Impro: Improvisation and the Theater by Keith Johnstone

  1. “This is, in a nutshell, the Johnstone doctrine: 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.” Many of these answers extend theater to transacting in everyday life.
Key Takeaways
  1. 4 main sections: status, spontaneity, narrative skills, masks & trance
  2. Banished aimless discussion, all classes focused on enactment
  3. Where no technical vocabulary exists, develop your own simple name to describe the previously indescribable
  4. His analysis is not concerned with results but how to unlock the imagination
  5. At 9, Johnstone began reversing every statement to see if the opposite was true
  6. Spontaneity is suppressed in normal education but one of Johnstone’s mail goals was to develop it
  7. Don’t try to enforce your own perception of reality on others
  8. If you’ve been bottom of the class for years it gives you a different perspective: I was friends with boys who were failures, and nothing would induce me to write them off as ‘useless’ or ‘ineducable.’ My ‘failure’ was a survival tactic, and without it I would probably never have worked my way out of the trap that my education had set for me. I would have ended up with a lot more of my consciousness blocked off from me than now.
  9. I was successful previously because I didn’t exercise my taste. I would first read plays as quickly as possible, and categorize them as pseudo-Pinter, fake-Osborne, phoney-Beckett, and so on. Any play that seemed to come from the author’s own experience I’d then read attentively, and either leave it in Devine’s office, or if I didn’t like it, give it to someone else to read. As 99% of the plays submitted were just cribs from other people, the job was easy. I had experienced that there’d be a very gentle gradation from awful to excellent, and that I’d be involved in a lot of heart-searching. Almost all were total failures – they couldn’t have been put on in the village hall for the author’s friends. It wasn’t a matter of lack of talent, but of miseducation. The authors of the pseudo-plays assumed that writing should be based on other writing, not on life. My play had been influenced by Beckett, but at least the content had been mine. The more I understood how things ought to be done, the more boring my productions were.
  10. I began to think of children not as immature adults, but of adults as atrophied children. But when I say this to educationalists, they became angry.
  11. Drama is about relationships, not about characters
  12. When you are nowhere physically, you are everywhere spiritually
  13. In improv, it’s weird waking up knowing there’s nothing you can do to ensure success
  14. The actors don’t seem to be able to see or hear properly any more – they feel so wretched that scene after scene is about vomiting. Even if the audience are pleased by the novelty, you feel you’re swindling them. 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. All comedians know these feelings.
  15. As I came to understand the techniques that release creativity in the improviser, so I began to apply them to my own work. 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 theater. ‘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 get myself engaged by a company and write the plays as I’m rehearsing the actors.
  16. I didn’t learn how to direct again until I left the Royal Court Theater and was invited to Victoria. I directed the Wakefield Mystery Cycle there, and I was so far away from anyone whose criticism I cared about that I felt free to do exactly what I felt like. Suddenly I was spontaneous again; and since then, I’ve always directed plays as if I was totally ignorant about directing; I simply approach each problem on a basis of common sense and try to find the most obvious solutions possible. Nowadays everything is very easy to me
    1. Effortless Mastery…
  17. On Teaching
    1. My feeling is that a good teacher can get results using any method, and that a bad teacher can wreck any method.
    2. When teaching is done correctly, the pressure to get things right comes from the children, not the teacher. You have to force the children out of the classroom to take breaks. “When I hear that children only have an attention span often minutes, or whatever, I’m amazed. Ten minutes is the attention span of bored children, which is what they usually are in school – hence the misbehavior.
    3. There seems no doubt that a group can make or break its members, and that it’s more powerful than the individuals in it. A great group can propel its members forward so that they achieve amazing things. Many teachers don’t seem to think that manipulating a group is their responsibility at all. If they’re working with a destructive, bored group, they just blame the students for being ‘dull’, or uninterested. It’s essential for the teacher to blame himself in the group aren’t in a good state. The first thing I do when I meet a group of new students is 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 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 apologize 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 anymore. The normal teacher-student relationship is dissolved…In exchange for accepting the blame for failure, I ask the students to set themselves up in such a way that they’ll learn as quickly as possible. I’m teaching spontaneity, and therefore I tell them that they mustn’t try to control the future, or to ‘win’; and that they’re to have an empty head and just watch. When it’s their turn to take part they’re to come out and just do what they’re asked to, and see what happens. It’s this decision not to try and control the future which allows the students to be spontaneous.
