Webpage Supplement to

Chapter 27: TheatreSports and Competitive Dramatic Impovisation

David L. Young (and Ann Curtis)

Part 1: History and Current Status
Part 2: Methods, Techniques
This is Part 3: Theory

September 20, 2006

Always we act roles. Our clothes are our costumes, and our setting is the space in which we act.
Yet in life there is no script written for us. We have to improvise. Like the clown in the circus, or the acrobat on the high-wire, we balance our existence precariously between life and death. While we succeed it is still a comedy, but when we fail it is a tragedy. And all the time we are trying to respond with all our agility to “what happens next.”(Courtney, 1980, p.1)

Thinking of life, as a drama is particularly useful, if we are to advance the educational principles and philosophy underlying the current teaching of improvisation in the drama classroom, we must examine the context in which students receive and teachers deliver the curriculum, and the rationale supporting it.

Although there are numerous teaching strategies in drama education which will encourage a student to play, be creative, explore situations, take on different roles, and accept risks, the strategy that has the greatest potential, and is used most frequently is improvisation — and its competitive counterpart TheatreSports. This kind of drama is a potent and integral part of a modern and progressive curriculum, which is an exciting format for young people because it accurately represents the quick shifting, spontaneous momentum of their youth. TheatreSports (and specifically in Canada, the Canadian Improv Games) captures the essence of today’s fast-paced, modern technology and media. Improv’s quick scenic mode of delivery, using audience suggestions with scenes lasting little longer than a few minutes, is in many ways a more readily accessible theatrical medium for young people than straight scripted theatre.

Competitive improvisation and TheatreSports is a theatrical form of ‘channel surfing’, because for young people, the need to be constantly stimulated is paramount. Improv offers a parallel type of stimulation because when they are engaged in TheatreSports activities it provides them with stimulation both as actor/participants within the improvisation, and as viewer/audience members reacting to and giving suggestions to the scene work on stage. Improvised games are so popular because there are scenes and characters that are typically universally understood, and are never overly complex, as would occur if an actor were representing a real person from straight, scripted theatre.

I believe that both drama and theatre can provide students with a valuable educational and an aesthetically rich experience steeped in the traditions of the creative arts. I know that both drama and theatre have many governing factors that are reference specific to each other, and that there is an abundance of criteria which are interwoven within the very fabric of each that brings them into convergence – improvisation is a commonality. One of the most complex and diverse dramatic and theatrical practices is the use of improvisation and improvisational approaches in the drama classroom. Theatre and drama are intrinsically connected — each to the other — and both to improvisation.

To engage in improvisation is a habitual human act. Throughout our daily routines and rituals we are constantly processing information, engaging in discourse, navigating our lives improvisationally in a precariously fragile and causal orbit with the many people, places, things, and situations that we frequently encounter. Actually, people are incredibly astute and consummate improvisers. In many ways, we create deliberate, consistent, and well-defined modi operandi and without fail we stick to these ways, until we encounter a variety of obstacles ranging in significance, value, and importance. It is how we deal with these impediments that determines just how adept we really are as improvisers. Improvisation is an impulsive, impetuous, innovation, that is an instinctive invention of off-the-cuff, ad-libbed, makeshift, sudden, unexpected, unprepared, unrehearsed, and spontaneous matter.

Wasn’t that the original theory behind improvisation — the communal sharing of a spontaneous art form? The founders of the improvised forms for both drama and theatre ALL began with the desire to facilitate student or actor learning, to help stimulate a creative energy which would be incorporated into the classroom or onto the stage. Even Keith Johnstone’s writing suggests a slight contradiction between the competitiveness of TheatreSports and his early teaching. He writes: “I’m teaching spontaneity, and therefore I tell them [the student’s] that they mustn’t try to control the future, or to win” (Johnstone, 1979). Improvisation was meant to be played like all games are played to develop ingenuity, inventiveness, self-awareness, expressiveness, empathy, and inter-personal communication (Spolin, 1963, pp.5-8). Games, regardless of how improvised or spontaneous they might seem, are inherently restricted by certain rules or criteria constrained by group decision, and in many cases the most important decision is how to keep score, and what are the goals or objectives required to compete.

