Immanuela Lawrence’s article on Keith Johnstone, his legacy and influence is full of rich details and inspiration about the theatre visionary.
The original article can be found at AlbertaViews.ca
Alberta Was His Finest Laboratory
The passing of
world-renowned improvisation guru Keith Johnstone
ON JUNE 25 – A hot, dry Sunday afternoon – hundreds of impro acolytes gathered on the banks of the Bow River at the Pumphouse Theatre in Calgary for a “festive wake” to celebrate the life of Keith Johnstone. The Pumphouse, the original home of Johnstone’s Loose Moose Theatre, had just gotten a new roof. At the last minute a Starlink dish was installed to livestream the event to hundreds more people around the world from London to Sao Paulo to Taipei.
Masked characters handed out chocolate almonds. A Gorilla curated a banana-peeling contest. The silent antics of Chaplin and Buster Keaton danced on the wall. This was not a “wake” in the original meaning of the term. There was no chance the body could reawaken (though Keith would have approved of such a prank): the patron saint of impro had donated his body to science. Even after death, his lifelong desire for others.to learn through exploration prevailed.
Months earlier, on March 11, 2023, the English-turned Albertan mentor to comedians, actors, screenwriters, playwrights and directors around the world had died at Rockyview Hospital. The official cause was complications related to diabetic sepsis, though few would argue he had not lived a long enough life, least of all himself.
“Who wants to be 90?” he liked to joke. “Anyone who’s 89!”
Tributes flooded the internet, obits ran in The New York Times, the Hollywood Reporter, The Guardian, The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. Keith’s former students, self-proclaimed “enfants terribles” of the Loose Moose, Mark McKinney and Bruce McCulloch of Kids in the Hall, joked about playing the hat game (a collaborative challenge Keith invented) on his grave.
Today Theatresports is arguably the most popular invention out of Alberta after ginger beef
JOHNSTONE IS THE AUTHOR OF THE SEMINAL text on improvisation, lmpro: Improvisation and the Theatre (1979). He expanded on his formats, games and techniques in lmpro for Storytellers (1999). He is the creator of popular competitive formats of improvisation including Theatresports, Maestro Impro, The Life Game and Gorilla Theatre. Today Theatresports is arguably the most popular invention out of Alberta after ginger beef. This team-on-team format is played on every continent except Antarctica.
Impro -or improv- is widely considered to have two traditions. Viola Spolin developed a series of exercises and games to train actors in the mid-1950s and taught these alongside her son Paul Sills at the University of Chicago. Sills founded the Compass Players in St. Louis and co-founded The Second City. Spolin and Sills trained Del Close, who went on to be the “Chicago style’s” most influential improvisation instructor and mentor to the likes of Tina Fey and Bob Odenkirk.
With some notable exceptions, fewer improvisers south of the border are indebted to the Johnstone style. According to Jeremy Lamb, an Austin-based performer, “Chicago-style improv is US football, while Johnstone is soccer: predominant in the rest of the world.”
When Better Call Saul actor Odenkirk visited Calgary in the winter of 2014, he dropped in on a show at the Loose Moose on a day off from shooting Fargo, only to learn that this was in fact Keith’s theatre. Not only that, Keith lived in town and had lived and taught here since 1971, for more than half his life. Would Odenkirk like to meet him? A May 19, 2014, caption of a selfie with Bob and Keith on Bob’s official social media reads:
“My fucking mind blew a gasket. Guys, I bought this book [Johnstone’s lmpro: Improvisation and the Theatre] the day I met Del (Close)… and I made notes in it, and did the exercises in it with my dumb friends at college (Tim Thomas-a teacher in Rockford, Illinois) and it set me off on my life path:’
Mark Ravenhill, a British playwright, connected deeply with the techniques and theories in lmpro, as Odenkirk had, and partook in a workshop with the man himself in London in 2017. He shared his first impression of Keith in an editorial for The Guardian:
“He arrives, a natural clown. His teeth sit widely and uncomfortably in his mouth, his trousers are high on a generous belly, his trainers are unfeasibly large. He’s carrying a plastic bag full of balloons, hats and cards containing lines of dialogue in gobbledegook. He grins, sighs and blinks at us through thick glasses:’
In Britain, the Lord Chamberlain had to approve plays and scripts before they could be performed. Improvisation was forbidden.