    4. Intelligence is overrated – focus more on actions than thoughts
    5. Many kids learn best and look most intelligence when not being asked to learn
    6. When I was teaching young children, I trained myself to share my eye contact among the group. I find this crucial in establishing a ‘fair’ relationship with them. I’ve seen many teachers who concentrate their eye contact on only a few students, and this does affect the feeling in a group. Certain students are disciples, but others feel separated, or experience themselves as less interesting, or as ‘failures.’ I’ve also trained myself to make positive comments and to be as direct as possible. I say ‘Good’ instead of ‘That’s enough.’ I’ve actually heard teachers say, ‘Well, let’s see who fails at this one’, when introducing an exercise. Some teachers get reassurance when their students fail. We must have all encountered the teacher who gives a self-satisfied smile when a student makes a mistake. Such an attitude is not conductive to a good, warm feeling in the group
    7. If I’m playing with my 3 year old, and I smack him, he looks at me for signals that will turn the sensation into either warmth or pain. A very gentle smack that he perceives as ‘serious’ will have him howling in agony. A hard ‘play’ slap may make him laugh. When I want to work and he wants me to continue playing he will give very strong ‘I am playing’ signals in an attempt to pull me back into his game. All people relate to each other in this way but most teachers are afraid to give ‘I am playing’ signals to their students. If they would, their work would become a constant pleasure
    8. I have a simple way of telling if people are visualizers. I ask them to describe the furniture in a room they’re familiar with. Visualizers move their eyes as if ‘seeing’ each object as they name it. Conceptualizers look in one direction as if reading off a list. Galton investigated mental imagery at the beginning of the century, and found that the more educated the person, the more likely he was to say that mental imagery was unimportant, or even that it didn’t exist. 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.
    9. Relaxation is incompatible with anxiety; and by maintaining the relaxed state, and presenting images that gradually neared the center of the phobia, the state of alarm was soon dissipated – in most cases
    10. If we were all terrified of open spaces, then we would hardly recognize this as a phobia to be cured; but it could be cured. My view that we have a universal phobia of being looked at on a stage, and that this responds very well to ‘progressive desensitization’ of the type that Wolpe advocates. Many teachers seem to me to be trying to get their students to conceal fear, which always leave some traces – a heaviness, an extra tension, a lack of spontaneity. I try to dissipate the fear by a method analogous to Wolpe’s, but which I really got from Anthony Stirling. The one finding of Wolpe which I immediately incorporated into my work was the discovery that if the healing process is interrupted by a recurrence of the total fear – maybe a patient being treated for a phobia of birds suddenly finds himself surrounded by fluttering pigeons – then the treatment has to be started again at the bottom of the hierarchy. I therefore constantly return to the very first stages of the work to try to pull in those students who remain in a terrified state, and who therefore make hardly any progress. Instead of seeing people as untalented, we can see them as phobic, and this completely changes the teacher’s relationship with them
    11. 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 all onlookers have sympathy with them if they ‘fail’ and it’s expected to bring greater rewards if they ‘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. Another common ploy is to anticipate the problem, and to try and prepare solutions in advance. Almost all students do this – probably it started when they were learning to read. You anticipate which paragraph will be yours, and start trying to decipher it. This has two great disadvantages: it stops you learning from the attempts of your classmates; and very likely you’ll have calculated wrongly, and will be asked to read one of the adjacent paragraphs, throwing you into total panic
  18. Status
    1. By focusing his students on trying to “get their status just a little above or below your partner’s”, he transformed their performance as it seemed authentic. They instinctively knew what this meant. Every inflection and movement implies a status, and that no action is due to chance, or really “motiveless.” Normally we are forbidden to see status transactions except when there’s a conflict. In reality, status transactions continue all the time. You really have to ‘see’ your partner in order to exactly relate your behavior to theirs
    2. Low status: twitching, unnecessary movements, blushing at the slightest annoyance
    3. Those who can raise and lower their status seamlessly and at will are the masters at social communication and rapport.
    4. 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. Should really talk about dominance and submission but this would create resistance.
    5. There is no way to be neutral. Even if you try, the messages are modified by the receivers
    6. 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
    7. See-saw Principle
      1. People surround themselves with lower status people to raise themselves
      2. People really want to be told things to our discredit in such a way that they don’t have to feel sympathy.
      3. Low-status people save up little tit-bits involving their own discomfiture with which to amuse and placate other people.
      4. If I’m trying to lower my end of the see-saw, and my mind blocks, I can always switch to raising the other end. That is, I can achieve a similar effect by saying “I smell beautiful” as “you stink.”
