Learning Soft Skills From Improv Theater

I recently posted my notes on Venkatesh Rao’s book, Tempo. The footnotes from “Tempo” led me to a really interesting book called, Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre by Keith Johnstone, it was written as a guide for improv performers but is primarily a manifesto on creativity, human psychology, and interpersonal relationships. Below are some of my favorite quotes:

Education & Creativity:

“In the gentlest possible way, this teacher had been very violent. She was insisting on categorising, and on selecting. Grown-ups are expected to distort the perceptions of the child in this way. This makes it difficult to understand that education can be a destructive process, and that bad teachers are wrecking talent, and that good and bad teachers are engaged in opposite activities.”

“If I’d have wept over a poem in class the teacher would have been appalled. I realised that my school had been teaching me not to respond. The damage was greatest in areas where my interests and the school’s seemed to coincide : in writing, for example (I wrote and rewrote, and lost all my fluency). I forgot that inspiration isn’t intellectual, that you don’t have to be perfect. In the end I was reluctant to attempt anything for fear of failure, and my first thoughts never seemed good enough.”

“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.”

“Stirling believed that the art was ‘in’ the child, and that it wasn’t something to be imposed by an adult. The teacher was not superior to the child, and should never demonstrate, and should not impose values: ‘This is good, this is bad.”

“The implication of Stirling’s attitude was that the student should never experience failure.”

“The sage keeps to the deed that consists in taking no action and practises the teaching that uses no words …. When his task is accomplished and his work done the people all say, “It happened to us naturally.”

“If a child is creative he’s likely to be more difficult to control, but that isn’t a reason for disliking him.”

“Almost all teachers, got along reasonably well as schoolchildren, so presumably it’s difficult for them to identify with the children who fail.”

“One astounding thing was the way cowed and dead-looking children would suddenly brighten up and look intelligent when they weren’t being asked to learn.”

“My problem was to resist the pressures that would turn me into a conventional teacher. I had to establish a quite different relationship before I could hope to release the creativity that was so apparent in the children when they weren’t thinking of themselves as ‘being educated.”

“Ten minutes is the attention span of bored children”

“I’d argue that a director should never demonstrate anything to an actor, that a director should allow the actor to make his own discoveries, that the actor should think he’d done all the work himself.”

“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.”

“The feeling is that a good teacher can get results using any method, and that a bad teacher can wreck any method.”

“There seems no doubt that a group can make or break its members, and that it’s more powerful than the individuals in it. A great group can propel its members forward so that they achieve amazing things. Many teachers don’t seem to think that manipulating a group is their responsibility at all.”

“I meet a group of new students is (probably) to sit on the floor. I play low status, and I’ll explain that if the students fail they’re to blame me. Then they laugh, and relax, and I explain that really it’s obvious that they should blame me, since I’m supposed to be the expert; and if I give them the wrong material, they’ll fail; and if I give them the right material, then they’ll succeed. I play low status physically but my actual status is going up, since only a very confident and experienced person would put the blame for failure on himself. At this point they almost certainly start sliding off their chairs, because they don’t want to be higher than me.”

“Many teachers seem to me to be trying to get their students to conceal fear, which always leaves some traces.”

“Most schools encourage children to be unimaginative. The research so far shows that imaginative children are disliked by their teachers.”

“Torrance has a theory that ‘many children with impoverished imaginations have been subjected to rather vigorous and stern efforts to eliminate fantasy too early. They are afraid to think.’ Torrance seems to understand the forces at work, but he still refers to attempts to eliminate fantasy too early. Why should we eliminate fantasy at all? Once we eliminate fantasy, then we have no artists.”

“He said that uncreative people ‘are ashamed of the momentary passing madness which is found in all real creators … regarded in isolation, an idea may be quite insignificant, and venturesome in the extreme, but it may acquire importance from an idea that follows it; perhaps in collation with other ideas which seem equally absurd, it may be capable of furnishing a very serviceable link.’”

“Imagination is as effortless as perception, unless we think it might be ‘wrong’, which is what our education encourages us to believe.”

“People may seem uncreative, but they’ll be extremely ingenious at rationalizing the things they do. You can see this in people who obey post-hypnotic suggestions, while managing to explain the behavior ordered by the hypnotist as being of their own volition.”

“At school any spontaneous act was likely to get me into trouble. I learned never to act on impulse, and that whatever came into my mind first should be rejected in favour of better ideas. I learned that my imagination Wasn’t ‘good’ enough. I learned that the first idea was unsatisfactory because it was (1) psychotic; (2) obscene; (3) unoriginal. The truth is that the best ideas are often psychotic, obscene and unoriginal.”

