• Keith Johnstone
  • January 28, 2020
    Read, recorded or researched
I was reluctant to read this but had it on good advice it was worth a go. It was. It’s short but full of wisdom from a teacher who’s spent his life sparking creativity back into students, in classrooms or on stage. The last chapter was a bit niche, but the rest is brilliant for tips on building stories, writing, and breaking out of your shell.

The Best Points


Notes on Himself

  • At about the age of nine I decided never to believe anything because it was convenient. I began reversing every statement to see if the opposite was also true.This is so much a habit with me that I hardly notice I’m doing it any more. As soon as you put a ‘not’ into an assertion, a whole range of other possibilities opens out.
  • As I grew up I began to feel uncomfortable. I had to use conscious effort to ‘stand up straight’. I thought that adults were superior to children, and that the problems that worried me would gradually correct themselves. It was very upsetting to realise that if I was going to change for the better then I’d have to do it myself.
  • In one moment I knew that the valuing of men by their intelligence is crazy, that the peasants watching the night sky might feel more than I feel, that the man who dances might be superior to myself—word-bound and unable to dance. 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 . . .’ ‘But supposing a child wants to learn how to draw a tree?’ ‘Send him out to look at one. Let him climb one. Let him touch it.’ ‘But if he still can’t draw one?’ ‘Let him model it in clay.’ The implication of Stirling’s attitude was that the student should never experience failure. The teacher’s skill lay in presenting experiences in such a way that the student was bound to succeed. Stirling recommended that we read the Tao te Ching. It seems to me now that he was practically using it as his teaching manual.
  • It really seemed that even if I couldn’t write any more—and writing had become extremely laborious and unpleasant for me—at least I could earn a living as a director. Obviously, I felt I ought to study my craft, but the more I understood how things ought to be done, the more boring my productions were. Then as now, when I’m inspired, everything is fine, but when I try to get things right it’s a disaster.
  • When I considered the difference between myself and other people, I thought of myself as a late developer. Most people lose their talent at puberty. I lost mine in my early twenties. 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.
  • 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.
  • It’s weird to wake up knowing you’ll be onstage in twelve hours, and that there’s absolutely nothing you can do to ensure success. All day you can feel some part of your mind gathering power, and with luck there’ll be no interruption to the flow, actors and audience will completely understand each other, and the high feeling lasts for days. At other times you feel a coldness in everyone’s eyes, and deserts of time seem to lie ahead of you. The actors don’t seem to be able to see or hear properly any more—they feel so wretched that scene after scene is about vomiting. Even if the audience are pleased by the novelty, you feel you’re swindling them. After a while a pattern is established in which each performance gets better and better until the audience is like a great beast rolling over to let you tickle it. Then hubris gets you, you lose your humility, you expect to be loved, and you turn into Sisyphus. All comedians know these feelings.
  • Nowadays everything is very easy to me (except writing didactic things like this book). If we need a cartoon for the programme, I’ll draw one. If we need a play I’ll write it. I cut knots instead of laboriously trying to untie them—that’s how people see me; but they have no idea of the turgid state I used to be in, or the morass from which I’m still freeing myself.
  • 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, and makes everyone fed up with them. No one has sympathy with an adult who takes such as attitude, but when they are children it probably worked. As adults they’re still doing it. Once they’ve laughed at themselves and understood how unproductive such an attitude is, students who look ‘ill’ suddenly look ‘healthy’. The attitude of the group may instantly change.


