The best improv and writing tool ever

Are you stuck for ideas for your scenes and stories? Want a tool to help you start now, with no thinking required? Want to instantly find a character, activity, situation and sense of urgency?

This might be the tool for you!

In my opinion it is the best improv and writing tool ever.

I found it by accident while improv-swotting for the Wurzburg Improv Festival. I haven’t improvised for a while, so was searching for a way to practice by myself, before I meet other improvisers and ruin their lives.

After reading a wonderful article on improv by Dan Goldstein, I was inspired by the idea of starting scenes with an ATTITUDE, and an ACTIVITY on a SPECIAL DAY.

Then I remembered the fantastic Brainstormer App! Simply input three lists and they will display on three spinning wheels. Spin each wheel and receive a unique random scene-starter!


Here are some of the lists I used:

Mischievous, depressed, angry, jealous, moaning, virtuous, vain, suspicious, confused, elated, drunk, grieving…

Dancing, hiding, tickling, writing, drinking, polishing, practising, copying, stretching, jogging…

Olympic final, anniversary of Hitler’s death, our wedding day, the day I admit I love your brother, your birthday, grandma’s 100th birthday, driving test, the day I get knighted…

So a random combination could be:

…which prompted this scene: the Saudi Arabian team have entered us at short notice into the Diving Finals. We have never dived before! So I put on a video of Tom Daley and we watch and figure out how to dive like a champion!

I tried combination after combination and really enjoyed creating an entrance and first line for the scene it prompted. It also occurred to me how awesome a tool this was for writer’s block or for story generation.

You can make your own categories and lists using the Brainstormer App. If you don’t have a smartphone or iPad, make cards, or simply print your lists, close your eyes and point!

Well happy storytelling, folks!

Let’s see if this simple tool makes us better writers and improvisers : )

Steve Jarand and trance masks

Have you ever wished your creativity could be powerfully expressive, and turned on at the flick of a switch?

Steve Jarand’s mask workshops see untrained performers transformed into
living, breathing characters you feel compelled to watch.

He is carrying on mask work started by improvisation guru Keith Johnstone which goes back to a much older mask tradition. Masks were used by shamans in ancient times in rituals that marked celebrations for the whole tribe. Often, the shaman would be completely transformed when wearing the mask, and he might stay in a trance-like state of heightened euphoria for many hours. This power was believed to be contained within the mask itself, and endowed the wearer with divine energy.

Having been in Steve’s workshops, I can definitely agree that a powerful mask can induce a trance-like state of euphoria in which I do and say things I normally would never dream of. For me, the mask is a wonderful disguise behind which I feel truly safe to express myself. Interestingly I find the masks which turn me on have a flavour of the feminine and vulnerable, a side which perhaps I do not like to show so much in daily life.

The principle of this mask work is simple: you take a half-mask, you clear your mind, you see yourself in the mirror, you shape your mouth to fit the face and make a sound. You keep the sound going and follow Steve’s directions.

But there is more to this than just permission to release your inhibitions. Steve is a professional performer and he uses techniques to develop masks into characters an audience will enjoy watching.

If you connect well with the mask, it will energise you. The sound you make will be strong and clear and organic, and unlike any sound you will ever make in daily life.

Steve will only permit you to stay in the mask for a short while. The aim for him is to keep the experience strong and heartfelt for the mask, without the actor’s intellect imposing upon it. As you work with masks you learn to recognise the difference between when you are operating in a holistic feeling-led way, and when your ego or intellect starts to kick in. You train to “take the mask off” when you start to think.

In this way, the mask collects experiences which are vivid and deeply felt. As a spectator you can often tell whether a mask is operating from senses and feelings or from thought. The masked actor often becomes less believable or not so much fun to watch.

Steve guides your mask through a development process similar to that of children. You first learn to make sound, then you experience moving and using props, then to socialise with other masks and play or draw. In the long term, your mask will learn to talk, find a name, recognise the difference between real and pretend and even become a trainer for other masks.

Not only is Steve a gifted and experienced workshop leader and actor, he is also a great guy. He has a fun but gentle manner, so even if you have never done any kind of performance work before, you are in safe hands. He will support and encourage you. On the other hand, if you happen to be very experienced in improvisation already, he will certainly find ways to stretch your abilities too. The best way to get involved is to try one of his weekend beginner’s workshops.

For me, the experience is both fun and insightful. I am learning to discern when I am operating truthfully and organically from when I am being contrived or intellectual. Ultimately the first takes me to higher levels of expression, while the second is not quite so satisfying.

Can you tell the difference between those two poles in your own work? If you are looking to let your ego subside and find an artistic expression that is larger than you and truly satisfying for both users and participants, you will definitely get a lot out of trance mask techniques.

Keith Johnstone and improvisation

In the fifties in the UK, Keith Johnstone found himself uninspired by the UK school system.  He enjoyed primary school but found secondary school really boring.

Keith in London, 2007

As a young adult he surprisingly became a teacher although he admits he doesn’t know how that happened. However poor his own schooling had been, Johnstone insisted he would make things fun for his pupils, and he believed deeply that everyone could be creative.

He build cardboard tunnels into classrooms, he let his pupils play freely on piano, he typed out the children’s stories while they shouted out the words.

Although other staff and the head didn’t like his approach, he was given a glowing report by the school inspector.

Keith went on to work as a scriptreader at The Royal Court where he began to develop creative ways of telling stories through acting techniques that soon became known as improvisation.

From there, and since the publication of his book ‘Impro’, he has been teaching improvisation classes around the world.

Keith’s exercises encourage actors to play, and create strong dramatic scenes with the audience very much in mind.

His exercises have evolved into performances of improvisation like Theatresports, Micetro and Lifegame. Improvisation theatre can be found in most countries now, popularised by shows like Whose Line Is It Anyway?

Not only are they effective as performance techniques and for creating drama, they are very good for the mind, body and creativity.

To truly be a great improviser you must enter into an open state of mind, you must listen and react to your teammates, you must take risks, suggest new ideas and actions and solve problems, all of which are valuable in everyday life.

When teenagers would ask Keith what they were going to learn in his classes, he would say he could teach them to pick up girls. By allowing the boys to make mistakes in safe roleplay, they would gradually learn what did and didn’t work for romance.

In Johnstone’s improv style, the important thing is storytelling. Being funny isn’t the main point – but often, when a story is truthful and characters are desperate to get out of difficult situations, we find it funny.

I regularly attend improvisation classes and run an improvisation group. I find it’s not only playful, but scary and inspirational. After an impro class I am full of ideas and fun.

So if you want to have a lot of fun and improve your creativity, try taking an improvisation class.