Keith Johnstone (b. 1933 in Brixham, UK, d. 2023 in Calgary, CAN) was a pioneer of improvisational theatre methods used worldwide and creator of Theatresports. His book Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre (1979) has been translated into over a dozen languages, is often called “the improviser’s bible,” and continues to be included on recommended reading lists as one of the greatest books on creativity for performers, directors, writers, and to an increasing number of professionals working in disciplines as diverse as education, social science, and business. Keith’s “Impro System,” a term coined by the co-director of this docuseries, Theresa Robbins Dudeck, is a unique method of training that “encourages spontaneous, collaborative creation using the intuitive, uncensored imaginative responses of the participants."(1) It is a system grounded in critical pedagogy and supported by theories from a broad range of sources and experiences, which makes the system applicable to processes beyond the theatre.
Keith began developing the Impro System during his ten-year tenure at the Royal Court Theatre (1956-1966). He entered the Royal Court Theatre (RCT) as a young, unknown, unconventional playwright and script reader but soon became head of the entire script department, a bold director, an influential member of the famous Writers’ Group, the Court’s expert on Samuel Beckett, and eventually an associate director and head of the RCT Studio for professional actors. The RCT Studio, for Keith, was a “scientific laboratory” where he could investigate the nature of spontaneous creation. It is here he developed and refined most of the basic theories and methods of his Impro System and where he discovered the four actors that would become The Theatre Machine, Britain’s first pure improvisational troupe.
The original Theatre Machine members were Ben Benison, Roddy Maude-Roxby, Richard Morgan, Anthony Trent, and Keith Johnstone, as their director (on stage and off). But even before Theatre Machine officially formed in 1967, Keith and his improvisers had been improvising at RCT and all over London on stages and in schools for several years. This is remarkable because, until the Theatres Act of 1968 brought censorship to an end, improvisation performances in public were essentially illegal. Keith avoided the censor’s attention by calling the performances “classes,” “lectures,” or “demonstrations of improvised comedy.” But the censor could not ignore Keith’s proposal to produce Clowning, his partly improvised children’s Christmas show, at the Royal Court in 1965. The Lord Chamberlain, in the end, gave Clowning a license to proceed, which marked the first officially sanctioned improvised show on the British stage.(2)
Theatre Machine, under Keith’s direction, toured throughout Europe for four years (1968-1971) amassing large numbers of fans that would follow Theatre Machine from venue to venue. During this same period, Keith taught at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) and was invited to teach and direct internationally in places like Denmark, Sweden, Italy, and Canada.
Keith emigrated to Canada in 1972 to begin a long tenure teaching in conventional academic institutions analogous to the ones that had denied him access as a young man. Dudeck wrote, “The most radical playwright at RCT, who consistently fought against authority, social norms, and traditional education in Britain, would spend the next two decades in academia.”(3) Keith retired from the University of Calgary (UofC) as a professor emeritus in 1995. In the beginning, UofC served as another laboratory for Keith to explore and expand his Impro System. Keith, as always, pushed boundaries in his classrooms and on the stage; but he soon realized the university would not support the larger projects he wanted to develop. Therefore, Keith formed his own theatre company.
The Loose Moose Theatre Company was founded by Keith and Mel Tonken in 1977. Most of the original company members had also been in Keith’s classes and productions at UofC. Especially during the first decade, this nontraditional company was a force in Calgary’s theatre community. They showcased improvised and scripted theatre (including many of Keith’s plays) and launched Theatresports, the improvised format that took Keith’s Impro System all over the world. Keith served as artistic director for 21 years, handing over the reigns to Dennis Cahill in 1998.
Until 2018, Keith continued to teach internationally. For decades, he has been called “the improvisation guru,” a title he deflected even as he acknowledged it existed. Up until just a few weeks before his death, Keith continued to write and share his wisdom and evolving ideas with close students, friends, and family.
Keith taught and created continuously for six decades.
His popular Theatresports format, which inspired shows like
Whose Line Is It Anyway?, has amassed a reputation that often makes
it difficult to articulate why he matters in other contexts.
This “On Keith” docuseries, sharing multigenerational voices
working across artistic disciplines, will hopefully position
Keith Johnstone as one of the greatest innovators and teachers of
contemporary theatre practices used worldwide, and as a guru,
in the best sense, who adeptly disseminated theories and gave us
simple yet profound tools for living a more spontaneous, imaginative,
and inspired life.
(1) Dudeck. Keith Johnstone: A Critical Biography (Bloomsbury 2013: 2).
(2) See “Phantom Scripts: The Censor’s Archive and the Phantom Scripts of Improvisation” by James McLaughlin, an essay published in Performance Research (Vol. 23, 2018, Issue 2) that reveals how improvisation, and Johnstone’s work in particular, played an essential role in the death of censorship in Britain in the 1960s.
(3) Dudeck. Keith Johnstone: A Critical Biography (Bloomsbury 2013: 2).