On A Moment's Notice -- Theatresports Is Improvisation With The Competitive Edge



Although the Russian produc tion of ``Three Sisters'' ended an hour ago, stage lights at the Intiman Playhouse still shine down on strategically- placed props and informally- dressed actors. Four of them, who call themselves players, hold the ready stance of kids waiting to jump in to a playground game. They face a woman trying to coax an impromptu story out of them. On her knees, she randomly points from one to another to conduct this four-person symphony of spoken words. One by one, the players choke on their extemporaneous words as they try to keep the story going. For each choke, the audience yells out ``Die!'' and the player falls good-naturedly to the floor.

Equal parts drama, on-your-feet thinking, comedy and competition, TheatreSports is a type of improvisational acting that's performed all over the world. Invented in Calgary, Alberta, in the late 1970s by playwright Keith Johnstone, it got its United States start in Seattle in 1983. Seattle has since gained a reputation for this brand of theater. Earlier this year, its local TheatreSports group tied for first in an international competition in New Zealand.

Until recently, TheatreSports was the name of both a type of improvisation and of the Seattle group that performed it. Now this group has formed the Unexpected Productions company, billing its show as ``comedy of the subconscious.'' Randy Dixon, artistic director of Unexpected Productions and a seven-year veteran of TheatreSports, says, ``Successful improvisation involves turning off the internal censor we all use to get through the day without offending other people. We're not stand-up comedians; we're actually at the other end of the spectrum. Stand-ups write and edit and practice their timing. Improvisers act and react almost before they have time to think.''

But TheatreSports is not just an anything-goes forum where the repressed come for therapy or where maniacs can exercise their egos. An alternative to the canned sex talk and boozy comedy shows one typically finds when looking for laughter, TheatreSports follows certain guidelines: no memorized routines, no gratuitous sexual or racist remarks, and no alcohol served on the premises.

Teams of four players challenge each other to different types of skits, or scenes. ``Culture'' scenes, for example, may involve any aspect of the arts - plays, operas, symphonies, books. A challenged team picks one of these categories, using an audience suggestion as a starting point.

One culture scene started with the title of a fictitious Shakespeare play, ``The Marriage of Three Men.'' Using Shakespeare's language of forsooths and beseeches, and some of his favorite story devices, the players invented a story about three kingdoms at war, with one player acting as nurse to one of the kings. The war ended when the kings settled on a way to triple all of their fortunes: ``And now we men shall rest and tarry/ For in the morning we three shall marry.'' This scene worked, contends Dixon, because ``Every story idea creates expectations in the audience; a successful scene isn't one that surprises, but one that meets those expectations. Anyone in the audience could've made up that last line; it was the ending to that story.''

Another type of scene is played out in talk-show format. One player acts as host and another as guest; both are allowed to talk, but not gesture. Two other players crouch behind them to become their arms, and their arm actions become the impetus for the speakers' lines. In a recent scene, the guest was an expert on raising salmon. Taking her cue from ``her'' hands, which were picking at her blouse, she said, ``This blouse, for instance, is made of salmon.''

At the end of each round, a panel of TheatreSports judges scores the teams on a scale of one to five. Each judge evaluates a different element (narrative, technical, entertainment), but the judges' main role is to goad the audience into booing by serving up low scores.

Teams stay together as long as they're winning. This gives regulars someone to root for, but also draws some criticism. Roberta Maguire, a local improvisation teacher who used to work with John Belushi and Bill Murray at Second City in Chicago, helped start TheatreSports in Seattle. Now she thinks the competitive focus can detract from good improvisation. ``I focus on creating characters and stories together with other actors, on having them support each other. You can't do this if you're competing.'' Long-standing player Dixon says the competition is for the audience, not the players. ``TheatreSports is interactive theater; the sporting motif is a way to get the audience involved. When was the last time you saw people

cheering at a play?''

Seattle TheatreSports was started by Maguire, Floyd Van Buskirk and Matt Smith, from the local improvisation groups ``None of the Above'' and ``Off the Wall.'' Dixon, a professional and commercial actor who also teaches TheatreSports classes, joined the group at age 18, six months after its 1983 kickoff. ``There weren't any workshops then - you just got on stage and did it.''

This informal approach worked. As friends told friends who told more friends, the show started a local trek that would take it to five ever-larger venues. After a now-closed Chinese restaurant at Fourth and Main, where players outnumbered spectators two to one, came Swannie's Comedy Underground, the Pioneer Square Theatre, the University District's Group Theatre, and in June 1989, the Seattle Center's Intiman Playhouse.

TheatreSports isn't specifically geared to a young audience, but it gained a college following in the University District. Obvious reasons are the under-21 format and the price, which at $6 is still cheaper than some movies. Although he likes to see a variety of faces in the audience, Dixon finds it rewarding to perform for young people. ``Once a young guy came up to me and said, `I went to see ``Glengarry Glen Ross'' at the ACT because you guys improvised a David Mamet scene a while back, and I wanted to see how close you'd come to what he's all about.' This kid's going to be a Rep or ACT subscriber, maybe because of us.''

Whatever its demographics, the audience plays a creative role by making sound effects and suggesting ideas. Which isn't to say the suggestions always make sense. One young man offered up ``uncertainty'' as an emotion for a scene. And when asked for an object starting with the letter ``L,'' another said ``Statue of Liberty.'' Quick-thinking player Keith Dahlgren quipped, ``Right - as in the guidebook: Liberty, Statue of.''

