First City Improv Team
First City Improv TeamHanan Schoffman/Courtesy First City Improv

On Wednesday evening in a local community theater setting in Jerusalem, one of the most amazing cultural experiences will take place. Three groups of improvised theater, two comprised of native Israelis and one group comprised of Anglophones, will take the same stage and perform 90 minutes of completely unscripted improvised theater in Hebrish!

The event is called Impro-League and the idea to bring it to Jerusalem was concocted by Israeli-Anglo improvisor Amir Atsmon, who is more widely known as performing with the Internationally acclaimed Hebrew speaking Improvisational group Lamabati.

An Impro-league competition is where three improvisational theater teams, (that is theater which is completely improvised on the spot, without scripts, directors, or rehearsals,) compete for the sake of honing their skills and having fun.

In an interview with Arutz Sheva, Atsmon explained what is special about the event taking place in Jerusalem on Wednesday night. “The idea of an impro-league is an Israeli tradition which is pretty new. It was created by two guys, Elad Cohen and Daniel Botzer, who were  improv enthusiasts a number of years ago, and it ran for four years in Tel Aviv. This year, the duo was unable to secure funding for it, so the Tel Aviv Impro-League is taking a hiatus.”

The Jerusalem one is just getting started, and recently came under the wing of the Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel’s J-Town Playhouse Theater Project.

“Improv in general has always been associated with what is called theater sports,” explains Atsmon, “and the idea of competing is something which takes place the world over.”

During the competition it is Israeli tradition, as short lived as that is, to have a judge preside over the performances and issue encouraging awards for excellence to the participants. The idea to have judges was also novel.

“After the championship started out, my co-participant in Lamabati, Itamar Karbia, started a monthly improv jam in Tel Aviv which was open to everyone to participate. Participants were divided into groups of three and were judged on their performance. The judges then participated and played a game at the end.”

Now, it’s Jerusalem’s turn, except in Jerusalem the groups are doing it with their own special flare. The groups participating in tomorrow’s inaugural event, are BiraHofshit (a play on words to mean free beer, or free capital), Davka B’seder, and First City Improv. All three teams are comprised of local Jerusalemites, who just can’t get enough of the Improv theater scene that has begun to take root across the city.  

Atsmon says that while the Impro-League is meant to be taken seriously, the competition aspect is just for fun. For now. “We want to emphasize that this is not a real competition, but rather it is something for the improvisers from the different groups to get to know each other, and to have fun together. We don’t want it to get to the level of pettiness and hurt feelings. We want people to have fun and learn skills from one another.”

One of the other goals that the evening aims to achieve is to provide a night of fun and entertainment for the city, and mix cultures of both the Anglophone as well as Israeli crowds. “We of course want people to have fun, but we also want to live exposure to these local teams to showcase and develop their crafts.”   

Improv in Israel as a theater form is relatively new. Even Atsmon himself, who is considered by many to be a resident expert, only began learning Improv and participating in it approximately eight years ago. And while the art form has a much older history whose roots can be traced back to Calgary, Alberta, and comedy hubs such as Chicago and London, the art form has over the past 30 years taken hold of the minds and funny bones of people across the globe.

There are improvisational theater festivals held around the world, and the art form is taught, in various permutations in acting and improvisational schools from Australia to L.A, and almost everywhere in between.  

Sharon Weissbart, who is one of the organizers of the Wednesday’s event, and is also a participating member of BiraHofshit, told Arutz Sheva why this particular style of theater means so much to her. “I think that doing an improv league in Jerusalem is one of the best ideas that has come around in a while. Jerusalem is a perfect place for improv because it contains a lot of small communities of different styles, and freestyle communities flourish in Jerusalem.”

“I wanted to work on theater in a way that wasn’t too much of a time commitment. When Ofer Metuki began the group, I came and I saw and I was conquered. Improv, simply put, is fun and free and you can get out of it whatever you want. It is totally original.”

Weissbart admits that she is not much of a fan of participating in classical theater as she finds it too rigid. “I am not so much a fan of theater because actors are forced to make up characters that aren’t truly their own. In improv you own it.”

Regarding the mixed Hebrish performance Weissbart was very excited about it. “I think doing mixed performances both in English and Hebrew is a great thing. It allows two communities that enjoy the same type of humor to come together and meet, which doesn’t always happen in regular social settings.”

When asked if there would be a language barrier for spectators from either community she responded by saying: “Even if people don’t understand the language per se and don’t quite get the jokes they can still laugh at the scene and the outcome. Any place that gets different groups together and establishes a community is a great thing.“

Lauri Donahue, an American olah, mother of three and one of the participants from the English group First City Improv, explained how she feels about participating in Improv in Jerusalem and why it appeals to her. “As grown-ups we don’t get a lot of chances to play. This is about as much fun as you get to have as a grown up. Additionally, it’s a way to do theater on a small scale without making a huge investment of time.”

First City Improv recently performed with Lamabati in an all English show, but the cultural differences between the groups were apparent. “We’ve done it before and it was very interesting to see the different approaches that people have to improv. When we saw Lamabati, we saw that they had a very different approach than the one which we had, and we learned and gained from it and so did they from us.”

Donahue also felt that the language barrier was not a problem. “If the audience speaks both Hebrew and English it will be great, if they don’t they might miss some of the jokes but they will still enjoy themselves. While we [First City Improv] tend to do a lot of language based humor and include a lot of details, some of the other groups may be more inclined towards body movement and mime, like Lamabati was. The audience can get a lot out of it even if they don’t understand the language.”

Helen Gottstein, an Australian olah said that she finds the pursuit “challenging and really fun.”

“It is fun to be part of a creative of a learning ensemble. That’s what Improv is. A group of people who come together to learn and create. I’ve always felt that there is something encouraging about performing improv. It offers a universe of possibilities, and the idea of ‘Yes-And…’ allows the improvisers the ability to create.”

“When you  have a script it’s all there for you. You can expand by going deeper into the character and committing to the character. I think with Improv it presents an extra challenge of working without that script, and it becomes a lot more fun. It is just fun and funny.”

“The idea of mashing up Hebrew and English is fabulous. It takes people a bit out of their comfort zone, but allows a true meeting of cultures.”

The Impro-League performance will be the first of six such monthly performances scheduled by the groups. It will take place at AACI - The Association of Americans and Canadians Max and Gianna Glassman Family Center in Talpiyot, Jerusalem on Wednesday December 30th at 8 p.m.

For information please email [email protected]. Tickets are available at the door and cost 30 shekels for one and 40 shekels for two.