The Book in Three Sentences

Many of our behaviors are driven by our desire to achieve a particular level of status relative to those around us. People are continually raising and lowering their status in conversation through body language and words. Say yes to more and stop blocking the opportunities that come your way.

Impro summary

This is my book summary of Impro by Keith Johnstone. My notes are informal and often contain quotes from the book as well as my own thoughts. This summary includes key lessons and important passages from the book.

  • Johnstone’s work has been to rediscover the imaginative response in adults and to rekindle the power of children’s creativity.
  • Johnstone banished aimless discussion from meetings and turned them into enactment sessions. It was what happened that mattered, not what anybody said about it.
  • You are not imaginatively impotent until you are dead. You are only frozen up.
  • On the perils of learning creative principles: Dullness is not the consequence of age, but of education. As we learn creative principles like composition and balance, we start seeing the world as it ought to be rather than as it is. The problem is that the world as it is, is actually far more interesting than the version our educated minds wish it to be. We have to relearn how to attend to the world as it is rather than being disappointed for it not perfectly matching the rules we have been taught.
  • Whenever you hear something, you should reverse it and see if the opposite is also true. Never believe something merely because it is convenient.
  • Normal education is designed to reduce spontaneity and make things orderly and understood. Johnstone’s theater improvisation teaching techniques were designed to do exactly the opposite.
  • People insist on categorizing and selecting. We are always choosing the best, the top, the most, the biggest, the smallest. Is this necessary?
  • On writing fluently: inspiration isn’t intellectual and you don’t have to be perfect. When you write and write and write and edit and edit and edit, you become so constrained that you lose flow.
  • On the perils of intelligence: I accepted the idea that my intelligence was the most important part of me. I tried to be clever in everything I did. In the end, I was reluctant to attempt anything for fear of failure. My first thoughts never seemed good enough. Everything had to be corrected and brought into line.
  • Maybe school teaches us not to respond in a natural way, but to respond in a muted way. We unconsciously learn to copy our teachers. To act like we’ve been there before. To cross our arms, fold our legs, and lean back from the book or the film, rather than into it.
  • On the stupidity of judging people based on their intelligence: I learned to value people for their actions, rather than their thoughts.
  • gradually I realised that I wouldn't work for people I didn't like.
  • I'd argue that a director should never demonstrate anything to an actor, that a director should allow the actor to make his own discoveries, that the actor should think he'd done all the work himself. I objected to the idea that the director should work out the moves before the production started. I said that if an actor forgot a move that had been decided on, then the move was probably wrong.
  • The authors of the pseudo-plays assumed that writing should be based on other writing, not on life.
  • I began to think of children not as immature adults, but of adults as atrophied children.
  • We learned that things invented on the spur of the moment could be as good or better than the texts we laboured over.
  • the bulk of discussion time is visibly taken up with transactions of status which have nothing to do with the problem to be solved.
  • My attitude is like Edison's, who found a solvent for rubber by putting bits of rubber in every solution he could think of, and beat all those scientists who were approaching the problem theoretically.
  • Lacking solutions, I had to find my own.
  • combining the imagination of two people which would be additive, rather than subtractive.
  • After a while a pattern is established in which each performance gets better and better until the audience is like a great beast rolling over to let you tickle it. Then hubris gets you, you lose your humility, you expect to be loved, and you turn into Sisyphus.
  • What really got me started again was an advert for a play of mine in the paper, a play called The Martian. I had never written such a play, so I phoned up Bryan King, who directed the theatre. ‘We've been trying to find you,' he said. ‘We need a play for next week, does the title The Martian suit you?' I wrote the play, and it was well received. Since then I've deliberately put myself in this position.
  • I simply approach each problem on a basis of common sense and try to find the most obvious solutions possible.
  • My feeling is that a good teacher can get results using any method, and that a bad teacher can wreck any method.
  • The first thing I do when I meet a group of new students is (probably) to sit on the floor. I play low status, and I'll explain that if the students fail they're to blame me. Then they laugh, and relax, and I explain that really it's obvious that they should blame me, since I'm supposed to be the expert; and if I give them the wrong material, they'll fail; and if I give them the right material, then they'll succeed. I play low status physically but my actual status is going up, since only a very confident and experienced person would put the blame for failure on himself. At this point they almost certainly start sliding off their chairs, because they don't want to be higher than me. I have already changed the group profoundly, because failure is suddenly not so frightening any more. They'll want to test me, of course; but I really will apologise to them when they fail, and ask them to be patient with me, and explain that I'm not perfect. My methods are very effective, and other things being equal, most students will succeed, but they won't be trying to win any more. The normal teacher-student relationship is dissolved.
  • I've also trained myself to make positive comments, and to be as direct as possible. I say ‘Good' instead of'That's enough'.
  • Wolpe relaxed his phobic patients and then presented them with a very dilute form of the thing that scared them. Someone terrified of birds might be asked to imagine a bird, but one in Australia. At the same time that the image was presented, the patient was relaxed, and the relaxation was maintained (if it wasn't maintained, if the patient started to tremble, or sweat or whatever, then something even less alarming would be presented). Relaxation is incompatible with anxiety; and by maintaining the relaxed state, and presenting images that gradually neared the centre of the phobia, the state of alarm was soon dissipated—in most cases.
  • An exercise: fix your eyes on some object, and attend to something at the periphery of your vision. You can see what you're attending to, but actually your mind is assembling the object from relatively little information. Now look directly, and observe the difference. This is one way of tricking the mind out of its habitual dulling of the world.
  • Suddenly we understood that every inflection and movement implies a status, and that no action is due to chance, or really ‘motiveless'.
  • Status is a confusing term unless it's understood as something one does. You may be low in social status, but play high, and vice versa.
  • The messages are modified by the receivers.
  • Every movement, every inflection of the voice implies a status.
  • Kings and lords used to surround themselves with dwarfs and cripples so could rise by the contrast. Some modern celebrities do the same.
  • A comedian is someone paid to lower his own or other people's status.
  • In my view the man who falls on the banana skin is funny only if he loses status, and if we don't have sympathy with him.
  • Tragedy also works on the see-saw principle: its subject is the ousting of a high-status animal from the pack.
  • When a very high-status person is wiped out, everyone feels pleasure as they experience the feeling of moving up a step.
  • Social animals have inbuilt rules which prevent them each other for food, mates, and so on. Such animals confront eachother, 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'.
  • In animals the pattern of eye contacts often establishes dominance.
  • Dark glasses raise status because we can't see the submission of the eyes.
  • Those who hold eye contacts report that they feel powerful—and actually look powerful. Those who break eye contact and glance back ‘feel' feeble, and look it.
  • I might then begin to insert a tentative ‘er' at the beginning of each of my sentences, and ask the group if they detect any change in me. They say that I look ‘helpless' and ‘weak' but they can't, interestingly enough, say what I'm doing that's different. I don't normally begin every sentence with ‘er', so it should be very obvious. Then I move the ‘er' into the middle of sentences, and they say that they perceive me as becoming a little stronger.
  • 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.
  • Moment by moment each person adjusts his status up or down a fraction.
  • The body has reflexes that protect it from attack. We have a ‘fear-crouch' position in which the shoulders lift to protect the jugular and the body curls forward to protect the underbelly. It's more effective against carnivores than against policemen jabbing at your kidneys, but it evolved a long time ago. The opposite to this fear crouch is the ‘cherub posture', which opens all the planes of the body: the head turns and tilts to offer the neck, the shoulders turn the other way to expose the chest, the spine arches slightly backwards and twists so that the pelvis is in opposition to the shoulders exposing the underbelly—and so on. This is the position I usually see cherubs carved in, and the opening of the body planes is a sign of vulnerability and tenderness, and has a powerful effect on the onlooker. High-status people often adopt versions of the cherub posture. If they feel under attack they'll abandon it and straighten, but they won't adopt the fear crouch. Challenge a low-status player and he'll show some tendency to slide into postures related to the fear crouch.
  • When the highest-status person feels most secure he will be the most relaxed person.
  • People will travel a long way to visit a ‘view'. The essential clement of a good view is distance, and preferably with nothing human in the immediate foreground.
