The Backline E159: The Johnstonian Dictionary

Here are some notes and interpretations I took while listening to Toronto improv podcast The Backline. This is from Episode 159: The Johnstonian Dictionary. Click the links on the times to be taken to an audio version of the note.

8:40 – “When you introduce a new term, or a term that is different, or different way of looking at improv, often people take it as a criticism of a deeply held belief that they have. And I think that’s a mistake. So you know, we may say something like “oh you know, here’s game of the scene, it replaces this part of Johnstonian improv.” And people go “Why trying to replace that, that’s awesome, we need that!” And no-one in improv is trying to erase section of improv history. Like the concepts that are valuable to you are still valuable, but this is just another tool, this is another way to look at it, and they exist, they can exist both in your toolbelt.”

9:48 – “I think the goal is always, is this clearer? Or does this help anybody? And I think that’s what renaming something or finding an alternate phrase to discuss a certain topic, anybody who talks about that, their goal is hopefully, “does this make more sense then what we previously held?” or “does this help clear up something you had a hard time you a hard time digging your nails into?”

11:34Relationship vs Dynamic:

  • Relationship (Johnstonian): How you and the other person you are on stage with someone, e.g. customer and barista. Often goes hand in hand with the “no stranger” rule.
  • Dynamic (Modern): How you are treating someone, e.g. bully and victim.

14:54 – “If you feel a certain way towards someone and you’re treating them in a certain way, we actually have enough meat to make a scene out of it. And the thing that a relationship doesn’t actually give us, it doesn’t give us reproducible results.”

16:27 – Relationships can result in players acting out stereotypes, where as dynamics can provide playable feelings towards each other.

19:47Who/What/Where vs The Behavior: Both of these are considered the labelled context of the scene.

  • Who/What/Where (Johnstonian): Things that the audience will never see, e.g a forest.
  • The Behavior (Modern): The labelled dynamic between the two people in the scene that can live anywhere.

21:44 – In modern longform, we’re taking characters from one location and putting them in a different context. Taking large amounts of time setting up who/what/where is wasted time, as it’s unlikely to be reused in later beats. Instead, paying attention to the behavior allows us to bring something in that the audience has already identified with and can heighten.

23:40 – “If the location is the star of your scene, it’s not going to be a great scene to play or to watch.” The transition from neutral exposition (e.g. about the environment) to passionate emotion is hard!

25:48: Playing Status vs Playing Game of the Scene: Surprisingly similar!

  • Playing Status (Johnstonian): The belief that all characters exist in hierarchy. Relates to how you character is treated, how you are seen by other characters, and how much weight your words have. e.g. the president (high status) over a homeless person (low status).
  • Playing Game of the Scene (Modern): Involves dynamics. Finding situations to affect the characters in the scene in a certain way. Status can be apart of a scenic game.

29:34: Surrender vs The Right to Play:

  • Surrender (Johnstonian): The idea that someone in the scene has to win or lose, e.g. a fight. Solves the problem of conflict in scenes.
  • The Right to Play (Modern): “You get to choose one thing. And the one thing is, what do you step into the scene with? What’s your first emotion, the first object work, your first line of dialogue. Whatever that first thing is, you are entitled to pursuit that for the rest of the scene. And anything that I [the improviser] do that helps you pursuit that more is good for the scene, it benefits us it creates laughter. And anything that I do that stops you from pursuing that behavior is a a bad thing.”

31:48Surrendering and Moving On vs Surrendering and Reinvesting:

  • Surrendering and Moving On: Giving up on conflict and moving to something else in the scene.
  • Surrendering and Reinvesting: Taking a break from that conflict and coming back to it with more intensity.

32:57 – Conflict doesn’t need to be solved. Sit in it. “The business is experiencing feelings on stage in front of people for no money.” By solving conflict, you’ve removed the dynamic established in the scene and need to find something new to play with.

35:20 – There’s a big difference between stopping someone’s play (e.g. the medicine you’re giving these kids is poison, stop giving it to them) and having a feeling towards someone’s play (e.g. I hate kids and you giving them medicine makes them better, therefore I hate you).

39:01Establishing a Character vs Establishing a Deal:

  • Character (Johnstonian): Who you are, your name, how you move, your job.
  • A Deal (Modern): The one thing you bring into the scene (see the right to play).  The emotion, line of dialogue, object work.
  • A deal is a thing that you’re doing in this moment. It is something that you are present for. Your character is how your deal is received by your partner.

