Theater Sports

Improvisation as a community sport

One of the articles in Play & Humor (IC#13)
Originally published in Spring 1986 on page 26
Copyright (c)1986, 1997 by Context Institute

You don’t have to be a student or an actor to partake of the delights of improvisation; Theater Sports makes it available to everyone. The Seattle Theater Sports group can be contacted at PO Box 95305, Seattle, WA 98145-2305. Floyd Van Buskirk is an actor and the Head Coach for the Seattle Theater Sports League.

What is "Theater Sports"?

Floyd: It’s basically a format for improvisational theater that uses a competitive sport angle as a theatrical convention. In a match, we have two teams of improvisers who challenge each other or are challenged by the judges or possibly a referee with different types of scenes. For example: a scene in verse; the best improvised opera; the best ballet; the best scene in the style of Shakespeare; or the best scene in reverse where you start at the end of a scene and work your way toward the beginning. We came up with a challenge called "What if?" We fill in the blank: What if pigs flew? What if the cows came home? What if hell really did freeze over?

The two teams of improvisers are scored by a panel of three judges on a scale of 0 to 5. Zero means you blew it. One basically means the team was on stage, didn’t knock over any furniture, or hurt anybody. A two is a poor scene. A three is a good scene, an average scene. Four is excellent and five is something that we never throw. It’s sort of an unwritten law that you just don’t throw the five. It’s like the Tao for improv.

Our judges are trained to be very harsh and critical of the work because they are giving the event an official "sport" feel, as well as being the scapegoat for anything that goes wrong. If a scene ends up going into the dumper and the judges throw up one’s and two’s, the audience can boo the judges for being so hard. We build the judges up as the villain, yet at the same time they try to judge the scenes as fairly and impartially as possible.

We go over the scores with the judges to find out why they scored a certain way, and they’ll say things like, "Well, it was because you had three opportunities to end this scene and you missed them all, so we scored it down." Sometimes a scene will start off really well and then go dead. We can’t find an ending for it so they end it for us. "Sorry, you lost it. Here’s the zero. Get off stage."

We also have a red flag which we can throw when we see problems early on in a scene, like blocking, which is one of the terms we use a lot. It is a way of stopping the action. For example, if someone was starting an improvisation with "That’s a lovely dog. Is that your dog?" And then you said, "That’s not a dog; it’s an iguana." You’ve taken that person’s idea and blocked it completely. You’ve denied their reality. If something like that happened in the scene, you’d probably see a red flag go out and a judge might even call blocking.

Robert: What are some of the strategies that work?

Floyd: What always works is to accept everything. It doesn’t mean you can never say "no" to a scene, but you never want to deny anything that someone is offering you. We talk a lot about making offers. Our basic rule of thumb is don’t go out there to get laughs, to be entertaining and cut-up in front of the audience. The job of improvisers is to go out there and take care of each other, make each other look good. When a person makes a blind offer, not knowing what they’re doing, they have a chance, because another person can come out and justify what they’re doing and take it further. One of the games that we play as we teach people improv is called "Yes, and . . . " Before you say anything, you have to say "Yes, and . . . " and then you add something to it. It’s like accepting and furthering.

We also try to avoid gags, a gag being a thing that will stop a narrative or a story.

There are two other terms that we use, wimping and waffling. Waffling is when you talk about an idea or action rather than doing it. For example, if there were two people talking to each other like this: "Boy, it sure is a nice day for skiing." "Yes, we ought to go skiing." "Yes, I’ve got my skis on the back of the car." "It would be fun to go skiing sometime." "Yes, we ought to go skiing sometime." Pretty soon a judge would throw a flag and say, "Ski, stupid, and quit waffling."

Wimping is accepting an offer but not doing anything with it. If someone points out to the distance and says, "Oh my God, what’s that?", it’s up to the other person to say what it is. If the person looks at it and says, "Gee I don’t know," that’s what we call wimping.

Diane: Do you have any ground rules as far as subject matter?

Floyd: We do have ground rules. We have a bag with which we penalize players or audience members for gratuitous obscenities, sexism, or racism. It’s always up to the discretion of the judges whether it’s gratuitous or not. We try to steer away from crude stuff. We generally do, although playing in a comedy club, a nightclub where they serve alcohol, we’ve gotten used to taking on some of those suggestions and either finding a way to redirect them or a way to do them tastefully. A lot depends on the integrity of the players, which we try to keep pretty high. Sometimes someone will do gratuitous things, but when they do, bang! We bag the person for a minute of their team’s next scene time, or it could be 3 minutes depending on how bad it was. It’s like hockey, putting the player in the penalty box. The person can either sit there on the bench for the first minute of their team’s scene with a bag on their head, or they can go on stage and try to play the scene if they want, but it’s hard to play with a bag.

We do try to educate and cultivate the audience. They will shout down rude suggestions with a "NO!" Then they’ll turn on the guy and say, "Bag it!", so we’ll go over and bag the guy who made the suggestion. Lots of times we’ll check with the audience, if they want to see something or not. Often they’ll say, "NO WAY!"

Diane: It sounds like you’re trying to build a real supportive atmosphere.

Floyd: It’s very much a real family kind of deal. There’s no one in the league that I don’t like. I think the thing that I like about improvising is that these people resist growing up or resist growing old. They’re people who still want to play. No one who plays Theater Sports gets paid, but we come back and play every week because we love the game. It’s fun. And part of the fun of the game is the competition, that edge. Theater Sports is full of paradoxes. You have to play to win but it’s not important to win. Playing well is what’s important.

In Theater Sports, when the other team is blowing us away, we’re applauding and really having a good time. Then it’s our turn. We’ll try to do something as good as what they did. It’s really fun because we help each other out. And when people say, "That was a great scene; how did you ever come out with that?", all you can say is: "I don’t know. I’m glad you enjoyed it. I enjoyed it, too."

The thing that I really love about Theater Sports is that it makes improvisation and play accessible to the community. I think it’s fun for the audience because we try to break down that myth of the invisible wall that’s between the actors and the audience. We blow that away as soon as we involve the audience in the action on stage – then they’re playing with us. They’re telling us what they want us to do and we do it for them. I try to look at what we do as a community service. We’re here to improvise their fantasies or their frustrations. If it’s something that really bothers them or things that they’re afraid of, if we can bring those things out so that they can laugh at them and not take them so seriously and not be threatened by them anymore, then I am very happy with what we’re doing.

Diane: How did you get into Theater Sports?

Floyd: The steps for me were theater, improv, and that led into Theater Sports. I started in theater in my early twenties while I was at a junior college in California. I took an acting class on improvisation that I found a lot of fun. I felt intrigued by it, but never really got much of a chance to play with it. Then I came to Seattle, and early on I went to see None of the Above, a local improv group. I got so jazzed about what it was that they were doing that I wanted to work with them! So I started taking improv workshops with Roberta Maguire and other people from None of the Above. After studying with them for about 3 years I got asked to join the group.

Then Roberta brought Keith Johnstone, who invented Theater Sports about eight years ago, down from Calgary, Alberta. His book, Impro, is sort of the bible of improv theater. We work out of it a lot, as well as the Viola Spowlings book, Improvisation for the Theater. Taking a workshop with Keith was like finding my guru! It was great.

None of the Above, Off the Wall, and Play it as it Lays, all improv companies in Seattle, tried playing Theater Sports for a while amongst themselves. About a year later, Keith came and did another workshop. Roberta Maguire, Barry Press, Ed Sampson and myself decided it was time to set up a league in Seattle. We did a workshop at Pioneer Square Theater from which we picked up our first core group Theater Sports players. We’ve been working the game now for about 3 years, playing Monday nights at Swanee’s Comedy Underground almost every week without fail.

We’ve got people from all walks of life. A good third of our players are not actors and never got on stage before they played Theater Sports. Some of our best improvisers are building contractors, real estate agents, computer specialists, high school counselors, and teachers. These are people from all over who bring all their skills from completely different fields.

One of the things that’s fun about working with people who are not actors is when they improvise, they use a purer sense of improv than the actors. Acting skills and improv skills are two different skills although they complement each other.

When improv is really magic, everyone trusts each other, and everyone is really connected and taking care of each other. When an improv really takes off, it’s like it happens on its own, and our job is just to be there and tend the story. Sometimes I still can’t believe that they are actually improvising, it’s so great!

We are trying to work our sound and lighting man in, to give him more free rein, to feel like he can do effects with the lights and bring up sound cues when he wants to. In Calgary, they’ve worked it for so long that they have a sound improviser who has a table of tapes that’s vast. They’re all mapped out, so she knows where each one of those cues is. They’ve got 3 identical cassette decks and she’ll just be back there punching up tapes. After a while, a sound improviser or lighting improviser can almost anticipate what’s coming when she’s watched the players enough. They know that the theme to Superman is going to be just what they need as soon as he turns around and strikes the pose. We are pushing ourselves into that realm now.

Robert: How widespread is Theater Sports?

Floyd: Geographically, we’re spread from Sidney, Australia to Stockholm, Sweden. There’s a league in Milwaukee, Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto and there are smaller leagues all throughout Canada.

Diane: Do the teams travel and compete with one another?

Floyd: Yes! In fact we just had our first Pacific Northwest Regional playoff. We in Seattle invited teams from the leagues in Bainbridge Island and Tacoma to come play over Valentines Day. Bainbridge played Tacoma the first night. Tacoma won, so they played Seattle the next night.

Diane: How many are on each team?

Floyd: We started off with 5 and 6 on a team because everyone was so hungry to play. Now we generally play with a 4 person team. Some of us who’ve been playing for a while longer play with a 2 or 3 person team.

Diane: Who are the 2 teams that play weekly?

Floyd: Generally it’s on a challenge basis. Whoever won the last week has a right to come back and defend their title the next week. Then there are challenging teams that come up, people who say they want to play, and get booked on a certain night.

