Impro - by Keith Johnstone

At about the age of nine I decided never to believe anything because it was convenient. I began reversing every statement to see if the opposite was also true. This is so much a habit with me that I hardly notice I'm doing it any more. As soon as you put a 'not' into an assertion, a whole range of other possibilities opens up — especially in drama, where everything is supposition anyway.

People think of good and bad teachers as engaged in the same activity, as if education was a substance, and that bad teachers supply a little of the substance, and good teachers supply a lot. This makes it difficult to understand that education can be a destructive process, and that bad teachers are wrecking talent, and that good and bad teachers are engaged in opposite activities.

I tried to resist my schooling, but I accepted the idea that my intelligence was the most important part of me. I tried to be clever in everything I did. The damage was greatest in areas where my interests and the school's seemed to coincide: in writing, for example (I wrote and rewrote, and lost all my fluency). I forgot that inspiration isn't intellectual, that you don't have to be perfect. In the end I was reluctant to attempt anything for fear of failure, and my first thoughts never seemed good enough. Everything had to be corrected and brought into line.

The spell broke when I was in my early twenties. In one moment I knew that the valuing of men by their intelligence is crazy, that the peasants watching the night sky might feel more than I feel, that the man who dances might be superior to myself — word-bound and unable to dance. From then on I noticed how warped many people of great intelligence are, and I began to value people for their actions, rather than their thoughts.

When I considered the difference between myself, and other people, I thought of myself as a late developer. Most people lose their talent at puberty. I lost mine in my early twenties. I began to think of children not as immature adults, but of adults as atrophied children. But when I said this to educationalists, they became angry.

My bias against discussion is something I've learned to see as very English. I've known political theatre groups in Europe which would readily cancel a rehearsal, but never a discussion. My feeling is that the best argument may be a testimony to the skill of the presenter, rather than to the excellence of the solution advocated. Also the bulk of discussion time is visibly taken up with transactions of status which have nothing to do with the problem to be solved. My attitude is like Edison's, who found a solvent for rubber by putting bits of rubber in every solution he could think of, and beat all those scientists who were approaching the problem theoretically.


'Try to get your status just a little above or below your partner's,' I said, and I insisted that the gap should be minimal. The actors seemed to know exactly what I meant and the work was transformed. The scenes became 'authentic', and actors seemed marvellously observant. Suddenly we understood that every inflection and movement implies a status, and that no action is due to chance, or really 'motiveless'. It was hysterically funny, but at the same time very alarming. All our secret manoeuvrings were exposed. If someone asked a question we didn't bother to answer it, we concentrated on why it had been asked. No one could make an 'innocuous' remark without everyone instantly grasping what lay behind it. Normally we are 'forbidden' to see status transactions except when there's a conflict. In reality status transactions continue all the time.

Status is a confusing term unless it's understood as something one does. You may be low in social status, but play high, and vice versa. I should really talk about dominance and submission, but I'd create a resistance. Students who will agree readily to raising or lowering their status may object if asked to 'dominate' or 'submit'. Status seems to me to be a useful term, providing the difference between the status you are and the status you play is understood.

As soon as I introduced the status work at the Studio, we found that people will play one status while convinced that they are playing the opposite. This obviously makes for very bad social 'meshing' and many of us had to revise our whole idea of ourselves. In my own case I was astounded to find that when I thought I was being friendly, I was actually being hostile! If someone had said 'I like your play', I would have said 'Oh, it's not up to much', perceiving myself as 'charmingly modest'. In reality I would have been implying that my admirer had bad taste. I experience the opposite situation when people come up, looking friendly and supportive, and say, 'We did enjoy the end of Act One', leaving me to wonder what was wrong with the rest.

