Reading “Impro: Improvisation and the Theater”: Action, Purpose, Joy and Freedom

Kids playing

Last time, I talked about education and spontaneity from the point of view of “Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre”. The general sentiment the book expresses on that topic is well-summarized by the following quote:

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. 

In Johnstone’s view, one that I also share, a childlike curiosity, spontaneity and creativity are the foundation of any joyful life.

But Impro has more to teach us about finding joy. All that’s needed is to penetrate through the language of theater and see that the lessons are in fact lessons about life as a whole.

For example, take the following quote:

An important change of thinking is involved here. When the actor concentrates on making the thing he gives interesting, each actor seems in competition, and feels it. When they concentrate on making the gift they receive interesting, then they generate warmth between them. We have strong resistances to being overwhelmed by gifts, even when tney’re just being mimed. You have to get the class enthusiastic enough to go over the ‘hump’. Then suddenly great joy and energy are released. Playing in gibberish helps. 

For whatever reason, the above quote resonated with me. Maybe because it reminds me of the lesson we all learn at some point that focusing on accepting the world as it is (“the gift we receive”) works out better for us (“great joy and energy are released”) when compared to times at which we stay focused on changing ourselves to suit our surroundings (“the gift we give”). It’s quite a pleasant experience to see such a deep life lesson hidden in the seeming technicalities of theater.

In fact, what follows next is a continuation of the same underlying theme.

Johnstone talks about how scenes die when an actor does not go with the flow and denies a crucial premise.

Scenes spontaneously generate themselves if both actors offer and accept alternately. ‘Haven’t we met before?’ ‘Yes, wasn’t it at the yacht club?’ ‘I’m not a member.’ (Accepts the yacht club. A bad improviser would say ‘what yacht club?’) ‘Ah, I’m sorry.’ ‘School!’ ‘That’s right. I was in the first form and you were one of the school leavers.’ ‘Pomeroy!’ ‘Snodgrass !’ ‘Mter all these years!’ 

As is in theater, so it is in life. Not accepting the yacht club in life might manifest itself as regret or anger at the world for being the way it is, but the result is always misery and a lack of joy.

(I am not sure if that was intentional, but read this way, Johnstone definitely sounds a bit Taoist. After all, “accept life as is” is not that much different from “Follow the Tao”. Given Johnstone’s explicit reference to Tao te Ching, however, I’m willing to assume that he’s been heavily influenced by the Taoist philosophy.)

Actually, Impro is good at reminding us that not only is denying reality a losing emotional battle, but it is also quite literally a meaningless one:

Once the performers have been lured into gagging or blocking, the audience is already on the way towards irritation and boredom. More than laughter they want action.

In other words, when we block and stop living because the world has gone the “wrong” way, the result is spiritual irritation and boredom, i.e. a loss of meaning and a sense of purpose.

Intuitively, we know that this idea is along the right lines. 

When we stop doing, i.e. when we give up on action (“More than laughter they want action” — more than pleasure we want a purpose), the result is a sudden loss of purpose. That’s why being unemployed is often a curse for those who are unlucky enough to experience it. That’s why in the middle of depression the best step is really any step that gets us moving and acting.

Once again, it’s amazing how such profound lessons can be found in the study of theater.

Yet, if we are honest, we would have to admit that action itself can also lose its meaning if done for too long. People need change and new experiences. Novelty keeps us alive.

As Jonhstone says:

Many students dry up at the moment they realise 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 realised what’s wrong consciously. Once they understand the concept of ‘interrupting routines’, then they aren’t stuck for ideas any more. 

Said differently, we all need to interrupt our routines from time to time. We need to experiment and see the world anew. 

If youth is a state of mind, then it must certainly involve a willingness to wake up to a different world with each new day.

And as Johnstone points out, that is especially true when we find ourselves near  the completion of a goal. The natural question in such scenarios is always: what follows next? 

The emptiness of having nothing to live for, no purpose, and no reason for action threatens to come back with a vengeance. If we always follow our routines to the end, we end up frustrated and doomed to a desperate search for yet another source of purpose. (a phenomenon which hurts older people especially hard since it’s feels natural to say that there is nothing next when you’re eighty or ninety)

Once again, what manifests itself as a boring performance in theater is precisely what signals the loss of purpose in life.

Taken together, the picture that Impro paints for finding joy is simple: accept life as it comes to you, don’t always do the same things, be spontaneous, be novel. To top it off, Johnstone adds one final touch to this recipe for a joyful life: don’t think about the future too much. (because thought usually tends to needlessly impede novelty, change and spontaneity…)

In his own words:

I didn’t realise that if the people who thought up Red Riding Hood had been aware of the implications, then they might never have written the story. This was at a time when I had no inspiration as a writer at all, but I didn’t twig that the more I tried to understand the ‘real’ meaning, the less I wrote. 

The improviser has to be like a man walking back-wards. He sees where he has been, but he pays no attention to the future.

Johnstone’s prescription for a joyful life might be a simple one, yet, at least in my experience, it has been a pretty powerful one. In any case, it is certainly one worth trying out…

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2 Comments, RSS

  1. mcgrimmworks January 11, 2018 @ 3:26 AM

    In 7th grade I remember reading Catcher in the Rye and realizing that I hated cliches. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it until my teacher and I were having a discussion where she put it to words. She said how a cliche takes something that is defined and meaningful and turns it into something vague and meaningless. It made a lot of sense and clicked on why I always found myself analyzing for depth that (many times) wasn’t there. Anyway – I enjoy your posts and admire your analytical perspective, so – I nominated you for a Liebster Award! Thank you and godspeed!

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