Impro II: Status

In this entry, I continue and conclude my discussion of Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre by Keith Johnstone (New York: Routledge, 1981) and its implications for educators.

For my earlier discussions of Chapter I visit here and here.


In the second chapter of Impro, Johnstone focuses on the importance of pecking order and the unconscious politics of everyday life. Johnstone coaches improvisational actors to be spontaneous and creative by getting them to observe, intuit, and relate the underlying power struggle inherent to everyday social interactions. He calls this a “status transaction” and treats it as the key to performance, even when there is no script or when the actors are put into a vague or pointless situation. The unspoken hierarchy in place in any human relationship is central to this notion. If one actor can play “low status” and another “high status” (or vice versa) then they play off each other in maintaining their status or squabbling unconsciously for more or less power — and this works best when the gap between the players’ status is minimal (as in a conversation between friends), rather than obvious (as in hero-villain archetypes, like Darth Vader vs. Obi-Wan), because status transactions are a matter of performance rather than content — they are what happens between the lines in a script. When played in this way, conflict transpires on an almost invisible plane which the audience will unconsciously pick up: the most mundane gestures and casual behaviors — where to sit, who speaks first, what the choice for dinner will be, etc. — become sites of struggle in virtually imperceptible ways. Every sound and posture implies a status, and recognizing this leads to a change in one’s worldview. “Normally we are ‘forbidden’ to see status transactions except when there’s a conflict,” Johnstone writes (33). “In reality status transactions continue all the time. In the park we’ll notice the ducks squabbling, but not how carefully they keep their distances when they are not.” A great deal of the comedy or tension from a play derives from the tiny ways that people vie for power by trying to raise their own status or lower the status of others in an implicit rather than explicit way.

At one point in this chapter, Johnstone divides teachers into three types of “players” in everyday status games: low-status players who he characterizes as incompetent teachers who “twitch” and “[turn] red at the slightest annoyance…seem[ing] like an intruder in the classroom”; compulsively high-status players who “fill [students] with terror” because they “exert a ruthless discipline” and “status experts” who can raise and lower their status skillfully and in a cooperative way (35). Status experts are teachers who can “play along” with students, even when they misbehave — they are skilled at spontaneity. Johnstone writes: “The pleasure attached to misbehaving comes partly from the status changes you make in your teacher. All those jokes on teacher are to make him drop in status. The [status expert] teacher could cope easily with any situation by changing his status first” (36). One of the reasons for this is that the status expert has spent a great deal of time observing status exchanges in everyday life and recognizes that there’s no such thing as a neutral position in any relationship. Breaking eye contact, keeping one’s head still, a nervous chuckle, a flap of the hand — all of these non-verbal gestures, even, are expressions of status wishes and status disavowals.

All the world’s indeed a stage, and Impro takes this metaphor quite literally. Johnstone may be guilty of essentializing, but his theories are founded in psychoanalytic literature that suggests that people naturally incline toward a dominant or submissive personality type…and he reveals how these traits often unconsciously motivate teachers. But status, for Johnstone, is something one does, not something one has. It is performed, he implies, as a defense mechanism — not necessarily to exercise power over others. Overly dominating teachers operate out of a fear that they’ll lose their high-status position in the classroom, and orchestrate the environment so that they’ll retain it. Submissive teachers will disavow the very power and discipline that an educational environment might require; having the authority of the teacher puts them in a position they are uncomfortable in. Fear, in both cases, has taken control and has hampered the spotanaeity that brings the human relations in a classroom to life. By thinking of teaching as live performance, and the classroom a theatrical sort of space where status “seesaws” up and down, a teacher can become a “status expert” of sorts, getting students to think creatively.

A great deal of this chapter and the chapters that follow focuses on specific techniques Johnstone uses to coach actors to play status roles in impromptu performances in preparation for the stage. I don’t teach drama courses or direct in theater, but I see the pertinence of his methods to the practice and teaching of writing and hope to borrow from some of his techniques in order to prompt students (and myself) to approach a topic more creatively. Johnstone talks about actors who have the equivalent of “writer’s block”: students who try too hard to “get it right” or who hold too closely to the script and therefore perform two-dimensionally or even lock up completely. By getting the actors to emphasize the underlying status transactions between characters in dialogue, Johnstone helps them to find the character’s motives or to play the part more dramatically (or comically). This focus on status games offers writers a way of getting into not only conflict and drama, but also — in fiction writing — dialogue, which is often flat and boring when unmotivated by characters who are functioning as puppets for the plot…but if I can get students to treat their dialogue as a sort of “status transaction” then I know they will write more interesting verbal exchanges and perhaps even extend the psychological depth of their characters. Indeed, one of the mantras of teaching plot is that “a character must change” by the end of the story, and getting students to see that change as an alteration of status might be useful. Or in my literature courses, I might be able to get students to “read” for status transactions in the text (much the way a Marxist might find class struggle in a conversation between the king and the fool in a Shakespeare play) — and to understand how such transactions produce the comic or tragic mode of the piece. (Johnstone, for example, reports that teaching status transactions is the only way to make sense of the comedy in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot — and I think it could explain a lot of other texts that have confounded my students). And, of course, when I ask writers to deliver their work orally and think on their feet in a Q&A with the class, I might draw on the ideas in Impro to stimulate them.