  • We're all giving status signals, and exchanging subliminal status challenges all the time.
  • teach that a master-servant scene is one in which both parties act as if all the space belonged to the master. (Johnstone's law!) An extreme example would be the eighteenth-century scientist Henry Cavendish, who is reported to have fired any servant he caught sight of! (Imagine the hysterical situations: servants scuttling like rabbits, hiding in grandfather clocks and ticking, getting stuck in huge vases.)
  • I teach that a master-servant scene is one in which both parties act as if all the space belonged to the master. (Johnstone's law!) An extreme example would be the eighteenth-century scientist Henry Cavendish, who is reported to have fired any servant he caught sight of! (Imagine the hysterical situations: servants scuttling like rabbits, hiding in grandfather clocks and ticking, getting stuck in huge vases.)
  • A servant's primary function is to elevate the status of the master.
  • Desmond Morris, in The Human Zqo (Cape, 1969; Corgi, 1971) gives ‘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 brawn you must be able 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 their high ranks. 7. You must protect the weaker members of the group from undue on. You must make decisions concerning the social activities of your 9. You must reassure your extreme subordinates from time to time. 10. You must take the initiative in repelling threats or attacks arising from outside your group.
  • It is the lack of pecking-order that makes most crowd scenes look unconvincing. The ‘extras' mill about trying to look ‘real',
  • 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.
  • Posture implies a status, then you perceive the world quite differently, and the change is probably permanent. In my view, really accomplished actors, directors, and playwrights are people with an intuitive understanding of the status transactions that govern human relationships.
  • Once you understand that every sound and posture implies a status, then you perceive the world quite differently, and the change is probably permanent. In my view, really accomplished actors, directors, and playwrights are people with an intuitive understanding of the status transactions that govern human relationships.
  • A good play is one which ingeniously displays and reverses the status between the characters.
  • We are pecking-order animals and that this affects the tiniest details of our behaviour.
  • Once we eliminate fantasy, then we have no artists.
  • Even after his works had been exhibited in court as proof that he wasn't in his right mind, Henri Rousseau still had the stubbornness to go on painting!
  • Many teachers think of children as immature adults. It might lead to better and more ‘respectful' teaching, if we thought of adults as atrophied children. Many ‘well adjusted' adults are bitter, uncreative frightened, unimaginative, and rather hostile people. Instead of assuming they were born that way, or that that's what being an adult entails, we might consider them as people damaged by their education and upbringing.
  • 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 that 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.
  • Imagining should be as effortless as perceiving.
  • Imagination is as effortless as perception, unless we think it might be ‘wrong', which is what our education encourages us to believe. Then we experience ourselves as ‘imagining', as ‘thinking up an idea', but what we're really doing is faking up the sort of imagination we think we ought to have.
  • People maintain prejudices quite effortlessly.
  • If an improviser is stuck for an idea, he shouldn't search for one, he should trigger his partner's ability to give ‘unthought' answers.
  • My feeling is that sanity is actually a pretence, a way we learn to behave. We keep this pretence 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.
  • A Canadian study on attitudes to mental illness concluded that it was when someone's behaviour was perceived as ‘unpredictable' that the community rejected them.
  • Sanity is a matter of interaction, rather than of one's mental processes,
  • Laughter is a whip that keeps us in line. It's horrible to be laughed at against your will.
  • Many students block their imaginations because they're afraid of being unoriginal. They believe they know exactly hat originality is.
  • Many students block their imaginations because they're afraid of being unoriginal. They
  • But the real avant-garde aren't imitating what other people are doing, or what they did forty years ago; they're solving the problems that need solving, like how to get a popular theatre with some worth-while content, and they may not look avant-garde at all!
  • The improviser has to realise that the more obvious he is, the more original he appears. I constantly point out how much the audience like someone who is direct, and how they always laugh with pleasure at a really ‘obvious' idea. Ordinary people asked to improvise will search for some ‘original' idea because they want to be thought clever.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Suppose Mozart had tried to be original? It would have been like a man at the North Pole trying to walk north, and this is true of all the rest of us. Striving after originality takes you far away from your true self, and makes your work mediocre.
