Keith Johnstone Interview (in full)

Keith Johnstone was Associate Artistic Director at the Royal Court Theatre in the late 1950s, helping in particular to run the Writer's Group. The improvisatory techniques and exercises evolved there to foster spontaneity and narrative skills were developed further in the actors' studio, then in demonstrations to schools and colleges and ultimately in the founding of a company of performers called The Theatre Machine. An internationally recognized authority in the field of improvisation, his books Impro, and Impro For Storytellers, have been translated into many languages. He leads master classes in improvisation around the world.

This interview between Keith Johnstone and Geoff Colman, the Head of Acting at Central School of Speech and Drama, took place on 22 August 2013, at Bloomsbury Baptist Church, during the lunchbreak of one of Keith's workshops. Also present at the interview were Roddy Maude-Roxby, formerly of The Theatre Machine, and John O'Donovan, Web-editor, Actors & Performers.

GEOFF: I'm Geoff Colman, I'm Head of Acting at Central.

RODDY: Oh hi.

GEOFF: And I occasionally interview theatre folk for Methuen Drama, and I was so delighted to be contacted to talk to a man who has haunted a lot of our work in the drama school sector. You worked at RADA, didn't you, in the 70s?


GEOFF: And so I suppose, my starter for ten, my opening bit of conversation would be about the process of teaching itself. I don't want to talk about Impro or improvisation, but the process of your teaching. Have you modified that over the 30 or so years or, in what way have you refined your work as a teacher of actors?

KEITH: Well, the problem's always been to deal with the fear.

GEOFF: The fear, yeah.

KEITH: Cos the fear is pretty . . .  it ruins everybody really. So I'm not sure how much things have changed, but I was conscious of that. And with The Theatre Machine, I was basically one who took the blame if something went wrong. I was supposed to say the right thing to save scenes and things.

Now I tell people not to do their best. I don't know when that started. Quite a while ago. Because I . . . when they're doing their best I don't get their best. So I try to persuade them to be average. Because if you're wonderful and you're average, you're still wonderful. If you're a bad improviser and you're average, you're what you are. Trying to do better is trying to be better than you actually are, and I don't think you can do that.

GEOFF: And is it the same sort of fear. Is the fear of 1979 the same as fear of 2013? Or are there different fears?

KEITH: Oh, it's the same all over the world. Wherever you go it's the same fear. And the same protective devices. There is one big error I think and partly my fault which is that a lot of things are taught to beginners which you can cast off later on. Like the idea of accepting ideas. Where if you're in a universe where you have to accept ideas, you'll never know if your partner wanted the garbage you're handing them. They have to take it.

GEOFF: So you've modified that? You've modified that approach?

KEITH: I think I felt that people would always kill ideas unless they were beginners when they would do it compulsively.

I would say if someone kills an idea you have to ask 'Why?' If they say 'Because I'm a coward I didn't know what would happen' then you should say 'You shouldn't kill the idea'. If they say 'To inspire my partner' then that's fine. But the Theatre Machine killed ideas all over the place. This is Roddy Maude-Roxby who's sitting in on this interview. Hi Roddy.

RODDY: Hello.

KEITH: Who's older than me even.


GEOFF: (Laughs) I'm not going to go into this territory at all.

KEITH: No; don't bust any paper bags.

GEOFF: So in terms of the fear, you have allowed yourself in a sense to change that approach to working with actors. Do you see the contemporary actor as being a different beast to the creature that you were working with?

KEITH: Well, I only see them in movies. I don't go to theatre and I don't see improvisation either.

GEOFF:  Why would you not go to theatre?

KEITH: Well I live in Calgary.

When I go to see theatre I usually hate it. I did go to see, was it, 'War Horse?' War Horse. Not 'Whores'.

GEOFF: No war whores. That is another one, yeah.

KEITH: I so love those horses. But they give it all away in the first act. And they don't have a second act. I couldn't leave. I have vertigo. I can't crawl up the stairs. I'd have had to crawl, I couldn't walk up, but besides, I was in the very front row, and I don't want to cause a disturbance. But I would rather have liked to have left. But I'm trapped there, so.

But there's something you should understand which is that I believed actors were not afraid.

GEOFF: Actors were not afraid.

KEITH: Yes, I had that illusion. And so, when I wanted to test stuff, I got into improvisation because I wanted to test whether we were being funny or not or were we just self-congratulatory.

So I went off, I asked whoever wanted to come with me to come with me and they were nearly all actors. So I knew I was frightened, but I didn't know they were.