Although players rarely turn down a suggestion, Dixon says the simple ones are the best. ``People don't realize that the more specific and bizarre their suggestions, like a plumber in a meat locker stuck to a cow flying to Mars, the fewer the creative possibilities. On the other hand, a suggestion like a book can turn into anything.'' Book scenes can be set in libraries or bathrooms; they can be based on the plot of a book; they can even be done from a book's point of view - ``Uh, oh, here comes that guy who rips my limbs when he speed reads!''

The props used in performances are a hodgepodge of everyday things. ``You can use a phone as a spaceship, a hat, a snake . . . '' says Dixon. ``We don't use props that can only be seen as one thing.'' Colored scarves come in handy. Blues become rivers and blueberries, reds portray fire and anger and greens represent everything from bankers to environmentalists.

Sex, a staple of stand-up comedy, plays a refreshingly small role in TheatreSports. But, Dixon stresses, only gratuitous comments are off-limits. ``You go through a stage where you want to do toilet jokes; they're easy and people laugh at them. And the audience goes through the same phase. If they had their way, every scene would be done in a bathroom, every occupation would be a gynecologist. So sometimes we do those scenes as a way to work through that.'' Still, TheatreSports is a better option for a first date than stand-up comedy. Who wants to listen to sex talk when you can barely recognize your date with his clothes on?

One of the risks of TheatreSports is that some scenes flop. Recently, players had to create a plausible story to get from this first sentence, ``Leggo my Eggo,'' to this last, ``I think that I shall never see a vegie lovely as a pea.'' The setting was a dentist's office. The scene immediately began taking on shades of the famous masochistic dentist scene from the ``Little Shop of Horrors,'' and the lovely pea never made it on stage.

Sometimes, whole nights flop. Dixon has his own version of the requisite failure philosophy: ``Failure can be just as entertaining as success. It can even be brilliant. You're impressed by a man sticking his head in a lion's mouth, but if the lion bites off the man's head, it's something you're going to remember for life. Anything brilliant comes from setting yourself up to fail, and then trying desperately

not to.''

You wouldn't know it to listen to one young woman in the audience, who, whether responding to a scene on stage or to a whispered ``What do you think?'' from a friend, could only say ``How funny . . . How funny.'' Lisa Stimson of Seattle is more articulate about TheatreSports: ``It's the difference between buying the hundred thousandth print of a famous painting, and having a painter friend give you an original. The first one's good because everyone says it is; but the original was done for you, at that time, and there'll never be another exactly like it.''

Shows aren't rehearsed and there's no particular background that ensures a player's success at TheatreSports. Some are classically trained actors, like Dixon, although he thinks that good actors don't necessarily make good improvisers, and vice versa. ``In acting school, improvisation is a means to an end, a rehearsal technique. So actors don't take it seriously.''

Still, most regular players aspire to a career of some combination of acting and comedy. Barb Klansnic stumbled into TheatreSports four years ago at Swannie's, thinking it was open-mike night. At a recent performance, she played a bathroom sink, her ears the handles, her mouth the faucet; she also played a blanket worn by Dixon, a woman angry with a man for stretching out her underwear, and a train engine being loaded with coal.

Would-be players have to prove themselves first in TheatreSports classes, which are open to anyone with $75 and a lot of guts. Some former students are now regular players; others have taken classes forever and still aren't performing.

Although classes teach improvisation techniques, they can't make an improviser out of you. Good players know what's going on in the world; they're familiar with the hottest trends and the oldest traditions. They also know the secret behind improvisation - co-creation, or teamwork. ``When you've worked with someone for a while, it becomes instinctive,'' says Dixon. ``From the inflection in their voice or the expression on their face, you know what they're thinking, and you create a part that comple ments that.''

Then there are the times, difficult to put in

words, that things just seem to fall together. Klansnic tries: ``Sometimes it's as if there's a story moving on stage through all of us at the same time. Like it exists outside of us, and we're being written into the scene as it happens.''

Whatever the combina tion of skill and magic, it's working. Other im provisation groups have come, enjoyed varying degrees of success, and gone, while Seattle TheatreSports continues to gain popularity and some fame. It's the longest-playing improvisational show to perform regularly in the city, and Dixon was recently one of eight players chosen from around the world to tour New Zealand, playing TheatreSports to crowds of 1,000 people.

But Unexpected Productions isn't married to the TheatreSports format. Its new Saturday show, dubbed Cream of Wit, has an open improvisation format. It's based on audience suggestions, but scenes are longer than the three-minute TheatreSports fare, and there's no competition. It also tends to draw an older crowd.

While actors move through various roles and productions, Dixon sticks with playing TheatreSports. Dressed in a red vest adorned with dozens of Jack Nicholson ``Red Rum'' pictures, a gold Space Needle earring, army-green pants, and old-fashioned black high-tops, you could guess that he likes the variety of playing 10 different characters a night.

He also likes the occasional surprise of being remembered for a particular scene. ``One night friends made me get up and sing at Sorry Charlie's. A man in the audience smiled up at me and said, `The Marriage of Three Men.' This guy remembered this three-minute scene, two years after we'd performed it at Bumbershoot.''

You can see their regular show every Friday at 11 p.m. at the Intiman Playhouse. And don't be surprised if you find yourself saying, most spontaneously, ``How funny.''