Book Review: IMPRO
A couple years ago I read that Palantir gave employees a reading list. One of the books, Impro: Improvisation and the Theater by Keith Johnstone, caught my attention so I added it to my Amazon cart, where it sat until 2018 Christmas shopping. For no clear reason, I finally ordered it.
I have come to understand that Improv theater skills have become a trendy Corporate training focused on helping employees, especially in sales, think on their feet. I didn’t find that in the book, but there were some interesting business nuggets; the type of nuggets that come from reading about a world far from Defense Engineering. Before I share my favorite part, I found the book hard to read and the final section on Masks of very limited use. On the other hand, I have three little girls and have already used some of the games/exercises with them to fun storytelling effect. I would lightly recommend the book, because despite the difficult read, I learned some things I wouldn’t get through the normal corporate reading and I didn’t feel I missed much skipping around to find the business nuggets.
The first major section on Status was fascinating to me. To simplify, status in theater is a great way to create comedy. Think of a proper / stiff millionaire and his/her maid or butler. The audience expects the proper millionaire to act with “high status” and the butler lower status. A common twist is the brilliant butler and the foolish millionaire. It is not what the audience expects and creates a tension that is interesting to watch. The movie The Proposal or the old Will & Grace with Karen and her maid are clear examples.
In the book, Johnstone goes into psychology arguing that people play status naturally all the time. This is even true with strangers and how they pass on the sidewalk or arrange in the elevator. For me, this knowledge has made my people watching soooo much more interesting. Watching status play out tells us a surprising amount about a person and on the overall group. Johnstone also spends significant time discussing tricks to seem more authoritative (higher status). His ideas can easily become a plan for influencing a group in a way that suits your style.
Johnstone set out to write a theater book, but his tips and psychology discussion is where the book shines for business. He explains in depth why status makes audiences react, and by extension, why theater methodologies will induce desired effects in the office too. Plus, he has tangible advice that will work for you and for serious actors alike.
There are other major sections including on spontaneity, narrative skills and masks / trance. I leave those for you to discover. In short, there are some real office related gems in the book. Plus it was nice to read something very different than focusing on strengths, emotional intelligence or change management.