“S” is for “Status”

“Status is not confusing so long as we understand it as something we do, rather than our social position; for example, a king can play low status to a servant, while a servant can play high status to a king.”

Keith Johnstone, Impro for Storytellers. New York: Routledge, 1999. p.219


I’ve introduced this performance concept with a Johnstone quote as in my own work most of my thoughts and strategies about status inevitably lead back to his groundbreaking teachings. Although I haven’t reviewed his comprehensive work on the subject in his first offering Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre for quite some time, I’m confident much of what follows here found its genesis there and would highly recommend reading his work for a deeper dive.

When we acknowledge or play Status on the stage we tap into the subtle and not-so-subtle power games and tensions that form the behavioral contracts of society. Do we say anything if someone cuts in front of us in a queue at the check out counter? Who gives right of way when we encounter a stranger while walking in opposite directions on a narrow path? Which friend always rides shotgun in the communal car when we’re going to the beach? It can seem that status is innately a struggle or covert in nature, but in many cases everyone has tacitly agreed to play by these unspoken but widely known rules; in fact, the participants may actually find great joy in accepting their assigned status positions. Johnstone aptly notes that one definition of friendship involves a mutually agreed willingness to engage in playful status games and exchanges together: “You think you didn’t get much sleep last night…”

Some cultures and social groups are more at peace with displaying and embracing status configurations than others which strive to hide or obfuscate these interpersonal systems. I’ve found students, accordingly, display a similar variety of attitudes ranging from great ease to squirming discomfort when faced with utilizing this tool on stage. In some cases it can require facing some disquieting realities in terms of how privilege or entitlement are embedded in everyday interactions. In others, pulling back the curtain feels empowering as previous behavioral mysteries are revealed for what they are. Once you are made aware of status and its implications, it can prove difficult to not see it play out everywhere. Even this entry wrestles for appropriate status as I seek to balance deferring to my improv forebears, simultaneously giving the reader comfort that I have sufficient expertise to weigh in on the subject, and also maintaining my own stylistic preference for low status whimsy and irreverence.


A wealthy business-type executive, Player A, paces in their sumptuous living room awaiting the tardy return of their miscreant child. After a few anxious moments, Player B enters with an unapologetic air.

Player A: (turning with a steely eye) “We’ve talked about this.”

Player B stands casually in the doorway, throwing their keys into a dish on a decorative table.

Player B: “I’m going to my room.”

Player A: (a bit taken aback – this is not their usual tone) “I’m sorry. That’s not how you’re going to talk to me in my house.”

Player B: “That might have been the case in the past…”

Player A: “In the past?”

Player B: “Yeah, before I knew just what kind of person you really were…”

Some Common Status Misconceptions

1.) Status isn’t permanent. One of the most powerful and theatrically helpful aspects of status is that it is fluid and frequently contested. Although you might occupy the highest position in the pecking order one moment, the next you may have slid down several rungs only to regain some footing again soon after your stumble. Our parental figure likely entered the scene with the intent of assuming the higher authoritative position but within a few moments this has been challenged. If we were to then see this parent in a new scene exploring a different relationship, status will probably reset yet again. When we see status as static or definitive we may enter the territory of the bulldozer or assume a bulletproof demeanor, unwilling to accept endowments or adjust our tactics based on the offers of our scene partners. An understanding of status demands flexibility and an awareness that change can (and should) occur in this interpersonal dynamic as much as any other facet of character. It may take a whole dramatic arc – as is the case in Greek tragedy – but it’s an exceptional play where some form of status adjustment hasn’t occurred by the time the curtain (or sun) descends.

2.) Status isn’t synonymous with rank or class. Johnstone remarks upon this nugget of wisdom in the opening quote when he observes that a king, despite his elevated rank, can play low status to a servant. Now if this regal figure played low status to everyone in their realm a coup may not be too far away, but there is inherent beauty in seeing characters in atypical status configurations. Such a move can disrupt stereotypical or overly familiar plot points – instead of the king scolding their servant for poor service now the trusted servant scolds the king for their poor leadership. It’s important that everyone involved understands that traditional boundaries are being blurred but this needn’t (shouldn’t) necessarily be accepted as commonplace or acceptable. Such moves will nearly always invite an imaginative consideration and justification of the why. Is this particular servant a hold over from the previous monarch and thus represents inherited parental authority? Additionally, while players should accept the offer that status has become fluid this doesn’t (shouldn’t) mean that there won’t ultimately be a status reset or repercussions down the line for perceived injuries or infractions. The king (or our parent above) might play low status while being scolded so as to hear the servant’s (child’s) truth only to turn around and have them imprisoned (grounded) in the tower (their bedroom) for treason (treason) a few scenes later.

