Keith Johnstone

Keith Johnstone

Keith Johnstone is a drama instructor whose teachings and books have focused on improvisational theatre and have had a major influence on the art of improvisation. [cite web|url=|title=A Short History of Improvisational Theatre|accessdate=2007-10-09|]


Born February 1933 in Devon, England, he hated his schooling, finding that it blunted his imagination and made him self-conscious and shy. In the late 1950s, as a play-reader, director and drama teacher at the Royal Court Theatre in London, he chose to reverse all of the things his teachers had told him in an attempt to make his actors more spontaneous. 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 of acting and drama.

Teaching and writing career

In the 1970s he moved to Calgary, Alberta to teach at the University of Calgary. There, he co-founded the Loose Moose Theatre and invented Theatresports, which 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?". Keith has subsequently invented further improvisation "formats" including "Gorilla Theatre", "Micetro" or "Maestro" and "Life Game" which has been seen at the National Theatre courtesy of Improbable Theatre and on U.S. cable television.

He has written two books about his work, "Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre" and "Impro For Storytellers". Johnstone still lives in Calgary and 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.

Johnstone was the first theatre professional to introduce the term "status transactions" into modern theatre, believing that an alarmingly high proportion of comedy comes from the infinite and tiny ways that people try to raise their social status and lower the social status of others. His teaching included exercises in which students would practice 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 to improve students acting. He found these to be powerful learning devices, to the point where several fellow instructors reported that they were afraid to allow students to use them in class because some students got 'too much' into the parts of the masks. 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 seeing and acting out their new identity before a mirror.


*Johnstone, Keith (1979). "Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre". New York: Theatre Arts Books. ISBN 0-87830-117-8
*Johnstone, Keith (1999). "Impro for Storytellers". New York: Routledge/Theatre Arts Books. ISBN 0-87830-105-4
*Reddick,Grant . "Keith Johnstone," Theatre 100. Calgary: Alberta Playwrights Network, 2006
*"Keith Johnstone" in Contemporary Dramatists, 6th ed. St. James Press, 1999.
*cite encyclopedia
last = Berney
first = K.A. ed.
authorlink =
title = Johnstone, Keith
encyclopedia = Contemporary British Dramatists
volume =
pages = p.377
publisher = St. James Press
location = London
date = 1994
url =
accessdate =
ISBN 1558622136


External links

* [ Keith Johnstone] , Keith's web page.
* [ Improvisation & Storytelling Workshops] , Workshops based on Keith's works
* [ Canadian Theatre Encyclopedia entry]
* [ "Unscripted"] , Chris Wiebe, "AlbertaViews" magazine, September 2005.

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