The exaltation among the spectators was something I longed for, but didn't get, from 'straight' Theatre. Sometimes the performers would lie on the canvas and hug each other for minute after minute while the crowd yelled insults and witticisms. Our Royal Court audiences were like whipped dogs in comparison - probably because once an event is categorized as 'cultural' it becomes a mine-field in which your opinion can damn you.
John Dexter and William Gaskill (two of Devine's directors) had taken me to see Professional Wrestling, and afterwards we fantasized about replacing the wrestlers with improvisers. This planted the seed of Theatre-sports, but the discussion was academic since every word and gesture on the public stage had to be okayed ahead of time by the Lord Chamberlain, a Palace official who gutted plays. In reality 'he' was a pack of ex-guard's officers. I'd have paid one to sit at the side of the stage and blow a whistle when anything untoward occurred, but the spectators would have chased him out of the Theatre.
Even comedians had to submit every proposed word and 'significant gesture' to be vetted, and it was embarrassing when visiting Russians bemoaned our lack of freedom. Joan Littlewood's excellent Theatre Workshop was fined on the grounds that one actor had imitated Churchill's voice, and that another had walked across the stage carrying a board 'at a phallic angle'. Had Wrestling been recognized as Theatre, every throw, posture, and expletive, would have needed permission beforehand. (Gaskill hastened the demise of this pre-censorship when he illegally presented Edward Bond's play 'Saved'.)
Although public improvisation was forbidden, my improvisers were soon doing whatever they liked on the public stage (once a week at the Cochrane Theatre, for example). I was giving comedy classes in public and the Lord Chamberlain turned a blind-eye, not quite knowing how to ban a teacher from teaching, but a competition between teams of improvisers could not be seen as 'educational', so Theatresports was just a way to liven up my acting classes until I tried it in Canada (arguably a more liberal society). We went public at the Secret Impro Theatre in a basement at the University of Calgary and the Canadians roared and cheered as if they were watching ice-hockey.
I demonstrated the game in Vancouver (where I found an excellent Theatre for it), and in Europe, and it's since spread all over the world (the Chairman of the Californian State Arts Council wrote to our funding bodies (and to the Canada Council who consider Impro as 'outside their guidelines'), saying that our work was 'so valuable that they'd fund us from California if their mandate permitted it'.
Theatresports appeals to teen-agers because it's risky. Teens who would despise any conventional 'cultural' performance, will go through considerable hardship to take part in our shows because they get to practise exactly those interpersonal skills that they are desperate to improve. Their self-confidence and 'grace under fire' are the abilities that posh English schools like Rugby and Eton struggle to instill (although their methods are a bit different).
Theatresports™ at Loose Moose
It's two minutes past eight on a Sunday evening and the smell of pop-corn tells you that you're in the presence of something populist (Canadians never associate pop-corn with anything 'cultural').
The opening music has started, and the spectators begin to cheer as a 'follow-spot' weaves over them (like Oscar Night). It settles on the Commentator who stands in front of a score-board high up to one side of the semi-circle of steeply raked audience.
He/she welcomes the spectators, and 'breaks the ice', perhaps asking them to:
- "Tell someone a secret you've never told anybody!"
- "Hug someone you don't know!"
(I'm amazed that our spectators will agree to hug each other.)
Perhaps the audience will be asked to do the 'wave'. This is best led by an improviser standing centre-stage, and the Commentator becomes a disembodied voice that eases any difficulties, explains the finer points, and tells you if you've left your car-lights on. This 'voice' can comment briefly without being intrusive, whereas emcees who leap on-stage have to speak in paragraphs to make their interruptions seem worthwhile.
"Can we have the traditional boo for the Judges!" says the commentator.
This is not an attempt to be 'funny', but a way of giving the audience permission to boo later on, should the urge take them.
Three robed judges sit in the 'moat' that surrounds our stage. Bicycle-horns (the 'Rescue Horns' used to honk boring players off the stage) hang around their necks, but their demeanor is serious (because it's no fun booing light-hearted people).
On a typical night the Commentator will introduce:
...a ten-minute Challenge Match played by two of our rookie teams. "Give the Aardvarks a big hand...."
The Aardvarks scamper on from the side opposite their team-bench. This allows us to get a good view of them as they cross the stage. They stay close together so that they're seen as a group, rather than as individuals.
"And now, a round of applause for the 'Bad-Billy's!"
Teams at Loose Moose sink into semi-obscurity in the two foot moat around the stage, but many groups feature their teams, lighting them at all times, and some even sit them up-stage, facing the audience, where they are forced to sustain fixed expressions of glee (this is typical of 'Game-Show Theatresports' in which the emcee becomes the star and the players are of no more consequence than the volunteers at game-shows.