If status can't even be got rid of, then what happens between friends? Many people will maintain that we don't play status transactions with our friends, and yet every movement, every inflection of the voice implies a status. My answer is that acquaintances become friends when they agree to play status games together. If I take an acquaintance an early morning cup of tea I might say 'Did you have a good night?' or something equally 'neutral', the status being established by voice and posture and eye contact and so on. If I take a cup of tea to a friend then I may say 'Get up, you old cow', or 'Your Highness's tea', pretending to raise or lower status. Once students understand that they already play status games with their friends, then they realise that they already know most of the status games I'm trying to teach them.

We soon discovered the 'see-saw' principle: 'I go up and you go down'. If I'm trying to lower my end of the see-saw, and my mind blocks, I can always switch to raising the other end. That is, I can achieve a similar effect by saying 'I smell beautiful' as 'You stink'. I therefore teach actors to switch between raising themselves and lowering their partners in alternate sentences; and vice versa.

Most comedy works on the see-saw principle. A comedian is someone paid to lower his own or other people's status. I remember some of Ken Dodd's patter which went something like this: 'I got up this morning and had my bath ... standing up in the sink .. .' (Laugh from audience.) '... and then I lay down to dry off on the drainingboard ...' (Laughter.) '... and then my father came in and said "Who skinned this rabbit?".' (Laughter.) While he describes himself in this pathetic way he leaps about, and expresses manic happiness, thus absolving the audience of the need to pity him. We want people to be very low-status, but we don't want to feel sympathy for them. Slaves are always supposed to sing at their work.

Tragedy is obviously related to sacrifice. Two things strike me about reports of sacrifices: one is that the crowd get more and more tense, and then are relaxed and happy at the moment of death; the other is that the victim is raised in status before being sacrificed. The best goat is chosen, and it's groomed, and magnificently decorated. A human sacrifice might be pampered for months, and then dressed in fine clothes, and rehearsed in his role at the centre of the great ceremony. Elements of this can be seen in the Christ story (the robe, the crown of thorns, and even the eating of the 'body'). A sacrifice has to be endowed with high status or the magic doesn't work.

Teaching Status

I ask a group to mill about and say 'hallo' to each other. They feel very awkward, because the situation isn't real. They don't know what status they should be playing. I then get some of the group to hold all eye contacts for a couple of seconds, while the others try to make and then break eye contacts and then immediately glance back for a moment. The group suddenly looks more like a 'real' group, in that some people become dominant, and others submissive. Those who hold eye contacts report that they feel powerful-and actually look powerful. Those who break eye contact and glance back 'feel' feeble, and look it. The students like doing this, and are interested, and puzzled by the strength of the sensations.

Actors needing authority-tragic heroes and so on have to learn this still head trick. You can talk and waggle your head about if you play the gravedigger, but not if you play Hamlet. Officers are trained not to move the head while issuing commands.

Here are some notes made by students who had just been introduced to status work:

'The most interesting revelation to me was that every time I spoke to someone I could tell if I felt submissive or the opposite. I then tried to play status games in secret with people I knew. Some people I thought I knew very well I wouldn't dare try it with. Other relatively new friends were easy to play status games with.'

'Sense of domination when I hold eye contact. Almost a pride in being able to look at someone else and have them look away. Looking away and back-felt persecuted. As if everyone was trying to crush me underfoot'

If you can get the students to insult each other playfully, then the status work will become easier. Playing scenes with custard pies might be equally liberating, but I've never had the opportunity. Once you can accept being insulted (the insult is the verbal equivalent of the custard pie), then you experience a great elation. The most rigid, self-conscious, and defensive people suddenly unbend.

It's no good just asking the students to insult each other. It's too personal. The actor or improviser must accept his disabilities, and allow himself to be insulted, or he'll never really feel safe. My solution is to remove all responsibility for the choice of insult from the person doing the insulting.

If you wish to teach status interactions, it's necessary to understand that however willing the student is consciously, there may be very strong subconscious resistances. It's no use just giving the exercises and expecting them to work. You have to understand where the resistance is, and devise ways of getting it to crumble.