      5. Most comedy works on the see-saw principle. A comedian is someone paid to lower his own or other people’s status. Want others to be low status but we also don’t want to feel sympathy for them. Slaves are always supposed to sing at their work
      6. 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. The high-status person must never look as if he could accept a position lower in the pecking order. He has to be ejected from it
    8. Observing postures is one of the best ways to determine status in an interaction
    9. Social animals have inbuilt rules which prevent them from killing each other for food, mates, and so on. 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.’ This system is found in animals as diverse as human beings, chicken, and woodlice. I’ve known about this ever since I was given a book about social dominance in kittiwake colonies, yet I hadn’t immediately thought of applying this information to action training. This is because normal people are inhabited 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
    10. In animals, the pattern of eye contacts often establish dominance. A stare is often interpreted as an aggressive act – hence the dangers of looking at gorillas through binoculars. Visitors to zoos feel dominant when they can out stare the animals. I suggest you try the opposite with zoo animals: break eye contact and then glance back for a moment. Polar bears may suddenly see you as “food.” Owls cheer up perceptibly
    11. There is some research which reveals that breaking eye contact can in fact be a sign of high status but I see it as high status as long as you don’t immediately glance back for a fraction of a second. Status is established not by staring but by the reaction to staring
    12. The short ‘er’ is an invitation for people to interrupt you; the long ‘er’ says “don’t interrupt me, even though I haven’t thought what to say yet.”
    13. Keeping your head still whenever you speak greatly changes the way people perceive you. Officers are trained not to move the head while issuing commands. Moving smoothly is high-status and moving jerkily is low-status.
    14. Hands on your face is low and hands away from your face when speaking is high.
    15. Toes pointing inward is low status
    16. Sitting back and spreading oneself to take up space is high status
    17. The body automatically takes over when you act in a high-status way. If you speak with your head still, then you’ll do many other high-status things quite automatically – speak in complete sentences, hold eye contact, move smoothly, occupy more space
    18. My belief is that people have a preferred status; that they like to be low, or high, and that they try to maneuver themselves into the preferred positions. It’s very likely that you will increasingly be conditioned into playing a status that you’ve found an effective defense. You become a status specialist, very good at playing one status, but not very happy or competent at playing the other.
    19. When you slow your movements down, you go up in status
    20. Things said are far less important than status played
    21. Status can be played to anything, status as well as people
    22. Space
      1. Space is so key to status because status is basically territorial. Space is very difficult to talk about but easy to demonstrate.
      2. In my view it’s only when the actor’s movements are related to the space he’s in, and to the other actors, that the audience feel ‘at one’ with the play. The very best actors pump space out and suck it in, or at least that’s what it feels like. Just as the earth is surrounded by an atmosphere, the living human being is surrounded by a magnetic aura which makes contact with the external objects without any concrete contact with the human body. This aura, or atmosphere, varies in depth according to the vitality of human beings. Man must first of all be aware of this boundless contact with things. There is no insulting 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.
      3. High-status player will allow their space to flow into other people. Low-status players will avoid letting their space flow into other people
      4. There is an instinctual fear crouch animals take to protect their soft under-belly’s. The opposite 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 lightly backwards and twists so that the pelvis is in opposition to the shoulders exposing the underbelly – and so on. The opening of the body planes is a sign of vulnerability and tenderness, and has a powerful effect on the onlooker
      5. The corners of couches are usually high-status and high-status ‘winners’ are allowed to take them
      6. Approach distances are related to space. If I approach someone on open moorland I have to raise an arm and shout ‘excuse me’ as soon as I’m within shouting distance. In a crowded street I can actually brush against people without having to interact
      7. Johstone’s Law – a master-servant scene is one in which both parties act as if all the space belonged to the master. A servant’s primary function is to elevate the status of the master
    23. 10 Golden Rules for people who are number ones
      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 to forcibly overpower your subordinates
      4. If a challenge involves brain rather than brawn you must be able 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 their high ranks
      7. You must protect the weaker members of the group from undue persecution
      8. You must make decisions concerning the social activities of the group
      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 the group
    24. It is the lack of ‘pecking order’ that make most crowd scenes look unconvincing – the spaces between all the people are phoney.
    25. 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. This ability to perceive the underlying motives of casual behavior can also be taught.
    26. A great play is one which ingeniously displays and reverses the status between the characters.
    27. Pauses are part of the pattern of dominance and submission
    28. I don’t myself see that an educated man in this culture necessarily has to understand the second law of thermodynamics, but he certainly should understand that we are pecking-order animals and that this affects the tiniest details of our behavior
  19. Spontaneity
    1. 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.
    2. 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. 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. It’s no wonder that the talent of our children die the moment we expect them to become adult. Once we believe that art is self-expression, then the individual can be criticized not only for his skill or lack of skill, but simply for being what he is
    3. 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.’
