Keith Johnstone on Improvisation

Keith Johnstone  is the most reputational teacher of improvisation and his books contain the most comprehensive and deep discussion of creativity which I know. They are a bit more difficult to understand than the book I recommended recently . It could be helpful to read the book of Tom Salinsky and Deborah Frances-White first and then Keith Johnstone
In the end I think that Keith Johnstone’s books and videos, particularly „Improv. Improvisation and the Theatre” should be read multiple times by each and anyone involved in arts.

Keith Johnstone - Impro Cover

Keith Johnstone – Impro Cover

Keith Johnstone writes about his experience with children and adults and comes to the conclusion that creativity is natural for humans and children are all creative. But the socialisation process, particularly the educational system obstructs creativity brutally. He explains this very convincingly in his books. From this he developed his models on how to free our natural creativity again.
The willingness and boldness to fail big and trusting our natural, intuitive creativity and stopping to try to control what is happening are key steps in his method.

We usually self censor our thoughts because we are worried that they appear psychotic or obscene or unoriginal. At the core of spontaneity and creativity is developing the strength and ability to express our apparently crazy or obscene ideas freely. Without some psychotic and obscene ideas none of Shakespeare’s plays could have been written. Similarly in visual arts.
The fear of appearing unoriginal and the conscious striving for originality are similar blocks for creativity. Rejecting the first idea which comes to mind and trying to find something more original makes us less original. The things that come to mind uncontrolled and uncensored are truly authentic and as me and you are different they are different and with this original. But if we reject them and instead try to construct something better we usually all arrive at the same ideas. Keith Johnstone mentions that avantgarde theatre is remarkably similar whether it is in Paris, New York or Tokyo. They all end with the same ideas and get thoroughly predictable.

This is a small selection of ideas from Keith Johnston about spontaneity and creativity. I completely subscribe to this line of thinking which places the source of creativity in our subconscious mind. Creativity is not an active process and can not be forced or controlled. The trick is to learn to listen to what our subconscious mind wants to say. I think it is obvious how this relates to life in general to developing a more creative attitude and how this thinking will help creativity in photography.

Of course this does not mean we can never plan and must only shoot spontaneously. No, photography is not improvised theatre. I do planned shots all the time. I often go back to a certain place and see whether I can get a better picture than last time. The idea behind the picture is however always born from the mentioned natural, instinctive creativity.


I want to address another important concept from Keith Johnstone‘s teaching and this is storytelling.
When does a sequence of events qualify as a story? Something must be happening in this sequence. Now, very often think of something happening just as action, stunts, gags… There are countless movies which offer nothing besides this and they get boring very rapidly. All these are just substitutes. What happens in a good story is emotional change, someone gets changed. And this can be rather subtle.

This is something which is directly helpful to a photographer when shooting: what is happening in this picture? What happened before, what will happen next? Who got emotionally changed and how?
Visual art is not theatre and there can not be a lengthy sequence of events in a picture. The best we can achieve are hints to what happened before and what will happen next. But we should be aware of this and it should be part of our decision how to frame and when exactly we click the shutter. The question remains whether a each and any picture needs to express a story and most likely static scenes can work as art. But the vast majority of static scenes such as land- or cityscapes do not hold my attention very long.

Another way to look at storytelling is to think of breaking a routine. It does not matter how interesting the routine is, it will not be a story until the routine is broken. A brain surgeon doing a procedure might be interesting but it is still a routine until something happens. In photography a pretty sunset is just another pretty sunset unless there is something else in the picture. Not every picture must have something unusual or unexpected but it is a very helpful thought to make more interesting pictures.