Some problems: there are students who will report no change of sensation when they alter their eye-contact patterns. If you observe them closely you'll see that the ones who always play low status in life won't ever hold eye contact long enough to feel dominant. When highstatus specialists break eye contact and glance back, they'll be holding the glance back for at least a second, which is too long. You may have to precisely control the length oftime that they look before they experience the change of sensation. Then they'll say, 'But it feels wrong.' This feeling of wrongness is the one they have to learn as being correct.


If I stand two students face to face and about a foot apart they're likely to feel a strong desire to change their body position. If they don't move they'll begin to feel love or hate as their 'space' streams into each other. To prevent these feelings they'll modify their positions until their space flows out relatively unhindered, or they'll move back so that the force isn't so powerful. High-status players (like high-status seagulls) will allow their space to flow into other people. Low-status players will avoid letting their space flow into other people. Kneeling, bowing and prostrating oneself are all ritualised low-status ways of shutting off your space. If we wish to humiliate and degrade a low-status person we attack him while refusing to let him switch his space off. A sergeant-major will stand a recruit to attention and then scream at his face from about an inch away. Crucifixion exploits this effect, which is why it's such a powerful symbol as compared to, say, boiling someone in oil.


Many teachers think of children as immature adults. It might lead to better and more 'respectful' teaching, if we thought of adults as atrophied children. Many 'well adjusted' adults are bitter, uncreative frightened, unimaginative, and rather hostile people. Instead of assuming they were born that way, or that that's what being an adult entails, we might consider them as people damaged by their education and upbringing.

We have an idea that art is self-expression-which historically is weird. An artist used to be seen as a medium through which something else operated. He was a servant of the God. Maybe a mask-maker would have fasted and prayed for a week before he had a vision of the Mask he was to carve, because no one wanted to see his Mask, they wanted to see the God's. When Eskimos believed that each piece of bone only had one shape inside it, then the artist didn't have to 'think up' an idea. He had to wait until he knew what was in there-and this is crucial.

I now feel that imagining should be as effortless as perceiving. It's only when I believe my perceptions to be in error that I have to 'do' anything. It's the same with imagination. Imagination is as effortless as perception, unless we think it might be 'wrong', which is what our education encourages us to believe. Then we experience ourselves as 'imagining', as 'thinking up an idea', but what we're really doing is faking up the sort of imagination we think we ought to have.

If an improviser is stuck for an idea, he shouldn't search for one, he should trigger his partner's ability to give 'unthought' answers. If someone starts a scene by saying 'What are you doing here?' then his partner can instantly say, without thinking, 'I just came down to get the milk, Sir.' 'Didn't I tell you what I'd do if I caught you again?' 'Oh Sir, don't put me in the refrigerator, Sir.' If you don't know what to do in a scene, just say something like, 'Oh my God! What's that?' This immediately jerks images into your partner's mind: 'Mother!' he says, or 'That dog's messed the floor again', or 'A secret staircase' or whatever.

I'm not saying that fear of obscenity is the most important factor in making people reject the first ideas that come to them, but it does help though, if improvisation teachers are not puritanical, and can allow the students to behave as they want to behave. The best situation is one in which the class is seen as a party, rather than a formal teacher-pupil set-up. If it isn't possible to let students speak and act with the same freedom they have outside the school, then it might be better not to teach them drama at all. The most repressed, and damaged, and 'unteachable' students that I have to deal with are those who were the star performers at bad high schools. Instead of learning how to be warm and spontaneous and giving, they've become armoured and superficial, calculating and self-obsessed. I could show you many many examples where education has clearly been a destructive process. My feeling isn't that the group should be 'obscene', but that they should be aware of the ideas that are occurring to them. I don't want them to go rigid and blank out, but to laugh, and say 'I'm not saying that' or whatever.


Many students block their imaginations because they're afraid of being unoriginal. They believe they know exactly what originality is, just as critics are always sure they can recognise things that are avant-garde.

