Webpage Supplement to
Chapter 27: TheatreSports and Competitive Dramatic Impovisation
David L. Young (and Ann Curtis)
Revised slightly June 6, 2008
Further Notes on History:
(See Webpage Supplement to Foreword about other
roots for competitive improvisational drama, such as Imagination
Olympix. (Interestingly, this group has been recently
“sued” by the actual Olympics Games and has been forced to change its
name to its acronym, IO).
Dramatic improvisation has been an indispensable part of the curricular objectives in drama programs throughout the North American school system since the early 1960s. The opportunity for drama students to play and create improvisationally has been widely documented by drama theorists and practitioners as a vital opportunity for students to harmonize and understand the world around them. Young people accomplish this by taking on different roles to explore unknown situations, to expand their intellectual capacity for creative and critical thought, insight, rumination, playing, being, viewing, empathizing, and encountering an abundance of improvised roles and situations. Improvisation opens an effective and powerful medium for young people to create an independent and personal narrative and exposition (Young, 1998). Improvisation is an interactive, communal, creative process that forces young people to live ‘in the moment’, to take risks, make choices, and to exercise their creative sensibilities of both ‘self’ and ‘other’.
Improvisation — Then and Now
"In a normal
education everything is designed to suppress spontaneity, but I wanted
to develop it." -- Keith
Johnstone, IMPRO: Improvisation and the Theatre, 1979, p.15.
The history of improvisation as a form of artistic expression and communication has its roots within the ritualistic displays of primitive humans to the sacrament contained in thousands of years of religious tradition and writing. Similarly, improvisation is extremely pervasive throughout the history of theatre and literature. Scholars believe that even the early Greek narrative epics like The Odyssey and The Iliad had their genesis as improvised story telling (Hodgson & Richards, 1966). Commedia dell’Arte (comedy of the [actor’s] guild) was fundamentally improvised comedy, which was structured to follow simple plot lines and scenarios (lazzis), consisting of a handful of stock characters (zannis) who expressed their character traits through the use of masks, absurd physicalizations, and obscene gestures (Salerno, 1992). Even Shakespeare’s plays are believed to have been influenced by the extemporaneous additions of his actors, whose impromptu lines would have been adapted into his written scripts (Hartnoll, 1968). Suffice to say whether as an adjunct to the actual creation or through the performance itself, improvisation has had an impact on the creators and purveyors of theatrical art from centuries past to present day.
Improvisation became an ubiquitous staple of modern classroom drama due in part to the progressive education movement initiated by John Dewey (1916), whose views focused on the premise that children learn through the spontaneity of ‘playing and doing’. Half a century later, Dewey’s theories were advanced by such luminaries in the field as Peter Slade (1954), and Brian Way (1967). Slade and Way, (although both offering their own divergent theories), helped move drama education away from being a mere component of English speech-training, elocution, and posture (Henry Caldwell Cook, 1917) towards curricular objectives based on child development, free-expression, as well as social and psychological growth.
Gavin Bolton (1986) viewed dramatic improvisation as a means of natural discovery through ‘trial and error’, where students had an opportunity to gain insight into human situations by placing themselves into “other people’s shoes” (p. 46). Dorothy Heathcote (1984) took this one step further by espousing a dramatic curriculum that not only personally engaged students within a world of improvisational make-believe, but also sought a type of ‘hyper-awareness’ from the students, where they could feel, learn, and reflect upon the drama as it happened. Richard Courtney (1980) considered improvised drama as being concerned with a student's “inner thought” and the “spontaneous dramatic action” which occurs as they engage in their own personal “living” and “human” drama (p. 2).
The impetus of Keith Johnstone’s TheatreSports (1978) was not only motivated by his work at London’s Royal Court Theatre where he created an improvisational company called The Theatre Machine, but was also inspired by the antics of professional wrestling which he viewed as “working-class theatre.” Johnstone came up with the idea of replacing the wrestlers with improvisers, and TheatreSports was born (Foreman & Martini, 1995).
