Improvisational Theater in the Estonian Army

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I discovered improvisational theater a few years ago when I signed up to an introductory workshop (by Improgrupp Jaa!, then one of the two existing troupes in Estonia). That experience completely rocked my boat and I was hooked, instantly. By now I’m a somewhat-experienced improviser who tries to learn, laugh and teach whenever the opportunity presents itself.

My mandatory eleven months in the military began in July, 2013. This meant quitting my life for a while, including improv - for the first month, anyway.

The idea of starting an improv team in the barracks with a cast of soldiers came as a surprise. It was crazy, it was unheard of and it just happened.

There are no mistakes... in military hierarchy?

This just seems like a paradox doesn’t it, something that can not be: on the one hand you have strict military discipline where men are taught to stand still, be alert, fear errors and above all, be a man, on the other there’s improv where the first rule is that nothing you do is a mistake. How can those two worlds coexist?

I found that such contrast actually provides much needed release. The men still remember how to be a civilian, all you have to do is provide a safe environment where play can emerge. Then there’s only the usual barrier of getting people to relax and open up.

For me, the hours we spend in the classroom are like a safe zone where I can ditch all the “attention!” and “at ease!” and just be. Granted, I emerge spent and tired, but it’s the good kind of tired, like after a good workout.

The transition from soldier-improviser-soldier is smooth: we come in and set up, when we circle up to begin we’re already in a different state of mind (I specifically ask the men to be in their T-shirts to empathize this) and when the clock yells at us to get out the room is put back in order while people put on their game faces again.

Getting soldiers to volunteer

The idea to start all this came somewhere during the second month of basic training (BT is 2.5 months in Est). I took a day to gather courage and think things through and had the sign-up form posted the next day.

Estonian(s) (men) are a shy breed. People don’t want to jump into unknown territory. I got about seven people who were interested - out of a hundred or so. I suspect that much of this was due to the fact that the activity had to happen during our scarse free time.

Of course, I didn’t go lobbying from people-to people either, blaming my introversion (now there’s a paradox for you).

Organizational matters

The army has activities like choir practice that are endorsed by the senior officers. This is due to two facts:

  • they go out to perform
  • there is a person in charge of extra-curricular activities who actively fights for them

My goal was to have fun and teach improv with no obligation for reports or performances and I wouldn’t have gotten away with something like “We’d like to skip raking leaves to practice mime”, hence everything had to be during the off-hours, often on Sunday visiting hours.

After the end of SBC (Soldiers Basic Course, first 2.5 months) people scattered and we had to start again. Some were sent to another battalions, the new SBC came in. The second sign-up sheet had nine names.

Finding the time

Scheduling a meeting is somewhat of a nightmare. You’d think that being stuck in a fenced rectangle allows for some good attendance percentages, but no. People can be on all sorts of duties, starting from the most common (hallway duty officer) to “in the infirmary” to “buying new glasses” and of course there are the weekend passes.

We have a timetable, but things can change with ten minutes of notice, if lucky… and during a class, someone might come in and take someone away (“Pvt J., MSF H. wants you in his office, pronto!”).

I usually schedule meetings with one-two hours of notice to the participants when it looks like it might be a slow day and enough people (4-5) are available. At most, we’ve done two 2h meetups during a single week.

Letting go

Soldiers are people too and just as easy to work with. There might be some masculine rubbish at first (I reprimanded a student for laughing at another soldier for playing a woman in a sketch), but this is no worse than with any other group.

One brilliant example of co-operation and letting go is the matter of ranks. I have two sergeants in my team and when we play, the ranks are left to the sidelines. Privates and sergeants can be in a scene and play statuses that fit in the scene not what is required from them outside the class.

Army related topics rise quite often in suggestions and scenes, but I generally try to avoid them. When it fits - why not, but not everything has to center around officers and privates. Likewise, I strongly discourage using existing names in scenes (imagine, if MSG H happened to overhear the scene…).

The curriculum

During the SBC, I focused mainly on the fun stuff: different warm-ups, two person non-scenic exercises. Some smaller scenes (freeze tag)… but no longform nor serious scene work. I was afraid of going straight to the deep stuff, itty-gritty practice-practice-practice things. We were pestered quite well during training (hey, it’s basic…) and I wanted to offer both myself and the participants as much laughter as I could without putting hours of precious time into scenic theory.

The result of this was that we played many short scenes, but the scenes themselves could have been better. This was entirely on me and I acknowledged the responsibility.