41:36 – “Who we are ultimately is something we discover by what we’re doing in the scene.” If we’re coming in with a pre-established character, we’re expecting a certain reaction from the other characters in the scene.

42:50 – “When I step on stage with a full character that’s pre-established, I turn the person I’m playing with into my puppet. Either they do what I say and do what my psyche demands of them, or we get into a conflict. And that’s a bummer of a feeling. It’s a bummer of a feeling to either go “okay I’m just doing what you want me to do here.” It’s also a bummer to be like “I don’t want to drop my deal ’cause this is who I am but you won’t let me play the thing I stepped on stage with because it interferes with how the scene is supposed to go with your fuckin’ Jorje the Spanish waiter, you know?”

Bill Arnett workshop notes on character→

  • In the info of a line, what’s important in that line?
    • What’s conveyed?
  • Character > situation
    • The character is what’s important
  • If your worst scene is still a realistic depiction of life, you’re golden.
    • Gagging is unrealistic.
    • Frequent direction:  “This is really happening, <x>!”
  • Don’t play the action, play the person.
    • Again, character > situation.
  • You can always disclose your opinions/knowledge about the other character.
    • This lets you ‘check in’.

Loads of good stuff in these notes.

I got a note: when you’re playing a married couple, act more like you’re married. What are some actionable ways to do this?→

Well, you’ve known each other for forever, so every argument you’ve had is a rehashing of an old one. Nothing much fazes you when you’re fighting–unless it takes a turn and gets really, really bad, at which point you get confused, then deeply hurt (this is someone who you didn’t think’d be like this, and you bet half your stuff you wouldn’t).

If it’s a healthy marriage, your body language and speaking language is also really relaxed–what haven’t you done in front of the other person? You’re not aiming to impress, you’re aiming to coexist. This isn’t a first date. If things are well (if the couple is healthy) you talk smoothly. If things aren’t (the couple is unhealthy), then the inverse of all this. You want out of the situation ASAP and the other person is right there keeping you from doing that, and that’s a major source of stress.

If the marriage is going well, reflect that. If it’s going poorly, reflect that. You’ve likely seen both and know how to replicate the social conditions if you think like a reductionist about it.

Creating inclusive improv→

Improv theatre is about saying yes. It is about accepting offers. It should be a place where all people are accepted and tolerance is practiced. But it’s not always. Often racial, cultural and gender stereotypes and cheap jokes at the expense of those with less privilege get rewarded. It can be very hard for people affected by this to confront those who are making jokes without being told they are being ‘over-sensitive’ or ‘it’s just a joke’. But for many people, those ‘jokes’ aren’t funny and they’re the same thing they’ve heard time and time again and they may go to the very heart of their identity. Why would such a person stick around to perform with people who perpetuate the shittier aspects of an oppressive society? Why would an audience want to stay and watch stories that play out the oppression they see and experience everyday when they could be watching something that transcends it?

Great post, read it.

I like improv because you can present your worldview (or perhaps how you’d like to see the world) to an audience in a non-preachy manner – it can be done in stand-up but it’s much more noticeable when it’s done badly. The downside is that unlike most stand-up, improvisers are making it up on the spot, which mean more factors come into it – performer experience levels, the nervousness of performers, or whether the show has been getting a response from the audience (laughter, total silence, etc). It’s a theory, but I believe that those factors dictate certain choices and when they’re made by performers.

Ultimately, what you do on stage as an improviser is a presentation of yourself to the world, even if it’s masked by the character you’re playing. I have a bit of hesitance playing the opposite gender on stage at the moment. I fear being on stage playing with my long (and it’s always long) hair, arms bent in the air at the elbow. I fear it twice as much if I’m stirring a pot and/or talking about a male character not in the scene. The reason is two fold. One, by doing that the joke becomes the fact that I’m a man playing a women in an improv scene, and that means that the audience isn’t engaged with what I’m doing on stage. Two, the subtext is that this is how me, the improviser feels about women in the real world.

The strawman argument to that second point usually is “aw nah, I was just playing a character!” But if playing a character means playing the above in order to get a laugh, or to save a show from dying, or because it’s what the show needed and you were working from instinct; it still suggests that the choice is being made so that you can be personally rewarded. And that’s not respect – its entitlement.