9 Lessons from Keith Johnstone’s Teachings on Improvisation.
Keith. This is a personal post based on a 10-day improvisation course I took with Keith Johnstone in Calgary last July. Keith Johnstone is the leading international thinker and practitioner on improvisation. He is a prolific author and an exceptional teacher.
Learning made to stick. It is the one year anniversary of the course and I think what is significant in learning is not what you do or take away immediately but what stays with you. It was never my intent to perform improvisation on a stage it was my hope to learn principles and practices that could be transferred to my work.
The 9 Lessons:
The pass. As leaders and manager we could learn a lot by structuring the workplace to please the people who work with us. Keith had us focus on our partners and their reactions to our requests and invitations. It is nice to score a goal but what a thrill to make a pass or offer something to someone else to make them look good. Can you focus on other and contribute to what Benjamin Zander calls shinning eyes?
Enjoy the process. Keith was always encouraging people to enjoy their improvisation. It is amazing how serious we can be about something that has the possibility for so much fun. How serious do we get about work and can you enjoy your work. I have always enjoyed teaching and presenting but after the course I make this much more evident to myself and my audiences.
Voice a positive no. This learning went against what I first heard about improvisation – we should build upon what the other improvisers offer. We should always say yes. Keith asked us why we would want to do that. You don’t always have to say yes. He had us practice giving cheery no’s. Of course when you say no it is beneficial if you have another alternative to offer. We are not looking for improvisers or employees who are a “bunch of yes-men.”
Modeling engaged teaching. I learned this not so much from Keith’s method’s but from who he was. Keith was a very engaged teacher even when he wasn’t certain what he was going to do or how things would unfold. I plan to work until I am at least 75 and he offered not just inspiration but a vibrant and engaged model of doing just that. He might work with us up to 9 hours a day. Our course was being videotaped by 3 cameras and Keith was so engaged and engaged us so well that the cameras would disappear from consciousness.
Improvise all the time. I think there is so much potential transfer of learning from an improvisers mind set that goes well beyond the stage. Many of us will benefit by learning to move into what is, by paying very close attention to the people we work with, by letting go of some control, etc.
Get altered. Keith encouraged us to be altered. He wanted others to have an impact on us and for us to have an impact on others. I left the course noticing how few of us want to be altered by other people and how reluctant I am to be altered. Keith helped us experience and learn about being in a trance, how often we are in a trance without even knowing it, and how work can be trance-formative.
Do the easy and the simple. Often improvisers are looking for crazy ideas or bizarre performances. Keith encouraged us to do the obvious and to be simple. Some of the best performance, on the stage or at work, are both easy and simple. Many times we just need to get out of our own way. Can we be simple or do we strive for complexity to look clever or smart? Believe it or not, one of the best improvisers was a small plush Ernie doll Keith brought to class one day. The small Ernie doll, from Sesame Street, had big eyes and just let things be!
Enjoy failure, it isn’t final. Often improvisers fail to achieve a masterful performance. Failure is not final and we should enjoy the mess and move on. We should strive for an open versus a fixed mindset. See this wonderful diagram based on Carol Dweck’s work: Open Versus Fixed Mindset Diagram. Strive to experience and live an open mindset.
What comes next? This was the key phrase I took away and our answer to this question should please us or the person we are working with. I love asking people what comes next when they talk about their career or a possible change in direction. If you want to see where a change may take you try answering the question what comes next 20 times in a row and keep being pleased by the answer. See where a relationship or project is headed by asking your partner or team to keep answering the question.
Click here to go to the Applied Improvisation Network if you would like to read a series of blog posts I wrote about the course during the course.
Here is a bonus list from my notes during the course of a few things that also stood out for me:
- Remain happy in adversity
- Make a relationship
- Don’t be funny
- Work on operant conditioning
- Screw up and stay happy
- Promise interesting stuff and deliver more
- Offer the other person what you think they need
- Don’t be oblivious to the obvious
- A good improviser is a servant to others (at times)
- Start by cheering up the audience
- Observe the kinetic dance, make room for others.
- Don’t be blind to others
- Be transported by your trances
- If things start badly they hardly ever improve
- Change your face and open your eyes
- Really see the people you are with
- Real listening mean being altered by what is said to you.
Thanks Keith. I encourage you to click here to visit his website. Read his books or take one of his courses.
I can’t wait to see, what comes next.
David Zinger is a leading expert on employee engagement. He is committed to creating authentic and sustained employee engagement for the benefit of all. Contact David at (204) 254-2130 or Email email@example.com.