Our Keith Memories
OUR KEITH MEMORIES
Keith Johnstone told great stories. He had MANY to tell. On March 11, 2023 he left the storytelling to us.
BUSHMAN OF THE KALAHARI
Keith wanted a specific image for the cover of his IMPRO FOR STORYTELLERS. The image shows an animated Bushman tribal chief telling a story to a group of wide-eyed youth crowded around him.
1947 – A bushman tribal chief telling stories to a group of children in the southern Kalahari Desert in central-southern Africa. (Photo by Nat Farbman/Cover of Impro For Storytellers – Keith Johnstone)
The image reminds us of a universal truth about the value of sharing stories.
We grow bigger and brighter with each anecdote. We are wiser and more than we were before the story started.
I can picture the faces listening to Keith’s stories holding similar expressions as those hearing the wisdom of the Bushman elder. The wide eyes absorb the experience and implicitly promise to relay them to others.
It’s the promise that keeps the thread of wisdom flowing forward, connecting to others, and growing into an unbroken rope that anchors us to the storytellers who created the gift when they were with us in the circles where the stories were first told.
Keith has gone. His stories and lessons continue through us.
ONE MORE CLASS
A reoccurring sentiment from improvisers who knew Keith is,
“I was hoping for one more class with him.”
The stories shared here from students, colleagues and friends around the world, offer a little more precious time to follow the thread that Keith began with the wide-eyed members of the tribe.
Whether it’s an image of Keith’s relaxed presence on an old sofa while he wore his unassuming Parka at the beginning of a class or his musings on the possibility that he may have been implicitly responsible for the murder of a notable British writer, each story adds colour to the man we vibrantly remember.
I hope you will feel a deeper connection to Keith and enjoy a little more time in his presence through these memories.
As William Hall, from Bay Area Theatresports wrote,
…it is up to us to be generous with out stories….
BEFORE THE SHOW
…he struck me then as a revolutionary idealist looking around for a guillotine. He saw corruption everywhere…. The Court then set up its Writers’ Group and Actors’ Studio, run by Johnstone and William Gaskill, and attended by Arden, Ann Jellicoe and other writers of the Court’s first wave. This was the turning point.
‘Keith’, Gaskill says, ‘started to teach his own particular style of improvisation, much of it based on fairy stories, word associations, free associations, intuitive responses, and later he taught mask work as well.
All his work has been to encourage the rediscovery of the imaginative response in the adult; the re-finding of the power of the child’s creativity… Johnstone’s all-important first move was to banish aimless discussion and transform the meetings to enactment sessions; it was what happened that mattered, not what anybody said about it.
– IRVING WARDLE (Intro, IMPRO-Keith Johnstone)
Some of us were lucky to be a part of the old Loose Moose Theatre Company where we would walk in at 6:00 and have a weekly dose of the FREE class that Keith would offer before the show. Derek Flores was there;
— DEREK FLORES:
He (Keith) asked us what we would do if we ever found ourselves trapped in an ice cave. He suggested we shit, and thenform our shit into the shape of a dagger reasoning that shit freezes harder than ice. We can then use our shit dagger to chip our way out of the cave. He then would lead us all in a game of football on the lawn outside the theatre while the audience was being let in. He’d run and giggle wearing that giant parka.
After the show he would sigh and say there was “nothing to be done”, and wonder why we didn’t try to fail more. We should try to fail at least twice per show.
He encouraged my work to have an opinion.
He challenged us to work with wide eyed teddy bears, and to be consumed by the couch. He challenged us to be average.
He left notes on his door to potential burglars that the snakes had escaped.
He was singular.
He opened my eyes.
His work lives on in countless people.
What comes next, Keith.
Over many a lunch, Keith spoke about authors and scientific discoveries. He told us about the days he directed “illegal improvisation” in the UK. – and he mentioned his connection with Samuel Beckett. (I later learned that Beckett thought that Keith directed his “Waiting Godot” better than anyone else).
John Bent Jr. remembers Keith teaching at the University of Calgary and the day Keith spoke of his possible hand in the death of playwright Joe Orton.