The improviser has to realise that the more obvious he is, the more original he appears. I constantly point out how much the audience like someone who is direct, and how they always laugh with pleasure at a really 'obvious' idea. Ordinary people asked to improvise will search for some 'original' idea because they want to be thought clever. They'll say and do all sorts of inappropriate things.

An artist who is inspired is being obvious. He's not making any decisions, he's not weighing one idea against another. He's accepting his first thoughts.

There are people who prefer to say 'Yes', and there are people who prefer to say 'No'. Those who say 'Yes' are rewarded by the adventures they have, and those who say 'No' are rewarded by the safety they attain. There are far more 'No' sayers around than 'Yes' sayers, but you can train one type to behave like the other. 'Your name Smith?' 'No.' 'Oh ... are you Brown, then?' 'Sorry.' 'Well, have you seen either of them?' 'I'm afraid not.' Whatever the questioner had in mind has now been demolished and he feels fed up. The actors are in total conflict. Had the answer been 'Yes', then the feeling would have been completely different. 'Your name Smith?' 'Yes.' 'You're the one who's been mucking about with my wife then?' 'Very probably.' 'Take that, you swine.' 'Augh!' Fred Karno understood this. When he interviewed aspiring actors he'd poke his pen into an empty inkwell and pretend to flick ink at them. If they mimed being hit in the eye, or whatever, he'd engage them. Ifthey looked baffled, and 'blocked' him, then he wouldn't. There is a link with status transactions here, since low-status players tend to accept, and high-status players to block. High-status players will block any action unless they feel they can control it. The high-status player is obviously afraid of being humiliated in front of an audience, but to block your partner's ideas is to be like the drowning man who drags down his rescuer. There's no reason why you can't play high status, and yet yield to other people's invention. 'Is your name Smith?' 'And what if it is?' 'You've been making indecent suggestions to my wife.' 'I don't consider them indecent.'

Blocking and Accepting

Blocking is a form of aggression. I say this because if I set up a scene in which two students are to say 'I love you' to each other, they almost always accept each other's ideas. Many students do their first interesting, unforced improvisations during 'I love you' scenes. If I say 'start something' to two inexperienced improvisers, they'll probably talk, because speech feels safer than action. And they'll block any possibility of action developing. 'Hallo, how are you.' 'Oh, same as usual. Nice day, isn't it.' 'Oh I don't think so.' If one actor yawns his partner will probably say 'I do feel fit today.' Each actor tends to resist the invention of the other actor, playing for time, until he can think up a 'good' idea, and then he'll try to make his partner follow it. The motto of scared improvisers is 'when in doubt, say "NO".' We use this in life as a way of blocking action. Then we go to the theatre, and at all points where we would say 'No' in life, we want to see the actors yield, and say 'Yes'. Then the action we would suppress if it happened in life begins to develop on the stage.

In life, most of us are highly skilled at suppressing action. All the improvisation teacher has to do is to reverse this skill and he creates very 'gifted' improvisers. Bad improvisers block action, often with a high degree of skill. Good improvisers develop action: 'Sit down, Smith.' 'Thank you, Sir.' 'It's about the wife, Smith.' 'She told you about it has she, Sir?' 'Yes, yes, she's made a clean breast of it.' Neither actor is quite sure what the scene is about but he's willing to play along, and see what emerges.

I call anything that an actor does an 'offer'. Each offer can either be accepted, or blocked. If you yawn, your partner can yawn too, and therefore accept your offer. A block is anything that prevents the action from developing, or that wipes out your partner's premise. If it develops the action it isn't a block. Scenes spontaneously generate themselves if both actors offer and accept alternately.

