John-Paul Flintoff

The Life Game

Keith Johnstone teaching the balloon game. JPF on far left

Balloon game. Picture by Malcolm Giles

The other day, I found myself giving advice to my younger self – in an improvised scene before an audience in central London.

We were at a week-long workshop run by the great genius of impro, Keith Johnstone (pictured, above, holding balloons). I’d been looking forward to this since having the mind-altering experience of reading Johnstone’s book Impro, nearly two years ago. I’ve since re-read it about five times, and earlier this year I wrote about Johnstone in The Idler. (If you are already familiar with my writing, but had no idea that I was interested in performance, you might want to read that to find out why.)

There are many wonderful aspects of the course I’d like to write about in detail, but won’t (not yet, anyway). They include:

- How Johnstone taught us to give up trying to be clever, in favour of being obvious;

- And to develop stories rather than, out of nervousness and fear, kill them;

- What he taught us about status – how every one of us is giving off high- or low-status signals all the time, and how this insight can be used to enliven any scene;

- The scenes in which we played with a silent mantra running through our heads (try “I love you”, or “I hate you”, for different effects);

- The scene in which a master attempted, not entirely successfully, to control servants sitting on either side of him/her by bashing them with long balloons;

- And, perhaps more than anything else, the way the whole experience brought together a disparate group from all over Europe, turning us from strangers on the first day to people who seemed (to me, anyway) to trust and regard each other as friends by the end.

JPF at Keith Johnstone impro workshop, playing What Comes Next?

Playing “What comes next?” in pairs. Picture by Ole Boisen

But the thing that made the greatest single impression on me was the brief experience we had, on the last day, running through improvised scenes from The Life Game, a show that Johnstone helped Phelim McDermott create a few years ago.

In The Life Game, members of the public share parts of their life story on stage with McDermott and actors who help to recreate key moments. (There’s a Guardian review of it here.)

Onstage for just a few minutes, I shared a tiny slice of my own life with Steve Chapman, who played me, aged 20. He wanted to know if he would ever publish any books, and I was able to reassure him that he would. I told him that he would be OK as a journalist, he could afford to be a lot more confident. Then he wanted to know if he would meet anybody. He seemed really pleased to learn that he would still be with H after all these years, and that we would have a lovely daughter.

I don’t know what the audience made of all this. A couple of people said that it was satisfying to watch [and see comment below]. But I for one found it very stirring. I imagine that others, on stage before larger audiences, and for a longer period of time, in McDermott’s show must have found it incredible.

Walking offstage, I felt astonished by how closely the experience resembled the human-interest journalism I’ve done so much of over the years as a interviewer. (Stories such as this, or this.) But what stuck in my mind was the great advantage the Life Game has over journalism – the person sharing their story has vastly more control over the final outcome.

What fun it would be if I could find a way to combine journalism with the Life Game…

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