The French improv, or at least the French-speaking improv always has been quite… different. I grew up in that community as an improviser, and back then, the only thing (almost) we knew was the Match.
The match is a format created in Québec in 1977 by Robert Gravel and quickly imported in the French speaking countries of Europe: France, and then Belgium and Switzerland (French speaking part of the countries). This format is competitive and based on the rules and appearance of ice hockey.
Traditionally performed in a hockey ring, it has all the specificities linked to its heritage: teams with a coach, jerseys, referee giving rules and penalties, energetic host, audience shouting and throwing socks, etc. At the end of every scene, the audience has an extra power: to give the point to one or the other team!
During four days, Gael will represent France in the World Cup in Switzerland. What does that mean for him to be back in the ring?
How does a match work?
The match is the main format in France. Most improvisers (often called jousters) started there, with a match association and a match improv education. That’s how I started. Improv in my home town (Strasbourg) is well developed: it started in 1993 with the birth of the main amateur association today, la LOLITA. This league, open to anyone, offers weekly classes with volunteer teachers for only 30€ a year! Let me tell you than as a student, I was happy. Nowadays the association counts more than 200 members per year, an internal championship and a packed venue of 200 seats for every show. But what did I learn during my improv studies?
First of all, we have to remember that the match is a competitive form of improv. The beginning of the show is there to remind the audience that it’s the case: warm up with the host, hymns of both teams, and entrance of the referee are all there to add to the show.
For the rest of it, the scenes are performed by the players, knowing that let the audience decides who is the “best” for every scene. The rules of the form are strict, with a referee that gives the set up for every scene in five parameters:
– Mixed or compared (which means playing together with the other team or one after the other)
– The category and potential constrains (genre, game, rules, etc.)
– The authorized number of jousters in the scene (unlimited, 1 per team only, a maximum of 3 per team, etc.)
– The precise duration of the scene (which will be timed and cut after the set time)
– The theme, or title of the scene
After giving all that, the teams have 20 seconds to talk and decide who will be the player(s) they send, and with what idea for the scene. This little time is called the “Caucus”.
At the end of the scene, the referee will give potential penalties (that can be given during the scenes in the traditional form of the match) which could cover aspects like playing out of the theme, being rude with the other player, playing the competition over the scene itself, etc. After this phase and explanations of the penalties, the audience is asked to vote for the team they think was best.
Any given point is added to the score of the team, and after three penalties, the team is giving an extra-point to their opponents. The winner is the team that gets the highest score at the end of the game (usually three parts with intermission, or more recently two parts).
An extra moment is the giving of the stars at the end of the game. Three stars (first, second and third) are given to players according to their performance that night. The ones that succeed to pile up many stars (especially first ones) are known to be the best players of the leagues.
What does the match bring to its players?
A HUGE dose of adrenaline, first of all. The match is a very exigent form of improv because it covers a very wide range of styles, rules, games, etc. Performed in front of a big audience (sometimes more than 1500), it brings A LOT of emotions. The feeling you get is thrilling, crazy, frightening, all of that in the same time and more. I remember the feeling I got from our hymn in the finale in front of 700 people years back. Entering in the dark. Music starting. First flash of lights. Public roaring!
The strict aspect of the format, added to the craziness of the audience brings pros and cons when you learn improv through the match. Here is a short list of aspects I experimented myself or that I’ve seen in students, fellow players, etc.
– The learning of a very wide range of styles and games
– The physicality you need to perform in front of big, quick audience
– The learning of performing in different conditions (three-sided stage, projecting of the voice, etc.)
– The team building it creates if everything goes well with the shows, reinforced by the presence of a coach to take care of everyone
– The popularity it brings to improv as an theatre form because audience is involved
– The competition between individuals (even though it’s supposed to be just for the audience)
– The rewarding of jokey-whitty-dominant performers only, through different media (points, fame in the team, stars, etc.)
– The approach of improv through a caucus, which leads to anticipation and learning to not loose the preconceived idea you had
– The pre-dominance of caricatural and fast scene work, which can lead to easily make fun of minorities
– The risk of use of patterns that work in the name of efficiency.
