THE IMPROVISATION GAME, DISCOVERING THE SECRETS OF SPONTANEOUS PERFORMANCE: Chris Johnston
Pub: Nick Hern Books, 2006
ISBN: 1-85459-668-3 / 9 781854 596680
UK RRP £12.00
Review: Rod Dungate, December 2006
Detailed, absorbing, the power to make you rethink what you are doing
Most of us have been involved with drama improvisation at some time or another; the immediate effect of reading Chris Johnston’s book is to realise how little of the power of improvisation many of us employ and how haphazard much of our use is. Johnston focuses in the main on drama improvisation while referring to improvisation in music and dance as he goes along. This book follows his HOUSE OF GAMES which examines the value of theatre games.
Johnston’s book is a detailed, absorbing and at time exciting exploration of improvisation – its practice and its philosophy. He also explores it as a tool for play production and as an end in itself. There is no fluffiness in Johnston’s writing – there’s a real sense of the man speaking from a wealth of personal practical experience. Everything he says is rooted in the real world and frequently illustrated with either examples of work or direct inputs from a wide range of other professionals working with improvisation. When he uses inputs from others he gives them proper space to speak.
Nothing is taken for granted – not even the language most of us comfortably use. ‘As soon as you start to discuss an intuitive process like impro, you’re bringing clumsy vocabulary to bear . . . Take ‘build offers’. OK, but is ‘building an offer’ like building a house?’ I should add, though, that Johnston adds an enlightening glossary of terms – he wryly calls it ‘An Unreliable Lexicon’.
If you want a quick ‘Janet and John’ guide to improvisation games and exercises, I suspect this book is not for you – though there is a section of games and exercises. Johnston is doing much more than supply a pick and mix impro guide; he is getting under the skin of the process for the improviser and for the improviser within an ensemble. There’s an absorbing section on teaching too – I enjoy his ability to say it as it is. ‘Of course there are many approaches to teaching dramatic improvisation. But perhaps there are two fundamentally; The Sink or Swim School, the Slowly Does it School.’
Impro contests, comedy impro, rites of passage, accurate use of forum theatre, all are examined. I particularly enjoyed a fascinating discussion on the improvisational qualities of reality television. Even the work of pioneers is examined – Keith Johnstone and Viola Spolin. Chris Johnston, throughout the book, acknowledges the great contributions these two have made. But there’s a sense too, that he believes improvisation is moving on from here apace.
There’s little doubt that this book will make a valuable contribution to keeping up the forward movement. There’s also little doubt this is a vital book for everyone who wishes to engage seriously with drama improvisation – it’s changed my way of thinking.
If you wish to buy a copy of this book, either visit Nick Hern Books directly, www.nicknernbooks.co.uk, or use the Amazon link below.