These are serious sports fans, hungry for action. Outside the arena, they jockey for position, eager for the games to begin. Some wear shirts and caps identifying team loyalties. Once inside, they mock the organist, cheer the coin toss, boo refs, root for favorite players, wear grocery bags over their heads, stand to bellow a “national anthem"--except tonight’s anthem is a commercial ditty for Oscar Mayer hot dogs.
That’s because this isn’t the Lakers or Raiders or Dodgers or Kings. These fans aren’t just any bleacher bums. This game is called “Theatresports,” and these rowdy followers are theater patrons.
Each Monday night for the past year and a half, a hybrid of competitive sports and improvisational comedy has packed Theatre/Theater in Hollywood. Theatre sports combines the best of both worlds: ensemble acting and team competition, spontaneous sketches and strictly enforced rules. It also prompts usually staid theater audiences into action.
For instance, during a recent performance, a volunteer from the audience was asked to describe her day. She did--including several embarrassing details that quickly expanded in the resulting sketch. “I woke up,” she confessed, “and I wasn’t alone.” Oops. The inventive improv actors pounced. In the sketch, her day began in a bed with five men.
Later, another member of the audience suggested proctology as a sketch subject. Oops. “Bag her!” shouted the rabid fans of Theatresports. A shopping bag covered her head for 60 seconds. The referee had warned both players and fans to avoid “sexist, racist, or gratuitous poo-poo caca humor.” This is a game for team players, not for super-crassers like Andrew Dice Clay or Eddie Murphy.
Theatresports is the brainchild of Canadian acting instructor Keith Johnstone, author of “Improv.” In 1975, while teaching theater at the University of Calgary in Alberta, Johnstone wondered why sports events could fill huge stadiums. He looked at wrestling matches, which are basically choreographed theater, and saw audiences cheering and shouting. How could you get that kind of energy into a theater?
Johnstone’s research led him to suspect that “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat” is more than mere rhetorical hype. The spirit of competition, he discovered, compels passionate loyalty and involvement. Audiences like danger, he decided, so a savvy ploy might be to put actors at risk.
Johnstone borrowed specifics from Olympic sporting events. At each performance, members of an ensemble draw numbers that divide them into three teams of players. Three judges are brought in from other improv groups or professions--sometimes they’re television stars or film directors--to rate sketches on a score of 0 to 5. A “Vanna White” marks a scoreboard. A referee penalizes teams when specific improv rules are violated, such as “blocking” (refusing to follow an actor’s lead). Dead-end scenes are “horned” (ended) by judges. And when cheap laughs are pursued through toilet humor, out comes the humiliating bag.
Above all, audiences are encouraged to cheer their favorites, offer sketch ideas and just act like wild and crazy sports fans.
Johnstone’s shrewd scholarship proved remarkably popular. Theatresports now has improv teams competing across Canada and in the United States, Europe and Australia. Periodically, teams meet for a world series. Last month, the local team, Los Angeles Theatresports (LATS), competed in the American Improv Festival in New York. It won first place during the U.S. Theatresports Tournaments.
This understandably pleases LATS artistic directors Ellen Idelson and Dan O’Connor. Former members of BATS (Bay Area Theatresports), they ventured south less than two years ago. Both knew that Los Angeles was overcrowded with comics and improv groups, from the Groundlings to the Comedy Store to Second City. The competition for audience attention causes a notoriously high failure rate. Nevertheless, along with ex-teammate Forrest Brakeman (founder and director of L.A.'s Comedy Omelette), they opened a local franchise.
It was no overnight success. Promoting yet another night of improv proved a tough sell. But they outlasted the defunct L.A. Aztecs soccer team. Now LATS is more popular than, say, the L.A. Raiders.
The reason is obvious: They try harder. After a recent night of competition, O’Connor, 27, gave a pep talk to his players that could have been scripted by former Lakers Coach Pat Riley.
“This evening there was a great deal of gagging going on,” O’Connor told them. “Everybody here is too good to play safe. I challenge you to not only make them laugh but to tell a story. Try to get it to that other level where it becomes narrative. Make positive choices. Push yourselves all the way out.”
Afterward, before joining their players for a post-game celebration, O’Connor and Idelson talked about Theatresports.
“It’s a different setup from most improv groups,” Idelson, 29, said. “You don’t need to audition to get in. Our dues are very inexpensive. We offer a place where people can play. It’s an oasis. The basic principles involve embracing failure. Once you learn to have a good time and fail good-naturedly, not much else is really that frightening.”
Those wishing to become members can sign up for the starting workshop, which costs $75 and is held once a month. According to Idelson, “You get everything you need to know about Theatresports in 12 hours.” Graduates who want to play pay monthly dues of $40, which entitles them to classes at least once a week plus the chance to perform before a paying audience. The number is (213) 469-9689.
In Johnstone’s words, Theatresports is for “brave people who are able to bear the pain of failure.”
But how does this make Theatresports different from Second City?
“I think they put a lot of pressure on themselves to really be funny,” Idelson answered, speaking of Second City-styled improv groups.
“They don’t have the luxury that we do,” added O’Connor, “which is to fail. We can go out and just really suck wind--be really bad. Audiences aren’t sitting there saying, ‘Entertain me . ' We have the benefit of the audiences venting their anger on the judges. Even if you bomb, you’re still supported and appreciated.”
“Also, we’re a bit unique because we don’t invite a lot of agents and casting directors,” Idelson said. “This is not a means to an end. This is an end in itself. We don’t want people to shine and be taken away and given a series. That’s not what it’s about. This is where you stay sharp. This is very much an ensemble effort.”
O’Connor agreed. “Since this is L.A., a lot of people call in and want to showcase themselves. We don’t want to be a place where people pay to play. Taking the class is no guarantee you’ll go public.”
Theatresports has a group of six coaches who teach the classes. There are three levels of players: rookies, junior varsity and varsity. These rankings have nothing to do with experience--many so-called students have worked with other improv groups----but with knowing how Theatresports is played.
The criteria? “Are you fun to play with?” O’Connor said. “Do you share the stage with others?”
Some Theatresports terms are similar to those found in other improv teachings, such as blocking and hesitation (delaying a game.) But wimping and waffling come from sports, as does the dreaded bag.
“For us, the bag is a way of making sure we don’t resort to cheap toilet humor,” Idelson said. “Most of our people have done ‘bar prov’ before. There you need a punch line every five seconds.” In Theatresports lingo, this is known as “pouring for laughs.”
Both have studied in Canada under Johnstone, whom O’Connor calls “the godfather of improv.”
“Johnstone keeps pulsing new information into the groups,” O’Connor said.
When the numerous Theatresports groups meet in tournaments, the teams trade information. LATS plans eventually to add a New York game, “the Stanislavsky Open,” named after the Russian actor, director and teacher, during which rival improv groups with different techniques can compete. At the last tournament, a National Alliance of Theatresports was formed.
“It’s about real good will and good nature toward each other,” said Idelson. “And we incorporate that with our business dealings as well. Support and generosity. We’re like a real good family.”
O’Connor seconded her opinion. “We’re real happy and real proud that we made it this far in Los Angeles. It’s very hard to be involved with any group of actors and kind of function coherently without infighting and craziness and chaos. But we take the precepts of Theatresports seriously: If you don’t agree with something, you have to counter with a solution.”
That’s what’s known as good sportsmanship--even when the solution is to wear a shopping bag.