March 16, 2023

Keith Johnstone (1933-2023)

School of Creative and Performing Arts Drama Professor Emeritus passed away March 11
Keith Johnstone, University of Calgary Drama Division, Professor Emeritus

With the passing of Keith Johnstone on March 11, the world has lost one of the most significant theatre artists of the 20th Century. Johnstone is recognized internationally for a range of accomplishments, including the creation of Theatresports and the founding of the legendary Loose Moose Theatre Company, both dating from in the 1970s. However, Johnstone’s influence extends over many decades and is still resonant for actors and educators around the globe.

Born in England in 1933, Johnstone trained at the Royal Court Theatre in London and had an early teaching career at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, where he first developed his “Impro System” during the 1960s. He then moved to Alberta and joined the Drama Department at the University of Calgary in 1972, where he continued to develop methods of performance and teaching that redefined accepted approaches to theatrical improvisation. Publications such as IMPRO: Improvisation and the Theatre (1979) and Impro for Storytellers (1994) remain essential reading for aspiring actors to this day.

His work with the Loose Moose Theatre Company included training many of Canada’s most accomplished improvisation artists, including Bruce MCulloch and Mark McKinney of Kids in the Hall fame and celebrated UCalgary alumnus Rebecca Northan. “Keith's influence and reach globally is almost unfathomable,” notes Northan. Reflecting on Johnstone’s widespread reputation for breaking rules and learning from one’s mistakes, she continues, "Keith's ideas have permeated every aspect of my work as an artist. He taught me to be curious, playful, and to continue to misbehave well into adulthood. He encouraged me to be average, and to be obvious, and to risk failure."

Award-winning playwright and current UCalgary Drama Professor Clem Martini took acting and playwriting classes from Johnstone in the 1970s, eventually becoming an early member of Loose Moose. He remembers Johnstone as “one of the most astute, articulate teachers of improvisation I have ever encountered. His classes were electric, funny, fast and often thought provoking. Sometimes life altering.” Former UCalgary Drama Department colleague and Professor Emeritus Brian Smith echoes Northan’s assessment:He [Johnstone] was the enemy of complacency and cliché. He hated the conventional; he loved what was playful and disruptive. His honest belief in every individual’s unique worth and creativity was transformative for legions of students, and the catalyst for many professional careers.”

UCalgary Professor Emeritus James Dugan observes that while many teachers of acting used improvisation as an exercise in classes or as a means of exploring text, “Keith Johnstone made improvisation an art form in itself.” Further, Dugan recalls a former colleague from the University of Alberta suggesting that Johnstone’s presence in the Drama Department contributed to UCalgary’s reputation for flexibility. “We would never have hired Keith Johnstone,” the colleague had offered, in admiration.

Another accomplished former student, Artistic Director of Calgary’s Quest Theatre, Nikki Loach, recalls Johnstone as “a physical disaster, a quirky guru, and an unassuming genius who provided a contemporary method to the craft of acting with extraordinary results, for not just me, but for countless actors, over several decades, around the globe.” Rebecca Northan concurs, “It's impossible to truly understand just how widespread Keith's influence was, is, and will continue to be.” While the loss of Johnstone is reverberating throughout theatre communities around globe, nowhere is it more immediate and meaningful than in the city and the university he called home for so many years.

Keith Johnstone was 90 years old. As fittingly noted on his personal website, “a festive ‘wake’ will be held in his honor at a future date.”

(An informative report of Johnstone’s life, which is drawn upon in this memoriam, can be found in a March 14 article in The Hollywood Reporter.)