REMEMBERING KEITH JOHNSTONE
1933 - 2023
Keith Johnstone passed away. The lights have dimmed for the last time on March 11, 2023.
I’d like to share my thoughts, for what their worth, about Keith in life and what he passed on to me…
His work and ideas are reflected in almost every newsletter I share, many of the classes I teach and thoughts that I think.
If you are an improviser, many of the lessons, classes and teachers that you have worked with have been influenced by Keith’s work and spirit for well over half a century. And his impact will go on much longer.
I remember way back in the 80’s walking into the Loose Moose theatre and hearing this calm British voice from the stage directing crazy things to the people on stage. “Can someone be the penis growing under the covers?” The audience was aghast and the scene was memorable as the teenager character dealt with this monster that threatened to take over his life.
Some called his ideas original. But they really weren’t. They were all latent ideas hiding in the shadows of our insecure brains and we could see clearly where they came from. The ideas weren’t original. They were blatantly honest; truths-hidden but true nonetheless.
As Keith famously pointed out in almost every class, “BE AVERAGE!”
He never performed while I was there, although you can see a picture of him out on the internet where he performs an arms expert scene. He was the only person I met who I thought could teach without having a performer’s experience. Having said that, in the early days when I worked with him, I loved it when he would twist up his face and play a character for a few seconds, playfully mocking himself or a situation. That was a playful Keith I liked and felt inspired by.
For me, Keith’s lessons that have made the biggest impact were implied outside of the main ideas.
The specific topics of status and big reactions were gold of course but the things that have impacted me most are the ideas that Improvisation is paradoxical, and sometimes it’s not what you teach but what you don’t say. He taught me that showing is better than telling. He taught great lessons about the spirit of a teacher through his example of a great teacher.
I saw him teach only a SINGLE lesson about something called “SUPER DEFINITION” which I never heard him teach again. I use that concept so much and it has left me wondering how many other great concepts I have missed.
To be honest, I pushed up against Keith in those early days. I thought he could be tactless and sometimes he expected that we saw things that we didn’t actually agree with. (“Do you see how much better that scene was guys?” while the nodding heads didn’t actually agree with that assessment at all but were coerced by Keith’s status and certainty.)
BUT… His “tactless-ness” came from an honesty that most people were not used to. Most people experience an improvisation world that “YES ANDS…” the shit out of EVERYTHING and misses the idea that some things are “SHIT and can’t be saved!” (K.J.)
Visiting guests at the Loose Moose would sit in the theatre listening to us sharing notes after shows. Keith would say “that scene was a disaster!”. We’d smile or laugh but the guests would ask after, “How can you talk to each other like that?” The answer was simple. Keith created an honest and discerning environment where we knew the notes WERE ABOUT THE SCENES and not about the people. “It’s disposable. Don’t attach your ego to it.”
In a way, Keith must have had a strong Buddhist streak running through him that infected everyone who learned to drop their ego and not attached it to the work when the show was over. Notes were practical and clear observations about the holes that were dug and what made it difficult to get out. The lessons were honest and rich with lessons to carry into the next performance.
I remember sitting at the back of one of his classes, swearing under my breath as he taught a lesson that seemed to conflict with something he had said the week before. (I often got frustrated with the words until I caught on to the meaning). It was in the moment of stewing over the seemingly mixed message that I realised clearly the lesson for me to learn was that improvisation is paradoxical.
YES works today and NO works tomorrow. The direction in one scene makes for success and the same direction in the next scene makes for failure. Being average makes you better. Trying hard to be better makes things worse.
It was a great lesson for a young improviser/teacher. Repeating what you KNOW is disastrous. You have to teach what is NOW in front of you.
In fact, I can recall more than once how Keith would be confronted by someone quoting from his book IMPRO about saying YES to everything. Keith responded – “That’s not my intention. You teach young people to say, ‘Yes’ because they want to block every idea and stay in control. If it benefits the narrative, sometimes NO is a better choice.”
Keith’s rules were not rigid. None of his ideas were. In that way, he was the consummate improviser.
I watched over the years as he bent “WHAT COMES NEXT?” (The game) into numerous versions that were used for solo work, directors and inspiration. He was more than willing to bend previous successful ideas into something better when the moment needed it.
What images do I remember about Keith?
- A box of almonds shared before shows at the Simplex before Theatresports, (mutual bad eating habits for two vegetarians)
- Lessons about the best way to peel a banana by breaking it in half – SNAP!,
- The idea of a trampoline on the edge of the stage so we could leap onto the stage with a flying entrance,
- His frustrations about his voice being weak after a day of writing. (He said that as a person writes, their vocal cords are active – like whispers – and that strains them.)
- I remember sitting with him, watching a mask class taught by Steve. I leaned over to him and said something I had discovered in my own mask experience, to which he turned and replied, “NEVER tell a mask performer that!!!” And after a pause, leaning back and saying, “It’s entirely true what you said, but don’t ever tell them.” (It was a clear and wonderful lesson that some lessons are about what we DON’T say.)
- SO MUCH TIME SPENT LEARNING TO TIE A “SPONTANEOUS BALLOON!!! (Enough already Keith!!!)
