Keith Johnstone: A Critical Biography by Theresa Robbins Dudeck (review)
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Keith Johnstone: A Critical Biography. By Theresa Robbins Dudeck. London: Bloomsbury Methuen Drama, 2013; pp. 232.

In a text that is sure to gain a prominent place on the bookshelves of improv theoreticians and practitioners alike, Theresa Robbins Dudeck has chronicled the life and work of the enigmatic, yet influential originator of the pedagogically groundbreaking Impro System and widely recognized Theatresports brand name, Keith Johnstone. Teeming with content that will benefit generalist audiences and Impro adherents alike, Dudeck’s biography serves as the first comprehensive examination of Johnstone’s pedagogy and theatre practice. Fittingly, the author has trained extensively in and is regarded as one of the foremost teachers of Johnstone’s Impro, which focuses on “spontaneous, collaborative creation using the intuitive, uncensored imaginative responses of the participants” (2). Additionally, Dudeck also serves as Johnstone’s literary executor and makes her friendship with her subject readily apparent in the book’s introduction. Fortunately, Dudeck’s close ties to Johnstone do not dull the text’s critical edge; instead, the author’s personal knowledge enriches her survey through her ability to connect Johnstone’s formative experiences and personality to his teaching methodologies and praxis. Most importantly, Dudeck cites the noteworthy distinctions between Johnstone’s training system and other improv pedagogies, and how his system evolved (and continues to evolve) throughout his career. Readers will receive an inside account of the successes, failures, and choices that contributed to the development of Johnstone, the self-described “reluctant guru” of improvisational theatre.

Following a linear chronology of Johnstone’s life, Dudeck uses “the concept of the classroom as [the book’s] structural and theoretical frame” (1) for the biography. As the title of one chapter—“All the World Is a Classroom”—implies, the author demarcates the literal and metaphorical learning spaces where Johnstone has taught (and been taught) about the fundamentals of spontaneous human interaction and how to unlock the latent creativity of each student. Throughout the book, Dudeck paints Johnstone as a perpetual student who constantly seeks to improve his own pedagogy, even in the ten-day workshops he currently offers as an octogenarian. Comparatively, Dudeck spends relatively little time addressing Johnstone’s well-known and problematic relationship with the British educational system of his youth (which Johnstone has thoroughly critiqued in his own texts), and instead devotes the majority of the biography to Johnstone as expat and international teaching artist, especially his time at the University of Calgary and the development of the Loose Moose Theatre Company—the birthplace of Theatresports.

However, before she shifts the book’s geographic concentration to Canada, Dudeck provides the first critical account of Johnstone’s time as a director and instructor at the Royal Court Theatre and RADA, the places “where he took the complexity of human behavior, broke it down to its independent variables, and then created simple formulas that would spontaneously re-create human behavior on the stage” (59). Dudeck’s narrative also includes how Johnstone pioneered Britain’s first purely improvisational performance troupe, Theatre Machine (and subsequently found ways around the Lord Chamberlain’s Office, as improvisational work, by its nature, could not receive approval from the censor’s office due to its unpredictable content).

While the biography asserts a distinct focus on Johnstone as pedagogue and practitioner of spontaneous performance, Dudeck devotes several subheadings to him as a playwright and director of scripted theatre, especially his highly theatrical and disturbing Live Snakes and Ladders and his playful interpretations of Samuel Beckett. Additionally, Dudeck elucidates how Beckett served as one of Johnstone’s artistic mentors, and moreover, how Johnstone came to disagree with many of Beckett’s practical techniques, especially his “tendency at times to be inflexible” (35). In stark contrast to Beckett’s rigidity, Dudeck characterizes Johnstone as an individual with a “desire to dance, that is, to defy his intellect in order to enter the world as an imaginative, physically liberated human being” (6).

Finally, to vindicate Johnstone’s lack of attention in nonspontaneous performance theory, Dudeck frequently alludes to potential applications of the Impro System to [End Page 68] scripted work through the previously mentioned descriptions of Johnstone’s critical triumphs as playwright and scripted theatre...