Keith Johnstone’s Impro Book, day 1

Blog by Steve Roe, Director of Hoopla Impro

Book referenced is “Impro, improvisation and the theatre” by Keith Johnstone. This blog refers to the first 27 pages of the book only! More coming soon as we work through the week.

At Hoopla we’re exploring a different book each week as inspiration for our online drop-ins. Each book will help shape the drop-ins for the week to keep them fresh with new ideas and new exercises. We’re also going to be writing up notes from each session on our blog.

This week’s inspiration is the classic Impro by Keith Johnstone and we had the first day exploring the book today.

Oh my gosh I don’t know where to start. This is SUCH AN AMAZING BOOK I WANT YOU ALL TO BUY IT AND READ RIGHT NOW!!!!

It’s really lockdown friendly too. It’s the perfect mind nourishment, soothing, and will leave you a better person. I think it is genuinely life changing and I want to buy lots of them and post them through random people’s letter boxes and leave on tube trains (not advisable behaviour right now).

First of all, I love Keith Johnstone. I’ve been luckily enough to do a number of workshops with him (thanks to Spontaneity Shop and William Reay) and meet him in person and found him to be a very kind man with truly unique ideas who really cared about his students and humans in general. Also he looks just like my Dad.

When I first did a workshop with Keith we had only just started Hoopla, in fact it wasn’t even called Hoopla it was just called impro club or something. We were just running some games in a room above a pub and didn’t know about the wider impro scene. We heard a teacher was in town and went along with no expectation and it was an incredible experience that helped me out of a big life rut and into exploring new and exciting things. Things he said to me on stage 15 years ago still stick with me in times of need. If I feel nervous or anxious a little mini Keith pops up on my shoulder and helps me out.

When we first met Keith at a course he came across as awkward and goofy, with a funny toothy grin. Days into the course we gradually realised his early behaviour had all been deliberate, and that by playing lower status at the start he removed our fear and removed his own scary guru status. That’s the amazing thing about him, it’s he goes beyond impro and more into human behaviour on an animal instinctual level.

Falling back into his book Impro during lockdown is like being reunited with a very dear friend. It was the first every improvisation book I read and I think the best one for people to start with. There are other books like Truth in Comedy and the UCB Manual of Improvisation that we will be doing later during lockdown that are great on the what to improvise regards scene and show structure, but I’ve found Keith’s Impro to be the best book on how to improvise. Pure raw improvisation. It’s why our improv courses are structured as they are. Our first two levels are quite Keith Johnstone in style and all about encouraging spontaneity, play and abandoning fear on stage as we explore how to improvise in its purest form. Then in our later courses we tend to be inspired by theatres like iO as we explore the “what” to improvise with different show formats and scene structures. We’ve found the different styles don’t clash and actually compliment each other really well, and as you’ll find over the course of these blogs a lot of improv schools of thought can be traced back to similar roots.

Keith cares about releasing human potential previously locked away by the pressures of society. What he does best is remove fear from people to help them reconnect with their playful selves. That’s a massive thing. It doesn’t come across in written words but when you have it happen in a workshop it is like a huge weight lifting from around you. I was even lucky enough to experience this in today’s workshop, when doing one of Keith’s games on playful insults in scenes like “you goblin bum snot gremlin”. It was a rule so I’m frightened off (insulting people) that when we did it playfully in good nature we had a release of playful energy.

Keith’s Impro is interested in how to actually improvise in its purest form. And he’s writing about an era (1950s/60s) when there was a movement in spontaneity across the arts, music and literature. Jack Kerouac’s On the Road for instance has similar themes that resonate with Keith. People were genuinely interested in exploring the subconscious and the human potential for creativity. Society was bouncing back from World War II, Carl Jung was influencing the arts (a lot of Keith’s games seem to originate from psychologists) and a new exciting era in art, music and theatre was dawning at the start of the 60s.

He writes loads about education. He hates formal education and wants to shake things up. I can now see echoes of his work in Hoopla, as he hugely influenced us at the start. He doesn’t like teachers having a strict syllabus, he likes to be led by the students. To connect to who they are, what they want, what’s happening in the present moment and to go with that and introduce activities for them in the moment that are so interesting that they don’t realise they are learning until they get to the end and then they just “know”.  That’s something we try to do. Above everything else I always tell our teachers to follow what’s fun right there and then.

The book Impro is beyond improvisation for the stage. It’s about how to reconnect to your playful creative self, to open up, to express yourself, to create and to have imagination again instead of fear. Keith welcomes the subconscious as a friend, supplying us with nourishing ideas and thoughts that we can attend to instead of lock away and be afraid of. Most of all his work creates PLAY, which is something Hoopla strives to do too.

With Keith Johnstone’s Impro we learn that you don’t have to be perfect, as fear of failure stops you attempting anything in the first place. So fuck the fear. We are encouraged to find our own way and don’t worry about how things should be done. We also are given permission to break rules and let thoughts come to us without judgement.

