Bridie Connell on Theatresports

Bridie Connell

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…

Cranston-Trophy-lo-resThe Cranston Cup

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.

2012-11-18 - Cranston Repechage Winner 2 - Mother Father - by Jim Wilson 2 medium
Tom Walker and Bridie Connell

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.

2011Cranston_Cup0419 Jon+Bridie
Jon Williams and Bridie Connell


Fine Print:

The Cranston Cup Theatresports Grand Final is on tonight at 8pm, Enmore Theatre. Hosted by Susie Youssef. Doors open 7pm.

Just Another Misfit:
Cam Knight gets back on the horse

Cam Knight Misfit

If you were a comedy lover digging the local scene around five years ago, give-or-take, you know Cam Knight very well – and, in addition, virtually every other Aussie stand-up gigging during that period – because of the time Cam spent fronting Stand Up Australia for the Comedy Channel. “That’s where just about everyone in Australia got a good show reel!” Cam insists, because there were 120-odd hour-long episodes, each featuring four comedians. But stand-up is not all that Cam’s known for: he’s also an actor. Which is why, on the eve of the taping of his first comedy DVD at Sydney’s original Comedy Store, it’s worth asking Cam which came first – the acting or the comedy?

“I was always the smart-arse in class,” Cam says, “but I guess you could say the acting came first because I was studying acting before I got into comedy.” Yeah, but only just, it turns out. Still, the comedy was kind of inevitable, since the young Cam was “always drawn to it” – his parents buying him a copy of Monty Python’s Life of Brian on video when he was 12. “They were pretty much setting me up for comedy,” he reckons. They must have had a sense of humour; they gave their 12-year-old the most Christianity-lambasting of absurdist satires – before going on to send Cam to a Lutheran boarding school for his high school education. But more of that later…

Cam went straight into acting classes after school, and that’s when the comedy bug bit. One of his classmates, Dave Williams, was already doing comedy, and Dave’s ‘boss’, Dave Flanagan – from Adelaide’s Comix Comedy Cellar – went to see a first year play both Dave and Cam were in, after which, Cam says, “he offered us all jobs”. Although it was mostly ‘pre-show entertainment’ – “while people were eating their meals, you do some sort of cabaret bullshit; I played a chef who thought he was Elvis and sang Elvis songs!” – Cam and Dave were soon doing improv. But it wasn’t until they’d relocated to Melbourne that Cam did actual stand-up comedy. “Dave booked a gig behind my back and said, ‘You’ve got to go do some stand-up now’. We walked to the gig that night and I did it, and that was it: it just sort of stuck.”



Stand-Up Australia

You wouldn’t guess, from so casual start to his career, that Cam would host such a seminal show as Stand-Up Australia. But he did. And it was seminal – people you wouldn’t expect to have any knowledge of bona fide gigging comedians got to see them in action. How it all happened was, Cam auditioned for the hosting role of a Fox 8 show called Chain Reaction, and got it. “After I shot that, I went home and didn’t think anything of it,” he says.

But three months later Cam was offered another hosting gig, this time for a Comedy Channel ‘gong show’ called We’ll Call You. “Of course: I’m young and I’m broke, so I say yes. It’s a ‘gong show’, so it’s not an amazing piece of work… but it’s work! So I went and did that.”

And then Cam was offered fulltime employment at the Comedy Channel, “because apparently they liked what I did”. This led to further hosting duties, including taking over from Adam Spencer for the second season of Hit & Run, in which comedians were inserted into ‘fish-out-of-water’ situations and made to write material about it.

“Then,” says Cam, “I just got told, ‘we want to do a stand-up show, it’s gonna be called Stand-Up Australia, it’ll be on five nights a week and you’ll front it’. I was like, ‘Okay’ and that was it. That’s how it came about.”

Suddenly comics had an ideal opportunity to showcase their work, and while it was “a good platform for a lot of people”, it was hard work for Cam: he was a relatively new comic still finding his voice, having to come up a heap of new material on a regular basis. “I got Dave to help write for me most of the time,” Cam says. “There were a couple of other helpers: Michael Chamberlin and Sam Bowring helped me, and I think Fox Klein submitted some stuff. But we had to write 8 to 10 minutes of material a week and we weren’t getting to test it out anywhere. So if it failed, it really failed cos it went to air.”