    4. I now feel that imagining should be as effortless as perceiving
    5. People may seem uncreative, but they’ll be extremely ingenious at rationalizing the things they do. You can see this in people who obey post-hypnotic suggestions, while managing to explain the behavior ordered by the hypnotist as being of their own volition
    6. The truth is that the best ideas are often psychotic, obscene and unoriginal. The teachers, who are so sure of the rules, don’t produce anything themselves at all. My thought 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. People understand the energy necessary to maintain their own shields, but not the energy expended by other people. They understand that their own sanity is a performance, but when confronted by other people they confused the person with the role. Sanity has nothing directly 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 on mental illness concluded that it was when someone’s behavior was perceived as ‘unpredictable’ that the community rejected them
    7. When I explain that sanity is a matter of interaction, rather than of one’s mental processes, students are often hysterical with laughter. They agree that for years they have been suppressing all sorts of thinking because they classified it as insane
    8. We all know instinctively what ‘mad’ thought is: mad thoughts are those which other people find unacceptable, and train us not to talk about, but which we go to the theater to see expressed
    9. Most people’s idea of what is or isn’t obscene varies. In some cultures certain times are set aside when the normal values are reversed – the ‘Lord of Misrule’, Zuni clowning, many carnivals – and something similar happens even in this culture, or so I’m told, at office parties for example. People’s tolerance of obscenity varies according to the group they’re with, or the particular circumstances. People can laugh at jokes told at a party that they wouldn’t find funny on a more formal occasion. It seems unfortunate to me that the classroom is often considered a formal area in this sense
    10. Many students block their imaginations because they’re afraid of being unoriginal. They believe they know exactly what originality is, just as critics are always sure they can recognize things that are avant-garde. 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 theater with some worth-while content, and they may not look avant-garde at all. The improviser has to realize that the more obvious he is, the more original he appears. I constantly point out how much the audience likes 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.
    11. 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. How else could Dostoyevsky have dictated one novel in the morning and one in the afternoon for three weeks in order to fulfill his contracts? If you consider the volume of work produced by Bach then you get some idea of his fluency (and we’ve lost half of it), yet a lot of his time was spent rehearsing, and teaching Latin to the choir boys. According to Louis Schlosser, Beethoven said, “You ask me where I get my ideas? That I can’t say with any certainty. They come unbidden, directly, I could grasp them with my hands.” Mozart said of his ideas, “Whence and how they come, I know not; nor can I force them. Those that please me I retain in the memory, and I am accustomed as I have been told, to hum them.” Later in the same letter he says, “Why my productions take from my hand that particular form and style that makes them Mozartish, and different from the works of other composers, is probably owing to the same cause which renders my nose so large or so aquiline, or in short, makes it Mozart’s, and different from those of other people. For I really do not study or aim at originality.” 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.
    12. 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
    13. Blocking is a form of aggression. I say this because if I set up a scene in which two students are to say “I love you” to each other, they almost always accept each other’s ideas. Many students do their first interesting, unforced improvisations during “I love you” scenes. The motto of scared improvisers is “when in doubt, say “no.” We use this in life as a way of blocking action
    14. 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. We don’t want to walk into a restaurant and be hit in the face by a custard pie, and we don’t want to suddenly glimpse Grannie’s wheelchair racing towards the edge of the cliff, but we’ll pay money to attend enactments of such events. In life, most of us are highly skilled at suppressing action
    15. Good improvisers seem telepathic; everything looks prearranged. This is because they accept all offers made – which is something no ‘normal’ person would do. Also they may accept offers which weren’t really intended. I tell my actors never to think up an offer, but instead to assume that one has already been made…This attitude makes for something really amazing in the theater. The actor who will accept anything that happens seems supernatural; it’s the most marvelous thing about improvisation: you are suddenly in contact with people who are unbounded, whose imagination seems to function without limit. By analyzing everything into blocks and acceptances, the students get insight into the forces that shape the scenes, and they understand why certain people seem difficult to work with. These ‘offer-block-accept’ games have a use quite apart from actor training. 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?” She said, “Oh! I see what you mean.”
    16. The stages I try to take students through involve the realization that 1) 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
  20. Narrative Skills
    1. 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. My design was that content should be ignored. This wasn’t a conclusion I wished to reach, because it contradicted my political thinking. I hadn’t realized that every play makes a political statement, and that the artist only needs to worry about content if he’s trying to fake up a personality he doesn’t actually have, or to express views he really isn’t in accord with. If you want your play to be religious, then be religious. An artist has to accept what his imagination gives him, or screw up his talent. Once you decide to ignore content it becomes possible to understand exactly what a narrative is, because you can concentrate on structure.
    2. We used to play this game at parties, and people who claim to be unimaginative would think up the most astounding stories, so long as they remained convinced that they weren’t responsible for them
    3. The improviser has to be like a man walking backwards. He sees where he has been, but he pays no attention to the future. His story can take him anywhere, but he must still “balance “it, and give it shape, by remembering incidents that have been shelved and reincorporating them. Very often an audience will applaud when earlier material is brought back into the story. They couldn’t tell you why they applaud, but the reincorporation does give them pleasure. Sometimes they even cheer! They admire the improviser’s grasp, since he not only generates new material, but remembers and makes use of earlier events that the audience itself may have temporarily forgotten.