“The most repressed, and damaged, and ‘unteachable’ students that I have to deal with are those who were the star performers at bad high schools. Instead of learning how to be warm and spontaneous and giving, they’ve become armoured and superficial, calculating and self-obsessed.”

“Rousseau began an essay on education by saying that if 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 realization (t) 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.”


“My feeling is that sanity is actually a pretense, a way we learn to behave. We keep this pretense 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.”

“Most people I meet are secretly convinced that they’re a little crazier than the average person. People understand the energy necessary to maintain their own shields, but not the energy expended by other people. They understand that their own sanity is a performance, but when confronted by other people they confuse the person with the role.”

“A Canadian study on attitudes to mental illness concluded that it was when someone’s behaviour was perceived as ‘unpredictable’ that the community rejected them.”

“When I explain that sanity is a matter of interaction, rather than of one’s mental processes, students are often hysterical with laughter. They agree that for years they have been suppressing all sorts of thinking because they classified it as insane.”

“Students need a ‘guru’ who ‘gives permission’ to allow forbidden thoughts into their consciousness. A ‘guru’ doesn’t necessarily teach at all. Some remain speechless for years, others communicate very cryptically. All reassure by example.”

“It’s no good telling the student that he isn’t to be held responsible for the content of his imagination, he needs a teacher who is living proof that the monsters are not real, and that the imagination will not destroy you. Otherwise the student will have to go on pretending to be dull. ”

“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.”

“We all know instinctively what ‘mad’ thought is : mad thoughts are those which other people find unacceptable, and train us not to talk about, but which we go to the theatre to see expressed.”

“A therapeutic situation is one ‘in which the patient can freely voice his innermost thoughts towards himself, towards any other person, and towards the analyst. He can be confident that he is not being judged, and that he is fully accepted, whatever he may be, or whatever he may disclose.’ Later they add: ‘We encourage the relaxation of censorship.”

“She adds that women with prolonged labours tended to be ‘inhibited, embarrassed by the processes taking place in their bodies, ladylike in the extreme, and endured what they were undergoing stoically as long as they were able, without expressing their anxieties. It was not these women’s bodies that were causing them difficulties; they were being held up by the sort of people they were. They were not able to give birth.”


“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.”

“Maybe our artists are the people who have been constitutionally unable to conform to the demands of the teachers.”

“Creating a story, or painting a picture, or making up poem lay an adolescent wide open to criticism.”

“We have an idea that art is self-expression—which historically is weird. An artist used to be seen as a medium through which something else operated.”

“Once we believe that art is self-expression, then the individual can be criticized not only for his skill or lack of skill, but simply for being what he is.”

“Many students block their imaginations because they’re afraid of being unoriginal. We have a concept of originality based on things that already exist.”

“But the real avant-garde aren’t imitating what other people are doing, or what they did forty years ago; they’re solving the problems that need solving, like how to get a popular theatre with some worth-while content, and they may not look avant-garde at all! The improviser has to realise that the more obvious he is, the more original he appears. I constantly point out how much the audience like someone who is direct, and how they always laugh with pleasure at a really ‘obvious’ idea.”

“Ordinary people asked to improvise will search for some ‘original’ idea because they want to be thought clever.”

“People trying to be original always arrive at the same boring old answers.”

“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.”

“Content lies in the structure, in what happens, not in what the characters say.”

“My decision was that content should be ignored. This wasn’t a conclusion I wished to reach, because it contradicted my political thinking. I hadn’t realised that every play makes a political statement, and that the artist only needs to worry about content if he’s trying to fake up a personality he doesn’t actually have, or to express views he really isn’t in accord with.”

“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 and that spontaneity means abandoning some of your defenses.”

“Once you decide to ignore content it becomes possible to understand exactly what a narrative is, because you can concentrate on structure.”

“To be a good questioner you have to enter something like the same trance state as the person answering.
A student who becomes an expert questioner, that is, who becomes very ingenious at changing the ‘set’ of the questions, becomes a better improviser.”

“Speed is important, so that the questions and answers are a little too fast for ‘normal’ thought. Some questioners start.”

“The question baffles them because they can’t see how to use it to display their ‘originality’ … A word like ‘the’ or ‘once’ isn’t good enough for them.”

“I began this essay by saying that an improviser shouldn’t be concerned with content, because the content arrives automatically. This is true, and also not true. The best improvisers do, at some level, know what their work is about. They may have trouble expressing it to you, but they do understand the implications of what they are doing; and so do the audience.”

“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.”


“My feeling is that the best argument may be a testimony to the skill of the presenter, rather than to the excellence of the solution advocated.”

“Also the bulk of discussion time is visibly taken up with transactions of status which have nothing to do with the problem to be solved.”

