Emulating Everyday Interaction

Chuk Moran
Apr 10, 2018 · 9 min read

Precis of Impro Keith Johnstone 1979

A phenomenal work. Johnstone read 50 plays a week for years then taught theater to lower class teenagers. He knows how theater works as an interplay of script, direction, acting, costume, and audience. (Other elements, such as lighting, this book ignores.) His trick is to produce theater rapidly, with no script and amateur actors.

But, this book is much more than just acting technique. Johnstone’s method is actually a generative theory of human behavior, providing paradigms and mechanisms that you can use to get things done. The book is about social behaviors, but it is not based on social science or biology of humans or primates. It does not give predictions from historical data. Instead, Johnstone presents a behavior-producing machine. This system for generating recognizable and real social reality artificially is actually the result of years of fine-tuning and exploration. So the book reflects research and tinkering. It’s just that, rather than describe reality, he has built up a means for producing it. What the machinery makes is not quite the same as what is real, but it is a really awesome version of it, that feels not only real, but more fully alive and healthy than the reality most of us experience everyday.

Spontaneity

My favorite chapter. Johnstone is not interested in clever or original ideas. He just wants to unleash the action! As befits the era (published 1979), he argues that social inhibitions block the natural font of creative power. Free your mind — by accepting and nurturing what it does — and your ass will follow. You already have everything you need to get going.

The human mind is already assembling a convincing and persistent narrative of “reality” at all times, with little theories and observations and composites abounding. All you have to do is free it from analytic skepticism and reflexive self-limiting shame. Stop worrying about what it looks like to other people, whether it’s a sexual innuendo, crude, or predictable. Once you can get your creative mind going, it will do great things. Johnstone has many tricks to get it going.

Reach into the imaginary bag and pull out a gift. Announce what it is and say thanks! Don’t think of something clever that is in the bag. Just reach in and focus on what your hand is telling you. How have your fingers grasped at it? Is it touching your palm? Is it heavy? How long is it? By nurturing your delusions you can access your imagination, or, what your mind is ready to conceive.

Here, I’ll play it alone for a bit: first I find a tissue — perfect for my new cold! Then a gun shaped like an icicle, not sure how I’ll use it but could be good to carry in my bag? Then bugs that bite and hold on; this is no gift! A German dick — I hope youo don’t mind if I give this to someone who wants it more than me. And the pony tail of a well-liked princess: this belongs in a museum!

This exercise takes us much further into the unknown than you would get trying to be clever. If you reach in and focus just on inventing a new item, you may get some good lines, but your energy flags from the exertion and are often gesturing to someone else’s thought — one that you may struggle to take anywhere. Me trying to be clever would say: “a dinosaur,” “Medusa’s head,” “a 6 pack of burgers,” “ a robot’s head,” “Fido the dog,” “the wallaby emperor” — much more strained creations.

Status

From my point of view, this is just another way to structure spontaneity, but it’s also Johnstone’s best method to create plausible social reality out of thin air. It’s also at least as good a take on this topic as Chimpanzee Politics.

Ask a number of actors to mill about as a crowd, and it will look nothing like real life. Ask each to imagine a specific task they are trying to accomplish and it will look better, but still unrealistic. Ask each to decide whether they are higher or lower status than each person they encounter, and it becomes instantly more real.

Ask two actors to put on an improvised scene and conversation can be quite unnatural. Give them a clear status difference and it’s better. Then ask them to establish a small status gap between them and they start to sound like regular people! Negotiating relative status and struggling to raise or lower it is how people usually interact, see. But you probably wouldn’t see that with a descriptive approach to social reality.

Status acts can be seen at an unconscious level quite easily. Making and holding eye contact is high status. Making and quickly breaking eye contact, then looking back nervously for just an instant, is low status. Talking with your head fixed in position is high status. Start each sentence with a short “er” and you drop in status; start each sentence with a long “err” and you rise again — don’t interrupt me, it says.

“A person who plays high status is saying ‘Don’t come near me, I bite.’ Someone who plays low status is saying “Don’t bite me, I’m not worth the trouble.’ In either case the status played is a defence and it’ll usually work. It’s very likely that you will increasingly be conditioned into playing the status that you’ve found an effective defence. You’ve become a status specialist, very good at playing one status, but not very happy or competent at playing the other.”