    4. A knowledge of this game is very useful to a writer. First of all it encourages you to write whatever you feel like; it also means that you look back when you get stuck, instead of searching forwards. You look for things you’ve shelved and then reinclude them. If I want people to free-associate, then I have to create an environment in which they aren’t going to be punished, or in any way held responsible for the things their imagination gives them. I devise techniques for taking the responsibility away from the personality. Some of these games are very enjoyable and others, at first encounter, are rather frightening; people who play them alter their view of themselves. I protect the students, encourage them and reassure them that they’ll come to no harm, and then coax them or trick them into letting the imagination off its leash. One way to bypass the censor who holds our spontaneity in check is to distract him, or overload him. I might ask someone to write out a paragraph on paper (without premeditation) while counting backwards aloud from a hundred. The trick is to keep your attention equally divided, rather than switching quickly from hand to hand. Also you shouldn’t decide what to draw; just sit down with a blank mind and draw as quickly as possible. This regresses your mind to about five years of age. Curiously, each hand seems to draw with the same level of skill
    5. 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.
    6. An improviser can study status transactions, and advancing, and “reincorporating”, and can learn to free-associate, and to generate narrative spontaneously, and yet still find it difficult to compose stories. This is really for aesthetic reasons, or conceptual reasons. He shouldn’t really think of making up stories, but of interrupting routines…Many students dry up at the moment they realize that the routine they’re describing is nearing its completion. They absolutely understand that a routine needs to be broken, or they wouldn’t feel so unimaginative. Their problem is that they haven’t realized what’s wrong consciously. Once they understand the concept of “interrupting routines”, then they aren’t stuck for ideas anymore.
    7. I began this essay by saying that an improviser shouldn’t be concerned with content, because the content arrives automatically. This is true, and also not true. The best improvisers do, at some level, know what their work is about. They may have trouble expressing it to you, but they do understand the implications of what they are doing; and so do the audience. You have to trick students into believing that content isn’t important and that it looks after itself, or they never get anywhere. It’s the same kind of trick you use when you tell them that they are not their imaginations, that their imaginations 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 is just a shell. You have to misdirect people to absolve them of responsibility. Then, much later, they become strong enough to resume the responsibility themselves. By that time they have a more truthful concept of what they are.
  21. Masks & Trance
    1. The reason why one automatically talks and writes of Masks with a capital ‘M’ is that one really feels that the genuine Mask actor is inhabited by a spirit. Non-sense perhaps, but that’s what the experience is like, and has always been like. To understand the Mask it’s also necessary to understand the nature of trance itself.
    2. A Mask is a device for driving the personality out of the body and allowing a spirit to take possession of it. A very beautiful Mask may be completely dead, while a piece of old sacking with a mouth and eye-holes torn in it may have tremendous vitality. In its original culture nothing had more power than the Mask. It was used as an oracle, a judge, an arbitrator. Some were so sacred that any outsider who caught a glimpse of them was executed. They cured diseases, they made women sterile. Some tribes were so scared of their power that they carved the eye-holes so that the wearers could only see the ground. Some Masks were led on chains to keep them from attacking the onlookers. One African Mask had a staff, the touch of which was believed to cause leprosy. In some cultures dead people were reincarnated as Masks – the back of the skull is sliced off, a stick rammed in from ear to ear, and someone dances, gripping the stick with his teeth. It’s difficult to imagine the intensity of that experience. Masks are surrounded by rituals that reinforce their power. A Tibetan Mask was taken out of its shrine once a year and set up overnight in a locked chapel. Two novice monks sat all night chanting prayers to prevent the spirit of the Mask from breaking loose. For miles around the villagers barred their doors at sunset and no one ventured out. Next day the Mask was lowered over the head of the dancer who was to incarnate the spirit at the center of a great ceremony. What must it feel like to be the dancer, when the terrifying face becomes his own? We don’t know much about Masks in this culture, partly because the church sees the Mask as pagan, and tries to suppress it wherever it has the power (the Vatican has a museum full of Masks confiscated from the ‘natives’), but also because this culture is usually hostile to trance states. We distrust spontaneity, and try to replace it by reason: the Mask was driven out of theater in the same way that improvisation was driven out of music. Shakers have stopped shaking. Quakers don’t quake anymore. Hypnotized people used to stagger about, and tremble. Victorian mediums used to rampage about the room. Education itself might be seen as primarily an anti-trance activity. The church struggled against the Mask for centuries, but what can’t be done by force is eventually done by the all-pervading influence of Western education. The US Army burned the voodoo temples in Haiti and the priests were sentenced to hard labor with little effect, but voodoo is now being suppressed in a more subtle way. The ceremonies are faked for tourists. The genuine ceremonies now last for a much shorter time. I see the Mask as something that is continually flaring up in this culture, only to be almost immediately snuffed out. No sooner have I established a tradition of Mask work somewhere than the students start getting taught the ‘correct’ movements, just as they learn a phoney ‘Commedia dell’Arte’ technique. The manipulated Mask is hardly worth having, and is easy to drive out of the theater. The Mask begins as a sacred object, and then becomes secular and is used in festivals and in theater. Finally it is remembered only in the feeble imitations of Masks sold in the tourist shops. The Mask dies when it is entirely subjected to the will of the performer.