Most comics take a few years to ‘find their voice’, but get to do it more-or-less anonymously, on the open mic stand-up circuit. You only start seeing them on the telly when they’re good enough to be considered worthy of that opportunity. (And, let’s face it, Cam’s employers knew Cam was worthy – even if his peers and detractors felt otherwise.) However, rather than his lesser gigs being seen by a mere handful of people in the back room of a pub, Cam had to do it in front of a dedicated viewership. This baptism of fire was, for Cam, as stressful as it was exciting: “I was very young. I’m still cutting my teeth and finding out what I want to do, which way I want to go, what I want to say, and we were just sitting down and going, ‘right… what’s funny?’ By the end of it, you don’t know anymore.”

Having to create so much material produced “a good work ethic”, but, Cam reckons, it didn’t necessarily make him a better comedian. “It made me self-conscious for a long time. I felt like I had more to prove,” he says. “What made me a better comedian was when I left the Comedy Channel and forced myself to work and gig my arse off.”

Although, I reckon a well-paying gig early on makes having to fail publicly a better proposition. Doesn’t it?

“It’s kind of nice to have that security – but it’s still humiliating when you’re out there,” Cam says. “You do kind of cop it. You go out and people come up to you and go, ‘you suck!’ You don’t want to suck. You want to go out and you want to get better. And just because I’ve made a lot of money doesn’t make that go away. It doesn’t make anybody’s opinion change; it might actually make it worse.”

Indeed, Cam argues, the money doesn’t make you good; if anything, it probably makes you worse. “You need to actually need it. You need to crave it and you need to want to get better and challenge yourself. Money can sometimes make you complacent.”

If complacency was ever a threat, it was a while ago: Cam’s challenged himself. Constantly. As well you’d know, if you’ve seen him live over the last five years. He’s just kept getting better and better. All the hard work has paid off. So much so that it’s hard to believe that, save for Just Another Misfit – the hilarious show he did at Sydney this year – it’s been so long since Cam’s taken a show to any of the country’s comedy festivals. But it’s all down to timing, he says.

“It just didn’t work out this year. I was all set to go to Melbourne and Adelaide but I just had a bad feeling; my wife and I were trying to have a kid, I’d travelled so much last year… I probably should have hit Melbourne and smashed that out, but it just didn’t sit right. I felt like I should stay here with my wife and respect what she wanted”.

It’s hard to fault a relatively new husband – who’s had a successful career thus far – choosing to put his family first. But at this point, I’ve got to – sheepishly – ask an obvious question or two. And here are the answers: no, they didn’t have a baby. But it’s not a ‘touchy’ subject, or a sad story.

“It’s fine,” Cam says. “It’s just annoying. I wish I could say ‘yes’.”

Oh, but, Cam, here’s the perfect scheme: you want a kid? I can guarantee you’ll have one. Here’s how: start planning next year’s festival circuit. Once you’ve locked in firm seasons in Melbourne, Adelaide and Sydney, you and your missus will almost certainly be expecting. And it’s July now – the baby will be due just in time for you to have to cancel all those festival seasons again.

“Yeah, you’re absolutely right,” Cam laughs. “I will. I’ll do that. I need to do it again. But the timing has to be right.”

Truth is, Cam’s pretty much ready to go:

“I’ve just been working really hard, even with the old stuff, making those routines stretch out into bigger pieces. I don’t just do ‘joke’ jokes; I’m quite physical, I move around a lot. There’s going to be a lot more improvisation that’s gonna make them bigger…”

Yes, that’s all part of what marks Cam Knight as being at the top of his game. And again, it reminds me of some of the cr*p he would have had to face early on. Along with the ‘successful too early’ resentments of a seemingly less proficient comic landing an awesome gig, there’s the intolerance of the ‘actor doing comedy’ that seems to divide open mic-ers in particular. Which is a cute irony that – should the comic persevere as Cam has – results in a nice poetic justice: the acting that appears to be a handicap to a comic early on makes them so much better down the track when they are so adept at ‘showing us’ rather than merely ‘telling us’ the joke.

“I find that taboo so hypocritical,” Cam agrees. “You’re not allowed to be an actor going into being a comedian, but you can be any other profession, and it doesn’t matter. You can be a lawyer, right – a f*cking lawyer! – and turn into a comedian. But an actor? No way!”

The taboo seems virtually non-existent in the United States, Cam rightfully points out. All the good comics head towards sitcom and feature film, remember? “They want you to be a triple threat. They want you to be good. They want you to be talented. They wanna work with you. They want to find someone who can do all those things…”


  Knight Rider

Knight Rider

Rest assured, Cam Knight does other things apart from comedy and acting. You may be aware that he pedaled 1600km from Brisbane to Cairns in 10 days, a little while back, with Tour de Cure, helping raise a million dollars for cancer research in the process.

