Every ‘silence’ is lowering to Pozzo. I remember a reviewer (Kenneth Tynan) making fun of Beckett’s pauses, but this just shows a lack of understanding. Obviously Beckett’s plays need careful pacing, but the pauses are part of the pattern of dominance and submission. Godot earns its reputation as a boring play only when directors try to make it ‘significant’, and ignore the status transactions."


One of my students spent two years in a classroom where the teacher had put a large sign over the blackboard. It said ‘Get into the “Yes, Sir” attitude.’ [...] Intelligence is proportional to population, but talent appears not to be related to population numbers. I’m living in a city at the edge of the Rocky Mountains; the population is much greater than it was in Shakespearian London, and almost everyone here is literate, and has had many thousands of dollars spent on his education. Where are the poets, and playwrights, and painters, and composers?

The first part of this segment concerns the crushing of the creative spirit. Something that still occurs today in the educational system but in a different way, but also in our day-to-day communication. Luckily, in the internet era, the ability to be creative is more accessible to most, and expressionism has been more embraced.

Someone asked Kubrick if it was usual for a director to spend so much care on lighting each shot and he said, ‘I don’t know. I’ve never seen anyone else light a film.’
You have to be a very stubborn person to remain an artist in this culture. It’s easy to play the role of ‘artist’, but actually to create something means going against one’s education.

Still a worthwhile observation. Committee tested, safe, art exhausts me.

We have an idea that art is self-expression—which historically is weird. An artist used to be seen as a medium through which something else operated. He was a servant of the God. Maybe a mask-maker would have fasted and prayed for a week before he had a vision of the Mask he was to carve, because no one wanted to see his Mask, they wanted to see the God’s.

Schiller wrote of a ‘watcher at the gates of the mind’, who examines ideas too closely. He said that in the case of the creative mind ‘the intellect has withdrawn its watcher from the gates, and the ideas rush in pell-mell, and only then does it review and inspect the multitude.’ He said that uncreative people ‘are ashamed of the momentary passing madness which is found in all real creators … regarded in isolation, an idea may be quite insignificant, and venturesome in the extreme, but it may acquire importance from an idea that follows it; perhaps in collation with other ideas which seem equally absurd, it may be capable of furnishing a very serviceable link.’

I don't have any words. I just wanted to save/share them, because they're amazing to me. Not new ideas, but the way he spins them fill me with hope, wonder, and inspiration.

My feeling is that sanity is actually a pretence, a way we learn to behave. [...] Most people I meet are secretly convinced that they’re a little crazier than the average person.

He then goes on to explain how, to him, the obscene and 'psychotic' are at the heart of a lot of comedic circumstances. It is absurd, benign, disgusting, surprising. He also makes a large case against censorship, prudency, and ignorance in the face of danger or creative action.
He also reiterates the importance of indulging what the audience wants though they say otherwise - contained depravity within a comedic, surprising context. Nothing too disgusting or repulsive, but enough.

[and I'll leave it there, as I'm running out of characters and needn't/shouldn't/can't/won't spoil or discuss anymore. It is a fantastic book. For every outdated paragraph, ten fantastic observations follow. It'll take a few re-reads to digest all this content; luckily, I have time.
This is an impressive book. I'll be thinking about it for a long time. I'll need to return to remember some of the tips, and properly internalize the lessons I missed this read through.]
Profile Image for Nathan.
77 reviews3 followers
January 12, 2014
Overall, I would rate this book a three, but I gave it a four for some excellent insights it has on interpersonal relationships and drama that I think work just as well in business and life.

An eclectic mix of autobiography and techniques, Johnson enlivens this encyclopaedia of improv techniques with stories of how he learnt and applied the techniques in his own work. There are some remarkable insights in the book that I imagine have made their way into other books but I have seen little discussion of them in broader business texts. The book lacks some basic overall structure; particularly at the start and the end (no distinct conclusion), but also in-between the major sections to guide, sum up and coach readers in applying what they've learnt (eg. start with x and y, then use z with this kind of student, etc.).

As an encyclopaedia, it's excellent; as a guide book, it is lacking, as a biography it is interesting but incomplete. Nonetheless, it's worth a read.