  • 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 defence, and it’ll usually work. It’s very likely that you will increasingly be conditioned into playing the status that you’ve found an effective defence. You become a status specialist, very good at playing one status, but not very happy or competent at playing the other. Asked to play the ‘wrong’ status, you’ll feel ‘undefended’.
  • These are just tricks in order to get the students to experience status changes. If I speak with a still head, then I’ll do many other high-status things quite automatically. I’ll speak in complete sentences, I’ll hold eye contact. I’ll move more smoothly, and occupy more ‘space’. If I talk with my toes pointing inwards I’m more likely to give a hesitant little ‘er’ before each sentence, and I’ll smile with my teeth covering my bottom lip, and I’ll sound a little breathless, and so on. We were amazed to find that apparently unrelated things could so strongly influence each other; it didn’t seem reasonable that the position of the feet could influence sentence structure and eye contact, but it is so.
  • ‘I find that when I slow my movements down I go up in status.’
  • I repeat all status exercises in gibberish, just to make it quite clear that the things said are not as important as the status played. If I ask two actors to meet, with one playing high, and one playing low, and to reverse the status while talking an imaginary language, the audience laugh amazingly. We don’t know what’s being said, and neither do the actors, but the status reversal is enough to enthral us. If you’ve seen great comedians working in a language you don’t understand you’ll know what I mean.
  • Imagine a man sitting neutrally and symmetrically on a bench. If he crosses his left leg over his right then you’ll see his space flowing over to the right as if his leg was an aerofoil. If he rests his right arm along the back of the bench you’ll see his space flowing out more strongly. If he turns his head to the right, practically all his space will be flowing in the same direction. Someone who is sitting neutrally in the ‘beam’ will seem lower-status. Every movement of the body modifies its space. If a man who is sitting neutrally crosses his left wrist over his right the space flows to his right, and vice versa. It’s very obvious that the top hand gives the direction, but the class are amazed. The difference seems so trivial, yet they can see it’s a quite strong effect.
  • The body has reflexes that protect it from attack. We have a ‘fear-crouch’ position in which the shoulders lift to protect the jugular and the body curls forward to protect the underbelly. It’s more effective against carnivores than against policemen jabbing at your kidneys, but it evolved a long time ago. The opposite to this fear crouch is the ‘cherub posture’, which opens all the planes of the body: the head turns and tilts to offer the neck, the shoulders turn the other way to expose the chest, the spine arches slightly backwards and twists so that the pelvis is in opposition to the shoulders exposing the under-belly—and so on. This is the position I usually see cherubs carved in, and the opening of the body planes is a sign of vulnerability and tenderness, and has a powerful effect on the onlooker. 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. Challenge a low-status player and he’ll show some tendency to slide into postures related to the fear crouch.


  • You can get a glimmer of the damage done when you watch people trying out pens in stationers’ shops. They make feeble little scribbles for fear of giving something away.
  • Most children can operate in a creative way until they’re eleven or twelve, when suddenly they lose their spontaneity and produce imitations of ‘adult art’.
  • Suppose an eight-year-old writes a story about being chased down a mouse-hole by a monstrous spider. It’ll be perceived as ‘childish’ and no one will worry. If he writes the same story when he’s fourteen it may be taken as a sign of mental abnormality. Creating a story, or painting a picture, or making up a poem lay an adolescent wide open to criticism. He therefore has to fake everything so that he appears ‘sensitive’ or ‘witty’ or ‘tough’ or ‘intelligent’ according to the image he’s trying to establish in the eyes of other people. If he believed he was a transmitter, rather than a creator, then we’d be able to see what his talents really were.
  • 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.
  • My feeling is that sanity is actually a pretence, a way we learn to behave. We keep this pretence 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.
  • 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…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.
  • Many students block their imaginations because they’re afraid of being unoriginal.They believe they know exactly what originality is, just as critics are always sure they can recognise things that are avant-garde.
  • 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.
  • People trying to be original always arrive at the same boring old answers. Ask people to give you an original idea and see the chaos it throws them into. If they said the first thing that came into their head, there’d be no problem.
  • 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…Suppose Mozart had tried to be original? It would have been like a man at the North Pole trying to walk north, and this is true of all the rest of us. Striving after originality takes you far away from your true self, and makes your work mediocre.
  • I ask a girl to say a word. She hesitates and says ‘Pig.’ ‘What was the first word you thought of?’ ‘Pea.’ ‘Tell me a colour.’ Again she hesitates. ‘Red.’ ‘What colour did you think of first?’ ‘Pink.’ ‘Invent a name for a stone.’ ‘Ground.’ ‘What was the name you first thought of?’ ‘Pebble.’ Normally the mind doesn’t know that it’s rejecting the first answers because they don’t go into the long-term memory. If I didn’t ask her immediately, she’d deny that she was substituting better words. ‘Why don’t you tell me the first answers that occur to you?’ ‘They weren’t significant.’ I suggest to her that she didn’t say ‘Pea’ because it suggested urination, that maybe she rejects pink because it reminds her of flesh. She agrees, and then says she rejected ‘Pebble’ because she didn’t want to say three words beginning with ‘P’. This girl isn’t really slow, she doesn’t need to hesitate. Teaching her to accept the first idea will make her seem far more inventive.
  • If you’ll stop reading for a moment and think of something you wouldn’t want to happen to you, or to someone you love, then you’ll have thought of something worth staging or filming.
  • Reading about spontaneity won’t make you more spontaneous, but it may at least stop you heading off in the opposite direction; and if you play the exercises with your friends in a good spirit, then soon all your thinking will be transformed. 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 realisation (1) 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.