    3. The truth is that we learn to hold characteristic expressions as a way of maintaining our personalities, and we’re far more influenced by faces than we realize. Adults lose this vision in which the face is the person, but after their first Mask class students are amazed by passersby in the street – suddenly they see ‘evil’ people, and ‘innocent’ people, and people holding their faces in Masks of pain, or grief, or pride, or whatever. Our faces get ‘fixed’ with age as the muscles shorten, but even in very young people you can see that a decision has been taken to appear tough, or stupid, or defiant. (Why should anyone wish to look stupid? Because then your teachers expect less of you.) Sometimes in acting class a student will break out of his habitual facial expression and you won’t know who he is until you look at his clothes. I’ve seen this transformation several times, and each time the student is flooded with great joy and exhilaration
    4. It’s not surprising then to find that Masks produce changes in the personality, or that the first sight of oneself wearing a Mask and reflected in a mirror should be so disturbing. A bad Mask will produce little effect, but a good Mask will give you the feeling that you know all about the creature in the mirror. You feel that the Mask is about to take over. It is at this moment of crisis that the Mask teacher will urge you to continue. In most social situations you are expected to maintain a consistent personality. In a Mask class you are encouraged to let go, and allow yourself to become possessed.
    5. Many actors report ‘split’ states of consciousness, or amnesias; they speak of their body acting automatically, or as being inhabited by the character they are playing.
    6. Normally we only know of our trance states by the time jumps. When an improviser feels that two hours have passed in twenty minutes, we’re entitled to ask where was he for the missing hour and forty minutes
    7. In ‘normal consciousness’ I am aware of myself as ‘thinking verbally’. In sports which leave no time for verbalization, trance states are common. If you think: ‘The ball’s coming at that angle but it’s spinning so that I’ll anticipate the direction of the bounce by…’ you miss! You don’t know you’re in a trance state because whenever you check up, there you are, playing table tennis, but you may have been in just as deep a trance as the bobsleigh rider who didn’t know he’d lost a thumb until he shook hands
    8. 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’.
    9. When you’re worried about what other people might think, personality is always present. In life-or-death situations, something else takes over. In extremity the body takes over for us, pushing the personality aside as an unnecessary encumbrance
    10. Meditators use stillness as a means of inducing trance. So do present-day hypnotists. The subject doesn’t have to be told to be still, he knows intuitively not to assert control of his body by picking his nose or tapping his feet. When you are ‘absorbed’ you no longer control the musculature. You can drive for miles, or play a movement from a sonata while your personality pays no attention at all. Nor is your performance necessarily worse. When a hypnotist takes over the function normally exercised by the personality, there’s no need to leave the trance. Mask teachers, priests in possession cults, and hypnotists all play high status in voice and movement. A high-status person whom you accept as dominant can easily propel you into unusual states of being
    11. Many ways of entering trance involve interfering with verbalization. Repetitive singing or chanting are effective, or holding the mind on to single words; such techniques are often thought of as ‘Oriental’, but they’re universal. One dramatic way of entering trance is by ‘trumping’. This was used in a West Indian play at the Royal Court, with the unwanted result that actors kept going into real trance, and not just acting it. It works partly by the ‘crowd-effect’, everyone repeating the same action and sound, but also by over oxygenating the blood. It looks like a ‘forward-moving two-step stomp’. ‘With the step forward the body is bent forwards from the waist so sharply as to seem propelled by force. At the same time the breath is exhaled, or inhaled, with great effort and sound. The forcefulness of the action gives justification to the term ‘laboring’…When the spirit possession does take place…an individual’s legs may seem riveted to the ground…or he may be thrown to the ground.’ Crowds are trance-inducing because the anonymity imposed by the crowd absolves you of the need to maintain your identity.
    12. The type of trance I am concerned with in this essay is the ‘controlled trance’, in which permission to remain ‘entranced’ is given by other people, either by an individual or a group. Such trances may be rare, or may pass unrecognized in this culture, but we should consider them as a normal part of human behavior. Researchers who have studied possession cults report that it is better adjusted citizens who are most likely to become possessed. Many people regard ‘trance’ as a sign of madness, just as they presume that ‘madmen’ must be easy to hypnotize. The truth is that if madmen were capable of being under ‘social control’ they would never have revealed the behavior that categorized them as insane. It’s a tautology to say that normal people are the most suggestible, since it’s because they’re the most suggestible that they’re the most normal
    13. Once one person is possessed, others usually follow almost immediately. In a beginners’ Mask class there is usually a ‘dead’ twenty minutes before the first Mask appears – if you’re lucky. My method is to ‘seed’ the class with a fully developed Mask. The presence of a ‘possessed’ Mask allows students to ‘let go’, and alarms and reassures at the same time. The same phenomenon is reported in possession cults; and it’s easier to hypnotize someone who has just seen it done to someone else. The problem is not one of getting the students to experience the ‘presence’ of another personality – almost everyone gets a strong kick from their reflection – the difficulty lies in stopping the student from making the change ‘himself.’ There’s no reason for the student to start ‘thinking’ when he already ‘knows’ intuitively exactly what sort of creature he is.
    14. In normal life the personality conceals or checks impulses. Mask characters work on the opposite principle: they are childlike, impulsive, and open; their machinations are completely transparent to the audience, although not necessarily to each other. If you look at, say, the adults on a bus, you can see that they work to express a ‘deadness.’
    15. Mask work is particularly suitable for ‘tough’ adolescents who may normally think of drama as sissy. It appeals to them because it feels dangerous. I’ve seen excellent, and very sensitive Mask work by rather violent teenagers. Personally I think Mask work is something almost anyone can learn to enjoy. It’s very refreshing to be able to shed the personality thrust on you by the other people. ‘It’s like you get the freedom to explore all the personalities that any human being may develop into – all the shapes and feelings that could have been Ingrid but aren’t. Some Masks don’t trigger any response…maybe these are spirits outside of Ingrid’s repertoire, that is any one person may have a limited number of possibilities when he develops his personality
    16. The greater the emotion expressed on the face the greater the change in behavior and the easier it is to improvise.
    17. The place of the personality in a particular part of the body is cultural. Most Europeans place themselves in the head, because they have been taught that they are the brain. In reality of course the brain can’t 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 were in the chest, the Japanese a hand’s breath below the navel, Witla Indians in the whole body, and even outside it. We only imagine ourselves as ‘somewhere.’ Meditation teachers in the East have asked their students to practice placing the mind in different parts of the body, or in the Universe, as a way of inducing trance. Some suggest inventing imaginary bodies and operating them from imaginary centers. Your whole being, psychologically and physically, will be changed – I would not hesitate to say even possessed – by the character…your reasoning mind, however skillful it may be, is apt to leave you cold and passive, whereas the imaginary body has the power to appeal directly to your will and feelings. You will notice that the center is able to draw and concentrate your whole being into one spot from which your activity emanates and radiates. Try a few experiments for a while. Put a soft, warm, not too small center 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 center on the tip of your nose and you will become curious, inquisitive, prying, and even meddlesome. Imagine a big, heavy, dull and sloppy center placed outside the seat of your pants and you have a cowardly, not too honest, droll character. A center located a few feet outside your eyes or forehead may invoke the sensation of a sharp, penetrating, even sagacious mind. A warm, hot and even fiery center situated without your heart may awaken in you heroic, loving and courageous feelings. You can also imagine a movable center. Let it sway slowly before your forehead and circle your head from time to time, and you will sense the psychology of a bewildered person; or let it circle irregularly around your whole body, in varying tempos, now going up and now sinking down, and the effect will no doubt be one of intoxication.
    18. Trance states are likely whenever you abandon control of the musculature. Many people can get an incredible ‘high’ from being moved about while they remain relaxed. Pass them round a circle, lift them, and (especially) roll them about on a soft surface. For some people it’s very liberating, but the movers have to be skilled
    19. One of the strangest paradoxes about the Mask is that the actor who is magnificent wearing it may be colorless and unconvincing when he isn’t. This is something obvious to everyone, including the actor himself. In the Mask events really happen. The wearers experience everything with great vividness. Without the Mask they perpetually judge themselves. In time the Mask abilities spill over into the acting, but it’s a very gradual process.
