Over 30 years ago, Keith Johnstone created Theatresports, a form of theatre that used improvisation at its core and a defined structure for relative safety. The thing is, the ‘relative safety’ was more to protect the audience than to protect the performers – as it should be.
Keith always wanted the performers to step into the fire and not walk 5 kilometres around it. With proper training the performers came out unscathed but gave the audience a thrill.
One of the structural points Keith built into Theatresports was the horn. The horn was used when players on stage were spiralling into boredom and unable to save themself. On the surface the horn and its use is misunderstood by many and removed from Theatresports by the majority of groups where the format is played.
It’s a shame that narrow minded perspective would claim greater wisdom in an artists creation than the artist himself. Keith put the horn in for a reason. Those wishing to protect egos remove it.
What was Keith’s purpose?
1) You pay $15 to see a show. Perhaps the show is not going so well. The performers are not brave enough or strong enough to change what is happening or worse they don’t see a problem. The judges watching the scene blow the horn and the audience is relieved and we get to see another shot at good work. (Imagine having the horn for some boring self important work at city theatres where you pay $60 a ticket? YAY! My time is respected. Keith used to comment on the Comedy Channel whose slogan was “TIME WELL WASTED”. He said, “Why the hell would I want my time wasted?” )
2) You have a young performer who is struggling on stage. The scene goes past boredom and it becomes uncomfortable. Tell me, how is that performer’s ego now? And if you tell that performer later on that it was not so bad, you feed into a lie that supports tepid untruthful theatre. And worse, you are training performers that we will accept mediocre work. Protect the person and shape the work with truth through a simple recognition of sub-par moments.
3) You have a show where the scene work is OK but not fully engaging. Theatresports as a structure throws a little focus on the structure to help support the evening’s entertainment. With the horn and the other elements intact, a Theatresports evening is a dynamic array compared to more limited improvisation that might focus on personalities for variety.
Consider, when that horn is honked, the audience now has a chance to throw their anger at the judges. Have you ever seen an evening of improvisation where the audience is screaming and almost jumping out of their seats? Fantastic and unlike any form of theatre.
They might be yelling at the judges to politely side with the players if indeed the scene was sucking. They might be honestly pissed off with the judges for throwing off their favourite performer or a scene they saw potential in. Either way, they have a voice and are engaged. The heat and anger of the audience is thrown at the judges and not the players. The players can even chime in and boo the judges as well (which might bring the judges ‘wrath’ on ).
This dynamic creates what Keith intended when he saw wrestling matches in England. He saw a theatre for the masses. He saw a people’s theatre where the public bought into the illusion whole heartedly and yelled and screamed emotionally. They were engaged and they returned not because it was culturally correct but because they loved it and wanted more.
Remove the horn, alter the format in a way that you think is better and I would suggest that you are probably creating perceived safety that weakens the work in the long run. The only thing you are protecting are egos bent on dumb-ing down a great format into traditional boring, safe theatre.
Do it the way Keith intended it or change it entirely and call it something else. Respect artistic vision.