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James McLaughlin

Spontaneous Creation through Mindless Repetition
The Dynamic and Ethics of Keith Johnstone’s Improv Training Exercises

This provocation will examine key improv exercises of Keith Johnstone’s improvisation system to see how repetition of simple activities is used to activate the improvisor’s spontaneous creativity.

In Johnstone’s seminal work, Impro, he traces his journey through teacher training where he was able to excite ‘difficult’ students to engage in academic tasks that previous teachers had considered beyond their grasp. His techniques were based on Anthony Stirling’s pedagogic practices, that were in turn built on Paulo Friere’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. In his subsequent work with the Royal Court Writer’s Group, Theatre Machine, and The Loose Moose Theatre, he translated this approach to train improvising actors. A common technique to all these situations was his use of simple, repetitive tasks to break through his students’ conditioned responses and to access their spontaneous creativity.

I will first describe and analyse these exercises to understand how this process might be functioning from a phenomenological point of view. I will then question the ethics of this practise that asks students to submit themselves to the teacher’s direction and to remove their conscious judgement from their behaviour.
I will conclude by setting out how these techniques can be applied in the training of improvisation to free the spontaneous creativity of students, and to ultimately empower them to break the routine set up by me and to control their studio work.

Dr. James McLaughlin (University of Greenwich) is a veteran improvisor, actor and trainer for theatre and popular performance. He is currently researching Keith Johnstone and improvisation’s role in the deconstruction of theatre censorship in Britain.