Keith Johnstone, a pioneer in improvisation who trained a generation of actors and comedians in impromptu performance and creativity, on and off stage, has died. He was 90.
Johnstone passed away at Rockyview Hospital in Calgary on Saturday, according to his personal website, with no cause of death specified. The creator of Theatresports and co-founder of The Loose Moose Theatre Company was born in Devon, England on Feb. 21, 1933.
Johnstone trained at the Royal Court Theatre in London and was a teacher at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. The Royal Court Theatre commissioned a stage play from Johnstone in 1956 and he remained a part of that prestigious live stage troupe over the next decade.
Summing up his philosophy, the key to improvisation is not to be prepared, Johnstone told a TEDx event in Calgary in 2016. “Improvisation is high risk. People think it’s like show business. It’s much more like sport,” he said, before adding the best performance calls for reaching for the obvious, not the clever. “The clever is an imitation of somebody else, really,” Johnstone added.
Keith Johnstone, Improv Trailblazer, Dies at 90
The creator of Theatresports trained and inspired a generation of actors, screenwriters and comics in improvisation and in-the-moment creativity, including ‘Better Call Saul’ star Bob Odenkirk.
Highly recommend Johnstone’s book – Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre
Ron Carter’s fingers are flying up and down the neck of his bass, and Wayne Shorter’s saxophone is just screaming. The five of us have become one entity, shifting and flowing with the music. We’re playing one of Miles’s classics, “So What,” and as we hurtle toward Miles’s solo, it’s the peak of the evening; the whole audience is on the edge of their seats.
Miles starts playing, building up to his solo, and just as he’s about to really let loose, he takes a breath. And right then I play a chord that is just so wrong. I don’t even know where it came from—it’s the wrong chord, in the wrong place, and now it’s hanging out there like a piece of rotten fruit. I think, Oh, shit. It’s as if we’ve all been building this gorgeous house of sound, and I just accidentally put a match to it. Miles pauses for a fraction of a second, and then he plays some notes that somehow, miraculously, make my chord sound right. In that moment I believe my mouth actually fell open. What kind of alchemy was this? And then Miles just took off from there, unleashing a solo that took the song in a new direction. The crowd went absolutely crazy.
It took me years to fully understand what happened in that moment onstage. As soon as I played that chord I judged it. In my mind it was the “wrong” chord. But Miles never judged it—he just heard it as a sound that had happened, and he instantly took it on as a challenge, a question of How can I integrate that chord into everything else we’re doing? And because he didn’t judge it, he was able to run with it, to turn it into something amazing. Miles trusted the band, and he trusted himself, and he always encouraged us to do the same. This was just one of many lessons I learned from Miles.
We all have a natural human tendency to take the safe route—to do the thing we know will work—rather than taking a chance. But that’s the antithesis of jazz, which is all about being in the present. Jazz is about being in the moment, at every moment. It’s about trusting yourself to respond on the fly. If you can allow yourself to do that, you never stop exploring, you never stop learning, in music or in life.
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