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  • Keith Johnstone

THEATRE

Updated: Feb 16

BAD IMPROVISER

We admired an improviser who was visiting us from another country.

“He’s excellent,” we said.

The players who arrived with him disagreed.

“But everyone loves him. He’s so inventive. He’s so positive. He’s a wonderfully physical improviser.”

“That’s in this country,” they said: “At home he’s a bad improviser.”

“How can that be!”

“Because he only knows a few words of English. At home he gets up on stage and makes stupid jokes all the time.“

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AH!

About forty years ago a friend had a small role in a production at Theatre Calgary. One evening the play ground to a halt. The actors were inventing dialogue to get the play going again. It became clear to my friend that the ‘star’ (who had been flown in from LA) wasn’t saying or doing anything. Somehow the play managed to reach the interval.

The actors were behind the curtain saying, ‘what happened!’ ‘What was that?’ Oh my goodness!’ etc. The star turned to one of his fellow actors, saying, ‘You weren’t in your position. I was waiting for you to take your position.’

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FEAR

1962. The play was opening in front of all the London critics, and a nervous actor wanted to be perfect. It was his chance of fame! As his average-self he would have been excellent, but he was ‘doing his best’ which meant trying to consciously control everything that he did.

At the beginning of act two he shook hands, and forgot to cancel the action. For the rest of the act his right hand remained sticking out in front of him like a flipper. When the curtain came down forty minutes later he stopped acting and the hand returned to normal.

I saw this myself – I was the director. (I once gave a risible TED talk on Not Doing Your Best.)

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TEAR-JERKER

Herodotus mentions a play called The Capture of Miletus that made the entire audience burst into tears. Instead of being praised, the author was fined a thousand drachmas, and the play was banned in perpetuity.

(Herodotus is the only ancient Greek author that I might enjoy being trapped in a 'lift' with.)

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DIRECTING IMPROVISATIONS

Some directors have one idea and expect the improvisers to accept it, but I want to give the players ideas that inspire them. ('A good idea is one that inspires your partner!) If the players don’t instantly cheer up, I'll suggest another idea, and if that doesn’t do the trick, I suggest yet another. I seldom have to suggest more than three because I’ve had lots of experience. If I make such substitutions quickly no one remembers because why should quick, unused suggestions transfer from the short term memory to the long term memory? Speak hesitantly, as if indecisive, but don't wait for a verbal response (read the body language). “You’re at choir practise?...You talk to a monster in total darkness that you don’t realise is a monster?...You fall in love with your student...”

A scene starts with Beethoven meeting a young princess who wants piano lessons (in real life one of the players is an authority on Beethoven, something I hadn’t known, so it’s good that the suggestion was so ‘open’. Now that the scene is underway any suggestion will be accepted if it moves the scene forwards (rather than being offered just because the director ‘had an idea’.)

“But it was a good idea!”

“It wasn’t needed!”

“I wanted to see what would happen!”

“Then you should be on the stage as one of the improvisers.”

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LIGHTS AND SOUND

I stormed into the booth that contained the Sound Improviser and the Lighting improviser and said ‘What’s going on! What’s happening up here!”

“What! What went wrong?”

“Nothing! You were perfect!”

“So?”

“You supposed to make at least one big mistake in each half.”

“Isn’t that just the improvisers?”

“No! You! Everybody! Otherwise it’s show business!”

(If the scenery collapses during a Show-Biz performance, it’s a disaster – unless the performers can improvise, and perhaps even then - but if it collapsed during an Impro Show it would be a magnificent opportunity.)

If the Lighting and Sound improvisers and the stage-management are expected to be perfect they'll be submissive to the improvisers. They'll see themselves as accompanying the improvisers, rather than as creative equals.

If improvisers come on stage and don't seem 'to have anything' I'd like the 'Hallellujah chorus to crash in, and a sheet of mylar (shiny material ) to be placed on a chair where God can sit and be about to destroy the universe unless a new arrival can dissuade him.

Or I'd like organ music, and for strained glass windows to fade in, and for the improvisers to kneel down and cross themselves (and perhaps for me to shout, 'It's a murder scene!').

Or I'd like red light, and a hand passing tridents onto the stage for a scene in a Hell that's too full to take any more sinners.

Or I'd like waves and seagulls and scenographers who run in with silky blue material to 'make waves'.

Or I'd like a young couple to come home and then, as they switch on the new stereo, for there to be a complete blackout because they've blown the fuses.

I could go on!