So I made a little speech to this small group and I looked round the corner and there they are in the corner, trying to get behind each other. Stark terror. And I thought 'These guys, they were on the stage every night, they've been trained, what the hell is going on?' So if I hadn't been ignorant of that, I would never have the courage to go into public. That's how it happened.

GEOFF: And in terms of your non-theatre-going in Calgary. Is there something than the mere geography of it. Is there something in you that is not now compelled to go to theatre?

KEITH: Most of my friends that I used to know don't go to theatre either.

GEOFF: But what is it that's lacking? What is it that doesn't hook you in the way that it might have twenty years ago?

KEITH: I see very little theatre. I kind of gave up when . . .  I suppose we had a kind of dream that theatre would be kind of altered to some extent. I mean, the problem with War Horse is they don't have any poetic way of translating the war: they're too literal, they haven't found a method to do it.

In fact Phelim [McDermott] was telling me that it's all over the world and they're doing different second acts because they haven't found a satisfactory one. But they need an image. But I think they should use puppets in the second act as well. German soldiers twelve feet high. That would have interested me.

GEOFF: So you see theatre as a place for poetry or poeticism of the story as opposed to the actual?

KEITH: Well, yeah, poetry in the sense that Beckett would talk about it. And for example in the Life Game scene where a grandmother was trying to stay alive until all her family were there. And she managed it and then she died. But to just put that on the stage would be to just imitate what she said.

So we had a skeleton wrestling with Granny in bed, that only Granny can see, so this demon's trying to kill and she's trying to stay alive. And that you never forget. That would haunt me for the rest of my life, but that's not very long so that's not saying much. . . .

GEOFF: You've never forgotten your time with Beckett . . .

KEITH: I was not a friend of Beckett.

GEOFF: You were not a friend of Beckett? Despite the rumours.

KEITH: He took me to lunch, often, quite often, which may be because he didn't like to eat alone, and I'm not going to ask him 'What does Godot mean' all those things. And he also liked me to watch him direct. I can't tell you why.

As far as I know I was the first person he did that to. So I went as often as I could.

But I couldn't drink with him. Because I really couldn't drink much. And I couldn't talk cricket with him. Which would have been good. And that's one reason why he got on really well with Pinter. Other reasons as well, but Pinter could talk cricket.

GEOFF: I wanted to bring Beckett into this conversation because of his approach to character, as an entity in itself. And I wonder whether you see character and the use of character in the telling of stories as still being universally held and universally true. There's a lot of talk nowadays of the death of character and the death of story.

KEITH: I've heard about the, I've heard about . . . yeah, well I could see that people don't know how to tell stories anymore. I hadn't heard the stuff about character.

GEOFF: Well character in as much as say a playwright like Martin Crimp writing a play called Attempts on her Life where there aren't even named characters there are just unascribed words that could be spoken by a male or a female, an old person or a young person. And there seemed to be a movement in the late '90s away from even the idea of character let alone story. And that seems very removed from your making of theatre. Your theatre is a theatre of stories, a theatre of people.

KEITH: Absolutely. Edward Bond said that he learned from the Writers' Group that character is what people did, rather than how they act.

I see a great lack of stories around. I bought six literary magazines and looked through them to see what people were doing. There wasn't a story in them. They were all about how poetic the feelings of the author were. The authors were really very sensitive. The point about story is . . . .

Actually last night we saw a lovely film called 'Living' or 'Ikiru'; have you seen it?


KEITH: You have to get that film. It's Kurosawa, about a man dying of cancer. It's magnificent.

RODDY: I think I have seen it.

KEITH: There's a scene in the birthday restaurant when the confrontation comes.

RODDY: In modern day Japan, or was made in the '60s.

KEITH: Yeah.

Well that taught me . . . I learned a lot from that movie. It taught me what action was, and what theatre was. Theatre is 'A' changing 'B'. If the characters aren't altered, it can be literature, but it's not drama. And I knew that intuitively at the Royal Court, because we looked through the plays to see if the characters had been changed and oh yeah, they are changed. Great. When? During the interval.  Well that's not so good.

GEOFF: And it was you that brought Bond to the Royal Court, wasn't it? Weren't you one of the readers who . . .

KEITH: I said he was good.

GEOFF: Which was the good that was good? Which was the play that you . . .

KEITH: There's was a bad play called Claxton at Actrius Place.

GEOFF: That's not one I know.

KEITH: He didn't ever do it. But I said the writer of this was good. And seven years later he wrote his first play, which was The Pope's Wedding. But I wouldn't do Saved, because I didn't believe it.

