Notes I took at the Keith Johnstone Workshop

Day 1

  • Planned incompetence: in reference to having people get chairs
  • Theatre Machine was advertised as “Mime” in Berlin in the 60’s because improvisation was unknown.
  • Drama is a changing vehicle
  • It’s no good walking around on stage trying to be a good improviser if you’re not.
  • If you fail and remain happy up here, people like you. Anywhere else, they’ll hate you, like in a car accident.
  • The audience should want to take you home.
  • Create question police to drag a question asker off, or gag police for gaggers off, etc.
  • If you say the right thing, you see your partner get happy. You know you’re on the right track.
  • The assholes who shout out suggestions don’t want to see the scenes; they want to compete with the actors to be funny.
  • The audience has a myriad of latent ideas about the developing scene (penguin in a forest). When we deny those to be clever, it can be a disappointment for them.
  • Theater is about people getting into trouble and about people being changed.
  • Dead bodies in improvisation tend to get up after about 7 seconds.
  • If there is a car driving in a scene, it will hit someone almost immediately.
  • You learn to look angry and repulsive when you live in a city because you don’t want to be approached.
  • Game: Put someone out of the room, get group remaining to decide on a simple activity for the person to do, when the person comes back in, the crowd says ‘beep’ when they do that thing or get close to doing it.
  • Don’t torment your dolphins, give them clues.
  • Reframe the experience of learning. If you don’t fail, you’re not learning.
  • We have to go, not by thought, but by feeling.
  • We want to see happy, good-natured people who are courageous and moving things into the future.
  • Game: take group, play yes lets, but give performers the option to leave if they don’t like/feel good about a suggestion.
  • Raise your eyebrows and say “nope”, lower your eyebrows and say “no” (we don’t like that one).
  • Game: What comes next? Use ‘nope’ as above, but in response to a poor suggestion from your partner. Nope results in the denied having to leave. [shoot for narrative]
  • Game (variation on above): when someone says no, they become responsible for answering the question “What comes next?”
  • People are deluded in thinking a scene that starts badly will get better.
  • If you’re totally honest and go about feeling, then the audience will follow you.
  • Improvisers collude to avoid change and get laughs. Example: Improvisers doing MacBeth would have him not change when he sees the ghost in the throne.
  • Improvisation is like a saw that never cuts anything. It annoys me. (in reference to not exploiting political material)
  • Learn ways to turn your partner and audience on.
  • Explore the obvious
  • It’s better to be obvious than a clever asshole who’s trying to best others.
  • Johnstone spends time teaching performers to understand and pay attention to the audience.
  • Feet together: obedience. Heels out: gets cuter. Hands in your laps moving around: cuter. Toothy grin: even cuter.
  • If you want to get important, hold your eye contact.
  • If you can actually match status, they’ll think you’re one of them. (anthropology: mutuality)
  • Book: “crowds and power”
  • Patting head or touching face can elevate your status.
  • Status number exercise-except that he uses only 3 numbers rather than 4. Duh!
  • If you can be low status happy, people will like you.
  • What is the voice for on stage? It’s for controlling the audience. (Hello grooming notion)
  • There’s another way to play improv; it’s to see who takes control. The less stress you feel onstage, the less likely you are to control.
  • Eventually took 2 out of the status choice game.
  • You need to give a scene a point or something. Otherwise, you’re just imitating life.
  • Game: scene, either actor can snap when the other actor is not making them feel good. Other players drag that person away while they scream “I’m a good improviser!” The moment you feel it, snap your fingers.
  • Watch your partner to keep making sure they’re having a good time. If not, change your tactics.
  • Keep your promises for your audience. The best spectacles make a promise and keep it.
  • We should be telling stories and having games for contrast.
  • People love to see other people hit by balloons.
  • It’s possible to object to a challenge in tsports, just have a good reason (we have this scene or challenge every week!)
  • Trying harder is the worst way to get better work. Keith encourages people to “Fuck about” to piss him off when they’re having difficulty focusing or playing well.
  • We want wonderful scenes. You don’t necessarily need suggestions. Just start doing your scenes. Are you going to trust amateurs that are in your audience to tell you how to do a good scene?
  • Rebecca Northand – Domprov
  • Whose line is it anyway keeps the commercials from running together.
  • Comedy comes from the search for truth. It has pathos and other facets to it.

Day 2

  • The game is that you’re finally completely happy in your scene, and you’re trying to get through the entire scene without being snapped.
  • Crossing your legs towards the audience makes them more sympathetic towards you.
  • You should be an expert on pleasing the other person, and they should be an expert at pleasing you.
  • It’s ok if things are static onstage, but we’re hoping to see change. That’s why we tap on the glass of a fish tank or poke animals with a stick.
  • We’re always interested when someone comes into someone else’s territory. (Will it engage empathy or xenophobia?)
  • Make stability and upset it in order to raise the stakes.
  • Improvisers usually try not to be altered. We need to be altered in order to see change.
  • Body language should be geared towards being open to the audience and/or our scene partners in order to connect.
  • Keith pays a lot of attention to psycholinguistics.
  • Drama is about one person being changed by another (after a stranger scene). If strangers, get to the tilt.
  • Usually we get onstage and try not to be controlled by our scene partners. Our instinct is to protect ourselves from change.
  • Some people in improv think ‘I get up onstage and make people laugh,’ and they think that’s enough.
  • Separate giggles and chuckles fragment the audience. You want the audience to be one great big animal that wants to turn over and be tickled.
  • You know the work is good when people are clamoring to get in. If young people are lying to get in.
  • If you’re not getting audiences, change what you’re doing until the house fills again. If it has to be mud-wrestling that fills the theater, then good. Get people in and then refine the thing that gets them in.

Day 3

  • I think we should climb a tree every morning and scream and yell for 20 minutes. I think we’d feel much better.
  • Trying to be present rather than a robot who’s trying to look human.
  • Game: try to take the other person’s hat. If someone fails in the attempt, they are out/replaced. The game helps the players to become more present.
  • Notes should happen after shows (preferably in the pub after)
  • Let doors be locked sometimes (because many peoples’ homes tend to be locked) so that we can generate some action onstage, rather than the “Come in!” choice that let’s the person onstage remain static.
  • Touching the face helps lower status.
  • The closer in status you can get the better an actor you appear.
  • Work on learning status differences by starting with broad strokes and differences in status, and then work towards keeping status as close as possible in order to refine your abilities.
  • Keeping your status even/matched creates a sense of mutuality and sameness between people/actors.
  • Running the scene tends to take one up in status.
  • Johnstone spends a lot of time noting the paralinguistic facets of the performance.
  • Keith’s theory of drama is ‘nothing, nothing, nothing, SOMETHING’. Most improvisation is ‘something something something something. [in reference to film actors like Billy Bob Thornton]
  • Making emotional sounds, the body relaxes a bit.
  • Your problem is to abolish the fear, to relax and trust that your good angel will operate you.
  • With improvisation one can continually keep learning.
  • Book: How Children Fail

Published by bradfortier

Educator, Anthropologist, Entertainer who lives in Portland Oregon.

One thought on “Notes I took at the Keith Johnstone Workshop

  1. Brad,

    Great notes. Keith left 8 days of teaching here in SF to be with you in Portland….looks like he was in good health and form.

    Thanks for posting these notes.

    did you see the twitter feed we did from the sf workshops? #KJBats

    BATS Improv


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