Impro: Improvisation and Theatre Summary
Ostensibly a book about how to teach Improvisational theatre, Impro is a fascinating and insightful look at human psychology.
Starting with an amazing analaysis of how all human interaction boils down to status games and continuing through mask work, I found this book incredibly helpful for thinking about how to be “contrarian but correct”
Imrpo: Improvisation and Theatre Quotes and Notes
In one moment I knew that the valuing of men by their intelligence is crazy, that the peasants watching the night sky might feel more than I feel, that the man who dances might be superior to myself—word-bound and unable to dance. From then on I noticed how warped many people of great intelligence are, and I began to value people for their actions, rather than their thoughts.
It was the final confirmation that my education had been a destructive process.
Note: he had unlearned how to make maps
Ten minutes is the attention span of bored children, which is what they usually are in school—hence the misbehaviour.
The authors of the pseudo-plays assumed that writing should be based on other writing, not on life.
When I’m inspired, everything is fine, but when I try to get things right it’s a disaster.
Most people lose their talent at puberty. I lost mine in my early twenties. I began to think of children not as immature adults, but of adults as atrophied children. But when I said this to educationalists, they became angry.
I’ve always directed plays as if I was totally ignorant about directing; I simply approach each problem on a basis of common sense and try to find the most obvious solutions possible.
Instead of seeing people as untalented, we can see them as phobic, and this completely changes the teacher’s relationship with them.
Note: The Resistance is a phobia?
‘Try to get your status just a little above or below your partner’s,’ I said, and I insisted that the gap should be minimal. The actors seemed to know exactly what I meant and the work was transformed. The scenes became ‘authentic’, and actors seemed marvelously observant.
every inflection and movement implies a status, and that no action is due to chance, or really ‘motiveless’.
Many people will maintain that we don’t play status transactions with our friends, and yet every movement, every inflection of the voice implies a status. My answer is that acquaintances become friends when they agree to play status games together.
The Exception to this see-saw principle comes when you identify with the person being raised or lowered, when you sit on his end of the see-saw, so to speak. If you claim status because you know some famous person, then you’ll feel raised when they are: similarly, an ardent royalist won’t want to see the Queen fall off her horse.
Note: this is why you involve people in your marketing. their status becomes linked to it.
Most comedy works on the see-saw principle. A comedian is someone paid to lower his own or other people’s status.
We want people to be very low-status, but we don’t want to feel sympathy for them—slaves are always supposed to sing at their work.
Note: that is very true
When a very high-status person is wiped out, everyone feels pleasure as they experience the feeling of moving up a step. This is why tragedy has always been concerned with kings and princes, and why we have a special high-status style for playing tragedy.
It’s as if the proper state of human beings is high, but that we modify ourselves to avoid conflicts.
Actors needing authority—tragic heroes and so on—have to learn this still head trick. You can talk and waggle your head about if you play the gravedigger, but not if you play Hamlet. Officers are trained not to move the head while issuing commands.
My belief (at this moment) is that people have a preferred status; that they like to be low, or high, and that they try to manoeuvre themselves into the preferred positions. 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 become a status specialist, very good at playing one status, but not very happy or competent at playing the other. Asked to play the ‘wrong’ status, you’ll feel ‘undefended’.
If I speak with a still head, then I’ll do many other high-status things quite automatically. I’ll speak in complete sentences, I’ll hold eye contact. I’ll move more smoothly, and occupy more ‘space’.
Note: physiological action expresses itself verbally.
‘I find that when I slow my movements down I go up in status.’
Note: true of talking too
Non-defence is exploited by the wolf who exposes his neck and underbelly to a dominant wolf as a way of ending a losing battle. The top Wolf wants to bite, but can’t. Some Congolese soldiers dragged two white journalists out of a jeep, shot one and were about to shoot the other when he burst into tears. They laughed and kicked him back to the jeep and let him drive away, while they waved and cheered. It was more satisfying to see the white man cry than to shoot him.
The actor or improviser must accept his disabilities, and allow himself to be insulted, or he’ll never really feel safe.
Note: vulnerability creates power
High-status players (like high-status seagulls) will allow their space to flow into other people.
When the highest-status person feels most secure he will be the most relaxed person,
People come in sight of a view, it’s normal for their posture to improve and for them to breathe better. You can see people remarking on the freshness of the air, and taking deep breaths, although it’s the same air as it was just below the brow of the hill. Trips to the sea, and our admiration of mountains are probably symptoms of overcrowding.