— JOHN BENT Jr.
“Please don’t do your best. Trying to do your best is trying to be better than you are, and you can’t learn anything without failing.” -KJ
I will never forget the day Keith Johnstone declared “I killed Joe Orton” in one of his acting classes that I was in at the University of Calgary in 1989.
Before Keith came to Calgary and invented Theatre Sports (which is what he’s most famous for) Keith was HEAVILY involved with the “Sunday Night Productions” produced by the English Stage Company at the Royal Court Theatre in London England in the late 50s, and later, the Writers Group at the same theatre until the mid 60’s.
During that time he worked with many of the important British playwrights of the time, including Edward Bond, John Arden, Ann Jellicoe, and Joe Orton.
Orton’s lover, Kenneth Halliwell, was jealous of Orton’s recent success, and had submitted a script to the Royal Court, and at the time, Keith was the head script reader and rejected Halliwell’s script.
Soon after, Halliwell murdered Orton, then committed suicide. Keith said that his rejection of that script, may have pushed Halliwell over the edge, but the script was unreadable and he stood by his decision.
Keith was a gifted teacher and story teller, and I remember being riveted by Keith’s telling of that story and it is burned in my memory because of his telling.
That same year, Keith cast me as “The Singer” in Bertolt Brecht’s “The Caucasian Chalk Circle”. I never sang a note at the audition, and felt that I was dreadfully mis-cast. I went to him with my concerns, and told him that “I can’t sing”. He replied “Of course you can sing, you’re just afraid to do it! You need to get out of your comfort zone. If you don’t, you’ll never grow as an artist, or a person”.
Keith passed away yesterday, leaving behind the Loose Moose Theatre, which he co-founded, a metric ton of writings including plays and improvisation textbooks, and a horde of students and artists who owe him so much for his influence on their lives and careers…. except, maybe, Joe Orton.
Rest in Peace Keith, and I promise that I won’t do my best today.
Over the years I realised that we were Keith’s enthusiastic Guinea Pigs while he was artistic director at the Loose Moose.
Like a stand-up comedian, trying out the “new material” he’d been working on in his writing that day, he’d share “Platforms”, “Tilts”, Two person “What comes next”, exchanging control and other gems with us in class.
“That’s worth exploring!”
he’d say, satisfied when an exercise was especially good.
I only saw him lose a fight with a failing exercise once. (IN 40 YEARS!) Oddly it was an exercise he had done many times before.
When we broke for lunch, I heard him quietly say to someone “I should have let that one go.” It was like watching a seasoned Gladiator be scarred by a younger lion.
After lunch, he said humbly to the class, “If an exercise is not working, move on. You can always say that ‘THE GREAT MOOSE’ isn’t with you today….Alright, let’s move on.”“
While driving, Keith would get lost and love it. He bought an early hybrid car (A Prius?) and take people for drives to listen to that silence when it should have been noise. “Do you hear that??!!! Neither do I! I sometimes have to check to see if I’ve gone deaf.” And he would click his fingers, smiling and looking relieved that he heard the snap.
He learned to drive late in life and when he heard that I still didn’t drive in my thirties, he implored “Start now and practice often“. He often asked others to drive his car so they could enjoy the experience.
Often we would drive to a rehearsal or show at the Loose Moose Theatre together and sometimes on the drive home Keith would suddenly say “ah, the car wants to go this way tonight” and he would let the car decide what route we took that night, it was always a fun adventure.
(Read more of Patti’s memories of KEITH here)
As Stephen Heatley tells it, in 1981 a man named Keith Johnstone drove his van from Calgary to Edmonton to teach improvisation to some folks at Theatre Network.
In the morning, when Stephen went to open the theatre, he found Keith sleeping in his van outside. That day Keith taught his improv format, TheatreSports to the students at Theatre Network, setting into motion a chain of events that would last decades.
TheatreSports soon became a weekly show at Theatre Network, until a few short years later Rapid Fire Theatre was created to continue producing the show. TheatreSports became Edmonton’s longest-running improv show and has seen hundreds of performers take to the stage.
