I’ve written a couple of times before about Keith Johnstone, the theatre director who felt that the talented actors he worked with at the Royal Court didn’t look ‘real’ enough to believe.  Through his creative experiments Keith was able to unblock something in the actors that made them appear more alive, more engaging, more human!  In short, he taught them how to better interact.

Keith has been a big influence on my consulting work for some time now so when I had the opportunity to train with him for a week in early September 2012 I was delighted.  They say never to meet your heroes but I’m so glad I did.  Not only was it good to hear the words I’d read so many times carry even more meaning coming ‘live’ from horses mouth but it was good to work with a true master of status, being obvious and being altered – all things that I’ve incorporated into the heart of my consultancy over the last few years.

There was one bit of Keith wisdom that was new to me and I’ve found myself playing with over the last couple of weeks.  It is a distinction he makes between ‘gossip’ and ‘interaction’.  Keith explained that sometimes actors are engaged in a conversation or an activity on stage that, whilst it may be well acted, ends with the characters in the same state as at the beginning of the scene.  In other words, nobody has been altered by the activity.

If you are going to have a battle scene then you really should have the characters be altered by it.  Otherwise there’s no point in having the battleThere is no interaction when nobody is altered.  It is just gossip!”

Keith describes the process of being un-altered by activity as ‘gossip’.  He also, however, points out that gossip is a key safety feature of our human social processes “Gossip oils people so they can slide past each other without grinding up against them.”  Gossip is helpful.  There are many times, walking down the street for example, when we don’t want to fully interact or be altered by every person we come across!

However, there are times in our lives where we actually want a greater level of contact to occur, we actually want some grit or meaning made that alters people.  Keith describes this process as ‘interaction’ – where the actors are altered by each other – they are different at the end of the scene compared to the beginning.  A good practice for getting good at spotting the difference between gossip and interaction is to study newspaper comic strips.  How different are the characters in the last frame compared to the first?  If they’re the same then it is what Keith calls gossip.  If they’re different then interaction has taken place – something or someone has been disturbed and altered.  Which one seems more alive, creative, satisfying and entertaining?

I’ve found this distinction helpful in the group work I do and have started to become more curious and more attuned to the difference between gossip and interaction in the world of business.  How many conversations or group activities finish with the participants in exactly the same start as they started?  How much time, money and effort do organisations invest in change efforts that do little more than generate gossip that maintains the status quo?  Are the people in the final ‘frame’ of the corporate cartoon exactly the same as the first one?

On the other hand, how many meetings or workshops are designed to maximise interaction between the participants in a way that truly alters them?  More interestingly, what individual and organisational tricks and habits are deployed to avoid true interaction and keep things grounded in the much safer world of gossip?  Keith suggests that we are naturally set up to do this  “Our brains are designed to keep us out of trouble and they do this incredibly well.  Dullness is an achievement, a skill we learn.  It takes great intellect to avoid any possibility of interaction.”

Keith taught us different ways of turning gossip into action:  Switch from talking about something to actually doing it there in the moment, switch from talking about an interaction between characters who are off-stage to making it a personal interaction between those on stage.  One of my own adaptations in group work has been to switch conversation from rhetoric/theory/hypothesis to more meaningful, here and now sentences that start with “I feel” or “I need”.

Keith tells a story in his first book Impro about his production meetings at The Royal Court where he barred anyone from talking about stuff that could just as easily be acted out in the moment.  I’m now even more convinced than I was before that this is a pretty good ‘ground rule’ to have to bring more interaction and helpful disturbances into business meetings and avoid the trappings of corporate gossip!


All quotes in this entry are verbatim from Keith’s training – well as verbatim as my handwriting and note-taking skills permit!

Keith’s first two books “Impro” and “Impro for Storytellers” are great ways to get into his thinking.  Both are in stock at your favourite online book seller!