Good improvisers seem telepathic; everything looks prearranged. This is because they accept all offers made-which is something no 'normal' person would do. Also they may accept offers which weren't really intended. 1 tell my actors never to think up an offer, but instead to assume that one has already been made. Groucho Marx understood this: a contestant at his quiz game 'froze' so he took the man's pulse and said, 'Either this man's dead or my watch has stopped.' If you notice that you are shorter than your partner you can say 'Simpkins! Didn't I forbid you ever to be taller than me?'-which can lead on to a scene in which the servant plays on all fours, or a scene in which the master is starting to shrink, or a scene in which the servant has been replaced by his elder brother, or whatever. If your partner is sweating, fan yourself. If he yawns, say 'Late, isn't it?'

Once you learn to accept offers, then accidents can no longer interrupt the action. When someone's chair collapsed Stanislavsky berated him for not continuing, for not apologising to the character whose house he was in. This attitude makes for something really amazing in the theatre. The actor who will accept anything that happens seems supernatural; it's the most marvellous thing about improvisation: you are suddenly in contact with people who are unbounded, whose imagination seems to function without limit. By analysing everything into blocks and acceptances, the students get insight into the forces that shape the scenes, and they understand why certain people seem difficult to work with. These 'offer-block-accept' games have a use quite apart from actor training. People with dull lives often think that their lives are dull by chance. In reality everyone chooses more or less what kind of events will happen to them by their conscious patterns of blocking and yielding.

'Blind Offers': An inexperienced improviser gets annoyed because his partners misunderstand him. He holds out his hand to see if it's raining, and his partner shakes it and says 'Pleased to meet you.' 'What an idiot', thinks the first actor, and begins to sulk. When you make a blind offer, you have no intention to communicate at all. Your partner accepts the offer, and you say 'Thank you.' Then he makes an intentionless gesture, and you accept that, and he says 'Thank you' and so on. A strikes a pose. B photographs him. A says 'Thank you.' B stands on one leg, and bends the other. A straddles the bent leg and 'nails a horseshoe on it'. B thanks him and lies on the ground. A mimes shovelling earth over him. B thanks him... And so on. Don't underestimate the value of this game. It's a way of interacting that the audience love to see. They will watch fascinated, and every time someone says 'Thank you', they laugh! It's best to offer a gesture which moves away from the body. When you've made a gesture, you then freeze in the position until your partner reacts. Once the basic technique has been mastered, the next step is to get the actors to play the game while discussing some quite different subject. 'A touch of autumn in the air today, James,' says A, stretching his hand out. 'Yes, it is a little brisk,' says B, peeling a glove off A's hand. B then lies on the floor. 'Is the Mistress at home?' says A, wiping his feet on B... and so on. The effect is startling, because each actor seems to have a telepathic understanding of the other's intentions.

Reading about spontaneity won't make you more spontaneous, but it may at least stop you heading off in the opposite direction; and if you play the exercises with your friends in a good spirit, then soon all your thinking will be transformed. Rousseau began an essay on education by saying that if we did the opposite of what our own teachers did we'd be on the right track, and this still holds good. The stages I try to take students through involve the realisation (1) that we struggle against our imaginations, especially when we try to be imaginative; (2) that we are not responsible for the content of our imaginations; and (3) that we are not, as we are taught to think, our 'personalities', but that the imagination is our true self.

