How not to have a dull life


I love non-fiction books that are written about a very specific area yet have something to say about life in general. A good example is Stewart Brand's How Buildings Learn. It's about how buildings adapt after they're built, but has a lot to say about things like the importance of maintenance versus repair. Another example is Keith Johnstone's Impro. Subtitled 'Improvisation and the theatre', Johnstone also takes the opportunity to discuss the influence of his art on his life.

I discovered the book through Michael Coveney's biography of Ken Campbell, The Great Caper. Coveney describes a bizarre weekend course inspired by Johnstone's Impro and the Dice Man that Campbell put on during a period of "volative personal life". A quote from Impro led me to buying the book and I was not disappointed.

Johnstone writes in great detail about acting but he is never overly technical or boring. He also makes some curious and fascinating asides. My favourite comes during a discussion of blocking in improvised scenes. Johnstone describes how many actors 'close down' a scene, ignoring the possibilities introduced by other players, giving detailed examples of actors blocking the 'offers' they receive. He then concludes:

"People with dull lives often think that their lives are dull by chance. In reality everyone chooses more or less what kind of events will happen to them by their conscious patterns of blocking and yielding. A student objected to this view by saying, ‘But you don’t choose your life. Sometimes you are at the mercy of people who push you around.’ I said, ‘Do you avoid such people?’ ‘Oh!’ she said, ‘I see what you mean."

It's a single paragraph at the end of the discussion but a thought-provoking one. Johnstone suggests that life itself can be seen as an improvisational game. Having an interesting life is not something that happens by chance, but a skill that can be learned.

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