I believe that there are both positive and negative aspects connected to competition. Competition provides an energy to the arts that has seemed to be only reserved for sports, and therefore can help build up a drama program's status in the eyes of the student population. The cache of being on a successful improv team can mean an awful lot to some students whom already might be desperately seeking social acceptance and recognition. I have seen drama programs almost double in size with the inclusion of competitive pedagogical strategies.

On the positive side, I believe that healthy and equitable competitive aspects of improvised games, student evaluation, and casting placements for productions and specialty teams, provide students with a taste of the competitive nature of daily life. Whether students are being publicly adjudicated in Theatre Sports or the Canadian Improv Games; or are given ownership over their own personal criteria referenced evaluation in the class, or simply auditioning for a role in an up-coming play or musical — the conditions of healthy competition can provide invaluable models for future understanding. On the potentially negative side, I believe that competition occasionally hampers artistic creativity and sharing. The arts are subjective in nature, with no ‘rights’ or ‘wrongs’, but consist of a multitude of choices (Young, 1998). Competition has the potential to hamper these choices, by motivating students to ignore the artistic intent of a dramatic scene or production, and focus solely on finding faults. I have witnessed this kind of behavior first hand at district drama festivals. When students from other schools make mistakes on stage, a buzz will go up in the audience amongst the competing students from the other schools, as they consider the detrimental effects this will have on the adjudication. I have seen students fight, cry, and throw temper tantrums while playing improvisational games and TheatreSports competitively, to the point where friendships are placed in jeopardy, and student learning suffers.

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One of the basic functions that Drama teaches is communication. We, as human beings, learn many forms of communication both as learned and inherent responses. We are able to communicate to one another through our body language, our facial expressions, the sounds we make, and the intonation of our sounds. I find it interesting to teach beginning Drama students the basic forms of communication through mime, expression, movement and sound. We tend to take for granted all these forms, because we have graduated to such advance stages of communication that we lose sight of some very basic elements. When students get a chance to communicate using these primitive forms, they usually have a lot of fun, because they get a chance to explore something that they thought they were too mature and developed to ever go back and re-explore.
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Students, for the most part are predisposed to play. There is a 'buy-in period', when kids need to understand what is at stake, what are the parameters, and where they can and cannot go, what risks they can comfortably take. A student, or an actor, or a teacher, is always consciously aware of so much more than just a simple role being played out, whether it be on the stage in the Drama room, or on the stage of life.

A World of Possibilities (is this in paper? check...)

As a Drama teacher, I view life as an interesting haphazard collage of never ending scenes — units of intended action, psychologically motivated impulses, and cross-hidden objectives — constantly being played out both consciously and unconsciously for public consumption. The richness and texture of this communal human interaction teems with the very basic desire to speak and be heard, to love and be loved, to feel and be touched, to need and be needed, to understand and be understood, to teach and be taught. As a Drama teacher it is my job to cultivate my students' potential to experience and explore a virtual catalogue of qualities which are central to our humanity. I facilitate and nurture the inherent capacity that all my students have to live, think, question, and play dramatically.

We can live our lives without ever having taken a formal Drama course, and without a single lesson, nor one word of instruction, we can find our way through the world having taken on an entire array of roles, playing out scenarios that entice and enrich, enliven and invigorate, emancipate and extricate, elevate and elucidate our living.

Drama education cultivates and provides students with opportunities to analyze, reflect upon, and reconcile daily human life experiences. Drama education opens up an effective and powerful medium for young people to create a narrative and exposition, to voice their concerns within an adult world where they feel disenfranchised and powerless. Drama is an interactive, communal, creative process that forces young people to intermesh, intermingle, intertwine their perceptions of the individual within the environment and its inhabitants. Drama mirrors the social, cultural, historical, political, and economic contexts from which it is derived. Drama instruction helps students to acquire the much needed capacity to take on different roles, to explore unknown situations, to expand their intellectual capacity for creative and critical thought, insight, empathy, and rumination. The essence of Drama is the whole person, the personal, the inner-moment, confusion, chaos, a world of possibilities, of possibilities requiring a dramatic journey. Drama education is something you can't put your finger on, it's tangible and intangible simultaneously, it's an art form, and art is completely subjective — but its importance can not be disregarded — because young people need to learn to communicate, and Drama provides a safe medium for their communicative needs.

