Eternal thanks to Keith Johnstone
Credit where credit is due, is a maxim that I always included in the final session of all the drama courses that I delivered. I then went on to credit Keith Johnstone. Keith died on 11th March 2023 aged 90. He was born in Devon and worked in education and theatre in the UK before emigrating to Canada in the 1960s. He died in Calgary.
I never met Keith but he gave me an entire second career lasting over thirty years, immeasurably increased my creativity, constantly boosted my techniques and enormously enhanced my vocational satisfaction. I was able to share his magic with thousands of others, some of whom continue to extend that legacy.
It is something of a cliché to say that a certain book changed your life, but for me, that is unquestionably true. Keith Johnstone wrote that book. Had it not been on the shelf in the Harris Library in Preston in the summer of 1984, I would never have switched from science technician to drama teacher. Credit, therefore, must also go to the unknown librarian who made the purchase, and to Edmund Harris (1804 – 1877) whose bequest built the museum that contained the library.
By that point I had been active in amateur theatre for a decade and a half, but I was just about to start teaching recreational drama at evening class and did not have a clue how I might fill ten two-hour sessions in a way that would satisfy those paying to take part. The course had been turned down by my brother-in-law and he had recommended me. I had never taught anything to anyone before, and I was also deeply conscious that while amateur drama had given me a very good grounding in how to face the audience and avoid the stage furniture, it had not provided any clues how to create from scratch or be innovative and adventurous. Johnstone’s IMPRO was perfect for that, and for teaching in enjoyable and engaging ways.
As I flicked through the pages, that day in 1984 I found myself nodding at every paragraph. This was how to do drama and make theatre, and have terrific fun. My first ten-week course was a huge success. I continued delivering those lessons for another nine years, before being offered a full-time position at the college where, until then, I had been in the role of Senior Science Technician. None of that progression, and the twenty-four years of teaching that followed would have happened without the words of Keith Johnstone.
For some drama teachers and practitioners IMPRO is a take-it-or-leave-it book, but for me it is indispensable. Since it was written in 1979 countless other works have appeared that replicate or mirror his work, but none are as germane to instant creativity. Johnstone is the creative oracle.
Here is a summary of some of his ideas and methods:
Johnstone focuses on three key elements: status, spontaneity and narrative skills. Thirty years of applying his techniques confirmed that, without doubt they are the cornerstones of dramatic creativity.
Status relationships underpin all our encounters with other people and in drama you need to be able to put your own self esteem into neutral and then become skilled at playing characters of different statuses. Johnstone outlines the key status signifiers such as the length of eye contact, the nature of a person’s stance and movement, and their physical behaviours, or lack of them. For example, high status people move in a measured, controlled, and often slow, manner. They sustain a relaxed but strongly upright posture and exhibit strong eye contact. Low status characters do the opposite. A good actor, he says, has to be able to play any status and to switch between status levels smoothly and instantly.
Spontaneity arises from the “openness” to accept your own, but also your fellow performers’ impulsive ideas combined with a rejection of inhibition. Johnstone points out that improvisation is founded on the notion of accept and block, and competent improvisers learn not to “block” their own ideas or those of others. You might think this will exclude the cornerstone of dramatic interaction – conflict – but it does not. For example, if an actor starts a reply with “Yes, but…” they are accepting their colleague’s theatrical contribution, before countering it. This simple technique preserves the flow of dialogue instead of stalling it.
Johnstone stresses that the creative person should think less, not more, and go with their first ideas. This is counter to much modern tuition, as we are often told to think around a problem, consider widely, edit and reject. He acknowledges that prevarication and selection have their uses, but they are completely detrimental to instant creation, and can so often lead us towards the safe and boring as opposed to the novel and entertaining. He claims that we are not responsible for our imaginations which is a notion that once got me into a bit of bother with a superior. Johnstone was, and is, correct. My superior was not. She was scared and hypocritical. We all imagine things that we wish had not occurred to us. Imagination is not something to which we can apply rules. It happens; then we deal with it.
Narrative, or storytelling, skills depend on the two basic concepts mentioned above, namely an awareness of status relationships and spontaneity. If you add a few simple tricks, such as not trying to control a story as it emerges, but being willing to trust it to evolve, you will be amazed at your own creativity. If you get stuck with an improvised conversation introduce a question into the dialogue, because that prompts a reply. If the story is faltering look back, not forwards. Reintroduce something that happened earlier, that’s how fiction – and real life – works. What happens now, is a consequence of what happened before.