Narrative Skills

  • Content lies in the structure, in what happens, not in what the characters say.
  • Once you decide to ignore content it becomes possible to understand exactly what a narrative is, because you can concentrate on structure.
  • We used to play this game at parties, and people who claim to be unimaginative would think up the most astounding stories, so long as they remained convinced that they weren’t responsible for them.
  • The improviser has to be like a man walking backwards. He sees where he has been, but he pays no attention to the future. His story can take him anywhere, but he must still ‘balance’ it, and give it shape, by remembering incidents that have been shelved and reincorporating them. Very often an audience will applaud when earlier material is brought back into the story.
  • One way to bypass the censor who holds our spontaneity in check is to distract him, or overload him. I might ask someone to write out a paragraph on paper (without premeditation) while counting backwards aloud from a hundred… Try it. It’s very surprising to see what something in you ‘wants’ to write when it gets the chance. You might try drawing a picture with two hands at once. The trick is to keep your attention equally divided, rather than switching quickly from hand to hand. Also you shouldn’t decide what to draw; just sit down with a blank mind and draw as quickly as possible. This regresses your mind to about five years of age. Curiously, each hand seems to draw with the same level of skill.
  • The brain constructs the universe for us, so how is it possible to be ‘stuck’ for an idea? The student hesitates not because he doesn’t have an idea, but to conceal the inappropriate ones that arrive uninvited. I make my students improvise lists of objects to make them understand that there are two processes they can use. You can make rational jumps from one object to the next: ‘Dog, cat, milk, saucer, spoon, fork . . .’ or you can improvise a non-associative list. I’ll type out one as quickly as I can. ‘Duck, rhomboid, platypus, elephant’s egg, cactus, Johnnie Ray, clock face, East Acton . . .’ It’s like emptying all sorts of garbage from your mind that you didn’t know was there. Try it. It’s more difficult than you think, but it stops people caring what comes out of their minds.
  • It’s easy to switch from ‘automatic reading’ to my form of ‘automatic writing’. You just look at a blank sheet of paper, and ‘see’ a word, and then write it where you ‘saw’ it. I’ve filled many exercise books using this method, partly to see where it led me, and partly to know what happens if you go past the point where you feel impelled to stop. I’ve learned a lot about myself this way. Again there’s a great gap between what I would choose to write, and what actually emerges.
  • Word-at-a-time letters usually go though four stages: (1) the letters are usually cautious or nonsensical and full of concealed sexual references; (2) the letters are obscene and psychotic; (3) they are full of religious feeling; (4) finally, they express vulnerability and loneliness. Improvisations go through similar stages if you don’t censor them, and if you work with the same group day after day.
  • An improviser can study status transactions, and advancing, and ‘reincorporating’, and can learn to free-associate, and to generate narrative spontaneously, and yet still find it difficult to compose stories. This is really for aesthetic reasons, or conceptual reasons. He shouldn’t really think of making up stories, but of interrupting routines.If I say ‘Make up a story’, then most people are paralysed. If I say ‘describe a routine and then interrupt it’, people see no problem.
  • It doesn’t matter how stupidly you interrupt a routine, you will be automatically creating a narrative, and people will listen.
  • There’s nothing very profound about such stories, and they don’t require much imagination, but people are very happy to watch them. The rules are: (1) interrupt a routine; (2) keep the action onstage—don’t get diverted on to an action that has happened elsewhere, or at some other time; (3) don’t cancel the story.
  • It was about the cruellest scene I’ve ever seen and the audience were hysterical with laughter. I’ve never heard people laugh more. The actors seemed to be dragging all the audience’s greatest fears into the open, laying out all their insecurities, and the anxiety was releasing itself in waves of roaring, tearing laughter, and the actors absolutely knew what they were doing, and just how slowly to turn the screw. You have to trick students into believing that content isn’t important and that it looks after itself, or they never get anywhere. 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. They begin to understand that everything is just a shell. You have to misdirect people to absolve them of responsibility. Then, much later, they become strong enough to resume the responsibility themselves. By that time they have a more truthful concept of what they are.