Well I suppose this one will be in English! (french translation coming soon… maybe) I interviewed Keith Johnstone over Skype, and after a fair amount of editing to remove my voice and keep things understandable, here’s the result! You will find the audio and a transcription below.
Thanks to Romuald Six (from the Improvibar in Paris) Frank Totino and Theresa Robbins Dudeck for helping out with the organisation and the technical stuff!
On hostility towards his work
« I do see on the internet that if there’s any hostility to my workers it’s the fact that they see it as New Age. Some of it like the chapter on masks. Somebody said he almost didn’t read Impro because on the first page there’s a thing about words affecting perception. But these people never say: « We tried it and it didn’t work ». I mean they’re not very scientific. If they don’t like it they don’t like it but if they tried it of course they’d find it worked immediately. I taught some Swedes once, they were astonished when everything started happening like I said in would. They sort of felt that I exaggerated. But then I reflect on the fact that hypnosis is… People are still believing hypnosis isn’t real. The New Scientist did a series on it. They did one issue on trance and the editorial board got themselves hypnotized so they could believe it. Now that’s in the 21st century for Gods sake! It just goes against the Age of Enlightenment or something. We don’t deal well with trance states although they exist and we’re in it most of the time. I’m amazed that people will not try it and condemn it.
I’ve always found everything was fine with actual students. Back in the 60s there was a lot of opposition, but not from people I taught. And people like Osborn didn’t like the idea of somebody not having to have a playwright and going on the stage. When I first started teaching at the Royal Academy in 66 one or two teachers wouldn’t talk to me. They would sweep past me, cutting me dead in the corridors. So people have very closed minds. »
On longform and going to see shows
« I don’t really understand longform myself. I admire it but I’ve never really enjoyed it. If it can be a long form, well I’d rather see a play myself. My feeling about improvisation is that if it’s not better than scripted stuff don’t do it. Improvisation is cheap, it’s different, it makes different demands on the performers. But I mean the reason why improvisation is – well there’s many reasons – but one reason why it’s comic is that comic improvisation of any quality is gonna make the audience laugh more than rehearsed. I mean even good comedians pretend to improvise anyway. They try to make that impression because people like that. They like to see grown-ups being playful.
I went to see an improvised detective story recently but it was nowhere near as good as a real detective story and they didn’t really seem to care. I didn’t think they’d analyzed what a detective story was. It’s about… well the very basic one is about the rejection of somebody, the detection of the wrongdoer and sending them into exile or into jail. I guess Oedipus Rex is the sort of model – or a model – for those kind of stories but it’s serious, the detective story. Now I’m not trying to talk against longform I’m talking personally. I never enjoyed it so…
Why should one like everything I don’t understand that. It would be nice to like more of everything really. To have really bad taste and like everything. But I can’t do that. I mean wonderful improvisation is something astounding. I mean a wonderful Theatersports match is really special. But where can you see that? You actually have to get up and go out go to another building that may be miles away and then sit there and it’s a certain amount of investment which is probably not going to be rewarded. So I don’t go and at my age everything is an effort. I mean if I can see better stuff on TV I’ll watch TV. »
On teaching and manipulating students
I like teaching but I haven’t really found out how to do it. I have perfected a method so it’s like a game. Can I win this game or can I not? For me that’s what teaching is. Teaching is like a game and there’s a pleasure to doing it. If I decided that I knew how to do it I wouldn’t be here, I would give it up. It’s always a sort of a thrill of « can I succeed or am I gonna fail? ». That’s my feeling about teaching. Outside of that I might find something out. These days when I find something it’s often something I knew 50 years ago but I’ve forgotten. I don’t often find out anything really new. Also I have no short-term memory so I tend to forget it anyway.
I think a teacher has to be extremely manipulative. My problem is basically that I try to make them safe. Like in my experience, almost all actors are afraid. I don’t see why improvisers should be. If I can get them just to be average and not get all hung up… Once they start trying to be good they think ahead and then you can’t work with them. Because instead of being with you moment by moment they’re… It’s like University cocktail parties where you’re talking to somebody but they’re thinking of who they are gonna talk to next or they’re waiting for you to just stop talking so they can say something intelligent. They’re not really listening – and that happens in life a lot – but it shouldn’t happen on the improvisation stage. So my advice is « be average » not « do your best ».