Unless everyone involved with the stage is allowed, forced, expected to make mistakes, most improvisation will still look like 'bar-pro' (improvisation in bars). Of course the improvisers who are on-stage must be able to reject any help that they don't like, or don't need, or that threatens to overwhelm them.

Recently I opened a book about Chicago's Second City Improv Theatre. On the first page it described an improviser entering with an armful of pizza boxes. The player already on stage said, 'I see you've brought the man-hole covers,' and got a laugh - which I suppose made the author think that this was a worthwhile interaction, even though it denied our ever knowing what the player with the pizza boxes intended, and created a hostile atmosphere, far away from impro as a exhibition of good nature.

One reason why the player entered with the pizza boxes is that he'd wanted to enter with something, and there was nothing else back stage except the pizza boxes that hadn't been cleared away since the previous evening's 'party'.

What did Second City have on their 50th anniversary poster? One chair!

How often have you seen a bar-pro improviser wearing a hat? Let alone using a prop. Less props: more words!

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THERE ARE OCEANS OF IDEAS

Some time after I had founded the Loose Moose Theatre Company with Mel Tonkin, the players had a meeting to complain that my ideas were being accepted without question, and that this was undemocratic. About twenty ‘moosers’ attended so the idea must have had some traction (unless they were there to support me),

After about ten minutes I said: “But you kill all my ideas!"

“No! We always accept them.”

“Well, you kill most of them.”

“No! No! We always accept your ideas. We never vote!”

“Voting creates winners and losers, so I avoid it."

"Voting is democratic!"

"I never said I was a democrat! But my method is not un-democratic. You've been taught to cling to an idea and fight for it, but my attitude is more like Bertrand Russell's!"

I told them that this famous atheist had been questioned to see if his religious beliefs would absolve him from military service:

"'But surely, Lord Russell, you would be prepared to fight for your beliefs!'

"'Certainly not.'

"'Not! Any why on earth might that be?'

"'Because I might be wrong.'

"If I suggest an idea that doesn’t interest you, I’ll suggest something else, and if that's not acceptable I’ll make more suggestions until suddenly you say, ‘Yes! Yes! Let's do it!'"

They saw that it was true and began to wander off until the meeting didn’t exist any more. There was no formal closure.

I had forgotten this meeting until Patti Stiles reminded me.

Russell was sent to jail, a place where he would have been treated reasonably at a time when working class pacifists were being beaten to death by their warders.

When he was attacked by a mob of women at a pacifist meeting a friend begged a policeman to rescue him saying, 'He's a famous philosopher!' and was told to 'eff off'! 'But he's the son of an Earl!' Rescue was immediate. ********************************************************************************************************


SOUNDS

My knee was treated by a blind osteopath called Mr Tapp. I had imagined that he might bump into me, or head off in the wrong direction, but he always knew where I was because I’d sniff, or clear my throat, or move slightly so that so that he could hear the movement, and this happened quite automatically. My body always let him know where I was, and yet it was the first time that I had been in the presence of a blind man.

Afterwards I went around the corner to Dillon’s bookshop. Someone was sitting cross-legged between two bookcases, absorbed in a book, so I made a small inconsequential sound to alert him to my presence, also quite automatically.

I was early for ‘rehearsal’ so I went into a coffee bar and paid attention to the ‘irrelevant’ sounds that the people around me were making, Why had I never noticed how many emotional sounds people made accompanying speech?

Reach out and touch someone (if it won’t get you arrested), or touch an object. Now remove your hand. That was intellectual (no matter where you touched them) as long as no sound accompanied the action. Do it again, but this time go ‘ummmmm’ or ‘’ahhhhh’ as you touch. The action that was ‘abstract’ now feels meaningful, and probably you’ll laugh to show that you didn’t mean anything by it. At this time (early sixties) women in print were accusing male lovers of ‘operating’ them like adjusting the knobs on a stereo, but I think they were complaining about the absence of sounds. Caress a nipple in silence and it seems ‘remote’, ‘intellectual’. but if you sigh a gentle ‘oooooh!’ or murmer an appreciative ‘uummmm’ as you do it, and the movement feels natural, and full of emotional warmth. A different part of the brain is involved. Experimen!

When I arrived at rehearsal,I discovered something extraordinary. The actors were drinking coffee and eating biscuits and filling the space with sounds as well as with words, but the moment they began to ‘act’ the sounds completely disappeared - only to return the moment that the acting was interrupted for some reason, like consulting the script.

