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How Competition Defined Canadian Improvisation

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It was spring and I stood in the bedroom of my brick flat in Montreal, Quebec, packing t-shirts into my bag to head back west to Edmonton, Alberta. I had just completed a three month work internship. As I was folding and rolling the soft, well-worn, machine-washed cotton shirts, I realized something. Most of the shirts were given to me at either improvisational theatre festivals, or at tech conferences.

A few nights earlier, I had seen an improv show in Montreal. It was a French improv show, presented by the 40 year old improv company: League Nationale D’Improvisation (or LNI). The show felt familiar to me. As a student, practitioner, and teacher of the craft of made up theatre for nearly 14 years, it’s easy to spot the tropes–even if your French is only as good as six months of secondary school language study (i.e., terrible).

There are things that seem to just work in improv. Strategies that have been passed down in all sorts of ways for years. They’re rules, guidelines, structures, frameworks. Some of them may be familiar to you, as they’ve been recently adopted by business and teaching community. You might have heard “say yes, and…” or “no blocking” or “every idea is a good idea” before. You might have been challenged to lose your fear of speaking in public by honoring your nerves or following your impulses. These are fundamental underpinnings of live, spontaneous theatre.

As I watched the show, two other stark truths reveal themselves.

The first is that many new ideas are developed in parallel in different places, sometimes unknowingly. The format of the French improv show was familiar. The framing, the teams, the competition aspect–each component of the show was something that I had learned through studying and practicing Theatresports™ by Keith Johnstone. These ideas were not as novel as I once thought. Every idea starts somewhere. Ideas can stem from the combination of concepts, the deconstruction of a larger concept, or the application of one concept to another distinct domain. We humans like to label ourselves innovators as much as we enjoy innovating.

The other, much darker truth is that issues of gender imbalance, lack of respect for differences, and harsh sexism are common across this troupe-based, collective art form. For an community that considers itself inclusive, supportive, and good listeners, we have not instilled these beliefs. The show was not horribly out of balance. There was a collection of man-identifying and woman-identifying players and coaches on both teams.

What stood out was that most of the performing was from the men. Most of the main roles were men. The main characters in scenes, the host, the commentators. All men. Most of the night was dominated by a single gender. This was something that I knew existed, I knew it permeated the cultural artform that I love so much, but I had not seen it so distinctly before. It could have been that the language difference allowed me to not get lost in the dialogue and instead focus on the show as a whole. My keen observer hat fit firmly as I was not lost in what was, as far as I could tell, a funny show. We like to label ourselves more progressive than we actually are.

How does this masculine prevalence reflect our current society? How does it reflect the past? This show made me think about what a show that was diverse would look like. That is, how does deliberate gender diversity change a performance? I worry that current incentivization as it is, certain voices still dominate.

As I watched the show, I thought of my own art, and my own performance company Rapid Fire Theatre. I thought about the recent issues we’ve had and the bad people that we’ve crossed paths with. I thought about the sad but crucial conversations we share as a company to discuss the pains of our past. We collectively build techniques and strategies to prevent these horrific events from being swept under the rug. Again. We strive to listen, we really listen, when we hear the voices–sometimes inside of our own heads–asking for help. We, as a community, make ourselves and each other accountable.

We are an improvisational theatre company, a company devoted to making an artform ephemeral by its very nature. As improvisors, we train to summarize and compress the past, and ignore projecting into the future, striving to live in the moment. And in this moment we need to ignore that training. Now, we need to reflect, to look back on the past, and how our present situation came to be. We can build a future of strong, connected community members with planning, with discussion, and with listening. But, I believe, this can only happen by appreciating how systematic these issues are and where they came from.

Improvisational theatre has as many historic threads as there are improvisors. With a little creative imagination, it could be traced to the first humans making large silhouettes on cave walls illuminated by fire at night and bright sunshine in the daytime. Improvisation is ubiquitous because it is an artform that is defined by the moment. Improv is a reflection of society. It is often the unadulterated, sarcastic perspectives of a select few on society. These select few, the cast of performance improvisors, are a reflection of the past.

From those early cave shadow puppets there are several major leaps–a renaissance or two–that happened. Let’s start, though, in Canada, in 1977. The year 1977 was a big year for the history of Canadian improvisation, and it is is not entirely clear why. There are often moments in history when intellectual, artistic, scientific leaps happen nearly simultaneously and independently. Below I propose one potential connection from then to now, a thread from 1977, to present day improvisation in Canada.

Keith Johnstone developed his improvisation ideas with his Theatre Machine in London. But, it was 1977 when Theatresports™–a competitive improv show–first officially performed publicly in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. It was this year that Keith, then teaching at the University of Calgary, formed The Loose Moose Theatre Company. Also in Calgary at the time Stu Hart was leading an organization of Stampede Wrestlers, which would later be annexed by the World Wrestling Federation. The connections are made explicit by Keith himself in an origins of Theatresports™ essay.

Improvisation: The origins of THEATRESPORTS™. Keith Johnstone. Accessed Aug 2018.

1977 was the year that a small group of evangelical street theatre performers performed at a Renaissance Festivals in Buffalo, Minnesota. This group would later become the SAK Comedy Lab–with their competitive improv show Duel of Fools–which eventually partnered with Walt Disney and moved to Tampa Bay, Florida.

