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Improvisation and Roleplay

Impro, Keith Johnstone

If I ask someone to invent the first line of a short story, he’ll unconsciously rephrase the question. He’ll tense up, and probably say “I can’t think of one.” He’ll really act as if he’s been asked for a good first line. Any first line really as good as any other, but the student imagines that he’s being asked to think up dozens of first lines, then imagine the type of stories they might give rise to, and then assess the stories to find the best one.

Impro, Keith Johnstone

impro_english_FI’m finally able to start my blog. I always wanted a place to write my thoughts, but right now I think it’s mandatory. I’m working as a freelancer, and I use every single chance my life gives me to improve. But, to really improve, to really metabolize a new experience, you need to spend a little time thinking about it: what you did, why you made certain choices, what influences those choices had on your thoughts process, and so on.

But doing so on your own isn’t lasting, at least not for me. So I decided to put those thoughts on paper. Well actually on a web page, I need to upgrade my dictionary.

So, here we go. The first experience I want to talk about is improvisational theater. As you may already know I’m a gamer. Full on gamer: videogames, boardgames, tabletop RPG, mobile, everything! But my biggest love will always be RPGs. I played every RPG I could put my hands on. From classic D&D to any new wave/storytelling/nano/micro/jeep form I had enough time to read and I was interested enough to convince someone to try it with me.

But I always had some difficulties. First and most important of all: time. When I was sixteen, we played three times a week for six hours every session. But growing older and finding new and amazing hobbies (like “paying bills” or “cleaning the house”) the time I could spend playing RPGs greatly decreased. And the same happened to my friends. Add this to the fact that “a short RPG session” takes AT LEAST 3 hours (plus some more for the lucky one who has to read a 100+ pages manual) and going up to multi-session games (like Dungeons & Dragons or Apocalypse World) and having to book every Wednesday for 3 months. You know what I mean.

This led me to playing less and less. Trying to find every time “the best possible players to play with” instead of meeting new people (yes, there are better and worst players, I’ll explain what I mean later). I arrived at a point where I wasn’t playing anymore (except some games I played for the sake of my work, having laid out 8 different games since the last 2 years, and being one that likes to know what he’s working on to do his job at his best).

It was during that period that I knew my fiance. She did (and does) improvisational theater. I knew something about it. All of you will have heard of John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd. Or all the Saturday Night Live thing. Or even, if you’re from the US of Jimmy Fallon and Stephen Colbert. All of them are improviser. All, pretty much, of the Del Close philosophy. It is fun, sure, but at the time I wasn’t sure it was my thing. But then we kept talking about it. She explained to me what she was doing, that she and her group followed a different philosophy started with the Canadian actor and playwright Keith Johnstone. It’s a little different than “usual” comic improvisation. Is more focused on spontaneity and storytelling. It tries to avoid things like “charming the audience” or “making a show”, and focuses more on “make your fellow actor have a good time”.

Of course, when I’m playing on a stage, in front of a (paying) audience I want them to be happy and possibly come back again. But Johnstone’s philosophy is not about “have them come back again” but more on “do this and that, and if you do it right they’ll come back”. I’m not sure I’ve explained myself, I’m not good enough to be a teacher. But, back to my point, it did grab my attention.

The more me and my fiance talked about it, the more I saw the things I liked in RPGs being also part of Johnstone’s improv (only “improv” from now on). Storytelling, like telling a story which is interesting for you AND for the others, being them fellow actors or the audience. Emotions, like taking what you feel and have your character react in the same “living” way, in a way that doesn’t look anymore like you’re pretending. Interactions, cause we naturally know that what’s important in a story about two people is what brings them together (Is it love? Is it hate? Will it last or will they change their minds? etc) and not really what they do when they are together.


This was, to me, like “be a better gamer for dummies”. Why, I asked myself, is not everyone doing this? I don’t’ know, but maybe (or at least it was one of my main concerns before starting my improv school) it was related to this being “serious stuff” and not a game anymore. When you accept that you’re being part of a group of actors, you have to be in the right mindset. You’re not supposed to throw a joke or to laugh when you do a mistake, you have to keep going. You cannot sulk if your character dies, you have to embrace it for the sake of the “story” and do it in the best possible way. You cannot do something halfheartedly just to get it done so you can go back to the parts you like the most, you have to put all your energies in every single moment, otherwise it is not enjoyable. Not for you, not for your fellow actors, not for the audience.

Of course there’s (there are, actually) a lot more fears: acting in front of other people, doing something wrong, not doing something someone expects me to do, not being good enough. What if my pants’ crotch rips when I’m on stage? What if I fall on someone? What if I start sneezing? I can go on for days.

But this is not important. Everyone has fears. I just accepted mine, and now I’m rolling with them. I’m still afraid of falling on someone else, but if I focus myself on the play, on what is happening on the scene, and I use all my energies to listen to my friends, and to think of a way to make them look good, and at the story so it has emotions and relations that would interest everyone (me, my fellow actors, the audience), then I have not time nor energy to worry.

It’s not something that happened after I snapped my fingers. Right now being quite a newbie myself, it doesn’t even happen every time I step on stage. Hell, it happens less than half the times. But when it happens, oh my, does it feel good.


And this, to me, is what Johnstone’s improv is all about. As I said before, there’s a lot more, and I’m not teacher. But this is the general feeling I get from it, and it’s what I always wanted from roleplaying: telling a good story (for me, my fellow players, who are also the audience), not being afraid of mistakes but just rolling with what I’ve got, and enjoying myself while doing it.

There’s more I’ve got from improv, more “mundane” things like reacting a lot faster to things, or being better at understanding and listening to people. But maybe I’ll talk about it in another post.

For today, I’ve said what I had in mind, and I think that now it is more clear, even to me.


Posted on April 14, 2014 in improv

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About the Author

Design, book layout and typesetting are my passions. I love to take a work and make it as readable and appealing as possible. Right now I’m working on several projects as a freelance graphic designer and book layout artist.

Responses (2)

  1. Alberto Collina
    April 20, 2014 at 9:24 am · Reply

    Dear Paolo, I read your post and I found it really interesting. You put on paper (with beautiful words) exactly what Impro means to me, and you described exactly the same feelings that I felt during our lessons (included the fear of doing something wrong)…In a society in which everyone is pushed to be always in competition against other people (homo homini lupus), Impro teach us also the great power of collaboration and the nice environment that we can create if each one takes care of his fellows, on the stage, during a game and in the life.

    • bosipaolo
      April 21, 2014 at 9:31 am · Reply

      Thanks for your words Alberto. I totally agree with you. And this feeling of “having learned something really important” is what made me wrote this post, I needed to take it out of my head and look at it more closely. I’m very happy I was also able to put it in a way understandable for other people.

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