GEOFF: You didn't believe Saved?

KEITH: Well there's the key scene that causes all the trouble. And he read about it, I'm sure as I read about it and it was ten-year-old boys. And I can imagine that. Eight-, nine-, ten-year-old boys, I can imagine them stoning a baby. I can't imagine sixteen-, seventeen-, eighteen-year-olds doing it so I wouldn't do the play; because of that.

GEOFF: And in terms of your processes and your methods, doesn't Bond credit you with the blinding in his Lear, some approach you had in rehearsal which made him in a sense which made him rethink the writing of Lear?

KEITH: For some reason Edward and I, and maybe one other person, worked on Lear in my small bed-sit-room.

GEOFF: Lear in a bed-sit, that's  . . .

KEITH: I was crazy about Act Four Scene Six [of Shakespeare's King Lear] because I think the writing . . .

In my school, the library was forbidden. I was accused of turning on the radiator so that the [class]room was uninhabitable and the ceiling came down below; I'm pretty sure I didn't do it. But then we were moved to the library. And there was a really boring history thing, about the Spanish Armada: how could you make that boring?!            

So I reached my hand out, and slid a book off to read under the desk, and it opened at King Lear Act Four Scene Six. I was astounded. I'd never seen language like it. I was awestruck. I think that may be one reason why I got involved in theatre.

And it was that scene that I used to work on with Edward, but I didn't know he said that. Gaskill had said I was an influence on Edward, but I think Edward was Edward, I think he would have done what he was going to do anyway.

And I'm sorry he's . . . if you get too passionate about some things you can't work anymore. There's that wonderful black comedian whose selling food things now – I can't remember his name – but he got more and more savage and angry about the situation, and he had to stop being a comedian – not Richard Pryor, he's before that – Dick . . . Gregory? Is he a comedian?

RODDY: Oh yes, Gregory, yes.

KEITH: He was good.

RODDY: I knew him in New York.

KEITH: He was good.

RODDY: He was fantastic.

KEITH: But I think he got more and more pissed off, enraged.

RODDY: He was with the . . .

KEITH: I would relate Edward to him. I haven't seen Edward for 40 years. A long time.

GEOFF: So your own work as a writer was graced by another writer. Harold Pinter was in your first play.

KEITH: (Laughs)

GEOFF: That seems a good gathering of the tribes, it seems to me.

KEITH: He's the only writer who ever sent me fan-mail.

GEOFF: Fan-mail from Harold Pinter.

KEITH: In those days you could buy these things that you folded over and licked the edges of. I don't know. It wasn't a postcard, but you could seal a message inside.

He just said it was good work.

He was kind of devastated and financially kind of wrecked by The Birthday Party's failure. I wanted to see it at the weekend; it had already come off.

GEOFF: Crikey.

KEITH: I saw it a little a while later somewhere up in the Midlands directed by Harold and it was great, fantastic.

So as my play was being done at the Aldborough Festival, and then at the Court, it would be possible if he was in it to pay him £20, or maybe even more for the other performance. So we had a body that the person had to be sort of brought on the stage and stand there, and then be carried off again. I think the tortured man or something, I don't know. And that's what he did: that's how we got him the money. And that's why he was there, and Gaskell said he wasn't very good.

GEOFF: (Laughs)

KEITH: Life is strange.

Gaskell was directing the play, that's right . . .

GEOFF: Your life as described in this new biography . . .

KEITH: Yeah, who is that guy?

GEOFF: Well it seems like an accidental life.

KEITH: Totally.

GEOFF: One minute you're on a teacher training course, was it for geography, and the next minute you're in the Royal Court, and the next minute . . . it seems very accidental. You talk about vertigo, a moment ago, trying to escape the theatre you don't like. And yet there's a sense of vertigo sometimes about the incredible encounters you have had in your own life, none of it predetermined it seems.

KEITH: I wasn't talking about, I wasn't discussing vertigo in terms of theatre, I mean, I keep falling over sideways.

GEOFF: Oh, right.

KEITH: I have to flap my arms to stay upright. And I look like a drunk in the street. It's a very interesting experience. I could do without it, personally. But I wasn't referring to theatre.

GEOFF: No. But certainly in your own life, there seems to be a sort of joyous non-preparedness to it. Things happen, you go with it, and then things change.

KEITH: I thought the same. And looking back things look more coherent.

Some people in this life think they're worth something, or that they have a right to things. I never thought I had a right to anything 'cause of the way I was broken as a child. And therefore I was sort of floating around and would get sucked into things.