- Stories upon stories… One that popped into my head was a “true story” about the guy whose doctor told him he had only a month to get his affairs in order. The man died 30 days later. It was only after the man had died that the doctors realised they gave the prognosis to the wrong person. He had a lot of these stories. I don’t know if they were all true. I want them to be… but not for that man who died (of course).
- I remember him disarming intellectuals who wanted to record everything he said in their notebooks. He’d lower his status and ramble on about the room and temperature and air quality until people dropped their pens to the side (probably wondering why they had spent so much for this rambling old man…) and then… he’d let loose with precise observations and a workshop of inspiration.
THAT BLINKING MOOSE!
Above the Loose Moose stage is a banner with the image of a Moose. (The Loose Moose).
For YEARS… (DECADES) Keith was saying that the Moose needs to blink. But it should only blink maybe once or twice a night. People would wonder if it actually happened and they would always be watching for the Moose to Blink.
There were always “more important things to do in the theatre”… So… I took it upon myself to make the Moose blink- a small gift that I wanted to give him.
I rigged up a little device that would open and close the Moose’s eyelid and with the help of Kevin Handcock at the theatre, wired it to the sound booth so we could push a button and Keith would have his wish! THE MOOSE WOULD BLINK!!!
I wasn’t quite finished with it but really wanted him to see it on the last day of his Summer School. I told him to look up and BANG! THE MOOSE BLINKED!!!
I waited for the joy and applause to erupt. Keith raised his eyebrows and simply said, “Well, it took them long enough”.
Keith left the theatre and the entire mechanism fell out of the banner onto the stage below – Waaaa Waaaa… (Yes, we wired it back up. And to this day, you still might see the blinking Moose. And if you listen closely you will hear the sound of Keith’s voice in the air saying… “It took them long enough!”.)
THE DAY I TAUGHT KEITH!
One time, Keith invited me to the Rocky Mountains where he taught his summer school. He asked if I would teach a session. I was honoured.
To my amazement and slight horror, there was Keith IN MY CLASS. I started with some physical exercises made for failure. Keith participated.
Sure enough, Keith and everyone was laughing at the mistakes. I was amazed to see HIM sitting on the floor with everyone else playing with ideas I taught – (many of them based on his ideas).
Years later we were having coffee and Keith said, “I remember you teaching a class at the school…” he paused, sipped his coffee and raised his eyebrows. “I thought the FIRST half was very good.”
Keith was a genius at raising and lowering your status in one sentence.
THE AVERAGE MAN
For years, I was teaching mask-making and performing to the Loose Moose Summer intensive students on my own time after their regular classes with Keith and Dennis. Eventually I was teaching classes in the regular sessions.
One day I arrived early for my afternoon session. As I approached the room at the Jubilee Auditorium in Calgary which the Loose Moose was renting, I heard the twinkling sounds of something caught between jazz and classical music on a piano.
As I got closer to the classroom, I realised it was Keith playing all alone while everyone was out having lunch.
That image was a Keith I rarely saw and only that once in such a poetic calmness. I watched him for a while before the students returned. He was simply a happy average man enjoying playing the piano, performing for no one but himself.
I think Keith did what he wanted most of the time but so many people held him in such high esteem and kept pens to paper taking notes about everything that he said that he rarely seemed totally average without the expectations to be KEITH JOHNSTONE.
LUNCH WITH KEITH
I remember when Ali Froggat and I took him for Lunch and Coffee. Ali wondered if she should ask him about the theatre she was going to start up. I suggested that she shouldn’t on this particular day.
I had always been aware of improvisers that ‘collected’ Keith moments. People would USE every moment to ask for opinions and suggestions. People would come to town and ask if there was a chance to meet Keith.
I understand where they were coming from but… I wanted Keith to have an average day where Impro and lessons are put to the side.
In the beginning, sure enough, Keith appeared a little formal and eventually asked during lunch, “So, guys, tell me why we’re meeting?”
It took some time to convince him but when he realised we wanted to ‘show our partner a good time’ and ask for nothing, he lightened up. He brightened and he joked and played. That was the Keith I want to remember.
I HAVE NOTHING TO TEACH YOU
I remember his big winter coat and running shoes and the way he sat on stage, “I don’t know why you are here? I have nothing more to teach you…Oh well let’s try something” and then the world opened up, again and again, every week.
Keith ALWAYS had something to share, teach and offer. He inspired millions EVEN if they don’t know the game, exercise, theory or quote that came from him.
He inspired me.
After a scene, he’d ask the people on stage to have a seat. “Back guys, Back!” And we all sat in our seats…
And we all sit in our seats now remembering and feeling the inspiration that the Grandfather of Impro, and the wonderful human, has left inside of us all.
“Thank you for the day. Thank you for entertaining me,”
he would say after another amazing workshop.
Thank you for the lessons, the life, and the inspiration Keith.
Joseph Limbaugh · March 12, 2023 at 6:32 pm
Thank you for this. ❤️
Of course I do now desperately need to know what Super Definition is and what you realized about masks.
I am fortunate I got to learn from him. He made humans better humans.
Birgit Ising · March 13, 2023 at 6:05 am
Thank you so much, Shawn, for sharing these moments. 💫