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

1) 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.

2) The only note he ever gave me: “You don’t make enough mistakes.” Said with irritation, not admiration.

3) 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.


Written by William Hall

Wait a minute…what?  What?  Wait…

I can split my life into two sections - before Keith Johnstone and after Keith Johnstone. 

Being introduced to Keith’s ideas changed everything for me.  My friend Rebecca Stockley suggested I read Impro.  It took me quite a while to get through it.  Not because I was a poor reader…but because I had to stop and put the book down frequently to think about what I’d just read. 

I read the section about eye contact.  And that the behavior of eye contact could create relationships and character.  “Why hadn’t my acting teachers at Boston University taught me that?!”  It seems so practical. 

The excitement of his ideas was infectious.  I would bring the book into rehearsals for my comedy group Fratelli Bologna.  We’d read about an exercise, then try it.  It was a magical time.  Discovering the joy of playfully inventing stories, characters, and relationships made us laugh and laugh. 

One of the foundational  ideas driving the creation of BATS Improv was to continue to explore these transformational ideas.  In fact, to become part of the company everyone had to read Impro and take a beginning workshop.  This was not like other improvisation we’d seen. 

I searched my hard drives and the first notes I have from a workshop with Keith Johnstone are from 1988.  Here is what is says at the top of the page: 

If your partner likes to work with you then you/re on the right track.

You can be the worst improvisor but if everyone likes working with you then you'll be the best very soon.

Most people don't even know what their partner is doing.. they're so concerned judging themselves.

If you see your partner is having a difficult time. . . that's O.K. at least you know what's going on.

There is no winning or losing with the tug o' war exercise.  You win or loose by whether you have a good time or not.

Presents is a childish game and suitable for 3 year olds.

Games come from theory and principals.  Games are simple and childish.

Those notes are as valuable to me today as they were in 1988.  

We were fortunate to be able to invite Keith to come to San Francisco and teach workshop.  Many of them at BATS Improv and many produced by Rebecca Stockley and me.  

I remember one workshop where he was leading a word at a time game.  I looked to Rebecca with a confused look, “this is awkward, should I tell him?”  I spoke up and said, “Keith you’ve already taught us this game.”  He paused, took a deep breath, sighed and said,, “well you’re not very good at it.”  

He went on to explain that we were all focused on telling a good story instead of delighting each other. 

In another workshop he looked up and saw all of us with our notebooks up eager to write down some insight that would make us better performers and better teachers. He took a deep sigh and said, “everyone writes down what I do but not how I’m doing it.”  This opened a whole new side of studying with Keith. How he managed the energy of the workshop participants. 

I loved every moment of working with Keith.  

He once confessed to me how he would like to die.  “I’d love for someone to stand behind me with a lead pipe raised over my head.  And someone else in front of me telling me great jokes.  That way when I was caught up in laughter, the person behind me could bash me on the head.”  Then he acted it out.  He pretended someone was telling him a joke, he’d laugh then turn quickly around with a hand raised saying, “wait… it wasn’t that good.”  

Thank you Keith Johnstone.  For your tricky way of connecting us to each other and creating arts and friendships. 

This was from a particularly funny running gag from the workshop.  It made us all laugh over and over again!