KEITH WAS BORN ON FEBRUARY 21, 1933 in Brixham, England, a poor fishing town in the southwest county of Devon. His father was a pharmacist. The family of four lived above his shop. His mother, much younger and larger than his father, was prone to terrorizing her young children by chasing Keith and his sister around the kitchen table with a fire poker as a “game” while Keith’s father turned a blind eye. The first chapter of lmpro begins, “As I grew up, everything started to grow grey and dull:’
Their home in Brixham was on the harbour, and, with the onset of the Second World War, became a target of German bombing. In 1940, at age seven, Keith was sent off to Glastonbury to a preparatory school, where he astounded his teacher with his ability to read at an adult level. There was no “Cat Sat on the Mat” for young Keith; he could read the newspaper aloud, having taught himself by memorizing comics. Keith thrived, was spared the cane and was deemed clever. He was recommended to attend the prestigious Totnes Grammar School. Here, though, things quickly went downhill. “I decided right before my ninth birthday not to believe a word the grownups said;’ writes Keith. “And the next day I decided to see if the opposite could be true. I think it changed my life. I’ve been doing it ever since. It taught me to be looking for the obvious and not the clever:’
At age 10, while playing, Keith fell off a cliff. Suddenly he felt a different version of “self” take over as he grabbed onto branches and scrambled to safety. He realised he had developed a social self to please grownups that was not his authentic self. Verbal thinking and intellect interfered with being in the moment.
“Much of my work has involved ways of interfering with speech so that ‘something else’ can operate;’ he has written. By recognizing a performer’s ability to bypass fear and be in a state of non-verbal thinking, magical things could be unleashed.
In his later work with Trance masks, Keith draws on this idea of human beings having many social selves. By creating large or expressive faces, performers stare into a mirror in trance and discover a mask character who frees them of their set idea of self.
Perhaps the worst stab at Keith’s childhood gusto was not inflicted by sharp branches as he scrambled to hang on to that cliff, nor by the bully whose pencil took out Keith’s eyesight in his left eye, but rather by his educators. In his blog he writes: “It’s difficult to destroy the curiosity of an ape, but Totnes Grammar School regularly achieved it:’
Keith went from being the top of his class to being at the bottom, and he wanted to understand why. “Students who are not eager to learn have been damaged. Instead of assuming that they were born that way, conscientious teachers should see it as a chance to heal the school-inflicted wounds.”
He eventually attended St. Luke’s teacher’s training college in Exeter and began teaching children in the government housing area of Battersea, experimenting with more playful and explorative forms of learning.
Keith writes in a chapter titled “Notes on Myself” in Impro: “I began to think of children not as immature adults but of adults as atrophied children.” Education left people atrophied, and with the wrong attitude to failure. Embracing failure was necessary to learn, according to Keith. He discovered techniques and ways to remove fear of failure, whether it was stage fright or writer’s block. Beginners of improvisation are taught to say “yes” to offers. In a TED talk, Keith’s iconic words appear on a title card: “There are people who prefer to say ‘yes’ and there are people who prefer to say ‘no.’ Those who say ‘yes’ are rewarded by the adventures they have. Those who say ‘no’ are rewarded by the safety they attain.”
Battersea and life in London was when the colour returned to Keith’s life as he met and exchanged ideas with kindred spirits: artists, filmmakers, actors taking in plays and films and live music together. After seeing Peter Hall’s production of Waiting for Godot, a life-altering experience that spawned a friendship and mentorship from Samuel Beckett himself, Keith was inspired to move from teaching into theatre.
Johnstone began as a play reader, and then taught acting and playwriting. He wrote and directed several plays himself at the Royal Court and the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) in London for most of the 1960s. Here, Keith evolved into the impro pioneer who could teach-the unteachable: the misfits and the outliers, the drama school stragglers. One such straggler was Jonathan Pryce, who earned an Oscar nomination for his performance as Pope Francis in the film Two Popes: “To me Keith is the man who released any inhibitions I may have had when I went to RADA in the late 1960s”
At that time in Britain, the Lord Chamberlain had to approve plays and scripts before they could be performed in front of an audience. Improvisation was strictly forbidden. Keith found a way around that by hosting open workshops, marking the beginning of his trademark side-coaching, or directed improvisation, another major departure from the Spolin tradition. Keith continued to work on the games, techniques and theory he developed at the Royal Court and through his work with Britain’s first travelling improv troupe: the Theatre Machine.
While teaching at the Royal Court Studio in the early 1960s, Keith became inspired by British professional wrestling, where the competition is fake, yet elicits a sports-like passion from an audience. As he says in Improvisation: The Origins of Theatresports “The exaltation among the spectators was something I longed for, but didn’t get, from ‘straight’ theatre. Sometimes the performers would lie on the canvas and hug each other for minute after minute while the crowd yelled insults and witticisms. Our Royal Court audiences were like whipped dogs in comparison – probably because once an event is categorised as ‘cultural’ it becomes a minefield in which your opinion can damn you. “
KEITH WAS A HEALTHY YOUNG MAN of 40 who didn’t smoke- a real feat for any person in the 1970s. Yet in London he often felt ill or as if he couldn’t breathe. There was no room for Keith to continue experimenting.