The term 'naysayers' and its opposite, 'yeasayers', come from a paper by Arthur Couch and Kenneth Kenison, who were investigating the tendency of people answering questionnaires to be generally affirmative, or generally negative in attitude. They wrote in Freudian terms: 'We have arrived at a fairly consistent picture of the variables that differentiate yeasayers from naysayers. Yeasayers seem to be "id-dominated" personalities, with little concern about or positive evaluation of an integrated control of their impulses. They say they express themselves freely and quickly. Their "psychological inertia" is very low, that is, very few secondary processes intervene as a screen between underlying wish and overt behavioural response. The yeasayers desire and actively search for emotional excitement in their environment. Novelty, movement, change, adventure-these provide the external stimuli for their emotionalism. They see the world as a stage where the main theme is 'acting out' libidinal desires. In the same way, they seek and respond quickly to internal stimuli: their inner impulses are allowed ready expression... the yeasayer's general attitude is one of stimulus acceptance, by which we mean a pervasive readiness to respond affirmatively or yield willingly to both outer and inner forces demanding expression.' The "disagreeing" naysayers have the opposite orientation. For them, impulses are seen as forces requiring control, and perhaps in some sense as threats to general personality stability. The naysayer wants to maintain inner equilibrium; his secondary processes are extremely impulsive and value maintaining forces. We might describe this as a state of high psychological inertia-impulses undergo a series of delays, censorships, and transformations before they are permitted expression. Both internal and external stimuli that demand response are carefully scrutinised and evaluated: these forces appear as unwelcome intruders into a subjective world of "classical" balance. Thus, as opposed to the yeasayers, the naysayers' general attitude is one of stimulus rejection - a pervasive unwillingness to respond to impulsive or environmental forces.

Narrative Skills

I tell improvisers to follow the rules and see what happens, and not to feel in any way responsible for the material that emerges. If you improvise spontaneously in front of an audience you have to accept that your innermost self will be revealed. The same is true of any artist. If you want to write a 'working-class play' then you'd better be working class. If you want your play to be religious, then be religious. An artist has to accept what his imagination gives him, or screw up his talent.

The improviser has to be like a man walking backwards. He sees where he has been, but he pays no attention to the future. His story can take him anywhere, but he must still 'balance' it, and give it shape, by remembering incidents that have been shelved and reincorporating them. Very often an audience will applaud when earlier material is brought back into the story. They couldn't tell you why they applaud, but the reincorporation does give them pleasure. Sometimes they even cheer! They admire the improviser's grasp, since he not only generates new material, but remembers and makes use of earlier events that the audience itself may have temporarily forgotten.

One way to bypass the censor who holds our spontaneity in check is to distract him, or overload him. I might ask someone to write out a paragraph on paper (without premeditation) while counting backwards aloud from a hundred. I'll try it now as I'm typing: 'Extra. I fall through the first storey of the car park. The driver throughout the night thought the soft concrete slit his genitals thoughtfully. Nurse Grimshaw fell further...' I got to sixty until I felt my brain was going to explode. It's like trying to write after a severe concussion. Try it. It's very surprising to see what something in you 'wants' to write when it gets the chance.

One way to trigger off narrative material is to put the students in groups of three, and have them invent a name for a character, and see if they can agree on what he's like. For example: 'Betty Plum.' 'Big breasts.' 'Yes. A barmaid.' 'Er...' 'Well, she has worked as a barmaid...' 'Yes.' 'Lives in a room with blue curtains.' 'A stuffed toy dog on the dresser...' 'Which she keeps her nightdress in.' 'Nylon.' The group continue until they know who she lives with, her taste in music, her secret ambition, the sorrow in her life, etc. The important thing is that the students should really agree, they shouldn't just make compromises. As soon as one person disagrees they wipe the character out, and start on another. Soon they learn to develop a character much further, and in a way that satisfies all of them. 'George Honeywell-keeps bees-smokes a pipe-married-was married-in love with the daughter of the tobacconist-wears a soft cap--he's a voyeur-likes dogs .. .' And so on.

An improviser can study status transactions, and advancing, and 'reincorporating', and can learn to free-associate, and to generate narrative spontaneously, and yet still find it difficult to compose stories. This is really for aesthetic reasons, or conceptual reasons. He shouldn't really think of making up stories, but of interrupting routines. If I say 'Make up a story', then most people are paralysed. If I say 'describe a routine and then interrupt it', people see no problem.

As a story progresses it begins to establish other routines and these in their turn have to be broken. It doesn't matter how stupidly you interrupt a routine, you will be automatically creating a narrative, and people will listen.

