Royal Court Reunion with Keith Johnstone and Theatre Machine

Jon Oram (standing second from left) Keith Johnstone (seated centre) Roddy Maude Roxby (seated far right)

Theresa Dudeck, writer of ‘Keith Johnstone a critical biography’ is making a documentary film about Keith Johnstone and organised an on stage interview with the him and some to the original members of Theatre Machine.    The Royal Court Theatre was Keith’s early theatrical home. He had been appointed Literary Manager of the Court, reading and selecting scripts, when Bill Gaskill invited him to run the writer’s workshop 50years ago. The philosophy was not to talk if you could show or do – action over words. So when Edward Bond was struck with the idea that a chair could be a character on stage, the writers had to stand up to demonstrate it.  John Arden, David Cregan, Edward Bond, and Ann Jellicoe were among the writer’s in the group.  It was an extraordinary reunion in the week that Ann died; Keith especially found it a poignant occasion. The writer’s group had a huge influence on Ann, the writing of the Knack came directly out of those workshops, and the idea of “don’t tell but show” became a big part of her directing as well as writing style.  Alongside the writer’s group Keith started developing improvisation with actors and formed Theatre Machine. Here they discovered the significance of status to make performance more natural, and many of the games and rules such as “yes… and “ are now the fundamental basis of impro.  Keith told us “ we laughed so much in the writers group I wanted to perform improvisation to audiences to check that it wasn’t just us that found it so amusing. The audiences laughed even more, and louder.”  When Keith left England for Canada in the mid seventies, Theatre Machine continued performing and developing their own style. Roddy Maude Roxby has a big influence on their style, especially with his love of masks. Keith’ work and his book Impro has had a dramatic influence worldwide on theatre performance. There was also no improvisation in drama schools then, now it’s an essential part of the actors training. 

In 1985 when I first took over Colway Theatre from Ann, I ran a ten day a course with Keith Johnstone at Monkton Wilde in Dorset for a select group of twenty actors, directors, writers and drama/theatre teachers. Among the group was Phelim McDermott, who was to go on to found Improbable Theatre.   Keith introduced ‘The Life Game’ for the first time on this course. Phelim avowed then to put on “The Life Game’ himself” Twenty years later he has made a serious theatre show of it and has toured it worldwide. Improbable Theatre regularly returns to it.  A collaborator of “Life Game” and Improbable is Lee Simpson who was also at the Royal Court event. Co-incidentally Lee told me he remembers me in Norfolk when I was a drama advisor and he was still at school. His drama teacher insisted that Lee do an audition for me. I gave his teacher Keith’s book Impro that set Lee on the improvisation road. Extraordinary he remembered after so many years, but that Lee and Phelim found their ‘element’ in improvisation from the same source.

It was amazing to spend a brief moment with Keith again. I do remember the ten days he taught at Monkton Wilde and how in the evenings he would come back to my house, Rose Cottage, just a short walk away and we’d talk about they day. I learnt more about teaching in those few days than I did in three years of teacher training. We talked about teaching again but mostly about Ann.  Keith was genuinely heartbroken, they have been close friends for sixty years, he was unable to attend the funeral because he has a flight back to Canada booked, and he struggles now with walking.  As left I told Keith I would be the celebrant at Ann’s funeral in a few days and whether he had anything he wanted to say about her. He didn’t hesitate – “Yes” he said, “Ann always wanted to be truthful, and she always was. Tell them that…”  I did.

Jon Oram (left) and Phelim Mc Demott
Lee Simpson (right) Jon Oram and Keith Johnstone (left)

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