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Open this photo in gallery:Improv guru and author Keith Johnstone, relaxes in his Calgary home as he scans newspapers for humorous articles on Tuesday, July 30, 2002. Photo by Jeff McIntosh / The Globe and Mail

Improv guru and author Keith Johnstone, in Calgary, on July 30, 2002. Mr. Johnstone died on March 11 at the age of 90.Jeff McIntosh/The Globe and Mail

Director, playwright, author and teacher Keith Johnstone, the internationally renowned inventor of Theatresports, who was considered the Stanislavski of improv, would begin classes by sitting on the floor.

“What he taught wasn’t about being super funny onstage, it was really about deep access into your subconscious and uncluttering creative pathways,” says Mark McKinney of Kids in the Hall and Superstore, who learned from Mr. Johnstone in the 1980s at the Loose Moose Theatre Company in Calgary. Mr. McKinney’s friend Bruce McCulloch, who later become his collaborator in the Kids in the Hall and in the writers’ room at Saturday Night Live, was a classmate at Loose Moose.

Mr. Johnstone – who also taught drama at the University of Calgary – did not care if his students became successful actors, although many of them did, Mr. McKinney notes. The goal was conquering their fears and being in the present. “It’s a touchstone I’ve come back to over and over again for my entire career,” Mr. McKinney says.

“He taught me to be playful, to risk failure. To stay open and curious, and to misbehave,” says actor Rebecca Northan, whose live show Blind Date utilizes improv ideas inspired by his teachings.

Mr. Johnstone’s past students include Dave Lawrence of the FUBAR movies, Andrew Phung of Run the Burbs and Norm Hiscock, who wrote for Parks and Recreation and Brooklyn Nine-Nine.

Mr. Johnstone died on March 11 in Calgary at the age of 90.

“He was a rumpled genius,” Mr. McCulloch says. He and others recall Mr. Johnstone always wearing a bulky coat and sweater with snowmobile boots indoors even in the spring.

By sitting on the floor, Mr. Johnstone conveyed to his students that he was of lower status – a message that was in stark contrast to his real-life stature in his field. Mr. McKinney calls Mr. Johnstone’s 1979 book Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre an “essential text.”

Mr. McKinney recalls him starting class by saying, “I’m going to take responsibility for whatever you do in your scenes. And I’m going to hand you back that responsibility in the course of the year.” Indeed, he’d raise his status as the term progressed, and in later classes would sit right beside students, even sharing his notes.

With the freedom to fail, and through doing improv and telling stories, Mr. McCulloch says, “We learned so fast.”

Ms. Northan calls Mr. Johnstone a master diagnostician who could quickly see what was wrong with a scene or show and would prescribe an exercise for each actor as a remedy. She asked his opinion of an early showing of Blind Date and was expecting a detailed action plan, but instead, Mr. Johnstone stood right next to her and said, “It’s perfect. I would not change a thing.” She recalls, “Oh my God, I did not know how to respond,” to this high compliment.

Theatresports was inspired by a highly dramatic wrestling match Mr. Johnstone watched his native U.K. “The exaltation among the spectators was something I longed for, but didn’t get, from ‘straight’ theatre,” Mr. Johnstone wrote on his website.

“He saw the possibility of creating that excitement for theatre audiences,” says Dennis Cahill, a former student and now artistic director of Loose Moose.

Mr. Johnstone fine-tuned Theatresports at the Loose Moose in the late 1970s, presenting a format that includes a panel of judges assessing two teams doing timed improv. Importantly, judges have horns, which they honk if a scene becomes boring, at which point it has to wrap up. The audience gets involved, and is encouraged to boo the judges when they blow their horns or grant a low score. “You want everyone against the judges,” Mr. Cahill says. Theatresports was designed to help actors and comedians learn and see what works, not feel criticized or discouraged.

While Mr. Johnstone read voraciously and thought deeply about human behaviour, psychology and body language, he disliked excessive discussions in teaching or creating theatre.

“The way Keith taught was he would allow you to experience what he was teaching. He’d allow you to conquer some of the behaviour obstacles you might have. For instance, if you had any amount of fear, you tended to want to control things in the scene. So he’d give you an exercise to give you an experience to find your way out of that behaviour,” Mr. Cahill says.

