Boris Smus

interaction engineering

Impro by Keith Johnstone

I picked this book up because of a recommendation from the Internet. My first reaction was negative: the author’s claim pointing at things and calling them wrong names will cause your whole sense of perception to shift: colors become more vivid, outlines become sharper, people look smaller, the shape of the room changes. This, presented not as metaphorical truth, or a parable, but as actual truth, is something I continue to find hard to swallow. That said I think the essays in the book are worth it, if you suspend a bit of disbelief.

Next, I was disappointed in the long-winded story-of-my-life narrative that the book begins with. I recommend skipping the "Notes on Myself" section, as I did. What follows are three mind-opening essays called Status, Spontenaity, and Narrative Skills. These essays touch on a variety of subjects nominally about improvisation and the theatre, but are written in a way that feels applicable beyond the stage. The last essay on Masks and Trance I found to be somewhat more esoteric, and harder to imagine applying to reality. Here are some interesting tidbits from the book:


Before improvising a scene, a helpful technique is to decide your place in the status hierarchy in relation to the other actors. What Johnstone means by status isn’t necessarily some socio-economic standing in the world, but more of an internal confidence which corresponds to a pecking order. In the animal sense, low status means "don’t bite me, I’m not tasty", while high status means "don’t come near, I bite". Status can also be a lens with which to analyze any social interaction, and Johnstone presents dialogue that he annotates with status transactions, for example:

Sgnarelle: [Raising himself] I’m the master.
Martine: [Lowers S, raises self] And I’m telling you that I’lol have you do as I want. I didn’t marry you to put up with your nonsense.
S: [Lowers Martine] Oh! The misery of married life! How right Aristotle was when he said wives were the very devil.
M: [Lowers S and Aristotle]: Just listen to the clever fellow — him and his blockhead of an Aristotle!

Usually, status manifests in various physical ways:

  • Eye contact: breaking it can cause status loss. Not making it in the first place can cause status gain.
  • Controlling space: low status players shut off their own space (eg. servants kneeling, bowing, prostrating). High status allows their space to flow into other people (eg. drill sergeant yelling at someone from an inch away)
  • Leg position: toes inward for low status, outward for high.
  • Stillness: holding still while speaking raises status. Fidgeting lowers it.

Status is also a useful tool for examining jokes and narratives in general. For example, when high status individuals lower in status, the rest rise up in status, and vice versa. Explains why kings had low status courtiers (eg. midgets, jesters) in their midst.

Interesting games:

  • Adding swearwords gratuitously. Loosens the atmosphere, for example:

Buy something, I shout I want a hat, buckteeth! Buckteeth! Try this on for size, you jerk. You call me a jerk? Cowflop!

  • Master-servant, where both players act as if all of the space belongs to the master. A variant where the master can snap at the servant if he is displeased, and the servant dies after 3 snaps. The master doesn’t need to be reasonable.
  • Another variant with more people in a proscribed pecking order.

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 behavior.


Johnstone begins with a tirade against school. "Most schools encourage children to be unimaginative. The research so far shows that imaginative children are disliked by their teachers." And I anecdotally agree, from my own experience, as well as Seymour Papert’s writings. He argues that schooling beats creativity out of children.

Suppose an eight year old writes a story about being chased down a mouse hole by a monstrous spider. No one will worry. But if he writes the same story when he’s fourteen, it may be taken as a sign of mental abnormality. Writing such things leaves the adolescent up to criticism. He therefore has to fake everything so that he appears ‘sensitive’ or ‘witty’ or ‘intelligent’ according to the image he is trying to establish in the eyes of other people.

This essay’s goal is to try to fix the above, providing an antidote to the switch-off that occurs at puberty. For example, when responding to "what’s for supper?", there is a temptation to think of something really clever. You will be too slow, and come up with something lame like "fried mermaid", but if you said "fish" quickly, would be better.

Some exercises:

  • Story invention by completing the next phrase, eg: "Imagine a man walking along the street. Suddenly he hears a sound and turns to see something moving in the doorway..." By this point the other person has come up with a mental image. "What is he wearing?" "A suit" "What type of suit?" "Striped", etc. It’s like visualization that happens when you read a book.
  • This can be done implicitly, for example if you are asked to act an emotion "be sad", it can help to improvise by inventing a story about why.
  • Association games: "tell me a color", "put your hand in an imaginary box, what do you take out?" "A cricket ball" "unscrew it, what’s inside?" "A medallion" "What’s written on it?" "Christmas 1948"

Those who say "Yes" are rewarded by the adventures they have, and those that say "No" are rewarded by the safety they attain.