"A Judge and two team-captains to the centre," says the Commentator.
A coin is tossed, and the winner may create some benevolence by saying:
"We'll let you make the first challenge."
"A player crosses into 'enemy territory', and says: "We, the Aardvarks, challenge you, the Bad Billies, to the best scene from a recent movie!"(or whatever).
"We accept!" say their opponents.
Each team improvises a appropriate scene (challengers going first), and the Judges award points by holding up cards that range from zero to five: five means excellent, zero means bad, and a honk from a rescue-horn means 'kindly leave the stage'. Challenge follows challenge until an agreed time is reached.
A team can challenge to anything (at the discretion of the Judges), e.g., Bruce McCulloch's challenge to "...the best scene completed in the length of time that I can submerge my head in a bucket of water," but many teams only challenge to impro games, and some always to the same games, and this creates the same monotony as soup followed by soup follows by soup. Games should be interspersed with stories, or with challenges to 'the best religious scene', or 'to the best enactment of an audience member's dream', or whatever.
Sometimes there are 'one-on-one' challenges, in which players from the opposing teams perform together - perhaps to a 'one-on-one, best-out-of-three Hat-Game', or to a love-scene to be judged on sincerity and truth'. (In spite of the name, one-on-one scenes may involve several players from each team working together.)
Scenes may drag, just as in conventional Theatre, but we hope that anything tedious will be cut short by a 'Warning For Boring' (a honk from a rescue horns) and if the Judges throw off a scene that everyone is enjoying there'll be mass outrage. I remember being a Judge with Suzanne Osten at the first Theatresports game at Unga Klara, and her amazement at the furious noise generated by the Stockholm theatregoers. I asked her to turn and look at them and she saw all these happy Swedes yelling their heads off.
Penalties involve sitting for two minutes beside the score-board with your head in a wicker penalty-basket. On rare occasions the Judges will punish a member of the audience, perhaps for shouting something obscene; they never refuse, the peer pressure is enormous, but how odd to go to the Theatre and be singled out and made to sit a basket on your head.
This beginners' game is usually followed by a fifteen-minute Free-Impro in which a trainer gives a class (exactly as I did with the Theatre Machine in the '60s). This can be interesting in a quite fresh way and the audience enjoys being initiated into the 'secrets'.
The Free-Impro is usually followed by a Danish Game (so called because I developed it in Denmark at a time when we wanted to emphasize the international appeal of Theatresports). The Judges leave, and an 'Ombud' explains the penalty basket (if it hasn't already been used), and tells the spectators that after each pair of challenges they'll be asked to shout the name of the team that 'did the best'. He/she drills them into yelling the teams' names as loudly as possible. Some prissy Theatresports groups ask the audience to hold up red or yellow cards to indicate the team they prefer, but that's tame compared to screaming a team's name as loudly as you can.
The match starts and after each pair of challenges, the 'Ombud' will remind the spectators of the scenes they've just been watching (because laughter interferes with transfer from the short-term memory).
"Did you prefer the scene with executioner falling in love with the prisoner? Or the love-scene in which the aged Janitor said a tearful farewell to his broom? On the count of three - One! Two! Three!"
The winners earn five points, and then a new challenge is issued.
Sometimes there has to be a re-shout, and the team names may have to be yelled separately, but even if we had a 'Decibelometer' or whatever, we'd never use it. Yelling en masse is good for the soul - humans used to swarm up trees and scream at the dawn for fifteen minutes before breakfast - but where can we yell these days? Can't do it at home; can't do it on the bus; can't do it at the office.
Teams present scenes in mime, in gibberish, in verse, in song, and so forth. Scenographies are vigorously supplied by 'Snoggers' who lurk back-stage ready to roll tumbleweed across the stage for a western scene, or to hold fluffy clouds upstage for a scene in Heaven. Audience volunteers sometimes take part (I once saw fifty people run onto the stage and lie down and make sucking noises while the improvisers waded through them, pretending to be duck-hunters in a swamp).
After an hour we have an interval that lasts for about fifteen minutes (depending on the line-ups at the 'concessions'). Then our most experienced improvisers play a Revised Match in which the 'hottest' team' gets the most stage-time (the winners of each challenge get an extra scene in which to pile up more points).
Our audience are out of the Theatre by ten-o-clock at the very latest, and if the performance has gone well, you'll feel that you've been watching of a bunch of good-natured people who are wonderfully cooperative, and who aren't afraid to fail. It's therapeutic to be in such company, and to yell and cheer, and perhaps even volunteer to improvise with them. With luck you'll feel as if you've been at a wonderful party; great parties don't depend on the amount of alcohol but on positive interactions.
For licensing information contact the International Theatresports Institute in Calgary, Canada.