Improv at the Source:  Two Weeks at the Loose Moose

RfG Newsletter, Volume 3, Number 2 Winter/Spring, 1994

by Gloria J. Maddox and Dan Wiener

In the last two weeks of July, 1993 we joined 20 other improvisers, ranging in age from 19 to 68 and representing 8 countries, at the Loose Moose Theatre Company’s International Improvisational School in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. The faculty consisted of Keith Johnstone, President and Artistic Director, and Dennis Cahill, Associate Artistic Director. [For those unaware, Rehearsals! for Growth arose as the application of Keith’s improvisation forms and techniques to psychotherapy and education]. We were housed at a nearby college campus and transported to and from the theater daily by the theater staff, all of whom worked diligently yet cheerfully to look after our needs.

The program consisted of morning and afternoon workshops every day with either Keith or Dennis and covered advanced improv for performers. As a veteran stage improviser, Dennis demonstrated the tactical intricacies of skilled performance while Keith, an innovator, conceptual thinker, and superbly perceptive teacher, took us through many techniques, games, and forms he has devised.

Most significantly, Keith expanded our understanding of the relationship between performers and audience. Through his continuing experimentation with improvisational forms his efforts have been directed toward creating maximum involvement of the audience with the performer–who is at risk of failing in front of them. The improvising performers place themselves at risk by functioning publicly without many of their social defenses, chiefly that of looking good by playing it safe and concealing failure. The games devised by Johnstone arose out of his interest in solving simultaneously the problems of stage improvisers (arising from their vulnerability) and those of the audience (arising out of their need for involvement). For Johnstone, audience involvement stems from a combination of admiring performer skill and daring, feeling close to performers who fail good-naturedly, being interactively present at an unpredictable event, and being offered adventures in which collective fantasies are enacted.

Johnstone’s best-known improv form, Theatresports, has the format of a contest in which teams of players engage in a mock competition, akin to staged wrestling, rather than to earnest sporting events (this is to prevent performers from becoming overinvested in winning or avoiding losing). Theatresports, played by both professional and amateur actors in numerous countries around the globe, is particularly popular with a young audience (ages 15 to 30). To heighten audience involvement, Theatresports is the opposite of “showbusiness;” failure is invited, rather than hidden. In sports, by contrast, all interest would quickly atrophy if there were no mistakes or losses; the “agony of defeat” is bound up with the “thrill of victory” and the television camera is as readily trained on the dropped pass as on the successful first down.

The relevance of all of this to therapy is twofold: on the one hand, clients want to overcome the unheroic limitations of their lives, leading to their restorying and struggling with the risky business of change; on the other hand, they want to attain success, feel better, and be treated nicer by others while avoiding change. Rehearsals! for Growth uses the context of play and the techniques of improv as the bridge to move clients from the stuckness of avoiding both danger and change to the challenging novelty of expanded possibility in their lives.

During the intensive two weeks of on- and off-stage adventuring at the School we participants developed strong bonds of friendship, not only because we shared meals and class time but because we braved together the rigors of “pushing the envelope” of our courage in order to learn. The program at the Loose Moose is congruent with the the principle of living on the brink of failure
mentioned above. Despite the highly supportive atmosphere of the program and the considerable stage experience of all participants, stage improvising is a constantly challenging endeavor when approached artistically. By contrast, some Theatersports performances and most non-Theatersports improvisation performances I have seen lack this risky quality; the performers have made a choice (usually deliberate) to offer an audience only games and scenes that they are confident they can perform well. The predictable consequence is that the performers display a virtuosity that delights and captivates the audience– for perhaps the first ten or fifteen minutes. After that, no matter what variety is offered, interest declines progressively throughout the rest of the show. As Keith has discovered, an audience wants risk and spontaneity in return for its attention.

One evening, Dan ran a brief workshop for the improvisers to demonstrate how he applies improv games to therapy and relationship skills training; in a reversal of our experience with training therapists, the improvisers knew the games but were unaware of the conceptual issues! On one of the two “days off” we toured the Tyrell dinosaur museum with Keith; on the other, the entire class and theater staff took a day-trip to gorgeous Banff and Lake Louise. Our class-work culminated in a benefit Theatresports performance for Amnesty International at the Loose Moose Theatre to a nearly full house. We left Calgary with a deeper grasp of Keith’s wisdom (we got to interview him for Dan’s book) and renewed zest for improvising.