Keith Johnstone and Viola Spolin developed their ideas through working with children.
Both Keith Johnstone and Viola Spolin formed the seeds of their ideas through working with children. Keith Johnstone was hugely critical of his own education and the education system in general. He says that his education made him shy, closed off, awkward and unable to speak. When he started teaching improvisation he wrote down everything his teachers taught him, and then attempted to teach the opposite. A huge chunk of Keith Johnstone’s book Impro reads like an education book rather than impro.
For years growing up we are segregated in schools by age, sex, location, ability, class, wealth and even alphabetically. We then fall off the conveyor belt into the adult world where its actually one big confusing mess. It wasn’t until I was 25 that I fully realised I could chat to people 10 years older than me. We learn why waterfalls make gorges, but not how to say how we feel, assert ourselves, work with others, move, speak out loud, listen, use our intuition, express ourselves, build relationships, read emotional cues, create things together. Impro seems to have the pleasant side effect of delivering these missing qualities. Drama is often taken off the natioanl curriculum, or taught merely for intellectual reasons as if it was an off shoot of literature. We constantly tuck away human things as if they are embarressing and not worth learning, only to then seek a therapist years later when we realise it’s the human things that make us us and that we can’t cope without.
I studied Engineering at University and felt a bit ‘damaged’ by the end. I didn’t know why. When I started improvising I felt like I was learning the other side of life, the human side.
Good book about this: John Taylor Gatto’s book Dumbing Us Down.
Learning through play.
Also impro feels more like a more natural way of learning than schools. Learning through playing. If you are reading this then at some point you learnt the use of language, that’s amazing. We don’t all learn quantum physics or become a doctor, but we all learn language, even though if you were to start now they’d be really hard. We also learn to stand up and walk, AMAZING! At a really young age too.
How does a baby learn? By playing, from mistakes, copying. Doing. A baby doesn’t sit there and intellectually think about how to walk and talk. They opens their eyes wide, look, see, laugh, copy, respond, connect.
I had the pleasure of helping to teach my little nephew Toby how to stand. This involved holding him up lightly, him pushing down with his legs, me letting go a bit and him wobbling, and me catching him if he started to fall. He laughed constantly, especially when he got it, and I laughed too. Sometimes he’d get pissed off, have a little rest and play on the floor, and then he’d be back for more. It was a massive game to him.
Some of the hardest things we ever learnt to do we learnt through play and games. I believe that by putting games and play back into adult life we open up this style of rapid learning again, being flexible and open to change rather than frightened and static.We are discovering the world we are in as we are in it, and we’ll never fully comprehend it because it’s always changing.
This chapter is part of a series of blogs about my personal opinions on the historical influences on improv, why it started when it started, why it survived and then flourished, and where it fits into the wider scheme of things.