December 01, 1985

Theatresportsmania: The Dramatic Arts on Staminade

It is 1.30pm on a Saturday afternoon and there is a queue five deep stretching from Union Hall at the University of Adelaide right along the Barr Smith lawn. The crowd is made up of high school students, families with young kids, punks, new romantics, old romantics and persons of the stage all shoving gently but firmly for fear that the tickets will sell out before they get a chance to palm out $5 ($2 concession) for the main event.

You could be forgiven for thinking that scenes of excitation are occasioned only by the rock business or World Championship Wrestling for indeed there has been precious little pushing and shoving to get into the theatre of late. All except for Theatre Sports – the thespian equivalent of the hula hoop, goldfish swallowing and The New Price is Right all rolled into one.

Theatre Sports originated in Canada six years ago and spread to the US and Europe. They first appeared in Australia at Sydney’s Belvoir Street Theatre and were introduced to Adelaide audiences in September this year. State Theatre Company actor Deborah Kennedy and Magpie Stage Manager Steven Ford were instrumental in getting the first show off the ground and they have received enthusiastic support from all sections of the Adelaide theatre scene.

Theatre Sports is a team game where groups of actors compete against each other and the clock in a series of one, two and four minute improvisations. The tasks range from simple skits to complicated ensemble exercises and call for frantic invention and shameless opportunism. The crowds are noisy, churlish with the judges, baleful unless fed lollies constantly, and generally make a bearbaiting audience look sedate.

Within two months Theatre Sports have had Adelaide by the throat and the final bake-off on November 16 was undeniably a gala event. The crowd having sprawled into every possible orifice of Union Hall was hungry for the action and like Pavlov’s dog the drooling began as the Theatre Sports theme came rumbling in sepulchral synthesiser chords through the sound systems. The stage was set with large displays of the categories of events and the listed teams. A wall of gold tinsel shimmered at the back of the stage and the ambience was definitely low rent game show. The music deepened in flatulence and with a bellow from the crowd Stephen Rae, the lofty pianist from the Magpie Theatre Company stormed on to the stage with Colin Mitchell and Steven Ford, time keepers for the event, all madly waving streamers like a footy cheer squad, cranking the audience to new levels of mania in anticipation of the Hostperson, MC and immoderator, Geoffrey Rush, the Head Pecker from Magpie and idol of the crowd. But immediately the true awfulness of their cupboard love is revealed as they shriek with one throat for lollies. Rush raises his arms for some shush. No lollies until the formalities have been completed. At this point the Host is wearing a tuxedo and a black motorcycle helmet with enormous ears on each side of it. He announces the Ten Commandments of Theatre Sports – no blocking, changing focus, gagging, waffling, wimping and several other arcane terms which have become the familiar masonic jargon of the faithful. The judges are introduced and greeted with a furore of booing – John Rayment, the stage lighting designer, Max Cullen, the lead in the Stage Company’s Sons of Cain, and Colleen Ross from Actors Equity.

Then the teams are paraded to the delight and derision of the various club supporters. In the opening minutes it looked as though the Sham Rocks contingent was going to be psychologically dominant – distinctively decked out in matching T shirts and with green dye in hair, beards, moustaches and eyebrows but other camps were rumbling in support of Plastic Max, Club Ten (State Theatre Co), the Gators (Magpie), the 26ers (Stage Co), the FDCs (Flinders University Drama Centre), the Terror Belles and the very popular Little Misunderstandings who gained increasing crowd support throughout the afternoon.

By this stage Geoffrey Rush had maintained a high degree of riot control as he surveyed the audience with the solemn gaze of a megalomanic mortician. Having made the crowd heel for the best part of fifteen minutes, Rush moves significantly to a metal trophy set up beside the piano. There is no doubt what is to ensue. The cry goes up and minties sprayinto the audience. What about the cheap seats someone whinges anda second volley surges to the back of the hall followed by a very deliberate and generous handout to the front rows of actors which served·, as our machiavellian Host knew it would, to unite the crowd in loathing all over again.

It would have been reasonable to think that this foreplay had gone on for long enough but then to the deafening tones of Carmina Burana, the Theatre Sports trophy, a monstrous piece of Nuremberg kitsch, courtesy of some fiend in the State Theatre props department, is paraded on to centre stage like the Ark. of the Covenant. The Plastic Max, quick to seize on all occasions, swoop forward into full prostrations followed by the more agile of the other players, and then the events began.

