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From the cover of the 1990 United Theatresports programme: (behind, left to right) Patrick Duffy, Geoff Dolan, John Hudson, (front) Kevin Smith carrying KC Kelly (Photo: Supplied / Design: Tina Tiller)
From the cover of the 1990 United Theatresports programme: (behind, left to right) Patrick Duffy, Geoff Dolan, John Hudson, (front) Kevin Smith carrying KC Kelly (Photo: Supplied / Design: Tina Tiller)

Pop CultureFebruary 26, 2023

The day United Bank gave Theatresports a million dollars

From the cover of the 1990 United Theatresports programme: (behind, left to right) Patrick Duffy, Geoff Dolan, John Hudson, (front) Kevin Smith carrying KC Kelly (Photo: Supplied / Design: Tina Tiller)
From the cover of the 1990 United Theatresports programme: (behind, left to right) Patrick Duffy, Geoff Dolan, John Hudson, (front) Kevin Smith carrying KC Kelly (Photo: Supplied / Design: Tina Tiller)

A bank simply giving away a million dollars to sponsor a new and unproven arts venture? It’s happened before – and with banks currently making record profits, why couldn’t it happen again?

When our now former prime minister gave banks a serve last November for making astronomical profits, I got thinking about an urban legend. The story often heard over a post-show drink in theatre bars was that the sponsorship from United Bank to mobilise Theatresports (TM) in this country was to the tune of (cue Dr Evil voice) One. Million. Dollars. As someone who has scraped a living together from art, that figure struck me afresh as incredibly unlikely.

In the late 1980s, when this deal had supposedly happened, Theatresports was a niche form of comedy with no track record here, and the country was in a recession after the stock-market crash. Was it true? Could a bank just give an emerging art form a million dollars? What was the deal with United Theatresports?

Most New Zealanders will have at least heard of Theatresports, a competitive form of improvised theatre (or “improv” to practitioners). It was developed by Keith Johnstone, an Englishman who created games-based acting exercises. In the late 70s, while watching pro wrestling, Johnstone had an epiphany: he could package his games into a comedic night of faux-competitive performance. 

My own improv journey started in 1991 at the age of 11. I was in the audience at a high school event featuring my elder brother, and specifically remember an interview scene about “green coal” which was hilarious (even without the ironic layers it contains in hindsight). The spectacle was enhanced by the excitement of competition, and a witty, neutral adult MC who had us all out of our seats singing a Theatresports anthem. I can still hear the chorus, rippling through time:

It’s United Thea-tre-spo-ORTS!

It’s United Thea-tre-spooorts.

I jumped into Theatresports as soon as it was an option in school. Time-jump a dozen years to late 2002 and, after auditioning, I was lucky enough to become one of the Court Jesters, Ōtautahi Christchurch’s professional improvisation company, and keepers of the Theatresports flame in Te Wai Pounamu. 

The storied history of the Jesters was somewhat underplayed in the recent book (and television documentary series) on New Zealand comedy, Funny As. Considering their flagship comedy show Scared Scriptless has entertained, according to my back-of-a-napkin calculations, somewhere upwards of 100,000 punters over 30 years, I reckon the Jesters probably deserved more than a single page entry. Recent Billy T Award winners Hamish Parkinson and Brynley Stent, and NZ Comedy Awards reigning Fred winner Eli Matthewson are all alumni, just some of many notable names from the Jesters roster.

Matthewson says for him, Theatresports was an education in comedy. “The Whose Line is it Anyway? team were my heroes when I was a kid, and Theatresports was available at school to do what they were doing.” He was part of a champion Riccarton High School team in The Court Theatre schools competition, hosted and tutored by the Jesters. As a non-sporty kid, he valued the chance to be in a representative team. “It didn’t matter that I couldn’t throw a ball; I could stand up in assembly the next day, get handed the Theatresports trophy, and feel that I could still add value.” A stint in the Jesters followed high school until Matthewson headed north to attend drama school and onwards to a career in writing and performing.

If we counted the success stories of comedians like Matthewson  Laura Daniel, Josh Thompson and Chris Parker, to name a few who started their comedy journey in the school Theatresports team, then the return on investment is already rich. But the impact of Theatresports in our schools reaches well beyond a cohort of professional comedians and actors. Its instalment in our schools, theatres, and community groups, in which it has fostered spontaneity, confidence and empathy, has doubtless rippled out over two generations in priceless creative and entrepreneurial ways. School Theatresports has become as ubiquitous in our extra-curricular landscape as debating, chess, or the Sheilah Winn Shakespeare Festival. So how did it happen?

The 1990 National Theatresports Finals:
Mark Hadlow, MC, (seated) Liz Mullane, Mark Wright, Christchurch Team: Patrick Duffy, Simon Peacock, Ross Gumbley, Matt Gould, Lori Dungey (Photo: Supplied)

During the 1980s, Theatresports had been shared globally by emissaries from Johnstone’s Loose Moose Theatre in Canada. Theatre actor and director Lyn Pierse, of the Belvoir Street Theatre in Sydney, had started things in Australia. Enter the late, great Kiwi television producer Caterina De Nave who, in 1987, saw Pierse and company in action across the ditch and called her friend Maggie Eyre, artistic director of the Performing Arts School of New Zealand (which later became TAPAC). De Nave convinced Eyre to bring Pierse over for workshops at the Mercury Theatre in Auckland. Pierse ended up tagging on workshops to Dunedin, Christchurch, Wellington and Palmerston North, which planted Theatresports seeds the length of the motu. Eyre was rapt by the new form that she saw impacting her classroom and, with a view to upscaling it, she lobbied Donald Trott at the United Bank for sponsorship. Eventually – just two years after Theatresports had landed here like a theatrical alien – he said yes, to a one-million-dollar deal. It was by any standard an incredible win.

