Improvisational theater and the free flow of ideas


I recently was interviewed by Christina Gerakiteys for SingularityU Australia’s podcast series Inspire for Impact in a very enjoyable conversation. You can listen to the half hour episode here: Zen, Improvisation and Collaborative Value.

The premise of the podcast is asking for 5 points of inspiration for impact in my life. I chose to speak about:

  • Shobogenzo, the foundation text of Soto Zen
  • The pivotal impact of open source software
  • Keith Johnstone, the godfather of improvisational theater
  • The belief in the possibility of creating a glorious human future
  • Bondi Innovation and the potential of local talent communities

Below is a transcript of what I shared about Keith Johnston and improvisional theater. His work has been a central influence in my life and how I see the world. In a world that largely teaches us from birth to be highly constrained, we need to learn to free ourselves.

I may share some more from the podcast another time, or if you want more, have a listen to the full episode!

When I was younger I went to a Theatresports show. I loved it, so I went to do some classes. Very soon I was introduced to the book Impro by Keith Johnston, which is one of my few favorite books in the world. He was seminal, in that he really invented improvisational theater. Though the movement has since gone in many directions, it’s the ultimate foundation of the thinking.

His book is a marvel in terms of laying out the fundamental beliefs. One of them, which many others have expressed in other ways, is that school or education is a way of destroying our inbuilt creativity, building restraints around how we think.

As he puts it, an adult is not a developed child, a child is not an undeveloped adult, but an adult is an atrophied child.

So we need to come back to that ability to let ourselves out. Ourselves and the society around us starts to put these barriers to ask, ‘should I say that?’, ‘should I do that?’ ‘how do I want to be seen?’ As opposed to improvisation which is all about coming back to letting yourself out completely, immediately, without censorship, without barriers. That is the way to be able to find yourself.

So many people are so constrained in how they interact with the world. Whereas improvisational theater is just a way to get back, to take away all those barriers. One of the fundamental precepts of improvisational theater is that you never say No or But, it’s always Yes and it’s always And. You’re always adding, you’re always taking what you’ve got and building on it.

This actually ties in very much to open source, which is about adding. It also comes back to Zen, in the sense that this is about you, who you are. In fact if you’re truly getting into a state of being able to improvise theater, you are discovering who you are. You’re taking away the barriers to allow yourself to flow, to allow the ideas to come out, to be able to be yourself truly for a moment.

For more inspiration from Keith, watch his TED video: