Whenever I thought I KNEW a “Keith exercise”, I was always snapped back to reality watching Keith teaching the same exercise again but with a slight twist or a whole new flavour to it.
His variations of the “WHAT COMES NEXT” evolved over decades. You could teach that exercise all day repeating the phrase, “BUT WAIT! THERE’S MORE!!!”
“What Comes Next?” evolved from a simple narrative game with the audience to an intricate mix of exercises for directors, duos, and monsters with evil voices with behaviour pulled from the subconscious. It went from doing just what the audience wanted to paradoxically saying no to everything except the truest, inspired suggestions.
The same can be said about the memories we collect about Keith. Just when we think we know all the stories, something new emerges and we’ll say, “I hadn’t heard that one!”
Here are some memories of Keith from two people who are actively sharing Keith’s ideas around the world every day: Steve Jarand and Patti Stiles.
Patti Stiles (1)
When I was working as Keith’s personal assistant he had a request from a prominent University to teach. In the paper work they requested a curriculum for the course, so I asked Keith if he could provide one. “How can I possibly know what to teach until I meet the students? I don’t know what they need.” Of course I thought to myself, they are the first offer.
Keith cast me in his play The Secret Life of Dr. Watson. There was a scene where Watson was having a nightmare regarding the vile actions of Jack The Ripper sending police pieces of his victims bodies. Which is historically correct. I come into the scene as a ghost of one of the victims holding a bloody female genitalia. At the mention of the organ 2 audience members leave the theatre. I was horrified. I felt I destroyed the scene and was ruining the play. After the show an excited Keith came over to me. “Did you see audience leave during the scene?” He asked. I replied “Yes, I am sorry Keith, what did I do wrong?” I really felt horrible. “Nothing. Theatre should illicit a response from the audience. Canadians are so polite it is almost impossible to get an honest reaction and WE did.” His face was so lit up, he was absolutely delighted.
I first met Keith in 1987 at Loose Moose Theatre as a teenager and had exposure to him there as a director and teacher of improvisation. A few years later I enrolled in his University of Calgary acting class and saw the depth of his theatre wisdom. In that class (and the rest of the drama department acting classes), his book Impro was on the reading list.
Like most who read it, the chapter on Mask and Trance, intrigued but baffled me and I initially, set it aside in my mind as not very applicable to stage-work. Unlike most though, I got exposed to Keith’s half mask work in person when he did a session open to company members on a weeknight at the theatre.
Witnessing each other fall in and out of trance states was a harrowing but overall joyful (even delightful) experience for us players. It made a big impression and we could assimilate the lessons about selflessness and spontaneity, having already dwelt in Keith’s Impro world.
I don’t remember my exact rationale but it seemed obvious to me to answer the question of ‘Where are the masks now?’ with ‘Not here. So let’s bring them back!’ I began making masks and lighting them up in shows and classes. Each time a mask made an appearance however briefly or awkwardly, it was met with wonder from the spectators and encouragement from company members.
A few of us started regular rehearsals and to our surprise and pleasure, Keith offered to join us and help train the masks. After a 20-year hiatus, Trance Masks were back on the Loose Moose Stage.
Next Keith asked me to bring my masks into his yearly international summer school which spawned some interest, especially in Europe. I got invitations to lead workshops abroad even though I had little teaching experience.
But that was about to change.
In 2003, my wife and I were planning a trip to India and we had a connection from Calgary, Canada through Frankfurt. Keith was in Germany at the time and suggested I extend the stop-over and come with some masks to his Impro course in Berlin. His idea was for him to teach in the morning and for me to take the group in the afternoon.
And so it was. I would arrive a bit early and often find the participants discovering exercises that lead directly into mask work. It was a big challenge to dive into the deep-end on the international stage but I survived and learned a massive amount. That course led to a career teaching masks and improvisation around the world.
Keith was kind and giving on a modest and mundane level as well.
He often had snacks with him like nuts and dried fruit and would offer some to you, ‘accidentally’ spilling too many into your hand. When we would go for tea or lunch, as I reached for my wallet, he would pull out a huge handful of change and say ‘Oh I’ve got to get rid of some of this’. I couldn’t understand how anyone could generate some many coins and now believe he would save it up so as to avoid making his guest feel uncomfortable when he offered to pay.
He even suggested that you drive his new Toyota Prius when giving you a lift home stating, ‘You’re probably a better driver than me anyway.’
But in terms of genuine selflessness, I must have been the receiver of one of Keith’s biggest gifts ever. At some point after the 10-day Impro/Mask intensive in Berlin, I found out that the organizer had almost cancelled the course because he didn’t have enough money to pay.
Keith came up with another idea. He said he would work for free and that all the money should go to my fee. And that’s what he did. One of the most sought-after theatre teachers in the world humbly stepped back to give me and the masks a chance to get established. I would have done it for the experience alone, but instead got all the money and so much more.
Your grace and generosity generates gratitude through generations.
Keith had a way of doing small things that left big impacts.
Patti Stiles (AGAIN!!!)
Keith was a wonderful roommate and friend. He would often leave me surprise gifts like once I opened the fridge and found a bowl of strawberries with a sign that said ‘eat me’ or books with notes in certain pages saying things like “read this page and write what happens next before reading on.”
One night I was watching music videos on tv and a Duran Duran song came on. I could hear Keith hurrying down the hall. He came in and sat down focused on the TV. “I didn’t know you liked Duran Duran,” I said. “Who?” He answered. “The band” I prompted and pointed at the tv. He sighed “The music is dreadful but their video has an interesting story.”
When we were co-teaching in London we were having breakfast together at the hotel. I was pouring some milk in my coffee and Keith suddenly gasped quite loudly and it made me jump. “What?” I said. He was laughing and said “nothing, I just wanted to see your reaction.”