At what point did a process-oriented activity, with the sole intent of personal growth and experience become competitive? What are the benefits and the drawbacks, from taking dramatic improvisation, which was essentially developed as personal and collective exploration in the drama classroom, and turning it into a competition? Johnstone’s idea of competition was purely meant to be for fun. His student actors at the University of Calgary played for audience reaction as much as they competed for a set of hand drawn numbered cards from audience judges. Scored out from 0 to 5, the judges would hold up cards based on their personal and emotional gut responses to the humour and inherent risks of the scenes played out before them. These numbers would then be tallied on a score board for everyone to see, with the end results being hailed by all the participants. Unfortunately high school students and children don’t have the same type of equanimity as there older counter-parts. But the competitive nature of our schools in all arenas of participation ranging from sports, academic achievement, to the arts – makes the use of a competitive formatted drama activity very compelling for both kids and teachers.
Competitive improvisation has become a necessary part of the drama curriculum in many drama programs across Canada and the United States. This has happened, in part, as a mechanism for public recognition on the part of drama teachers and their programs to impress colleagues, administrators, and school trustees. Because drama both as a curricular objective and as an art form have been marginalised as ‘extra’-curricular for decades, the opportunity for teacher’s to compete and gain external and internal recognition is extremely compelling. Unlike the professional theatre, high school drama doesn’t get reviewed publicly; what delineates an excellent drama program from a mediocre one is not easily definable and can certainly use the boost that competition brings with it. I have seen this first hand in my own career.
Further History of Competitive Improvisation and TheatreSports
act. Everyone can improvise. Anyone who wishes to can play in the
theatre." -- Viola Spolin, Improvisation for the Theatre, 1963, p. 3.
Although Keith Johnstone had been experimenting with improvised ensemble theatre in Great Britain back in the 1960s with the Theatre Machine, it wasn’t until he began the Loose Moose Theatre Company in 1978 that TheatreSports had its inaugural public performance at the Pumphouse Theatre in Calgary, Alberta. Using both students and alumni from the University of Calgary as his actors, Johnstone used a game called “No Blocking” and had the actors literally compete for time on stage. The actors were not the only raucous participants in the early days of TheatreSports, as the audience was incorporated into the games not only as the providers of suggestions, but also to throw pies filled with whipped cream at the losing actors and their team. This type of off-the-wall entertainment was an immediate success, and with success came the evolution of increased organization, newly developed games, and a more formalized format utilizing more recognizable theatre structures like props, costumes, sound and lighting effects, and a master of ceremonies to facilitate the show.
From 1978 to present day, there are professional TheatreSports and improvisational theatre companies performing and competing within this structure of spontaneous theatre to audiences all over the world with professional, beginner, and amateur participants doing the improv. University, colleges, and local community groups have begun to include improvisational theatre as an active entry-level participatory way of inviting students and new actors into the theatre community. It doesn’t take more than a simple web search now to find thousands of links to improve comedy being performed, workshoped, and experienced regionally throughout North America, Europe, and Australia. One of the greatest resources is Johnstone’s own improv summer institute that takes place yearly in Banff, Alberta – a picturesque town in the Rocky Mountains a few hours drive from Calgary, Alberta, for participants from all over the world. Dozens of similar institutes and workshop experiences are offered throughout the Pacific Northwest in both Canada and the United States (see references).
For many students who are unable or unwilling to explore process or role drama (defined in chapter in book--also see supplementary website), or for that matter who become terrified at the prospect of memorizing scripted scenes, competitive improvisation is usually a way to include and introduce students to some semblance of theatre tradition. [Editor's comment: Perhaps many young people aren't so much scared as simply assessing the payoff as just not worth the effort, because memorization is a lot of work and rehearsals take a lot of time. Many people want their recreation to be easier, so I'm not ready to label them “lazy” either.]
Curricularly, only thirteen of fifty states in the US have any formal state sanctioned drama curriculum; in Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia/New Zealand every province, territory, and district has some formal drama guidelines from which educators develop their teacher with students – all of these include some form or another of improvisation, Theatre Sports or theatre games. As educators we are better able to connect our students to being both an active participant and audience member if we are able to create a fun, trusting, and cohesive community of learners.
