As I’m deeply missing playing on the improv stage and eagerly looking forward to the time that will happen again, I can’t help but think about my first steps into this spontaneous art-form that tends to keep its claws in you once it takes hold.
When I reminisce about my teenage years in Dunedin, New Zealand, the images can tend to feel a little Dickensian. I oftentimes describe my family as being “blue t-shirt” rather than “blue collar” as we couldn’t afford the collar to the shirt. My father was an Anglican minister (not a career path for wealth in NZ) and my mother was a solo parent on welfare due to some complicated medical issues. In New Zealand, being poor still meant you had access to a great education, housing, healthcare and a social safety net, and I came from a family that had really never valued “stuff” growing up, but I do recall some pretty bleak holidays and birthdays in terms of material elements – getting a toothbrush and facecloth for Christmas, sharing a tin of spaghetti and meatballs on my Mum’s bed that I had warmed as my birthday dinner, receiving food hampers from the Salvation Army on a pretty regular basis. Luckily, I certainly never wanted for love or a sense of value and belonging, and boy did we laugh, often at our seemingly grim plight.
We had bounced around geographically when my family was still together following my father’s various appointments in the Anglican church, but had settled in Dunedin as family lore goes so that me and my three siblings would have access to better schools and employment opportunities. My parents had divorced by the time I had made it to my high school years, and I followed my older brother and sister to Logan Park High School. I was “painfully shy” as a child, and I credit LPHS with a lot in terms of bringing me out of my shell, introducing me to theatre in general and improv in particular, and opening door after door for me which culminated in auditions for theatre programs in the United States with my high school thespian troupe. We had excellent teachers, a culture where student cliques often evaporated in our theatre auditorium, and as I found connections and friendships in my drama classes it also became easier to find a place in the sea of uniformed bodies.
During the late 1980s Theatresports was in an enviable position in New Zealand. With generous sponsorship from the United Building Society, the short-form franchise was branded as United Theatresports and funding included money to pay for local improvisers to train and mentor high school students taking their first steps. In my sixth form year (US junior) I fond myself in such a workshop with the formidable Stayci Taylor as our teacher, and the rest, as they say, is history. Suddenly I was in a space where all those weird things I liked to do, like make up original songs while walking down Pinehill Road to school, had a name and a value. I recall volunteering to try improvising a song in one of those early sessions, and much to everyone’s surprise, including my own and certainly Stayci’s, I sort of did. Needless to say, I was hooked.
I don’t completely recall how we banded together, but soon I was in a team with three fellow students: Jason, Sarla and Jane. If I am remembering correctly, when it came time to settle on a team name, one of the ladies (I think it was Jane) offered that she had a large collection of long stripy socks, and so these became our dress code and our title. Much like these socks, in all the best ways, we were a rag-tag collection of folks you’d probably never consciously put together on a team, but we were relentlessly playful, and my teammates were willing to put up with my type A tendencies that were already amply present, making jars of ask-fors pre-written on slips on paper so we could just quickly draw one to inspire our rehearsal scenes, and the like.
Yes, I still have those jars. Thirty years later. They are in my quarantined office at work or I’d provide photographic evidence.
Theatresports had a pretty limited set of stock games in those days at least for those in the high school league (in addition to a snappy anthem extolling our sponsor) and we certainly did better in some of those structures than others. Our penchant for songs, and the luck of the draw in our local competitions got us to the first high school national finals and a trip to the North Island where the fates of improv did not smile as brightly on us! We certainly lacked the polish of some of our northern countrymen and women. I don’t think they quite knew what to make of us and our costuming choices. We placed third.
I owe a lot to those early Theatresports instructors, Stacyi Taylor, Patrick Davies and Martin Phelan specifically, as they also quickly opened doors for me into Dunedin Theatresports and soon my first paid gigs as a performer. They also taught the craft in a beautifully nuanced way, privileging story and connection, and were kind but unflinching in their feedback. I am also deeply grateful that from the get-go I had strong female role-models in the craft. My high school drama teacher, Denise Walsh, certainly deserves mention here too, although she is worthy of an entry all of her own.
And so, as the blog title states, I literally made my first steps as an improviser in knee-high stripy socks on an improv team of the same name.
I leave you with this refrain etched into my brain that we all sang before each performance from those days: “A story or verse, you just can’t rehearse, The sort of a sport you improvise… It’s United Theatresports. It’s United Theatresports.” Let it be said, it’s also the only sort of a sport that I’ve been able to play with any modicum of success. What sport has improv saved you from?
Cheers, David Charles.