When he first started teaching he wrote down a list of everything his teachers told him not to do in school and then wrote down the opposite and did that. Don’t pull faces? Pull faces. Don’t insult each other? Play with insults. Sit still? Crawl around like an animal.

There are so many rules surrounding us (especially now) that if we’re not careful these rules get carried onto the stage and before we know it we feel like we can’t do anything and become creatively stunted. By playfully breaking some rules we can liberate ourselves. There’s no structure to that, it’s play, and the workshops are playful ongoing experiments. What works for one group might not work for the other, but with Keith (and Hoopla) it is the pursuit of play that unites us.

Also with Keith we learn to leap before we look. We’re not careful, or right, or intellectual. We jump and find out why on the way down. We learn to emotionally engage with theatre and truly get out of our heads and into the joyful playful emotional place of being human. He encourages less discussion and more get things up on their feet and try them out.


Exercises inspired by the first bit of the book

Here’s the exercises we did from the Impro book, these were all done online over Zoom but I actually totally forgot we were on Zoom so I’m not going to mention that in descriptions:

Naming things in the room with different names

First everyone runs around their flat pointing enthusiastically to everything and saying what it is. Next we run around enthusiastically pointing to things and saying what they aren’t. We don’t question what comes, just let it out. At first when we let things out of the subconcious there is a flurry of “things we can’t say in real life” like poo bum wee death blood sex things but just let them out they are just words you aren’t mad. It’s liberating to break the simple rule of “use the right word for the right thing” and we were soon giggling. Anybody saying something rude or wrong is not judged.

Making faces

We are so concerned with how we look. I’ve got a weird face anyway, I got my nose broken when I was 17 and I’m all asymmetrical. I’m pretty shy about how I look. We have instagram, facebook and camera phones everywhere. We see the mirror every morning. To just say fuck it, let’s muck around with all that and break the rules is incredibly liberating (reoccurring theme with Keith, liberation).

In this exercise everyone rapidly makes loads of different faces and then we shout out two names and those two use the faces they happen to be in to inspire the next scene.

Suddenly we aren’t worried about how we look and let ourselves get caught up in PLAY. Yeah!


Actors play a scene but in each line they insult the other person and also react to the insult they have been given. Sounds awful doesn’t it? Sounds like it would destroy improv? It’s actually hugely fun and yes, liberating. The insults aren’t real about the other person, and are playful and made up in nature. It’s not bitch/cunt etc. It’s more nincompoop, imbecile level. It’s not the level of insult that’s important anyway, it’s the reaction that sells it.

For instance:

A: Captain Pugwash you absolute imbecile you have got us lost at sea.

B: Imbecile? Well! I wouldn’t be lost if it wasn’t for your lousy map you goblin’s armpit!

A: Goblin’s Armpit?! That map was perfection, you have the navigational understanding of a small toad sitting on a flea!


Yes, I know it doesn’t looks like it would work as an exercise, but it really does. It’s just so refreshing. I’m so worried about insulting or upsetting people in real-life that it’s liberating when we do it in a playful fun way. And by breaking that little rule we find we have a more playful relationship for other scenes.


Leap before you look

With this exercise all the actors move around at random, whole body, and when two names are said those two start a scene straight away. They just say something, whatever comes to them, and respond to that. Their body positions inspire them, but don’t have to. With Keith the best first line is any first line. Weirdly this is the same as Annoyance Theatre in Chicago, the first of many examples of overlaps between different improv scenes that aren’t commonly seen.


Step on stage to build a relationship

This came from a workshop with Keith rather than the book. Stepping on stage to “do a scene” is impossible for you as an individual, because the scene is what’s happening between the two of you and you can’t control that as you are you and not them. But “stepping on stage to build a relationship” gives us something we can actually do, and the scene is born as the pleasant side effect of that. As an exercise we did this by getting suggestions that don’t suggest relationship and then the improvisers found a relationship in the scene. Love, hate, family, characters that know each other. It led to some really amazing scenes, like a gripping emotional scene between a stapler and a pen.


We then finished with a fun show games and formats that are already written up in our improv resources.


What I get most from Keith Johnstone’s Impro is that I love being human. I love it. It’s crazy. I feel so sad sometimes. I feel so happy the next day. Sometimes I want to know the meaning to life the universe and everything. Other times I want a cheese panini. Right now I want a pint in a pub. I hope corona means I never take improv, people, pubs and sandwiches in cafes for granted ever again. We are so lucky to be alive and be human and it’s so chaotic and beautiful at the same time.


Over the rest of this week in our online drop-ins we’ll be covering further chapters from Keith Johnstone’s Impro. Next week we’ll be using Truth in Comedy by Charna Halpern and Del Close as inspiration. All the different improv books and schools are actually closer than they first appear.

By the way, do go and read his book.

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