The edition I read was published in London by Eyre Methuen in 1981.
Profile Image for Pedro Alcantara.
Author 23 books10 followers
April 21, 2010
This is a mind-opening, mind-bending, mind-caressing, and mind-shaping book. It helped me understand some basic mechanisms in all human relationships, thereby making me a more astute and compassionate interlocutor. It invited me to embrace improvisation as a lifestyle and state of mind . . . very constructive! And it gave me a glimpse of a whole other world which you enter when you wear the Mask.

All in all, my favorite book. I never tire of re-reading it.
Profile Image for Brendan.
678 reviews
March 25, 2022
One of my favorite books about improv though I still struggle to apply the lessons I learn from this book. Each time I pick it up I gain something different. This time I stopped without reading most of the "Masks" section as I don't plan on using masks in the near future, but the rest was great. I look forward to picking it up again in a couple of years and seeing what I learn next time.
Profile Image for Aurora.
20 reviews23 followers
January 5, 2018
Forty years after it was written, this book still gleams, even for people who like me have nothing to do with the theater. Just reading the book makes you feel more alive. Keith's insights are kind, strange, and marvellously human. If more people taught like he does, we'd live in much freer, saner societies.
Profile Image for rory.
208 reviews
April 3, 2023
Holy fuck. Life will never be the same.
27 reviews1 follower
April 11, 2018
I happened to reread Impro at a time when I was thinking a lot about minds, and it was the perfect springboard to many of the thoughts which would slowly change my ontology about them. It’s really a phenomenal book! I will try to contain this review to the most salient points, but it shaped me much more than I can convey… And with that, here are my thoughts:

The book is split into four parts; status, spontaneity, narrative skills, and masks and trace. Each one is itself a treasure, but my absolute favorite, and the one I found the most transformative was masks and trance.

Although each section touches on a different skill in the art of improvisation, there are some underlying themes which unite them all. I may even go so far as to say there is one theme which unites them all -- fusing the actor to the role. What Johnstone highlights again and again, and showcases through several retellings, is that actors are made timid through filters they have learned to employ over an entire life of social conditioning. This manifests in them censoring the words they use and thinking before speaking. The way to coax them out of this is to make the space safe. Some of the first things actors will come up with after they loosen their filters are often perverse or grotesque. If the teacher makes them feel as though they have revealed a part of themselves they will be too ashamed to ever allow themselves to speak spontaneously again. Once the actors know that they will be accepted no matter what, they begin to open, and real tenderness and feeling floods into them. They are no longer acting the role, they simply are the role.

In this vein, I claim that this book is largely an exploration of what techniques are effective in lowering filters enough to carefully nudge people into something which has many names; ‘flow state’, ‘meditative focus’, ‘primary state’, ‘trance’, ‘hypnosis’, etc. Or more simply, these are techniques which shut down the ego.

One powerful way to lower filters is to take the responsibility of action away from the person. I think this is very often how trance and hypnotic states are induced. Johnstone describes many cultures which practice possession cults. When someone is ‘possessed’ in this environment, they are expected to change dramatically; to act childish, scream, steal, fall to all fours. In the eyes of their peers, they become licensed to be something else for a bit, to shed all constraints of personhood momentarily. When the trance state is over, they are nursed back ‘to themselves’. It’s an incredibly powerful technique and I wish our culture indulged in it a little more. I suspect Western society lets drugs play this role, and I also suspect that this is one of the reasons why drugs are so contentious.

Johnstone himself is very disapproving of education in Western culture. He thinks it’s one of the primary ways people are reprimanded out of having original thought, and that when most actors first come to him they are hugely repressed. I tend to agree. I think Western society also marginalizes psychosis and punishes aberrant cognitive patterns. It’s too bad because I think part of psychosis is the positive feedback loop stemming from the marginalization. Once you have some deviant thoughts, and you tell your friends who show strong disapproval, you’re then made to think you’re abnormal and this feeds into itself.

I would be doing a huge disservice to this book if I didn’t mention that it comes with countless detailed exercises so that the reader may try to lower their filters themselves! I’ve done many of them, and have found them all to be an interesting focus for introspection. I’m still new, and I haven’t immediately excelled at them, but nevertheless, they are invaluable to highlighting the ways in which I am repressed. If I play a very simple game, let’s say a one-word story game where each person in the group says one word after the other very quickly, and I pay attention, I can see all the words I’m passing up, all the avenues of thought that are there but I don’t dare pursue. These often involve grotesque things like murder, knives, blood, or personal things like names, and emotions. It happens very quickly (the mind is amazing at projecting a very specialized narrative!), but if you watch you’ll be able to see, and it is really eye-opening.

