Who (and what, how, why) Is The Saboteur?
Five Comedians. One Betrayal. Zero Trust.
The Saboteur is an improv format I developed over the course of several years. It premiered at the New Zealand Improv Festival 2019, where it won Outstanding Show, before a short run at the Improv Conspiracy theatre in Melbourne. I’m working on bringing it to some more theatres around Australia and Aotearoa soon, and in preparing for those shows I wanted to document some of my thinking about the format. The Saboteur contains several layers and invites what I believe are some interesting questions for the artform. In this article I’d like discuss some of its influences and the philosophy behind it.
A quick summary: In the show, I give a small cast of improvisors a series of improv games and scenes to play. However, before the show I have secretly designated one of them as the Saboteur, the person whose job it is to try and ruin the show by improvising badly. Nobody else on stage, or in the audience, knows who the Saboteur is. Performing the scenes also becomes a game of trying to unmask the Saboteur. Along the way, we survey the audience about who they think the Saboteur is, and players are eliminated from the show one by one, based on their ability to correctly identify the Saboteur and their actions. There’s a lot more to it – we took a lot of time to fine-tune the mechanics of the format to get it just right — but I will spare you the detail here. Get in touch if you want to know more!
Instead, the origins of the show: a few years ago, I was out to dinner with my friends Katherine and Sophie. We were semi-cynically discussing what kinds of improv shows would be likely to sell at a comedy festival. The idea of doing something in the True Crime genre came up, and it got me thinking: how do you authentically improvise True Crime? One of the fascinating aspects of True Crime is the intricate details that are slowly uncovered and pieced together, and it would be a tough needle to thread to improvise that without the show becoming a mess of details that the cast needed to hold in their heads. Also, when coming up with an improv show based on an existing genre it’s important to find something that conceptually rhymes between the genre and the improvisation technique. Why is this being improvised? Why not just write a scripted True Crime parody? Putting both of these problems together made me realise we would need a crime to be committed and solved live on stage. This would give us the juicy minutiae of factual details to be tracked and put together by the audience. I tried to think of a crime that’s high-stakes enough to be compelling for the audience, but low-stakes enough that we wouldn’t get, y’know, arrested.
At this point I remembered that, 20 years ago, I was obsessed with the TV show The Mole. Contestants compete in a series of tasks to win money for a prize pool, but one of them is secretly trying to make the tasks fail. I realised that this would be an excellent framework to get away with staging one of the highest-stakes legal crimes there is: bad improv.
Soon into its development, I also realised The Saboteur would become a love letter to social strategy games (alongside The Mole, my love of Survivor runs deep) and hidden role games (things like Werewolf or Among Us). I’m endlessly fascinated by the shifting social dynamics of people trusting each other, betraying each other, trying to read each other, accusing each other. It’s delicious.
However, to make a satisfying show, I felt it was important to make sure that these meta discussions didn’t overwhelm the show. While they’re important, I wanted the bulk of the show to still be the improv scenes. The core study of The Saboteur is, after all, improv technique.
What does it mean to sabotage an improv scene? Some obvious answers come to mind: block other people’s offers, do sloppy object work, comment on the scene as it’s happening, delay the story from moving forward. At various points in the shows to date, some of our Saboteurs have done all of these, and much more. What becomes interesting, though, is whether the Saboteur can succeed at ruining a scene, given that one of the core tenets in many improvisors’ philosophies is ‘make your scene partner look good’. In other words, if one person out of five is deliberately ruining a scene, can they succeed if the other players are working against them? The question becomes compounded if you consider that when the Saboteur blocks an offer, for instance, getting the scene back on track might require one of the other players to block the Saboteur — what if the only thing that will fix bad improv is more bad improv?
A challenge here for the cast is whether they can maintain quality scenes, despite the sabotage. The meta-game of the show heightens the tension of many scenes, but also invites a spicy question: Is this scene going badly because you’re the Saboteur, or is it going badly because sometimes improv scenes go badly? I’ve seen improvisors spin out at the start of a show when a scene went nowhere, and assumed it was because they were having an off night, not considering that it was because they were in a scene with the Saboteur. What a self-fulfilling prophecy!
One of the cast members in the Melbourne run of the show, Lliam Amor, made an interesting observation after a performance. He said that playing in The Saboteur makes you a much better improvisor, because you’re paying very close attention to everyone else on stage (you’re looking to see if they’re the Saboteur, and at the same time watching to see if they’re enjoying themselves, so you’re taking in more information about the offers they’re making, which makes the scene richer). But then he pointed out that simultaneously you over-analyse all of your own moves and offers (was that the best offer I could have made? Will people think I’m the Saboteur because of that?), which makes you a much worse improvisor. Both of these combined then cancel each other out, meaning your ability stays more or less the same.
Asking people to do ‘bad’ improv necessarily involves asking another question: what’s ‘good’ improv? In The Mole, it’s easy to tell if the contestants have succeeded at a challenge. They’ll be given a puzzle to solve, or a race to run, or an activity to complete, and if they do it in the allotted time then they win money. Art, on the other hand, is subjective (I believe I’m the first person to notice this? Note to self: do any research before posting this), so there’s no one ‘correct’ measurement of whether someone is improvising well. Different improvisors will use different metrics of what constitutes good improv throughout the show, based on their training, beliefs and taste. It excites me that one player might watch a scene and say “I think you’re the Saboteur because you weren’t heightening the game of the scene,” whereas another might watch the same scene and say “You can’t possibly be the Saboteur, because you were committing hard to the reality of the scene.” One of my goals for The Saboteur is that we can make these discussions of what we value in improv more explicit, both for ourselves and for the audience. The Saboteur has the potential to be a good training tool for helping audiences see the technique of how and why we improvise in certain ways, because they see, in context, how the people on stage view those choices.
I also hope The Saboteur can help us critique and discuss our own work better, to toughen ourselves up to receiving feedback. Not that feedback on scenes must necessarily hurt us, but that we need to separate our own sense of self-worth from the discussion of our work, particularly when coming from our peers. Patti Stiles describes this as the difference between Information and Validation. The Saboteur delivers information in droves, and deliberately removes all validation. Even the ‘good improvisors’ among us will do things that will give others the suspicion that they might be deliberately sabotaging the scene. So let’s apply that same rigour to the discussions around our work in the rehearsal room and workshops as well.
For all the big questions about improv that this show invites, it’s also a lot of fun. It’s cheeky and mischievous. It’s a show that involves real treachery to the extent that Theatresports involves real competition. It offers us a new way to play with each other.
Every good improv format should have a question at its core that the show seeks to answer. At the beginning of each show, the host says the question is ‘Who is The Saboteur?’. But the real question I’m interested in is bigger: What is Sabotage? My answer right now: Sabotage is a lot of fun.