1977 was the year that the National Improv League, or the League Nationale D’Improvisation, started in Quebec, Canada. The year 1977 was a big year in Montreal. The Montreal Canadiens had won a Stanley Cup the year before. The late 70’s Canadiens, or Habs for short, are considered by some to have been the best hockey team of all time. It’s easy to imagine yourself as a theatre producer watching thousands of hockey fans stream into the arena and think about ways to attract those people. The theatre arts needed to expand their appeal and they did that by making their theatre feel like an arena. By 1982, the LNI would be televised across Canada, and by 1985 they had international tournaments.

In 1977, the Canadian Improv Games started in Ontario, Canada by Howard Jerome and Jamie “Willie” Wyllie. I presume that they developed this format with some inspiration from the 1976 Summer Olympics hosted in Montreal in 1976. These two refer to finding the formats, structures, and games in New York. These games were derived from the genius writing of Viola Spolin, specifically in her 1963 book Improvisation for the Theatre.

Viola Spolin was a theatre coach, academic, and the unsung matriarch of improvisational theatre. She studied with Neva Boyd, a sociologist whose Handbook of Recreational Games bears a significant thematic resemblance to the theoretical underpinnings in Spolin’s bible for the extempore Improvisation for the Theater. The connection between these founders of improvisation was likely David Shepherd, the American producer, director and actor, who in 1955 co-founded the Compass Players, a forerunner to the Second City.

Improvisation Olympics was first created by Shepherd and Jerome in 1972. Shepherd introduced the format in Toronto in 1974, and in Chicago in 1981. “David Shepherd abhorred the format of Theatresports.” Michael Golding one of David’s oldest friends told me. “He felt it was designed to humiliate players who had to wear dunce hats and [were] sprayed with seltzer when a mistake was made.”

Boyd, Spolin, and Shepherd, worked hard to formalize improvisation, from recreational games to a more constrained producible concept. They captured exercises which sparked moments of inspiration, liberation, and care-free streams of consciousness.

From conversation with Gary Schwartz, from 1987 interview with Viola Spolin.

And after years of playing these games with groups of children and adults for fun and play, in 1977, theatre producers realized that games like these could be building blocks for competitive improv shows. These were producers who watched the premier of the little Canadian TV show that could–SCTV–which premiered on September 21, 1976 and was broadcast nationally in 1977. “The improv olympics is a way of taking the energy of people onto the stage. Two teams who compete. Theatre becomes a sport dominated by the ideas of the audience who decides that they want to see different events,” said Shepherd in A Lifetime of Improvisational Theatre. From David Shepherd: A Lifetime of Improvisational Theatre, a documentary by Mike Fly.

This competitive focus would be directly in contradiction with one of the singular points of Spolin’s work. She was developing something that was explicitly non-competitive. “The excitement doesn’t come from competition, it comes from extending yourself,” she said in a 1987 interview when asked about Theatresports™. “Competition is based on the approval-disapproval syndrome… it lays in fear.” She believed that success and failure stilted creativity.

It is quite the coincidence that all of these events would coincide with the culmination of competitive improvisation. “During that period of time, within a year or so, on the planet earth, four different formats of competitive improvisation happened,” says Alistair Cook, Artistic Advisory Committee Chair of the Canadian Improv Games, “and they all say they didn’t know each other”.

The production of theatrical performance with dramatic tension hinged on performers winning or losing had momentum. It is unfortunate. The dominant form of improvisation in Canada–competitive, athletic inspired performance–is based on male centric sports. Improvisational theatre in Canada was defined almost exclusively by the worlds of Stampede Wrestling and the National Hockey League. Two universes which predominantly feature men and male competition.

One woman has played in the NHL: Manon Rhéaume (from outside of Montreal, Quebec) played two seasons with the Tampa Bay Lightning, though never a regular season game.

Improvisational theatre games designed and developed by Neva Boyd and Viola Spolin to focus on support, trust, connection, and communication were disfigured by a competitive framework. A framework which incentivizes men telling male stories. What would a less masculine version of these performances look like?

Reflecting on 40 years of improvisational theatre in Canada, we are still experiencing the exclusivity of these early influences. Competitive improvisational shows are common and popular across almost every major city in Canada. In many, if not all of these cities, the majority of performers are men. These select few, the cast, develop on multi-year cycles. The last 40 years of improvisation in Canada has been focused on fitting into molds defined by male voices.

I hope, I really hope, that things are changing. As I pack my bag to head back to Edmonton, I look forward to the largest Canadian Improvisational Theatre Festival, Improvaganza. The event, hosted annually in Edmonton, Alberta, will play host to improvisors from around the world. Of these improvisors, half are men. Half of the festival is competitive improvisation similar to that of LNI, or Theatresports™, or ComedySportz. The other half of the festival is anything but competitive improv. Improvisation is an artform defined by innovation and spontaneity. Let’s embrace those principles and build a new community with principles of communication, trust, and consent first. What does a reimagining start to look like?

As a final thought, in sharing this essay with several improvisors that I admire I was confronted by a question: how deep does the competitive male influence go? “Even in gender diverse casts, men dominate air time, get more laughs, are in positions of power more,” I was reminded by Amy Shostak (past Artistic Director of Rapid Fire Theatre), “the very act of exposition-climax storytelling itself is masculine-centric.”