Competition, Camaraderie, and Comedy; An Ethnography on The Wunderkidz
By: Allie and Rosy
Hi. Our names are Allie and Rosy. We are seniors at Central High School, and we observed an improv group called the Wunderkidz this semester. Neither of us have experience with any kind of theater, improv, or performance art. Other than our initial bias about the individuals that participate in improv, our knowledge of the dynamics, atmosphere and culture as whole would function, was limited and outside the realm of our typical experience. When picturing the typical improv participant, we expected big personalities, a loud presence, majority white and middle class individuals. Although most these assumptions proved true, the identities and dynamics were much more complex than we originally believed.
Improv has been around for hundreds of years. A direct ancestor of our modern-day idea of improv is the Commedia Dell’Arte. Commedia Dell’Arte was popular starting in the 1500s throughout Europe. Performers traveled all around, presenting impromptu shows in public places such as town squares or pop up stages. Eventually, this style of entertainment faded from popularity, and died off altogether. It was not until Keith Johnstone and Viola Spolin reimagined theater that improv as we know it today was reborn.
In the mid 1900s, Johnstone and Spolin put a new spin on theater. Johnstone was unhappy with the pretentious reputation the art of theater had earned. He wanted common folk to enjoy it as much as upper class, cultured individuals. He wanted people to attend theater with as much enthusiasm as they brought to sporting events. In this, Johnstone found inspiration to combine theater and sports, and thus, Theatresports was born. The idea was that teams would compete to put on the best show, and whoever created the best story would receive the most points from judges. Those who came to the show were encouraged to cheer for scenes they liked, and boo for those they didn’t, in similar fashion to many sporting events. Johnstone’s ideas have done a lot to influence almost all current improv troupes, as well as the overall atmosphere of most improv theaters.
Viola Spolin’s influence came into play in the 1920s and 1930s. She wanted more people to experience the joy she found in acting, and she came up with the idea that children would love acting if they learned how it worked through playing games. She published a book called Improvisation for the Theater, which some have gone so far as to refer to as the “bible of improvisational theater.” Spolin’s theater games encouraged participants to explore their abilities to be creative and expressive. She provided tools and techniques that have influenced directors, writers, and actors across different performance mediums, such as television, theater, and film.
Meet our cultural broker, Karina. Your stereotypical improv kid, Karina is a bubbly, blonde 18 year old girl. She is loud, fun, opinionated, cracks jokes left and right, and she is certainly not afraid to draw attention to herself. She goes to a performing arts high school and dreams of closing the gender gap in the world of comedy. We have trouble finding the location of the Wunderkidz practice, and we call Karina. “The address isn’t showing up? Try typing ‘Solcana Fitness’ into your phone.” We were expecting the practice to be held in a theater of some sort. Already, we were off to an unexpected start.
The location of the Wunderkidz practice was much like the subculture itself: disjointed, awkward and quirky. After much confusion about the location, we finally discovered the small rusting door labelled “Community Room and Massage” squeezed in between a spa and a crossfit gym. After hesitantly knocking on the door and getting a muffled yell of approval to enter, we were met with seven pairs of eyes momentarily before they jumped avidly back into their animated conversation. Arranged in a clumped circle, the Wunderkidz sat surrounded by washed out tan walls outlining a generic swirl-patterned rug now grey but undoubtedly once presenting a much different color. Four boys, two girls and the coach sat surrounded by a combination of mixed wood and cheap metal furniture. A lucky three shared a sunken couch while two were left to sit for the floor. Hannah, the coach, could have passed for one of the high schoolers, with her appearance in her mid-20s, sporting a quirky lip piercing framed by her blue and purple dyed hair. Despite this impression, we were immediately struck by her subtle air of seniority.
Although the conversation was a round robin style sharing session of how each individual’s week went, Hannah offered praise, asked questions, and reacted appropriately to certain emotions of a story in an air that only a teacher could possess. Occasionally, other members of the group would chip in or offer additional dialogue. Even without the actual practice beginning, this conversation seemed to flow as a sort of warm up. Already established as the facilitator, Hannah controlled the flow of the topics while each improv participant shared about their experiences from the week. Each one concentrated on making their stories engaging, most using humor and embellishment to keep their peers attached to what they were saying. Karina told a story about going to Las Vegas for a Celine Dion concert, and even getting to meet Celine herself. Some were more successful than others in the construction of their stories. Ben wore a grey hoodie with his school’s logo printed on the front. He wore light blue jeans, fitted but not skinny, and simple black shoes. All in all, his clothing presented much less of a hipster vibe than the other group members. He talked about how he went to San Francisco over spring break, he went to a theme park called Great America, and when one of his friends was too scared to go on any of the rides, they all made fun of him. Ben stumbled over some of his words and went too fast when it came to others. He rushed to a punch line, often falling just short from landing the perfect joke. In the round robin sharing, a laugh, nod, or comment would spur the storyteller on, encouraging them to continue chasing that approval from their mini audience. Looking at each other, we could both tell that although the practice was yet to start, this interaction posed as an improv warm up of its own, getting them in the right mindset.