IMPRO explores these three ideas much more. They are useful in creating fiction for the page as well as for the stage. The book also contains a chapter on the use of masks, the veracity of which I found questionable until I tried it, and saw the amazing results repeated over and over again.
He also deals with teaching in general, and while similar ideas have now become mainstream, it is important to note that he devised them in London in the 1950s when the approach to learners, especially the ‘backward’ or ‘ineducable’ was very different. Nevertheless, some of his core techniques are timeless and even for some educators just too demanding to be applied, even though they are really simple. Democratically and regularly sharing eye contact, for example, eradicating any sense of shame associated with ‘failure’, and telling the learners to blame the teacher if the learner cannot do what is asked of them. The latter sounds especially challenging, but it has to be seen in the context of novice performers who are feeling particularly vulnerable. As Johnstone points out such an instruction dissipates the stresses in the participants “they laugh and relax”. Furthermore, a teacher who is prepared to shoulder that responsibility is apparently lowering their status whilst actually raising their authority, as only a very confident teacher would use such an approach. Genius.
On page 29 of my interminably-thumbed copy of IMPRO, Johnstone outlines the three basic rules that I issued at the start of every new practical drama class:
- Whatever I ask you to do, just try it. Have a go. If you can’t do it, it doesn’t matter.
- If you can’t do it, blame me.
- Do everything you can to benefit everyone else in the group as much as, or more than, yourself.
There are no other rules.
Cynics will find this too liberal but if you look carefully, you’ll find that the three rules are self-regulatory because they are entirely interdependent. Rule 2 depends on rule 1 and rule 1 requires the application of rule 3. The sceptical will argue (and some did) that disruptive or non-compliant participants can simply claim that they tried to do what I asked in rule 3 by applying rule 1 and couldn’t, so it was my fault (rule 2). I would accept that, and then say “You are quite right, now let me explain more clearly and simply what rule 3 asks you to do.”
Behaviour management is a by-product of Johnstone’s approach, not its raison d’être. It is not a controlling mechanism, on the contrary it is a means of engaging by distraction. The participants become so enjoyably engrossed that they don’t realise they are learning until after they have learnt. He developed it while delivering a general education to those ‘ineducable’ groups of disadvantaged children. He says on page 21 of IMPRO, “One astounding thing was the way cowed and dead-looking children would suddenly brighten up and look intelligent when they weren’t being asked to learn.”
The principal consequence of Johnstone’s method is the immediate and limitless enabling of individuals, pairs and groups to create dramatic work of unparalleled originality.
As well as inspiring innumerable drama classes, Johnstone’s techniques gave rise to some of the most innovative stage productions, including live improvisation in the theatre and on television. His followers created Theatresports a well-known theatrical entertainment that has played all over the world. His techniques are clearly evident in such TV shows as Whose Line is it Anyway? and even in the comedy panel shows such as Have I Got News for You and Would I Lie to you?
Here are a few more of Johnstone’s thoughts:
“I didn’t learn how to direct again until I was far enough away from anyone whose criticism I cared about.”
“Since then, I’ve always directed plays as if I was totally ignorant about directing. I simply approach each problem on the basis of common sense and try to find the most obvious solutions possible.”
“I’d argue that a director should never demonstrate anything to an actor.”
“Many teachers don’t think that manipulating a group is their responsibility at all. If they’re working with a destructive or bored group, they just blame the students. It’s essential for a teacher to blame himself if the group aren’t in a good state.”
“A good teacher can get results using any method, a bad teacher can wreck any method.”
“An improviser has to be like a man walking backwards. He sees where he has been but pays no attention to the future.”
“My feeling is that sanity is actually a pretence, a way we learn to behave.”
“Once we eliminate fantasy, then we have no artists.”
“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, and those who say ‘No’ are rewarded by the safety they attain.”
There are scores more like that in IMPRO. Perhaps you find them unsettling. I didn’t. I found them empowering.
My debt to Keith Johnstone is infinite, because his methods unlock an infinite number of possibilities. They are fuel that never runs out. They provide an endless array of doors that are permanently unlocked.
Keith Johnstone was, and is, my best teacher; his first and third rules have never failed me, and hence I never felt the slightest inclination to apply rule 2.
References and links
The oracle is available from all good booksellers: IMPRO Improvisation and the Theatre, Methuen 1979. (Paperback 1981) ISBN: 0 413 46430 X
My approach to drama and theatre, heavily influenced by Johnstone, is explained in: DRAMA What it is and how to do it