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"If I had a daughter, I'd send her to Australia to meet him (and marry him)" - Robyn Alana Engel

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Monday, 10 August 2015

Canberra Stories #2: Maestro

I may or may not have mentioned that the reason I went to Canberra was for Improvention, Australia's major improv theatre festival. I've been practicing improv since the beginning of December and have dived RIGHT into it. I think the fact that I traveled all the way to Canberra for a festival about it is testament to that.

I've really enjoyed being the new kid on the scene. People in Adelaide are always surprised that I've only been there seven months. They say I'm better than someone with that little experience usually is. One person even mentioned that it feels like I've been around forever. Going to Canberra was a different story. There were people at the festival from all over Australia and the world and some had been doing improv for longer than there's even been a scene in Adelaide. It also meant I didn't have any preconceptions about anything. You know in the Harry Potter series when everyone treats something with a significance that's completely lost on Harry (think mudbloods, parceltongue and the name Voldemort)? That's how I felt when people talked about the level of talent that was present at the festival. I heard all sorts of comments like "Lliam Amor is the best at what he does," "Dave Razowski is amazing, he's like nothing else you've seen," and no fewer than three people said "Dave Callan's coming? That guy's a powerhouse!" To me, they were all just names until I could form an opinion of my own. I liked having that mindset.

So each year, Improvention holds a competition called the Canberra Impro Challenge. It's a comp that runs over the length of the festival and uses a widely-accepted format called Maestro. The format typically involves 10-12 players, who are given numbers which are randomly pulled out of a hat by a director. The director will pull out an amount of numbers and ask the corresponding people to perform a scene. Those people will get scored out of five by the audience and once everyone's had their turn, the numbers are all dropped back into the hat and we start another round. At their own discretion, the director can eliminate the lowest-scoring players until only one remains - that player being crowned the Maestro. Anyone who's ever played will be quick to tell you it's an inherently unfair format. Weaker players can be carried further than they should by stronger players and stronger players can be eliminated quite early by being put with weaker players. It's a format that's designed purely to entertain the audience.

I was aware of this mindset the first time I tried Maestro back in February. But that did nothing to stop my competitive nature. I wanted to do really well and win. I did not do well and I did not win. I was eliminated in the first or second round in every heat I played and despite my awareness that it was meant to just be for the audience, I was disappointed.

I sent in an application to the Impro Challenge at this festival, but my application must have gotten lost. When the roster for all the heats was released, my name wasn't on it. I had a word with the comp organiser and he put my name down in case there was a cancellation or something. In the meantime, on the Sunday morning (the third day of my trip) I took my first workshop - a class on how to bring your A-game to a Maestro challenge.

It was an eye-opening class. The two instructors - Tim and Jenny - talked about how crazy the format is. We made a list of all the things you can randomly do in a scene that would get a reaction - laugh, cry, accuse your partner of something... they got progressively crazier - vomit, scream, become a pirate... and they talked about how combining some of those things can make it even more interesting.
'Like this one here. Try cleaning your glasses crying,' said Tim, who had a stereotypically "arty" look about him - tall, thin, a little tuft of hair on his chin and a woolen scarfe. We all nodded in recognition - that would be interesting. But the thing Tim said that stuck with me the most was about being mischievous.
'I'll play with the director,' he said with a wave of his hand. 'He or she will give me a game and I'll say "Nah that's boring, give me something else." Or I'll just come up and start playing a scene without waiting for the director to say anything. The audience loves it when you cause mischief.'
That made me realise what it really meant to "make it about the audience". The format itself is the entertainment, not the scenes played within it.

So cut to Wednesday morning, I'm having breakfast with a fellow Adelaide improviser named Jarrad. He's a good friend and a bit of a mentor in the scene. While we were eating, I got a group message on Facebook from Reid, the organiser of the Impro Challenge.
'Hi all. This is your 2-hour call for your Challenge heat.Make sure you're at the theater by 12 or as close to 12 as you can. Show starts at 12:30.'
I was shocked at being included in the message. Surely if I'd made it into a heat I would have been told? I sent Reid a private message.
'Hey just confirming, does this mean you managed to squeeze me in?'
'It sure does,' he replied.
'Awesome, thanks!'
I told Jarrad and he was very excited for me. Then he took a look at the list of recipients and that boosted his excitement even more.
'Wow, this is such a strong heat! Esther Longhurst, Nadine Antler, Kevin Yank, Casper Schjelbred...' By now I'd heard of or met these people and I agreed they were big names. Nadine and Casper had come all the way from Europe and I'd seen Esther perform in Adelaide in February and had a very high opinion of her. I was also performing with Maddy, who's one of my favourite improvisers from back home.

