Keith Memories – 3 Around the World

Published by ShawnKinley on

Part 3 - Around the World

Keith Johnstone’s reach has been vast. 
He was never a big self-promoter. His work said it all. His writings are in numerous languages in dog-eared books on the shelves of people from every continent.  
He asked me once, “How did you get to Chile? I haven’t taught in Chile!” I felt a little embarrassed and reminded him that he didn’t go because he thought it would be too hot. “Oh yes, that’s right. I can’t stand the heat!”
 Poor Chileans. Chile wasn’t too hot at all. I don’t know who told him it was. Nevertheless, It didn’t stop Chileans from travelling to visit him in Canada. When Keith couldn’t make it to them, the world came to him wherever he was. 
— Antoine Gaudin – France

…we met only once at a London workshop. Like many people in the world, what he did changed my life, since I wouldn’t be improvising anymore without his fascinating and playful theories. And all of this had me meet lots of awesome people, you included!

Here are two random (average?) memories I have from the workshop, which illustrate his cheekiness:

I remember the way he called students on stage to try and help them get rid of their self-consciousness:

“I need…
 – 2 average persons, please
 – 2 students born in january
 – 2 idiots who have no idea what they are doing here!
 – 2 handsome humans!
 – [making up names] Paul, on stage please!
 – 2 skilled improvisers. Or anyone, really.”

….and so on. That always relieved some pressure in the room, with people who didn’t really know each other.

On the last day, we played “Leave if you’re not interested”. (One of Keith’s exercise to explore what we do under stress and what we do that causes the audience to disconnect. In this exercise, performers try to engage the audience but when the audience isn’t interested anymore, they leave the room – wonderfully Ego-crushing!)

Students were laying chairs to create a space for the audience. Keith was leaning on his cane, standing. A student came to him and said, “Here Keith, have a chair”, and he answered with a calm and smiley face: “No, thanks. I won’t need it once the game has started.” 🙂

Every year for quite some time Keith would return to Chatanooga TN in the United States. It was the period of time he was exploring “whose scene it was” on stage and who had the focus.
During some shows, Keith had us perform with a big “S” taped to our shirts to stop some of us from working so hard to be funny. We were designated “straight person”.

It was one of Keith’s experiments that spawned many interesting discoveries. In the end, the “Straight Man” badge fell away as we understood things like “removing the pressure, the straight man was sometimes the funny person naturally.” And it became more interesting to understand whose scene it was, and what that meant.

— Colleen Laliberte – USA

I dreamt about Keith, out there in the Universe, continuing his quest to understand the Universe, ” what DOES make harmony, and connection, and understanding… how DO you know WHO’S SCENE IS THIS… at the moment it’s MINE I think… no worries, it will be YOURS in a minute ..”  ” yeah?”

(small Keith laugh with a bit of tongue sticking out, a widening of the eyes, An inhale of breath, a smack of the lips, a clap of the hands and…) 

” OK! Back guys BACK – AGAIN!”

 Those delighted and delightful moments of laughter and struggle to explain…I think I miss those the most…

His spirit as a person was equalled by his teaching spirit. I suppose we have to thank those horrible teachers of Keith’s youth who failed to crush his spirit for inspiring the man who demanded better. 

From Greece comes a moment that yells clearly what he wants from the teachers and the systems that claim to teach.

Menelaos Prokos – Greece

 During the time I was his student, one thing he had said had stuck with me. He said: “When I go to teacher-parent days at my son’s school, I tell them I don’t care what they teach him while he’s there. I only care that they inspire him to want to go there in the morning and not look forward to leave in the afternoon.”
I try to live by that in my teaching and my life in general.
R.I.P. Keith

— Kati Schweitzer – Germany
The first time I visited Keith, I was totally in awe. I’m visiting Keith Johnstone! I had better be funny, creative and cultured! But then, luckily, I remembered one of his many good pieces of advice: be average. So I was. And things fell into place.

He was a vulnerable funny man, not afraid to speak out the truth – whether it was something he noticed in himself, his loved ones or in someone else. Whether it was uncomfortable for him (or others) or not. Sometimes I was not sure if he made a joke or if he was being serious – because there was always some cheekiness, even with unpleasant topics. He would make a comment and smile. Shrug. And go on with life.

Keith fondly watches Steve and Kati’s daughter playing.

Keeping his mind busy with creative work in order to be able to deal with all the physical aches and pains he was experiencing. I will miss him and his wisdom (and wit) dearly.
I didn’t really know him as a teacher, apart from a couple of short sessions, but I got lucky to be taught by several of his direct students. What amazes me is how he inspired and influenced so many people and that you can see that their artistic work is grounded in his ideas and inspired by him.

