Remembering Keith Johnstone: Internationally Renowned Pioneer of Improvised Theatre

  • Posted on: 16 March 2023
  • By: alazja_kirk

We are deeply saddened by the loss of our beloved friend, mentor, and teacher, Keith Johnstone. As with improv companies and performers around the world, we would not be doing what we do were it not for him. Below, you will read about some of the deep impacts and shared memories with Keith. BATS Improv would like to share our condolences to the Johnstone family and all of those close to him.

Written by Rebecca Stockley 


I cannot imagine the path my life would have taken if I hadn’t met Keith Johnstone. Keith inspired my life’s work. 

Without Keith, I wouldn’t have met Paul Killam. I wouldn’t be living and working in San Francisco, and I wouldn’t have met him. Without Keith Johnstone, BATS Improv would not exist. It is in the name: The Improv format created by Keith Johnstone: Theatresports™ is the first format BATS Improv performed and it named the organization: Bay Area Theatresports™. I’m sure there would be a thriving improv scene here in San Francisco but it wouldn’t be what it is today without Keith. 

We met in 1985 in Seattle when I was part of Seattle Theatresports™. Keith visited and taught some workshops. I remember exploring dozens of exercises, games and scenes for the first time, activities that have become part of the way I teach improv, with principles that have formed my improv practice. I vividly recall playing ‘Presents’, ’Thank you’, Advancing/Not Advancing, and Status Pecking Order scenes at a little theatre school on Capitol Hill in Seattle. That same weekend, we did some scenes exploring what was later titled The Lifegame. 

When Paul and I left Seattle, and moved to San Francisco in 1989 we got to perform in a show Keith saw at the New Performance Gallery in the Mission. We presented Aussie Rules Theatresports™ during Keith’s visit. Aussie Rules Theatresports™ is a strictly timed show with 8 teams, rounds of timed scenes, and eliminations. Keith watched the show, the audience left, and then we gathered for notes. Keith's first comment was: “I’m reminded of a story of Japanese Emperor Hirohito’s 1975 visit to the United States. The emperor was taken to visit a Japanese Garden and he said: ‘I’ve never seen anything quite like it before’.” Then Keith went on to give notes on scenes, moments, and interactions with the audience including, “If you’re not making mistakes, you’re doing something wrong.”

BATS School of Improv hosted Keith Summer Intensive workshops for over a decade. This is a picture of Keith and me before an August 1996 workshop at the Bayfront Theater.

During Keith’s visits he would introduce us to new improv formats: Gorilla Theatre™,  Micetro™ and The Lifegame™. He taught us new activities - I still remember the first time Keith introduced Dolphin Training! 

My mind has been flooded with moments, interactions, and experiences I’ve had with Keith, and because of Keith. I’m deeply sad and deeply grateful. I am a Johnstonian. 





Written by Joshua Raoul Brody


I told Keith a joke once. [I can tell it here, but it’s a little long.] He laughed harder than I’d ever seen him laugh. I saw him again a year later and he was furious with me: he’d told the joke to the folks in Calgary and none of them got it. The only note he ever gave me: “You don’t make enough mistakes”.. said with irritation, not admiration. Keith was not a big fan of improvised musicals or live musical accompaniment; he much preferred pre-recorded cues (played, back in the day, on cartridges that were the same technology as the old 8-track tapes; later they were played digitally), and considered live music a distraction from the meat & potatoes of improvisation. I was surprised, therefore, to learn that he was a very fine musician himself.