At all points we would say "No" in life, we want to see the actors yield and say "Yes".

If you’ll stop reading for a moment and think of something you wouldn’t want to happen to you, or to someone you love, then you’ll have thought of something worth staging or filming.

  • Accept all: in an improv act, say "yes and" to everything. Never block any offers.
  • Learn to make interesting offers, "Good morning!" is dull. But "Good morning, great heavens Frank, did they let you out?" is interesting.
  • Two places: one actor pretends to be, for example, waiting at a bus stop while the other claims stage is living room.
  • Presents: pretend to give presents to another actor, and they have to be very delighted with them and come up with what the present was.
  • It’s Tuesday: overaccept everything, even the most mundane. Eg. someone says "it’s tuesday", and you go ballistic: "zomg, that’s when my brain surgery is scheduled for!"
  • Yes But: accept, then add a "but" clause that you make up on the spot. "Is that your dog?" "Yes, but I’m thinking of selling him" "Will you sell him to me?" "Yes, but he‘s expensive"

In general, Johnstone’s advise is to follow the rules to see what happens, but not feel responsible for the resulting content. If you improvise spontaneously in front of an audience, you have to accept that your innermost self will be revealed.

Narrative structure

Dictionary definition of story: account of imaginary or real people and events told for entertainment (Google). But it can’t just be a series of facts. Small children ask "and is that the end?" because they feel that a narrative has ended. Why are some stories told, but not others?

A made up sequence of events (eg. “met a bear in the forest, it chased me until I come to a lake, leapt into a boat") is storytelling, but doesn’t constitute a story. There’s no natural place for it to stop since there’s no re-incorporation going on, no cross-referencing of previously mentioned happenings. This is kind of an improviser’s Chekhov’s Gun.

Some exercises to create stories:

  • (With a kid) try collaborative storytelling, by asking the kid questions as in a choose your own adventure book.
  • Random story: pretend to have come up with a story, and let the other person “extract" it out of you by having them ask you yes/no questions. But just use a stupid rule like yes if the question ends with a vowel, no if it ends with a vowel, and maybe if it ends in a ‘y’.
  • Connect the story: have one actor provide multiple unrelated sentences (eg. "It was a cold winter night. The wolves howled in the trees. The concert pianist adjusted his sleeves and began to play. An old lady was shoveling snow by the door.”) and the other synthesize them into something cohesive (eg. “When she heard the piano, the old lady began shoveling snow faster. When she reached the concert hall she cried ‘That pianist is my son!’. Wolves appeared at all the windows and the pianist sprang on to the piano, thick fur growing visibly from under his clothes”)
  • In general, ^^ can be done with just one person by alternating periods of free association with connection.
  • List dumps: an easy way of free associating is to just dump lists of words from your head.
  • Invent characters: put actors in groups of 3 and have them invent a name for a character, then describe what she is like.
  • Automatic reading: imagine you are reading something from a sheet of paper, or that you are uncovering an old tome of poetry. What does the tome say? All you have to do is read it. (Maybe this works by making it feel like you’re just a conveyance, and the result isn’t coming from your head.)
  • Experts: one actor is a TV interviewer, the other is an expert. The two are to have a dialog about some ridiculous topic that the interviewer asks about.
  • Verbal Chase ("Curveball"): again a question asker and responder, but the asker has to be unpredictable. For example "Imagine a box" prompts "What’s in it", but the asker goes another way: "Who put you there?" ”My father”, which anticipates “Why did he put you there”, but instead you go “What’s in there?”. This requires a very skilled asker!
  • Word at a time (this is amazing): free association to tell a story with multiple people involved. It goes quickly, and each person has to produce a word on their turn. In one variant, a slow person gets kicked out of the circle until just two remain. In another variant, the person who just spoke points to the next person for a word, making it harder.
  • The exercise above can sometimes lead to really boring stories, so it can help to force crazy situations (eg. a womb, an alien planet)
  • Rather than "make up a story", play "describe a routine and then interrupt it". (Eg. Little Red Riding hood brings groceries to her grandma, but then ...)
  • Playwright: one person directs two others in a fake play. If the playwright gets blocked, he asks the others for a suggestion. The goal is to not get blocked. It’s important to keep the focus on what happens onstage, not what happens elsewhere.

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 their imaginations have nothing to do with them, and they’re in no way responsible for what their mind gives them.