My experience with Impro[v] (the book and the activity)

Back to the personal posts. It has recently come to my attention that historically I need to and excel at apprehending things in an intellectual fashion. (Part of the reason that I really value new concepts, they quite literally let me see more.)

In this essay I describe my recent experiences with improvisational theatre. The first, reading the book Impro, of which a review follows. The second, taking an Improv class,  of which a review follows. (The third, the intellectual apprehension is this essay.) Enjoy.


Impro review

Multiple authors I enjoy have praised Impro over the years. Also, two close friends who are enormously different recommended it. So after 2 years my brain decided to pay attention and I read it.

It wasn’t  mind blowing, which I expected from seeing various reviews over the years. In retrospect this seems an instance of the Seinfeld is unfunny effect: it is 40 years old, authors I like have read it a long time ago and so it has diffused through the worldview they espouse.

The book is divided into 5 parts: Notes on myself, Status, Spontaneity, Narrative Skills, and Masks and Trace.

The chapter on status was very, very rewarding although it hasn’t shaped my mind totally. (This is due to me having studied PUA analysis in the past and thus having some understanding of how to convey high status and what low status looks likes.)

Having said that , the book led me to *spontaneously* analyse interactions in status transactions terms a few times already. I would mentally translate every action into a status move. Including my own. This is incredible because I was blind to status moves I did in a non-purposeful fashion. Just for this the book is worth reading.

The chapter on Spontaneity was pretty good and all of it resonates at a very deep level.

Some meditation, a lot of therapy and introspection have led to various experiences of spontaneity that I identified. It has also led to dealing with “demons” of the obscene, psychotic, and religious tendencies, and after those have had their turn to show the vulnerable children. Yes, yes, yes, and yes, all that made perfect internal sense; even if Johnstone is describing it from the perspective of Improv and Theatre (None of which I had ever done then.).

The chapter on narrative skills was pretty great. He aims to explain that it seems that humans have some sort of story mechanism and you can take advantage of this to create stories. Things like reincorporation (reintegrating a piece, or closing an open end) activate the story mechanism. He also had several writing prompts. I tried one of them  and ended up with a short story I’m quite happy with.

I’m midway through trance masks and I got a much better understanding when I saw the videos. I assumed the masks were of the african tribal mask sort, but instead they are of the exaggerations of *human* faces sort. Keith uses the mask plus a mirror plus a person willing to take social responsibility to induce altered states of consciousness.


Screen Shot 2015-02-13 at 14.57.24


Fig 1. No and yes, respectively.


Having dabbled in those, and having once looked at a mirror to see a demon, or a goat (in a dream) I totally feel how powerful the experience can be and how it can create trance states.

(See this for a video of how trance masks work)

Overall the book is excellent, in addition to the content, Keith has a splendid author voice. (Which makes me empowered to treat him on a first name basis.) The book has a *treasurable* characteristic – it is by an expert that throws observations at you, not theory. If it is the case that you have little to no knowledge on the area (as it was for me) you can connect to the observations by linking them to your experience, and by the end you used your experiences as a scaffold to build out your map in an area you had nothing. This is very, very rewarding. I suspect this is why many people enjoy the book.

(Although there might be other reasons. The book also prompted me to try out the exercises, to think about what it said and attempt to link it for inordinate amounts of time and to go on youtube and search for videos. Some books just prompt me to “read one word after the other until I read them all”. This might be due to the style of writing. Unclear, don’t know enough about writing, but it seems reasonable that different styles imprint different states that lead to different action likelihoods.)


Improv review

The book pumped me up (raised my Emotional Energy) enough to actually take a workshop. This was 2 days, 3 hours each over a weekend. One of the best decisions I ever made.

The professor guiding the seminar was excellent. He was what Johnstone refers as a status specialist – he could raise and lower his (and others) statuses at will. If he wanted to say something he would slightly alter his posture and look down on everyone and the room would fall silent. If he wanted everyone to relax he would laugh too much, and become goofy and everyone relaxed and started interacting instead of standing still paying attention. This is tough to describe but the effect was very vivid.

Further, it was rare for him to talk. He seemed to be focused on praxis on doing over talking, over logos. And so he wouldn’t. He would do and you would have to understand from trial and error. He would set up the group in an ellipse and do a movement and a sound. And you copied it and tried variations, and if those were legal he would let you stay in the ellipse, and if not you would be sent out.

One of the games was Zip-Zap-Boing. In this game you either say Zip and turn and point right or let, say Zap and turn and point to anyone but the people on your right or left, or you jump and say Boing to whomever sent you a Zip or Zap to send it back.

In the beginning people were upset when they lost and so they would loudly moan. But this “stole the energy off the stage” and so they stopped doing it over time, and what happened was brilliant: you could see a logic developing in the game, a tempo, a symphony of Zip-Zip-Zap-Zip-Zip-Zap that would be broken with a Boing and someone would exit. But the break would be correct, if you were seeing it from the outside it made sense from the overall picture, if not to the person that was surprised by it.

There are two very cool things about this game:

  1. You never win. There is no end. You just keep playing, and getting better, better reactions, better tempo, better symphonies, but no end. It is an infinite game.
  2. You must be empty. If you are thinking about you are going to do, then you will flinch too soon or too late and you will lose and exit the ellipse.

This second point is precisely what spontaneity is about. It reminded me of Wu Wei, which I have felt a few times. It’s not flow, or inner freedom, but a sense that things happen and things get done by you, but not that you are doing things. I can imagine that if a group keeps playing this game, then a shared ritual consciousness emerges.

Another game was the predator. One person is a predator, and they have to touch the others. If you get touched, you die. But just before getting touched you can yell out someone’s name. If you do, then that person becomes the predator. What ended up happening is that in the frenzy of running away people would call out people that were dead already, multiple people would be called, and so on. And then the game was interrupted and you were asked what was wrong. It was seldom the case that someone knew, although over time our awareness got better.

And awareness was another thing distinguishing the professor. He would know what you were doing even if he had his back turned to you. This was very freaky in the first hour and then it became OK.

Back to his approach. At some points he would talk. After we had done the praxis, then he would explain it referring technical terms from Aristotle Poetics, or scenes from the Illiad and Odyssey. So he would force you to understand by trial-and-error and then explain it with drama theory. It was brilliant.

A third game was the gibberish game. At some point he started talking german sounding words to me and I replied back in german. They weren’t words it was gibberish. And so I replied in gibberish. And it made sense. From the context, the body language, the cadence, the repetition of words – it started making sense, you knew what was meant.

This game was used to do a improv scene at the end of the second day. The setup was two best friends meeting after not having seen each other for 10 years, discovering they were living in the same city, and then discovering they were fanatical extremists of opposite sides of a cause.

It was overwhelming. Literally. There was a point of quiet recognition, two points of extreme happiness, an uncomfortable tension, and then a realization. After the realization there was a fight, and at some point I made a closed fist. My improv partner started crying out of anger and I couldn’t handle it. I had to exit to the backstage where I was shaking for 1 or 2 full minutes. Still unsure of what happened.

A highly recommended experience, if you can, go and do an improv workshop.



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