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Today my two Drama Ten classes worked on sharing stage focus using an exercise called "Converge and Divide" (Spolin, 1985. p. 32), where the students create a cocktail party scenario, and communicate with one another in different modes of discourse.

The Sales Pitch' and 'The Buy In'.

The teacher makes “the sales pitch,” selling the project to the drama students. This includes the rationale, a description of the skills to be learned, and some description of the discipline and work ethic involved in the proposed activity. Students who make this effort, have accepted what I like to call 'The Buy In'. How much you 'sell' the assignment, will determine the 'Buy In' to the lesson, the activity, the structure and the learning outcomes.
 ?Instead of:  
 'The Sales Pitch' is the teacher, especially in Drama, selling an idea to the students that allows them to want to do the project, want to take the risks, want to explore the different realms where the students feel validated, where the students feel safe, where the students feel accomplished, that they can do it, that they are good, that they are worthy. 'The Sales Pitch' on any project must also have some sort of academic rationale. Students tend to be taken for granted by adult educators. Rarely do teachers tell students the reason why they are being taught something. Why are we learning this? Why are we studying this? What is the necessity of this? What basis does this have for the continuation of any inquiry or study?
Re the sales pitch and the buy-in:
We tend to teach students things because it is good for them, because they have to, because we as teachers once had to learn it. We teach them something that is part of a process that already exists, and we never explain why.

It is important that students understand the importance of different projects, and it is also important for the teacher to explain the rationale of any class activity. As a teacher, you have to 'sell' students on creating something that is serious, as opposed to humorous. Students need an understanding of the importance of learning numerous skills, and a work ethic to present those skills in presentational form. Part of 'The Sales Pitch' is putting together a lesson plan that motivates and makes students feel that they find success, and that the work is worthy of them, and that you are expecting a solid and reasonable effort.

Students who make this effort, have accepted what I like to call 'The Buy In'. How much you 'sell' the assignment, will determine the 'Buy In' to the lesson, the activity, the structure and the learning outcomes.

There has got to be an endless variety of motivational factors that lead students to do things in any classroom situation. It has to go beyond just the desire to get good grades. There has to be a desire to want to please the teacher, to want to please oneself. Many young people that I teach do well, and are looking not only for self-satisfaction, but also for respect and positive feedback from the teacher. A lot of young people do not receive positive feedback from adult authority figures often enough. Whenever young people receive positive feedback in a classroom situation for work that is valid and interesting, they gain a great deal of personal satisfaction. 'The Sales Pitch' and 'The Buy In' are more about student affirmation, than about solid teaching strategies and in depth lesson plans.

A good 'Sales Pitch', will produce a successful 'Buy In', and the learning outcomes and success of your projects will be incredibly high. When 'The Sales Pitch' lacks energy, the results suffer. A great deal of educational research has been conducted to suggest that high energy teaching leads to higher student achievement.

I wonder how many teachers in different areas of the school curriculum would want to acknowledge that what they do up in front of the class, day in and day out, is a 'Sales Pitch', plain and simple. A successful teacher is a good sales person, and must be able to sell students on doing specific tasks which lead to specific learning outcomes.

In order to get students to do the things that a Drama teacher wants them to do there has to be a 'Buy In'. The 'Buy In' period or process really is the trust that is placed by the students in the teacher. That trust is paramount in creating a unified and cohesive class. As a teacher, I can pretty much ask my students to do just about anything I want them to do as long as I can justify its validity in the context of the Drama program. Part of the 'Buy In' is the context of being a school, and having a setup where students are being evaluated, and that evaluation translates into a grade on a report card.

The other 'Buy In' that exists is where the students have respect for the teacher, trust the teacher, believe in the teacher and understand the teacher’s motives for trying to do specific activities.

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If we go back and explore some of the basic tenets of our play as children, we play make believe, we use our imaginations, we create other worlds, we create imaginary friends, we make things that are unreal — real, we do all kinds of interesting and unusual things. Our brains are just bursting with exploration, as we attempt to understand and reconcile the world around us. We wear costumes and play games that allow us to explore the different realms of the adult world. We play at being Mommies and Daddies, at being firemen and hockey stars and TV personalities. We fantasize about all these things.

Why is it that as we get older, we cease to be interested in playing? Is it because we lack the time or the inclination? Or have our REAL lives become so predominant that our sense of play becomes extraneous? We have already taken on a role, and that is OUR role — and tough luck, there you go — so we don’t play anymore. It is a sad reality that we cease to want to play anymore as adults or even as teenagers. This is when we become audience members.

As adults we cease to be active participants in play and make believe, and our imaginations become idle because we are just too darn busy; however, we still desperately need these outlets, and because we need and desire these outlets, we seek out popular entertainment. This is when the prevalence of television, cinema, popular fiction, and theatre become important. We still have the predisposition and desire to explore different realms of our existence, and to reconcile many different issues, but instead of US personally going through our own personal catharsis or experiences, we watch a television show where we relate to the characters. And when those characters cry, we cry because we relate to them, and they make us feel something about ourselves. Or maybe we go to a movie that makes us angry, angry about ourselves or our society; maybe it says all the things we cannot say ourselves. It makes us feel the things that we are afraid to feel. That is where the role of the actor comes in, or the role of the artist, or poet, or writer. They see for us, they feel for us, because we are determined that in whatever career we have chosen, we have ceased to have the desire to personally experience these feelings on our own, and we need the help of others. We have become THE AUDIENCE.
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A great deal has been written and discussed about the way teachers evaluate students, more to the point, how the education system should not place students in a competitive environment. What I have found is that competition in small doses is good. Risk taking, the type that comes from public performance, is good. Putting students in front of their peers, where they have to perform, is good. Putting students in front of their friends and family, is good. Sometimes the stakes need to be raised outside the classroom experience. Most art forms need to be viewed, or listened to, or experienced, by an outside objective audience in order to truly be an art form. You cannot do theatre, for yourself, in your room, in front of a mirror. Theatre requires an audience, and once you invite an audience to participate in the experience, the risk factor increases. I think it really depends on the type of teacher, and the type of program that is implemented. I think that, as a teacher, you sell your students on the benefits and the excitement inherent in competition and performance where they will experience those extra risks, and they will rise to the challenge, and enjoy it. I think when you don’t have that kind of program, students will dread the experience of risk on that level.

My Grade Nine's and Ten's are currently working on TheatreSports and improvisation, and they have an internal league that is highly competitive. I think this is the only format that I would teach TheatreSports and improvisation in, because it gives a safe public forum for immediate evaluation. When students do projects that are of a more serious nature, they would never receive their grades right after their performance. Evaluation for TheatreSports and improv comes immediately, by the teacher/judge, and is graded out of a possible fifteen points, which goes directly on to a scoreboard, and is added up in relationship to the other teams. The learning curve takes place immediately because they are being rewarded and penalized for specific things, and they are having marks awarded or taken away at the conclusion of each event.

Immediate feedback allows them to alter the types of scenes and the mannerisms that they create. In this particular case, the competitiveness brings out the best in the students. They 'Buy In' fully and wholeheartedly. It is something that they can understand, and is an excellent opportunity to put stronger students with weaker students, and have them work cooperatively in trying to attain similar goals. I would never go beyond two months for this unit because, quite simply, it becomes boring. The scenes get to a certain point, and then there is no more growth because of the nature of rehearsed improvisation. It becomes 'stock', predictable, clichÈ, and lacks the risks which I believe enhances a student's dramatic learning.
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