“My attitude is like Edison’s, who found a solvent for rubber by putting bits of rubber in every solution he could think of, and beat all those scientists who were approaching the problem theoretically.”

“The improviser has to understand that his first skill lies in releasing his partner’s imagination.”


“My view is that we have a universal phobia of being looked at on a stage. Instead of seeing people as untalented, we can see them as phobic, and this completely changes the teacher’s relationship with them. Students will arrive with many techniques for avoiding the pain of failure.”

“Many students will begin an improvisation, or a scene, in a rather feeble way. It’s as if they’re ill, and lacking in vitality. They’ve learned to play for sympathy. However easy the problem, they’ll use the same old trick of looking inadequate. This ploy is supposed to make the onlookers have sympathy with them if they ‘fail’ and it’s expected to bring greater rewards if they ‘win’. Actually this down-in-the-mouth attitude almost guarantees failure.”

“Another common ploy is to anticipate the problem, and to try and prepare solutions in advance.

“This has two great disadvantages stops you learning from the attempts of your classmates; and very likely you’ll have calculated wrongly, and will be asked to read one of the adjacent paragraphs throwing you into total panic.
I’m teaching spontaneity, and therefore I tell them that they mustn’t try to control the future, or to ‘win’; and that they’re to have an empty head and just watch.”

“It’s this decision not to try and control the future which allows the students to be spontaneous.”

“”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 those who say ‘No’ are rewarded by the safety they attain. There are far more ‘No’ sayers around than ‘Yes’ sayers, but you can train one type to behave like the other”

“If I say ‘start something’ to two inexperienced improvisers, they’ll probably talk, because speech feels safer than action. And they’ll block any possibility of action developing. Each actor tends to resist the invention of the other actor, playing for time, until he can think up a ‘good’ idea, and then he’ll try to make his partner follow it. The motto of scared improvisers is ‘when in doubt, say “NO”.’ We use this in life as a way of blocking action.”

“Then we go to the theatre, and at all points where we would say ‘No’ in life, we want to see the actors yield, and say,Yes”

“When I meet a new group of students they will usually be ‘naysayers’. This term and its opposite, ‘yeasayers’, come from a paper by Arthur Couch and Kenneth Kenison, who were investigating the tendency of people answering questionnaires to be generally affirmative, or generally negative in attitude.”

“Yeasayers seem to be “id-dominated” personalities, with little concern about or positive evaluation of an integrated control of their impulses. They say they express themselves freely and quickly. Their “psychological inertia” is very low, that is, very few secondary processes intervene as a screen between underlying wish and overt behavioural response. The yeasayers desire and actively search for emotional excitement in their environment. They see the world as a stage where the main theme is ‘acting out’ libidinal desires.”

“In the same way, they seek and respond quickly to internal stimuli: their inner impulses are allowed ready expression … the yeasayer’s general attitude is one of stimulus acceptance, by which we mean a pervasive readiness to respond affirmatively or yield willingly to both outer and inner forces demanding expression.

“The disagreeing”naysayers have the opposite orientation. For them, impulses are seen as forces requiring control, and perhaps in some sense as threats to general personality stability. The naysayer wants to maintain inner equilibrium; his secondary processes are extremely impulsive and value maintaining forces. We might describe this as a state of high psychological inertia—impulses undergo a series of delays, censorships, and transformations before they are permitted expression. Both internal and external stimuli that demand response are carefully scrutinized and evaluated: these forces appear as unwelcome intruders into a subjective world of “classical” balance.”

“What a person is afraid to do, he does when possessed.”


“Suddenly we understood that every inflection and movement implies a status, and that no action is due to chance…”

“Normally we are ‘forbidden’ to see status transactions except when there’s a conflict. In reality status transactions continue all the time.”

“Status is a confusing term unless it understood as something one does.”

“If someone points a camera at you you’re in danger of having your status exposed, so you either clown about, or become deliberately unexpressive”

“In my own case I was astounded to find that when I thought I was being friendly, I was actually being hostile! If someone had said ‘I like your play’, I would have said ‘Oh, it’s not up to much’, perceiving myself as ‘charmingly modest’. In reality I would have been implying that my admirer had bad taste.”

“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.”

“When we tell people nice things about ourselves this is usually a little like kicking them.”

“People really want to be told things to our discredit in such a way that they don’t have to feel sympathy.”

“If I’m trying to lower my end of the see-saw, and my mind blocks, I can always switch to raising the other end. That is, I can achieve a similar effect by saying ‘I smell beautiful’ as ‘You stink’. 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”

“…the man who falls on the banana skin is funny only if he loses status, and if we don’t have sympathy with him.”