Really it all started by chatting up a waitress in a coffee bar.

GEOFF: A lot of things happen like that . . .

KEITH: She was an Italian girl called Lorenza Mazzetti who wrote a very good book, which I haven't read called The Far Cry, but it's well thought of, or The Big Sky or something?

I was enthused by Waiting for Godot and I came into this soup kitchen at the bottom of Saint Martin's Lane, and enthused to this woman about Godot, and we also immediately found a loving for Kafka because she was crazy about Kafka and made a short film of him. So we had a lot in common.

And Lindsay Anderson was editing her film – she never told me about that, for three weeks she never told me that she was into film. I sometimes think she wondered if I knew who she was, which I didn't. And finally she confessed and Lindsay got me into the Royal Court. And when I ran out of money, I became a play reader.

And they were impressed, because they had read the canon; they'd been to university. They knew all about Ben Jonson's Theory of Humours, and all kinds of stuff that wasn't relevant to the new plays coming in. And I knew about Wedekind, and Strindberg, and all these, I knew a lot of stuff that they had no idea about. Like Indian plays and Chinese plays. Because I would read everything. And they were university guys, knowing a lot in a very narrow channel. Which was actually irrelevant. So I became the chief play reader almost immediately.

There's a book by Peter Lloyd Jones, I forget what it's called, it's the first volume of his autobiography – he's aiming to write ten – but the first volume is really very interesting, and he is expressing some sort of outrage that at one moment I'm a painter in Battersea, and suddenly I'm reading plays at the Royal Court and chucking them out, and making decisions, and how the hell did that happen? So I guess he's expressing the same thing as you are.

GEOFF: And another point of the 'how the hell did it happen' factor is that a book that you wrote in 1979 is still clutched by every actor in training, anybody who has got a shred of seriousness about their approach to the craft of acting, has your book in their bag; that would sort of scare and delight me, I suppose. That's quite a responsibility, that you cannot have imagined back in 1979.

KEITH: Well I wrote it mostly in 1966 when I left the Court. I had three months. But I couldn't get the last essay right, and I didn't think it was very good. And so about ten years after I'd said I'd hand it in, I gave it, eight years maybe, finally gave it in to Faber, giving up, thinking 'I can't make it any better'. Mostly because of the last essay about masks. And they thought nobody could possibly be interested, but they liked it. And it those days they had more money, and, they weren't owned by gigantic companies. So they published it pro bono, thinking 'this book should be in print'. I know that the guy who pushed it through – his name escapes me, Frank somebody – he said, 'well, we might make our money back in ten years', which isn't much of an investment.

I didn't like the book. I'm holding my hands out as if I was holding a, I don't know, condom – used – I was holding the book like that. He said, Frank Pike I think his name was, said, 'Authors don't usually hold their book like that', I said 'How do they hold it?', he said 'Like to their chest, like it's a baby'.

But I kind of disliked it. I've only got to like it through the internet. And I understand now; it's not the book I wanted to write, so I got pissed off. But when I see the extracts in the internet, I think 'Yeah, I agree with that. I think that's alright.' So I understand now.

GEOFF: But when you wrote it, improvisation was perhaps seen more as a tool to getting you back to the main event. And that was never part of your belief, was it? Improvisation had its own, it was an autonomous gift that could create its own stuff, couldn't it?

Things have changed now, you talk about War Horse, but part of that comes, that show came out of improvisation, didn't it? It wasn't . . .

KEITH: I don't know. I took my son along because I thought he should be introduced to theatre.

GEOFF: And it seems to me that improvisation then has moved from being a sort of satellite aspect of an actor's craft and playmaking into a thing in itself, and some of our greatest new and emerging companies are companies that have absolutely foregrounded improvisation as their way of making theatre, of making stories, not waiting for the playwright to sort of type them up, but actually to make them in the space itself. Do you sense that shift in where improvisation . . .

KEITH: I don't go to see it. I don't see much theatre, but I'll tell you how it started. The Royal Court: George Devine wanted a studio for actors; Princess Margaret had a cold and couldn't open the . . .

GEOFF: That's the title of a book!

KEITH:  . . . And couldn't open the Cochrane theatre for at least two and a half years.

GEOFF: A very long cold then!

KEITH: She didn't have another official date. So Devine seized the opportunity to use that place as a studio. But he had no money for teachers, well, very little money, so anybody who was a director at the company, had to teach.

But I was totally untrained, and knew nothing. So, I read a couple of books on acting, and I thought, 'I can't teach this stuff; besides, they already know it', so I had to find something that I didn't think they'd know about, that they wouldn't know as much as I did, which was about storytelling. I hoped I knew more – I didn't, but I hoped I did.

So instead of giving acting classes, I started by classes in storytelling and that involved improvising chunks of narrative. Then I was also teaching Masks, which Gaskell and I had sort of been put on to them by Devine, and Devine got annoyed because we were changing, I was changing the system, I was doing things . . . he thought he was handing on some sacred – yeah, I understand his feeling. For him, Masks were sacred.

So, he took over my Mask classes for a while, and he was teaching comedy, which he was not, in my view, very gifted at. So I took over the comedy classes, which I turned out to be very good at. Because I had seen so many silent comedy films; I was crazy about silent comedy – in the old days, and crazy about Japanese movies. And I used to think I was wasting my time. Two years later – absolutely was the stuff I needed.

Anyway, that's how it started; it was an accident, like all these things. I wasn't going to teach acting because I knew nothing about it. And that turned into improvisation.

And the improvisation had to be in public, because you only get value playing to strangers – you play to your friends . . . like many improvisation theatres in America, they certainly, oh they say '99 seats', but they're often like 60 seats: you're playing to your fellow improvisers.

RODDY: Friends.

KEITH: Or people with a professional interest in improvisation. You can't get any good feedback. And they overcheer. You walk on the stage, they go crazy, and you learn nothing.

You have to find strangers who are in no way beholden to you.

GEOFF: Improvisation can be very competitive? Can't it: certainly, with young acting students, often they go through several stages: they go through the stages of being absolutely nutty; they go through the stages of being a bit violent; they go through the stages of being very infantile, and then there might be something there. But they go through very competitive sort of layers before they get there.

KEITH: But the worse thing is Theatresports; I really encouraged them to be competitive.

I think improvisation should be an expression of good nature.

GEOFF: That's a beautiful phrase.

KEITH: And benevolence.

GEOFF: That's a beautiful phrase. I'm going to steal that phrase in the autumn term.

KEITH: But if you understand that, it guides you in certain directions.

We have a technical term for this with young men at the Loose Moose theatre company, and occasionally to women, we called it, 'The Arsehole Factor'. We'd say 'Uh-oh, he's going into that'. And with any luck, the person would emerge after a couple of years. It was mostly ego.

You're a pizza-cook: suddenly you're at the Loose Moose theatre improvising, you've got groupies: that's very tough for a young guy.

But, I mean, my work is not really based on . . .  competition; Spolin's work is based a lot on competition; my work is not.

GEOFF: And yet it is based on games and playing.


GEOFF: But in a different way.

KEITH: Well, if you don't play games with good nature, you're working. And the point about a game is that it doesn't matter if you screw up. If you're a carpenter and you screw up the table-leg, you've lost good wood. I'm not against work, I think work is great, I work a lot; but if you want to play, the consequences must not be important.

That's why they do – idiots – these big prizes for the winners (gasps). I would give a prize of $5, at the most, so they could buy a beer. So that they're not running for some prize: I think that's horrible.

GEOFF: I want to talk about those theatres that are using improvisation to make their work and I want to talk about the sort of democracy of improvisation. Because you know, at the time that you were exploring this at the Royal Court, you were in a sense stepping outside of a more known hierarchy of the playwright, the director, the actors, all sort of feeding in a very known way, and you were sort of going into freefall, weren't you really?

KEITH: It did annoy some people.

GEOFF: So were you the sort of cultural pain in the arse, then, because you wouldn't buy into that?

KEITH: No, not really. But I remember John Osborne giving us a bad review before, before we'd performed.

Keith and Geoff laugh

RODDY: He'd already written it.

KEITH: He's a playwright, and we don't need playwrights. So, if you're a bit touchy.

GEOFF: But in that democracy, someone has to lead that democracy, don't they, y'know, someone such as yourself comes into a room and says 'Let's do the . . . let's put a chair in the middle . . .' There's someone taking ownership of that democracy.

KEITH: I listen to people, but I'm not actually democratic.

GEOFF: Right.

KEITH: Every theatre worth anything has somebody in the middle of it who is driving it; like Joan Littlewood with her theatre.

Yeah, I left my theatre the Loose Moose almost twenty years ago, and I hardly ever go back. Sometimes I go back to do a Mask class. They're doing more of this than I was doing when I left. Often it's the same improvisers but they're older. And now, they don't care if the theatre's full or not.