The two principal uses of status are to create plausible relationships in a flash and to give the actor a confident direction regardless of explicit dialogue or actions.

“If someone starts a scene by saying, ‘Ah, another sinner! What’s it to be, the lake of fire or the river of excrement?’ then you can’t ‘think’ fast enough to know how to react. Your have to understand that the scene is in Hell, and that th eohter person is some sort of devil, and that you’re dead all in a split second. If you know what status you’re playing the answers come automatically.
‘Well?’
‘Excrement,’ you say, playing high status, without doing anything you experience as ‘thinking’ at all, but you speak in a cold voice, and you look around as if Hell was less impressive than you’d been led to believe. If you’re playing low status you say, “Which ever you think best, Sir,” or whatever. Again with no hesitation, and with eyes full of terror, or wonder.”

Anyway, this marvelous book goes on and on with bold assertions about the role of status in social life (British author!), ways to simulate it, and games to play with it. Space, insults, body posture, text — all relate to status.

Notes on Myself

This is actually the first chapter and establishes that Johnstone is anti-education and thinks we are social animals doing the usual beastly things quite well, but just pretending about most of the rest. He also thinks we really fall off as we age and that techniques for experience are crucial to reclaim the powers of childhood.

“As I grew up, everything started getting grey and dull. I could still remember the amazing intensity of the world I’d lived in as a child, but I thought the dulling of perception was an inevitable consequence of age — just as the lens of the eye is bound gradually to dim. I didn’t understand that clarity is in the mind. I’ve since found tricks that can make the world blaze up again in about fifteen seconds, and the effects last for hours. For example, if I have a group of students who are feeling fairly safe and comfortable with each other, I get them to pace about the room shouting out the wrong name for everything that their eyes light on, Maybe there’s time to shout out ten wrong names before I stop them.”

Narrative Skills

A fairly short chapter arguing that stories are not what you think they are. A narrative is not just an account of events; it’s the connection of many events together. Johnstone relies heavily on a child’s understanding of narrative, which works extremely well. Again, he argues that we can build narratives quite easily if we lose our inhibitions, but we must accept that they may be bizarre. The focus is again on starting with the first thing that pops into mind and letting it grow.

Masks and Trance

The most weird and powerful chapter.

Put out the masks and dress the set. Take the class seriously and play high status. Then assure the students that “the Masks are not dangerous, that whatever happens I can handle it, and that all that matters is that they must take off the Mask when I ask them to. The more I reassure them that more jumpy they get, and by the time they come to take a Mask many of them will be trembling. The skill lies in creating the correct balance between interest and anxiety”

Is that how you do it, Mr. Johnstone? The actor warms up with mask on, staring in the mirror. When she believes that she is the mask, she is ready. The Mask should dominate the actor and will begin its life fragile and quite ignorant. It will not have language, at first, and will have to discover the world for itself, bit by bit. So Johnstone starts the Mask with simple props like a scarf, a carrot, or a bell. The Mask is free to do whatever it likes and behaves like a child, but also like a god. This chapter borrows freely from voodoo, hypnotism, and other possession ceremonies around the world, developing a paradigm for Mask work that breaks through the actor’s personality and channels some other source of inspiration.

Johnstone makes many claims that, while totally outrageous, are based on years of experience and must contain some truth. A particular Mask will have the same character almost regardless of who wears it. Things learned by an actor with one Mask will be retained for years, specifically by that Mask and not others. Masks can be taught speech, but only slowly. Masks can act in scenes, but only if they pretend they’ve never done the scene before. It may take an actor several weeks to become any good at Mask work, and you must bring the Mask a mirror at the snap of its fingers lest the actor lose the Mask. Education blocks the Mask. Normal people are more open to suggestion and Mask work — and their suggestibility is also the reason they are normal.

This chapter is hard to believe, just reading it, but essentially argues that what we really are is an imagination, not a personality, and this imagination has such richness and capacity that it can create new personas that appear as real as the original. Masks break the persona because the self believes the mask has power, that the ritual has purpose, and that the teacher will keep them safe.

A very good book going far beyond the fund of improv to use it as a laboratory for human behavior. The emulation of real interaction, arising from masks and story telling games, is uncanny and inspiring.

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