Remembering Keith Johnstone
Updated: Mar 14
On March 11, 2023, Keith Johnstone passed away. Keith's work is fundamental to impro studio's improvisation practices as it provided a major stepping stone on my own journey as an impro player, performer and trainer/facilitator.
Grandfather, pioneer, guru... Keith Johnstone has many titles in the English speaking improvised theatre world. He "was an internationally recognized pioneer of improvisation theatre, co-founder of The Loose Moose Theatre Company, creator of Theatresports, an important playwright, director, and most importantly, a beloved teacher."
I was first introduced to Keith's work in 2010, when my improvisation teacher at the London School of Economics (LSE) Student Union Drama Society recommended his book IMPRO - Improvisation and the Theatre to me. Within reading the first few pages, I was smitten.
Keith's words touched a longing deep inside of me, a yearning to be free in my own creativity, on stage and in life. While I had come to the LSE to study International Relations, it soon became clear to me that there was an even bigger challenge ahead of me: improvisational relating.
When my improvisation teachers graduated from university in summer 2010, our theatre group was left leaderless. Luckily, two of us (Guilherme and I) had read Keith's books and we decided to give facilitation a try in the hope that we would find another teacher amongst those who attended.
Many new people joined, alumni returned and our network began to grow. Gradually it became clear to us that Guilherme and I had organically grown into the role of workshop leaders. Week by week we met up to devise lesson plans by picking activities from Keith's books. Lesson by lesson we refined our ways of co-facilitating.
We practiced by way of trial and discovery. Joy and laughter were our guides and at the end of the school year we held a successful performance where we played games in front of an audience of friends. Keith's books had provided us with ample instructions for performing structures and preparation.
Everything else we improvised!
This photo brings back wonderful memories and heartfelt emotions for me! Some of the friendships visible here are still going strong today! If we had the chance, I am sure we would all love to jump back on stage together again.
While Guilherme and I used Keith's work to build the structure for our improvisation workshops, we gained our group momentum through our many talented members and their efforts to hold, facilitate, teach and grow our community! Our various different interpretations of Keith's work amalgamated into our very own impro bubble that was fed by our collective learnings within the group and individual explorations in the world of theatre.
And as luck would have it, the universe brought Keith right up to my doorstep in London for an intensive training in impro. My weekend with Keith showed me how he put his own words into practice. With the seemingly simplest of activities, he was able to open space for enormous creative leaps to occur and instill a sense of "I can do/learn this" in all of us.
I cannot remember why I was holding a candle stick in this photo (in the workshop room), but I do remember feeling exhillerated and called to keep practicing.
Even though I was, at that time, only barely scratching the very surface of Keith's teachings, they increasingly informed more and more aspects of my life. His explanations of status and non-verbal communication even found their way into my Social Psychology exam.
Practicing improvisation enhanced my social skills, turned me into a group leader, and was my creative lifeline in a perfectionist performance driven university environment. Many of our group members experienced similar positive effects in their lives. Some of the feedback would have been incredible, had I not been there to witness everyone's growth.
After graduating, it soon became clear to me that teaching improvisation to others would become my life-purpose. "The more you give away, the more you have," I wrote in my workshop notes from the 2011 weekend. My eyes were open to a world of possibility and opportunities started to appear beyond Keith's books and the walls of the LSE.
"Those who say 'yes' are rewarded by the adventures they have. Those who say 'no' are rewarded by the safety they attain." - Keith Johnstone
And what an adventure it has been so far! This journey has taken me along breathtaking peaks, shown me gorgeous meadows in vast valleys, and challenged me to climb back up from the deepest and darkest pits of my life where I learned that I could not give what I didn't have.
Writing this piece now, I can see that in those early years, I barely had a clue of what I was doing and what I was getting myself in to. While our improvisation spaces provided a haven for my curious experimental explorations, I made a lot of mistakes, misinterpreted many of Keith's words and started teaching way before I could walk my own talk.
Keith's words were keys which opened many doors for me. Some too soon, others at the right time and in the right place. They enabled me to get started and make it up as I went along - raw, silly and punk rock. And there was so much more I had to learn beyond the LSE, beyond improvising in English, and beyond my own interpretation of Keith's words.
On this occasion, I look back with fondness. Leafing through his books, I can see that I have learned and internalised a lot. Much of his way has informed my way. I have met many people whose lives he has touched and am very glad that he has passed on a wealth of knowledge to his official disciples who now carry on teaching in his style and lineage.
May he rest in peace and may we remember him through practicing at impro studio.
With deep gratitude,