  • There is a link with status transactions here, since low-status players tend to accept, and high-status players to block. High-status players will block any action unless they feel they can control it.
  • Then 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.
  • If you'll stop reading for a moment and think of something you wouldn't want to happen to you, or to someone you love, then you'll have thought of something worth staging or filming.
  • People with dull lives often think that their lives are dull by chance. In reality everyone chooses more or less what kind of events will happen to them by their conscious patterns of blocking and yielding. A student objected to this view by saying, ‘But you don't choose your life. Sometimes you are at the mercy of people who push you around.' I said, ‘Do you avoid such people?' ‘Oh!' she said,'I see what you mean.'
  • Reading about spontaneity won't make you more spontaneous, but it may at least stop you heading off in the opposite direction; and if you play the exercises with your friends in a good spirit, then soon all your thinking will be transformed.
  • The stages I try to take 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.
  • Content lies in the structure, in what happens, not in what the characters say.
  • Even at the level of geometrical signs ‘meaning' is ambiguous. A cross, a circle, and a swastika contain a ‘content' quite apart from those which we assign to them. The swastika is symmetrical but unbalanced: it's a good sign for power, it has a clawiness about it (cartoonists drew swastika spiders scrabbling over the face of Europe). The circle is stiller, is a much better sign for eternity, for completeness. The cross can stand for many things, for a meeting-place, for a crossroads, for a kiss, for a reed reflected in a lake, for a mast, for a sword—but it isn't meaningless just because the interpretations aren't one-for-one. Whatever a cross suggests to us it won't have the same associations as a circle, which makes a much better sign for a moon, for example, or for pregnancy.
  • I tell improvisers to follow the rules and see what happens, and not to feel in any way responsible for the material that emerges. If you improvise spontaneously in front of an audience you have to accept that your innermost self will be revealed. The same is true of any artist.
  • The improviser has to be like a man walking backwards. He sees where he has been, but he pays no attention to the future.
  • When you act or speak spontaneously, you reveal your real self, as opposed to the self you've been trained to present.
  • This is what my students do all the time. I ask them for an idea and they say ‘. .. oh . . . aahh . .. um …' as if they couldn't think of one. The brain constructs the universe for us, so how is it possible to be ‘stuck' for an idea? The student hesitates not because he doesn't have an idea, but to conceal the inappropriate ones that arrive uninvited.
  • If I say ‘Make up a story', then most people are paralysed. If I say ‘describe a routine and then interrupt it', people see no problem. A film like The Last Detail is based on the routine of two sailors travelling across America with a prisoner whom they have to deliver to a prison. The routine is interrupted by their decision to give him a good time. The story I fantasised earlier about the bear who chased me was presumably an interruption of the routine ‘Walking through the forest'. Red Riding Hood presents an interruption of the routine ‘Taking a basket of goodies to Grandma'. Many people think of finding more interesting routines, which doesn't solve the problem. It may be interesting to have a vet rectally examining an elephant, or to show b-ain surgeons doing a particularly delicate operation, but these activities remain routines. If two lavatory attendants break a routine by starting a brain operation, or if a window cleaner begins to examine the elephant, then this is likely to generate a narrative. Conversely, two brain surgeons working as lavatory cleaners immediately sounds like part of a story. If I describe mountaineers climbing a mountain, then the routine says that they first climb it, and then they climb down, which isn't much of a story. A film of a mountain climb isn't necessarily anything more than a documentary.
  • As a story progresses it begins to establish other routines and these in their turn have to be broken.
  • It doesn't matter how stupidly you interrupt a routine, you will be automatically creating a narrative, and people will listen.
  • Sometimes stories themselves become so predictable that they become routines.
  • I once asked a girl to close her eyes while I put a coin under one of three cups. Secredy I put a coin under each cup. When I asked her to guess which cup the coin was under, she was, of course, correct. After she'd made a correct choice about six times, she was convinced I was somehow controlling her thoughts, and moved into a rather disassociated state, so I explained, and she ‘snapped out of it'. I would suggest this as a possible means of inducing hypnosis.

Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre by Keith Johnstone

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