I did try that at the TED Talk I did some time ago, but not very successfully. Oh they got cross. We were supposed to have 15 minutes. I don’t see why I couldn’t have 20 and then they could cut it. In the end they cut me to 12 so they wouldn’t even give me 15. And they cut the laughs out. Now they couldn’t cut them all out… But I don’t think they liked my attitude. It’s like fractured TED Talk, breaking every possible rule that they had. I could have done with another three minutes because I was trying to make a point. However it was interesting. But God they did everything they could to scare the speakers. The atmosphere… There was so much fear. I think people laughed at mine because there really wasn’t any fear, because you just try to do the obvious. Those guys and the whole organization, everybody was frightened.
This is about performances and athletic performance as well. If the athlete is doing their best they’re not going to get their best results. Because too many muscles are involved. If you do it consciously you are using more muscles and you need. If the body does it for you the body just does it. And it operates better than you do. In a way that’s the same with improvisers: the body knows what to do, your mind just interferes, well your consciousness interferes. You have to accept the gift that your unconscious gives you.
I think don’t quote is somewhere saying I think my brain is more intelligent than me. That’s why I usually do what it wants. I think my personality has really been designed to placate other people. Got to get by. There’s a theory about intelligence being pushed by social interactions. In evolution, when it became really important to know who was the
boss and who wasn’t. You gotta get intelligent in a way that you’re not gonna get from less social animals. I’m not saying that’s true, I just mention it as some have explained the evolution of intelligence in that way.
But also if you look at you – not so much with me now but certainly as a teenager – the inner dialogue was almost entirely to do with impressing other people. I mean it’s kind of humiliating to look back on all that. But everything was to do with other people’s opinion of you. Then you do your best and then you’re not so talented. Well you know, you’re an improviser, when it goes right it’s like you’re being inspired. You’re channeling something. Everything is obvious. And when it goes badly then your consciousness is desperately sort of trying to drag up something interesting. Now I’m not an improviser but if i’m directing, say Maestro, on a good night everything is effortless but on a bad night it’s incredibly hard work.
On taking audience suggestions and light entertainment
[answering to the question « you never ask the audience for suggestions? »]
Oh god yes! Why would I go to see a show like that? It’s just an excuse: « how can you blame us for failing if they gave that suggestion? ». I had a solution to this – which of course I should have realized wouldn’t work. I was going to help those poor Americans by getting them not to ask for a suggestion but to ask for a « suggestion that inspires us ». And then you could say when they say « proctologist » – because they hate men or something – you could say: « does that inspire you? ». And they could all shake their heads and say: « I’m sorry sir not your profession! ».
But they’ll take suggestions and if they don’t like a suggestion they’ll try to add to it. Most of the suggestions are hostile or from people that want to be on the stage instead of you. And they keep making the same ones. What’s the point? You ask for a room in a house and they say the bathroom. I mean why should you… It’s just a con, it’s not for me. Now I know this is heresy but to me it’s a way of guaranteeing a waste of time, to get suggestions from the audience. But I have given some pages to this in the Theatersports book and that chapter was cut down by half. I mean this is so commercial and yet if you have a comedy show where they’re just getting suggestions it’s an uninteresting, way limited game. I don’t see why you shouldn’t do it, if it fills up your theater and makes money, but I don’t want to do that. Why should I watch it?
There’s no achievement and they’re always playing the same games so I don’t go. But it’s not some affectation that I don’t go. If it was wonderful I would go but I gave up in the end. I don’t want to see see light entertainment. I’ve found a great quote and put in a book, one of those books, from David Letterman’s manager saying: « if you learn anything of value from watching our show we’ve failed in our purpose ». I think that’s what he says, pretty well that. And that absolutely does describe the light entertainment business. It’s just wasting our time. Personally I’m not into light entertainment, I don’t watch it on the TV, why I should I go to the theater to see it? It’s always a struggle to say or do something which is worthwhile. Just to pass the time…
The audience laugh doesn’t cut any ice with me. That’s the easiest thing. They paid money to come and see a comedy show and they want to laugh. But if that’s all you’ve got on offer I think it’s a bit bleak. If you’ve been normally educated you’ll probably like light entertainment. Because anything with anything real in it is gonna cause stress. If you live a normal education you attach stress to learning instead of learning being this great pleasure which it would be to a normal ape. It’s stressful, so then you have to have light entertainment which means nothing and is pointless and eases your pleasantly towards death.
