It's that time of year again: the Cranston Cup Theatresports grand final - in which some of the best improvisers you will ever see (until next year's Cranston Cup) battle it out for the prize of best people who can make stuff up on the spot and entertain you in the process - is taking place at the Enmore Theatre tonight.
In honour of it, I interviewed Bridie Connell - not just a brilliant player and performer (she was one of the multitude of talented Sydney Uni alumni Michael Hing produced at the recent Sydney Fringe Festival) but also a teacher of Theatresports. But I'll let her tell you all about it…
Dom Romeo: What do you do?
BRIDIE CONNELL: I teach a lot of impro, and I’m an actor and writer.
Dom Romeo: When did you come to impro?
BRIDIE CONNELL:I was very lucky; I went to one of the few primary schools that had a Theatresports club. A lot of high schools have it, but I was lucky that I got a taste quite early. I did it all through high school and I really loved it. When I went to uni there was no impro and I really missed it, but then I moved to Sydney to finish my degree, and there was such a big scene over here for it that I fell back into it after a few years of having a break.
Dom Romeo: Were you mostly educated in New Zealand?
BRIDIE CONNELL: I did all of my high school and primary school there.
Dom Romeo: I do not detect a New Zealand ‘ick-cent’.
BRIDIE CONNELL: My mum’s an Aussie so we’ve always had a mixture of accents. It’s weird because when I go home to New Zealand to see my family, they tease me for sounding like an Australian but some of my friends here still pick up on words that I say with a bit of a Kiwi accent. So no matter where I go, I get teased for my voice.
Dom Romeo: In a way it’s an advantage: to always be an outsider means you can always be making fun of something as an observer…
BRIDIE CONNELL: Yeah, I guess so. It’s not like we speak a different language in New Zealand but when I moved to Sydney there were a few moments, even on stage, where I’d say something – a phrase that we say in New Zealand that just hadn’t made it across here – and there’d be an awkward moment where they were trying to work out what I was saying.
Dom Romeo: When you started improvising out here, you would have looked like an amazing newbie, when really you weren’t a newbie at all.
BRIDIE CONNELL: I had done it all through high school, and it was quite fun because I had had a break for a few years, studying in New Zealand. It was one of those nice things, like riding a bike: I got back into it so quickly and I had so much fun immersing myself in it again.
I was really nervous to start again though. I felt really rusty. And I hadn’t improvised with all these people at Sydney Uni before. It was scary going into my first jam, and my first time on Manning Bar stage because I just didn’t know anybody. That was actually one of the reasons I picked it up again: to meet people.
Dom Romeo: Even though New Zealand and Australia are close in many ways, are there any differences in the way we improvise and in our senses of humour?
BRIDIE CONNELL: I think, in New Zealand, a lot of our humour is sort of even more laconic than it is here. Flight of the Conchords is very typical of the sort of thing that you see a lot in New Zealand: a lot of awkward humour, a lot of laconic stuff, blokey jokes. And that definitely happens here, but more so in New Zealand. I think that because I had come from doing Theatresports at a high school level in New Zealand, it was totally different kind of standard, so when I moved to doing uni Theatresports in a different country, it was like being hit over the head: people were so much wilder and tackled topics that we never had in high school and the standard was so much better.
Content-wise, there was a bit of difference, but the main thing I noticed was that suddenly from high school to university, it was a whole new world: no holds barred, do what you will…
Dom Romeo: You also do this for a living.
BRIDIE CONNELL: I teach Theatresports and host Theatresports at Sydney Uni, and I teach at quite a few high schools – I run Theatresports clubs and co-curricular drama. So I perform a lot, and I teach even more.
Dom Romeo: Does that mean you’re always working, or always playing?
BRIDIE CONNELL: Sometimes it feels like work! But I’m quite lucky that it is so much fun that I do really enjoy it and it doesn’t feel like work most of the time. There are some students who are more trying than others, but most of the time it’s just so much fun, particularly because I work with such a wide age range. I teach five-year-olds, right up to people in their 30s I get so many different types of students so it’s always really fun, and there’s always something new every day, so it’s really nice.