The first round, a one minute tag team event. Topic: death in a minute, place: a 24 hour supermarket. The Plastic Max roar into inaction, idly poking theirimaginary checkout counters while a customer in the queue starts having a seizure. The checkout operators chew imaginary gum waiting while bags of imaginary change are fed into imaginary cash registers. At the ding of the triangle the customer has completed the last leg of his death throe and the crowd is on its feet.

The judges put up their cards in the best tradition of Come Dancing but this audience is less than stoic about the result. Three 2s and the booing begins. Max Cullen looks like he has strayed into a war zone but he brazens it. It is clear that the marking scale is depressed and the crowd finds this depressing. If the Max only get six for that one, some acts could get their cards. A point of information here -in the style of the much lamented Gong Show, a judge can signal a nought card during an event and the team have to leave the stage immediately. Only one was vetoed for the whole afternoon but in those early stages anything seemed possible.

The first half saw a series of upsets and some indications of durable form. After a splashy start the Sham Rocks started to pull back, unable to match the verve of the 26ers’ version of the Sinking of the Titanic on the radio. The FDCs, valiant in a one-word-each-in- quick-succession poem, also were overtaken. Meanwhile the Little Misunderstandings showed considerable whimsy with their death in a minute on the croquet lawn -the figure curving over for the hoop suddenly fell dead with prongs in the air. The judges continued to undervalue genius and by interval the crowd was left to contemplate a final card of the Gators, Plastic Ma, Little Misunderstandings and the 26e

The second half was running on neat adrenaline. Geoffrey Rush returned to the stage dressed as a matador in a step-in horse costume. He produced enough response in five minutes horsing around for one, to think that a lot of fun had crept back into theatre. Stephen Rae’s piano accompaniment reached deeper into the mass psyche as he played the theme from The Brady Bunch. Meanwhile, someone near me must have gone home inconsolable that his frequent request for Louie the Fly went unheeded. As the events became more detailed and complex the heat was on. Rhyming couplets Western style; a whodunnit in operatic mode; three members of a team cueing the fourth that they are a melancholic air hostess with sunburn or a manic depressive newsagent with ingrown toenails.

In the final, the Gators and the Plastic Max go six grueling minutes in fugal performances beginning with one actor, then two and so on, each freezing at the bell and integrating the pose into a new and different segment. Glyn Nicholas, busker extraordinaire from Rundle Mall consistently pulls brilliant improvisations out of the air for the Plastic Max such that not even the combined energy and drollery of the Gators could snap them ahead. Three and a half hours later and the Plastic Max are triumphant. More Carmina Burana, more abuse to the judges, more lollies to the crowd and, Geoffrey Rush assures everyone, more Theatre Sports next year. The finalists all receive bottles of champagne and the winners are presented with their tickets to the national titles to be held in December between teams from Sydney, Canberra, and Wollongong. Why is it, Rush asks, do you only need to say Wollongong and everybody laughs. The crowd obliges by laughing again and are rewarded with a final strafing of minties.

So what is the secret of Theatre Sports. “It gives the crowd a chance to jump about and have a good time,” says Graham Kelleher of FDCs. “They realise that theatre isn’t all sitting quietly in your seat and being very serious.” And what is it like playing to this horde? – “It’s great, even when they begin hissing before you’ve even started.”

“I think people like the comedy element” observes Dan Witton of Little Misunderstandings, “and it’s cheap for a whole night’s entertainment. It got to be quite a social event. We loved the empathy from the audience even though we got pretty scared. We remembered the last rule -‘When your team is down -it just doesn’t matter!'” In the International Year of Youth it is good to see younger teams like FDCs and Little Misunderstandings holding their own among experienced actors from the various companies. The mood is competitive but good natured and the format is, after all, too looney for victory to be taken too seriously. As Geoffrey Rush says, it’s the dramatic arts on staminade and the crowds, as crowds will, are gasping for more.

“Theatresportsmania- The Dramatic Arts on Staminade”, Lowdown, Vol.7, No.5, December ,1985, p.8-10.

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