I’ve played in, watched, and volunteered at lots of hockey tournaments, so I know the routine. You see the list of teams coming from other towns and you’re excited about seeing new talent, while wondering whether the home-town kids are really as good as you thought. You might get there early on the first night and see the organizers setting up the charts on the wall where they will update the standings throughout the weekend. You wonder whether the winter weather might be slowing down some of the out-of-town competitors, so it’s a relief to see each new cluster of unfamiliar and bewildered faces get welcomed by the organizers.
The lobby fills up, because lots of fans want to be part of this inaugural event. You pick up a program and find out that the visitors are from Winnipeg, Calgary, and Red Deer. A second Calgary team starts play Saturday night, and like any partisan hockey parent you wonder whether that’s fair. You line up at the concession stand and stock up on red licorice – but you notice that they don’t serve burnt percolator coffee, and they do have beer. That’s a clue that this is a different kind of tournament.
After they tear your ticket and let you into the auditorium, you get more clues. It’s warm! And the seats in Zeidler Hall are comfortable! The MC introduces a panel of judges who will hold up scorecards, but you’re used to that from watching figure skating in the Olympics.
The first game is between Red Deer and Winnipeg. The team captains, Serge from Red Deer and RobYn from Winnipeg, shake hands, and the action starts. And the audience starts to laugh. Because what you’re watching is the first-ever Prairie Bowl of Theatresports, the somewhat-competitive loosely-codified short-form improvisational-theatre scheme invented in 1981 in Calgary by Keith Johnstone and nurtured locally by Rapid Fire Theatre.
If you’re a frequent Rapid Fire attendee, you’ll love seeing the best of the Rapid Fire company mixing it up with less familiar performers from the other teams, all on top of their game. On the first night of play, there were lots of jokes with good-natured local colour – the Donut Mill in Red Deer, the Calgary-Edmonton hockey rivalry, crime in Winnipeg, and the lack of tournament representation from Saskatchewan. Apparently there is improv in Saskatoon and Regina but they couldn’t make the schedule work this time. There was singing (spontaneous musical numbers about dishwashing), dancing (expressive movement in a Chinese restaurant), and physical comedy (the garbageman with a sore back finding a dead body over and over again, the four-bodied drummer showing his/their moves). Joel Crichton provided musical cues and atmosphere on the keyboard, last night’s MCs were locals Kory Mathewson and Joe Vanderhelm, and members of all teams took turns as judges and as opening-act free-improv players.
I don’t know if this is the kind of tournament where they give Most Valuable Player awards, but RobYn Slade of Outside Joke (Winnipeg) and Ryan Hildebrandt of the Improv Guild (Calgary) are both delightfully expressive. It was also reassuring to see the judges assess a penalty (sitting out one round while wearing the Ring of Shame) to a visiting player who used a rape metaphor, and to see clear acceptance from everyone on stage that the penalty was appropriate and the rape analogy inappropriate, establishing the boundaries of respect and good taste in a genre without many boundaries.
If you enjoy watching improv theatre, or if you’re curious about what this phenomenon is all about, this is a good weekend to come check it out. There are two shows Saturday night, at 7:30pm and 10:00 pm, and the playoffs are on Sunday night starting at 7:30 pm, all in Ziedler Hall at the Citadel Theatre. Tickets are available at the door for $12, or you can order over the phone or on-line here. There is convenient indoor parking in the Library Parkade (which seems to run underneath everything on the east side of downtown) for $5 cash. You can also get to the Citadel from the Churchill LRT station without going outdoors. Outside Joke from Winnipeg are in the early lead after two rounds of play, but the scores have been very close and all teams are still in the running.