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Mount Si group knows how to improvise

Theatresports: part acting; part competition; all fun.

At least that's how Mount Si High School senior performer James Tweedale described it.

For the past four years, Mount Si drama and English teacher Leslie Herlich has offered an improvisational theater curriculum and after-school activity to students interested in improvisation.

The students form an improv team that rehearses for about five hours a week through the fall. The team competes against other schools through competitions hosted by Unexpected Productions, a theater troupe in Seattle.

There are two performance matches with other schools from the Western Washington area, followed by a final tournament that pits the top four schools against each other. The winner receives a trophy cup and the opportunity to play against a Canadian team. Runners-up receive a plaque.

As the winner for both of its November matches, Mount Si ranked second out of the 12 competing Northwest area schools. Mount Si's team of six senior thespians was invited to compete against Meadowdale High School of Lynnwood, Woodinville High School and Bothell High School in the Hogan Cup Tournament on Nov. 21 at the Market Theater in Seattle.

It was a close competition, Herlich said.

The Mount Si team ended up taking fourth in the tournament. Woodinville placed first, Bothell took second and Meadowdale went away with third.

Though fourth in the tournament, the Mount Si students retained their second-place league standing for the regular season. The team placed fourth at last year's final tournament, as well.

"It was a very good competition," said Herlich. " [But] Monday evening [Nov. 21] did not go as well for my students as they would have liked."

Similar to the improvisational television show "Whose Line is it Anyway?," student performers create on-the-spot scenes, games and skits based entirely on suggestions from audience members. The performances are then scored on a one through five scale (five being the best) in the quality of narrative, the technical ability to adhere to the rules of the game and the entertainment quality by a panel of three judges.

In other words, did the performers tell a story that had a beginning, middle and ending and made sense, did they follow the guidelines for how certain games are played and were they funny?

"We need to understand the rules of the game and really establish CROW (character, relationship, objective and where) in everything we do," said Tweedale. "We need to keep that in mind every time that we do a scene so that we can really propel that forward and tell a story."

The students from Mount Si selected four games to perform.

The first was "Reporter Endowment," in which two actors receive a suggestion from the audience and then act as news anchors who help lead a third actor playing an unaware reporter into discovering the suggestion by giving clues in their dialogue, without actually saying what the suggestion is. For example, if the subject of the suggestion was the actor Orlando Bloom, the anchors might say that the story the reporter was reporting on was about someone with "blooming good looks."

"[A student] is reporting a story, but [he or she doesn't] know what the story is," explained Brian Kameoka, a tournament judge and the managing director of Unexpected Productions.

The other games included "Narrative Collage," in which a story is told about an event from each performer's perspective; "Arms Debate," in which two people debate an unusual topic that would not typically be debated; and "Slow Motion Commentary," in which a household chore is acted out as a competitive event in slow motion with commentators.

Though anyone at Mount Si could be part of the team, Herlich said that the group is typically made up of senior drama students.

One highlight Kameoka recalled from Mount Si's performance was a reporter endowment sketch, noting the game has almost become Mount Si's signature. In it, the Mount Si team asked the audience for a celebrity name and a headline suggestion. The audience came up with what Kameoka said was a difficult topic that the team managed to pull off successfully: "Arnold Schwarzenegger went to the Zoo and Caused a Koala Riot."

Suggestions are taken by audience members who raise their hands and the students must do what is suggested, unless otherwise deemed inappropriate or too difficult. The rules of the games are explained to the audience beforehand.

The tournaments and matches have been organized by Unexpected Productions for the past 10 years. The theater company allows area schools to compete against each other in the fall for a small fee. Professional actors are provided to the schools for 12 hours of improv coaching and teaching, explained Kameoka. Schools sign up at the beginning of the school year.

The theater company also offers residencies in the spring in which actors from the company teach improv to high-school students, but there are no competitions at that time.

"I thought they did fantastic," said Greg Stackhouse, an actor with Unexpected Productions who has worked as the improv coach for Mount Si for the past three years. "They are such a great group of kids. It was just a delight working with them ... I hope they came away thinking that it was fun."

For the second year, one to two student representatives from each of the 12 competing schools will be selected by their teachers and invited by Unexpected Productions to perform at "Whose Line is it Anyway?" and "The Drew Carey Show" improv actor Ryan Stiles' Bellingham theater in front of an audience and Stiles.

In addition to the competitions, the Mount Si improv team performs for school fund-raisers and teaches student workshops throughout the year.

Unexpected Productions also performs all-ages Theatresports on Fridays and Saturdays at 10:30 p.m. and Sundays at 7 p.m. at the Market Theater, 1428 Post Alley, in Seattle. For information, visit www.unexpectedproductions.org.

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