Insights from TEDxYYC alumni Keith Johnstone:  Don’t Do Your Best

May 17, 2020

Written by Andrew Guilbert


Did you know that Calgary is home to one of the great pioneers of improvisation in the world today? Keith Johnstone is the co-founder of Loose Moose Theatre (where, among others, some of the Kids in the Hall got their start), the founder of Theatresports, and a professional performer for more than 50 years. He even has some of his work stored in Stanford University’s Special Collections Archive, so he’s kind of a big deal.

In 2016, he gave a TEDxYYC talk expounding the virtues of thinking inside the box, pursuing the boring, and explaining why he would never want Robin Williams in his theatre troupe. 


Everything you know is wrong: why doing your best isn’t the best idea

Here are some of Johnstone’s counterintuitive secrets for both improvisation and life:

Pursue the obvious

“I decided just before my ninth birthday not to believe anything that grown-ups said, and the next day I decided to always see if the opposite could be true. I think it changed my life, I’ve been doing it ever since. It taught me to be looking for the obvious and not the clever – the obvious is really your true self, the clever is an imitation of somebody else.”

Be average

“There’s this terrible culture in which everybody is taught to do their best. People who are bad improvisers go on and try to and be good improvisers. If anybody knows how to get better by doing their best, please [let me know]!”

“You learn, at school, to tense up – ‘I’ll do better, give me another chance!’ You fill yourself with tension, and that causes fear. In my opinion, doing your best is the same as stage fright. My recommendation is to be average because then there’s no stress.”

Think inside the box

“When I began to teach improvisation, I was astounded by all the things improvisers did to wreck themselves. Because they were so negative – if they lit a fire, it started to rain! [The improvisor] is trying to think outside the box.”

“The audience connects things, but the improvisers disconnect because they’ve been taught to be ‘original.’”

“You had to teach improvisers to think inside the box, or you can’t work with them. I wouldn’t want Robin Williams in my theatre company, because he was a star, and you’d have to follow him at all times. He was a comic genius, but he’d be outside the box all the time. The audience thinks inside the box all the time.”

You might not want a strong introduction

“You do not want a great introduction to improvisation because you might have nothing to offer. People from outside of improvisation always think it’s lovely if the first half goes well. Improvisers know there’s nothing worse than a great introduction. The problem is to have the best stuff at the end because the audience always thinks you have something better lined up.”

We love to welcome speakers to our stage who inspire us to think differently! Where can you find out who will be speaking at the next TEDxYYC event? We’ll announce each speaker here on our website, or you can follow our updates on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn

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