One last Keith Johnstone story: The Final Note

On the final day of our workshop Keith Johnstone was very tired and grumpy.

As the day wore on, his notes after scenes grew terse and pointed. He was especially impatient with people that made the same boring mistakes repeatedly.

I was in the final scene of the day with two other actors. It didn’t go very well. The first person to get notes got a long sigh and a reminder to be more present in the scene and not drift off into their own world. I got the next note, much grumpier that I needed to be in the scene physically not just verbally.

Johnstone then looked at the final improviser. He was an enthusiastic person who had been improvising for about year. He was dressed in stained jeans and a loose, dirty sweatshirt with a giant smile on his face.

Johnstone just looked at him and said in a very angry voice, “And you… You should paint houses. The pay is good and you could wear the same clothes.”


Keith Johnstone Part 3

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Another selection of notes from a Keith Johnstone workshop I took in 2003. You can read the first part here and the second part here. All quotes in this article are from Keith Johnstone, commentary is mine.

If two improvisers are in trouble in a scene. (Trouble in the sense of being in a seemingly inescapable situation.) One of the improvisers should say, “I know just what to do” and then say whatever is in his head no matter how stupid. Audiences will love you for your courage.

This is one of the most important lessons in all of creativity. The phrase, “I know just what to do” is like a magic spell that releases your brain to start to try and make a solution when you are boxed in. Try it the next time you have no idea what to do next. Say the phrase and then follow through on what you say.

Audiences feel the tension of the creator who has painted themselves into a corner and they want you to get out. Even if that solution is, “I pull out magic tennis shoes and use their leaping powers to jump into the next room.”

The audience is on your side. They want you to finish your tightrope walk. In most cases, you aren’t even performing live when you create, so you can go back and edit. I find that the solutions you come up with in impossible situations are some of the best.

I ofen go back and change the earlier part of the story to make the solution less strange.

Every decision you make in a scene defines the circle that scene exists in. You should make choices from within that ever-tighter circle and rarely from outside it. Obvious is good.

Every creative endevor is its own world with its own rules. Once you’ve started it, stick to those rules. Use what is in the world you’ve created to tell the story in that world.

Nothing human beings do is accidental.

Instead of apologizing for an accident or mistake, look for reasons. Why did you do that? Were you sending yourself a message? Does it make more sense? Is there a logical reason you’re not seeing? And emotional reason?

Nothing YOU do is accidental. It’s just that you don’t know why you did it yet.

Click here to read the final part

Vaudeville Slang

Here’s a great list of vaudeville slang I found. I love a peek into the vocabulary of any specific art form. A lot of these terms are in common usage now, but some are just a great look into the life of a working performer.

Here are a few:

– Hanging around the theatre making it known that you are a performer in order to try and impress others. Grandstanding. Named after the 44″ x 84″ posters that were used in the lobby of the Vaudeville theatre to promote the show

Playing to the haircuts
– Last on the bill. In other words, playing to the backs of the audience as they left the theatre.

The Gerry Society
– The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. Named for founder Elbridge T. Gerry. Originally founded to prevent the exploitation of child labour, the society was a thorn in the side of vaudevillians. The society declared performers must be over 16 to work in vaudeville. Buster Keaton, Fred Astaire, Rose Marie and Milton Berle were only a few of the child performers who ran into trouble with the Gerry Society.

Also, I had hear the term “working blue” before, but I never knew where it came from…

Blue – Crude jokes or other material using graphic sexual or toilet references or profanity. The term comes from the days when Keith-Albee insisted that performers stick to strict standards of propriety and would send blue envelopes with cuts to performers. You obeyed them or quit. And if you quit, you got a black mark against your name in the head office and you didn’t work on the circuit anymore.

Take the time to learn the slang used by people in the same artistic field you want to be in. It makes it easier to talk to other people interested in the same thing and helps you be taken seriously.

Robert Wilson On Deciding What To Do Next

I watched the documentary Absolute Wilson last night. It follows the creative life of Robert Wilson the avant-garde stage director and writer. It ends with him talking about what to do next and I thought it was interesting enough to pass along:

Sometimes you say to yourself, what should I do next? And people advise you or you decide yourself what to do next. And quite often, you try to think of what is the right thing to do. But, quite often, you should think what is the wrong thing to do. And then do that.

Page vs stage: the debate continues

In the world of poetry, there is a large divide between written poetry and poetry intended for performance. Although there are a growing number of poets that see the value of both, performed or “slam” poetry continues to be seen as being of lesser value by many academics and traditional poets. The debate is often referred to as “page versus stage.”

Poetry Foundation is featuring an excellent interview right now with someone who has mastered both, Susan Somers-Willett. Here she discusses what academic poetry might learn from slam poetry:

The academy can learn something crucial from slam: how to put butts in the seats. It’s ironic that, at the same time critics were debating “Can Poetry Matter?” and lamenting the death of poetry for the general reader, slams were starting to emerge across the nation. Slam found poetry’s so-called lost audience, and instead of instructing it to sit quietly, hushed and reverent in the presence of the author, it said to react to the poet—boo, hiss, applaud, give the poem a score of a 10 or a 2.7. Having an actively engaged audience helped the slam grow into what it is today—a series of national competitions that sell out large venues in major U.S. cities.

I think this is an excellent point. Just as there are many types of music, why can’t there be different and equally valuable types of poetry. Classical music has a solid but limited audience, so does academic poetry. Slam poetry engages the audience, makes them feel passionate emotions and lets them know that their reaction to the poem is an important part of the poem. Slam not only puts butts in seats, it makes those butts think and feel. Slam is the rock super-group of the poetry world, capable of filling arenas.

If you have never been to a poetry slam, you should really try it out. Check for a venue close to you by clicking here.

Click here to read the article
Click here to listen to a podcast featuring slam discussion and one of Susan’s poems.

Lost Art Form – Vaudeville!


Vaudeville! The Library of Congress has a great selection of available recordings, films and other information about that lost form of entertainment, the vaudeville stage. You can listen to The Arkansas Traveller, a comedy sketch that dates back to at least 1852! A Laughing Sketch, there were lots of these. It was basically a sketch where something happened and someone with an infectious laugh started laughing until everyone on stage and the whole crowd joined in on the mass hysteria. Or just enjoy a dramatic reading like this one.

They don’t have video collection online, but if you find a title you like in their archive, search youtube, I found Animal Act With Baboon, Dog and Donkey.

There are also scanned scripts available. The featured script right now is The Lone Hand Four Aces (To be acted by a Troupe of Educated Dogs). Most of the scripts read as if they are transcribed from someone describing the stage act to someone else. Which they probably were. Scripts in English and Yiddish.

Perfect for research, inspiration and entertainment.

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