Another Adelaidian - Steve - came to join us at our breakfast table and Jarrad greeted him with 'Michael just won the impro lottery.'
'How so?' replied Steve.
'He's in today's Maestro heat. Look at some of the names he's performing with.'
'Impressive!' said Steve, scanning through the phone. Jarrad turned back to me.
'Wow, I wish I had the chance to work with these people. You should really cherish this as a learning experience.'
Me... well I was unimpressed. If the quality of the performers was so high, how on Earth was I going to win? I tried to get that thought out of my mind. It's about the performers, not the glory. But nonetheless I went into the theater at call-time pumped and eager to make an impression.

The show began and we all ran out from backstage to a small-but-enthusiastic crowd. We introduced ourselves and then sat to the side-of-stage waiting to be called. I was in the first scene. There were six of us (which is a lot for one scene) and we each had to get into pairs and talk one word at a time about the benefits of banning hot water. It was alright. It got laughs, but it was nothing too memorable. Our group got a three.

The second round arrived and again, I was called fairly early.
'Could I have numbers seven and... eleven to the stage please,' called the director Anna. I bounded centre-stage with the man in bib seven - a guy named Ben who was more experienced than me but not a huge name like some of the others.
'Now Ben, I want you to start off the stage...'
'Okie dokie.' Ben stepped to the side. I was now alone with the spotlight in my face.
'Michael, I'd like you to create the space of the scene,' said Anna. Create a door and use it, and that will be the space that you two play in. Does that make sense?'
'Absolutely,' I lied.
'When you're ready.'
I only had one possible idea of what she could mean, so that's what I did - I turned around, picked up an imaginary axe from a chair that happened to be there and walked to the back corner of the stage where I mimed chopping down a big tree. Well, mimed with sound effects. I watched it fall and then picked up a saw to start cutting it into shape when from behind me, Anna said
'Yes?' I asked, snapping around and the audience burst out laughing. I looked genuinely confused about being interrupted.
'I didn't mean to actually make a door, I just meant figure out where to place the door and start the scene there.'
'Ah, gotcha,' I said to more laughter. The laughter died down and the crowd waited for me to begin. I picked up an imaginary completed door from the floor and drilled its hinges to an imaginary wall, drawing a few more snickers. I opened it and Ben came bounding up.
'Top o' the mornin' to ya!' he said in a great Irish accent.
'Not interested,' I replied and slammed the door in his face. The crowd laughed and the lights went out to signify the end of the scene. The laughter turned to applause as the lights went back up again. I hadn't really meant to do it. I learned very early on that while a cheap gag like that usually gets a laugh, it's destructive to the scene. Where is your partner meant to go after that? If our lighting guy wasn't savvy enough to step in, we would have looked pretty stupid. But then Tim's words rang in the back of my mind - "The audience loves it when you cause mischief." and I knew that just this once, I was doing the right thing. In that moment, I truly stopped caring about winning and just wanted to make the audience laugh. And by now, they were laughing at everything that was said.
'Okay Michael, you start off the stage. Ben, start the scene. We're going to get a proper scene out of you guys,' Anna challenged. Ben grabbed an imaginary chain and hoisted a roller door. I ducked my head underneath and said
'Top o' the mornin' to ya!'
'Not interested,' said Ben. He dropped the roller door. The lights went out. The crowd cheered. Lights back up. Ben and I stood over the director, daring her to give up. She did. I went back to my seat feeling triumphant. A third of the crowd wanted to give us a five, but the other two thirds voted for a one. It was the most divisive scoring I'd ever seen for a scene. But even though we ended up with a one, I was very happy. I was clearly going down, but in a fiery blaze of glory that was fun to watch. The round ended and the host of the show asked if there would be any eliminations.
'I'd like to, but I feel like that would be letting seven and eleven off too easy,' said Anna to more laughter. 'So we'll have a lightning round. Each of the scenes in this round will be no longer than a minute and they'll all be about dating.'
I'd been thrown a lifeline. Anna either knew I was new at this or had recognised what I was doing or both. I wanted to stay in, but this time it was only so I could play some more.

Pair by pair, each new team did their scene. There were some good scores and some bad ones, it was all very entertaining. I was last to be called this time and I happened to be paired with Jenny - the other instructor from that first workshop.
'Okay, this date is taking place in a fish and chip shop. Go ahead.' Recalling one of Jenny's teachings I decided to put on a pirate accent - for no reason other than that I think I can do a good one.
'So that's me life story,' I said. 'What about you?' A pause, then-
'I'll have the potato fritters thanks,' Laughter and lights out. It was very short, but very sweet. We got a three, which wasn't enough to save myself, but was enough so that Ben and I weren't the only ones eliminated. Jenny ended up winning the heat, which made me happy.

