Impro by Keith Johnstone

Once every four or five years, I find a book that is a genuine life-changer. Impro by Keith Johnstone joins my extremely short list of such books. The book crossed my radar after two readers mentioned it, in reactions to the Gervais Principle series Impro is ostensibly a book about improvisation and the theater. Depending on where you are coming from, it might be no more than that, or it might be a near-religious experience.

The Alien Soulmate

Johnstone has defined for me a category that I didn’t know existed, “alien soulmate”: someone whose life has been shaped by radically different life experiences, and thinks with a completely different conceptual language, but is like you in just a few critical ways that make you soulmates.

Johnstone’s life (described in the opening chapter, “Notes on Myself”) seems to have been shaped by extremely unpleasant early educational experiences. Mine has been shaped largely by rewarding ones.  He loves teaching and is clearly unbelievably good at it; the sort of teacher who changes lives. I dislike teaching, and though I’ve done a fair amount of it, I am not particularly good at it. His life revolves around theater, while mine revolves around engineering, which are about as far apart as professions can get. I could go on, but you get it. Polar opposites on paper.

We seem to share two critical similarities. First, like me, he seems to stubbornly think things through for himself, with reference to his own observations of the world, even if it means clumsily reinventing the wheel and making horrible mistakes. Second, like me, he seems to adopt methodological anarchy in groping for truths. Anything goes, if it gets you to a valuable insight; no religious adherence to any particular methodology, scientific or otherwise.

There is also a connection that may or may not be important: I was active in theater for about a decade, from sixth grade through college.  In school, I was mostly the go-to guy for scripting class productions, and in college I expanded my activities to acting and directing. I even won a couple of inter-hostel (intramural to you Americans) acting prizes. Not that that means much. It was pretty much a case of the one-eyed man being king in the land of the blind. Engineering schools are not known for producing eventual movie stars.

But though I was pretty much a talentless hack among other talentless hacks, in retrospect, my experience with amateur theater did profoundly shape how I think. I suppose that’s why I resonated strongly with Impro.

I am pretty sure though, that experience with theater is not necessary for the book to have a deep impact on you. It seems to have attained a cult status with a wide audience that extends well beyond the theater community, so if you like this blog, you will probably like the book.

The Book

The book, first published in 1981, is a collection of loosely-connected essays on various aspects of improvisational theater. The essays are not philosophical (which is why their philosophical impact is so startling). They are about very specific details of stagecraft. There are exercises designed to teach particular skills, acting tips, short explanations motivating the descriptions of the exercises, and insider references to famous theater personalities (the only name I recognized among all the references was Stanislavsky, he of the Method School). This is what makes the non-theater reader feel so pleasantly blindsided. You shouldn’t be getting epiphanies about life, death and the universe while reading about how to put on a mask or strike a pose. But more on that later, here’s a quick survey of the contents.

Chapter 1, Notes on Myself, begins with an exercise designed to get you seeing the world differently. Literally. The exercise is to simply walk around looking at things and shouting out the wrong names for things you see (for example, look at your couch and yell “apple”). The effect he asserts, of doing this for a minutes, is that everything seems to come alive and acquire the intensity it held for you when you were a child. Try it for a bit. It works, though I did not experience as much intensifying as he claims his students typically experience. After that unsettling start, we get a short and unsentimental, yet poignant and intimate, autobiographical sketch of  his early educational experiences.  The descriptions of the experiences are accompanied by deft insights into the nature of education . This chapter includes the philosophical premise of the book, that adults are atrophied children, and that traditional education accelerates rather than slows this process of atrophy. But the point is not made with any sort of political intent. It is simply presented as a useful perspective from which to view what he has to say, and why theater training has the effects it does.

Chapter 2, Status, is particularly spectacular, and the most accessible chapter in the book. It is based on the idea that the only thing you really need to do, in preparing  to improvise a scene, is to decide what status to play, high or low, in relation to the other actors on stage. Through a series of explanations and descriptions of startlingly original exercises, Johnstone illustrates the working of status dynamics in interpersonal interactions. One that I found both enlightening and hilarious was this: you have a completely boring, everyday conversation with your improv partner, but include an insult in every line you make up.  Here’s one of his example fragments:

‘Can I help you, fool?’

‘Yes, Bugeyes!’

‘Do you want a hat, slut?’

