The more one limits oneself, the closer one is to the infinite. These people as unworldy as they seem, burrow like termites into their own particular material, to construct in miniature a strange and utterly individual image of the world.

From Stefan Zweig’s Chess Story

Competition! Round One: Generating Heat


Last month London kicked off the first of a series of 5-aside competitive impro events, and by all accounts it went really well. This prompted me to muse a bit about the benefits and pitfalls of a competitive format. This got big enough for me to split: here I’ll focus on a useful pointer for competitive impro, and one of its biggest benefits.

I’ve played in competitive formats in Europe, the UK and Canada, mostly some derivation or other of Keith Johnstone’s formats, specifically Maestro and Theatresports. I’m repeatedly impressed by the evolved and considered philosophy that sits under them. There is a lot that could be said – Patti Stiles runs workshops on ‘How to do Theatresports better’; Maestro now has a (very unpretentious, helpful) guidance manual. But the idea that made the most impression on me is really very simple.

You shouldn’t be competing.

I heard this first from Tom Salinsky in the run-up to our first Maestro in the pleasant Cockpit Theatre in Marylebone. (I walked past the Theatro Technis, another occasional Maestro spot, on the way to the bar in which I’m writing the first draft of this.) In the next post I’ll get into why this is so important, but to make sense of a show that is both Competition and Not Competition, it’s worth turning to Keith Johnstone, who recounts how he was inspired to create Theatresports by watching wrestling shows. As we all know, the outcomes of wrestling are fixed, but the experience isn’t fake. Wrestling generates ‘heat’ – provoking the audience into an excited, passionate and even angry frenzy – and that kind of experience is a rare one within a theatre. Fake competition generates authentic emotional results. Julia witnessed a Theatresports at the Loose Moose Theatre that epitomises this.

Performers from Calgary and Edmonton were playing each other in ‘The Battle of Alberta. (In reality, the Edmonton team was topped up by some Calgarians, something you wouldn’t normally see in a Derby match!)
In Theatresports, teams get points from a set of serious judges, who are the grown-ups in the room to contrast with the players. Early on, the judges made a fairly harsh call for one of the teams, docking a point for use of the word ‘Bum’. The team made a show of resentment at the call, echoing ripple of dissatisfaction in the audience.
As the show went on, that team started to act out more and more: running into competing scenes, using ‘Bum’ as a punchline, and provoking the judges, who responded unemotionally by docking them points and giving players time-outs – the Theatresports ‘basket’ worn upon the head for 5 minutes.
Both teams were getting on with doing scenes and giving challenges, both doing good work, but with the misbehaving team taking risks in and out the scene, whilst the other team played up their role in the show – the nice, diligent participants.
The audience started getting furious. “Give them points, that’s so unfair.” “They basketed all but one player – how are they going to do a scene? Oh, you’re making them do it on their own?????”(Solo scenes are actually a gift to a player, but within the theatre of Theatresports, they can appear a daunting challenge.) “What? They are all punished? They are all in the basket? Now they just miss even doing a scene!!!” They yelled, roared together, stood up and booed the judges.
By the time the ‘bum’ player basketed for the 2nd or 3rd time, his run through the aisle to the timeout area was met by audience members leaning out to hi-five him, like wrestlers or a baseball game. Thing is, no-one turned up with a strong desire to support that team and boo the ref – to this day, I’m not sure whether the punished team was the home team or the ‘Edmonton’ one. The game ended at 30-7 – the mischievious team were crucified. But everyone got a story out of the show.

And make no mistake, the players of the losing team would have left the show knowing that they had – together with their rivals and the judges – spent the night winning in every sense imaginable. In the next post, I spend a little time exploring why this spirit is so important.

Maxims and Reality

With Patti Stiles in town this past week, reinvigorating tons of friends with the fun agenda, I thought I’d post a little maxim that I’ve been finding useful.

Maxim: Find the fun you can have with what you have right now, rather than worrying about the correct thing to do next.

Not following the maxim:  Start playing a scene: discover I’m low status and they are high. Ok so I know scenes can work by reverse a status relationship, so my job is to figure out how to do that, thus solving the scene and doing it properly.

Following the maxim: Start playing a scene: discover I’m low status and they are high. How much fun can I have with my partner, that high status character? With this relationship? Enjoy that, rather than trying to ‘work toward’ the next step. When what you have feels like it might want to turn into something else, you’ll find it is easier and more obvious to make a change (eg a status shift) because you have immersed yourself deeply in the moment and created a reality that gives you lots of possibilities.


To put meat on the example: maybe I bow when the master makes any request and I discover a ridiculous, pleasing physical quality to my right-angled bows, allowing them to get bigger or more awkward. Simultaneously my partner enjoys using ever-longer invectives to insult me with – ‘you miserable millipede-legged fascimile of an ape’ (he’s not a happy high-status at all!).

These things are fun and we are playing with them, along with adding other details to the scene and messing with each other: what happens when the servant needs to bow with the plate of champagne flutes?  At a certain point though it feels like it’s done, and I find myself saying ‘I’ve been practicing for this moment, sir’ and give him a mighty bent-at-the hip stage headbutt. Or my partner says: ‘I’ve insulted you for years, and yet you are so stoic. I break apart at the hint of criticism… can you tell me how it’s done?’ The thing that is needed, more often than not, just comes from being with what’s already there.

This isn’t to suggest bridging when the scene is calling for a change (see this quote). We don’t want to delay for fear of moving forward. But we also don’t want to press forward with an scene-solving course of action for fear of being present with what we have. We don’t want to be preoccupied with the correct ‘game move’ when that gets in the way of what’s happening right now.

It’s a tonal thing, for sure. It’s not about squeezing every drop of juice out of the current situation – we may want to come back to it. But we want to establish and enjoy things, and not feel pressured to drop things for being ‘not good enough’

Maxims are cheap tricks – they are right until they are wrong, because reality is infinite and cannot be constrained by words.

imageMaxim Reality. Prodigy dude and a cool guy.

But right now, I’m finding it a handy trick for me, and maybe it will be for you, too.

Cheap Tricks

I was disappointed by Venkatesh Rao’s book Tempo, because I expected so much of it. Covering business, time perception and improvisation? Here’s me with a PhD in the psychology of time/memory, experience in the kinds of business environments discussed, and a practitioner of improvisational theatre. But the parts of the book didn’t add up to a whole for me, and I didn’t find much that was useful. But one thing I found very useful: cheap tricks.

imageFig1. – Cheap Trick.

In Rao’s words:

’[A cheap trick is] a key organizing insight that motivates the action in the rest of the deep story. Every such insight is flawed, since it is based on excluding some part of reality as noise. This will eventually catch up with you, so the insight merely  buys you a certain amount of time.

If your wrong answer happens also to be elegant, it will compactly explain the part of reality that you do include, and provide leverage. If this leverage can bring you rewards within the time you’ve bought, you’ve cheated nature: earned real rewards from fake truths, and fled with your ill-gotten gains before nature takes her revenge through unintended consequences. The cheap trick is the insight that allows you to locally and temporarily trick nature into bestowing disproportionate rewards on you.’

The idea squares our desire to model reality with the fact that reality can’t be perfectly modelled: too much chaos, too much agency, too much complexity. Despite this we can still discover angles that squeeze reality down to a few fruitful variables that seem particularly true within this historical moment, context or whatever, and exploit that until we decide to discard it, or reality gets the better of us.

I think Rao is particularly interested in targeting investors, entrepreneurs,  and possibly life hackers, by giving them a piece of cognitive architecture to think about when to get in and out of commodities/making free-to-play apps/pick up artist techniques. But I find it a helpful way to think with a bit of groundedness and humility about just about any model, maxims, insight, technique, or tool. Reality is infinite, so any one true way is going to break down. Working for you? Rockin. You’re currently operating within the groove of the cheap trick.

Obligatory improvisation reference – see what Rachel is talking about here
I was also talking about it on Rob Grundel’s old blog (on this post about Mick Napier’s excellent Improvise)

Obligatory Jung reference pending – lost my book.


If you’re interested in my critique of the book, a little more here, but it’s a bit unstructured; if you haven’t read the book it won’t make a lot of sense. I had planned a comprehensive review but the book didn’t hold my attention and I felt a bit like a nitpicker.