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STONING

I was sitting in a Copenhagen park, it was a cloudy day and not many people were there. A man and a woman arrived behaving - to my eye - rather oddly. I couldn’t understand their relationship until it was revealed to be professional. The woman stepped out of her coat, stark naked – as the English say - and climbed into a fountain where she struck erotic poses as the man photographed her.

In London it would have been shocking – grounds for arrest - but the Danes were more comfortable with nudity. They were naked on the beaches, and sunbathed naked in the parks (a little way in from the paths – they didn’t flaunt it). I directed the first naked scenes at the State Theatre school and the only reaction from the school was 'please don't rehearse at night without pulling down the blinds'.

As the woman was posing in the fountain some young boys (ten year olds?) gathered to watch. I’d seen a Danish child on TV being asked about ‘porn’ who replied – to my understanding – that he thought that 'porn' was ‘the grown-up’s Mickey Mouse’, so what happened next surprised me. The children threw stones at the woman and at the photographer, driving them out of the park.

When a group of children throw stones at you, retreat (or murder) are about your only options. I once saw similar behaviour in London, Children had gathered to watch, were standing quietly , and then, without warning, threw stones at the adults.

No nudity was involved, but the behaviour would have seemed inexplicable. I had been teaching Master/Servant scenes to school teachers, and I had given the Masters 'airship' balloons and sent them into the garden to play Master/Servant scenes, and to beat their Servants with the balloons if their Servants were annoying.

There was nothing to be done except retreat inside the house.

Twice I've seen such stoning scenes in life, but only once on stage - the famous scene in Edward Bond's play Saved that outraged the censor - but Edward's scene was a lie. I had directed his first produced play The Pope's Wedding and I would have directed Saved, his second produced play, except for that scene. I had read the same press reports as Edward had about ten year olds stoning a baby in a pram, but Edward upped the ages by five or more years and I couldn't believe it; I thought teen-agers had other things to occupy them, but the image of a baby being stoned was such a perfect symbol for power destroying innocence - something at the very centre of Edward's discontent - that he used it in a play about teenage men. So I swapped Saved for the play that Gaskill was to have directed -The Cresta Run - by N.F. (Wally) Simpson). A pity, because I had no idea how to direct Wally's play. but liked working with Edward; we tended to think alike (I had sworn that he was talented some seven years before any of his work appeared on stage), and I liked him even though he was the most secretive person I'd ever met.

(Don’t expect to see much nudity in Denmark now. The Moslems won’t tolerate it.)

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MORE FRIGHTENING IN THE MIND

I saw Alien in a Canadian cinema and was terrified because we hardly ever saw the monster. Perhaps the Canadian censors had insisted on cuts, because when I’ve seen the movie since there’s been a lot more monster and it’s far less scary.

It’s a splendid monster, excellently designed, but more frightening when we only see the tiniest glimpses of it.

The shark built for Jaws was usually non-functioning, literarily unusable (and because TV documentaries had shown us genuine great white sharks it needed to look real). Bereft of the shark, Stephen Spielberg filmed yellow ‘barrels’ being dragged through the water, seemingly attached to the shark. Those barrels (and John Williams music) was so terrifying that some people haven’t swum in the sea since.

In his film Duel you never saw the driver of the ugly black truck.

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HARPO

Harpo was the most popular of The Marx Brothers. He never spoke, and yet I’ve never seen an impro group in which one improviser was mute, even if one of them had a very weak voice.

(His book Harpo Speaks describes traveling to Russia where he auditioned for Stanislavsky's Moscow Arts Theatre. His audition consisted entirely of cutlery falling from his clothing. He was 'called back' day after day - I think from Monday to Thursday, something like that - always with a larger group of people watching him but never a single laugh.

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SECRET INSTRUCTIONS

Betty and Colin are about to repeat a scene. I take Betty outside to give her some 'secret instructions'. Now their performances noticeably improve, especially Colin’s. The class want to know what I said, but I’ll probably repeat the 'instructions' a few times with other students.

“The secret is that there was no secret. I told Betty, ‘You’re doing fine. I won’t tell you anything, but it’ll be interesting to see the effect on Colin as he wonders what I've told you!' Their acting improved because they were less interested in themselves, and more interested in each other.”

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A DIFFERENT AUDIENCE

Kenneth Tynan claimed that his enthusiastic review of Osborne’s Look Back in Anger ‘saved’ the play from failure, but the truth is that the play trickled on, losing money for six weeks (because the management of the Royal Court Theatre had nothing to replace it with). Then a twenty-minute extract was shown on television, and after that there were line-ups at the box office – line-ups of people younger than the usual audience.