The final sharer, standing out from the pack, is Jonah: his legs splayed out sporting green track pants tucked into white socks, and his broad shoulders supported a vintage yellow windbreaker zipped up to his chin. As he talked his afro swayed with his animated hand movements, not using the typical tactic of humor to get a reaction from his peers, but rather using pathos and a story of heartbreak to gain his gold star. It wasn’t just his performance technique that stood out, but also his presence and different experiences that he used uniquely in his scenes.
Finally, after everyone has told their own embellished stories, Hannah claps her hands and the group forms a circle in the empty space in the room and begins the actual warm ups. At first, we heard only loud sounds, observed quick movements, and fast-paced transitions as each individual took their turn. The point of each activity completely lost on us. Eventually, the chaos formed a pattern and as the group worked through each warm up, the activities made more and more sense. This process of discovery reflected the process of the improv scene development. At first, there is confusion — the skit opens and the actors must stumble through chaos until they reach a path. Once the path is established, the chase begins. But we’ll come back to that later.
Following the warm ups, the skits began. Hannah announced that today they would be attempting “La Ronde,” a specific forum in which each scene carried over one of the characters from the previous scene interacting with a new character in the current scene. Although the characters changed from scene to scene, the location of each scene is to remain constant. This is the element that ties all the scenes together. On a whiteboard, Hannah creates a visual of the revolutions using letters to represent the the characters and double bars to separate the scenes. Once everyone understands the form, the group arranges themselves in a line before the coach and Hannah calls out a location, her pen poised over her clipboard. The scene doesn’t begin right away. A short pause lingers as each participant ponders how they would start the character interaction. Karina, seemingly the most outgoing in the group jumps onto the “stage,” tapping in Jamie to join her. In an instant, she’s transformed into the wife of a Planet Fitness owner, consoling her son, Jamie, for his insecurities of being “too muscular.” Jamie is quick to react, instantly adding to the narrative. Together they stumble through the first set of dialogue until they find their rhythm, chasing a line of humor until the story runs dry and someone from the line taps Karina out and plays a new character.
This process continues on rotation and as we watch a pattern becomes very apparent. First comes the confusion — the two participants searching for a hook to feed through the scene, the best possible route for optimal engagement. Once found, the aforementioned chase begins. Now when we originally pictured this process, we envisioned a cooperative approach of give and take, working with one another to achieve the goal together, with the goal of a reaction from the audience — usually laughter. However, after watching the scenes go by, the chase we initially thought of as a group effort to collectively achieve the goal became something much more individually driven. What we observed was each individual competing with the other to create that first hook or land that perfect line to attain personal satisfaction through the audience’s reaction. Going into improv, we had assumed we would observe a little friendly competition and teamwork to achieve a common goal, however we were instantly struck by the parallels drawn between the improv process and the dynamics of a team sport.
First and foremost, the goal of a team is to win the game — or in the case of improv, to win the approval of the audience. Next, to obtain this, the individuals in the team must work off of one another’s actions to make individual plays that benefit the team’s agenda. By achieving a positive outcome as a result from one of these individual actions, a team member can experience a sort of fleeting natural high from the approval of the crowd. Often as a result, competition emerges subtly between members of the same team. And finally, although this competition seems like a sort of friendly fire, everyone on the team knows that burst of pleasure that comes from an individual accomplishment is a mere blip compared to the overwhelming rush of emotion that results from an entire team accomplishment. No matter what, the team always comes before the individual — a clear yet unspoken rule we saw mirrored in the improv group.
Going into this study of the Wunderkidz, we had certain preconceived notions of what we would find. While most of these assumptions came to be true, we discovered layers within the group which deepened our understanding of why one might be drawn to participate in such a group. The Wunderkidz have amongst themselves the same kind of camaraderie one might find within a soccer or basketball team: they are competitive against each other, but at the same time, they are also supportive of each other and of the group as a whole.
The rounds continued until someone points to the blue digital clock sitting on top of a slightly crooked Ikea desk signalling the end of the practice time had arrived. Briefly returning to the round robin style sharing session regarding how they could improve on what they had attempted during the evening, the members exchanged their goodbyes and promises of seeing each other the following week, packed up their bags, purses, and other belongings and slowly trickled out of the washed out room. No vivid stories of their weeks were avidly exchanged, nor jokes discovered in the skits replayed, and although laughter had been prevalent throughout the entire practice, not even that echoed through the poorly insulated community room. The goodbye was quiet, efficient and quick, not in an awkward or sullen way, but rather a silent agreement of contentment. The members had come, worked out their pent up energy from the week, and now, after their energy had been spent and expectations met, they were happy to leave it all there and wait until the following week to do it all again, vivacity restored and ready to compete again. As the last of the Wunderkidz left and the door had finally closed, the washed out room with the mismatched furniture and the incessantly buzzing generator in the corner no longer seemed quirky and unique as it had when we entered. Similarly it seemed, the room — like the Wunderkidz — had been drained of energy, no longer extraordinary or eccentric, but rather just an average entity waiting to take on the energy of improv at this same time the following week.
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