Desmond Morris, in The Human ZQO (Cape, 1969; Corgi, 1971) gives ‘ten golden rules’ for people who are Number Ones. He says, ‘They apply to all leaders, from baboons to modern presidents and prime ministers.’ They are:
- You must clearly display the trappings, postures and gestures of dominance.
- In moments of active rivalry you must threaten your subordinates aggressively.
- In moments of physical challenge you (or your delegates) must be able forcibly to overpower your subordinates.
- If a challenge involves brain rather than brawn you must be able to outwit your subordinates.
- You must suppress squabbles that break out between your subordinates.
- You must reward your immediate subordinates by permitting them to enjoy the benefits of their high ranks.
- You must protect the weaker members of the group from undue persecution.
- You must make decisions concerning the social activities of your group.
- You must reassure your extreme subordinates from time to time.
- You must take the initiative in repelling threats or attacks arising from outside your group.
Once you understand that every sounu and posture implies a status, then you perceive the world quite differently, and the change is probably permanent.
I don’t myself see that an educated man in this culture necessarily has to understand the second law of thermodynamics, but he certainly should understand that we are pecking-order animals and that this affects the tiniest details of our behaviour.
You have to be a very stubborn person to remain an artist in this culture. It’s easy to play the role of ‘artist’, but actually to create something means going against one’s education.
Note: fantastically true.
We see the artist as a wild and aberrant figure. Maybe our artists are the people who have been constitutionally unable to conform to the demands of the teachers. Pavlov found that there were some dogs that he couldn’t ‘brainwash’ until he’d castrated them, and starved them for three weeks. If teachers could do that to us, then maybe they’d achieve Plato’s dream of a republic in which there are no artists left at all. 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.
Once we believe that art is self-expression, then the individual can be criticised not only for his skill or lack of skill, but simply for being what he is.
Note: why shipping is so scary
Psychotic Thought My feeling is that sanity is actually a pretence, a way we learn to behave. We keep this pretence up because we don’t want to be rejected by other people—and being classified insane is to be shut out of the group in a very complete way.
Laughter is a whip that keeps us in line. It’s horrible to be laughed at against your will. Either you suppress unwelcome laughter or you start controlling it. We suppress our spontaneous impulses, we censor our imaginations, we learn to present ourselves as ‘ordinary’, and we destroy our talent—then no one laughs at us. If Shakespeare had been worried about establishing his sanity, he could never have written Hamlet,
Note: ignore others. Do the work.
Many students block their imaginations because they’re afraid of being unoriginal. They believe they know exactly what originality is, just as critics are always sure they can recognise things that are avant-garde.
Note: people that come up with good ideas also come up with a lot of bad ideas. Churchill.
An artist who is inspired is being obvious. He’s not making any decisions, he’s not weighing one idea against another. He’s accepting his first thoughts. How else could Dostoyevsky have dictated one novel in the morning and one in the afternoon for three weeks in order to fulfil his contracts? If you consider the volume of work produced by Bach then you get some idea of his fluency (and we’ve lost half of it), yet a lot of his time was spent rehearsing, and teaching Latin to the choirboys.
Note: just ship. put everything out there.
Striving after originality takes you far away from your true self, and makes your work mediocre.
Note: GEB is so good because Hofstader is just having fun.
In life, most of us are highly skilled at suppressing action. All the improvisation teacher has to do is to reverse this skill and he creates very ‘gifted’ improvisers. Bad improvisers block action, often with a high degree of skill. Good improvisers develop action:
The interest to the audience lies in their admiration and delight in the actors’ attitude to each other. We so seldom see people working together with such joy and precision. Here’s another scene I noted down. A: Is your name Smith? B: Yes. A: I’ve brought the … car. I interrupt and ask him why he hesitated. A says he doesn’t know, so I ask him what he was going to say. He says ‘Elephant’. ‘You didn’t want to say “elephant” because there was one mentioned in the last scene.’ ‘That’s right.’ ‘Stop trying to be original.’
Note: stop trying to be clever or original
Once you learn to accept offers, then accidents can no longer interrupt the action. When someone’s chair collapsed Stanislavsky berated him for not continuing, for not apologising to the character whose house he was in. This attitude makes for something really amazing in the theatre. The actor who will accept anything that happens seems supernatural; it’s the most marvellous thing about improvisation: you are suddenly in contact with people who are unbounded, whose imagination seems to function without limit.
