Theatresports™ is not a real competition.

In Canada I had an improviser, with many years experience, say to me; “I know it is awful to say this, but I like to win.”  referring to playing Theatresports™.  I was shocked.  Not so much at the statement itself, I was shocked it came from someone who I thought believed in the same approach as me.  This person’s philosophy and teaching has always been based on the spirit of embracing your partner and making them look good.  What shocked me further was this wasn’t the first time I had heard this in this past year.  I actually heard it on 3 different occasions, similar words and same sentiment. 

No matter how deeply you believe in this philosophy of the spirit of acceptance and cooperation, if you still harbour a desire to win you are not truly committing to the work.

It is easy for people to find themselves in this situation.  They can believe on an intellectual and practical level in the philosophy and still give into the human need for validation, which creates the aspiration to win.  This craving validation gets in the way of true improvisation work because at the core you are performing at a level of self-need.  This self-need changes your perceptions.  It has too.  If you strive to win, then you will plan to win, which means performing your strengths to accomplish the goal.   When we set such goals to satisfy our self and ego we will begin to make safe choices.  We plan, protect, choose what we excel at, self-sensor and disconnect from our partners and the spontaneous moment to achieve ‘good’.

In practice this individual is doing everything she asks her students not to do.

It is clear she has a mental division in the belief of the work and its application.  I do believe she holds dear the motto of ‘make your partner look good’, but she was trained in a company where competition on stage was real and winning meant financial gain as well.  This environment obviously has left lingering negative effects on her.  This is not just my perception or belief it is coming out in notes. 

In reflection, I recall notes she was given and our conversations about notes she would receive

  • To stop driving her characters agenda at the sacrifice of the story

  • To stop pushing the narrative and allow the scene to unfold

  • To trust what the other performers are doing

  • To try to play other games and genres as she sticks to the same safe area

Many of the people she was working with were communicating to her, either in notes privately or in action, that they were finding it difficult working with her as they felt unheard, controlled, railroaded, bullied or simply exhausted by being over directed in scenes and the feeling of ‘we’ve done this scene before’.

In practice she is not making her partner look good, because she is focused on making herself look good.  This desire to prove herself and impress completely falls in line with the ‘I like to win’ statement she made.  Winning obviously validates her, and therefore her performance.

She is so entrenched in her need she doesn’t see the affect it is having on her fellow players, or how it is coming out in her work.  Her tone of voice is tense, her choices predictable, her energy is not free and playful it is ‘faking’ playful.

What she seems to miss is that her quest to achieve the goal is putting her into a mind set that is actually lowering her improvisational work and turning others off of working with her.

This is what I see time and time again in actual competitive improvisation.  The need to win triggers the need for self preservation which disconnects the improvisers.

By definition real competition and cooperation are not compatible.

Competition: the activity or condition of striving to gain or win something by defeating or establishing superiority over others: 

Cooperation: the action or process of working together to the same end:

(definitions from Oxford dictionaries on line

If we look at some key points of Keith Johnstone’s work 

  • Be average

  • Make your partner look good

  • Fail happily

  • Aim to be obvious 

These are not tools to prepare you for competition.  They are aimed at removing fear of failure, not building fear of failure.

In real competition, someone really looses.

The need to really win will inherently build the aspiration to not loose.  In our society loosing = failure.  So following the logic the need to win increases the fear of failure.  This leads to safe predictable choices, which leads to generic uninspired controlled improvisation.

How boring for you and the audience.

Free yourself of the need to win or impress.  Give yourself permission to enjoy the gift of being average.  The greatest validation is that other improvisers want to work with you, then you know you have found the balance between believing in ‘make your partner look good’ and putting it into practical application.  The audience will be delighted and you will have so much more fun and many more adventures.


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