I teach TheatreSports to my students because I personally like the majority of the educational learning outcomes that I see resulting in our three-months immersed in this curriculum. For many students who are unable or unwilling to explore process or role drama, or for that matter who become terrified at the prospect of memorizing scripted scenes, competitive improvisation is usually a way to include and introduce students to some semblance of theatre tradition. The structure of many of the games makes sense, and offers basic technical strategies that can be mastered and implemented in future theatrical projects. One of the fundamentals is to move the scene forward by accepting the offers and ideas of the other people on stage (or for that matter the audience). Stopping a scene from progressing is called ‘blocking’, and takes all the energy out of improvisation, and therefore is an attribute that is quickly done away with. Similarly, we do away with all sexism, racism, swearing, and homophobic content when we work on any improv scene; students and their teams are penalized (by deducting points or by losing their stage time) if they indulge in any of these areas. I might add that this is a departure from how I teach the majority of my drama and acting curriculum, where I try to allow the students to self-censor their work without penalty.
About the Canadian Improv Games
The Canadian Improv
We have come together
In the spirit of loving competition
To celebrate the Canadian Improv Games
We promise to uphold the ideals of improvisation -
To co-operate with one another -
To learn from each other -
To commit ourselves to the moment -
And above all ... TO HAVE FUN!
Improv Games is described as “loving competition between teams of
students trained to perform spontaneous, improvised scenes” (Denny,
1996). Not unlike Johnstone’s epiphany while watching wrestling, the
architect of the Canadian Improv Games became convinced while he was
viewing a televised football game that too many people had become
‘watchers’ and not ‘players’. David Shepherd originated competitive
team-based improvised theatre in New York City in 1972, six years
earlier than Johnstone’s 1978 TheatreSports debut in Calgary.
The Ottawa-Carlton High School Improv Olympics lasted for a few years with almost every high school participating, until some of the teachers began to become disenchanted with the concept of competition, and the inevitable public adjudication that would follow the students' scene work. A few die-hard proponents of the educational value of the tournament (Willie Wyllie, Howard Jerome, and Johnson Moretti) not only worked tirelessly to restart it, but also to advocate for a national platform from which to explore and promote improvised theatre. From 1982 to 1989 the Improv Olympics remained a regional festival, but by 1990 Wyllie, Jerome, and Moretti had been successful in making in-roads throughout Canada and the national tournament known as the Canadian Improv Games was born (Denny, 1996).
Five Types of Events
more significance placed on scripted, straight, mainstream theatrical
productions than on improvisational work? Is it because the script
represents something tangible and concrete? Are we to believe that the
actor who is immersed in the memorization of someone else’s words, who
is being directed, being costumed, being lit, acting on a designed and
built stage, and playing within the confines of structured theatrical
conventions to a passive audience is creating a more valuable or
important form of art than the spontaneous creations of the improviser?
Don’t both forms exist in an evanescent moment in time? Even
Johnstone’s touring company, The Theatre Machine, considered their work
in this manner: "Theatre Machine is a throw-away form, it
is disposable theatre, ideas
and memories get re-cycled and the best is really best because it comes
out of the moment" (Frost & Yarrow, 1990, p. 58).
Johnstone’s description of his art as “disposable” does not diminish its value or make it less worthwhile, but is a conscious reconciliation and appreciation as to the ephemeral nature of improvisation and its relationship between the improvisers and the audience (Frost & Yarrow, 1990)
Unfortunately competitive improvisation and especially TheatreSports have gained a bad reputation for lacking rigor, structure, or serious content in much the same manner that modern art or jazz has been biased as being less artistic than more structured forms – but improv typically does have a solid foundational structure and should be viewed as more than simply a fun-filled rehearsal technique. For some reason improvisational theatre seems to be considered the cheap cousin of straight, scripted, and rehearsed theatre. Of course this is a completely unfair perception, as both have their rightful place as important, engaging, creative and artistic mediums.
The problem is that there are a great many drama teachers in the field who spend an entire year doing TheatreSports with their students, for no other reason than the ease with which it can be delivered. Many drama curriculum guides and 'how to' books offer improvisation and acting games in a pabulum-like manner, making planning and organizing a lesson worry free. The problem is that it makes it easy to water down the curriculum, which makes it easier for school districts and administrators to justify employing unqualified and untrained drama teachers, continually relegating drama as an extra frill, requiring only an adult supervisor to watch over the kids while they play at their silly little drama games. Somehow the delivery of this type of drama curriculum has been bastardized through lax, lazy teaching, which in turn has fostered and developed sloppy student improvisers.
It's not hard to imagine class after class of Whose Line is it Anyway television take-offs, with student success being evaluated solely on the volume of laughs they receive, and the clever, clichéd, and pithy endings that they produce. The original words and intent of Keith Johnstone's TheatreSports have been either forgotten or essentially misinterpreted. I argue that Johnstone's work is as important a contribution to the theatre, actors, and drama education as Viola Spolin, Uta Hagen, Gavin Bolton, or Dorothy Heathcote. The problem lies in the dissemination of his ideas — limited publications and research, and an overabundance of drama books that provide teachers with recipes for teaching "TheatreSports-like-games" with little or no rationale or methodological framework — which is the antithesis of Johnstone's original ideas the writing of Keith Johnstone in the field of improvisation and the great care that he has taken to share, teach, and explore his TheatreSports theories with drama and acting students, practitioners, researchers, and audiences world-wide.
Impro for Storytellers
Johnstone’s 1999 book, Impro for Storytellers, comes some twenty years
after authoring the highly influential and significant book Impro:
Improvisation and the Theatre. Both books display the brilliance of
Johnstone's writing, and his highly accessible style, formatted in a
variety of manners ranging from personal narratives; teacher/student
dialogues; directorial rants; reflective musings; to strategic lesson
planning; rationale; and uncomplicated illustrations of numerous actor
or student activities. Impro for Storytellers builds on and extends his
earlier work by conceptualizing improvisation as an everyday human
transaction, with activities focusing on students, student success, and
the on-stage exploration of risk-taking and option-making. Teachers,
instructors, or directors can find methodology and practice in this
book that will aid students ranging from grades eight to twelve in
secondary school, from college or university, or even the rehearsing
actor needing to reinvigorate their sense of improvisational focus.
Johnstone's book is not a 'how to' book, it is a book written in a dialogical manner reminiscent in style to Constantin Stanislavski, with the reader playing the role of on-looker to the side-coaching dialogues between the actor and director.. Johnstone makes sure that he covers all levels of both current and experimental forms of improvisational work, but pays specific attention to the concept that good improvisers must be good storytellers.
Johnstone's desire to explore opposites can be viewed as theoretically contradictory when viewed by researchers who have a depth of knowledge in his work. While Johnstone readily admits that the genesis of TheatreSports as popular entertainment draws heavily on the influence of professional wrestling, and openly expresses the disposable nature of improv scenes — in this book he also seems to be yearning for something that might be taken more seriously, and in that vein he has evolved his thinking from the short challenge games of original TheatreSports towards new detailed narrative forms of improvisation which rely heavily on thorough storytelling techniques which he calls Micetro Impro, and Guerilla Theatre. The contradiction becomes blaringly apparent when the reader understands that the tradition of interactive audience participation which began in 1978 at the Loose Moose Theatre in Calgary, Alberta, Canada (where audience members could throw cream pies at performers) still exists in a manner of speaking; albeit less messy, with the audience being incited and coaxed by a referee, a Master of Ceremonies, or an actor in a guerilla suit to cheer, jeer, and offer suggestions to the performers on stage. The enthusiasm and energy of this type of audience interactivity is a double edged sword — while it has the potential to create a long lasting and invigorating theatrical experience, it also has the potential to lead to insincere and self-indulgent improvisation, while at the same time validating the criticism of TheatreSports as "gutless light entertainment" (p. 73).
Whether information for TheatreSports scenes are being yelled out as suggestions by audience members, or teachers are playing in role with their students to find moments of authenticity — the interactive nature of improvisation can not be negated. Spontaneity has the potential to exist in every movement and moment in the drama classroom or the rehearsal studio, and Johnstone makes sure that his readers are aware of the exciting opportunities that improvisational techniques and teaching provide those willing to play, perform, and risk within the form.
This is supported by Johnstone, who points out that "teens who would despise any conventional 'cultural' performance will go through considerable hardship to take part in our shows because impro is 'daring'…" (p. 6) — and it is within these 'daring' moments that some of the most interesting stories are told.
- - -
The basic idea of role playing is to take on roles that we have an understanding of, an appreciation of, and desire to learn more about. I spend a lot of time in Grade Nine developing their ability to take on character, to take on role, as it is a primary focus in the Grade Nine curriculum. There are always a few kids who will really find themselves totally immersed in taking on a role, and then there will be some young people who look at it as an easy way to create something simple or foolish.