The status section focuses on exercises which play with status interactions. First, it is important to understand what status is. I’m not going to try to describe it here other than to say that it is usually classified into two buckets; high status and low status. One consequence of this is that if an actor takes on a few select high-status behaviors (like holding the head straight and steady, holding eye contact, etc) they will also begin to naturally exhibit an entire repertoire of other high-status behaviors. It is thus easy to leverage games to shape status. Once Johnstone has taught status on an intuitive level, and the actors are comfortable, he asks them to raise or lower status in scenes. Most people find this extremely weird and uncomfortable at first. We are all very used to the status we play in everyday life, and to break from this mould is bewildering and then liberating. Internalizing status is an important step for actors since they will no longer need to think during scenes. Instead, they’ll intuitively understand that status of the role they are stepping into, and many things flow naturally from there.

The narrative skills section focuses on exercises which increase storytelling ability. There is a lot here which I think will be very helpful for increasing ‘babble’, the kind of thought that comes to you while composing a thought or story before it is filtered away. In particular, I was drawn to the technique of asking questions to yourself. Sometimes you’ll find that you just ‘know’ the answer even if you were convinced you could not think of anything beforehand. Johnstone explains many times where he asked someone to tell him a story. They’d panic, say they don’t know and stop talking. Then he’ll say, ‘you’re in a library, what is the color of the book next to you?’ and they will immediately have an answer. They’ll go on like this for awhile, and it’s clear that the person had the story all along. Try it with yourself! When I close my eyes and practice this technique I often instantly know the answers, and it can be quite fun. I think it’s possible this can transfer to more abstract domains as well.

The other exercise I really liked from narrative skills was sequential vs non-sequential lists. He describes sequential lists as ones where every element has a very obvious connection to the last, e.g. dog, cat, mouse, hare, hair, and non-sequential lists as those that don’t, e.g. dog, brush, avocado, jump, slime mold. He encourages you to try both of them. When I first encountered this I thought truly non-sequential lists weren’t real. And while I still think there is obviously some associative leap your brain is making from word to word, it’s an incredibly interesting phenomenological experience to witness a word jump onto the list which you cannot trace the heritage of. It felt like they would come from a different place than my ‘association generator’… it’s hard to describe and I encourage you to just try it out for yourself as well. Many of these exercises are very short.

The masks and trance section focuses more on the detail of mask work and a few short exercises which can help induce trance. I’ve already described some of the content of the chapter with possession cults, and I’ll spend the rest of the time talking about mask work, which Johnstone claims is very similar in character to possession.

The main goal of mask work is to fuse the actor to the mask, to be the mask, rather than acting the mask. And the way Johnstone describes it, real mask work makes you into the mask in a very transformative way. You start with a mask, looking into a mirror, and carefully reflecting on this new face. Eventually, you begin to move about, but you are new to the world, and you are very childish. Johnstone describes new masks as being unable to speak or recognize objects in the way they could in ‘normal consciousness’. He has to give them speech lessons. One stunning observation is that when people leave in the middle of mask work and come back years later, their speech is exactly how they left it! Another interesting observation is that masks seem to induce very similar behavioral patterns across people. One such behavior was sitting on the edge of every seat.

It’s as if you are building up this personality from scratch, and it becomes a part of you. As a mask, you feel everything on stage as intensely as you would were the theatrical plots unraveling in your normal life instead. It seems like an incredibly powerful tool, and also sheds some light onto what a mind is… It’s something that at the very least can house multiple personalities at once. The process sounds startlingly similar to building tulpas, although I think mask personalities are only reified when the actor is wearing the mask.

I’ll end with some of my favorite quotes from the book which show how much we are shaped by our social interactions.

