What is the nature of improv?

There are probably as many theories/ideas/concepts about improv as there are improvisers. To my way of thinking, improvisers tend to fall into one of three camps:

  1. The Spoliners:  Improv is primarily about being in the moment and getting out of your head.
  2. The Closians: Improv is primarily about presenting a good story.
  3. The Johnstonites: Improv is primarily about doing a successful show.

One way or another, most improvisers would agree that all three of these ideas are important to improv. In other words, to be a good improviser one must stay out of one’s head, present a good story, and do the things that will make a show successful. What makes each of these camps different (The followers of Spolin different from the followers of Del Close different from the followers of Johnstone) is where they focus their intention as an improviser.

For Spolin, the intention of improv was to “solve the problem on stage.” Her games revolved around a point of concentration on which the actors should focus entirely. A Spoliner believes that the story should take a backseat to the point of concentration. Modern Spoliners say things like “forget story” and “focus on what is happening now” and “it’s already there, name it.” A Spoliner works to keep her mind blank, to stay in the moment and react.

The Closians on the other hand, while not forgetting about being in the moment, believe the intention of improv is to tell a good story. The Harold was invented as a storytelling vehicle. Closians say that we should follow the unconscious choice as it leads us down the path of the story. Modern Closians use things like status, truth, and games like “The Quest” as ways to assist in the storytelling. A Closian strives to see where he is in a story and how he can add to it.

Lastly, the Johnstonites believe the intention of improv is to create a show that is pleasing to the audience. Johnstone’s “Theater Sports” was created as a way to give the audience something they could recognize and get behind during an improv show. To a Johnstonite, being in the moment and telling a good story are all means toward creating a show the audience will enjoy. Modern Johnstonites are concerned with what works in improv. Games like “status switch” and “Going through the unusual door” were created to help improvisers have a bag of tricks at their disposal.

A Spoliner is like Jackson Pollack, throwing it all up there and letting the subconscious figure it out.

A Closian is like a Jazz musician, practicing scales before the show, but then trying to just “groove” and follow the song.

A Johnstonite is like a football player, learning to recognize the next play to use during the game.

Which are you?



About improvmantra

What is an improv mantra? An improv mantra is a phrase you repeat to yourself just before you go on stage, and continue to keep in your mind while you are in a scene. An effective mantra makes you a better improviser. Todd Erler, like all living creatures, has been doing improv every day since he was born. He has been performing improv on stage for more than 20 years. He is a teacher, writer, musicain, director, actor, and member of The Portable Reality Show.
This entry was posted in Books, Fundamentals, Improv Games, Improv shows, Longform vs Shortform and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to What is the nature of improv?

  1. I am probably somewhere in between Closian and Johnstonite working on getting to the point of spolin. I don’t do improv or any kind of theater as such, but the way I see it is that this is also life; how we live it. Thank you for a very thought-provoking post. Anna

  2. improvmantra says:

    Thanks. I guess I am a Closian. Prepare – then let it go and be open to chance.

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