The day came in 1989 when the contract for the sponsorship was to be signed at the bank headquarters near Aotea Square. “I remember it like it was yesterday,” beams Eyre. She was accompanied that day by a colleague, John Givens. “After we signed the contract, John and I played it cool until we got into the lift but, once the door shut and we were out of earshot, we let out this scream of excitement!” Any artist who has hoped for a windfall of that magnitude to fund their dream can imagine the feeling in that lift. Maggie and John may have been literally coming back down to earth, but their spirits were doing quite the opposite. 

“But that figure didn’t translate to anyone’s personal jackpot,” Bryan Aitken reminds me. The money was spread nationally. It was to cover three years, and was divided across all the aforementioned centres that Pierse had planted the seeds. Co-ordinators were appointed in order to encourage Theatresports at three levels: professional shows, community shows (often taking a pro-am structure) and a schools programme. Aitken, through his education role at The Court Theatre, became the official Christchurch administrator. Lori Dungey, who recently played the annoying neighbour in New Zealand-filmed horror hit M3gan, initially managed the Wellington programmes alongside a team who would go on to become The Improvisors. Her partner, Jim McLarty, was brought in from Canada mid-1990 as the national administrator. The experience and quality of this pair was vital to the development of the form here, as was their fellow Vancouverite Michael Robinson, who convinced Aitken at The Court – around the same time as the United deal – that the theatre would be served by a specialist standing company of improvisors: The Court Jesters. This nationalised surge within just a few years, in which structures were put in place, decent wages bought specialist people power and events were televised, explains Theatresports’ longevity, and why it is still synonymous here with the entire genre of improv.

Donald Trott, the sponsorship manager who made the decision in 1989, has never sought the limelight – but suffice to say, he is a renaissance man with a lifetime of arts service behind him. He has retired to Whanganui now, though still sits on Opera New Zealand’s board and admits, with a chuckle, that he hasn’t thought about Theatresports in years. What persuaded him to fund a relatively unknown quantity? “Theatresports ticked all the boxes for me,’’ he says. “It involved all ages. I had a nephew who was involved onstage and went along to support him at The Maidment Theatre. It was exhilarating. I called it The Theatre of Terror. It was just fantastic.”  

I thank him profusely for his decision, which proliferated a thing of joy and creativity, launched countless careers and bettered our comedy scene. He modestly plays it down. “I had the budget to do it.” In a sense, it was that simple. It was Trott’s job to decide on sponsorships for community groups, a mandate he enjoyed immensely.  “I recall quite clearly the day we signed the contract.” he says. “My office was near the top of the building and was adjacent to the elevator. Maggie and John had just headed off after signing the deal and I was settling back into work when I heard this almighty scream of joy coming all the way up from the lift shaft.”

United Theatresports in Action: Liz Mullane, Tim Gordon (seated), Simon Peacock (flying), Patrick Duffy (fleeing), seated at right: John Forman and Patrick Davies, representing Otago (Photo: Supplied)

I offer to Trott that his position as supreme authority of his own arts funding pool seems so simple, compared with arts sponsorship now. “There is not the community, collegial feeling,” he accepts, “because there are overseas interests owning the banks.” Indeed, even as the Theatresports deal was being signed, overseas ownership was coming for a faltering United. The bank was bought at first by The State Bank of South Australia in 1990, and then again in 1992 by Countrywide Bank, whose owners were the Bank of Scotland.

“The writing was on the wall in terms of everything I was doing,” Trott recalls. He preferred to resign rather than be shifted into a different role. McLarty managed to secure a few years of Smokefree sponsorship but when that ended, the scaffolding of centralised funding and co-ordination was gradually lifted from Theatresports, leaving an unguarded jenga tower that has been slowly collapsing since. Theatresports in adult improv circles has long been superseded by a plethora of other show formats, like Auckland’s Snort and Wellington’s Late Night Knife Fight. What exists now is a diverse improv culture built on a Theatresports foundation.

The story of Theatresports’ funding splash, and its ripples, suggests an aspirational funding model, one that might circumvent our grim, inadequate treadmill of contestable funding for art groups. As Jacinda Ardern pointed out, Westpac, as an example of the Aussie-owned banks, made a profit of $1.16 billion dollars last year. That is, as profit, enough to pay out 1160 lots of a million dollars — from one year of trading. A lot of potential screams from a lift shaft.

Granted, Westpac sponsor many things, like rescue helicopters and clean waterways – important stuff. But their sponsorship spend represents a tiny fraction of that billion-dollar profit. I can’t help but wonder if banks and other corporations could do more for the arts, and whether the government, if they want to get into the arts’ corner, could legislate for just that. It could be as simple as it was in 1989: one person asking “Can we please have a million dollars?” and another person saying “Yes, alright then.” If the legacy of United Bank’s Theatresports decision is anything to go by, it would make this country a far richer place.

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