A hyperenergized, masked Mexican wrestler hosts a warped bus tour of Vancouver. A Norwegian troupe riffs on the Barbies and robot toys that children bring to its performances. And an international team of improvisers take on the trials of the dating app Tinder, as it manifests from Trondheim to Tokyo.
The sheer diversity of shows like these at the International Theatresports Institute’s conference and festival this month will expand your ideas of what improv really is.
But there’s one big factor linking the performances coming here from countries as far afield as New Zealand and Israel, and it can be summed up in a single name: Keith Johnstone.
Born in England, Johnstone taught at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art before cofounding Calgary’s Loose Moose Theatre Company in 1977. He invented many of the improv games the TheatreSports chain uses, such as Maestro, the Life Game, and Gorilla Theatre, and he held a workshop here in 1980 that led to the establishment of Vancouver TheatreSports, first housed at the late, great Back Alley Theatre and now thriving seven days a week at the Improv Centre on Granville Island. Johnstone and his alumni have taken the approach around the globe, seeding the form and watching it evolve in myriad ways—all of which we’ll get the rare chance to see when the biannual global fest is held here.
“One thing that really inspires me about this work is that it is global, and that goes back to Keith’s approach to teaching,” comments Vancouver TheatreSports’ Jeff Gladstone, a Loose Moose alumnus and 20-year VTS veteran who’s co–artistic director of the ITI festival with VTS executive director Jay Ono. “It’s quite wonderful and mind-blowing—it’s ‘Let’s set up themes and exercises and find out what’s true.’ ”
At the international fest, Gladstone says, Vancouverites may be surprised to experience more theatrical spins on improv than they see in Canada, where the more comedic, sketchlike forms dominate. But many shows en route here dig into deeper themes, and sometimes move their audiences, he says; Gladstone points to Israeli director Inbal Lori’s The Time Is Now, which is driven by current issues and fears suggested by the audience, and The Bechdel Test, by the U.S.’s Lisa Rowland, which aims to stage an authentic story about a woman that doesn’t revolve around a man.
The key is that people stay true to Johnstone’s basic ideas about taking risks; as the TheatreSports founder has famously said, “You can’t learn anything without failing.”
At the fest, you’ll see teams celebrate the original Johnstone forms of Gorilla Theatre (where improvisers direct scenes for bananas from the audience) and Maestro (an elimination game in which audiences help determine the improv maestro of the night)—sometimes with international collaborations. But you’ll also see how widely Johnstone’s ideas have been reinterpreted.
Speaking by Facetime from Oslo, Ingvild Haugstad and Stian Gulli agree their company Det Andre Teatret—which performs 11 shows a week, ranging from kids’ productions to riffs on Henrik Ibsen—was never about the laughs.
“That will always be our mantra: ‘Don’t always go for the joke,’ ” says Haugstad, whose team was initially taught by Canadian followers of Johnstone. “We are really story-based. You go other places and it’s really snappy and punch-line based. We want to show people also they can cry at improv.”
“I think it’s because we’re a great mix of people that come from all over the place,” adds Gulli, pointing out that about half of Det Andre’s members have formal theatre training.
The show coming here, The Toys Strike Back!, is one of the troupe’s most popular, and unique in the world of improv. In it, children are asked to bring a favourite toy that might drive the story and become part of the action on-stage. Haugstad and Gulli reveal they have had to build shows on everything from a full-sized bike to a thread of yarn. “There are a lot of robots and teddy bears,” Haugstad admits.
And then there was the time one kid brought something else onto the stage. “We’ve had a kid come up and fart,” Haugstad recounts. “Everyone was laughing. I was laughing.”
The pair has found that improvisation skill on its own won’t impress a child; kids are easy experts in that stuff. Det Andre Teatret players need to build engaging stories from their material.
And it’s worth the effort, because they find the rewards are often even more satisfying than when they are entertaining an adult audience.
“I also love those moments where we go out after the show and we ask the kids ‘Did you know your Barbie is a secret agent?’ and they say ‘Noooo!’ ” Gulli adds with a smile. “And then they’re almost dragging our pants off like a rock concert—at the end you might have all the kids jumping all over you because you’re evil.”
Det Andre Teatret has built an adult-oriented version of the show now, in which people are asked to bring in garbage or items they were ready to throw out. But with the kids, there are incredible life lessons that grow out of improvisational theatre.
“The focus in improv is making mistakes and with the risk of doing mistakes, learning to laugh at your mistakes is really good,” Haugstad, now head of kids’ programming at the company, observes.
Derek Flores may be representing Christchurch, New Zealand, when he brings his chaos-loving, spandex-singlet-wearing luchador here for his show’s bus-set ride, but his improv roots are on the other side of the planet, with the Loose Moose Theatre and Johnstone.
Flores grew up in Calgary, discovering the art form as a teen. “My mom just wanted to get me out of the house,” he says with a laugh, talking to the Straight over the phone from a tour stop in Cumberland. “She had heard about this theatre company, and out of desperation she drove me there. Sunday classes were taught by this eccentric Englishman and we didn’t know who he was then. I found my group of friends, many of whom I’m in contact with today. On-stage, once you hear your first laugh, you’re there. And improv builds community because the audience is there at the exact same time as you’re creating it, so their energy influences what you create. They are effectively your other
Flores has never looked back, establishing the company called Meegwai Productions in Christchurch with his wife, Michi Flores, and bringing laughter to a city that’s still recovering from the 2011 earthquake. Cheering them up was actually how El Jaguar, the whacked-out Mexican wrestler, and his bus tours were born. “A lot of people had moved away [from Christchurch] and came back, and we said, ‘How do we re-engage them?’ ” he says. “We said, ‘Hey, let’s take a bus tour with this crazy guy and see old things with new eyes.’ ”
Flores transplants the idea to Vancouver with El Jaguar’s Fiesta City Bus Tour. Expect organized chaos and “alternative facts” about locations, complete with popping balloons, streamers, and piñatas.
“One of El Jaguar’s main things is, as a wrestler, he’s always wrestling with the world around him and trying to engage people—especially with people being on their devices, their cellphones, a lot,” Flores says. “Can we put down our phones for just a short time and connect with each other?” Fuel for the tour, like all good improv, is randomness. That might mean a stop for awesome gelato or other eats. Flores recounts one tour where the party bus picked up two unaware Argentine backpackers. “All of a sudden there are two extra people who have no idea that this fiesta bus is rolling along and we’ve just scooped them up,” he says with a laugh.
“Leave your expectations at the door and arrive ready to go on a roller coaster of chaos,” he advises.
That chaos and, more important, that sense of connection are what keeps Flores fascinated with improv in all its forms.
“There’s so much more to be done with this art form and that’s what I’ve loved,” he says.
The International Theatresports Festival takes place at the Improv Centre, the Waterfront Theatre, and the Nest on Granville Island from Monday to next Sunday (October 14 to 20).