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applied theatre improv

It’s not competitive if you are building community

I’ve been in many conversations lately where the dark side of competitive improv has brought up. I agree with the fact that competition is able to bring out the worst of ourselves and can turn into a bitter experience something that is supposed to be funny for some participants. I’ve come from Valencia, an area in Spain where Canadian style impro match leagues are quite active and has led to the building of a rich network of improvisers that allowed to get each other further performing wise. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, let’s explain a little bit.

What is an Impro Match?

Brief history. Sick of the audience leaking towards hockey, Canadians invented this theatrical format called Impro Match (yes, there’s no V after Impro), also portrayed on a stage simulating an ice rink, in which two teams compete with each other pulling out scenes from the referee’s instructions. Then the audience decides who gets the point according to whose team enjoyed more. The scenes can be compared (each team enacts a different scene), mixed (one scene with players from both teams) or taken over (one team starts and the other team carries over the same scene). The referee not only sets the types and categories fo the scenes but has to maintain the rules to keep a clean match. There are even penalty fouls like obstruction to or ignore another player, losing character or, of course, negation. It is also, and I cannot stress enough about it, this is not like the American ComedySportz based on preestablished short-form games. The improvisers here have to come up with scenes. Having explained that…

Two teams during a match on the Quart de Poblet Improv League 2020.

My knowledge about this form comes from my experience in my hometown’s area, València, so I should talk about one man called Xema Palanca, a humble teacher that loves theatre and involving kids in it. In 1994 he pulled off the Escuela Municipal de Teatre d’Aldaia, a little local theatre school in the town of Aldaia, close to València. Xema also loves improvisation theatre and discovered the impro match format so he started applying it with the kids. Not so many years later, at the beginning of the century, the EMTA started an impro league. Now there are four impro leagues in the Valencian region. All spawned from people involved in Xema’s pioneer adventures. Those kids are grown-ups, some of them became professional actors and some of them helped to create improv communities nurturing their own impro leagues. Yes, all thanks to competitive improv. Xema is still teaching not only in schools but in the Universitat de València’s Applied Theatre Master Degree as well, also the EMTA has now a dance department.

Funny enough, I didn’t discover Impro Match through Xema but through the French actress and improviser Véronic Joly who, in 2006, came to València as Sergi Claramunt‘s guest. Sergi is the director of PayaSOSpital and Véronic’s former classmate at Jacques Lecoq school. She offered an intensive on impro match and that was my first incursion on improv theatre. A bunch of us kept training though, unsupervised at wherever places we could find. A few years later, when I was deeper into improv I got a call from a dear friend. “We want to participate in Quart de Poblet Impro League and I wondered if you want to join us”. Maijo Donzel, a wonderful actress and improviser, invited me to play with a team she was putting together for the league at Quart de Poblet, another little town near, València. “Sure, why not?”. There was a meeting for the players and … I ended involved in that league for 6 years. I’d like to share what I’ve learnt during those years (five as a player and the last one as referee) and why the positives of competitive improv overweight the negatives.

Players during a match on the Quart de Poblet Improv League 2020.

Why create an impro league?

Where I come from impro leagues came from people involved with theatre schools or just theatre. Impro matches are also known as theatre sports because they are the perfect way to showcase the skills learnt. It is a quick way to teach the rules of theatre while developing improv skills. Be aware of the audience, raise your voice, find spatial balance with your scene partners on the stage, look at your partner’s eyes, etc. So it’s not only a gateway to improv but to dramaturgy as well. It’s nothing like short-form improv games. From skilful players, you can even have powerful three-minute plays. Also, the match form is perfect to introduce the sense of structure to young improvisers. Frame and structure offer to all the improvisers sense of professionalism. It’s not casual that we are always in pursuit of different formats whenever we feel confident as improvisers.

Normally, there are a decent amount of people in a theatre school so doing an improv match allows everybody to do scenes. It can be, and it is, rough at the beginning but practice leads to…

Learning to play as a team

The most important part of this form. As an emulation of a sports setting, some analogies apply. Each team has to know how to balance its member’s strengths and weakness. Since there are different categories it’s good to have people with different skills. Some will be better at rhyming, others will crush dramatic scenes or good physicality will allow a team member to be more expressive in silent scenes. It’s all about balance, not only on skills but with on-stage time as well. During these years I’ve seen matches where a certain player had to be on every scene possible without considering the number of players established by the referee or the on-stage time of the rest of the fellow team members. An educated audience will find cringe in that. Leave the ego on the cloakroom.

Unmanaged big personalities on the team can also damage other team member’s confidence who might not feel confident enough to go on stage, that’s the moment where it’s up to us to maintain the rule of having each other’s back and uplift and take care of each other on stage. Of course, we don’t want to push anybody to stage against their will so it’s important to build the trust within the team to make all the players feel supported no matter what and ready to play. Level yourselves, check with your partners, talk about boundaries and confidence with the previously mentioned skills so you can know what to expect from each other.

We must remember as well that an impro league is a team of teams so we have to apply the same principles used on our team to the whole competition. All the teams come together with the single purpose of entertaining. Of course feuds are fun and the audience love them but don’t forget we are playing pretend the same way the wrestling fighters does.

A team during the 30 seconds coaching time before the scene.

If you build it, they will come

Never in my life I’ve seen an audience as faithful as the one attending yearly the impro leagues. Of course, having a lot of players on stage translates to a lot of friends and family occupying the seats but, where I come from, it has become a Saturday night ritual for a lot of people and when the league finishes they can’t wait for the next year. They’ve learnt, in a passive way, the virtues of improvisational theatre, they are engaged because they know their opinion matters at the end of every scene. They even wait for the players by the theatre door when the match is over to comment about the match. Now, most Valencian leagues have reached a point where kids who grew attending the league have joined the local theatre school in order to be the next ones going on stage. As an applied theatre facilitator, I cannot love and support enough this form. It’s a wonderful cycle of improv and amateur theatre only possible because of turning improvisational theatre into a community event.

An event that may look competitive, but it’s nothing but bringing people together.

Oscar and Luis

P.S. You don’t have an idea about how much I miss this people.