On « The Life Game », being funny and talking head
There was « Life Game » in L.A. once. The group were certainly good improvisers but Dan was in it and when you’re in it you don’t see it the same way as you do from the outside. The first half was fine and the second half was rubbish. I discovered afterwards that Dan told the interviewer to take over more and the interviewer did take over and the interviewer was just asking for rubbish. You hope in « The life Game » that it’s going to get more and more serious as it goes through. It’s a strange thing « The Life Game » because it takes you on a journey if you’re the guest. And after an hour of self-revelation you tend to get into much deeper stuff, which is how the second half should go. Not good to think about… Yeah I mean probably Dan thought they weren’t getting enough laughs. I was thinking they weren’t getting enough tears… So… I’m not the audience.
They’re still playing my games because the games are not meant to be funny, they were based on theory basically. Now I don’t think you should ever go on a stage to be funny. You should go on to make relationships. The audience can decide if it’s funny or not but if the audience don’t laugh… You see it’s dreadful to be a stand-up comedian because they must laugh or you’re sunk. But improvisers often put themselves in the same state because they’re on this stage to be funny. If you’re on this stage to put bits of story forwards, to develop things and to make some sort of relationship with the other improvisers, it doesn’t matter if they laugh or not. So then you’re not in the trap of stand-up comedians.
I think improvisers suffer unnecessarily. I say you walk on stage to be average, to make contact, to see what’s going on, to see what’s already inherent in the scene. Take what’s there and develop it a little bit. If there’s a lone person on the stage on a sofa, and that’s all you have, well play a love scene with the sofa. That would be fine. I’ve never seen that. Now you take what’s in the scene…
And I’m talking about having a sofa. The idea that improvisers would have furniture is pretty rare. I was in Chicago on the 50th anniversary of Second City and on the poster they had a chair. They were proud of it. Have you read that book Teresa wrote about me? There is a picture of my improvisation group there somewhere and they did not look like any improvisation group you ever saw. They look like clowns. We were much more related to clowning, I think, than certainly Second City.
I have some residual memory of Mike Nichols and Elaine May making smart conversation in the theater just by the university. So if they were gonna do a scene by Pirandello fine. But if you transported those guys to China or somewhere, they would have survived because they were clever enough to change everything they did, but they couldn’t do smart witty conversations because nobody would laugh. They’d have to change everything. But I think there’s still the idea that you go on the stage and you make witty conversation. People laugh and praise your afterwards. I think that my model has much more actually do with mime. But there ought to be something worth seeing not just worth hearing. I want to see props and stuff. It would be so nice to have a boat you can roll on the stage to go duck hunting. It’s so nice to have a golf car you can drive. Once we had a cattle auction house. It was perfect. I think we raised the stage a bit but it was perfect because the farmers want to see the whole animal, you know. Well you’ve got a theater where the actors can actually lie on the floor and the audience can still see them.
If you’re in a bar doing BarPro, sometimes it just has to be talking heads because it’s only the heads that they can see. But then when those groups get their own theaters they’re still playing as if it’s BarPro. I don’t go to the theater… I’m on the same subject I must be obsessed! I don’t go to the theater to see talking heads. That was more of the fashion back in the 1930s I think.
However I’m tired of being a grouch about improvisation. I think it’s fine that they can fill theaters and make money, that seems good. But I don’t have to go and see it.
On Directing plays and acting
Well I mean the modern director came from slave owners in Russia where great aristocrats would have a theater full of serfs. And they would be being whipped afterwards if he screwed up his speeches. Now you can see it with ballets, being on point and feet bleeding and all that, you could pretty well guess it was invented for slaves who didn’t have a choice.