(1986). Selected writings on drama in education. London: Longman.
This book... why useful to a reader who wants to do theatresports?
Cook, H.C. (1917) The Play Way. London: Heinemann.
Courtney, R. (1995) Drama and Feeling – An Aesthetic Theory. Montreal: McGill-
Queens University Press.
Courtney, R. (1980) The Dramatic Curriculum. New York: Drama Book Specialists.
Denny P. (1996)“Our Story – The History of the Canadian Improv Games” and “Quotes From Teachers and Students” [Online, Internet Site, July 31, 1999]. Available: http://www.improv.ca [May 1999].
Dewey, J. (1916/1966) Democracy and Education. New York: The Free Press (The MacMillan Company).
Foreman, K. & Martini, C. (1995) Something Like a Drug – An Unauthorized Oral History of TheatreSports. Red Deer, Alberta: Red Deer College Press.
Heathcote, D. (1984) Collected Writings on Education and Drama. (ed. Johnson, L. and O'Neill, C.,1984.) London: Hutchinson & Co.
Hodgson, J. & Richards, E. (1966) Improvisation. London: Methuen & Co. Ltd.
Hornbrook, D. (1992) “Can We Do Ours, Miss? Towards a Dramatic Curriculum.” The Drama Theatre Teacher. 4:2:16-20.
Salerno, H.F. (1992). Scenarios of the Commedia dell’Arte. New York: Proscenium Publishers Inc.
Young, D. (1998) The Curriculum is Me: Reflections on Living and Teaching Dramatically. M.A. Thesis. Vancouver: University of British Columbia.
Conversation: Improvisational Language Games.. are introduced, we
introduce the competitive variations wherein the students form
"teams ... Kurtz discusses his approach to language teaching
using improvisational theatre games ...
-- The Canadian Improv Games: "Our Story." (PDF/Adobe Acrobat], March 2002). This program for high school students is a "loving competition" between teams of students trained to perform spontaneous, improvised scenes. ... into players by putting simple theatre games into a competitive setting.In 1974, his idea ... thereafter co-created the Ottawa improvisational theatre companies Stage Fright and Skit ... home.golden.net/~improv/CIGHistory.pdf
-- National Comedy Theatre, San Jose is proud to be the Northern California Bay Area home of ComedySportz, a competitive, team improvisational comedy, played just like a sport. It's a comedy competition where the audience is always the winner. ..a variety of improvisational games all based on suggestions from the audience... www.national-comedy.com/
-- Website on Theatre Games.
example: Something to do. 1. Have the class count off into two
teams. Team one stands in a line facing the audience (which is team 2).
2. Team two must try to look cool and relaxed. ... This is a race and
should be competitive. To win the students ... front of the class and
prepare to do an improvisational skit. ...)
-- "Raw! Theatre" is an opportunity for participants to hone their acting skills and an evening of entertainment for those who'd rather just kick back and watch! Drawing on the inspirational work of Keith Johnstone, Raw! ... a series of improvisational games, Raw! Theatre is spiced with a sense of friendly rivalry and competitive fun as two ... of the evening will be deemed Raw! Theatre champions! ... www.carltondrama.org.uk/rawtheatre.html
-- Unexpected Productions: Seattle TheatreSports + Improv ... improvisational format known as TheatreSports. Improvisational theatre with a competitive edge, TheatreSports pits teams against each other all over the world. These games have been a great opportunity www.unexpectedproductions.org/about.htm
-- Saint Louis Improv Dot Com - Learn Improv - Classes - Workshops ... Learn the fundamentals of improvisational theatre and theatre games. This class instructs ... the fundamentals of improvisational comedy and CITY Improv's competitive comedy. www.stlouisimprov.com/learn.html
notes: In the Orlando, Florida area, James Best developed Theatre
Olympics, inspired by the Canadian Theatre sports. He had attended a
show in Toronto. However, we developed our own style and types of
improv. We were somewhat ahead of our time in Florida, though, and that
theatre no longer exists.(One of the actors from those days performs
with meat Sleuths. He was a PhD psychologist then-now acts full time!)
