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Theatresports is a form of improvisational theatre, which uses the format of a competition for dramatic effect. Opposing teams can perform scenes based on audience suggestions, with ratings by the audience or by a panel of judges (who are usually trained improvisers themselves). Developed by director Keith Johnstone in Calgary, Alberta, in 1977, the concept of Theatresports originated in Johnstone's observations of techniques used in professional wrestling to generate Heat, or audience reaction.


The content of Theatresports scenes is often structured games which can double as entertainment and as training exercises. Some example games are as follows:

  • Word at a Time Story: Two or more improvisers alternate words as they tell a story. If done well, this game can be very entertaining. It teaches the skill of being 'in the moment' (not planning ahead), since there is no way to anticipate the direction in which another actor will take the story.
  • Yes, Let's: Each improviser in a scene makes a suggestion that is loudly accepted by the others on stage with the words "Yes, Let's". When used as an exercise, this game teaches acceptance of suggestions by other improvisers and the value of a positive attitude on stage.
  • Guess My Word: An improviser leaves the theatre to allow the audience to suggest a secret word. The improviser then returns to the theatre and tries to guess the word as suggested by another improviser in a scene. This game teaches improvisers to be alert to the actions of others in the same scene.
  • Status Switch: Improvisers create a scene with an obvious high-low status relationship. Before the end of the scene, that relationship must be reversed (e.g. the meek customer turns the tables on the owner of the bank). This type of scene teaches the improvisers to be aware of the status levels of the characters in the scene, just as we do unconsciously in real life.
  • Genre Replay: The audience chooses a number of different styles and the same scene is repeated and altered to reflect each style in turn.
  • Puppets: This game involves players that aren't allowed to move independently (apart from speaking) and other players (sometime audience members) have to physically move them. Variation Torture Puppets: one 'puppeteer' must manipulate two or more "puppets'.
  • Alphabet: Players play out the scene using sentences beginning with successive letters of the alphabet. (e.g: "Alison! It appears you have grown a beard!" "But I can't have a beard! My date will be here to pick me up any minute." "Come to the bathroom, we need to get you shaven." "Don't tell me what to do!" etc.).
  • Paper Chase or Papers: Audience members are asked to write brief sentences on scraps of paper. The improvisers begin a scene, and, at regular intervals, read one of the scraps of paper and work it into the scene. Example: "Doris, I know you're jealous that Uncle Al left me ten million dollars, but [reading] "The moon on the lake makes me think of your thighs."
  • Reduction:Players must act out a scene in 45 seconds. They then must act out the same scene in 30 seconds, then 20, then 10, 5, and finally 3.
  • Emotional Rollercoaster: Players act out a scene normally, until the M.C. calls out an emotion like anger or joy. They then need to entwine that emotion into their performance.
  • Historical Replay: Players act out a scene in 45 seconds. They then have to act out the same scene but at a certain date in history e.g. The French Revolution.
  • Emotional Replay: Much like Historical Replay. Players act out a scene in 45 seconds then react it with a certain emotion that they need to use.
  • Spacejump: This is a theatresports game often performed in large groups , such as drama students. The game starts with one person in the certre of a ring of others, performing an action. At any time, another person can say "spacejump". When this happens, the actor inside the ring freezes where they are. Then, the person who called spacejump enters and re-starts the piece, taking it on a different direction by adapting with the pose the first actor was in. Play continues, and at anytime another person can call "spacejump", which repeats this process of changing the setting. Usually, after there is 4 people on the stage, when another person calls "spacejump" the first person goes off. Play continues until the discretion of whoever is organising ther game. This game is often used in schools and drama classes
  • Typing Scene or Typewriter: A typist narrates as s/he mimes typing a story, and the improvisers jump in to enact the scenes and add some developments of their own.
  • Endowment Game: In an Endowment Game, a Player attempts to guess certain facts or information about the scene that the other improvisers and the audience are "in on". The other improvisers in the scene give hints to the player through their dialogue and the audience helps as well by "ooing" if they're close and then applauding when they correctly guess the information. The different endowment games include; Crime Endowment (an improviser has committed a petty crime, in a specific location and with a famous person or character); Gibberish Endowment (the same as Crime Endowment except all the players speak Gibberish, a made-up improvised language); Superhero Endowment (the improvisers have to guess their individual powers) etc.

Improvised themes are common, e.g.: "We challenge you to a scene ...

  • involving an object given by an audience member."
  • where all dialogue is in gibberish."
  • that starts and ends with phrases suggested by the audience."
  • that summarises a major movie in one minute."

Typical examples of heat, often involving skillfully improvised rule-breaking, could be:

  • The audience is encouraged to boo the judges, who take on the role of stern authority figures
  • An improviser passionately protests a low score for a scene, carrying on until the judges eject the improviser from the game. The improviser returns later with a home-made protest sign.
  • During a typing scene (see above), one of the improvisers "takes the typist hostage" to force the story to go in a certain direction.
  • Improvisers can be "punished" for breaking the rules, say by being forced to act a scene as a pig, or barefoot, or as a character who is destined to die by the end of a scene, or by wearing a penalty basket on their head for set time.


Although staged as a competition, Theatresports has the philosophy that corniness and gags tend to lower the quality of scenes. The emphasis is on building characters and on spontaneous, collaborative storytelling. Jokes and gags are seen as disrupting the narrative, and avoiding both collaboration and building a scene.

Another technique taught by Johnstone is to establish a 'platform' early in the scene that defines the characters and background. Only once that platform is established should some wrinkle or conflict be introduced. According to this technique, a scene involves an ever-shrinking "circle of possibilities", which defines what sorts of offers the improviser might reasonably make in the scene. At the start of a scene, anything is possible; but, as more offers are established, and the reality of the scene is more clearly defined, the circle of possibilities shrinks, and improvisors should not step outside that circle of possibilities by making offers that seem inconsistent with what was previously established.


The television show Whose Line Is It Anyway? uses many games that first appeared in Theatresports, although, as a television show, it does have the luxury of being edited. ComedySportz, started in 1984 in Milwaukee, WI,<ref>Template:Cite web</ref> tends to emphasise the sports competition format more than Theatresports, for example by having a referee who awards points and administers fouls. The Australian shows Thank God You're Here and TheatreGames LIVE follow a similar format to these shows.


In some countries, "Theatresports" is a trademark and copyright. These are managed by the International Theatresports Institute, an International community of Impro Actors and Theatres International Theatresports Institute.

See also


Further reading

  • Foreman, Kathleen and Martini, Clem (1996). Something Like a Drug: An Unauthorized Oral History of Theatresports. Players Press. ISBN 0-88734-918-8 (paperback).

External links