Keith Johnstone: “Be average!”
Del Close: “Play at the top of your intelligence!”
These two requests seem to contradict each other. But we should look a little deeper: Who are the addressees? And what are the situations?
Keith Johnstone’s foremost goal is to tickle our playfulness, to cut off our controls to let us dive into the unconscious, and hence to accept if not even reach for the surreal. However, we have a censor implemented into our adult thinking, we urge for security and perfection. Many of Johnstone’s games are focused on playing tricks on that censor. If we want to be “good” or if we want to do it “right”, we block our stream of associations. If we try to evaluate our lines, we become unspontaneous, we almost freeze physically. But if I tell myself that I don’t have to be “good”, that I just have to perform on an average level, it relieves me from any high expectations. I will give myself permission to surprise myself.
As far as I can see, Del Close, didn’t take such preliminary considerations. Also, he didn’t care too much about surrealism but about true-to-life comedy where some valuable truth can unfold. However, if we want to go that way, we have to turn on our intelligence, because limitless free association might lead us into unrealistic strange lands or into the realm of boring clichés. If you have problems with being spontaneous, just draw on your own real life experience. If you don’t have a real life, stop improv and get one. If I can trust the few reports on Del Close’ workshops, he didn’t have problems with mediocre scenes, but he did have problems if you got pretentious or if you refused to commit.
Anyway, I think there’s no need to decide for one of those impro gurus. We can learn from both of them and integrate their insights into our own systems. First of all, Johnstone’s approach is very useful for beginners and for actors who get repeatedly blocked by their need to control themselves, the scene and their partner. Close stands for intelligent improvisation (which, of course, doesn’t mean that you have to get a university diploma in order to perform intelligent comedy).
I reduce it to the formula: “Think, don’t ponder!” Be awake and use all your channels of association. Don’t go for the cliché, but don’t fear it. I think with this double approach we can use our empirical intelligence as well as our imagination. Putting the two approaches together expands our improvisational options enormously. Be average! Play at the top of your intelligence!