Many students dry up at the moment they realise that the routine they're describing is nearing its completion. They absolutely understand that a routine needs to be broken, or they wouldn't feel so unimaginative. Their problem is that they haven't realised what's wrong consciously. Once they understand the concept of 'interrupting routines', then they aren't stuck for ideas any more. There's nothing very profound about such stories, and they don't require much imagination, but people are very happy to watch them. The rules are: (I) interrupt a routine; (2) keep the action onstage - don't get diverted on to an action that has happened elsewhere, or at some other time; (3) don't cancel the story.

You have to trick students into believing that content isn't important and that it looks after itself, or they never get anywhere. It's the same kind of trick you use when you tell them that they are not their imaginations, that their imaginations have nothing to do with them, and that they're in no way responsible for what their 'mind' gives them. In the end they learn how to abandon control while at the same time they exercise control. They begin to understand that everything is just a shell. You have to misdirect people to absolve them of responsibility. Then, much later, they become strong enough to resume the responsibility themselves. By that time they have a more truthful concept of what they are.

Masks and Trance

It's true that an actor can wear a Mask casually, and just pretend to be another person, but Gaskill and myself were absolutely clear that we were trying to induce trance states. The reason why one automatically talks and writes of Masks with a capital 'M' is that one really feels that the genuine Mask actor is inhabited by a spirit.

We don't know much about Masks in this culture, partly because the church sees the Mask as pagan, and tries to suppress it wherever it has the power (the Vatican has a museum full of Masks confiscated from the 'natives'), but also because this culture is usually hostile to trance states. We distrust spontaneity, and try to replace it by reason: the Mask was driven out of theatre in the same way that improvisation was driven out of music. Shakers have stopped shaking. Quakers don't quake any more. Hypnotised people used to stagger about, and tremble. Victorian mediums used to rampage about the room. Education itself might be seen as primarily an anti-trance activity.

I see the 'personality' as a public-relations department for the real mind, which remains unknown. My personality always seems to be functioning, at some level, in terms of what other people think. If I am alone in a room and someone knocks on the door, then I 'come back to myself'. I do this in order to check up that my social image is presentable: are my flies done up? Is my social face properly assembled? If someone enters, and I decide that I don't have to guard myself, then I can get 'lost in the conversation'. Normal consciousness is related to transactions, real or imagined, with other people. That's how I experience it, and I note widespread reports of people in isolation, or totally rejected by other people, who experience 'personality disintegration'. When you're worried about what other people might think, the personality is always present. In life-or-death situations something else takes over. A friend scalded himself and his mind split immediately into two parts, one of which was a child screaming with pain, while the other was cold and detached and told him exactly what to do (he was alone at the time). If a cobra dropped out of the air vent into the middle of an acting class, the students might find themselves on the piano, or outside the door, with no memory of how they got there. In extremity the body takes over for us, pushing the personality aside as an unnecessary encumbrance.

If you lie down and make your body relax, going through it from feet to head, and loosening any points of tension that you find, then you easily float away into fantasy. The substance and shape of your body seem to change. You feel as if the air is breathing you, rather than you breathing the air, and the rhythm is slow and smooth like a great tide. It's very easy to lose yourself, but if you feel the presence of a hostile person in the room you break this trance, seizing hold of the musculature, and becoming 'yourself' once more.

Once you understand that you're no longer held responsible for your actions, then there's no need to maintain a 'personality'. Student improvisers asked to pretend to be hypnotised, show a sudden improvement. Students asked to pretend to be hypnotists show no such improvement.

Crowds are trance-inducing because the anonymity imposed by the crowd absolves you of the need to maintain your identity.

Researchers who have studied possession cults report that it is the better adjusted citizens who are most likely to become possessed. Many people regard 'trance' as a sign of madness, just as they presume that 'madmen' must be easy to hypnotise. The truth is that if madmen were capable of being under 'social control' they would never have revealed the behaviour that categorised them as insane. It's a tautology to say that normal people are the most suggestible, since it's because they're the most suggestible that they're the most normal!