Book Review: impro
impro - Improvisation and the Theatre by Keith Johnstone
I noticed that when looking into the topics of creativity and innovation, two fields are often mentioned that I know very little about: Jazz - and Improvisation Theatre. So I decided to read the classic book "impro" by Keith Johnstone to see if it would help me understand not only improvisation theatre but also how it's related to creativity and what I could possibly learn from it.
The book has four main parts (not counting the introductions). One chapter each covers the topics Status, Spontaneity, Narrative Skills, and Masks and Trance.
Status is an interesting concept that I find somewhat hard to express in words. Status is behind a lot of our actions and interactions; it controls how we perceive others and how we are perceived by them. What I found most interesting is that you can also - willingly - control, manipulate, or transfer status and therefore influence your interaction with others.
The chapter on Spontaneity is probably best summarised as: Stop trying to be original! Everybody can be spontaneous - it's just that we're holding back whatever it is that pops into our minds, mostly because we don't want to give away something about us. Or, more often, because we try to come up with something original, funny, or insightful. In improvisation theatre, however, it doesn't really matter so much what you come up with then that you come up with something - anything - quickly at all.
The part on Narrative Skills is of course very interesting: How do you develop a story if everything is happening spontaneously and unrehearsed? I like the 3 rules that Keith Johnstone comes up with:
- interrupt a routine (you'll probably start with a routine situation - then turn it into something that's not routine)
- keep the action onstage (instead of talking about things the audience can't see)
- don't cancel the story (don't play it safe just because you feel uncomfortable with where things are heading)
The last chapter on Trance and Masks, however, left me somewhat irritated, if not to say disturbed. While I can accept the idea that the use of a mask can bring up unexpected sides of an actor (since he or she is - in a way - no longer quite him/herself and can sort of "hide" behind the mask), I can't get around the almost mythical abilities that Johnstone ascribes to masks (or "Masks", with a capital M, as he insists on spelling it). To him, they seem to take on a life of their own, with their own behaviour and will. A Mask's personality also supposedly seems to be unrelated to who is actually wearing it.
Again, I can see some of this happening: The actor can hide behind a mask, the mask with its specific look will somewhat define how it will be perceived and acted out by the wearer, and so on. But he seems to take all this a bit to the extreme.
With over 60 pages, Trance and Masks is the longest section in the book - which then, unexpectedly, ends just like that. There's no closing chapter, no index, nothing.
I liked the initial chapters. While not exactly filled with
a hundred practical techniques, as the blurb on the cover promised, I found them interesting, insightful and occasionally even useful (for someone who's not an actor). That last chapter, however, left me sitting here, scratching my head.
(Photo of Keith Johnstone by Erik van der Liet, from the official Keith Johnston fan page on Facebook)