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September 2011


Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre


by Keith Johnstone (Routledge, 1981).


What are the big take-aways?


As I understand it, Keith Johnstone is considered the primary theoretician and instigator of modern improvisational theatre. This slim book encapsulates his thinking on various “impro” or “improv” concepts such as “status,” spontaneity, narrative skills, and masks and trance. Johnstone’s ideas are complex and I am not familiar with the dramatic arts, but if I were to attempt to summarize his “philosophy” I would point to these two sentences (p. 92):


There are people who prefer to say “Yes,” and there are people who prefer to say “No.” Those who say “Yes” are rewarded by the adventures they have, and the people who say “No” are rewarded by the safety they attain.


For me there is an analogy to leadership here, in that leadership is – by my definition – a choice. It is the choice to say “Yes” to exercising influence over the purposeful behavior of others. Leadership is more of an adventure than it is a path to safety.


Why did I like it?


I thought that the essay on “status” transactions and the essay on spontaneity (which might as well have been titled “creativity”) were insightful and potentially useful to leaders. These chapters basically expounded on techniques for taking responsibility for understanding our interactions with other people in the face of the unknown, and for the sake of something constructive. These are excellent leadership skills to have.


Of “status,” Johnstone writes (p. 33):


“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 the actors seemed marvellously [sic] observant. Suddenly we understood that every inflection and movement implies a status, and that no action is due to chance, or really “motiveless.” It was hysterically funny, but at the same time very alarming. All our secret manoeuverings [sic] were exposed…Normally we are “forbidden” to see status transactions except when there’s a conflict. In reality status transactions continue all the time.


In what situations would this be useful?


At times, this book reads like an argument for using creativity, experimentation, and the interruption of what is expected for the purpose of making innovative things happen. It is also an argument for teamwork, and perhaps Impro’s most practical tips for leaders are around building high-performing teams. Johnstone writes (p. 93):


The improviser has to understand that his first skill lies in releasing his partner’s imagination. What happens in my classes, if the actors stay with me long enough, is that they learn how their “normal” procedures destroy other people’s talent. Then, one day they have a flash of satori – they suddenly understand that all the weapons they were using against other people they also use inwardly, against themselves.


The applications to teamwork are obvious. Adopting a stance of “Yes” and accepting others’ creative offers (as opposed to saying “No” or “But” and blocking them) unleashes imagination and an explosion of positive results. (Note: the terms “offer,” “acceptance” and “blocking” are terms of art in improv.)


What other resources might “pair” well with it?


Returning to the themes of leadership as an adventure and not a path to safety, I would recommend the book I reviewed in the Leadership Library last month, Ronald Heifetz’ Leadership without Easy Answers (Harvard University Press, 1994). On teamwork, I recommend Patrick Lencioni’s Five Dysfunctions of a Team (Jossey-Bass, 2002) in which he identifies – and provides strategies for rectifying – the key factors that erode effective teamwork (i.e., absence of trust, fear of conflict, lack of commitment, avoidance of accountability and inattention to results). In just this snapshot of a list, one can see the connections between the types of conditions that produce effective acting and those that produce effective teamwork.


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