Jon Oram second left, Keith Johnstone sitting centre, Roddy Maude Roxby seated far right on the Royal Court Stage
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 its an essential part of the actors training.
In in 1985 when I first took over Colway Theatre from Ann, I ran ten day a course with Keith at Monkton Wilde in Dorset for a select group of twenty actors, directors, writers and drama/theatre teachers. Among the group were Julian Crouch and Phelim McDermott, who were to go on to found Improbable Theatre. Phelim McDermott. Keith introduced 'The Life Game' for the first time on this course. When I ran to Phelim again at this event he told me he "vowed to put on "The Life Game' himself" Twenty years later he made a serious theatre show of it and toured it world wide . Improbable regularly return to it. A collaborator of "Life Game" and Improbable is Lee Simpson who was also at the event. Co-incidently 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 we meet me and Lee did an audition for me. Extraordinary he remembered after so many years. I was apparently helpful.
Lee Simpson, Jon Oram and Keith Johnstone
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.
On January 19th 2012 a memorial service was held for John Marshall in the chapel of Tonbridge School. Over 500 people attended. The CREATE Choir, Tonbridge School Choir and Quintus – sung some of John’s favourite music. Tributes were made by Geoff and Charles Marshall (John’s father and brother) Mike Morrison (representing the school) and myself as a friend and colleague. John was a member of Claque Theatre Board and an inspiration and collaborator in the Camden Road Community Play. This is my ‘Tribute to a friend’
Before I talk about John I want to ask his parents: what wonderful spell did you weave to produce two such remarkable sons? On behalf of everyone here, thank you, thank you for John. And thank you, Charles, for taking on the new role of a big brother to all of us. Your strength and affection has helped us all hold it together.
Some years ago John asked if I would do a community play in Tunbridge Wells. I made some excuse but obviously wasn’t emphatic enough because, from that day on, he relentlessly reminded me of the pending local play I’d promised. In time hypnotised by John’s enthusiasm to do something spectacular I said yes. How could you say no to that face? I have a spaniel that gives me the same look.
John was able to present a quiet and gentle manner that one could easily mistake for ‘sensible’. Yet he was an ardent Impresario and risk taker. He fearlessly undertook big projects. He loved the high arts, thrilled at seeing, listening, and especially working with the best in their field. He was so motivated and proud of his dear friends in Quintus.
John was central to the success of Camden Road the Musical and supporting two years of projects that culminated in The Vanishing Elephant. Following the play, as a founder member of CREATE he tirelessly collaborated in sustaining cultural events for Camden Road. He was a board member of Claque. John had personal ambitions and dreams of his own that he wanted to fulfil, but, put them on hold because he was more and more consumed helping others fulfil theirs.
Over the past few years John was re-inventing himself, tackling things just out of range, just to see what he might learn. One such was the CREATE choir. John was a paradox, because, however talented we all perceived him to be, his humility verged on self deprecation and however encouraging and optimistic he appeared he was haunted by the thought that he wasn’t up to the task of leading a community choir. How wrong he was but he felt it all the same. It took a step of courage, but facing his devils was a better option to him than letting his friends down. In the process something changed.
I want to say to the choir, that his joy of working with you went through the roof. Through you, he was beginning to see in himself something of the inspirational teacher he could be. He had the ability to teach you and learn from you at the same time and it allowed him to be both leader and member of the choir and to transform you from being a community to being a family.
Many beautiful words have been written about John recently, what’s telling is that everyone refers to how he lit up a room. But I’ve not heard anyone say why. Well I think it was you, he lit up because he’d seen you. He simply lit up when he saw any of us.
And when you talked to John it was the “you and he and here and now” that mattered. He really knew how to attend. It’s what made us all think we were his best friends. I don’t just mean that this chapel is full of his best friends, of course it is, but that most of us will be thinking, “I was John’s best friend.” How is that possible? Well John was a social magician.
There’s a 40-second video clip that Alex put on face book of John playing with his baby nephew James. John is lying on the floor and James is tapping at John’s face. There’s a moment when John buries his face into James’s tummy and inhales. Talk about living in the present. It’s where children live, but it’s where John lived too. Most of us lose this in adulthood, John didn’t.
When Dennis Potter was told that he had as little as three months to live, he gave a last interview. John and I both loved this passage:
Below my window in Ross, the blossom is out in full … it’s white, and looking at it, instead of saying “Oh that’s nice blossom” … last week looking at it through the window .. I see it is the whitest, frothiest, blossomest blossom that there ever could be, and I can see it. Things are both more trivial than they ever were, and more important than they ever were, and the difference between the trivial and the important doesn’t seem to matter. But the nowness of everything is absolutely wondrous, and if people could see that, you know. There’s no way of telling you; you have to experience it, but the glory of it, if you like…. The fact is, if you see the present tense, boy do you see it! And boy can you celebrate it.
John saw it. But he filled every moment of each day not because he thought it would be his last but because he knew the worth of a day and the value of a moment.
I’m not looking for reassurance. This depth of grief we feel is because we loved and were loved and it seems this pain is the price we pay. But, Oh, the joy of him, how privileged we all are. I don’t want to construct some reason why John died it would diminish him for me. There simply isn’t one, not when he had so much more to do, and to give; and so much more to experience. It is wrong in every sense. And as much as we would like to call John back and indeed yearn to, we can’t. I need to come to terms with that and somehow redefine the relationship. I do know where it look for it, – it’s to be found holding him in my head and heart, in remembering his ideals, what he stood for, what I understood of his values, his sense of justice and injustice, his ridiculous sense of humour, his vision, dreams, compassion, hopes, fears, his unanswered question, these are things of him, in me now that will continue to influence my life. He was and will always be an inspiration. He has become an integral part of the inbuilt compass. It’s nothing like as good or accurate as the real thing, but it will have to do. Most of all, I must try to absorb at least a little of that remarkable talent he had for living.