Dom Romeo: And you run the University of Sydney Theatresports program?
BRIDIE CONNELL: Yeah, I took over from Steen Raskopoulos at the start of this year and I co-host with Tom Walker, who’s in my Cranston team.
Dom Romeo: I was on campus when Rob Carlton was handing over to Adam Spencer. I think it was Gabby Millgate before them. I don’t know if there were many women in between (and apologise to anyone I’ve overlooked).
BRIDIE CONNELL: I was thinking about this recently – I know that Rebecca De Unamuno used to play, I don’t know if she hosted. Still, it’s the first time a girl’s hosted in a while, so that’s been quite fun, and a lot more women have been coming to the jams at Sydney Uni this year, so that’s been quite nice.
Dom Romeo: What’s the difference between teaching adults who are doing it for the first time at 30, and teaching kids?
BRIDIE CONNELL: The wonderful thing about teaching at uni is that everyone wants to be there; they’re there voluntarily rather than, it’s last period Friday and you had to pick an activity and you chose this. Everybody’s there because they want to be there, so they’re really passionate about it.
A lot of the time people get into it just for social reasons, or as an extra-curricular thing, to meet people – so there’s a really, really nice environment at uni with the older group. It’s almost like a friendship group hanging out and jamming every week, which is really nice. With my younger students, it’s a lot more structured and regimented. It’s still a lot of fun, but there are a lot more structures in place around what we learn.
Dom Romeo: Is it harder for adults to free up part of their brain and indeed, their body, to accept offers and to play?
BRIDIE CONNELL: You see with a lot of older people, when they start out, definitely, there’s a process. When they finally have that moment where something switches over in their brain where they really start to accept offers and understand it, it’s awesome. But there definitely can be a bit of resistance, and a little bit of holding back at first.
That’s what’s so refreshing about working with the little kids. Even though, obviously, they’re not hugely experienced and they don’t have a lot of technical skill, they don’t care: they will do scenes about anything and they’ll just take risks. I always come out of class with these amazing stories from all the kids. They have huge imaginations and just don’t care what anybody thinks, which is nice, because the older people at uni are more conscious of what people will think of them or how they’ll be perceived.
Dom Romeo: What are the differences between playing Theatresports at a professional level in competition, and just playing for fun?
BRIDIE CONNELL: That’s a good question. First and foremost, if anyone was doing this purely for the competition then I doubt that they would make it into the final because one of fundamental principles of Theatresports is that you are just mucking around, having fun. I always tell my students this when competition time rolls around: the minute you start counting your points or focussing on the competition elements, it’s a big mistake because you stop focussing on your play and you stop taking risks and being free.
The competition is definitely fun and important, and it’s a great way to learn really quickly and get feedback from judges, but I think the more relaxed you can be about it, the better. All the teams that are playing the Cranston final this weekend are approaching it from a ‘let’s just have fun on big scale’ attitude.
Dom Romeo: So you’re saying that once you start ‘competing’, looking for angles to get ahead, you’re almost losing the whole reason Theatresports exists – to play and discover new things.
BRIDIE CONNELL: Absolutely. It just interferes with your mindset. And I’ve gone through that before. I’ve done shows where you really want to make it to the final round, and you start thinking about that. But as soon as you do that, you start to get tense, and relaxation is so important in Theatresports, to be in the zone. That’s not to say that people aren’t competitive; everybody would like to win the Cranston Cup, and everybody wants to play as many rounds as they can without getting eliminated, because we all want to play. But first and foremost, we all want to have fun, and we all know from experience that the more relaxed you are the more fun you’re having and the better your score will be anyway.
Dom Romeo: One of the reasons Theatresports was developed was to get away from ‘shtick’ – the comfortable bag of tricks we all carry and fall back on. There are times, even when improvising in Theatresports, when players ‘get comfortable’ in the ways they play, sometimes to the point where you can almost certainly predict the character they’ll pull out and the way the improvised scene will play. Should they try to get away from that? And if so, how?