Keith accepted a visiting lectureship at the University of Calgary in 1972 and was offered a full-time tenure position in 1975.It was not until he emigrated to Alberta and arrived in the can-do, yeehaw, “git-yer-stompin’ boots on” Stampede culture of Calgary in the early 1970s that he blossomed into the world renowned leader in the field of improvisation. “Calgary was a place where literally, physically and intellectually there was space:” said the late Kathleen Foreman, original Loose Moose member and former U of C Drama faculty member.
Keith was consistently finding better ways of teaching and continued to work on his discoveries in improvisation. He hand-picked his U of C students for further experimentation outside of the university. Early drama students included Foreman, Dennis Cahill, Frank and Tony Totino, Veena Sood, Jim Curry, Dave Duncan and Betty Poulson. Keith preferred to keep the peace at the first sign of dissension from certain faculty members who did not feel his unconventional drama experiments were welcome on campus. He searched for an off-campus home for his growing gang of improvisers. They found one at the Pumphouse. There Johnstone and veterinarian Mel Tonken co-founded Loose Moose Theatre in 1977.
Cahill, current artistic director and an original member of Loose Moose, recalls, “We started doing weekly performances at the Pumphouse on Sunday nights. I think the improvisation is what really got people’s attention, just because there was nothing quite like it, not in Calgary, not really anywhere.”
In Calgary Keith found the freedom to create new techniques and create performance formats, beginning with Theatresports, which quickly exploded. In Impro Keith writes, “Now that I’m teaching ‘playwriting’ in a Canadian university, I’ve adapted from this early game into a way of teaching narrative skills. Two students obey a third, who tells them what to say and do.” This is the source of the “Typewriter Game;’ a narrative exercise played in impro theatres everywhere, where a player mime-types a story for others to fill in. Big discoveries happened with the early students at Loose Moose and the company grew. Early houses frequently sold out.
Keith travelled in the summers while he was at U of C, and then further developed techniques he began abroad in his classes in Calgary and at the Moose. He developed The Danish Game, a component of Theatresports, while teaching in Denmark. Maestro Impro was originally created in the Netherlands, but Keith developed the format further at Loose Moose. Cahill says, “At some point, Keith started to introduce the theory behind the games, which, if you were going to teach or invent your own games, was invaluable.”
Keith retired from U of C in 1995, and, instead of a gold watch, was given a balloon ride. He handed over the artist reins to Cahill in 1998, but often returned to teach or co-direct. Generations of Loose Moosers have made waves in the entertainment industry since, such as Pat Kelly of CBC’s satirical news radio program This is That.
“Probably the greatest influence Keith had on me was teaching me that a performer ‘should not try to be interesting’ being average was more compelling;’ Kelly said. “It unlocked everything for me when I understood that being subtle worked. It has informed everything I’ve done in comedy:’
Dave Lawrence, creator of the cult hit FUBAR, says, “Studying with Keith from such a young age helped me with FUBAR [for] the simple fact that characters need to be altered. I don’t think I would have known that if it weren’t for Keith;’
Keith pioneered huge parts of this now ubiquitous art form right- here in Cowtown, beside his beloved Rockies. Yet he got no rewards or prizes; he was never white-hatted. There’s no mention of this legend’s name on the webpage of the University of Calgary’s drama department, where he taught for nearly. 25 years, no plaque or scholarship or rehearsal space named after him on campus. Improvisation at the Loose Moose Theatre having miraculously survived the pandemic-receives minimal provincial funding compared to other more “respected” art forms such c\.S ballet and scripted theatre. To this day, Keith and his work have received no formal recognition from the local community or the provincial government.
As Mark Ravenhill wrote in his editorial for The Guardian about his workshop with Keith:
‘After one class, I try to tell Johnstone what an inspiration he has been to me. He’s evasive, ducking my attempts to praise him. He is wary of the guru status that many in improvisation have given him. ‘It stops them inventing for themselves: he says. What’s the thing he is proudest of in his life? He stares into the distance for a long time, then says: ‘I did once invent a totally new way of peeling a banana. I’m very proud of that:”
Education left people with the wrong attitude to failure. Keith discovered techniques and ways to remove fear of failure.
BACK AT THE PUMPHOUSE LAST JUNE, Dennis is wrongfully declared the winner of the banana-peeling contest, Mark McKinney leaps to his feet in mock protest, telling Tony Totino he was robbed, “and this shit has been going on for years!” Dave Lawrence, dressed as his FUBAR character Terry, attempts to patch in a group in Brazil, sending screeching feedback through the string quartet’s performance ofBeethoven. Terry yells down at the crowd from the booth: “Sorry. I boned it right up!” They roar with laughter and heckle him, the perfect summation of Keith’s teachings: embrace failure, be obvious, misbehave, relax, the competition isn’t real. ■