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AVIS BUNNAGE

Avis starred as the mother in A Taste Of Honey, written by Shelagh Delaney and directed by the great British director, Joan Littlewood.

This fine play had an unsatisfactory ending, or so Joan and the actors thought. Jo is pregnant by her black boy friend who deserts her. Then her mother walks out on her. Then the lights fade and the curtain comes down on Jo’s misery – at least that’s what used to happen. I don't know what the ending is now.

Tony Richardson – who had been in Hollywood, trying to get financing for the film, told me that one of the great Hollywood moguls, I forget which, but it was a name everyone would know, had suggested that it should have an up-beat ending.

“But how,” said Tony.

“Couldn’t the black baby die?”

Avis told me that in despair at finding an ending, Joan Littlewood said:

“Walk out on Jo as usual, but I’ll arrange for the lights to stay up. They won’t go out until you re-enter and say a line of dialogue, any line.”

The performance was going well – it always went well. Avis flounced out as usual, and stood in the gloom back stage, waiting for the applause – which didn’t come. She could see light through the places where the ‘flats’ met and wondered why the stage was still lit. At that moment she remembered! Augh! She burst on the stage in confusion, with no idea what to say, and said: “So what was all that about, then?”

There was a huge roar of laughter, and the curtain came down to frenzied applause. She had given the audience what they wanted – the knowledge that Jo wasn’t going to be left alone, deserted by everyone. Problem solved – except that Joan hadn’t been at the performance. It had been a moment of total spontaneity and Avis couldn’t recreate it. She told me that they struggled for two weeks but that it never worked again.

It’s the kind of story that people won’t believe. Someone should check it with Murray Melvin (who played Geoff wonderfully even though he had just been promoted from office boy).

I would have tried delaying Avis’s reappearance until the audience became just slightly uncomfortable, beginning to suspect an error - but maybe Joan tried that.

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JAMES BOLAM

1962. I directed Ann Jellicoe’s comedy The Knack, and was in the audience when one of the ‘flats’ – one of the walls of the ‘set’ - 'hinged' onto the stage. (The production that had rehearsed on my stage during the day had neglected to secure it.)

The audience was disturbed (‘Is this part of the play? No, an accident! Oh dear! Will they lower the curtain?’ etc.)

James Bolam, who was playing Tom, was alone in what was meant to be Tom’s room. He looked at what had happened (some actors would have ignored it), and considered it for a moment before turning to the audience and saying, in character, “What a household!” This got a huge laugh – and by the time that the laugh ended my stage-management had tied the ‘flat’ back in position.

Instead of being damaged, the performance was enhanced, partly because the ‘line’ had been so perfect for the play, but also because it had happened close to an interval where people could discuss the misadventure and express admiration for James Bolam's presence of mind.

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WRONG!’

1968? My impro group were in Dubrovnik, sent by the British Council. While we were there we were told this story about a production of Richard the Second that the British Council had sent to Zagreb a month earlier.

Richard was taken ill, so his understudy had to take over. This understudy was already playing a role, so his understudy had to be alerted. So many ripples of recasting went through the company that even the prompter had to take part, and yet a prompter was essential.

A senior diplomat from the embassy was approached.

“Yes, yes, I’d be delighted to assist these actor chappies!”

It was explained to him that he was to sit in the ‘prompt corner’ and follow the play, line by line, as the actors on stage spoke them.

"Yes, well that hardly seems rocket science!"

The news spread quickly: “We have a prompter!”

“Great!”

Relief all around.

After twenty minutes, ‘Richard’ forgot his lines. The diplomat said nothing. The pause was becoming interminable, so 'Richard' jumped to some lines that were further in the text.

“WRONG!” said the diplomat, confidently.

'Richard' tried again.

“WRONG!”

I don’t know how they sorted it out, but ‘Richard’ could have addressed the prompter in blank verse:

“I do not wish to be corrected, Sir!

But to be told my line when I forget!”

"WRONG!”

Or he could have decided to bring the prompt-book on stage, saying:

“That book I mentioned to you yesterday,

I’ll fetch it for you from my library!”

"WRONG!"

And perhaps he might have had to fight the diplomat for the prompt book.

"WRONG! WROOONG! WROOOONG!"

Or even to drag the diplomat on to the stage in a frantic tug-o-war.

