'Status' in IMPRO by Keith Johnstone

Impro by Keith Johnstone has become over the years one of the most important theatre practitioner books; filled with insight and guidance for performers, it is essential reading for anyone looking to better understand the dynamics of interaction on the stage. In this short excerpt, Keith describes various strategies for status using real-life and theatre-based examples of the high/low swing of interpersonal and inter-performer relationships.

We’ve all observed different kinds of teachers, so if I describe three types of status players commonly found in the teaching profession you may find that you already know exactly what I mean.

I remember one teacher, whom we liked but who couldn’t keep discipline. The Headmaster made it obvious that he wanted to fire him, and we decided we’d better behave. Next lesson we sat in a spooky silence for about five minutes, and then one by one we began to fool about—boys jumping from table to table, acetylene-gas exploding in the sink, and so on. Finally, our teacher was given an excellent reference just to get rid of him, and he landed a headmastership at the other end of the county. We were left with the paradox that our behaviour had nothing to do with our conscious intention.

Another teacher, who was generally disliked, never punished and yet exerted a ruthless discipline. In the street he walked with fixity of purpose, striding along and stabbing people with his eyes. Without punishing, or making threats, he filled us with terror. We discussed with awe how terrible life must be for his own children.

A third teacher, who was much loved, never punished but kept excellent discipline, while remaining very human. He would joke with us, and then impose a mysterious stillness. In the street he looked upright, but relaxed, and he smiled easily.

I thought about these teachers a lot, but I couldn’t understand the forces operating on us. I would now say that the incompetent teacher was a low-status player: he twitched, he made many unnecessary movements, he went red at the slightest annoyance, and he always seemed like an intruder in the classroom. The one who filled us with terror was a compulsive high-status player. The third was a status expert, raising and lowering his status with great skill. 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 third teacher could cope easily with any situation by changing his status first.

Status is a confusing term unless it’s understood as something one does. You may be low in social status, but play high, and vice versa.

For example:

TRAMP: ’Ere! Where are you going?

DUCHESS: I’m sorry, I didn’t quite catch . . .

TRAMP: Are you deaf as well as blind?

Audiences enjoy a contrast between the status played and the social status. We always like it when a tramp is mistaken for the boss, or the boss for a tramp. Hence plays like The Inspector General. Chaplin liked to play the person at the bottom of the hierarchy and then lower everyone.

I should really talk about dominance and submission, but I’d create a resistance. Students who will agree readily to raising or lowering their status may object if asked to ‘dominate’ or ‘submit’.

Status seems to me to be a useful term, providing the difference between the status you are and the status you play is understood.

As soon as I introduced the status work at the Studio, we found that people will play one status while convinced that they are playing the opposite. This obviously makes for very bad social ‘meshing’—as in Bion’s therapy group—and many of us had to revise our whole idea of ourselves. In my own case I was astounded to find that when I thought I was being friendly, I was actually being hostile! If someone had said ‘I like your play’, I would have said ‘Oh, it’s not up to much’, perceiving myself as ‘charmingly modest’. In reality I would have been implying that my admirer had bad taste. I experience the opposite situation when people come up, looking friendly and supportive, and say, ‘We did enjoy the end of Act One’, leaving me to wonder what was wrong with the rest.

I ask a student to lower his status during a scene, and he enters and says:

A: What are you reading?

B: War and Peace.

A: Ah! That’s my favourite book!

The class laugh and A stops in amazement. I had told him to lower his status during the scene, and he doesn’t see what’s gone wrong.

I ask him to try it again and suggest a different line of dialogue.

A: What are you reading?

B: War and Peace.

A: I’ve always wanted to read that.

A now experiences the difference, and realises that he was originally claiming ‘cultural superiority’ by implying that he had read this immense work many times. If he’d understood this he could have corrected the error.

A: Ah! That’s my favourite book.

B: Really?

A: Oh yes. Of course I only look at the pictures . . .

A further early discovery was that there was no way to be neutral. The ‘Good morning’ that might be experienced as lowering by the Manager, might be experienced as raising by the bank clerk. The messages are modified by the receivers.

You can see people trying to be neutral in group photographs. They pose with arms folded or close to their sides as if to say ‘Look! I’m not claiming any more space than I’m entitled to’, and they hold themselves very straight as if saying ‘But I’m not submissive either!’ If someone points a camera at you you’re in danger of having your status exposed, so you either clown about, or become deliberately unexpressive. In formal group photographs it’s normal to see people guarding their status. You get quite different effects when people don’t know they’re being photographed.

If status can’t even be got rid of, then what happens between friends? Many people will maintain that we don’t play status transactions with our friends, and yet every movement, every inflection of the voice implies a status. My answer is that acquaintances become friends when they agree to play status games together. If I take an acquaintance an early morning cup of tea I might say ‘Did you have a good night?’ or something equally ‘neutral’, the status being established by voice and posture and eye contact and so on. If I take a cup of tea to a friend then I may say ‘Get up, you old cow’, or ‘Your Highness’s tea’, pretending to raise or lower status. Once students understand that they already play status games with their friends, then they realise that they already know most of the status games I’m trying to teach them.

Impro is now available in ebook and print from Bloomsbury.com

Elsewhere on the site: Interview with Keith

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