Days later - on the closing day of the festival - I was outside that same theater where people were coming out of a workshop. A young man named Emil saw me and came up to me.
'Hey Michael, you made a bit of an impression,' he said.
'I did?'
'Yeah in your Maestro heat. We were talking about the five types of scene you can play in a show. There was witty, narrative, physical, supportive and mischievous. Anna brought up the scene you played in your heat as the perfect example of being mischievous.'
'Wow, really?' I asked excited. I LOVE it when I hear that people have been talking me up. And again that night, a girl named Louise brought it up too.
'Looks like you made a splash,' she said in her faintly Irish accent.
'Yeah I guess so. I feel like that must have been my moment. The point that I really arrived on the scene...'

I'm certainly proud of myself for how that all went down, but the discovery that Anna had been talking me up made me realise some things.
1 - Anna had done a wonderful thing by allowing herself to be the bad guy. She did know I was new and selflessly allowed myself and Ben to come away looking like the heroes.
2 - Had Ben and Reid (who was working the lights) not gone along with what I was doing, the outcome would have been TOTALLY different in the worst possible way. I also had them to thank.
3 - My own shining moment had come about through the support of others. Sure I could be proud, but frankly, I needed to get over myself.


  1. "Improvention" sounds less like a convention for improvisors and more like when a person is "yes anding" way too much and needs an intervention. By the way, I would pay a hefty sum if there was a promise that someone would vomit in the middle of an improv scene. Holy cow do I want to watch that.

    1. I've been teaching myself to try and vomit on command. Would you believe it's not easy?

    2. Sirup of ipecac.

      Or limburger cheese.

    3. What about WITHOUT culinary aids?

  2. It sounds like you were a class act! Funny and charming. :)

    Some people can just get up and do things without thinking about them first. I have a fellow teacher that's like that. I swear the guy prepares for his class the night before, or on the spot. Other teachers have to plan and plan.

    1. I'm usually the guy who makes a decision on the spot. Usually planning things just means more can go wrong :P

  3. Good work, matey! You performed for reaction versus for a high score. That's the ticket!

    1. Now I have to learn to make it a habit :P

  4. Sounds like you're a natural at being funny! Glad you're happy with how it went.

    1. Ah, if only that were true the rest of the time :P

  5. This sounds like so much fun. It's great that you learned some lessons and improved in your art. :-)

    1. It's definitely fun, search out your nearest improv troupe today ;)

  6. It sounds like a wonderful event and I'm so glad that you felt a bit of validation for your talent. Well done, friend.

    1. It was certainly wonderful. There are still messages popping up a month later on the event Facebook page congratulating each other and proclaiming what a magical time it was.

  7. We are need other people to shine. How ever little we admit it.
    It sounds as if you had a heap of fun, a heap of challenges, learnt lots, and made new friends.

    1. New friends is certainly right - my Facebook friends list went up 9% from that trip ;)

  8. Sounds like you had a good time and learned a lot! I've never heard of such a thing, so this was an interesting read. Now I want to see one of these maestro things!

    1. The final was huge, there were hundreds of people there and they were all really into it. The improvisers brought their A-game too.

    2. Seriously, that sounds pretty awesome! I'll have to see if there's anything like that around here. Not to participate because I'd likely pass out haha

  9. A mischief-maker? You? Whoda thunk!

  10. Nice to hear good feedback from others indeed. And yeah, without others helping us along, many a time we get nowhere.

  11. Awesome experience and worthwhile memories. Comedy is medicine for all. Great job. arrrh matey.

    1. And an arrrh to you too, Barb. An arrrh to you too.

  12. I think it's obvious from all of your posts and videos, and now this, that you are a natural funny guy. Improvention sounds like it was a great opportunity for you.

  13. sounds like you pulled a ton of improv out of that witty brain of yours and splatted it all over the stage. Glad it worked. Yes, now you have to move on, but I'm glad you could bask in the glow a bit and share this tale with us in blog land. Good job!

  14. I was in theater in high school and improv always made me nervous. It is a lot harder than it looks! But it sounds like you did great with it. Good job!

    PS, I like your new profile pic! Though the clown photo was fun too :)

    1. Yeah it's ALWAYS harder than it looks. The main thing you have to work on is getting in sync with the rest of your team.

      Thanks! But the clown pic will always have a place on my hard drive ;)


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