- Keith Johnstone’s “Circle of Probability”: A Concept for Creating Stories That Engage Audiences
Legendary director Peter Brook advised audiences: “Each time you go to the theatre and you are bored, not to hide it, not to believe that you are the guilty party, that it is your fault. . . . Ask yourself the question: ‘Is there something missing in me or in the show?’” (1995, 67). The communion between actor and spectator is what makes theatre alive and distinct; it is a bond that must be considered during each phase of the theatrical process, from the acting classroom to the professional stage. In his influential book The Empty Space, Brook proposed improvisation in actor training as one way to create a living theatre and to evade deadly theatre, or what fellow British theatre practitioner Keith Johnstone calls “necrophilia theatre” or “theatre of taxidermy.” Johnstone has spent a lifetime developing improvisational theatre methods designed to generate genuine and spontaneous behavior and stories motivated by one’s immediate environment, the playing space, the other players, and the audience.
Johnstone imagines the audience to be “a large, intelligent beast that needs to be tickled.”1 Undoubtedly Brook would deviate from this description, but he would concur with Johnstone on the need for immediate theatre that does not put the “beast” to sleep. On the seven occasions I have studied with Johnstone, the audience factored into every game played and every discussion that followed.2 He recommends that students be conscious of audience reaction in the theatre—“notice when people cross their legs or unwrap chocolates or go dead still” (“800 Words of Advice”)—and if the audience does indeed go dead still—that is, if the performance fails to entertain—then Johnstone says that players must ask if trying to be “original,” “clever,” or, even worse, “funny” interrupted the flow of the scene or took it outside of the audience’s “circle of probability.”3
According to Johnstone, it is the improviser’s job and that of any artist to bring his true self, which is his imaginative self, to the task of creating stories that have the potential to take the audience on a transformative journey (1981, 111). The spectator’s imagination usually remains within a circle of probability; they create a shadow story alongside the plot developing onstage, and when there is a close connection between the two, the spectator is more likely to be dynamically engaged (1999, 79). Staying within the circle of probability does not mean pandering to the audience; it is rather a structural concept intended to move a story along according to the logic of the imaginary world that has been established. It is not a new notion. Aristotle, in his Poetics, declared that artistically superior plots contain events that “come about contrary to one’s expectation yet logically, one following from the other; that way they will be more productive of wonder than if they happen merely at random, by chance—because even among chance occurrences the ones people consider most marvelous are those that seem to have come about as if on purpose” (35).4 Some 2,200 years later, Stanislavski expressed this idea of the “shadow story” to actors at the Moscow Art Theatre when he said: “The audience that watches a play has its own ideas of how the plot will develop, but it cannot be sure until the end” (qtd. in Gorchakov 105).
The circle of probability should not be confused with Stanislavski’s “circles of attention.” In An Actor Prepares, he created an exercise called “circles of attention” to help distracted young actors work the audience in and out of their awareness as needed. He would shine a small circle of light on [End Page 45] a few personal objects for the actor to observe, then slowly expand the circle until the entire stage was illuminated. Although Stanislavski had a profound respect for the role of the audience in the theatrical event and never once said to “forget the audience,” he would direct unfocused actors to “withdraw quickly to a smaller circle which can be contained by your visual attention” (92). Johnstone, on the other hand, is more...