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Joking around a serious business

Jeff ClarkJeff Clark says he wants to give young people a place where there is no fear – so they can relax and enjoy the experience of being on stage in front of people. That way they can explore the possibilities that theatre offers as a career.

Performing gave me an excuse to come up with ideas, and be creative and have fun," he says.
It went from something I did occasionally at school to a full-time career. You definitely get something out of it. Carl Nixon (author of Rockinghorse Road) – he started off as a Court Jester – that shows in a lot of his scripts. He’s a very creative guy and I hope that he would attribute some of that ability to write and tell stories to his improvising.

More confident, more creative

Even if people don’t decide to pursue a performing arts career, it can be a really transformative thing – allowing people to be more confident, more creative. They can think more laterally. If you can take a theatre sports approach to life, which is listen, accept offers that come to you and go with them – you never know what might happen.”
“Improvising is about not running away from ideas – it’s about going into it, going forward and not doing what people would normally do which is stop and strive for normality.

Clark, the Court Theatre's education manager says the Theatre Sports in Schools programme involves about 20 schools and is a place where students can come along and hone skills in front of an audience.

There are some really talented players and some teams that are fantastic.

Clark says the rules of theatre sports are there to allow participants to be creative.

The rules of the games are there to distract the players from the fact that they are being really creative. The rules give them an excuse.

The schools competition is three rounds, the first round is six games, the second is team’s choice and the third is the challenge round – where teams are forced to put quick stories together. Three judges examine storyline, technique, and entertainment value. Each section is marked out of five to give teams a total score out of 15.

Workshops and community programmes

After last year’s competition, the organisers decided to invite participants who stood out to “improv workshops” – where students can work together to be spontaneous and get a successful storyline going.

We tell them about companies that are in Wellington or Auckland and tell them how to keep going with those skills when they move on to study at university or polytechnic.

New community programmes have been started this year – Wednesday workshops – 5.30 to 7pm, and a Sunday theatre sports show season is also under way.

Getting over the absurdity curve

Improv is not all about being the star of the stage, Clark says.

An improviser has to rely on everyone else on stage. Your job as an improviser is not to look good, it’s to make everyone else look good. You have to be listening to them, helping to tell the stories and it’s not about being in control of the story or in control of the scene.

Doing the obvious thing in a scene is often the best thing to help the story move along, Clark says, which is what the audience needs.

If you walk on stage and say ‘look – an alien spaceship!’ the audience aren’t going to believe you. We call it the absurdity curve, or pointless originality.

Playfulness with ideas and telling stories is the essence of theatre sports, and these are things that can be learned and practised, Clark says.

I was abysmal when I started. There are lots of really good books on it. Keith Johnstone, who invented Theatre sports, has written Impro and Impro for storytellers. There’s also Theatre sports down under.

Anything could happen - and that's ok

Making mistakes is all part of the process and Clark gives would-be performers a final piece of advice.

The audience don’t know you’ve mucked up – unless you tell them. It’s the willingness to fail … playfulness … when there’s an element of danger – that’s what makes theatre sports so much fun for an audience. At any moment things could go wrong – and the audience will be happy either way.

June 2008