Anyway the director, the sort of super director who controls everything… If you’re really good, like John Dexter was a director who was wonderful at controlling everything. I think he could have possibly got other results as well but he was really good at that. But mostly I think there is just too much control exercised. If there are two people on the stage and they’re good actors, why should we say where they have to go? It’s their stage, they’re performing. If you have more people on the stage and maybe you have to control that… I had a play with Jesus and no one was allowed to get within six feet of him. If they couldn’t avoid that they had to fall over. So that saved a lot of having to organize the movement. Also Death was in that play. If anybody got within six feet of him they had to scream. Try to get away.
I did « Life is a dream » at RADA , and there is six or seven pages of verse between the King and his son, his murderous son. But I gave the King a couple of spear-men. I discovered that in the basement there were thirty spears they [the theater] didn’t want. I told them [the spear-men] they had to protect the King. So then I told the Prince secretly if he you could get a spear he should break it. They’d say « hey he broke my spear! » and I said « yeah you pushed it towards him and you gave it to him ». I think we went through about 25 spears before they got the message and then it was dynamic. Then if the prince is not close to the King, the spears were upright. If he gets closer the spears go horizontally. If he gets closer they jab the spears at him yelling « back! back! ». I think that made the six or seven pages go really well. But it was different every night. So I think people over direct. And I might sometimes be very successful doing that and sometimes it’s a disaster. It’s good and bad with me. It’s not a very high standard…
Well certainly with Godot when Vladimir and Estragon have long sections, why tell them where they have to go? I don’t get that. I mean if they’re good actors… It’s frightening for actors when you first propose it, but actually they like it. I did it five times maybe six times, I really like that play. But I’ve never had any trouble. I was always likely to have trouble with somewhere towards the end. Vladimir sounds like he’s giving the message of the play and it’s very difficult to stop actors from doing that. They would always seize the opportunity to make it theirs. And actually it’s Beckett’s.
There’s a story about Carrigan’s eyebrow. In some comedy he used to raise his eyebrows and got a huge laugh. But one night he forgot to do it and he still got the huge laugh. You know they used to fine actors for not getting laughs. The stage manager would say Mr. Hornby or whoever didn’t get his laugh on this line tonight and they’d fine the actor. That’s slaves again. I think that’s way in the past now at least I hope it is.
Or probably University theater, they can be pretty archaic. First University play I saw, someone dropped a hat. And as he hadn’t dropped it in rehearsal he couldn’t bend over and pick it up, because they’re all zombies on the stage. But then somebody else I stood on the hat so he sneaks a look down to see what it is and it’s a hat, so he kicks it under the table, which is pretty ridiculous. Then it went right under the table and came out the other side and for about half an hour the whole audience is watching this. It’s more interesting than the play. It wasn’t intended by the director. They couldn’t bend down and pick it up. Because they’re not directed like that. They’re directed to obey what the director wants. If you want an example of bad theater I’d give that.
« The Mousetrap », an Agatha Christie play, it was on for fifty years in London, occupying a very nice little theater. There’s a scene where somebody, I think they’re sitting on a sofa. It’s the house where there have been many murders and then she hears some sound in the corner and she says « who’s that?! Come out ! ». Then the lights go out and then there’s a scream and somebody comes running and puts the lights on and sees the body on the carpet and screams. I don’t know if I’m explaining that bit coherently… But the night before, the lights hadn’t gone out. So actually she repeats the line « come out! I know you’re there ». But she can’t keep repeating it like a parrot so she had armed herself with something, a lampshade or fire iron or something. And she approaches the area where someone’s hiding saying « come out! I know who you are! » and then the lights went out. So then somebody comes running opens the door puts the lights on, or the electrician does, and she screams at the empty carpet because the body is supposed to be there. But now it’s upstage. I mean that kind of thing shouldn’t happen. She’s opening the door to give a good scream, she’s not opening the door wondering if this is where the noise came
So as you want to talk about acting… I like actors who do the same thing every night, it’s fine. But if something changes I’m hoping they’ll change. I love actors who can see everything on the stage. But that doesn’t have to be, I think Vanessa Redgrave used to take her contacts out so she wouldn’t be so distracted by the other actors. That may be a false story but, certainly great actors, like great opera singers, they can.. I’m thinking of Salvini, actually not an opera singer, who flew in to play Othello in Italian in the company that’s been rehearsing it in Russian. It was wonderful to see him. It’s like going to see a really great musician or something or hear a great musician.
