Theater Sports Olympiade

The Improv Cup ‘06 in Germany: A Theater Marathon that Plays For and With the Audience

Eight years ago, Vienna actor Jim Libby got involved with TheaterSports, an improvisation marathon that he joined because he thought it would improve his technique. But it’s highly addictive. So now he’s a member of Austria’s TheaterSports “A-Team,” that placed third in the first-ever TheaterSports World Cup held in Germany last July.

“The audience was so involved and excited, they wouldn’t let us leave the stage. That was hot, really hot,” said Libby about their performance “against” Belgium.

Austria’s A-team is made up of “all stars” one from each of the three top improv theaters in Austria: Charlotte Kaunzner from the “Urtheater,”  Libby from Vienna’s “English Lovers,” and Rupert Lehofer from the Graz “Theater im Bahnhof.”

Building on the football furor over the Word Cup in Germany, 16 national teams got together and staged a championship of their own– the Improv Cup 06. Hoping to raise the profile of TheaterSports internationally, the stage became an arena where actors turned into athletes, competing on a bare stage for the glory of the “best scene” of the evening, and leaving the audience with jaws dropping
“The nice thing about improv theater is that because everything is created in that moment, each performer is everything,” Libby said.  “Each performer is the director, each performer is the costume designer, each performer is the set designer, the choreographer, the musician, the composer as well as being the author and the actor!”.

In all, seven European countries participated: Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Russia, Slovenia, and Sweden. The Americas were represented by Argentina, Canada, Columbia and the U.S;  From Africa, actors came from Morocco and Zimbabwe. The Japanese and New Zealanders came the longest way.

Like the Football World Cup, the Improv Cup hosts sixteen teams split into four groups of four. Three judges give points based on formal measures of dramatic skill and effectiveness.  For the German Improv Cup 06, the audience was also asked to score the performances.  Austria, grouped with Belgium, Japan and Morocco, made it  to the semi-finals but lost to Belgium who shared the title with Canada.

After three rounds of “overtime,” the audience said “enough,” Libby reported. “They were exhausted.”

While Austria lost two matches in the end, they were pleased with the outcome.  Because like all art, TheaterSports is really about winning over the audience and about creating the best possible show, with spontaneity, courage and daring to take risks. Here, there was no question of the team’s success.

“I was incredibly proud,” Libby said, “because every single team we played against — across the board — said their best show was the one they played with Austria.”

TheaterSports was first conceived by British director Keith Johnstone and has been staged in its current form since 1976.  His guiding principle was a challenge to improvise on a theme, Libby explained, “like ‘We challenge you to the best scene with a kiss, a scene summarizing a movie in one minute, the best scene with a dog in it…’  “The concept was based on Johnstone’s observations of techniques used in professional wrestling of the 1950s to generate heat, or audience reaction.

“Once the audience is there, they sort of become one person, the group mind takes over,” Libby said.

Nevertheless, the A-team finds that audiences differ enormously depending on the host city. Unlike classical theater where the highest goal is repetition, the improv shows work on the principle of being unrepeatable and unique. “The performers come out onto the stage and then for that evening the show is only about those people in that room,” Libby said. “Afterwards it’s gone, off into the ether somewhere.”

The issue of language was inevitably an issue, in an international Theater competition of this kind. Thus, performers are allowed to compete in their mother tongue, in English, or in gibberish. So is real communication impossible?

“Not at all” Libby explained, “the mixed languages were a challenge, but they also brought a whole other layer of fun.”

“There is a lot of ways to communicate other than language,” he said, something that is particularly necessary when on stage with the Japanese team. “That show was very physical, it had an entirely different feel.  Dialogue wasn’t nearly as important as communication of emotion or of physical space.”

One of the golden rules in TheaterSports is to answer your co-player’s sentence with, “Yes, and…,” a concept many audiences find startling. Johnston’s speculated that this was because, in our normal lives, we are constantly doing the opposite. We are always saying “No way,” maintaining boundaries or status.

Improv theater is a different way of looking at the world.

“If you are in the woods and a bear attacks you, you want to run away,” Libby said,  “but if on stage a bear comes to attack you, you want to stay there, you want to fight or to let the bear kill you, or you want to take the bear at its paws to a restaurant and see how he gets along with knife and fork.”

In his book “Improv, ” Johnston describes TheaterSports as building on the traditions of political cabaret, a form of performing arts (Darstellendekunst) in which you can take the events of today and work with them in a theatrical sense on the same evening.

Beyond the stage, the techniques of TheaterSports are also having an impact on television. The show “Whose Line is it Anyway?” uses many games that first appeared in TheaterSports, like the vignettes “Scenes from a Hat” where the host pulls  scene suggestions submitted beforehand by members of the audience out of a hat, for the show’s actors to perform.

But in the end, for Libby, The Improv Cup 06 was really about the experience itself.

“We created a whole bunch of really good Theater,” Libby said, “and that was really the awesome thing about it!”

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