In my own work as a teacher and performer I constantly use his insights, ideas and exercises. I feel like every topic I tackle connects to his observations of the human mind and his ways to get us out of our brains, anxieties and crap we’re carrying around. Making us aware of the things that lie beneath the surface and keeping our egos in check.

Thank you, Keith, for that. And for teaching me about German painters. Gosh, this man was knowledgeable. Wherever he is now, everyone else who’s there is lucky!

Sam Nicholls remembers the “everyday Keith” that spoke matter-of-fact statements that knocked us off our step somewhat. She encountered Keith periodically while working on Mask performance at the Loose Moose.


There was one class where I had been fighting a really solid cold for a while.  This one had had the effect of dropping the pitch of my voice significantly. I would guess at least half an octave.

If I wanted to talk in my normal voice, I had to work really hard. But that hurt and was very tiring to do so I just let my throat relax and allowed it to be lower instead. 

At one point during a discussion he stopped and asked me, “Have you done something with your voice?”

I felt a little bit self conscious and said I had been fighting a cold for a long time which made my voice drop. He then asked, “So it’s temporary, then?”

Thinking it was somehow bothering him I assured him that yes, it would be only temporary. 

“Hmmm. That’s a shame.” Keith said. “It’s rather nicer as it is now…”

How do you respond to that?

white and red plastic packsOne of my first encounters was at a workshop at the old loose moose and sharing popcorn with Keith. I was thinking I’m having day-old popcorn (when we used to have popcorn) at Loose Moose with the famous Keith and being struck that he was so interesting but normal in a Keith way.

I remember multiple times feeling like my sense of play was gone and I had become an adult trained by the world and he would say the playfulness can be rediscovered and then one time had me name things in a room the wrong names (something I still do).
I remember having tea with him at higher ground (coffee shop) and him saying why education is wonderful but the school system isn’t.

Thinking back to when we last saw him is sad especially when I remember him saying he wonders if his work made a difference.
I think we should watch some Kurawawa in his honour. Keith was amazing and I will always remember him asking us to find the ‘wet spot’.
It’s been a sad month.
Of course, Keith’s work has made a great difference in so many ways to so many people. And like a good improviser, he did the small things that made his partners look good and feel good.
—Birgit E Pfeifer – Villach, Carinthia, Austria
 I have a special “note” from him. In one of his books. He gave me an autograph, saying, that he never is doing that and that he makes an exception for me. I cannot say in English what I felt in this moment, it was a great honour for me.

—JUN IMAI  – Japan

Keith came to Japan as his second time to give the intensive workshop to my group. I got his permission to record the workshop and transcribe it to publish a book in Japanese. This book has published in only Japanese.

 (Does anyone know who might publish in any other languages?)

I think we’d all love to read that book. – English publishers????

I have a fond memory of 40 Japanese students coming to Loose Moose every 3 years to study with Keith. 

Dennis Cahill and I taught as well.  While waiting for my session to begin, I watched Keith finish his class with the students whom he seemed to like very much. He would thank them at the end of their time together and then 7 or 8 of them would gather around and help him out of his chair, everyone – including Keith – giggling as he got to his feet.

Joe Bill, a well known American icon of an improviser and all-round great person talked about tea time with Keith and Patti Stiles. He sheds light on Keith’s feeling that ‘the schools of thought’ in improvisation matters less than the improvisation and the relationships it inspires.


 Keith had known then that Patty and I had been playing together. I guess it was for 2 or 3 years at this point and he was very happy that we had played together and that our aim was to show that regardless of the school that you come from, you know when you walk on stage we may use different words to describe the same things or we may have a different internal process for being present, but at the end of the day we’re after the same thing.

For years Keith would say, “I should be dead by now.” I didn’t like when he said that. But, I got used to this morbid commentary. When the day came where Keith was gone. I, like many others had a hard time accepting that the day had come. No matter how much he prepared us for the inevitable, it is still hard to imagine he isn’t here to visit and listen to his stories.

—Immanuela Lawrence – Canada/Holland

My favourite memory of Keith was when I visited him at the Rockyview hospital a few weeks before his passing. For all his short breaths, pain, discomforts and constant medical interventions, he gladly came up for air from “swimming in the soup(morphine)” to accommodate my visit. Though I was never his student, give or take a workshop or two, he knew who I was and asked about my husband Dave-who had been his student- and the kids “very well behaved” and how my writing was going. He seemed to want to entertain me, and make the visit worthwhile for me. He was generous like that.