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STAGE FRIGHT

Our brains have two hemispheres. Each hemisphere controls one half of the body. Perhaps some of the physical awkwardness and left/right synchronisation seen in stage-fright results from the dominant hemisphere being frantic to control both sides of the body so as to make no mistakes.

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RABBITS FROM HATS

I was told that a famous magician said - on the internet - that I had given him valuable advice. I only remembered ever giving advice to one magician, so perhaps it was to him - a pleasant, modest, lively person whose personality would have let him succeed whatever the advice.

I think I said that: “I’ve never seen a magician who was afraid of the tricks; most magicians look rather smug. Pulling a live rabbit out of a hat must have been a sensation the first time it happened, but we’re seen it so often that it’s ‘just a trick’,

“What matters is not the trick – we feel that magicians can show us anything – but the magician’s attitude to the trick. Pull out a bright red writhing glistening rubber octopus from a hat when you were expecting a rabbit; stuff it back in, and stand back in fright while making some sort of excuse to the audience, seemingly to reassure them, but actually to 'play-scare' them – if you did that, and then approached the hat in fear, pulling back your coat sleeves as if afraid of getting slime on them, and only then pulled out a live rabbit, I’ll remember it forever. And if the rabbit moved and you flinched I might like that even more.”

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AN ACTOR'S 'BLINDNESS'.

An actor from The Mousetrap arrived at the Royal Court Theatre Studio and told us this story the morning after it happened.

A woman was on stage, alone – in an isolated country house where something bad had happened – probably a murder. (Forgive me if the details are wrong, but I’m remembering this story from long ago (I directed the studio from ’64 to ’66.)

The woman acted 'hearing a sound', and realised that someone was hiding in an alcove. Her dialogue was something like, ‘Come out of there. I know who you are. Stop playing games!’

The lights should have gone out so that a struggle would be heard in the darkness but on the previous evening they hadn't.

The woman on stage armed herself with something, a poker from the fire perhaps, and approached the alcove, speaking loudly, hoping with each step for darkness to fall, but the lights stayed up. Any further and she would be off-stage. Perhaps the electrician had died, or was throwing up in the toilet, or had fallen asleep, but the play had to go on, so, at the very edge of the stage, she grabbed herself by the throat, while pretending that it was someone else’s hand, and fell back onto the stage, 'strangled'!

I think she was acting correctly. There was a problem and she tried to solve it.

Then the lights went out-and-stayed out for the usual length of time (but without the sound of a struggle). Then someone entered, ‘switched on the lights’, and - acting incorrectly - screamed wonderfully at the carpet where the body had lain night after night but was now up-stage of the sofa,

He (or she) ran forwards to touch the body, and gave a lesser scream – but for real. The body was out of sight so she (or he) had to trek about the stage, find the ‘body’, and scream yet again so that the play could continue.

This was an extreme example of the ‘zombie’ acting that I saw on the English stage in my youth (and found again years later in a Canadian University). She had come on stage, not to find her knitting, or to take a book from the shelf, or to steal a chocolate from the box on the table, but to present her much practised (and no doubt much admired) scream.

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CATHARSIS

I’ve just watched Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, and - as always - I'd like a final section of celebration. If we sacrificed something precious to ensure a good harvest, or for success in battle, the community would rejoice. There might be suspense as we waited for the Oracle to confirm that the sacrifice had been accepted, but then there would be laughing and cheering and therefore the Rite should change, at the death of the dancer, to exaltation and celebration.

The Rite would have been even more shocking (in 1913) if it had ended with the truth – that we don’t skulk off after the moment of sacrifice, feeling guilty. We feel absolved. And therefore happy. And we stay. Vast crowds attend public executions to feel better.

To intensify the catharsis (the intense emotional release when we see the sacrifice being rejected from the pecking order) the sacrifice should be high status, or make-believe high status (as in Theatre). If someone at the very top of the pecking order is 'lopped off', we all get the feeling of moving up a step. The pre-Columbus cultures treated their most beautiful prisoners of war like royalty, gave them everything except their freedom, dressed them like Gods, taught them religious death dances', and trained them to play their part in the rituals involved in climbing the steps of the great pyramid.

The crowds would have seen the sacrifice dressed as a God, and treated as as a God, and acting like a God, move out of sight at the top of the steps. I imagine a total silence as the mystery was being enacted out of sight , and then a great roar to mark the beginning of the celebration as the head, or heart, or body of the human sacrifice tumbled down the steps built so steep exactly for that purpose..

(After a day of tragedies the ancient Greeks presented a comedy. )

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