Theatre Sports: Making It Up As We Go

Theatre Sports: Making It Up As We Go

On Friday, March 3, the Russell Theatre was flooded with improvising teenagers. It was Robinson Secondary School's third countywide TheatreSports event of the year, where the audience witnessed strange and extraordinary occurrences, from blowing up science teachers with a bomb placed inside a dog, as overseen by Oscar the Grouch in a game called "Die!" to an ESPN-style commentary of a Get Into Heaven competition in slow-motion ("Look at that halo formation, a perfect circle!" — during a game known as "Slow-Motion Commentary").

TheatreSports, to define it, is an improvisational theatre competition, where teams of up to six players (only five on stage at a time) perform in an improvised scene in a given amount of time, containing random variables selected from the audience, according to the game of the round (like "Die!" or "Slow-Motion Commentary"). There are various penalties, usually for not moving the scene forward or for offensive or distasteful material within the scene, and the team is given scores by a panel of three judges; after four rounds of games, the teams with the highest scores are awarded medals (and a trophy for the first-place team). But most importantly, everyone has fun.

And once a year, usually in September (the first event of the year), Robinson holds a TheatreSports "freestyle" event, where anyone in the audience can form a team and play onstage — no judges, no prizes, just fun. Stay tuned for news about next year's freestyle event.

On the night of March 3, in a competition between ten teams of "acthletes" ("actors" + "athletes") from all around the county, it was Fairfax High School that took home the gold medals and the embarrassingly large trophy. Duke Ellington took home the silver after valiantly triumphing in the tie-breaker game known as "Hats" (where, in a one-on-one scene, one acthlete from each team, each armed with a traditional baseball cap on their head, must play out a normal improv scene together, during which one player must snatch the hat off the other player's head in order to win, but if one player makes a snatch and misses, that player loses). South County walked away with bronze, and, all in all, it was a hugely successful evening.

Douglas "Chip" Rome, the Robinson theatre director for twenty-five years running, serves as referee for these competitions, and was the first thespian to introduce TheatreSports to Fairfax County. When asked to comment on the origins of TheatreSports and bringing it home, Chip said:

"TheatreSports was created by Keith Johnstone of the Loose Moose Theatre Company in Calgary, Canada. I've got a sister who lives in Vancouver, where it's also very, very popular, and she described it to me one summer shortly after I started at Robinson. Years earlier I'd seen The Proposition, an improv troupe in Boston that based its material on audience suggestion, and my best friend from high school had a sister who briefly did a stint with 'Blood Theatre,' I think, which was also in this 'Second City' mode. The TheatreSports distinction is the competitive aspect.

"It sounded exciting — a 'quick and dirty' way to create a performance opportunity for students, practice basic acting skills, minimize rehearsal time and show expenses, generate income, and give an audience a fast-paced, lively, energized entertainment that's truly interactive.

"So at the pre-school countywide Theatre Arts teachers' in-service session, I described it to my colleagues and asked if they thought it was worth trying as a countywide event. I still thank Jackie Jones — of Marshall High School? — for helping me create the logistics for the first session; I was so nervous that this thing would fall on its face! And there were so many details to work out. We based the traffic pattern on Forensics meets; of course at first the teams got three minutes to plan before performing. It's much more streamlined now, and easier, without any loss of quality.

"Of course, by now we know that it has real staying power – the first FCPS event was in the fall of 1983 — and that students are fully capable of handling virtually all of the logistics and 'administrivia.' By this point, I just walk in at 7 p.m. with everyone else, the kids give me my clipboard and materials, and I'm ready to referee; all the setup, onsite management and post-game details are totally student-driven. Every few years the students train each other and pass the torch, which is as it should be."

Even in TheatreSports, Robinson continues its tradition of the kids doing it all, from the backstage management to the performers onstage, in the name of involved, hands-on learning and entertainment.

The next competition will be held on Friday, May 19, in Robinson Secondary's Russell Theatre at 5035 Sideburn Rd., Fairfax). Admission is $5. Call 703-426-2123 for more info, or visit

To be added to the TheatreSports mailing list (for team coaches, to register a school's team, and for judges, to be on a competition's panel), visit, and click the "Contact Us" link.

Hope to see you May 19th, for improvisational fun in your own neighborhood! Come support your school's team, or just to have fun! Where else but Theatre Sports?