Archive: January 13th, 2009


[General] (01.13.09, 9:16 pm)

In addition to the reading that I’m doing (I need to read on average 5 books/works a week to take my next set of quals by April), there are a few other things on the burner. I want to give a review of these, primarily for keeping track of myself and for my own records.

  1. Finish the conclusion and post the cognition paper.
  2. Finish and post the Pride and Prejudice mechanics analysis.
  3. Revisit the scene analysis from the perspective of symbolic interaction and situation. I did a scene analysis a while back, of one of the arguably more complex and difficult scenes to express procedurally. Revisiting it now, I can see how it would fit in with a situational account of behavior and interaction.
  4. Devise a system to represent situated action within the scope of character simulation. What I really need here is an architecture, but nothing like this has been built before, so I’m flying somewhat blind. I have lots of ideas, and I want to clarify those ideas and I should post the thoughts that I am having as I progress.

Georges Polti: The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations

[Readings] (01.13.09, 6:06 pm)

The ostensible problem being addressed by this work is that there are no new plots in drama. The purpose of the work is not to create new plots, but rather expand the categories of what plots there are, and how they are structured and how they work. The content of this book is not actually about plots as whole objects, but rather it classifies a smaller unit, components of plots, which are situations. The situations are classified into these 36 varieties, but also may be subdivided into classes and sub classes. Together they form a dramatic language for looking at works as wholes. Situations may be chained or combined together in plots. An example given in the preface is that Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind uses two situations: Daring Enterprises (#9), and Obstacles to Love (#28). Polti’s work is an analytic model, which can classify existing works into objects that are well defined within the system. Authors can explore these situations and permute them, exploring the possibilities within the system.

It is important to note that Polti is focusing his analysis on drama, and hence dramatic experience, and thus is less relevant to consideration of “pure” simulation. However it is relevant for examining dramatic structures that come from situations.

Polti presents the 36 situations as integral to the human condition, and asserts that they are universal across cultures. He argues that these thirty six situations illustrate that there must be exactly thirty six emotions.

The actual analysis of situations is remarkable. A situation has a name, a list of participants (elements), and some ritual form for how they interact, forming the basic foundation of the situation itself. There can be several methods by which the interactions take place, and these have symbolic value within the situation. These are fascinating because actors can fill in these roles, and it is possible that when multiple situations are present, the actors may switch between them. The classes and subclasses of situations are presented with dramatic and historical examples. Afterwards, Polti gives a somewhat political analysis of the situation, giving more context, and also providing a discussion of how the situation is used and thought of in contemporary times (meaning in 1916).

It does not seem fruitful to provide a list of the situations, as there are a variety of these lists online: Wikipedia, Changing Minds.

Reading Info:
Author/EditorPolti, Georges
TitleThirty-Six Dramatic Situations
Tagsspecials, media traditions, narrative
LookupGoogle Scholar, Google Books, Amazon

Keith Johnstone: Impro

[Readings] (01.13.09, 1:45 pm)

Keith Johnstone is important because his theory of improvisation, especially as pertains to status and spontaneity is extremely useful as a model for character behavior and interaction. My primary interest in locating his book was to develop a computational system that reflected his use of status. In Johnstone’s introduction, he gives a review of himself and the history behind his theories, which all derive from education. He explains that he particularly found his education to be stifling and suppressing of spontaneity. Impro is about theatrical improvisation, but may also be considered a much broader approach to education.

It is useful to compare spontaneous theatrical performance with educational learning. Performance may be used to describe learning and technical proficiency, and that is normally a very different concept. However, to Johnstone, the two can share a common approach. The reason why both are difficult is because of fear and people’s learned expectations of judgment and the ideas of correctness. These are opposing to childrens’ natural spontaneity, and thus they learn to suppress it. The solution that Johnstone proposes is to teach playfulness, relaxation, and openness, in both education and improvisational theatre.

The idea of closed adulthood also emerged in Papert’s Mindstorms, and Papert approaches the problem of learning in a very similar way. From my perspective, I would like to see this as introducing the concept of spontaneity into models and the relation that people have with models and the world. It seems that in a relaxed state, models are open, flexible, and may be easily exchanged. Improvisation is also deeply relevant to the simulation of storyworlds. Brian Magerko and Ben Medler are exploring the problem of digital improvisation as well.


The problem at the onset is that many performances are unrealistic and unconvincing. This usually happens when the director instructs the actors to enter onto a stage without a context for their actions. The actors are unable to discern motivations for their actions. Most drama is based on characters who have the strongest possible motivations, leading to an overblown theatrical effect. The alternative devised here is to come up with the weakest possible motives for action. Johnstone explains the effect of status in interactions in a revealing way that is reminiscent of Goffman.

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 of 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. (p. 33)

Status is posed as an everyday system and works according to transactions, which leads to kind of a currency and economics of power. Status transactions are symbolically and situationally meaningful, but primarily so in the sense that the status exchange forms a complete system. Interactions take on the form of working to raise or lower oneself or others, in attempts to control and manipulate others. Characters who raise themselves become vulnerable to attack, and this creates an entire system of politics.

Status expectations fit into roles, but also relationships. Interactions all must carry some sort of status exchange, they cannot be neutral. “A further discovery was that there was no way to be neutral. The ‘Good morning’ that might be experienced as lowering by the Manager, might be experienced as raising by the bank clerk.” (p. 37) Status is a currency, to be protected and used to have power over others. Friendly interactions often involve status-games, where transactions are pretend.

Comedy and tragedy both operate from status and work via association (sympathy). Comedy works by lowering the status of an individual who we have no sympathy for, or whose sympathy is removed. This elevates the audience because the audience is put on the other end of the see saw. Because the victim is lowered, the audience is raised. Tragedy operates slightly differently, it is the expulsion of a high status member from the pack. The member was a sympathetic and identifiable character, but then falls, and is removed. The result is still that the audience is raised, albeit in a bittersweet sort of way.

The pack metaphor is rather appropriate because humans are social animals. Evolutionarily, status emerges from rituals done by animals to establish their heirarchy and pecking order. All social animals have rituals for working out status differences, and these frequently are structured to avoid real violence and combat. Evolutionarily this makes sense, because if two competing members for the top of a pack fight, and one is wounded while the other is killed, then the fitness of the pack as a whole suffers. It is not to say that these violent conflicts never happen, but status serves a role in avoiding them. Because it is something that is biologically, and possibly even physiologically based (I suspect that in many animals, the alarm areas of the brain are triggered by things such as eye contact, but I don’t know of any real work on it), it is clear that status should be hugely important in human society.

Expressions of status then take the form of ritualized, and in many cases, institutionalized gestures. These are symbolic interactions in the purest sense that each gesture signifies some sort of status exchange. The expressions most frequently come in embodied forms such as eye contact, posture, nervous gestures, speech patterns, and so on. These sorts of things are immensely difficult to capture in procedural form, but to acknowledge them seems very productive.

A discussion of space presents space as a form of territory, something which is kinetic and flows. A character’s space is their zone of freedom of movement. Good actors will “radiate”, and extend their space outward into the audience. High status characters will take up a lot of space, and low status characters will find space to press up against them. Space is kinetic and when altered, will affect everyone in a scene. Territory and space also relate back to Goffman’s work on front stage and back stage areas of interaction. When a character enters or exits a scene, the entire spatial landscape must handle the new character’s presence like a magnetic or electric field.

Johnstone presents “Master and Servant” relationships, which are extreme cases of status inequality. “A master-servant scene is one in which both parties act as if all the space belonged to the master.” (p. 63) The master imposes authority and puts the servants on edge. The servant’s role is to elevate the status of the master at all times. This is reviewed as a kind of status game. An interesting idea with character simulation would be to express these sorts of relationships leading to comedic forms.


This was originally written in 1979 and th epicture of education depicted is horriffic. The educational system Johnstone describes is built around suppressing anything outside conventional social roles. Johnstone lists three categories of spontaneous thought which tend to be supressed: Psychotic thought, obscenity, and originality. Psychotic thought is anything which is deluded or outside the perception of others. What is supressed is the acknowledgement or admission of psychoses, not the actual visions themselves. Obscenity is the cultural supression of taboos and topics which are not supposed to be discussed publicly. However, this supression pushes obscenity to the back of the mind, where it is readily present for spontaneous thought. Johnstone argues that students should not be ‘obscene’, but aware of the ideas that occur to them. Originality has more to do with the fear of unoriginality than anything else. The mind works by association, and when primed with a thought the student’s instinct might be to repeat it, but won’t fearing being considered unoriginal. All of these are cultural pressures which supress spontaneity.

These observations are fascinating, but I am at something of a loss for what to do with them. My concern is generally simulation of characters, and I am not sure if I should think about how to simulate them to be spontaneous, supressed, or what. The kind of spontaneous thought discussed has a great deal to do with human creativity and relates not to one system, but all systems known by the actor. I am loathe to argue that sponteneity is not systematic, but I suspect instead that it has to do with the incredible breadth of systems that people can summon. This of course makes it extremely hard to model or simulate. It does not seem appropriate to simulate it in the first place, because the target for simulation is the representation of social codes, rather than spontaneous thought which escapes the containment of social protocols. At the same time, spontaneous thought can require working with proposed or accepted rules (the improv sketch is a doctor’s office), but will defy other conventions (the patient has pains in a wooden leg).

Working within a spontaneous environment, Johnstone describes a system of transactions: offer, accept, block. These are core elements of any improv sketch. An offer is a proposed element to a scene, which may be vague or specific, small or broad, and confines the space of the scene. I would argue that an offer proposes a rule for the system being simulated within the scene. An offer may be accepted or blocked. An accept confirms the rule by another actor, who will take the offer and extend and react to it. A block rejects the offer. Blocking is an aggressive act, and can lead to hostility because it leaves the offering actor cold. All of these elements are interesting dramatic processes, and work as units for scene construction.

Narrative Skills

This model of storytelling is an interesting counterpoint to Crawford. Interactivity is useful to compare with the story building process. Johnstone treats story construction as a process of repeatedly making offers. A key element though is the pattern of reincorporation and linking elements introduced earlier. Making offers and building elements is storytelling, but does not amount to a whole story alone. The whole story makes sense once the elements have been linked and reincorporated to create a clear whole. The process of doing this should require introducing elements and linking them, but not actually about thinking of the content of the story itself. Described later is a system of play writing which is very similar to roleplaying in essence. Play writing is a joint activity and involves a form of storytelling where one actor makes offers and the other does nothing but accept them.

Masks and Trance

Johnstone makes an interesting discussion of masks and trance states. Masks are extremely relevant in the study of rituals in human history and in anthropology. They are used here in drama. A useful definition is given: “A mask is a device for driving the personality out of a body and allowing a spirit to take possession of it.” (p. 148) The idea is inhabitation, which enables a certain kind of spontaneity. When the mask is donned, the original self may be left aside with all its inhibitions. The idea of masks is also extremely relevant to roleplaying, and especially networked computer culture. Sherry Turkle has explained how people may adopt and try out new identities within a safely anonymous setting. The mask gives the same power by allowing the actor to be “possessed”. A mask is like a role that is totally engrossing, obscuring other systems. The use of masks can also induce a trance state which is much like Csikszentmihalyi’s notion of flow.

Reading Info:
Author/EditorJohnstone, Keith
TitleImpro: Improvisation and the Theatre
Tagsspecials, performance, visual culture
LookupGoogle Scholar, Google Books, Amazon