Keith Johnston and the Principles of Improvisation

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Keith Johnston and the Principles of Improvisation in Theatre

Keith Johnston, a renowned educator and theatre director, has revolutionized the world of improvisation with his groundbreaking philosophies and techniques. Through his books and teachings, Johnston has imparted valuable insights into the practice of improvisation, enabling performers to unleash their creativity and spontaneity on stage. This article explores some of the key principles Johnston describes in his books, as well as the rules that are crucial for successful improvisation.

Keith Johnston’s deep understanding of human behavior and the art of storytelling forms the foundation of his improvisational teachings. In his influential book, “Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre,” he outlines several principles that actors and improvisers can use to enhance their craft.

Say “Yes, And…”:

This principle emphasizes the importance of accepting and affirming the ideas and offers made by fellow performers. By building upon each other’s contributions, the actors can create a rich and dynamic scene. Avoiding negation and blocking enables the scene to evolve naturally, pushing the boundaries of creativity and collaboration.

Focus on the Here and Now:

Johnston stresses the significance of being fully present within the improvisational moment. Being attuned to your surroundings, fellow performers, and the emotions of the scene allows for authentic reactions and genuine connections. By staying in the present moment, actors can avoid getting caught up in preconceived ideas or future outcomes, thus amplifying the immediacy and authenticity of their performances.

Play with Status:

Johnston introduces the concept of status as a powerful tool in improvisation. Status refers to the social standing or power dynamics that exist between characters. Exploring and manipulating status can add depth and complexity to scenes. By creating contrast in status, performers can generate tension, humor, and conflict, making the scenes more engaging and captivating.

Make Offers and Embrace Mistakes:

Johnston emphasizes the importance of making offers — presenting ideas, actions, or emotions — to move the scene forward. Offers can be both verbal and non-verbal, and they allow for unexpected and exciting developments. Moreover, embracing and celebrating mistakes is crucial for growth and creativity in improvisation. Mistakes can be transformed into opportunities, often leading to unanticipated and delightful outcomes.

While these principles provide a solid foundation for improvisational work, there are also specific rules that are essential for successful improvisation on stage. Although rules in improvisation may seem contradictory, they provide clear guidelines that help performers navigate and derive meaning from the chaotic and spontaneous nature of the art form.

Some key rules include:

Establish and Respect the “Spacework” and Environment:

Establishing the physical space and the objects within it is crucial in improvisation. Actors should respect and build upon their fellow performers’ choices regarding the environment, miming actions, or interacting with imaginary objects. This helps maintain consistency within the scene and avoids confusion.

Avoid Asking Questions:

Questions can put the burden of decision-making on others. Instead, make statements that provide information or offer ideas for the scene to progress. This allows for more collaborative storytelling and keeps the action moving forward.

Embrace and Maintain Character Consistency:

Once a character choice is made, it should be maintained throughout the scene. Consistency in character traits, mannerisms, and objectives allows for a believable and engaging narrative.

Support and Collaborate:

Improvisation thrives on collaboration and teamwork. It’s essential for performers to actively support and listen to their fellow actors to create a cohesive and harmonious scene. Reacting and building upon each other’s ideas fosters a shared ownership of the performance.

Keith Johnston’s principles and rules have transformed the way improvisation is approached in the world of theatre. By embracing the core principles of “Yes, And,” presence, status play, and embracing mistakes, performers can reach new levels of creativity and spontaneity. Additionally, adhering to the specific rules of improvisation onstage fosters cooperation and collaboration, resulting in captivating and unforgettable performances. With Johnston’s teachings as a guide, actors can unlock their potential, enabling the magic of improv to come alive on stage.

One of the most important books by Keith Johnston, is “Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre”. This book, published in 1981, is a classic in the field of improvisational theatre. It explores the principles and techniques of improvisation, providing insights into the creative process and the development of spontaneous performance.

“Impro for Storytellers: Theatresports and the Art of Making Things Happen” by Keith Johnstone

Keith Johnston´s writing

Keith Johnston Video Series by Canada´s Theatre Museum

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