I’ve done just enough theater to be able to visualize this clearly, but I suspect, even if you have no experience with theater, you can imagine how this strange exercise can turn quickly into drama that helps you understand status. There are other surgically precise exercises that are designed to teach how personal space relates to status, and how master-servant dynamics play out. One true Aha! moment for me was a throwaway remark on Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, which I saw in New York last fall. I knew of the play by reputation of course, but I had no idea what to expect, and whether I would ‘get it.’ I only ‘got’ it at a fairly superficial level, but enjoyed it immensely nevertheless, for reasons that I did not understand. Yet, others in the audience seemed to not get it at all, to the point of being bored.

Impro completely explained the play for me. The play’s appeal lies in the fact that it is a showcase for status dynamics.  The four characters, Vladimir, Estragon, Pozzo and Lucky, perform what amounts to a status opera. Though a good deal of the content is nonsensical, the status interactions are not.

Chapter 3, Spontaneity, describes exercises and acting principles that seem like they would take you perilously close to madness if you tried them unsupervised. Having had a lifelong preference for learning by myself rather than listening to teachers, I don’t often tell myself, “this material needs a teacher.” So that should give you an idea of just how unusual this is likely to be for most people.  Johnstone recognizes this, and he notes that the work described in this chapter is closer to intensive therapy than to learning a skill. In fact, it sounds like it would be more intense and more effective than therapy (therapy being, like teaching, yet another process that I don’t trust to others). I am surprised nobody has invented theater-therapy. Actually, I take that back. I once knew a girl who did “prison theater.” I never understood the point of that. Now I do. Done right, I suspect prison theater could lower rates of recidivism. Maybe there are other examples of theater as therapy.

Chapter 4, Narrative Skills, is close to the best fiction-writing advice I’ve ever read, probably second only to Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer (also recommended by a regular reader, Navin Kabra).  The material in this chapter actually got me curious enough that I put down the book and tried out one of the exercises right then. At the time, I happened to be on a long flight from DC to Tokyo (on my way to Bali), so I actually sat there for an hour with my eyes closed, thinking up a story, and then spent another hour scribbling like crazy, writing it down. I came up with probably the best plot outline of my life. I might actually flesh it out and post it here at some point (I dabbled in fiction a fair amount about a decade ago, but somehow never pursued it very far).

Chapter 5, Masks and Trance, is easily the most intense, disturbing and rewarding chapter. The subject is acting with masks on, a stylized sort of theater that seems to have been part of every culture, during every time period, until “enlightenment” values began stamping it out. Since I had just returned from Bali when I read this chapter (examples from Bali feature prominently book’s treatment), and seen glimpses of what he was talking about during my trip, the material came alive in particularly vivid ways. The chapter deals, with easy familiarity, with topics that would make most of us very uncomfortable: trances, possession and atavistic archetypes. Yet, despite the disturbing raw material, the ideas and concepts are not particularly difficult to grasp and accept. They make sense.

The Book, Take Two

So much for the straightforward summary of the book. That it teaches theater skills effectively should not be surprising. What is surprising is the light it sheds on a variety of other topics. Here are just a few:

  1. Body Language: I’ve always found ‘body language’ a somewhat distasteful subject, whether it is of the traditional “covering your mouth means you think the other person is lying”  variety, or  neurolinguistic programming, or the latest craze, the study of microexpressions. Despite the apparent validity of specific insights, the field has always seemed to me intellectually disreputable and shoddy.  Impro does something I didn’t think was possible: it lends the subject dignity and intellectual respectability. The trick, with hindsight, is to view the ideas in the field in the context of art, not psychology.
  2. Interpersonal Relationships: I spend a good deal of time thinking about the principles of interpersonal interaction, and writing up my thoughts. The reason Impro sheds a unique sort of light on the subject is that it describes simulations of what-if scenarios that would never happen in real life, but serve to validate theories that do apply to real-life situations.
  3. Psychology: Elsewhere in recent posts, I’ve recommended the classic books on transactional analysis (TA), Eric Berne’s Games People Play and What Do You Say after You Say Hello and Thomas Harris’ I’m OK–You’re OK. I’ve always felt though, that TA, while useful as an analytical framework, isn’t very helpful if you are trying to figure out what to do. Impro is pretty much the “how to” manual for TA, and it works through a sort of experimental reductio ad absurdum. There is no better way to recognize the stupidity of game playing than to act out (or at least think out) game scripts in exaggerated forms.

You’ll probably find insights into other subjects if you look harder. I suspect the reason there is so much to learn from the practice of theater is that the humanities and social sciences lack a strong culture of experimentation. Theater is, in a sense, the true laboratory for the humanities and social sciences.

I’ll finish up with one thought. I explain the tagline of this blog, “experiments in refactored perception” as geekspeak for “seeing the world differently.” If you ignore the theater-manual aspect, that pretty much describes the book: it is a textbook that teaches you how to see the world differently.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. Bought based on your reccomendations. Thanks.

  2. Re: Godot and status: That’s funny – I just took a 4-day workshop from Johnstone last week, and he mentioned that Waiting for Godot was the thing that spurred him to get into theater in the first place. “It was the first thing that made any sense to me,” he said. Fascinating – I’ll have to see/read it again, and see if the status stuff jumps out at me now.

    Thanks for the insightful writeup of a great book!

  3. Buying this now – thanks for the recommendation. Have you heard of psychodrama? “Joy” by William Schutz is a great read in that area , of the same era and calibre as GPP.

    • I was wondering the same thing. Psychodrama is what brought me here. I previously became fascinated by IMPRO, and now in the throes of investigating Psychodrama, I recalled the author of the previous fascination: Keith Johnstone. I am wondering if his inspiration has its roots in Psychodrama — namely, J.L.Moreno’s work which predates Johnstone’s. Any answers or insights out there amongst disciples of Johnstone or Improvisational Theater?

  4. Jeffrey Straszheim says

    Loved the book. Very, very much. I’m not surprised at all to find it mentioned on your blog. My favorite part is his take on good teachers versus bad teachers. I’m paraphrasing, but the says that education is not a substance, of which bad teachers provide less than good teachers. Good and bad teachers are engaged in “opposite activities.”

    I found it profound.

  5. One thing that jumped out in this post was the paragraph on adults being atrophied children, because it is, in an oversimplified nutshell, the premise of Dan Pink’s book “Drive”. There also seems to be an upswing in the recent literature (a trend I’d picked up on before the current economic crisis) questioning long-held beliefs on government, economics, management, business, psychology, etc. , marking an increased dissatisfaction with and an emerging collective effort to reexamine the way humans work and interact.

    Being from the U.S., my reference point is naturally limited to here and the ‘West’ in general but I suspect it’s a worldwide phenomenon.
    I’m watching this budding transformation with great interest (and optimism).

  6. I might read this book, but I was disappointed in your recommendation to get Alain De Botton’s “Pleasures and Sorrows of Work”. Which is really just a travelogue of him going to various factories and some other places. He’s vaguely philosophical about it, but really he doesn’t hit at anything enlightening past a few short comments.

  7. Hey,
    I greatly enjoyed your post on the Gervais Principle and was then delighted to read this item on Impro. Your comment about alien twins also amuses me. I’m an engineer/AI researcher who’s become an improv/business skills teacher for reasons very close to the ones you cover in this article. It strikes me that there might be some great improv games to be developed using the Gervais principle as a starting point.

  8. Jeffrey Straszheim says

    @Alex — That is actually a great idea. In some ways, the Gervais losers should be just as expert at status games as the sociopaths, just in their own way. The clueless — not so much. That certainly is a major part of the humor in The Office.

  9. Alex: Sounds like a fun idea. I know very little of improv beyond this book (am idly thinking of taking a class, not for business but for actual fun…), but if you have some good GP game ideas, perhaps you could workshop them with some of your students and do a guest post for us :)

    A game of “Butt in” (2 people speaking powertalk to each other, and a posturetalker butts in… seems like something I’ve seen in multiple real and TV scenarios) might be fun. I have no idea how to set up a detailed premise though.


  10. Nick Brown says

    Theatre therapy – I once did a theatre workshop in New Zealand on ‘Playback Theatre’.

  11. Jarno Virtanen says

    A good example of Johnstone’s approach is the description of his original dilemma: how to make two people act the most boring scene but in such way that it seems natural. It feels like it shouldn’t present too much of a problem to act a scene where two people meet and say ‘hi’ to each other. After all, that’s what everyone does in real life all the time! When Johnstone put two people on stage to act it, the scene never seemed natural. Until he understood and started to teach status.

  12. sujay raaj maitra says

    It was an amazing experience to learn about Impro. . .thank you very much. . .i am a theatre actor from kolkata, india. Mr Keith Johnstone , is inspiring me to xplore my boundaries of acting. .cud’nt afford the book, but looking forward to read Impro, as soon as possible. . .and thank you for giving me these information.

  13. Where can I find your short list of books that have changed your life?

  14. I’m delighted to see that the exact sciences appear to acknowledge the fact that the liberal arts is something more than a convoluted way to start a career at Starbucks.