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Improv - An Educational Trend
By: Danielle McC.,Grade 11, Booth Memorial High School, St.John's, NF

Improvisational theatre is becoming a household name in junior and senior high schools all across Canada. There are school teams, and competitions galore! This is not just a Canadian trend either. The United States is also being struck with an attack of the improvisers and improv has been a hit in England for years.

Improv is a type of theatrics that uses audience suggestions as a method to performing a story or situation. It can have no specific definition since there are many styles of improv. One of these, and the most common forms, is referred to as "Spot" improv, taking the audience's suggestions and using 15 seconds to discuss how to use them "on the spot" in a scene.

History of Improv

The history of improv dates back to the mid 1500's, when a travelling comedy troupe entitled Commedia Dell' Arte was popular. The group of performers would scatter from town to town performing their improvisational show on makeshift stages or on the streets.

It was a craze with potential. However, soon after it had begun improvisational theatre was not the fashion anymore in those times. Improvisation had faded out of the limelight until Keith Johnstone and Viola Spolin emerged to redefined the art of improv.

Keith Johnstone was an Englishman who conveyed his theories of theatre to the class he taught at the University of Calgary. He believed that people had the concept that theatre was intended only for those were well off. Johnstone attempted to dismiss that idea by creating Theatre Sports, a team combining the elements of sports and improvisation theatre. The objective was to spark the interest of the average Joe, and dispel their belief that theatre acts were above them. There were two teams in competition with one another for points which were awarded by judges.

Viola Spolin was a woman in the 1920's and 1930's who developed a teaching technique based on the concept that acting would be more enjoyable to learn and to perform, if it was presented as a series of games. Theatre Games, games with the purpose of teaching kids improv and acting skills, was conceived.

In the mid 1950's, Paul Sills followed in his mother's footsteps, by enforcing that a theatre be built in the surrounding area by the University of Chicago. He also pulled together a modern version of Commedia, called The Compass, whose goal was to make theatre appear accessible to those of every social class. Their venture was successful, and led to the creation of the company Second City, an improvisational school that incorporates the teachings of Spolin. (For more information, see Links at the bottom.)

The Canadian Improv Games

The Canadian Improv Games is an extension of the theories initiated by Johnstone and Spolin. The Improv Games began in 1978 in Ottawa and are a series of competitions between high schools teams of eight or less students, from each province.

The mission is to create programs that entice kids to becoming involved. It teaches them a variety of concepts that will aid in the complexity of the world today and to approach those problems with a positive manner. It also shows kids how to use improv to highlight the skills of story telling, character portrayal, display of sincere emotion style recreation and thematic exploration.

Each skill in improv is exhibited in an certain event. There are usually five events; Character (portrayal of a character trait), Story (a tale composed totally on the spot), Style (a scene performed in a style chosen beforehand. ie, Blue's Clues) Theme (a series of vignettes that represent a theme. ie, holidays), and Issues (also called Emotion or Life; a poignant scene meant to demonstrate acting ability). All teams must perform a theme and issues event, and can choose from two other events. Suggestions for the theme and issues events are provided by the head referee. Each event is a limited time of four minutes, and the other referee will warn them after every minute, and when they have 30 seconds left.

The scores are tabulated and the teams with the highest score in their province goes on to the Nationals. This competition is between the winners from each province and picks the group with the overall highest score in Canada. Some schools even enter the games via video and the National Video Competition. High schools aren't the only big show at The Canadian Improv Games! Junior Highs are becoming very involved as well.


The Canadian Improv Games official logo

Teenagers and people in general benefit greatly from participating in Improv. You learn many skills, such as how to be constantly thinking on your feet, how to use tableaux (the form of using your body as a living prop), how to use all your brain power to create skits, and how to communicate those ideas with other Improv members in a limited amount of time. One of the most important things you can learn from being involved with improv is how to agree. A scene will only work if all the members are in agreement of things, such as the location of the scene, which performer plays which character, and what character will do something. It's fundamental that the players accept other's ideas and build on them, not criticize them.

The popularity of improv has increased over the past couple of years. Colin Fardy, a student and improv team member from Booth Memorial High School , told me his explanation for sudden hype. "One thing I can attribute to the recent improv trend, is the television show Who's Line Is It Anyway?, starring Colin Mockery, Ryan Stiles, and Wayne Brady, which is hosted by Drew Carey on ABC. People saw these actors on stage making fools of themselves while letting the audience give them suggestions, and it gave the mainstream publicity the show and improv needed."

For more information about improv, visit these links.


Whose Line is it Anyway?

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