These ‘offer-block-accept’ games have a use quite apart from actor training. People with dull lives often think that their lives are dull by chance. In reality everyone chooses more or less what kind of events will happen to them by their conscious patterns of blocking and yielding. A student objected to this view by saying, ‘But you don’t choose your life. Sometimes you are at the mercy of people who push you around.’ I said, ‘Do you avoid such people?’ Oh!’ she said,’I see what you mean.’
If you don’t care what you say, and you go with the verse, the exercise is exhilarating. But if an actor suddenly produces a really witty couplet, you’ll see him suddenly ‘dry’ as his standard rises, and he tries to produce ‘better’ verse
We did the opposite of what our own teachers did we’d be on the right track, and this still holds good. The stages I try to take students through involve the realisation (1) that we struggle against our imaginations, especially when we try to be imaginative; (2) that we are not responsible for the content of our imaginations; and (3) that we are not, as we are taught to think, our ‘personalities’, but that the imagination is our true self.
If you improvise spontaneously in front of an audience you have to accept that your innermost self will be revealed. The same is true of any artist. If you want to write a ‘working-class play’ then you’d better be working class. If you want your play to be religious, then be religious. An artist has to accept what his imagination gives him, or screw up his talent.
when someone insists that they ‘can’t think up a story’, they really mean that they ‘won’t think up a story’—which is OK by me, so long as they understand it’s a refusal, rather than a ‘lack of talent’.
Note: we can all tell stories we’re just afraid
Very often an audience will applaud when earlier material is brought back into the story. They couldn’t tell you why they applaud, but the reincorporation does give them pleasure. Sometimes they even cheer! They admire the improviser’s grasp, since he not only generates new material, but remembers and makes use of earlier events that the audience itself may have temporarily forgotten.
Note: open loops
A knowledge of this game is very useful to a writer. First of all it encourages you to write whatever you feel like; it also means that you look back when you get stuck, instead of searching forwards. You look for things you’ve shelved, and then reinclude them.
The student hesitates not because he doesn’t have an idea, but to conceal the inappropriate ones that arrive uninvited.
Word-at-a-time letters usually go through four stages: (I) the letters are usually cautious or nonsensical and full of concealed sexual references; (2) the letters are obscene and psychotic; (3) they are full of religious feeling; (4) finally, they express vulnerability and loneliness. Improvisations go through similar stages if you don’t censor them, and if you work with the same group day after day.
Note: how our subconcious expresses itself
He shouldn’t really think of making up stories, but of interrupting routines. If I say ‘Make up a story’, then most people are paralysed. If I say ‘describe a routine and then interrupt it’, people see no problem. A film like The Last Detail is based on the routine of two sailors travelling across America with a prisoner whom they have to deliver to a prison. The routine is interrupted by their decision to give him a good time. The story I fantasised earlier about the bear who chased me was presumably an interruption of the routine ‘Walking through the forest’. Red Riding Hood presents an interruption of the routine ‘Taking a basket of goodies to Grandma’. Many people think of finding more interesting routines, which doesn’t solve the problem. It may be interesting to have a vet rectally examining an elephant, or to show brain surgeons doing a particularly delicate operation, but these activities remain routines. If two lavatory attendants break a routine by starting a brain operation, or if a window cleaner begins to examine the elephant, then this is likely to generate a narrative.
As a story progresses it begins to establish other routines and these in their turn have to be broken.
interrupt a routine; (2) keep the action onstage—don’t get diverted on to an action that has happened elsewhere, or at some other time; (3) don’t cancel the story.
You have to trick students into believing that content isn’t important and that it looks after itself, or they never get anywhere. It’s the same kind of trick you use when you tell them that they are not their imaginations, that their imaginations have nothing to do with them, and that they’re in no way responsible for what their ‘mind’ gives them. In the end they learn how to abandon control while at the same time they exercise control. They begin to understand that everything is just a shell. You have to misdirect people to absolve them of responsibility. Then, much later, they become strong enough to resume the responsibility themselves. By that time they have a more truthful concept of what they are.
Many actors have been unable to really ‘find’ a character until they put on the make-up, or until they try on the wig, or the costume. We find the Mask strange because we don’t understand how irrational our responses to the face are anyway, and we don’t realise that much of our lives is spent in some form of trance, i.e. absorbed. What we assume to be ‘normal consciousness’ is comparatively rare, it’s like the light in the refrigerator: when you look in, there you are ON but what’s happening when you don’t look in?
