“They can expect to have a lot of fun and they can expect the unexpected,” says Patti Stiles on what’s in store for audience members when the Impro Melbourne Comedy’s Theatresports Grand Final kicks off on Sunday June 24. Theatresports is a competition-based improvisation which gets the very best improv performers into one room together, divides them into two teams and sees them battle it out in a series of scene based challenges that can often be hilarious, crazy and completely unpredictable all at the same time.
“The show is largely comedy but we are trained actors so the moment the story takes us into looking at a political issue or doing a scene about first love or lovers breaking up we will do that,” explains Stiles. “So a Theatresports show, although primarily comedic, is actually an evening of variety.”
And it’s not only the performers up on stage that do the improvising. The people behind the scenes and in charge of the sets also through in a few curve balls just to make things even more interesting. “They improvise their sets around us and we don’t know what they’ve got planned. You could walk up on stage and suddenly find yourself on a pirate ship!” she laughs. “And the pirate story might be historically true, it might be dramatic or it might be a rip roaring little tale.”
Pirate ships are just one of a thousand possible scenarios of where a scene can end up and for the audience this means there is never a dull moment. “We’re always looking for ways to inspire each other and challenge each other and to provide a wide variety for the audience; we’re always mindful of that,” says Stiles. “So if we’ve had a long scene we try and do a short scene. If we’ve just done a musical number we try to do something that’s different. If we’ve done something that’s really hysterically funny we try to do something a little more quiet and calm so that way the audience gets a full evening of entertainment but a lot of variety in the evening.”
A somewhat veteran of improvisation and known to many as the queen of improv, Stiles has had a long and distinguished career and will lead a stellar cast of performers on grand final night. “The cast [are] all trained improvisers so we specialise in the field of improvisation, were not just making it up,” she says. “So we’re trained in not knowing what we’re doing.” Although it may sound a little bizarre, as a performer in the world of improvisation it’s crucial that you’re not only on the ball but also able to at any given moment completely change direction or character.
“Improvisation is a technique that actors use, we can use it in our rehearsals, we can use it in writing and developing the script and it can be used for all performances and styles,” explains Stiles. “So as [improvisers] we are storytellers.”
In order to successfully tell a story, it’s vital that the performer is versatile and able to adapt to any giving situation as well as being able to jump from comedy to drama to romance and back again, all at a moment’s notice. “Most people when they look at improvisation they think you have to really funny”, admits Stiles. “Because it tends to be 90 percent comedic they go, ‘Oh you have to be really good at jokes’ which is not the case. Improvisation, like I said, is storytelling and our motto is to make our partner look good. So what we actually do is we train in listening and supporting each other’s ideas and using each other’s ideas to create the story form that.
“So we actually train a lot on failing gracefully,” she continues. “Because with improvisation you can’t always guarantee every single scene is going to work but the way you handle it is the joy of it. If we do a scene and it tanks it’s still wonderful to watch because the audience sees us going, ‘Yep this is the Titanic, we’re going down’. So even our failures are fun to watch.”
And it is this aspect of improvisation which makes it so enjoyable for the audience. The idea that even though the performers up on stage may be drowning, for the audience, this only adds to the entertainment. For Stiles, it’s this unpredictability that as an improviser makes performing in events such as Theatresports so enjoyable. “[It’s] just like jazz musicians,” she explains. “When you watch them, it’s just this sound that comes out of nowhere and they jump upon it and it’s because each one is listening and sharing and giving back and forth the lead and going, ‘Oh you’ve done that I can use that this way. Oh that’s fun lets go there!’ That’s what we do in verbal improvisation.”
For Stiles, the challenge and unpredictable nature of improvisation is still very much just as enjoyable as when she first started out. “It is a lot fun,” she admits. “I have to say we’re very spoilt that when we get up in the morning to go to work we get to play, we get to entertain an audience and we get to work with our best mates. It really is a joyful thing to do.”
BY JAMES NICOLI
The Theatresports Grand Final takes place on Sunday June 24 at BMW Edge in Federation Square.