Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre


Today my boss asked if we could schedule a meeting about the server status.

Eff off, I’m on vacation, is what I wanted to say.

SURE WHAT TIME, is what I actually said. I have been conditioned for self-censorship.


Improv is action without censorship. Children are born without a filter between thought and speech, but censorship is externally enforced when we learn that certain behavior is Not Okay.

Eventually it becomes internalized, and people even censor their own thoughts. Sometimes I think some pretty messed up things and immediately worry that someone might have heard my brain. Adults struggle with creativity because they censor their imaginations for fear that it reveals their true selves. But the imagination is the true self.

Improv actors let automatic processes take over by removing self-censorship. Original thought should not require effort.


People are like dogs. Every human interaction is a status transaction. A seemingly innocuous conversation:

    #1. How was your holiday? [lowers status by expressing interest in #2]
    #2. Terrible, I was working the entire time. [raises status by seeming busy]
    #1. Sorry to hear that. I had a ton of work too, but I was in the hospital all week with Dengue fever. [raises status by one-upping #2]
    #2. Oh yeah, I’ve contracted Dengue several times. I seem to catch it every time I go to St. Barth’s. [attacks #1’s status]

Even non-verbal actions communicate status. Eye contact raises status; averting the eyes lowers it. Slow movement raises status; speed lowers it. In movies, superheroes appear in slow motion, while Charlie Chaplin is sped up.


To be spontaneous is to relinquish control.

A well-known rule of improv is Always say Yes. If the player opposite you says You slept with my daughter, you bastard!, it may be tempting to respond with No I didn’t! because you don’t feel comfortable playing the role of a lecher. Try saying yes.

Yes, turns out she’s really into butt stuff. Much like your wife.

Saying yes cedes control and allows the story to continue.

The intention of improv is not actually to be funny. What makes it entertaining is that it’s a reproduction of life without censorship.

Impro for Storytellers is Keith Johnstone’s second book. It’s a practical manual for theatre improv, and less relevant for those outside of Theatre Sports. Johnstone should have switched the titles of his books.