Homo Ludens

As I type, I can hear my wife downstairs, reading a story to our daughter. I can’t hear clearly, but I know that she is reading Roald Dahl, and every so often, when she adopts a grating German accent, I guess that she’s enacting that author’s terrifying Grand High Witch. It’s a very funny performance, albeit for a tiny audience.

My wife has never shown the slightest interest in being any kind of public performer, and she has not rehearsed this, but it turns out that, in the right play space, she can be a brilliant improviser.

As can most of us. We all instinctively improvise when we find ourselves in a safe place – where we can trust each other and agree to behave in unusual ways. (In this case, by adopting a parody German accent that my wife would never use in public.) In his 1938 book Homo Ludens, the Dutch cultural historian Johan Huizinga identifies several types of “playground” in cultures around the world. “The stage, the screen, the tennis court, the court of justice, etc. are all… temporary worlds within the ordinary world, dedicated to the performance of an act apart,” he says.

They’re also, crucially, places where things can go well, or badly. But the possibility of failure is what makes anything worth doing. If there’s no chance of failure, we’re merely going through the motions. And nobody likes to do that. If we don’t want to be zombies, we must learn to apply our improvisational skills throughout our everyday lives, and feel radically alive.

I first became interested in impro when I was researching a book, How To Change The World. It had become clear to me that “changing the world” (even when that starts with a particular neighbourhood, or workplace, or just a family) only happens if something changes in ourselves first. But how to change ourselves? I decided to investigate the secrets of actors, who are trained to change themselves at a moment’s notice.

Doing this research proved, initially, to be surprisingly hard work. I read many excruciatingly boring theatrical memoirs and textbooks on technique. I was ready to give up. Then I read Keith Johnstone’s book, Impro for Actors.

This made it thrillingly clear what improvisation involves. Being in the moment. Knowing when to lead and when to follow. Listening carefully and responding appropriately. Daring to suspend judgement about ourselves. And managing our uncertainty about what might happen next. You can imagine for yourself how useful it would be to master those skills – to access deliberately the spontaneity and creative skills we have already, and enjoy playful relationships with the people around us, at home and at work, that thrive on collaboration and goodwill.

Johnstone had worked as a school teacher in the 1950s with difficult children, and produced stunningly impressive results. He was hired by The Royal Court theatre to teach actors and writers to improvise. The games and exercises he devised were transplanted to the curriculum at drama schools, and quickly became classics.

When I discovered that Johnstone was still alive, and still teaching impro – and I signed up for a course at once. It was an amazing experience, by turns funny and deeply moving. Among other things, I learned to bang Rada-trained actors on the head with long balloons, and to play games with status as we variously elevated and abased ourselves – using body language and verbal sleight of hand to raise and lower others at the same time. One of my most memorable moments was playing a scene in which I had a conversation with my 20-year-old self, as represented by the brilliant improviser Steve Chapman. I was able to reassure him/me that he would indeed grow up to be a writer, and would meet his girlfriend soon, would marry her some years later, and still be with her when he reached my present age – and with a lovely daughter too. (Any therapist or coach will confirm how usefully affirmative this kind of imaginary dialogue can be – but few can have done it with a live performer to represent the imaginary other.)

More importantly, the course made it clear to me that when we perform, we see something that’s hidden in daily life: that we are acting all the time, playing a part, and we are constantly given opportunities to play a different part, and take our lives in new directions.

In impro, those opportunities are called “offers”. Everything other actors do is an offer. Thus, if actor A holds something out to Actor B, Actor B can accept the offer by saying, “You remembered my birthday!”

The opposite of accepting an offer is blocking. Thus, Actor A might reply: “It’s not my birthday till December.” When one actor blocks the other, it’s deeply frustrating, causes everything to stall, and also doesn’t look very good. In real life (as on the stage) we tend to block because we feel scared of anything that may go out of our control. Johnstone taught actors that the best way to keep any sense of control is to accept absolutely anything – with sensational effect.

“Good improvisers seem telepathic,” he says. “Everything looks pre-arranged because they accept all offers made. The actor who will accept anything that happens seems supernatural… unbounded.” In ordinary performance, if one actor were to fall on the floor, as if dead, the other might feel horribly exposed. But an improviser left “alone” on the stage will see even a dead body as an offer – perhaps throwing water in its face to revive it, or digging a hole to bury it, or lying down beside it. The point is to accept it as an offer, and build on it, rather than to freeze inside, and block block block.

“People with dull lives think their lives are dull by chance,” says Johnstone. “In reality, everyone chooses what kind of events will happen to them by their conscious patterns of blocking and yielding. There are people who prefer to say ‘yes’, and people who prefer to say ‘no’. Those who say ‘yes’ are rewarded by the adventures they have. Those who say ‘no’ are rewarded by the safety the secure themselves. There are far more ‘no’ sayers around than ‘yes’ sayers – but you can train one type to behave like the other.”

Since training with him, I’ve gone on to train others. In the Applied Improvisation Network, a global alliance of impro trainers to which I now belong, one of the most widely used games when working with executives, campaign groups and others, is the one that teaches people to move from habitually saying “no” to trying “yes” occasionally.

You can try it with friends. In pairs, have a conversation. A invites B to go for a fantastic holiday, but B blocks furiously by starting every sentence with “No…” A, similarly determined, must invent ways to overcome every block. Like this:

A: “Hey, I’ve got tickets for a fantastic holiday. We can leave at once!”

B: “No. I’ve got too much work to do.”

A: “Yes, but I’ve talked to your boss and he’s given you a month off – starting today!”

It’s crucial to pay attention to what the other person is saying. A won’t succeed, no matter how cheerful, without specifically addressing B’s block. (A common mistake people make is to think that being “positive” will win people over. Telling somebody who is on a diet that a cake is “really, really tasty, go on, have a bite, go on, you’ll love it” is simply to ignore their needs.)

Then swap roles, so both people get a chance to be positive and negative. Afterwards, notice if one role felt more comfortable than the other. Could it be that you are habitually like that in daily life? Also, consider which one felt like the hardest work. We tend to assume that blocking is easy, but in practice it can take a lot of energy and ingenuity. If that’s so, ask yourself if it’s really worth the effort.

Next, see what happens when you both move away from blocking to building – instead of starting with “No…” start every sentence with “Yes, AND…” Again, you have to listen carefully to what the other person says, but that’s not usually difficult.

In practice, this exercise invariably results in everybody having adventures together. With huge grins on their faces, pairs report that they’ve been under the ocean taking class A drugs, or on the moon throwing buns at aliens – not the kind of fun we usually allow ourselves in adulthood.

When you see everything as an offer, the universe appears to be incredibly generous, and you feel surrounded by abundance. But the point of learning to improvise freely is not to accept absolutely everything: that kind of unrestrained behaviour could make you deeply antisocial. It’s about learning to recognise the ways in which you might behave slightly differently, from one moment to the next – and deciding which of those clues you want to put into practice.

There are many, many ways to experiment with improvisation. Whichever one you try, it won’t always succeed. But as I said before, nothing is worth doing if it doesn’t include the possibility of failure. If you can’t possibly fail, you’re just going through the motions again. So: don’t be a zombie. Be willing to fail happily, and you won’t mind trying things – you won’t get all tied up / constipated / frozen with fear. You’re not destined to fail. You don’t aim to fail. But be open to the possibility. You might fail. But you might not. And life is too short not to try.

A version of this story appeared in Psychologies magazine