"...and Scene." A Farewell to Keith Johnstone
Author of Impro, Founder of Theatresports -- Keith's incredible legacy
This month I’ve been focusing on lessons from the world of improv that can help us deal better with unexpected communication twists and turns (read part 1 here). But (unexpected twist) Part 2 is going to have to wait a minute.
Yesterday I learned that after 90 years of playing well, the universe called “scene” on legend of improvisation Keith Johnstone.
I have to own that over the last few years I’ve become somewhat desensitized to loss, and I feel weird eulogizing a man I knew only through the work. But the impact this man had on an art form which is at the root of my livelihood, the foundation of the stage-work that connects my husband and I in our free time, and one of the primary ways I spread joy in the world deserves some appreciation. So in the spirit of one of my favorite Keithisms “don’t try your best,” here are a few words to honor his legacy.
Keith was a student of human behavior, a philosopher, an expert at play, and a heavy influence on my own sense of these things despite never having met the man personally. The closest I ever got to meeting him was listening to him guide others whilst enjoying a terrific view of the back of his head.
I had the privilege of watching Keith co-direct a Maestro with Patti Stiles (a student of Keith’s and a tremendously influential teacher in her own right) at the Hideout Theatre about a decade ago. It was a show I had performed in myself many times, and had I sprung for his workshop I would have been on stage that night as well. Instead, I sat and enjoyed the audience experience fully, and learned more about the show in an hour and a half of watching than I had in 8 years of play. (Who knows what I could have learned if I had just taken the workshop!)
The show was incredibly good, but what was particularly striking to me was how Keith really pushed players to stop “writing crap” as they go, and instead discover brilliance together in the moment. He would become visibly irritated when people were clearly trying for comedy, and truthfully the biggest emotional crests (from laughter to tears) came when people just slowed down and got real. A lesson we can all take and put in our pockets.
When I think of how prominent the application of improv has become in leadership training, in workplace communication and in how actors show up on the film set I believe that a good chunk of credit belongs to the legacy of Keith Johnstone. He equipped people with tools to bring out the very best in themselves by teaching them to support discovering the best in each other — a legacy I am proud to enfold in the work I do.
May he rest well on the other side of the rainbow bridge.
Please enjoy this TEDx Talk which captures him so incredibly well. May it leave you smiling, feeling relaxed and inspired.