Actors and Performers

10 Tips from the Master of Impro!

For the last 2 weeks of June 2014, I was in Calgary working with Keith Johnstone (as his Literary Executor) preparing and packing his personal archive (or a portion of it) for shipment to Stanford University where The Keith Johnstone Papers will be permanently housed. As I sat for hours beside the master of impro going through thousands of old documents, I decided to take the opportunity to ask him, “If you could share one piece of advice with improvisers worldwide, what would it be?”  I then jotted down his answer and, in the evening, posted it on my Keith Johnstone: A Critical Biography Facebook Page.  The next day, I asked him the same question, posted his answer, and I continued to do this almost every day of those last 2 weeks of June.  As I was pondering over what to write about for the Actors & Performers site, it suddenly dawned on me to simply post Keith’s advice!  So, here it is, in chronological order, with a few of my own clarifications plus two bits of advice extracted from Keith’s old writings that I still find very relevant:
  1. “Be More Average.”Which, of course, means be yourself.  We’ve heard Keith say this many times, but what is interesting to note is that this is the first bit of advice that came to mind.  So, it is VERY important to Keith and, yet, so many times impro-trained students still feel the need to be clever or funny when all they really should do is relax and trust that they are enough.
  2. “Don’t Go Onstage to be Funny. Make Relationships.” Another oldie but goodie from Keith.  He went on to say, in so many words, that audiences like to see relationships developed on stage, and that the “funny” will happen without having to force it IF relationships are made and the behavior is truthful.
  1. “Be Truthful.”I then asked him to expound on this and he said something to the effect of, “Every scene is about something. You can’t have a piece of narrative without implications; therefore, instead of the scene being a vacuum, it should express a point of view or strong feelings truthfully.”  Keith proposes that if you do scenes about homeless people, they shouldn’t always be played as drunks.  Or if you do scenes about priests, they shouldn’t always be decent.
It should be a bit like political cartooning. It shouldn’t be about nothing ~Keith Johnstone
  1. On this evening, I posted a bit of his writing that I discovered in one of the archive boxes earlier that afternoon.  It’s an excerpt from his “Loose Moose Training” manual (c. early 1990s) and it is about APPLIED IMPRO:
Stages also exist in real life: the bartender is on stage.  When we interact with a customer we are improvising the action and the dialogue moment by moment.  To continue to function in an efficient and a relaxed way while being stared at is an ability worth having. You can’t swim if you’re welded into a suit of armor, and you cannot really make good contact with people if you have a secret terror of interaction—no matter how skillfully you conceal it.
  1. “Whose Scene is It?  You need to know.  If every scene is yours, you have to pay the other players” [Loved this one].
  2. “Don’t let the audience’s laughter condition you to be disgusting.” Keith often likens the audience to a “large, intelligent beast that needs to be tickled.”  He has closely observed audiences for over half a century and understands that, en masse, an audience is extremely intelligent.  Yes, spectators may laugh loudly (or moan) at vulgar behavior (e.g., a scene about vomiting), but this doesn’t necessarily mean they want more scenes about vomiting! But for the novice improviser seeking approval, laughter resulting from some sort of crude behavior or gesture may condition him to repeat such behavior for a “cheap laugh” and possibly at the expense of everything else.  “Laughter misleads,” wrote Keith in Impro for Storytellers. “Sometimes it’s just drunks, teenager and other improvisers who are laughing, while the bulk of the audience sits with folded arms” (32).  Keith simply wants improvisers to pay attention.  By doing so, they will likely discover that the best way to tickle and engage the “large, intelligent beast” is by presenting them with characters behaving truthfully in strong narratives educing a range of reactions.
  1. “After you’ve learned NOT to block, block IF it inspires your partner.”  Again, this is about paying attention to your partner but also about the “Yes, and” rule in improvisation.  Although not a Keith rule, with beginning students, he will encourage them to accept all offers because they need to learn how to develop action.  But eventually, students learn that saying “no” to an offer isn’t considered a block ifit develops the action and moves the story forward.  For more “offer/block/accept” theories and exercises, see Chapter 3 of Johnstone’s Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre.
  1. Here is another piece of advice that I found as we were digging through yet another box of Keith’s writings.  It’s about controlling the audience.  For those improvisers who have worked with Keith or have been in his workshops, I’m sure you have witnessed him do this:
If you need to shut an audience up, my advice is to raise the palm of the hands to face the audience, but you must raise them above the level of the head.  Positions where the hands are near the face are weak.  Hands near the groin or above the head release those screams that pop stars get.  Hands high and flat shut audiences up.  Smile as you do it.  The reason for stopping an audience which is really laughing a lot and uncontrollable is that this must not be allowed to continue for long at the beginning of the evening.  Some of you may be asking, why would anyone want to “shut up an audience” that is laughing uncontrollably?  Well, as I wrote in Keith Johnstone: A Critical Biography: “Because constant laughter, like continuous filler games, is wearisome” (p. 77).  Audiences want variety.  They want a range of experiences.  Keith is an expert at shaping an evening of improvisational theatre in order to control or, how I would put it, keep an audience enthusiastically engaged from beginning to end!
  1. This advice is for Theatresports players: “The improvisers should be funny, not the judges. The judges are the stern parents. The improvisers are the naughty children.”
  1. And finally: “Improvisation should be an expression of good nature.”
I couldn’t agree more!  THANK YOU, KEITH! Credit: Theresa Robbins Dudeck is Instructor of Acting at Chapman University in Orange, California,  Keith Johnstone’s Literary Executor and an expert in Impro training. She is the author of Keith Johnstone: A Critical Biography (Bloomsbury Methuen Drama, 2013) Link: