Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Keith Johnstone papers

Viewing the Johnstone Archive
We were asked to wash our hands first.  No pens allowed or even any notebooks. Handbags and backpacks and any personal carrying items must be checked outside the room.  Absolutely no talking.   Each of us, Ted, Adam, Dan and I were given one white legal looking storage box, carefully labeled by the Stanford Archivist.  “The Keith Johnstone Papers” these cartons were designated by archival numbers.  I had box number 4.

We were curious.  What would we find in a half dozen cartons of memorabilia? The boxes contained items from the man who had had the most profound influence on our lives and careers as educators of improv.  Knowing that Johnstone is a one of a kind fellow we were anxious to see what was there.  Ted said:  “Feels like Christmas.” 

Each box had a series of numbered beige manila file folders.  4/1, 4/2, 4/25, 4/31, etc.  Box four, number 13 file folder.  “Letters Personal”  or “Letters Academic”  or “IMPRO Early draft”.  “Notes on Status” was one of the folders.  After checking out a few of the academic letters . . . a copy of a testimonial by Dr. Zimbardo to the tenure committee at U. of Calgary in the mid-nineteen eighties, for example, I jumped to look at the early draft of the book that had changed my professional career.  IMPRO: Improvisation and the Theater, first published in 1979.  This draft appeared to be from the mid 1970s. The pages were numbered by hand and each page was an amalgam of edited paragraphs cut and pasted onto the page.  Line edits and corrections abounded.  You could feel the old manual typewriter used to produce the text.

What stunned me was the first page.  While clearly Johnstone’s voice, there seemed to be a lot of stuff that he needed to write about and work through. Good writers do this I believe. Since we know where it is all going, it is illuminating to see where he began, and what would later be culled, refined, eliminated or centered for the reader.

 The first line of the published book I know by heart: “As I grew up everything started getting grey and dull.  . . .”   The early Johnstone manuscript that I was looking at begins with this:  “I’ve been asked if I’ll write about myself and the way I assembled my ideas.  When I was nine years old I bought a spiritualist magazine which was full of articles with titles like “Is Hitler a Black Magician. The magazine was important to me because it eventually led to my joining the Theosophical society.”

This first draft begins at the top of the page with a quote by William Blake
“He who binds to himself a joy
Does the winged life destroy;
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity’s sunrise.”

Johnstone has always felt a strong connection with the ideas and imagery of Blake.  I imagine they are soul mates of sorts.

The personal lesson that came from these two hours of perusal of the early Johnstone papers is the importance of continuing to write.  The masterful IMPRO did not show up as a single inspired draft from a mega mind.  Even the brilliant Keith went through a process of discovery, self discovery in some measure as he found how to offer what became, “Notes On Myself.” Effective writing is nearly always reductive.