It doesn’t matter. Many things don’t matter if you have a genius on the stage. Because you just watch them. But in the normal course of events it’s nice if the actors can see each other and react to each other. We used to play at the Royal Court Theatre for 10 years. Now we would take the the Green Line underground trains down to Stratford East to Joan Littlewood’s theater. She was a great English director, not well thought of by the government because she was a communist. And we could see her actors looking human on the stage. Then we would come back to the theater and I used to call our theater a taxidermy. I mean her actors were real and ours were not. That was annoying. Like it’s kind of embarrassing that Joan’s actors looked truthful and our’s didn’t. Well not to my eye.
So that was another reason for being interested in improvisation. To make it alive on the stage and not dead. But of course if he had to talk about acting for me I like it to be alive. How alive do I want it, it depends. I mean if I’m doing Godot the text has to be… In Godot the text comes in chunks, sometimes quite short chunks. You can draw a line across it and all that has to be strictly observed… But where they are on stage, who cares? It doesn’t matter. As long as the audience can see them.
We took Godot up to Edmonton, that’s a city three hours drive to the north of us. It was not a good theater design and you could really only see the floor at the very back four feet. So we did the play in that four foot strip of stage. Just because everyone could see us there. Then I got praise for my original directing. That was actually the only place where everybody could see us. So it’s nice if they’re improvisers because you can make those adaptations.
If you know about status you can do a scene where you reverse the status and you find out all kinds of stuff then. Or if they’re good at gibberish you can play your scene in gibberish. We used to do all our kids plays like that, just to pump up the physicality. I mean the gibberish has to be produced syllable by syllable. Like « [speaking gibberish] ». « To be or not to be that is the question ». But you have to change every syllable or it won’t work.
However I’m just recommending. For me it’s sometimes nice if things are looser and not so uptight. The more frightened everybody is the more uptight it gets. They’re gonna get punished if they make a mistake.
Taking risks, playing with the audience and misbehaving
I would always go to see Rebecca Northan’s « Blind Date ». That could be thrilling. This is a world of improvisers trying to make it safe. Why improvise if you wanna be safe? You improvise to go into areas of danger where you hope you’ll survive and Rebecca’s show is exactly like that. She was with the member of the audience for at least an hour and a half. The same member of the audience. And she has to make them successful. And sometimes she picks the wrong person, and she’s really suffering out there. But that’s great. It’s dangerous.
I don’t want to watch tightrope walkers walking along the floor. You change your game to fit local conditions, they say. But they’d always made it safer. The place for a tightrope walker is over a swimming pool full of great white sharks. That’s when you should walk a tightrope. Go over Niagara Falls or somewhere. You should go to see improvisation to see people willingly going into danger. And everybody wants to make it safer. I think that’s crazy.
But she’s skilled. When you get a volunteer on stage in a normal show, first of all you shouldn’t get them when you desperately need them. Because if you get a volunteer on a bad night you don’t want that volunteer. You get volunteers when the show is going really well and you don’t need them. Because then you increase benevolence. It’s like a representation of the audience and they judge you by how generously you treat the volunteer. We want a benevolent audience and that’s why you should get volunteers on a good night and treat them wonderfully. You have to make him look good. But that’s only for like ten minutes but Rebecca took it for an hour and a half. That’s highly dangerous and so I would got to watch that.
But I see people trying to be safe. When I used to be on the stage with improvisers it was not like « Whose line is it anyway? » because I was responsible for making the scenes work. And if they were getting into old material I would stop them and make them do something else. Or if they finished a scene and there’s lots of undigested material I wouldn’t let them finish, I would make them go on. So basically when you saw those Theatre Machine shows I’m fighting the actors and that was really why we had no competitors back in the 60s. Other groups would form and fail because they were obedient. In my group I would be teaching comedy on the stage really. So everything had to be done to make it to make it not look like a class. So they were a totally ill-disciplined bunch of actors misbehaving wonderfully. But the other groups who did it would be dead scared and they would be obeying the director, like performing animal, performing seals. So they they misunderstood the nature of the event with the Theatre Machine which was me fighting for actors for a few hours.