    20. Critics raved about Greta Garbo’s face: her face, early called the face of the century, had an extraordinary plasticity, a mirrorlike quality; people could see in it their own conflicts and desires. People who worked with her said that her face didn’t change. The muscles in her face would not move, and yet her eyes would express exactly what she needed. The eyes told it all. What Garbo had was a body that transmitted and received. It was her spine that should have been raved about: every vertebra alive and separated so that feelings flowed in and out from the center. She responded simultaneously with emotion and warmth, and what she felt, the audience felt, yet the information transmitted by the body was perceived as emanating from the face.
    21. What happens to the actor who puts on a mask? He is cut off from the outer world. The night he deliberately enters allows him first to reject everything that hampered him. Then, by an effort of concentration, to reach a void, a state of un-being. From this moment forwards, he will be able to come back to life and to behave in a new and truly dramatic way.
    22. Closing your eyes and ‘looking’ into the darkness of the eyelids is a common trance-inducing technique.
    23. Something happens to people in moments of great seriousness. When Annigoni was painting the Queen, she told him that usually she feels like an ordinary woman, but that when she wears the robes of state she ‘becomes the Queen’. We all know how a wreath should be placed on a memorial during a great ceremony: we may have to be told where to stand, and when to move forward, but the way we move and hold our bodies is instinctive. We know we mustn’t do anything trivial or repetitive. Our movements will be as simple as possible. Our bodies will be straight. We won’t hurry. There will be a smoothness about us. The people you see standing around after mine disasters, or similar tragedies, have a stillness and simplicity of movement. They rise in status. They are straighter, they don’t make nervous little movements – not when the shock is on them – and I would guess that they hold eye contacts for longer than normal.
    24. It’s amazing how few people can stand really still; yet nothing is more powerful than absolute stillness on stage.
    25. When actors insist on ‘thinking’ about the Mask, I tell them to ‘attend’ to it instead. I say, ‘Imagine you’re in a great forest and you hear a sound you can’t identify quite close to you. Is it a bear? Is it dangerous? The mind goes empty as you stay motionless waiting for the sound to be repeated. This mindless listening is like attending to a Mask’. This usually works. If you attend to a Mask you’ll see it start to change – probably because your eyes are getting tired. Don’t stop these changes. The edges crawl about, it may suddenly seem like a real face in your hands. Fine, don’t lose the sensation, put the Mask on gently and hold the image in your mind. If you lose it, take the Mask off.
    26. People seem to be afraid of three things: 1) that the students will be violent; 2) that the students will go ‘mad’; 3) that the students will refuse to remove the Mask when instructed (a combination of the first two)
    27. When you give the student permission to explore the material he very soon uncovers layers of unsuspected gentleness and tenderness. It is no longer sexual feelings and violence that are deeply repressed in this culture now, whatever it may have been like in fin-de-siècle Vienna. We repress our benevolence and tenderness
      1. Even more important and a way to separate self today because of this lack of empathy, benevolence, tenderness.
    28. The facial expression as a whole – independent of the individual parts – has to be carefully observed. We know the depressed face of the melancholic patient. It is peculiar how the expression of flaccidity can be associated with a severe chronic tension of the musculature. There are people with an always artificially beaming face; there are ‘stiff’ and ‘sagging’ cheeks. Usually, the patients are able to find the corresponding expression themselves, if the attitude is repeatedly pointed out and described to them, or shown to them by imitating it. One patient with ‘stiff’ cheeks said: “My cheeks are as if heavy with tears.” Suppressed crying easily leads to a masklike stiffness of the facial musculature. At an early age, children develop a fear of “faces” which they used to delight in making; they are afraid because they are told that if they make a face it’ll stay that way, and because the very impulses they express in their grimaces are impulses for which they are likely to be reprimanded or punished. Thus they check these impulses and hold their faces “rigidly under control.”
What I got out of it
  1. Less movement indicates higher-status (especially of head, amazing how few can be totally still), there is no action that is done which doesn’t indicate/raise/lower status and by focusing on this actors can let their instincts take over, those who can raise and lower their status seamlessly and at will are the masters at social communication and rapport, observing postures is one of the best ways to determine status in an interaction, status is established not by staring but by the reaction to staring, the body automatically takes over when you act in a high-status way, if you speak with your head still, then you’ll do many other high-status things quite automatically – speak in complete sentences, hold eye contact, move smoothly, occupy more space, slow down, things said are far less important than status played, the incredible connection between Masks and trance and how deep a part of our culture trance states have been until recently, good teacher can propel any group (play low status by sitting on floor but have status go up by taking responsibility for their success or failure, share eye contact amongst the group), free up imagination by telling students they are not responsible for what comes out, “I don’t myself see that an educated man in this culture necessarily has to understand the second law of thermodynamics, but he certainly should understand that we are pecking-order animals and that this affects the tiniest details of our behavior.” Striving after originality takes you far away from your true self, and makes your work mediocre.