Improvention 2011

30 Aug

Despite two-and-a-bit and three-and-a-bit years of living in Canberra respectively, neither T2 nor I had been to the Street Theatre, so what better reason than to attend Improvention? Improvention is a week-long festival showcasing improvised theatre: from what I understand, during the day there are conferences and workshops for improvisers (hailing across the globe) to attend, while at night the public gets to see performances for a rather reasonable fee.  Improvised theatre is simply performance where most everything is made up on the spot with a bit of stimulus or a framework to work in—think Thank God You’re Here or Whose Line Is It Anyway?

We booked tickets online the previous week to see the Thursday night Heat 4 of the Canberra Impro Theatre Challenge and were able to pick the tickets up at the box office on the night.  The Street Theatre is a trendy venue, appearing well maintained but with a sense of warmth and personality, completely rewriting my expectation that it was dingy and small. Encouragingly, the ‘lobby’ was quite busy but not so much so that it was overwhelming. There’s a reasonably well-stocked bar, and drinks can be brought into the theatre.

A few minutes before 7.30, we shuffled into Street 2, or the smaller theatre, which seats (at a rough guess) about 50 people.  Across the hall is the much, much larger theatre, Street 1, which was holding two 50-minute shows.  

The Canberra Impro Theatre Challenge seems to underpin the Improvention festival. For six nights, there are Heats which are split into two ‘acts’, with the winner of each act going through to the grand finale on the Sunday night. (It would have made more sense to call it two Heats on each night, with 12 Heats, but I’m trying to remain true to how it was presented.)  For each ‘act’, there are 12 challengers (or ‘players’), two directors, an improvising musician and an MC.  For an hour, the directors would call out different combinations of the players (groups of 1, 2, 3 or 4, usually) and assign them a kind of improvisation genre, game or situation—often with the audience’s help—and the musician would ‘assist’ the performance with what should be an appropriate ditty. On completion of each (lasting ~2-3 minutes), the MC would ask the audience to ‘score’ the performance. This was strictly based on claps achieved—the MC would yell out a number (1 the lowest, and 5 the highest), and the most claps (no cheering or whooping, just clapping) at a number would be the score the performance—and therefore the score all the players—achieved.  After all the players had been cycled through, the scores would be tallied and the directors would eliminate the lower-scoring players (sometimes just a few, and other times a swag load) and then they’d cycle through again, completing the process until just two or three were left to perform.

You may have guessed there are a few flaws with the process. The primary flaw is that it felt the audience (and certainly I think T2 and I) often gave a performance a very high score, not because the entire performance was spectacular, but because one person was simply great and carried the performance, and we wanted to see them again in the next round, thereby bringing everyone else with whom they performed into the next round, too. It’s also dependent on the directors being careful to ensure that the players do get teamed with a variety of people and not just the same person or group of people two or three times; this didn’t seem to be achieved too often. We also occasionally felt the music played wasn’t quite what the scene was calling for: rather than aiding and supporting the players and the performance, it both distracted from the performance, and distracted the players.  For the first ‘act’, the audience was very strongly involved—encouraged to participate—which we felt was a credit to the directors and the MC. Sadly, this couldn’t be said for the second ‘act’.  We’re of course not improvisation experts, but felt this time that the directors too often asked the players to guide performances themselves, instead of seeking the audience’s input (eg ‘What’s your favourite film genre?’)—surely the players have to come up with enough off the tops of their heads, whereas the audience could easily propose something fun and perhaps forge a bit more of a bond or shared engagement in the performance. Let us play, too! 

The performances themselves were largely engaging, insightful, humorous and clever. Stereotypes were shredded as what we’d have previously described as ‘middle-aged motherly types’ came out with witty lines or took a performance to a terrific climax. Those eliminated bowed out with almost over the top charm: the outcome for each individual did not seem to matter to them.  It was later confirmed to me that what’s on everyone’s minds isn’t being competitive, but putting on consistently enjoyable performances.

The best evidence of the performances’ calibre that Thursday night is our booking tickets the next morning to Sunday’s Grand Finale.  We’d booked simply to see the final of the Impro Theatre Challenge, but were also treated to two acts beforehand—viewing all three acts in the Street 1 theatre.

The first was Jason Geary’s ‘How Bout This’, which neither of us fully appreciated because we basically didn’t understand what was going on or why we were clapping.  It was later explained that each 7 or so players had to come up with an idea in turn (eg ‘How Bout… idea’) and if the other players didn’t instantly start performing, the audience would cheer (to ensure the idea-person felt confident proposing another idea in future). This explanation still doesn’t sit quite right with me. Regardless, the scenarios proposed were generally clever and the performances were quite enjoyable.

The next performance surprised us in that we couldn’t believe that no part was pre-prepared. The ability of the performers to switch characters and convince us of the story was nothing short of impressive. Colombian Felipe Ortiz delivered a storyline with a number of truly talented performers where each scene somehow influenced or inspired the next scene (however easy it was to spot or not!) for 40 or so minutes, with poignant and hilarious points. Perhaps the best part (and I can’t help but think this must have been pre-prepared or at least discussed) was that, against a backdrop of strikingly fitting ‘finale’ music, the performers then did a non-spoken slo-mo recap of their entire performance. Very clever—a real delight.

And then finally! What we were waiting for—the Impro Theatre Challenge finale.  And, just as finally, we each now had a glass of wine bought from the bar, the line to which had headed out the door during both breaks.  We were familiar with the formula by now, but of the three MCs, Sunday night’s was the most engaging.  However, the participation of the audience was again a little limited—perhaps the sheer size of the audience made it impossible, but perhaps it was also a mark of one directors who we recognised from Thursday night. While the players were apparently the best of the best, but again we felt there were clear stand outs on the night and those who didn’t ‘bring it’. Of particular mention is Rebecca de Unamuno. Solo, one of her challenges was to perform a sung tribute to Amy Winehouse (who’d died that weekend).  I was horrified with an overwhelming notion of ‘too soon!’ but de Unamuno’s performance—with complete accompanying music—was absolutely fitting.  You can really see that it’s those moments, those performances, which make improvised theatre, and it’s no surprise she made it to the final three.  The winner, however, was Felipe Ortiz who was no less deserving after providing consistently nuanced but hilarious performances throughout the challenge.

I think we’ll be back.

Date: Thursday, 21 July (7.30pm-9.30pm) and Sunday, 24 July (7.30pm-11pm)
Attendees: T1 and T2
Cost: $15 each (Thursday) and $33 each (Sunday)
Location: Street Theatre, 15 Childers St, City West, ACT
Worthwhile factor: Worthwhile
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3 Responses to “Improvention 2011”


  1. So, what does T2 reckon about Canberra in general? « In The Taratory - September 26, 2011

    […] ago. Of particular note was Improvention, a week-long event that showcased improvised theatre (see T1′s Improvention post for more info). I admired the spontaneity and creativity of the performances. The participants […]

  2. Crescendo at the Street Theatre « In The Taratory - March 4, 2012

    […] want people wandering in and out, so we settled in to wait.  As mentioned before in our Improvention post, the Street Theatre has a bar which also serves snacks. We picked up a bottle of wine which […]

  3. Coming Up in 2014 #4 | In The Taratory - July 2, 2014

    […] night they put on shows (no costs apparent as yet)! The Impro Theatre Challenge is my favourite. I reported on the 2011 grand finale when this blog was a wee […]

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