But even just student discussions of a reading in the classroom are a performance where status is exchanged. I think the strategies in Impro can be creatively retooled for any classroom situation so that the “rules of the game” that students always play can be altered. Johnstone has acting students play out a “Master-Servant” game, for example, with a direction to actors to play a sort of role reversal, where the actors play the King low status and the Fool high…and it produces great comedy (63). Likewise, a teacher could invent a game in class that substitutes the teacher for the master and the student for the servant, and swap roles. Or have students role play teacher and student in skits or creative writing exercises pertinent to the class topic.

When Johnstone writes of the “status resistances” his students have (say, when a person who is naturally inclined toward “low status” is asked to play the king in a play, and delivers the lines without authority), I’m reminded of the students who resist to “play along” with creative exercises I might assign in the classroom, or who are inexplicably rigid or shy. There may be strategies I can borrow from Impro that can help me to get these students to loosen up and participate in the game of learning. Johnstone offers several types of exercises that explicitly engage in raising the consciousness of status transactions (trading insults, playing master-servant, and clowning around non-verbally). I think any creative-centered course could benefit from having students play these games, because, at root, Johnstone weans students out of their comfort zones by nudging them into playing status levels they’re not used to. Shy or apathetic students might be trying to protect their submissive, “low-status” position, but even students who are very vocal (or even monopolizing class discussions) can be seen as vying for dominating “high-status” — whether by affiliating with the teacher (like the students who always raise their hands, who always agree, or who always “show off” that they possess all the right answers) or by directly conflicting with the teacher (the class clowns, the over-argumentative skeptics, the perpetual scoffers). The “status expert” teacher can marshal improvisational exercises and simulations that diffuse these overt conflicts and change the rules a bit so that students are nudged out of their comfort zone and habitual “coping strategies” by being required to play different roles in a game where the rules can shift spontaneously.

This is, in a sense, what happens when a teacher moves away from a “teacher-centered” classroom and adopts a “student-centered” ideal. Such a movement does not just mean facilitating open discussions instead of preparing lectures — it essentially requires an abdication of the need for “high status,” and I think it’s safe to say that both teachers and students are psychologically uncomfortable with this shift in authority, and instructors will unconsciously struggle to retain their centrality without realizing it. They over-prepare and overlord, even when they’re not lecturing. They send mixed signals that say “you are your own instructor, and can learn from one another” verbally while non-verbally giving off subliminal cues that suggest they’re really not through unconscious gestures or games with eye contact. And their classes — if not their inner lives — suffer because of it. If Johnstone is right, then to be a talented teacher might very well mean being an expert in terms of the status games of everyday life, as much as it means having expertise in the class content — or even in pedagogy. Of course, these things are difficult for administrators and advisors to evaluate, and perhaps impossible to self-evaluate, but I think a teacher who is consciously applying Johnstone’s techniques will be more engaged and likely see the results in their students’ willingness to “play along” with the game of learning.
In the next chapter, “Spontaneity,” Johnstone will elaborate on techniques for getting people to think more creatively on their feet.

RELATED READING: See The Improv Wiki for an overview on status. The article, “Acting in Character” (.pdf file) by Barbara Hayes-Roth, Robert van Gent, and Daniel Huber makes extensive reference to Johnstone’s chaper on status and personality traits in relation to acting.

Although Johnstone doesn’t seem to deal directly with them, theories of the politics of everyday life in cultural studies literature often point back to Michel de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life and Erving Goffman’s The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. For future study, I note two recent books of interest that develop scholarship in this area: Ben Highmore’s Everyday Life and Cultural Theory: An Introduction and Roger Abrahams’ Everyday Life: A Poetics of Vernacular Practices.