Impro

In 2003, I was telling my friend Matthew Bernstein about my troubles creating a story for my upcoming video game. Matt gave me a copy of Impro by Keith Johnstone. He thought I would like it and it might help.

However, I was doubtful. I had taken Robert McKee’s Story seminar and had read McKee’s book. I had read a dozen books on screenwriting and story writing, and none of them had helped. Impro had an ugly cover, and it was about acting, so I postponed reading it for weeks.

When I finally picked it up in July, 2003, it instantly changed my life.

That might be an odd thing to say about an acting book, but I don’t care. And I am not the only one who says so. Several reviews on Amazon say the same thing.

Impro is ostensibly a book about acting—improvisation and mask work. However, it is also a great book—an important book—about creativity, about psychology, and about education. To me, it was a mind-blowing trip.

Mainly it was useful. Whereas McKee explained how to analyze a story (and tell a good one from a bad one), Johnstone explained how to create one. My Cecropia story team had been collectively banging its head against a wall for months. Johnstone’s ideas helped us blast through that wall and become a prolific, productive machine.

Impro was a huge help for my writing and directing. But the life-changing part was that it opened my eyes to the “status transactions” in every human interaction. Also, just as my children were entering the formal education system, Johnstone’s ideas about education stunned me. (Johnstone was an elementary school teacher before he was a playwright and director.) Here is a small exerpt:

“People think of good and bad teachers as engaged in the same activity, as if education was a substance, and that bad teachers supply a little of the substance, and good teachers supply a lot. This makes it difficult to understand…that good and bad teachers are engaged in opposite activities.”

After reading Impro, I was lucky enough to take one of Johnstone’s acting seminars. I sucked, and he was not quite as sympathetic to the talent-less as he claims to be in his book. However, his every word was gold.

If you are an actor, you should read this book. If you are a teacher, or thinking of becoming a teacher, you should read this book. But if you are a story writer or director, you really must read this book. Then thank me, as I thank Matt Bernstein. (Thank you, Matt!)

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2 Responses to “Impro”

  1. Brett Johnson Says:

    amen, and amen!

  2. Corey McCarty Says:

    Im in the process of re-reading ‘Impro’ and was doing research on Keith Johnstone when I came across your blog entry. You’re absolutely right. The applications for the lessons taught in this book are invaluable. He seems to have this amazing grasp of human subtleties that escape us. You cant help but gravitate away from the theatre and apply the lessons to every day situations: status, creativity, fear, personality, insanity, the subconcious, etc.
    He seems to have the same all-encompassing vision of Joseph Campbell (The Power of Myth.. another great book)
    Im an artist/illustrator working on my first childrens book and was amazed at the ideas that came flooding in.

    Some free association:
    In the wicked mild days
    I worked the fields in the heat of May
    I found the ladies in the seas
    but my crops would die of loves disease.

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