Note: characters and games
Education itself might be seen as primarily an anti-trance activity
we learn to hold characteristic expressions as a way of maintaining our personalities, and we’re far more influenced by faces than we realise.
Our faces get ‘fixed’ with age as the muscles shorten, but even in very young people you can see that a decision has been taken to appear tough, or stupid, or defiant. (Why should anyone wish to look stupid? Because then your teachers expect less of you.) Sometimes in acting class a student will break out of his habitual facial expression and you won’t know who he is until you look at his clothes. I’ve seen this transformation several times, and each time the student is flooded with great joy and exhilaration.
Note: physiological changes lead to do behavioral changes. try on different personalities
In most social situations you are expected to maintain a consistent personality. In a Mask class you are encouraged to ‘let go’, and allow yourself to become possessed.
Normally we only know of our trance states by the time jumps. When an improviser feels that two hours have passed in twenty minutes, we’re entitled to ask where was he for the missing hour and forty minutes. Many people think that to be awake is the same as to be conscious, but they can be deeply hypnotised while believing that they are in ‘everyday consciousness’. A student assured me that he’d spent two hours on stage fooling a hypnotist, which is unlikely. Then he said that funnily enough he’d been singled out to tell the audience that he’d really just been pretending, and that he hadn’t minded when they laughed, because it did—by coincidence—happen to be true!
We don’t think of ourselves as moving in and out of trance because we’re trained not to. It’s impossible to be ‘in control’ all the time, but we convince ourselves that we are. Other people help to stop us drifting. They will laugh if we don’t seem immediately in possession of ourselves, and we’ll laugh too in acknowledgement of our inappropriate behaviour.
In ‘normal consciousness’ I am aware of myself as ‘thinking verbally’. In sports which leave no time for verbalisation, trance states are common.
Note: trance is flow or habit?
see the ‘personality’ as a public-relations department for the real mind, which remains unknown. My personality always seems to be functioning, at some level, in terms of what other people think. If I am alone in a room and someone knocks on the door, then I ‘come back to myself’.
Normal consciousness is related to transactions, real or imagined, with other people. That’s how I experience it, and I note widespread reports of people in isolation, or totally rejected by other people, who experience ‘personality disintegration’. When you’re worried about what other people might think, the personality is always present. In life-or-death situations something else takes over. A friend scalded himself and his mind split immediately into two parts, one of which was a child screaming with pain, while the other was cold and detached and told him exactly what to do (he was alone at the time). If a cobra dropped out of the air vent into the middle of an acting class, the students might find themselves on the piano, or outside the door, with no memory of how they got there. In extremity the body takes over for us, pushing the personality aside as an unnecessary encumbrance.
Note: personality iz just a social construct we put on top of our real selves
When you are ‘absorbed’ you no longer control the musculature. You can drive for miles, or play a movement from a sonata while your personality pays no attention at all.
Once you understand that you’re no longer held responsible for your actions, then there’s no need to maintain a ‘personality’. Student improvisers asked to pretend to be hypnotised, show a sudden improvement.
Note: Helpful way to approach writing.
The angle between head and neck, and neck and body is crucial to us. There are reports of crowds panicking with horror when they witness public executions; they don’t panic when the head is severed, but they do when the executioner holds it up and turns it to face the crowd.
The actors could never have gone so ‘deep’ and been so serious if it wasn’t for the protection and anonymity of the Masks.
Good drama teaching, of any kind, threatens to alter the personality. The better the teacher the more powerful the effects. In any actor training, we work in the voice and the body, and feelings of ‘disintegration’ are likely to occur.
When the students begin Mask work, and ‘characters’ inhabit them for the first time, it’s normal for everything to be extremely grotesque. The spirits often seem straight out of the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch (Bosch himself acted in plays in which Masks were used). Grotesque and frightening things are released as soon as people begin to work with spontaneity. Even if a class works on improvisation every day for only a week or so, then they start producing very ‘sick’ scenes : they become cannibals pretending to eat each other, and so on. But when you give the student permission to explore this material he very soon uncovers layers of unsuspected gentleness and tenderness. It is no longer sexual feelings and violence that are deeply repressed in this culture now, whatever it may have been like in fin-de-siècle Vienna. We repress our benevolence and tenderness.
Last Updated on April 18, 2019 by RipplePop