His brilliant brain darted around topic after topic – none of them light- until we found too often it was failing him for names. We turned it into a ‘fill in the blanks’ game. “The blonde in the movie about the pornographer?” “Courtney Love!” “Yes, excellent performance! Women need better parts in film.”  “The sketch troupe that were on TV…”Kids in the Hall!” “They were doing the same stuff that worked on stage and it failed. Television is a vastly inferior to live performance.” The french mime teacher everyone also takes classes from… “Philipe Gaulier!” “I agree with him, the audience has to be charmed by you! They have to like you and want to take you home. “ Our conversation was often interrupted by hallucinations he was having or odd new sensations he was feeling. 

“Do you see all the moths fluttering around me?” When I said I didn’t, he seemed more thrilled.

”Fantastic! This has never happened to me before!” 

 Keith approached the experience of dying with curiosity and a tempered, analytical wonder. Were it not for this disposition, so unique to his character, Keith would never have created the innovative performance art form he did. 

He approached his final human experience with a sense of wonder and his trademark dry British wit that he so often employed to lower the expectations of so many star struck acolytes. Good night Keith, may the moths guide you towards the light.

Immanuela Lawrence
Loose Moose

 — Daniel Allan – New Zealand

In Aotearoa New Zealand we have a saying:

Kua hinga he totara i te wao nui a Tane.

This means a great totara tree has fallen in the forest of Tane (God of people and the forest). Totara is our tallest native tree, and has a special significance. 

I had only been in the Court Jesters for a couple of years when Keith Johnstone turned up to grumble his way through a weekend of workshops with us and invited others in about 2004. 

For a kid who had grown up on Theatresports and reading Keith’s books this was a bit like a young painter being able to hang with Picasso, or a tennis ball boy getting to have some rallies with Serena Williams. 

We were in awe but, typically, Keith just did his thing and put us through games on status and tics and mantras and balloon whacking and a teddy bear with the fur cut away from its eyes (it’s crucial that we see the eyes!) and we all coalesced into a group that was just playing.

During a break on the last day, Keith sat in a wheelchair, but at the end of the break was having trouble getting out of it. Taking advantage of this, I wheeled him slowly and ceremoniously in front of the group and said in a too-loud voice in his ear: “These are the lovely people who have come to learn from you, Mr Johnstone.” It was cheeky as hell, and not many international gurus would have appreciated it, but Keith did.

And here I am decades later, maybe a little less cheeky, but still thinking about improv, studying an MFA on it, no less. I have been poring over ‘Impro for Storytellers’ all day when I look up to see the news of Keith’s passing, which is just bizarre, because I have been reading the book with his voice in my head, it’s like he’s with me, and his witty, perceptive, and relevant prose feels so alive!

In terms of a legacy, there are few with greater. Theatrically, yes Improv has taken off but Keith’s ideas on creativity in education, on the dangers of doing things ‘right’ and ‘trying’ your best, on saying yes to adventures and failing in the right spirit have infiltrated the mainstream. You hear his voice in Ken Robinson Ted Talks, business seminars, and high school lessons. Keith, you leave the world better off than where you found it. I am so grateful for you and your ideas. 

You may be with the Great Moose in the sky now but your theories will continue to inspire and shape us. Go well on this next adventure.

In short, I owe him everything. 

Ngā mihi,

 Keith said in many classes “Never make this about therapy”.  I agree, but I would add that regardless of what we say, this work has been therapeutic to anyone who left the class a better person than they went in or entered into it as a teen with no passion for any direction in particular and arrived decades later with careers based on the things that happened in the classes with Keith decades earlier.

Nien-Zu Nigel Ryan Chang from Taiwan enthusiastically says it for all those transformed by their time with Keith.

Nien-Zu Nigel Ryan Chang – Taiwan

Only a hand full of people I look up to throughout my life, but this gentleman here surely is on the top of this very short list. 

Maybe it’s not for me to say, after all, I have only been knowing him for not quite an amount of time, but being helpless naïve as I am, I would say his wisdom left on earth might be one of the most important treasures for human beings.

His discovery in life has the same value not less than Einstein, Socrates, Lao Tzu, or penicillin. 

Be average” he told me, “don’t punish yourself” he said, “100% of enthusiasm”, “Take risks” he encouraged everyone in the room, the “good nature” he helped us to find within us, and we did, like other millions of people who followed these suggestions and lived a happier and more fulfilled life. 

Before Keith and after Keith, I am a different person, and I love it.

I wanna thank you for that. 

Thank you, thank you for being here, thank you for being a big piece of my life, thank you, 謝謝你, my guru, Keith Johnstone.


There are always more memories…

Don’t miss PART 1 of OUR MEMORIES OF KEITH, revealing his fear he may have been responsible for the death of an author, and inspires theatres to appear and tells Derek to make daggers out of shit.

In PART 2  of OUR MEMORIES OF KEITH,  Death is battled, in the LIFE GAME and Norwegians mention LSD at the Zoo.

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.


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