Don’t Do Your Best – Keith Johnstone

Published by ShawnKinley on


Working with Keith Johnstone has been a great honour in my professional life.

I remember arriving at the Loose Moose Theatre late in my teens… or was it early in my twenties? In any case, I didn’t know who Keith was.  In fact, my first improvisation lesson was with Keith’s wife Ingrid.

My first observation of Keith was probably as an audience member during Sunday Theatresports where he would set up improvised exercises on stage with a slight educational edge so the audience could get an idea of the workings behind this magical thing called improvisation.

My first project with Keith was in a two-person staged version of Edgar Allen Poe’s TELL TALE HEART that he directed with Albert Howell and myself. As a director, he could say the simplest things to turn Al and me into great actors (*If not “great” then at least greatly inspired.) . Keith could do that for almost anyone in a workshop and on stage.

I admired and was confounded about how he thought and how came up with the gems that he did. 

I would go to the free pre-show class every week when he was the artistic director of the Loose Moose. His classes always left me full of thoughts. Some of those thoughts confronted my reason. Frustrating but enlightening.

One week I remember sitting at the back of the theatre, frustrated with the lesson because he specifically said the opposite instruction the previous week. “HOW WAS I SUPPOSED TO LEARN HOW TO IMPROVISE IF THIS GUY WAS GIVING ME CONTRARY INFORMATION!?!?!?”

And then, it dawned on me….

There is no singular “ANSWER”. Improvisation can be paradoxical. What worked last week won’t necessarily work this week.

It was a lesson that has stuck with me over the decades. Embracing the possibility of opposing ideas put impro theory and practice in balance for me. All these years later, I hear the same frustration in some of my students and feel their frustration clearly.

Keith famously says, “Don’t try so hard. BE AVERAGE!”. This frustrates performers who strive for greatness. And yet, those who embrace this idea to be average, become great to watch.

Little lessons spoken in just a few words sometimes take a long time to “get”.

I thought you might like to check out Keith’s TEDx talk. He said that he enjoyed doing this and I think it comes through in his playful attitude. It should obviously be MUCH longer.

In this talk, Keith has Dennis Cahill on stage with him.  The reason for this is to Keep Keith on track. In Keith’s words, “My short-term memory is shot… I will keep losing track and if they wouldn’t mind putting me back on track then it would be a big help.” 

I was amazed when I first saw Keith speak to a group of international students later in his career where he had to coach them on how to take care of his aging brain.  HE had to take care of them, so they would take care of him.

Always aware of the state of improvisers’ fears and state of mind, Keith still takes care of people’s inability to just take care of what’s happening in the present.



Leave a Reply

Avatar placeholder

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *