Chapter 7

Applied Improvisation Work


The ‘who/where/what’ exercises stem primarily from the work of the American teacher of improvisation Viola Spolin.1 Keith Johnstone finds this technique unhelpful,2 but this is because his aims are different. We have found this approach most useful in the creation of a consistent piece. It concentrates the attention, and removes distractions, without limiting creativity. It gives the actor something to start with, and to build upon. Given either a ‘who’, a ‘where’ or a ‘what’, the actor can create the other two. Given nothing, the actor can still choose one of these and generate a consistent and coherent piece of improvisation. For example, the ‘who’ might be ‘a farmer’; this suggests the ‘where’ (for example, in a field) and the ‘what’ follows quite naturally (for example, planting potatoes). But the ‘who’ might just as easily be ‘yourself’, in the same field doing the same thing – or some other ‘where’ doing something else. Or the ‘who’ might be the character that one is developing in a formal, scripted play ‑, which can then be examined carefully in another context. The exercise asks that the imagination remain constant to the ‘set’ chosen or specified. If the ‘who’ is a king, the actor has a constant imaginative focus to return to; he must behave consistently like a king (and that, of course, implicitly involves status work too) or he must consciously choose to alter the imaginative set. One problem that the ‘who/where/what’ exercise can overcome is the automatic tendency of any group of inexperienced improvisers to ‘play for laughs’ at inappropriate moments – to make the scene as absurd and laughable as possible.

The reasons for doing this are fourfold. First of all, the actor hasn’t entered fully into the piece, either through not concentrating or not listening to what the other actors have created. Second, it’s a subtle but very aggressive form of ‘blocking’, which rejects the creativity of the other performers (effectively saying ‘NO’ by ironising their work). Third, it’s an easy way out, avoiding the responsibility of having to remain consistent and ‘true’ to the situation. Fourth, it evinces a deep insecurity about this type of work felt by the actor.

This fourth type of response is very common. In a scripted play, the actor has a set of reassurances to rely on: the rehearsal process, the learned moves and gestures, the other actors doing preordained things. Above all, the actor knows where he’s going; he knows what the outcome should be like, and works towards that.

In improvisation the actor doesn’t know where he’s going, and isn’t always comfortable going there. He isn’t at all sure that he doesn’t look very foolish. His defense against this can be to make the scene funny. It disarms criticism and, at the same time, gives the actor the reassurance that those watching accept that what he’s doing works (they laugh). He is reassured by a response, even the wrong response, from the audience or from his peers.

The ‘who/where/what’ discipline helps to remove these anxieties and these blocks. It gives the performer a reassuring and familiar structure within which to operate, and it also insists that the creativity keep within the logical bounds of the initial idea. It’s another way of taking pressure off, without losing genuine spontaneity.

It probably doesn’t suit Keith Johnstone’s freer ‘impro’ work; and its use is therefore limited to specific exercises on plays, or to the creation of sustained and ‘true-to-life’ scenes.

Objectives and resistances Improvisation workshops and rehearsal situations are a great means of teaching the fundamental principles of acting and dramatic theory. A group of students will almost always organically ‘discover’ many of the major theories of acting for themselves, among them the Stanislavskian idea of the ‘want’ or ‘intention’ and how to play it against the conflicting wants of other characters. This playing of ‘objectives and resistances’ can work in some very strange ways, and not only ways connected with Stanislavskian theatre.

For example, an actor wants to pass through a doorway. What might happen if the doorway (played by another actor) chose to resist him ‑ or if he imagined that it did? He would have to talk or fight his way through, or invent a way round or over the obstacle. Whenever a scene is flagging, or lacking in impact, it helps to devise or strengthen a resistance, and make the actors overcome it. This invariably produces new improvisations. The Stanislavskian terminology is very useful, keeping the ‘want’ active by shaping the idea (always using the most active verb possible) and getting the actor to concentrate on physical objectives.

Point of concentration (focus)

Viola Spolin uses the term ‘points of concentration’ (abbreviated to POC) as the focal point of her system. She regards it as the ‘ball’ with which the game is played. It is related to the idea of concentration of attention which we have already discussed, but disciplines the work and enables each exercise ‑ and each moment of performance ‑ to be worked on in isolation with the actor totally given to the moment and to the action being played. Most of her exercises have a specific POC to which the actor can attach himself, enabling the aspects of acting to be separated out and put together afresh (she also provides for evaluation of each exercise and gives the session leader a ‘point of observation’. For example, describing an ‘orientation session’ in which a single actor becomes involved with a large, entangling object, she writes:

POINT OF CONCENTRATION: on the selected object.

EXAMPLES: spider web, boa constrictor, tree branches in forest or jungle, octopus, parachute, man‑eating plant.


Watch the wording when stating the POC to be certain that the player’s concentration is on the object and not on disentangling himself from the object. This is an important Applied Improvisation Work difference and one that comes up continuously throughout the work.3

Spolin’s work is highly systematised and at first may hardly seem to relate to Johnstone’s pure spontaneity of response. But she is concerned with focusing the individual performer very tightly onto the work at all moments during the training in order not only to liberate, but also to channel that spontaneity.