3.) High status doesn’t imply bullishness. Most of us have probably fallen into the trap of conflating high status with dictatorial power at one point or another. While this is undeniably a way to play status on stage, it’s by no means the only pathway open to us and, frankly, it is seldom the most interesting or truthful. When you’re the top scenic dog – or just a step above another character – it’s important to remember that there are many different styles of leadership and ways to embody power. I cast the parent as an executive type as this conjures certain images of an investment in the “system” and governance hierarchies. In this schema our parent is perhaps more traditional and likely to have a bite reflex when their position is challenged. But this is obviously just one possibility for exploring status. They might rather assume a parental “best friend” style of communication, or be up-to-date on all the latest parenting manuals and subsequently over-analyze every exchange, or show their power and disapproval through ponderous silences… Petulant high status will quickly feel odd or forced if it isn’t strongly connected to the truth of the character and premise. High status can be kind, aware, generous, patient, responsive…

4.) Low status doesn’t imply powerlessness. The power of a high status persona is often reasonably obvious and comprehensible. Some players struggle to see equivalent sources of joy and agency when they don the role of a low status character. Yes, a high status character might (initially) appear to have more control in the scene, but this is purely a social construct and the player under the persona is still bound by the improvisational edict to accept, justify, and change. As Johnstone’s delightful Making Faces exercise illustrates, low status characters also have an ability to revel in secrecy and mischief. Nothing can upturn status quite so easily as knowledge and servants are often privy to swathes of information that their superiors would rather they didn’t possess. Many players – myself included – also experience great joy from playing second or third fiddle as there is often so much more to do when you’re not the boss figure. These underlings may happily serve with no intent to advance, or subtly use their skills and wherewithal to situate themselves strategically for the moment the revolution begins. When our late teenager alludes to a scandalous discovery that they have chosen to leverage in their own favor they are providing a keen example of this second instinct.

5.) Ultimately you can’t mandate your own status. To return a last time to Johnstone’s framing words, he acknowledges that status reflects something we do rather than something we are. Another common trap, especially when seeking an elevated stance, is to decide you’re high status and then try to demand this position from your teammates. In reality, the more we fight or posture the more likely it is that our intended status position will become questioned or undermined. A despotic ruler angrily barking orders probably has very little real status in this moment and will appear desperate and out of control. They might instill fear but are much less likely to inspire loyalty. Just as status must be negotiated and ultimately accepted on some level – if I hand my servant an empty glass only to have it thrown to the floor then we’re off the races on a status battle – it is also most effective when it is playfully bestowed – I stand up on the bus to offer my seat to an octogenarian acknowledging their esteemed place in my society. High status, specifically, is very challenging to establish without others diligently ceding some ground, preparing the ornate throne, never turning their back on royalty, getting home before curfew… This is not to say that such deference will remain permanently unquestioned, but a tilt or break in the routine will land more resolutely when it’s predicated on a clear status quo. If you ever feel that your attempted status in a scene isn’t landing, or that there’s a status struggle between the improvisers rather than the characters, consider reinforcing someone else’s status intent rather than stubbornly pushing you own agenda. If you have to fight too long for high status in particular, you’ve already lost it.

Final Thought

For clarity I’ve explored some rather extreme status contrasts above. Most scenes thrive equally (if not more fully) with less blatant distance between the characters: two co-workers in adjoining cubicles vying for the better desk chair, friends trying to equitably split the bill after an expensive meal out, wedding guests jostling to establish they are more connected to the happy couple… Even greater fun awaits when you level up from overt and obvious status battles (one-upping and one-downing games explore this amusing dynamic to great effect as described here) and explore instead more subtly subversive maneuvers. And yet another element to contemplate is your status in terms of the environment: do you exert yourself over the room or is the inverse true?

To conclude: (in high status) this is all you’ll ever need to know about status and how to use it in your scenes; (in low status) I really appreciate you taking the time to read my thoughts on this subject although I imagine you knew all of this anyway – let me know what I can improve; (and my preferred status somewhere in the middle) I hope this entry has provided you with some interesting tools for playfully incorporating more status into your future work.

Related Entries: Character, Relationship Antonyms: Class, Rank, Station Synonyms: Power

Cheers, David Charles.
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© 2022 David Charles/ImprovDr

Connected Game: High Card

Published by improvdr

A professional improvisational practitioner with over thirty years experience devising, directing, performing, teaching and consulting on the craft of spontaneous (and scripted) theatre and performance.

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