This week Rapid Fire Theatre opened our first venue of our own, the Rapid Fire Exchange. I believe this wouldn’t have happened if Keith hadn’t driven his van up from Calgary that one fateful day. The first TheatreSports show will play in our new venue on April 7.
RIP Keith and thank you.
Without a pause, I could rattle off ten Improvisation theatres that exist around the world because of Keith. I do not doubt the actual number of theatres that directly exist because of Keith, number over a hundred.
— AT THE ROYAL COURT
Keith Johnstone’s involvement with the theatre began when George Devine and Tony Richardson, artistic directors of the Royal Court Theatre, commissioned a play from him. This was in 1956.
A few years later he was himself Associate Artistic Director, working as a play-reader and director, in particular helping to run the Writers’ Group. The improvisatory techniques and exercises evolved there to foster spontaneity and narrative skills were developed further in the actors’ studio, then in demonstrations to schools and colleges and ultimately in the founding of a company of performers, called The Theatre Machine.
(Daily Telegraph – Review of IMPRO – Keith Johnstone)
—MONSTER THEATRE – British Colombia, Canada
The teachings of Keith Johnstone are interwoven into the very heart of Monster Theatre. We are named after something Keith said in class about the difference between Demons and Monsters;
Demons are smooth and attractive on the outside but with evil hearts, while
Monsters are strange and bizarre on the outside but with good hearts. And we thought, that’s the kind of theatre we want to make.
-MONSTER THEATRE – British Colombia, Canada
The theory and practice impacted everyone that was drawn in and spun around the whirlpools of swirling excitement that Keith let loose. The famous and not so famous speak the same words of love and admiration.
In an article by Eric Volmers of the Calgary Herald two members of the hit comedy group KIDS IN THE HALL remember Keith.
— BRUCE McCULLOCH and MARK McKINNEY
When Bruce McCulloch learned that Keith Johnstone had died, he sent a quick note to fellow Kid in the Hall Mark McKinney.
“We’ve lost our Keith. Should we go to the graveyard and do a hat game in his honour?”
About his time at The Loose Moose Theatre with Keith Johnstone, McCulloch says.
“I did two improv classes and then they put me on stage. There was a real punk attitude that anyone could be on stage. Obviously, there were the Toninos (founding Loose Moose members Frank and Tony Tonino) and Jim Curry and Dennis Cahill, who were the big, older stars. But they let all us young people on stage. That doesn’t happen at Yuk Yuks. You work for a long time before you ever get off amateur night. (Loose Moose) put you right out there and all the improvisers were kind to each other. There wasn’t that competition that I later felt in stand-up in Toronto. There really was that spirit of warmth that is directly related to Keith.”
Mark McKinney studied with Keith at the University of Calgary while playing at the Loose Moose.
“A lot of the way improv is taught is that you’re casting a net for comedy only and that’s not the way he approached improv. He was a purist. He wanted to dig into your subconscious and was very forgiving.
An improv scene didn’t have to be funny, but it had to be spontaneous. He had to be seeing that you were clicking from impression to impression and reaction to reaction without any kind of self-conscious editing. That’s an incredibly valuable creative tool across every kind of discipline: writing and acting.
He explained in his acting class how you use improv to keep a scene fresh; to just stay in touch with the reactions you’re having and it would change the scene. I was in a play at the Old Vic in the fall and 40, 50 shows in you want to keep it fresh and that advice came ringing back to me.”
Now might be a good time as any for a little break. Refill your popcorn and grab a drink from the concession. Get a pack of almonds to share with friends.
In PART 2 of OUR MEMORIES OF KEITH, Death is battled, in the LIFE GAME and Norwegians mention LSD at the Zoo.
In PART 3 of OUR MEMORIES OF KEITH, The French remember Keith’s tactic for getting volunteers on stage and Keith asks teachers to inspire, regardless of the content they offer
Part 4 of Our Keith Memories has Steve and Patti sharing anecdotes and stories that show us the hidden warmth of Keith off stage.
If you have a memory or experience with Keith, feel free to send it in and we’ll have a new chapter to add to OUR KEITH MEMORIES.