Monday, May 24, 2010

Theater is a Sport.

By Ed Doris

Master improv teacher David Razowski mentioned during a workshop that theater was his sport. Actors were his athletes. I found myself identifying. When asked why we rehearse in order to improvise I make the comparison to America's favorite pastime baseball, though it could be argued that football has taken that title. The game of baseball is practiced even though there is no set plan for how the game will unfold. There are some set rules in improv, just as there are for baseball. There are foul lines, a certain number of strikes and outs (the number three is revered in improv just as it is in baseball). However, the fact is, no one knows how the ball will come off the bat. The players work on double plays, practice responding to bunts, yet there is no way of knowing what will happen when they take the field. The same is true for improvisation. Suggestions are our baseballs, lines of dialogue; our bats. Beats, points in the storyline, they often coincide with laughter, become our bases. Our dugout and bullpen is the backup line -- a line formed by improvisers not actively engaged in but, waiting to support the scene.

Some nights troupes perform like the Sox or the Yanks, and other nights they play like… well, the Royals. There is plenty of conversation out there about the unreliability of improv. How it is filled with people that want access to the stage; free from the discipline needed to hone characters or memorize dialogue and blocking. Others mock the trite, repetitive suggestions and guessing games that are breeding grounds for bad puns and bad charades. That is improv done without focus. It treats the art as a vehicle for jokes and wit, considers the audience an afterthought and delivers a one dimensional experience. I'm no fan of these experiences either. They have become the expected standard for too many performers and audience members. Fortunately I have seen much better shows.

I have witnessed actors whose characters hit home runs onstage. I've seen diving catches made from support out of the backup line and double plays turned as callbacks bring scenes to a close. Characters come to life; story lines arc, and scenes end in the audience's delight and laughter. Improv offers a unique fan experience; a chance to participate in a moment of creation. The audience is just as important of a member of the cast as any of the performers. They are the muse; they feed energy to the caste onstage. Improv at its best delivers the satisfaction of discovery and coming up in July there is plenty of satisfaction to go around; because July brings the return of KC's best comedy show.

Kansas City has spawned its own comedy league, Improv Thunderdome. Improv Thunderdome is a competition where the audience decides the winners. This season will be the second time that Thunderdome creator Jared Brustad institutes a draft. Last year this reshuffling of the improv scene in Kansas City provided some of the strongest group performances yet. Players had the opportunity to work with performers they had never worked with before and this led to some great discoveries. Groups such as last year's winner, "Your Mother Called" demonstrated this with a cast that jelled instantly, much to the audiences delight. If you missed them, you missed some of the best improv and one of the funniest performances in Kansas City so far. The draft highlighted one of the best aspects of Improv, collaboration. Just as one man cannot take the field and play baseball, Improv requires a group to work cohesively towards success. This year coaches were also drafted to hone the teams into elite comedic forces. Nine teams will be coached by some of KC's most experienced improvisers such as improv guru Trish Berrong (Spite, Tantrum), Jen Roser (The Trip Fives, Omega Directive) and Scott Connerly (Improv Abilities). Even Brustad is getting in on the fun and grabbing the managing spot on a team. There will be no funnier place to be than the Westport Coffee House theater this summer. Get your reservations early since this show is a consistent sellout, 913-375-5168.