“Tragedy is obviously related to sacrifice. Two things strike me about reports of sacrifices : one is that the crowd get more and more tense, and then are relaxed and happy at the moment of death; the other is that the victim is raised in status before being sacrificed.”

“This is because normal people are inhibited from seeing that no action, sound, or movement is innocent of purpose.”

“However, S. E. Poppleton, a research student at Exeter, has since shown that the relationship between eye-glance submission hierarchies and an independent measure of dominance is an inverse one.”

“Thus he who looks away first is the more dominant.”

“In my view, breaking eye contact can be high status so long as you don’t immediately glance back for a fraction of a second.”

“Finally I explain that I’m keeping my head still whenever I speak, and that this produces great changes in the way I perceive myself and am perceived by others.”

“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 defense, and it’ll usually work.”

“When actors are reversing status during a scene it’s good to make them grade the transitionsas smoothly as possible. I tell them that if I took a photograph every five seconds, I’d like to be able to arrange the prints in order just by the status shown.”

“Once the status becomes automatic, as it is in life, it’s possible to improvise complex scenes with no preparation at all.”

“In order to enter a room all you need to know is what status you are playing.”

“Once you can accept being insulted (the insult is the verbal equivalent of the custard pie), then you experience a great elation. The most rigid, self-conscious, and defensive people suddenly unbend. It is important for an actor to accept being insulted. The stage becomes an even more ‘dangerous’ area if you can’t admit your disabilities.
The actor or improviser must accept his disabilities, and allow himself to be insulted, or he’ll never really feel safe.”

“f you observe them closely you’ll see that the ones who always play low status in life won’t ever hold eye contact long enough to feel dominant.”

“You may have to precisely control the length of time that they look before they experience the change of sensation. Then they’ll say, Tut it feels wrong.’ This feeling of wrongness is the one they have to learn as being correct.”

“I can’t avoid talking about ‘space’ any longer, since status is basically territorial. In my view it’s only when the actor’s movements are related to the space he’s in, and to the other actors, that the audience feel ‘at one’ with the play. The very best actors pump space out and suck it in, or at least that’s what it feels like.”

“High-status players (like high-status seagulls) will allow their space to flow into other people. Low-status players will avoid letting their space flow into other people. Kneeling, bowing and prostrating oneself are all ritualised low-status ways of shutting off your space.”

“High-status people often adopt versions of the cherub posture. If they feel under attack they’ll abandon it and straighten, but they won’t adopt the fear crouch.”

“When the highest-status person feels most secure he will be the most relaxed person”

“When you watch a bustling crowd from above it’s amazing that they don’t all bump into each other. I think it’s because we’re all giving status signals, and exchanging subliminal status challenges all the time. The more submissive person steps aside.”

“I ask students (for homework!) to watch groups of people in coffee bars, and to notice how everyone’s attitude changes when someone leaves or joins a group. If you watch two people talking, and then wait for one to leave, you can see how the person remaining has to alter his posture. He had arranged his movements to relate to his partner’s, and now that he’s alone he has to change his position in order to express a relationship to the people around him.”

“Once you understand that every sounu and posture implies a status, then you perceive the world quite differently, and the change is probably permanent.”

“In my view, really accomplished actors, directors, and playwrights are people with an intuitive understanding of the status transactions that govern human relationships.”

“High-status players will block any action unless they feel they can control it. The high-status player is obviously afraid of being humiliated in front of an audience, but to block your partner’s ideas is to be like the drowning man who drags down his rescuer.”

Pecking Orders & Rules for High Status Leaders:

“Actors should become expert at each stage of a pecking order. There will be actors who can at first only play one role really well.”

“Number One in a pecking order has to make sure that everything is functioning properly. Anything that irritates him must be suppressed. At all times everything must be organised for his personal contentment. ”

Desmond Morris, in The Human ZQO gives ‘ten golden rules’ for people who are Number Ones [in pecking orders].

1. You must clearly display the trappings, postures and gestures of dominance.
2. In moments of active rivalry you must threaten your subordinates aggressively.
3. In moments of physical challenge you (or your delegates) must be able forcibly to overpower your subordinates.
4. If a challenge involves brain rather than brawn you must be able to outwit your subordinates.
5. You must suppress squabbles that break out between your subordinates.
6. You must reward your immediate subordinates by permitting them to enjoy the benefits of their high ranks.
7. You must protect the weaker members of the group from undue persecution.
8. You must make decisions concerning the social activities of your group.
9. You must reassure your extreme subordinates from time to time.
10. You must take the initiative in repelling threats or attacks arising from outside your group.

The End

Be sure to read, Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre by Keith Johnstone

About Miguel Barbosa

I run this site.

04. April 2014 by Miguel Barbosa
Categories: Curated Readings, Wisdom Seeking | Leave a comment

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