Phelim McDermott, who is co-founder and co-artistic director of improv-focused theatre company Improbable in London, says doing a 10-day workshop with Mr. Johnstone in 1985 was “life changing.”

“There’s so much more that’s important about the exercises and the games that came out of his work. Behind it is a kind of alternative view of how we see creativity, how we see education,” Mr. McDermott says.

He has worked frequently with Mr. Johnstone’s creation the Life Game, an improvisational format that involves someone sharing stories from their life onstage, which the troupe interrupts to dramatize, with the storyteller taking part – but never playing themself. The storyteller also gets to pick how they die, and the group dramatizes the death scene.

“The thing about Life Game is it could turn on a sixpence. It could be incredibly funny and then incredibly moving,” Mr. McDermott says. “In the U.K., improvisation is known as comedy but for Keith it was always theatre and narrative and storytelling.”

Keith Johnstone was born in Devon, England, on Feb. 21, 1933. He became a teacher in a working-class area of London, where he was given a class of what others called ineducable students.

“One astounding thing was the way cowed and dead-looking children would suddenly brighten up and look intelligent when they weren’t being asked to learn. When they were cleaning out the fish tank, they looked fine. When writing a sentence, they looked numb and defeated,” he wrote in Impro. Mr. Johnstone got them writing poems, doing math with masks on and inventing games, all of which developed his teaching methods and firmed up his ideas about the limits of modern formal education.

In 1956, a friend suggested the team at the Royal Court Theatre take a risk and commission a play from him, as he was also a writer. He spent the next decade at the theatre as a playwright, head of the script department and a director. When the theatre started a writers’ group, he stepped in and turned it into an improv group. (Mr. Johnstone idolized Samuel Beckett, and met him at the theatre during these years.)

He began teaching at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in 1966 and a year later founded the Theatre Machine, an improv group that toured Europe. In 1972, he was hired by the University of Calgary and moved to Canada.

In 1978, he co-founded Loose Moose, continued to write plays and invented a number of improv formats, including Theatresports, which took off and spread across Canada and around the world.

He eventually copyrighted the concept and, in 1998, founded the International Theatresports Institute. (Ms. Northan says when imitators eliminated the horn the game stopped being as entertaining and instructive. “That’s having a penalty like you do in sport. They got away from what Keith intended and just thought it was mean.”)

Mr. Johnstone also further explained his formats in the 1999 book Impro For Storytellers.

A voracious reader, he had insatiable curiosity.

“He was one of the most well-read people I’ve ever come across. In his house, there wasn’t a wall that did not have a bookshelf on it,” Ms. Northan says.

Noted improviser Patti Stiles, Mr. Johnstone’s former student, personal assistant and tenant, says he once bought almost all of one author’s books to see how their creativity changed as they became more famous.

Along with reading, Mr. Johnstone loved painting, classical music, science museums and nature. He played piano and would compose music, along with writing for the theatre. (Ms. Stiles says she still vividly recalls his play The Last Bird.)

Ms. Stiles recalls him as creative and generous, leaving gifts for her around the house such as a bowl of strawberries with the note “Eat me,” or a book with notes on certain pages, suggesting: “Read this page and write what happens next before reading on.” After rehearsals or shows at the Loose Moose, he’d say, “Ah, the car wants to go this way tonight,” and they would take a new, surprising route for no particular reason.

Mr. McDermott says the improv we know today grew out of two traditions: one that focuses on physicality and space, and Mr. Johnstone’s, which is about storytelling and being fearlessly in the moment. He says the public knows little of Mr. Johnstone’s legacy and that even in acting, improv and comedy circles, not everyone is aware of his influence.

“Keith was always an outlier,” Mr. McDermott says, noting that Mr. Johnstone had no interest in being renowned for his ideas or his work, just wanted his students to explore. “Keith is gone, but his influence won’t stop.”

Mr. Johnstone leaves his sons, Benjamin Johnstone and Dan Vantari, and his grandson, Cort Dawnne.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this obituary stated that Mr. Johnstone idolized and met Bertolt Brecht, but in fact it was the playwright Samuel Beckett who became Mr. Johnstone's esteemed mentor.