The fall brought fresh people and I started doing more ‘normal’ scenes. The first longform we did was a 20-minute Bat, just for ourselves, with the lights on. It turned out really, really well. We’ve tried structured longform (practice needed) and shorter two-person things - like “When Harry Met Sally” style interview (taught to me by the fantastic J* @ FIIF 2013) which had all of us holding back tears (Pvt Rk and Sgt Ma in an interview between a writer and a grumpy, unwilling muse).

I still rush things, maybe not giving an exercise enough time to complete or doing one thing right after another, but I feel this is justified in the context where we can meet for two hours a week, if lucky.

A very special anniversary

The anniversary of our battalion was coming up and each unit was required to perform. With a week to spare and no-one picking up the reins, I stepped in to organize a one-of-a-time improv performance. There were plenty of volunteers since the award was a weekend pass to all performers. My plan was to teach thirteen people the 101 of improv, trust, letting go, cooperation and the game of Slideshow - all in less than eight hours.

I was afraid - not all of the volunteers were people I necessarily wanted to work with or who fit well with improv. The two aces on my side were fantastic support from the participants themselves and the knowledge that I had managed something similar before.

We briefed, got into warmups, then thought and bravery exercises (yes, big man, you CAN pretend to be a tree and they won’t laugh AT you). I explained theory (balance, contrast, support) and we practiced the game itself. The team was well-motivated and came along with blundering speed.

All the officers and privates were present on the night of the party. Units went on stage one by one to perform. Mikk Pärast, a college coursemate and fellow Jaa! actor was in the same unit with me and we were the two presenters of the slideshow. We were still working out some details when the party started. I had a fever that day, 38-something.

In the end, everything went great. We had seven minutes, I greeted the audience, explained improv and got a suggestion (something about learning to make the beds as well as the Polish soldiers do it?). We did our sketch - improvised on the spot -, the audience laughed and I was proud of the men. No awards for us. We were the only team to improvise and NOT mock the officers in one way or the other.

Afterwards, several people came to compliment me for pulling this off. I did good. My comrades did great. This, too, is a battle won.

Improv with soldiers

The benefits

We had a forest camp where the units learned to do and pass on hand signals. This is a game of broken telephone, when the first man signals something it has to reach unchanged through ten men to the last one. More often than not the men would just signal something and not check whether the receiver was even looking. Signals were being lost left and right and I was pissed off.

The next time we met for improv I introduced the group to a focus, memory and team-building exercise called “You” which was met with general approval and laughter. I’d done this countless times and couldn’t see how people would just forget to pass a hand signal, to me such collaboration practices were already rooted in.

This was an example on how improv can be directly applied to military skills. The greater good, I think, comes from what improv gives to the development of ones personality, a trait which drew me to it in the first place. Learning to collaborate, open up, laugh more, be attentive, support each other and look life in a more positive way are all important, both in life and in the army.

The future

My life in the army goes on for five more months. During that time, as long as there are people interested, I will keep teaching. I’d like to get more into scenes and build a good groundwork for two-person storytelling, eventually getting into longforms.

The team has, in a very short time, reached a level where I would not be afraid to perform with them. I hope to get them to that eventually (having promised that none shall be forced to perform). I also hope there will be enough time to keep up semi-regular meetups and more interest arises.

As for the army in general - since improv is relatively new in Estonia (having seen wider audiences since 2009) I’m sure nothing akin to this has been done before… except maybe Rauno, who did short sketches with a few people the year before. What I am sure though is that improvisational theater has a very fitting place here. As we, the old and new improvisers of Estonia, introduce more people to the art of laughter, I hope to see that after I’m gone, someone new, maybe in another battalion, takes over.

Heck, if they’d allow it… maybe there’s room for some voluntary work for me in the army, after all?

“My first experience with improv was in an unlikely place — in the military during my compulsory defense service. It provided a stark and lively contrast to the tiring daily routines of a soldier. Improv was a place where it felt okay again to have some unsuppressed creativity (vs. fulfilling a very specific function set out for you). For this reason, from my limited experience, I think that the military is a very interesting place indeed to have improv in — the unrestricted feel of it contrasts with your everyday life even more than it normally would. This makes me wonder, has improv ever been done in prisons?” - Private M. H.

Update (17. august 2014)

Two months after my service officially ended, I went back to the battalion with three volunteer-improvisers, the Impro QRF, to perform to the new batch of men for half an hour. Our format was called The Battalion, where we improvised scenes from a soldiers regular day and mocked the officers. We had a great team and a well-responding audience, the privates enjoyed this playful interlude to a strict life.

Note: In the context of this article, I use the words ‘cast’, ‘team’, ‘class’, ‘group’ etc. interchangeably. The 100% correct term would be ‘class’, since we don’t actually (yet) perform and I am in the role of a teacher.