Issues I had:

  •   It felt very much like a whistle stop tour, a pot pourri, and frequently second-hand endorsements of other ideas. Sometimes it feels like he is just showing off his personal canon – he states “it is worth reading one of the many excellent popular treatments” on chronobiology, but I’ve read a bunch of that stuff, and generally, it’s not worth it. Or if it is, he ought to explain why.
  •   He sometimes plays fast and loose with notions to bolt them in to his theory. He shoehorns entropy into his model, breaking its meaning, argues that emotions arise when we are forced to move at a different tempo to that which we choose to, which is a pretty radical psychological theory to prove in under a page…
  •    Related to this, many of his frames of reference are from warfare – so the emotion argument stems from the way in which Shock and Awe is instilled on the battlefield. There is a vast emotion literature that just doesn’t map to this, and it seems unnecessary to borrow this one on fairly flimsy grounds.

In a sense, I feel like he is hoist by his own petard. He doesn’t consider that his warfare research may be examples of conceptual cheap tricks – that emotion is driven by tempo, but only in the local conditions of the battlefield.

It would have been better to have dropped the unifying theme of Tempo and been cut up into three or four semi-related topics, as a kind of blog-book; or it could have been really finely edited and developed to have a tighter, credible theme. The tempo ideas are interesting food for thought, but as it stood it didn’t naturally unify the content, so it tempted Rao to bend things to fit it into place.

Since then I read Refactor your Wetware by Andy Hunt. It had fewer things that were wholly new to me (mix of GTD, neuroscience, and social psychology findings) but was integrated really well, I’d much rather go for Hunt. I left that book with half a dozen things to-do, and a bunch of snippets of interesting facts to plug in to things.

Play your best cards… and THEN GET NEW CARDS.

Joss Whedon. Bridging sucks, friends.

I try to tell my grief and it all becomes comic.

Heinrich Heine, 19th Century poet and essayist

The Blue Circus, by Marc Chagall.

Thanks to Michael Brunström for getting me involved in this little art game.

I didn’t know much of Chagall’s work, so I’ve had a nice afternoon checking out some of his astonishing pieces. My favourite is the blue circus.


I’ve always been fascinated by the circus, and this painting captures so much of it: the danger wrapped in smiles, the making acrobatics and animals all-of-a-piece despite how incongruous that would seem outside of the tent, the atmospheric gloom punctuated by light. The bouquet of flowers descends at the same trajectory as the trapeze swinger, so we see that in the circus the act *is* the reaction. And the woman enters into our view by breaking a frame – the rectangle of rope and bar – to be present with us, rather than screened safely away. The circus is spectacle, but it carries a magic that, when we are receptive to it, can be carried with us.

Chagall says ‘For me a circus is a magic show that appears and disappears like a world.’ This makes me think of the great magician Magnus Eisengrim in the Deptford Trilogy, raised in a travelling ‘World of Wonders’:

‘It’s just the way things strike me, after the life I’ve lived, which looks pretty much like a World of Wonders when I spread it out before me, as I’ve been doing, Everything has its astonishing, wondrous aspect, if you bring a mind to it that’s really your own – a mind that hasn’t been smeared and blurred with half-understood muck from schools, or the daily papers, or any other ragbag of reach-me-down- notions’.

About the whole "the internet killed the underground” thing: no, it didn’t. What killed the underground was popularity. Whenever something becomes popular, people surge in and use it for their own purposes. As was written on the Nuclear War Now! Productions forum: “Trues use their social lives to empower the music. Falses use the music to empower their social lives.” It’s that simple. When something becomes popular because it’s rebellious, the herd shows up to take part and use that “authenticity” like currency for their own needs. That adulterates what is and it becomes obliterated (although good people like Alan Moses and Andres Padilla keep the tradition alive! Heroes, if you ask me). The only solution is to rediscover the spirit of the past and apply it in any direction possible. You cannot imitate it from the outside-in; it must be from the inside-out. If this reeks of occultism to you, it should. This is esotericism, and it is the guiding philosophy of humankind anywhere that popularity has not already obliterated truth.“

Attributed to one Brett Stevens, about metal: – quoted by James Raggi

Thoughts on genre


Western stories aren’t about big hats and chewing tobaccy and slurring. Improv Western scenes often are! And that’s fine, you can have a beautiful scene playing around as cowboys, sending the genre up or, to my preference, sending ourselves up and revelling in the joy of clowning around with a bunch of scene-toys. But it won’t be a Western story so much as a Tribute to, Pastiche of, or Playing About in the Western genre. This post concerns my thoughts on improvised stories in a genre.

Learning genre well involves getting into the guts of what makes that kind of story stick. I believe it’s better to focus on the audience’s experience than the workings of the story itself, which is why I say ‘make it stick’ rather than ‘make it work.’

Noir stories stick with me when they show the consequences of good people making bad choices and how people can be swept up by forces bigger than them. In contrast, adapting something in our given reality and exploring the human condition is how a sci fi story sticks with me. And a Western sticks with me when it shows compromise and hard decisions, underpinned with an examination of honour and how much it is actually worth. (It’s often, but not exclusively, also an examination of masculinity.)
You will probably find that some of the things that make science fiction, noir or westerns stick with you are different to what makes them stick with me. Great. This isn’t prescriptive. If you play with a group you will need to hone in on what resonates for all of you, but your Zombie Survival show may – should – have very different priorities than the one playing down the road.

There are also efficiency benefits of learning genre; Katherine Weaver (of Impro Melbourne) spent some time in her Supernatural workshop on honing investigation scenes so they aren’t boring and expositional. Essentially, there are some ‘necessary’ parts of a genre that easy to deliver in a cliche’d or boring way, so why not delve into how to keep these engaging?

For me? I don’t have a yen to do a show within a genre, but I see the value of soaking some genre instincts into these improv bones. In improv, we can go anywhere – any story is possible. But in practice, human beings are heavily bounded in how we think, behave and react. Without knowing it, we’re playing a genre, except it has no name and so we can’t even see that we’re within its limits. Worse, these limits might not even be our own, but inherited from the first ten improv shows we saw, which were inherited from the first shows they saw…

Genre is good because it dictates a specific sensibility for your scenes, your shows. What does it feel like when your ‘mean’ character doesn’t come good at the end of the show, but remains a prick? What does it do for the story, and what does it feel like for you? Difficult? Then it’s worth doing some more, until that choice feels as effortless as any other. Developing human freedom (as Luke was talking about recently)…

That said, at the moment when I start an improv show I want anything to be possible that night. And it’s true that imposing genre gives you rails of a sort. Isn’t there a risk of settling into the rhythm of the genre, and starting to switch off?

It’s possible, I guess. But why not keep moving: learn a genre well, then try something else, as acclaimed Austin group Parallelographophonograph do?

At its best, genre gives you a shared language, and through that a freedom to treat offers differently. You understand that when your partner sighs and says “Jebediah, I loved those horses as much as you did but that fire was 5 years ago” this sentence offers an invitation into a certain kind of territory, of longing and not letting go of the past, exemplified in the Southern romance genre (maybe? Not my genre).

This is the internal promise between players. This is the moment where you and your partner lock eyes and say “ok we’re not going to ignore this, but neither are we going to resolve it just now. This is the thing we can return to in fifteen minutes and boy the weight it will have”.

The marvellous thing, of course, is that this is a Schrodinger’s moment, where multiple possibilities are alive or not-alive. You can look at your partner and say ‘Deke, though, the thing of it is, this newspaper report… it’s the exact same way our stables burned. The exact same way.’ Now we’re in conspiracy, and that’s cool too. It’s a kind of semiotic dance, where each offer is a sign that can elicit many signifiers. Genre gives us some scaffolding, so when we decide to go for one, we understand some of the avenues it opens up (mining themes of isolation and human frustration, or themes of secrets and terrible acts justified), and can play down those avenues for a while, rather than thrashing about in our heads worrying about plot. The less time we spend worrying about plot, the better.

So, genre.

A sensitivity to certain kinds of impressions we can leave on the audience.

A way to coordinate between players especially in a longer piece, so bits of resonant platform can be named and then put aside as potent features to return to.

A way to make every signifier rich: taking one option rather than another presents tons of possibilities, in-tune with one another, rather than a ‘shit, how do I solve this’ conundrum.

And, finally, a choice: we’re playing in a Southern romance until we’re not, until something is there that we want to follow instead, and suddenly we’re in the mad head of one character and it’s Kafka for the last act.