“I see the ‘personality’ as a public-relations department for the real mind, which remains unknown. My personality always seems to be functioning, at some level, in terms of what other people think. If I am alone in a room and someone knocks on the door, then I ‘come back to myself’. I do this in order to check up that my social image is presentable: are my flies done up? Is my social face properly assembled? […] Normal consciousness is related to transactions, real or imagined, with other people. That’s how I experience it, and I note widespread reports of people in isolation, or totally rejected by other people, who experience ‘personality disintegration’.” p. 153

‘We don’t think of ourselves as moving in and out of trance because we’re trained not to. It’s impossible to be ‘in control’ all the time, but we convince ourselves that we are. Other people help to stop us drifting. They will laugh if we don’t seem immediately in possession of ourselves, and we’ll laugh too in acknowledgment of our inappropriate behavior.’ p. 153

Overall this book touches on some really deep features of the human psyche, and it provides an incredible playground to practice lowering filters. I am thrilled to continue incorporating what I’ve learned from this book into my life, and I can’t wait for the next reread.
Profile Image for Mohammad Noroozi.
73 reviews4 followers
September 22, 2022
When this book wasn't being hilarious, it was being prophetic.

I found the book because it was an interesting recommendation from another non-fiction book. The other book, I didn't find that great. This recommendation, a book about improv that could supposedly help bolster a skill for spontaneity and creativity in your everyday interactions, was just unconventional enough to get me interested.

Fairly quickly, it wasn't the book that I found fascinating so much as the author. He was describing in himself such a unique lens to view the world and an every moment curiosity which seemed one in a million.

One afternoon I was lying on my bed and investigating the effects of anxiety on musculature (how do you spend your afternoons?).

His 'Notes on Myself' chapter was a perfect way to introduce the book because it primes you that what you're about to read will dive into the unorthodox and focuses on untapping the inate curiosity and unabashedness that you find plenty of in children but which education and society stunts by the time someone is an adult.

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.

The actual improv techniques were a practical walkthrough of human psychology. He describes how his actors would play different status' (low or high) by how they paused in sentences or how they sat. He lays out his techniques that would bring deeply psychological spontaneous narratives by the troop. He even described guided hallucinations where individuals would see themselves pick up a book from a shelf and read a passage from the middle - they wouldn't think they picked up a book, they would see the book!

His last chapter had to do with mask wearing and trance-like experiences. It starts by spending a good deal of time talking about trance experiences in other cultures and religions and the rituals around it. He deconstructed the need to create a space where the person undergoing the trance/hypnotisation felt safe and that anything they might do under trance was okay. Then, of course, he talks about how he incorporated these rituals into his own actors wearing masks for theatre. He described a respect for the character in the mask as a distinct person from the actor, how the masks had unique personalities, and how they wouldn't try to control the lines that the masks would say in plays because the better result was the masks behaving as themselves in a constructed scene. The whole chapter was fascinating. It made me think of something I'd read a while ago where someone theorised that it wasn't human beings ability to use tools or to communicate that led to us becoming an advanced civilization but rather our inate ability to believe in collective hallucinations. It seemed like Keith Johnstone was tapping into that with his book.

This book was hard to find. It wasn't at the book store and it wasn't in the library. I had to get my partner to borrow it as a loan from a university library somewhere else in the province. It seems like the book has been forgotten in favor of newer things. I'm going to be bringing this book back into the spotlight for the most interesting people I know as a practical guide to the psychology of our most interesting and creative selves.
Profile Image for Viktoriia.
8 reviews
April 16, 2023
notes to self:

“You are not imaginatively impotent until you are dead; you are only frozen up. Switch off the no-saying intellect and welcome the unconscious as a friend: it will lead you to places you never dreamed of, and produce results more ‘original’ than anything you could achieve by aiming at originality.

Mad thoughts are those which other people find unacceptable, and train us not to talk about, but which we go to the theatre to see expressed. We go to the theatre, and at all points where we would say ‘No’ in life, we want to see the actors yield, and say ‘Yes’. Then the action we would suppress if it happened in life begins to develop on the stage.

Anything an actor does is an ‘offer’. Each offer can either be accepted, or blocked. Good improvisers seem telepathic - this is because they accept all offers made.

Anyone who tries to control the future of the story can only succeed in ruining it. Every time you add a word, you know what word you would like to follow. Unless you can continually wipe your ideas out of your mind you’re paralyzed.

