Keith Johnstone

Keith Johnstone

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Keith Johnstone is a drama instructor whose teachings and books have focused on improvisational theatre
Improvisational theatre
Improvisational theatre takes many forms. It is best known as improv or impro, which is often comedic, and sometimes poignant or dramatic. In this popular, often topical art form improvisational actors/improvisers use improvisational acting techniques to perform spontaneously...

 and have had a major influence on the art of improvisation.


Born February, 1933, in Devon
Devon is a large county in southwestern England. The county is sometimes referred to as Devonshire, although the term is rarely used inside the county itself as the county has never been officially "shired", it often indicates a traditional or historical context.The county shares borders with...

, England
England is a country that is part of the United Kingdom. It shares land borders with Scotland to the north and Wales to the west; the Irish Sea is to the north west, the Celtic Sea to the south west, with the North Sea to the east and the English Channel to the south separating it from continental...

, Johnstone grew up hating school, finding that it blunted his imagination and made him feel self-conscious and shy. In the late 1950s, as a play-reader, director and drama teacher at the Royal Court Theatre
Royal Court Theatre
The Royal Court Theatre is a non-commercial theatre on Sloane Square, in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. It is noted for its contributions to modern theatre...

 in London
London is the capital city of :England and the :United Kingdom, the largest metropolitan area in the United Kingdom, and the largest urban zone in the European Union by most measures. Located on the River Thames, London has been a major settlement for two millennia, its history going back to its...

, he chose to reverse all that his teachers had told him in an attempt to create more spontaneous actors. For example, he would instruct them to make faces at each other and to be playfully nasty to each other. In the course of his instruction, he would tell his students, "Don't concentrate," "Don't think," "Be obvious," and "Don't be clever!" His unorthodox techniques opened his students' imagination and spontaneity. Even after leaving the Theatre in 1966, Johnstone continued to develop important principles for acting and drama.

Teaching and writing career

In the 1970s, Johnstone moved to Calgary
Calgary is a city in the Province of Alberta, Canada. It is located in the south of the province, in an area of foothills and prairie, approximately east of the front ranges of the Canadian Rockies...

, Alberta
Alberta is a province of Canada. It had an estimated population of 3.7 million in 2010 making it the most populous of Canada's three prairie provinces...

 to teach at the University of Calgary
University of Calgary
The University of Calgary is a public research university located in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Founded in 1966 the U of C is composed of 14 faculties and more than 85 research institutes and centres.More than 25,000 undergraduate and 5,500 graduate students are currently...

. There, he co-founded the Loose Moose Theatre
Loose Moose Theatre
The Loose Moose Theatre Company , is a theater company based in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. It was co-founded in 1977, by Keith Johnstone and Mel Tonken. LMTC has an international reputation for developing the theatrical style of improvisation and specifically the work of Keith Johnstone...

, and invented Theatresports
Theatresports is a form of improvisational theatre, which uses the format of a competition for dramatic effect. Opposing teams can perform scenes based on audience suggestions, with ratings by the audience or by a panel of judges...

, that has become a staple of modern, improvisational comedy. By a fairly convoluted route, Theatresports eventually gave rise to the popular TV show "Whose Line Is It Anyway?
Whose Line Is It Anyway?
Whose Line Is It Anyway? is a short-form improvisational comedy TV show. Originally a British radio programme, it moved to television in 1988 as a series made for the UK's Channel 4, for a 10 series run...

". Johnstone has subsequently invented further improvisation "formats" including "Gorilla Theatre", "Micetro" or "Maestro", and "Life Game" that has been seen at the National Theatre
Royal National Theatre
The Royal National Theatre in London is one of the United Kingdom's two most prominent publicly funded theatre companies, alongside the Royal Shakespeare Company...

 courtesy of Improbable Theatre
Improbable theatre
Improbable theatre is a UK theatre company founded in 1996 by Lee Simpson, Phelim McDermott, Julian Crouch and producer Nick Sweeting. Improbable is funded by Arts Council England, London. The theatre company has produced twelve shows...

, and on U.S. cable television
Cable television
Cable television is a system of providing television programs to consumers via radio frequency signals transmitted to televisions through coaxial cables or digital light pulses through fixed optical fibers located on the subscriber's property, much like the over-the-air method used in traditional...


He has written two books about his work, Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre and Impro For Storytellers. Johnstone still lives in Calgary, but teaches all over the world.

Johnstone's teachings

Whilst he was running the Writer's Group at the Royal Court, he began to teach that drama is about dominance and submission. He came to this realisation as a result of reading several books by Desmond Morris
Desmond Morris
Desmond John Morris, born 24 January 1928 in Purton, north Wiltshire, is a British zoologist and ethologist, as well as a popular anthropologist. He is also known as a painter, television presenter and popular author.-Life:...


Johnstone was the first theatre professional to introduce the term "status transactions" into modern theatre, believing that a high proportion of drama comes from the multiple and tiny ways that people attempt to get what they want by raising or lowering their social status. His teaching included exercises in which students practiced a low-status role by entering the classroom, and acting as though they were accidentally interrupting a very important meeting. The exercise was then repeated by the student. In Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre, Johnstone reports that the increased shows of deference that students acted out often triggered uproarious laughter in the class. He attributes this to a deep-seated human interest in the acting out and renegotiation of status roles.

One of Johnstone's major interests is the use of masks and costumes which represent different emotional states and social roles. He found mask-work to be a powerful learning device. The student's ability to be "in the mask" became so powerful that several fellow instructors reported they were afraid to allow students to use masks in class because some students became overtaken by the mask character. In Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre, he speculates that this effect occurs because masks allow students to let go of their day-to-day identity, especially after the effective exercise of seeing and acting out their new identities before a mirror.

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