Of course, all these pros and cons are debatable, there are always exceptions, and differences between communities. This is all my vision, compared to what I can observe in the international community.
What are the main consequences?
The things I can observe knowing pretty well both communities are varied, but I am gonna focus on three main ones.
The way to build a scene
The base of improv is “Yes, and”, right? Not in France. In France the base is “Say yes”. My theory on the reason why this is the way we approach the construction of a scene, is because in the match, the goal is to play with the other, but to also be better.
The idea behind it is that every line or action should be topping the previous one from your opponent. We are building on top of each other and not much with each other. The whole idea of accepting to adopt a low status because it serves the scene work is tricky: you might also try to get the point for your team, thus shine for the audience. In the same field, backing up from a scene isn’t an option, because at least one player of each team must be on stage. It leads to do mostly walk-ons with two (one of each team).
The approach of the other formats
The match is ruling improv in France. The vocabulary that is usually used shows it strongly: people think that improv is a synonym for match! Within the community, an improviser is a jouster the teachers are generally called coaches, we’re talking about referees and voting as fully part of improv, groups or companies are called teams, and people just don’t know that they use a very specific vocabulary.
For me the most important gap is in the way the other formats (when practiced or even known) are named: we call them concepts. This simple difference shows how French-speaking improv is determined by the history of match. It gives performers and audience the feeling that the rest is experimental, that it’s an experience that might fail, that it’s pushing the edges of what is doable. The result of it is that non-match improv is way more difficult to advertise and to make it work: as an audience member, you have the choice between that well-known and successful match or this weird concept that might not even be funny, what would you pick? Except if you are a fan of contemporary theatre and open to experiment, you might pick the safe option.
The result on the improvisers is a huge lack in practicing different forms. Within a match, it is very difficult for instance to get the chance to play a scene that is longer, or that is acted in a realistic way (we even have a category dramatic which is basically “try to act natural”). Of course and again there are some exceptions. More improvisers are now realizing the power of other formats, some companies like Slalom in Lausanne (Switzerland) are very influenced by scripted theatre, etc. I truly believe in diversity and wish that the community will continue to explore, so that people that are not quick-and-funny, people that appreciate emotional work, people that are not looking for low-hanging fruit jokes will stop thinking that improv is not for them.
The side-effects on the community
Improv is for everyone. But weirdly, improv is mostly for men in France. And the match has its role to play in that unbalanced gender distribution.
The match is a competitive form, that puts in the light dominant players, with dominant qualities and that are ready to not only take up space, but take up more space than someone else. The result of it is a good gender balance in beginners’ classes, and a huge struggle to keep women more than a couple of years. This is one aspect that I could experience and feel, even as a man with non-dominant features. I made my way through it, but now looking back on it, it is definitely present.
Another side-effect on the community is that because match encourages fast-and-funny for average audience, very often it ends up in very caricatural portraying of characters and situations. This can lead to a recurring presence of meaningless jokes about actual topics (sexism, racism, pedophilia, religion, news, etc.). It leads to my opinion in building a community that is less safe and less awake than most other communities I’ve met.
By the way, fun fact: the word safe in the meaning of emotionally safe doesn’t really find an equivalent in the French language.
Then why the f*** are you still playing matches?
Despite all the cons I have in the history of my improv career with the match, I keep coming back to it from time to time. I even developed a workshop to teach that format and put it on stage in English! So am I masochist?
No, I’m not. I keep coming back to the match because it has some serious pros too. I truly believe that the format itself brings a lot of biases, but performed with awareness, with a background that englobes different experiences, with the care to not fall into the traps, it can also be thrilling and awesome. The competition of this week for instance will be performed with teams of 3 players, only professional and very experienced improvisers, that have been traveling and performing various types of formats, ruled by a professional and respected referee, with an awesome staff of host, light improviser and live musician, in a very good venue. All that is just very exciting, and even a bit scary!
Also, I do think that the match is an awesome complement for the international community, because it’s so specific and different from what we are used to. It would gain to be known and practiced by improvisers that know what they do. Because when it works, it rocks!
Pictures from Impro Suisse, credits to Sebastien Monachon.