For things like tournaments elsewhere, I pick the teams in my role as Artistic Director or Head Coach.

Robert: If someone wanted to get something like this going, how could they go about it?

Floyd: You can write us or give us a call, and our PR person, Rebecca Stockly, will give you everything you need to set up a league. We can recommend that you get Impro and also make contact with Calgary, Alberta which, as far as we’re concerned, is Theater Sports mecca. That’s where it all started and Calgary knows where there are leagues starting up so that once you get a league going you can be invited to play elsewhere.

Robert: What kind of training do you give rookie improvisers?

Floyd: The training path is developing out of itself. We never really had a set pattern of how we were going to bring people in. What we have now starts with a Sunday night workshop that is very much an open door. It’s very low pressure.

Robert: What are some of the things that you do?

Floyd: We do a lot of one-word-at-a-time stuff. It’s an easy concept to grasp and it frees you up not to feel responsible for everything that comes out of your mouth. It helps people learn that we’re here to work together to tell the story.

Robert: What’s an example of an exercise that does that?

Floyd: My favorite is the mutant exercise, that came out of Calgary. It starts with having two people side-by-side with their arms around each other. Then they move around, alternately speaking one word at a time as if they were one person and trying to keep everything in the present tense so that they can get involved in the action as they are describing it. In a way, what they’re doing is narrating a story as they’re enacting it. That gets people into the element of improvisation, which is spontaneously creating a collective story.

Robert: Are there other parts of the training program?

Floyd: I encourage people to find others that they’d like to work with. I’ve been recommending that people get together in groups of 3. They can call on one of the people from the coaching staff or myself if they’re having problems with something; we’ll go and work with them. When they feel ready to try it on stage, we have a warm-up workshop on Monday night which is more for players. A lot of our intermediate players show up for that, although we leave it fairly open to beginners, too. My rule of thumb, when a person asks me if they’re ready to go on stage, is to say, "Are you ready to go out and fail in front of a group of people?" If they say, "Yes," I say, "Go for it."

One of the things that I do for our newer players is to video tape them. I have an open invitation whenever they want to come over. I’ll watch video tapes with them and we can stop and say, "Now, see, this is where you were blocking the narrative." It’s like watching the game film.

Robert: Do you have intermediate people who are moving into the role of teaching rookies?

Floyd: We have a coaching staff which is mostly people who have played for 2 or 3 years at this point. Others who have been in the theater a long time, have teaching skills and have learned enough in improv can become part of the coaching staff, too.

Robert: Now that you’ve had this much experience doing improv, do you find in everyday life that you click into other people more sensitively?

Floyd: I think so. Since I’ve developed these skills, I definitely feel more at ease. I used to be very shy, and now it’s much easier for me to talk to people right off the street. I’ve learned a lot from reading Keith Johnstone’s Impro. A lot of what Impro deals with is observing people in situations. For example, in one chapter he talks about status transactions: If two people come around a corner at the same time, facing and walking towards each other, there’s a status transaction going on from the moment your eyes meet. Who is going to move out of the way? Now whoever is higher status is not going to move and it gets to be like a game of chicken. You both go this way and that way and giggle.

Once you catch on to the game, the next step is learning how to play different types of status freely. Some people are just compulsively low status players and others are always high. I’ve done some really intense status work on the street with people accosting me. What do you do? Right away you scope out where this person is and try to match their status. It’s like trying to endow them with the feeling that we’re equal status, and right away they don’t feel threatened or they don’t feel like threatening me at that point.

Diane: That sounds like a very practical application of improv!

Floyd: Some of those skills work really well in the outside world, like blocking, wimping and waffling. There are some things that you don’t say "yes" to in the outside world. When we’re improvising, we say "yes" to everything because it’s a safe, supportive atmosphere. But when you’re outside, it’s smart to block, waffle and wimp and stay out of danger because it’s a matter of survival.

Robert: If you put together a fantasy for how Theater Sports might evolve and develop under the very best of conditions, where might it be in 20 years from now?

Floyd: I’d like to see Theater Sports leagues or improv forums everywhere as places where people could get together and play together. I play Theater Sports because I never wanted to stop playing, and now I don’t have to. Another thing that I like about Theater Sports is that it’s so much of an open door to anyone who wants to get involved in any capacity they want – whether it’s a Theater Sports league or just a place where people can get together to play, tell stories or talk about their experiences over the week, and then be able to play it out with each other. Storytelling is one of the things that we’ve lost, except for the few guilds that are just hanging on and trying to keep it alive. The storyteller in us has gotten so numbed out by television and other passive entertainment, but it’s more fun to get out and do something, to be in the story.

It’s like league night bowling. We’re all there because we love to play the game, to be together and play together. It creates a sense of community and a kind of a bonding. I hope in 20 years you could go to any town and there would be a place where you could go to tell stories and play. That for me would be great! I’d feel that our job was well done. I think people really need to play.