My feeling is the moment the theatre is not full you have to do something else. But most people somehow think 'If we did it better, they would come'. No. They don't come. You have to find something else that interests them that they want. So you had to invent new things.

And that was very useful for us in Calgary, because we were out by the airport; very hard to get an audience. So if you're going to fill the theatre, you can't just rely on old stuff.

GEOFF: There's a very haunting phrase in Impro, you say the improviser has to be like a man walking backwards.

KEITH: I sort of agree.

GEOFF: Looking backwards now on your time as a maker of theatre what are the sort of points that you think 'That I'm proud of'?

Keith laughs.

GEOFF: You don't seem to me to be a man who has pride. But I want to know in a sense what's on your mantel shelf, what's on that mantelpiece?

KEITH: I was interviewed in the Guardian, you may have read it. By a nice poetic name, like Ravenswood, or something. Playwright.

JOHN: Mark Ravenhill?

KEITH: That's right. But sort of nice, English, poetic name. He said, at the interview, he asked me what I was proud of, and I said, I'd invented a new way of peeling a banana. And he said, he nearly hit me.

But I am proud of that. I invented a new way of eating a banana. Which I could demonstrate if you had a banana.

But there's nothing . . .

I am proud of getting a letter in the New Statesman. No, not the New Statesman, the New Scientist. Because I am not a scientist.

That was great.

I am proud of anything away from all the stuff I'm professionally doing.

GEOFF: And what's there to be done, in that quote when you're walking backwards and he sees where he's been but he pays no attention to the future.

KEITH: That's not . . . Yeah, that's an exaggeration. But it's about generating structure. Because you look back to feed stuff in, every time you feed stuff in from the rear, you're building an actual structure. You can't just go on and on and on and on, it has to have some shape. And for short-form improvisation, if you can think back and feed it in again, the audience are very happy, they'll laugh, they'll applaud.

They'll laugh out of pleasure. Because . . . I don't want . . . I'm sick of light entertainment. I've given birth to vast oceans of extra-light entertainment.

Light entertainment means it mustn't teach you anything. It's because of the horror of school. I can't think why else. Learning has been tied to stress.

GEOFF: And results, yes.

KEITH: So when you want to have entertainment, it must be a waste of time. I don't like that. I don't like improvisation being pointless.

So whenever I'm with it, I'm always struggling to make it contain some kind of worthwhile content. So that's the battle for me.

And if I won't go to see improvisation, because the guys are competitive; every time something starts, interesting starts, somebody else would kill it. It never expresses the views of the people doing it. If they're a Christian, I want those ideas expressed in their work; if they're a Communist, I want those ideas. I don't want empty nothingness.

That's not quite true: if it's hysterically funny nothingness, I'll go with it. But it's got to be very funny. And if it's not and there's nothing there, you're exposed as some kind of fraud.

GEOFF: Well it seems to me that the improviser has to find themselves first in order to improvise, you know, to just improvise in an actorly manner is a very shallow and very worthless endeavour, and it seems that underscoring a lot of your writing and a lot of your journey has actually been about putting the person right in the centre of their work, and not uncoupling them from the task at hand.

In a sense, I sort of look at the students with their copy of your book under their arm, each year, and the journey they make is a journey to themselves, often, rather than a journey away from themselves. In terms of the work you're doing in London, now – this is an annual event you come over to London and work with international students.

KEITH: Yea, I have been doing that, on the way to Denmark.

Well, this group of people, some of them have never acted before. You probably saw at least one of them now.

RODDY: Yeah, one guy, I was with, teaching NLP, and he came, and we're using improvisation, and he said 'Where has this come from?', and I said 'Keith', and he looked up Keith. He's from Sweden. He's Polish, but he's from Sweden.

KEITH: You can sort of trick people into being really good. Even if they didn't know anything. I mean, in the foreword to Impro in Denmark is by Søren Iversen, who I taught long ago, he was a Danish director, after he left. He said he'd read about Vakhtangov. I'm a fan of his. When he heard that Vakhtangov had lots of tricks, he thought this was very bad. But when he came to be my student, he realised it was very good to have a lot of tricks. You saw some this morning.


KEITH: With good results.

RODDY: Yes. Good.

KEITH: I mean; even if they've never done it before, you can find ways to involve them. If people weren't afraid, you wouldn't . . . If people had no fear, you'd hardly need to have to teach them. It's the fear that screws everything up.

Keith Johnstone: A Critical Biography, by Theresa Robbins Dudeck is published by Bloomsbury Methuen Drama.