BRIDIE CONNELL: You definitely should get away from that because impro in its purest form would mean that we couldn’t be predictable. And that can really be frustrating for a fellow player or the audience member when you can predict the way a scene will go because you’ve seen a player bring out that character before. That’s one of the reasons I enjoy working with little kids, and one of the reasons they’re so good at Theatresports: they have such boundless imaginations that every time they do a scene it’s totally different.
I’ve been thinking about this concept of patterns and habits this year with my students. One of the things we do at high school and university level is an exercise that’s rapid-fire coming up with as many characters as you can really quickly: a set of two characters, then you change, and you change and you keep changing. You’re meant to get to bare minimum ten characters. But after about four or five characters everybody started to falter. The exercise totally exposes the fact that we have default characters. I do too: I have types of scenes that I’m more comfortable with, characters and accents that I tend to go to. But the more we’ve done that exercise, the more we’ve stretched our minds a little bit to find different types of characters to play. As well as that, there are some players who do the same sort of things physically, so we’ve really focussed them on doing different things with their voices to get them out of their comfort zone a little bit.
Dom Romeo: There are times when there are props available on stage and there are players who always look for a prop for inspiration – sometimes, I feel, to the detriment of their improvising.
BRIDIE CONNELL: I’m not really one of them. Sometimes you’ll get the perfect prop and it will really help you, but I find Theatresports is so fast-paced that when I rummage through the prop box to find something perfect for the moment, the moment’s passed. I’m not quick enough with the prop to do it. Some people just love them, particularly the physical players – they find things to help them be even bigger on stage. It works for some people, but it always just stresses me out.
Dom Romeo: Tell me about a time you did something on stage that not even you knew you were going to do – that took you by surprise, as well as the audience and the people you were playing with.
BRIDIE CONNELL: Those moments are the reason everyone keeps doing Theatresports! It’s a bit like a drug: sometimes the highs are so good – those moments when the whole team just clicks and they’re totally on the same wavelength.
I had a great experience about five years ago, in the final scene in the high school grand final. It was a plagiarism scene: all the lines, characters and settings are stolen from all the other scenes that had been played earlier that night. It’s a bit cheeky and it’s so much fun. But towards the end of the scene – it wasn’t a musical or anything but somebody started to sing a poem in a scene and everybody just got up. All the other teams got up and suddenly it was an impromptu musical. It got a great score and the audience loved it. I always remember it because to me that was the perfect summary of how important the concept of ‘the team’ is in Theatresports – everybody just supported each other and got up. It was amazing. The audience was floored that everybody in the space of about three seconds got on stage and jumped on one idea and took it to the extreme. It was so much fun.
Dom Romeo: It’s amazing when everyone gets the same idea and is on the same wavelength instantaneously.
BRIDIE CONNELL: It’s so organic, too: you can’t force it. It’s so amazing and it’s so much fun to play with people you meld with. Whether it’s because you know each other really well or you have similar styles, when that happens – when everybody just magically is on the same page and knows what’s going on – you can’t beat it. It’s so rewarding as a player and as an audience member.
Dom Romeo: If you didn’t have Theatresports in your life or as a way of life, what’s one thing that would suck in everyday life?
BRIDIE CONNELL: In high school, if I’m thinking back a bit, I was really grateful that I did Threatresports.
I actually started it because I was a debater, and I gave that up many years ago because I enjoyed Theatresports more. But I got into it because I thought it would help me with my debating, to think on my feet. And the more I did Theatresports, the better I was at thinking on my feet. So in high school, I would say the answer to that question is, I would have gotten so many more detentions. Because I could think on my feet I talked myself out of so many detentions and punishments in high school – more than anyone else in my year – which was great. But for now, the thing that I’m most grateful for in terms of what Theatresports has given me, is just general confidence and playfulness in everyday life.
My first ever Theatresports coach, when I was little, said, the people who played Theatresports were just better at life for those reasons: you’re more playful and imaginative and have more confidence. Whether or not you want to be a professional performer, I really do think that what Theatresports gives you is really valuable.
The Cranston Cup Theatresports Grand Final is on tonight at 8pm, Enmore Theatre. Hosted by Susie Youssef. Doors open 7pm.