Wow! What a surprisingly fresh and useful book!
On the surface, Keith Johnstone’s “Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre” is a book clearly dedicated to theater and improvisation. And indeed, the book delves into many relevant topics such as theater masks, improvisation, writing and directing. Moreover, Impro frequently goes into details and tells the stories of actors and actresses learning and practicing their craft.
To be honest, I have never acted in my life. I enjoy theater, but unfortunately I have only ever been to a few performances. So, why did I read Impro?
For one, I read it because I was looking for great books on creativity. Or at the very least that’s why I started reading…
Why I kept reading and ultimately finished Impro was because I realized it wasn’t just a theater book. Instead, it contained wisdom for all walks of life. (which might not be so surprising in the end, given the common comparison of life to a staged play with us as the actors)
The following few posts document some of my thoughts and the lessons I learned from the book. Enjoy.
Education and Spontaneity
Right from the beginning the book opens up with a frank and critical commentary on modern education. Johnstone sees in education a force suppressive and destructive of our innate spontaneity. He laments the fact that schools require obedience and punish creativity by design. He might ostensibly be writing a book on theater, but really he’s writing about much more.
For example, talking about why the world seems dull to adults and incredible to children, Johnstone says:
It was as if I’d learned to redesign everything, to reshape it so that I saw what ought to be there, which of course is much inferior to what is there. The dullness was not an inevitable consequence of age, but of education.
In other words, education gives us a framework to understand the world and we desperately and forever cling to it. Even if the framework turns out to be wrong, we do not dispose of it. An educated person almost never does…
In a normal education everything is designed to suppress spontaneity, but I wanted to develop it.
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. This is so much a habit with me that I hardly notice I’m doing it any more. As soon as you put a ‘not’ into an assertion, a whole range of other possibilities opens out — especially in drama, where everything is supposition anyway. When I began teaching, it was very natural for me to reverse everything my own teachers had done.
As the end of this last quote suggests, Johnstone has something to say about the role of teachers:
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.
In this way, Johnstone advises us to proceed with caution when praising unconditionally the merits of “education”, both academic and cultural. In fact, one of the reasons why I wrote about spontaneity (and why I loved that part of Impro) is precisely because of certain cultural lessons which I have found destructive (e.g. always planning meetings and activities, never doing things without a reason, etc.)
But far from pronouncing all teachers as destructive, Johnstone tells us the story of a great teacher that knew how to nurture creativity and spontaneity in his students. As Johnstone own words attest, just one teacher like that is able to shine a critical light on the whole of the modern educational system where a teacher is seen as always good (albeit to varying degrees) and never bad.
The context of the story is a drawing class in which the students, among which is Johnstone, are asked to draw a pattern.
We couldn’t seem to start. There were about ten of us, all strangers to each other, and in the hands of this madman. ‘We don’t know what to do.’ ‘Surely it’s easy to think of patterns.’ We wanted to get it right. ‘What sort of patterns do you want?’ ‘It’s up to you.’ He had to explain patiently to us that it really was our choice. I remember him asking us to think of our shapes as fields seen from the air if that helped, which it didn’t……….It was the final confirmation that my education had been a destructive process.
In a characteristic rational fashion, the students are looking for precision. A pattern of what? To what end? (Often, when I ask people to hang out, I receive “What are we going to do?” or “Why” — basically the same response as the student group gave..)
Long before the concept of “flow” existed in the self-help vernacular, Taoism knew and talked about the happiness hidden in spontaneously losing yourself in an activity. All of us have witnessed the radiance of kids who are allowed to be spontaneous and do things just because they felt like it.
Just think of a kid who goes out and runs because he/she felt like running. Imagine the kid then changing his/her mind and starting to play with a cat only until a bird flock steals the kid’s attention for the skies.
Johnstone says of Stirling, the drawing teacher:
Stirling recommended that we read the Tao Te Ching. It seems to me now that he was practically using it as his teaching manual. Here are some extracts: ‘ … The sage keeps to the deed that consists in taking no action and practises the teaching that uses no words …. When his task is accomplished and his work done the people all say, “It happened to us naturally”
When one stops looking for a reason and embraces spontaneity, things begin to feel right and happen naturally.
Naturally, Ketihstone touches on the effect bad teachers have on students. We normally think of failing students as unintelligent or lazy, but Johnstone shares with us a contrary experience. He tells us about the time his grades slipped down and he found himself in the company of the “failing” students. Of this experience, he says:
One astounding thing was the way cowed and dead-looking children would suddenly brighten up and look intelligent when they weren’t being asked to learn. When they were cleaning out the fish tank, they looked fine. When writing a sentence, they looked numb and defeated.
Over the years my work gradually improved, but I never fulfilled my promise. When I liked a particular teacher and won a prize, the head would say: ‘Johnstone is taking this prize away from the boys who deserve it!’ 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
If failure was young Johnstone’s survival tactic agains the trap of education, one must ask the question “a trap of what?”. And the answer is really summarized in everything above: the loss of spontaneity, the empty reproduction of received wisdom, the blind obedience to authority, the external push away from authenticity and toward conformity.
Everybody who’s been schooled knows intuitively that one of worst sides of formal education can be the severance of a connection between direct experience and textbook lessons.
Put differently, students don’t always know why things they are being taught are ultimately true. In science, this phenomenon might be down to insufficient experimentation that kids are allowed to perform. In the humanities, however, the problem is more one of needless crystallization of interpretation and opinion.
Obviously, I felt I ought to study my craft, but the more I understood how things ought to be done, the more boring my productions were. Then as now, when I’m inspired, everything is fine, but when I try to get things right it’s a disaster. In a way I was successful-I ended up as an Associate Director of the theatre -but once again my talent had left me.
Of course, the way things “ought” to be done is often nothing but the preferred interpretation or philosophy of the textbook’s author or the teacher of the class. Sometimes, the more education one gets, the less creative one becomes simply because one gradually acquires the impression that only few select ideals are worthy of appraisal. One’s own creativity and spontaneity are then doomed to always stay lacking. And no wonder — trying to imitate a foreign ideal, i.e. trying to be somebody else, is ultimately futile; one can only be oneself and create as oneself.
So, what does a spontaneous life look like?
Johnstone suggests as much:
My bias against discussion is something I’ve learned to see as very English. I’ve known political theatre groups in Europe which would readily cancel a rehearsal, but never a discussion.
Indeed, a bias against discussion and one for action is what ultimately defines the spontaneous life. If you feel like doing something, do it. Don’t discuss reasons. Don’t make plans. Don’t be afraid to just do.
In the end, being in the business of improvisation, Johnstone rightly praises spontaneity.
Indeed, if everything had to first thought about and discussed instead of immediately acted out, improvisation would be impossible.
Ultimately, however, the lessons of Impro go beyond theater. Life might not be a theater play, but we all ultimately improvise it to one degree or another. Because it speaks directly to this reality, Impro certainly is a book worth reading.
Part two 🙂