In Orlando we now have Sak Comedy which does Improv. However, Sak is
not always done as a contest. Here isone of their contest ads: Duel of
Fools at 8pm! Every Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Two teams battle it
out for the funniest scenes, games and songs and you are the judge!
Of course the most well known improv comedy contest is the TV show "Whose Line Is It Anyway" . It began in the UK and then had an American version (1998-04). That show really put improv on the map for the general public. However, I didn't like the way the judging was done very quickly and randomly by the host. In our Theatre Olympics, several audience members were picked to be judges. They held up numerical score cards. I suspect that many team improvisational competitions are operating in the UK, since their TV show was the first of its kind ( and lasted 10 years!)
Here’s a website: http://www.whoseline.net/show.html
"The BasicsWhose Line is it Anyway? (WLiiA?) is a show in which contestants improvise scenes in theatresports-type games given to them by the host. They might be asked to sing about an audience member, speak only in questions, become weird superheroes, or guess at bizarre quirks. The show is a Hat Trick production which began life as a 'competitive' team game on Radio 4 in the UK. Host Clive Anderson was joined by four contestants, including regular team captains John Sessions and Stephen Fry. Colin Sell provided the improvised music.
After a year, the series moved to television and Channel 4. Clive continued to host, with John initially appearing in every episode, and Richard Vranch providing music. The competitive format was dropped but mysterious "points" were still awarded and a seemingly random winner selected.
Common performers on the show included Greg Proops, Josie Lawrence, Brad Sherwood, Paul Merton, Sandi Toksvig, Mike McShane, Chip Esten, Tony Slattery and Steve Frost, as well as Ryan Stiles and Colin Mochrie who became fixtures of the later seasons. These performers were joined by guests such as Stephen Fry, Rory Bremner, Graeme Garden, Jonathan Pryce, Ardal O'Hanlon, Mark Cohen, George Wendt and many more. A number of episodes were filmed in New York in 1991/92.
In 1998 the show celebrated its 10th year by filming the series "In Hollywood". The cast then joined a new host, Drew Carey, to tape a 6-episode pilot series for ABC with Ryan & Drew as producers. Laura Hall provided music for both of these series. The pilot run was successful, extended by an extra episode followed by a full series shown in a summer replacement slot. The US version, sometimes referred to by fans as DLiiA? (or "Drew's Line") has seen Wayne Brady join Ryan & Colin as regulars. Fourth-seaters have included the return of oldies Greg, Josie, Chip & Brad as well as newcomers including Kathy Greenwood, Denny Siegel and Jeff Davis. Laura has been joined by guitarist Linda Taylor and other musicians.
Robin Williams and Whoopi Goldberg have appeared for episodes, whilst celebrities including Jerry Springer, Florence Henderson, Sid Caesar, Hugh Hefner, Richard Simmons, Chyna and even Lassie have joined for individual games."
When Anne Curtis searched MSN under "Improvisational Theatre Competitive Games" a lot came up-these are the first few:
> The following web site is a huge list of American Improv comedy troupes. When you click on them (such as I did for Orlando based SAK)-it tells whether they have a theatreásports type of format. Many do! So-yes this form of theatre is very wide spread, popular, alive and well!
***Yahoo! Directory Comedy Groups > Improv Groups
>> ... improvisational comedy theatre taking audience suggestions.
> Comedy Jocks - Morrison, CO - competitive improvisational ... performs
> improvisational games and sketches as ...
"Anne Curtis" <firstname.lastname@example.org> wrote on 22 Aug 2004:
"Theatre Olympics" for a year run by James Best of Dukes of
Hazzard fame. We had two teams (red/blue) and did all different types
of improvs using audience suggestions. Judges from the audience gave
points and we earned olympic gold. silver and bronze medals
individually, as well as a team win.The audience had "boo" bricks made
out of soft sponge, that they could throw at us! I was on the blue team
for about a year on Fri/Sat nights and still stay in touch with some of
the performers. We were in business before this form of theatre
had become popular, and were a bit before our time (over 15 years ago)
It was the best possible experience for all my therapeutic work.
I believe my ability to do Theatre Olympics came from teaching creative
dramatics all those years. The auditioners found it was harder to find
funny women-perhaps society dicatates more sensible self-image
messages to women?