No two people are exactly alike, and the more obvious an improviser is, the more himself he appears. If he wants to impress us with his originality, then he’ll search out ideas that are actually commoner and less interesting. Striving after originality takes you far away from your true self, and makes your work mediocre.”
41 reviews
August 30, 2021
5 stars from me, as this book has been eye-opening for writing, drawing, music, and acting, as well as thinking about status games and masks. Chapter 1 on Status is a must-read for anyone in my opinion, though the later chapters are very specific to creating art and acting and are not for everyone.

The book is mainly about improv, but it touches on some key insights that are present and applicable in all areas of life. As a reader there is a bit of work needed to extract these out from within Johnstone's frame of improv and acting, and some thoughts are buried deeper than others.

Closest to the surface is his breakdown of Status and status games in Chapter 1. This is a chapter I'd recommend everyone read regardless of their interest in improv, to better understand their relationship to status, what status they prefer playing, and that status can be flexible and played with.

The other chapters on Spontaneity, Narrative Skills, and Masks and Trance are for a much narrower audience. Spontaneity and Narrative Skills I found helpful with regards to creating work and creating stories, and Masks and Trance I found to be fascinating though very wild and woo-woo (which I don't mind). There are insights about self-censorship, emotional intensity, fear, aura, the energy of crowds, etc. in the Masks chapter, but this chapter is also the densest and weirdest one.
Profile Image for Sandy Maguire.
Author 2 books157 followers
August 4, 2020
This book is oddly popular in my non-theatrical circles, so I figured I'd give it a go. The first half is a man talking about the improv games he teaches and what they can teach about about interpersonal relationships. A lot of his message is that beginning improvisers need to be protected from themselves; that they need to be given permission to fail in order to take chances and become better. I find myself thinking about this a lot now that he's mentioned it.

The other big takeaway was in status games, and we as humans are incapable of doing things that are status-neutral. Everything we say and every action we take confers status, and by being cognizant of this we can use it to our advantage. Status isn't something we have; it's something we carve out when we need it. Most people have a preferred status that they play at, and it takes practice to get people to be able to play different statuses.

And then the last half is about letting gods into your soul or something. It mentions "possession cults" a little too often for comfort.
Profile Image for lalalellis.
19 reviews
September 2, 2020

A really good book, about storytelling as a whole as well as theatre and improvisation. I would’ve given it 5 stars if it weren’t for two things:

1. That chapter about masks and trance = too long, too boring and surprisingly badly written? Took as long for me to read as the rest of the book. (Bear in mind that I read a translation)

2. Towards the end, in that same chapter, I was fed up with the casual sexism and exoticism. The whole thing really didn’t sit well with me at all. (Especially the quote where someone used blackface)

One could argue that I should cut the book some slack cause it was written in the 1970s, but I don’t want to. The edition I read was published in the 2010s with two forewords, and the book is still being used and recommended and quoted today, with no disclaimers (to my knowledge).

A sad conclusion to an otherwise good and eye-opening book.
2 reviews
June 13, 2020
Cartea contine subtilitati psihologice valoroase despre relatiile interumane si in special despre creativitate, inspiratie, spontaneitate, ce stimuleaza si ce blocheaza si chiar ofera o serie de tehnici/exercitii/jocuri care sa te ajute sa iesi din rutina si blocajul mintii si sa permiti fluxului creativ sa se manifeste.
Mi-a placut ideea ca noi ar trebui sa fim creativi usor, natural, spontan, la fel cum percepem lucrurile din jur, pentru ca a fi creativ nu e ceva care poate fi controlat, nu e o forma de auto-exprimare. Ideile ne vin din alta parte, suntem inspirati, efortul nostru de a fi originali nefacand decat sa le blocheze, cel mult.
"We have an idea that art is self-expression - which historically is weird. An artist used to be seen as a medium through which something else operated. He was a servant of God"

Cred ca merita citita si pentru ca te lasa cu o senzatie de bine, de joc, de 'lucrurile nu sunt nici pe departe atat de complicate si serioase'.
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253 reviews
September 25, 2018
Full of great intuitions about how humans relate. I particularly enjoyed the discussions of: status-raising and status-lowering games (and how you can be high status but play low, and vice versa); the challenges of extracting spontaneity from adults; the fact that people want to see improvisers struggle, rather than fluidly succeed; aiming for originality is foolish- instead aim for spontaneity; accepting and blocking (and why scenes should include both); that most stories about the interruption of routine. It's a slim book but full of ideas.
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