You know the 20th annual American Alliance for Theatre & Education Conference is a big deal when Stephen Harper deigns to offer a greeting. And it is. Held from July 31 to August 5 at the Westin Bayshore hotel, the Maryland-based conference for educators and artists features numerous speakers and seminars, one of which is a five-hour keynote workshop with improv guru Keith Johnstone on August 2. A professor emeritus at the University of Calgary and founding artistic director of that city's Loose Moose Theatre Company, he has long been considered one of the fathers of modern comedic improvisational theatre.
Johnstone invented, among many other forms of improv, TheatreSports, which is arguably the most popular, thanks in large part to Whose Line Is It Anyway? and, in this city, the Vancouver TheatreSports League.
But it's not long into a far-ranging phone conversation with Johnstone that you get the impression he believes his creation has turned into something of a monster.
"I won't go to see improvisers, actually," admits the septuagenarian Englishman. "It's so stupid."
At his age, Johnstone isn't worried about making friends. He says many improvisers today are "pissed off that I won't see the improvisations. I mean, I'm not popular."
Johnstone believes any public improvisation based on suggestions from the audience is problematic at best. "I think it's ridiculous," he repeats.
One explanation improvisers give for soliciting suggestions is to prove the work is, indeed, improvised. But Johnstone says nobody really believes the shows are improvised anyway, which just leads to further humiliation when the performance is not up to par: "It's embarrassing when you do a bad show, because they actually think you considered this shit you're putting on the stage, and considered it worth presenting."
Another of his beefs stems from the incessant rules of the game. One mantra actors heed is "accept all offers," meaning, essentially, go wherever your cast mate takes you. He calls this particular rule a "perversion. I think it's terrible. Bad things have happened to improvisation."
He uses the imagery of food to get his point across: "If you went to a restaurant and you say, 'This food is disgusting,' and they say, 'Ah, but sir, you don't realize, the cook is improvising,' it wouldn't cut any ice, would it?" He believes improv needs to bring in the full range of human feelings to be truly successful. The laughs come harder after a scene displaying some emotion.
The man of letters is in demand all over the world. After his Vancouver appearance, Johnstone's speaking itinerary takes him to California, Denmark, England, Germany, Ireland, and Japan before the end of the year.
As for what to expect at this particular workshop, Johnstone can't say: "I never know what I'm going to do until I see the people. I'll wait till I see what they're like." And you just know this is coming: "I'll improvise it!"