“I did that very close to leaving the Comedy Channel,” Cam says. “I wanted to do something that made me feel good. I wanted to put my money into something else that wasn’t for me. My mum had breast cancer and I just felt like that was something that I needed to do and get out of my system.”

Again, I ask the delicate question. Cam’s mum’s fine. “She’s a survivor!” he says. She beat breast cancer back when he was in high school. Boarding. At a strict Lutheran school. And again, more of that later; back to the bike ride…

“I had very little training before we went into it,” Cam says. “I guess I was trying to train; I gave up smoking about four months before I started training, so I wasn’t very good at it…”

Although the Tour de Cure continues to take place annually, Cam has not been involved in subsequent rides. “I just wised up after the first one and went, ‘I don’t think I could do it ever, ever again’,” he says. He kept his bike, but has ridden it all of twice since then. “I jog. I just can’t get on the bike anymore. I’ve put it in the shed now, cos it just kept looking at me, making me feel guilty.” One day he’ll do something “of a similar ilk” in terms of the personal challenge, for charity, he says. But it’s not likely to involve cycling!

So back to Cam’s mum: she was diagnosed with breast cancer when Cam was 14 and away at boarding school. “I thought my mum was gonna die and I just wanted to go home,” Cam says. “So I got expelled from boarding school. On her birthday. While she was going through chemo…”

That’s quite noble, acting up to get expelled in order to be home with his mum during her illness. But Cam corrects me: he didn’t actually decide, “right, I’ve got to get booted out of here’; rather, it happened subconsciously. “When I look back on it now, I think ‘you misbehaved a lot, mate!’ I think I was just worried that my mum was gonna die.”

There was a lot of misbehaviour and Cam used to get into a lot of fights, but the ‘straw that broke the camel’s back’, Cam explains, isn’t actually that bad. Well, not nearly as bad as the stories that made it back from the school to his home town fast than he did.

“The rumour was, I threw a chair at a teacher and it went through a second storey window, crashing through the windshield of another teachers’ car below. Which sounds awesome, and Breakfast Clubesque, right?”

What really happened was, after dinner one evening, all the boarders had to return to the school block to do homework and study, as they did every evening. “There was a guy giving me a whole bunch of sh*t, and I just screamed at him to f*ck off, and went ape sh*t at him. But I didn’t realise there was a Parents & Friends meeting going on in the AV Room and I was pretty much right outside it. So the principal was there and all the Lutheran mums and dads were there and they were like, ‘that’s not very good Lutheran behaviour’ and blah blah blah.”

Though not officially ‘expelled’ as such, Cam’s dad was called and recommended that he pull Cam out of the school. They won’t have to put ‘expulsion’ down on his official school record, but he still got kicked out.

“Doesn’t sound too hardcore. I wish I threw a chair at the teacher. It would have been so much cooler!”

True. You know what would also be cool? Cam Knight doing a festival show around Australia next year. Does he reckon it’ll happen?

“I don’t know mate. I’d love to say yes, but I just don’t know. I don’t know what I’m going to be doing. I need to make a decision about it really soon.”


Certified male

Certified Male

One of the deciding factors is the current season of the stage play Certified Male, which Cam’s about to be appearing in. Glynn Nicholas, who created the show, did it years ago with Pete Rowsthorn. This time round, Cam’s in it with Mike McLeish, Dave Callan (the beardless, Sydney-living Dave Callan who excels at improv, as opposed to ‘hairy’ Dave Callan, from Melbourne) and, in some cities, Glynn Nicholas himself. In other cities, Glynn will be replaced by Barry Crocker. So next year’s festivals won’t even be a consideration until Certified Male is over.

Meanwhile, Cam’s set to record his current show, Just Another Misfit – which he describes as his “favourite” – at the Comedy Store. “I feel it’s the tightest. I feel like it’s a good, solid hour, and this is the one I want to record.” Cam’s taken time developing the material, and been very careful about ensuring nothing from it is already up on youtube. “I’ve made a conscious decision not to put any clips up,” he says. “I wanted to wait. I’m a big guy about biding my time for some reason.”

For some reason? I’ll tell you the reason you’ve made a point of not having stand-up footage out there, Cam Knight: because you got some big breaks before you were quite ready for them; you jumped in a little fresh, copped more criticism than you deserved, and you are cautious never to be in that position ever again.

“You’re absolutely right, I jumped in fresh and I’m very conscious about what’s out there. But I feel very good about this show, and we’re gonna shoot it. Hopefully we’ll have a full house on Saturday night and it’ll look great.”