BATS Theatre, The Random Stage, 1 Kent Tce, Wellington

25/07/2020 - 29/08/2020

Production Details

The monthly improv battle where three teams face off in a fight for glory, honour, and the audience’s favour. The winner returns in the headline spot next month; the losers wail and gnash their teeth.

We’ll bring the knives; you bring the judgement.

Upcoming teams, full title history and more at

Now officially a Locomotive initiative, Late Night Knife Fight is a joyful proving ground for improvisors creating new work and ensembles, offering development, coaching, and collaboration across companies and styles.

An opportunity to catch the next big thing in improv before it takes flight, work developed at LNKF has gone on to full seasons and festivals, with The National Average, Two Dope Teens (Best Improv Nelson Fringe 2018), The History Boy, Magnus Steele, and more in development.

The first rule of Knife Fight is… BOOK EARLY.

Want more? Catch Locomotive’s new show ONE ACT/PLAY at 6pm right before LNKF, and pay just $30 for both!

BATS Theatre, The Random Stage
The Last Saturday of the month:
25 July | 29 AUGUST 2020
Full Price $20
Group 6+ $17
Full Price $16
Concession Price $15
Concession Price $12
Group 6+ $10 

The Random Stage is fully wheelchair accessible; please contact the BATS Box Office by 4.30pm on the show day if you have accessibility requirements so that the appropriate arrangements can be made. Read more about accessibility at BATS.

1 hr 30 min, Last sat of month only

Fundamentally precious

Review by Elspeth Tilley 26th Jul 2020

Late Night Knife Fight is competitive improv. There’s a set format: each team has ten minutes to obtain some audience input and run with it, with bells rung for warnings and the lights turned off if time has expired. There is voting for a winner, and there is a satisfyingly large trophy at stake.

Every audience member has a plastic knife which they drop in a bucket to make their vote. A man in a row towards the front is, weirdly, licking his knife. Host Jen O’Sullivan (from the organising company, Locomotive) announces, “Please don’t lick your knife – you have no idea where it’s been.” The man looks suitably sheepish, the audience roars with laughter, and he hastily washes his knife in his glass of wine. 

This is one of the particular thrills of improv: the high level of intentional or unintentional audience participation. We are like kids at a pantomime, free and encouraged to ooh-ah, shout out suggestions and cheer, clap or drum our heels wildly on cue. It’s so incredibly rejuvenating to be back in an enthusiastic audience again, to feel the collective mood that is the magic of live theatre, to release a united shout of pleasure with dozens of others in the dark and feel part of something big and joyous.

A confession: I am mad for competitive improv. Decades ago I was lucky enough to be part of a hugely popular competition in its heyday in Australia when queues stretched three blocks to get in, and I’m ridiculously over-excited to see its resurgence at BATS. Apparently this is the 32nd monthly Late Night Knife Fight and I’m also kicking myself: how did I not know before now that this was on? I get BATSmail. How did this not rear its head through the clutter before now? I need to pay more attention (first rule of improv: pay attention).

Thank goodness it has hit my awareness now, though, because competitive improv (risk of germ sharing by knife licking aside) is the perfect antidote for Lockdown’s numbness and fatigue. Lockdown robbed us of presence. It locked us into our little bubbles where we could only exist within fairly predictable confines, not react and respond and observe close up the messiness of other human beings and their capriciousness. This is the second rule of improv: be present. That is fundamentally how improv works. The players tune in to each other intensely, responding and reacting like an intricate dance and, in turn, the audience gets to tune in intensely to the players and share their frisson of danger as they navigate the unexpected and try to make it make sense.

The first team is Ems and Dubz (Malcolm Morrison and Wiremu Tuhiwai). Both are clearly experienced improvisers but also very different in style and the perfect complement to each other. ‘Ems’ is the ‘straight man’ or consummate storyteller, keeping the narrative moving inexorably forward. ‘Dubz’ is his foil, the disruptor, throwing in hilarious moments of larger-than-life physical theatre – I can’t get his picture-perfect ‘cherub’ pose out of my head – wordplay and magic, from which Ems must then make magic realism. No matter what Dubz throws at him, Ems accepts it and seamlessly builds it into the narrative (third rule of improv: accept the gifts). Their team chemistry is particularly impressive given this is the first time they have competed together (although neither is new to improv).

Using roughly the underlying concept of the improv game ‘It’s Tuesday’ (which they explicitly reference at one point) – a ‘jump and justify’ game in which an improviser goes large and dramatic and then either they or their scene partner must justify that move and build it into the story – Ems and Dubz rapidly parlay a single audience-suggested word (placenta) into a fantastical yet sinister ‘Mercy Hospital’ setting with a sulphur-smelling fountain, candy cane pillars, and neon-lit sections for birth and death.

It’s a whole-of-life trajectory in just ten minutes, complete with menacing supernatural undertones.  Host Jen is a bit perturbed (she’s visibly pregnant, as she notes) that they went from placenta to morgue in less than ten minutes but the audience loves it. It’s a compellingly sketched world that has drawn us in and transported us well beyond the confines of our daily lives and made life and death funny. We need that right now. 

The next act, Not Archetypical (Sophie Simons and Susan Williams), set themselves a hard task, requesting not only an object from the audience but Shakespearean characters as well.  They get Hamlet, Titania and carrots. How on earth, we wonder, will they manage to connect all that? Especially given this is the Late Night Knife Fight debut for Simons and Williams, this is a lot to juggle.

Incredibly, they make it work, with a strong run of ‘yes, and’ accepting and building to get underway. Hamlet sets off on a quest to search for Ophelia, who seems to be missing, and suddenly there is Titania, a forbidding presence blocking the path and very much in gleeful ‘bad fairy’ mode.  Hilarity ensues as hapless Hamlet doesn’t seem to realise that Titania is not on his side and follows her every suggestion like a puppy, until finally she has him locked into an eternal contract to work in her garden. 

The motive becomes clear when it is revealed that Titania is Ophelia’s new guise: apparently clueless Hamlet didn’t treat Ophelia very well, she’s had enough, left him, and is revelling in exploring her evil side.  Hamlet tries to suggest that he will call in lawyers to dispute the contract and abracadabra, Titania turns him into a carrot. What a satisfying payoff – and one that delivers the ‘reincorporate’ rule of improv: if there’s a carrot, it must be used.

There’s been a little bit of ‘cancelling’ in this scene where players have reneged from their own offers (the initial quest was to find carrots, then it was to find Ophelia, and at one point there’s a barrel full of blood, which begs to go gruesomely gothic, but suddenly it’s just a pricked finger) but Titania has saved the day by reincorporating the pricked finger into something equally gothic: the lifelong enslavement contract, signed in blood, and bringing it all back to the carrot premise at the end.

In competitive improv, this is part of the enjoyment: watching people figuring it out as they go, which not only helps emphasise just how competent the groups who make it seem seamless really are, but also engages the audience’s empathy with the storytellers and makes us cheer for them to make it work. Improv is as much about the bond between players and audiences as anything else, and so-called ‘mistakes’ are often the best part of that bond. Things going awry typically provide the funniest and most engaging parts of a show (hence the fourth rule of improv: make mistakes, please) and remind us of the important life lesson that only through being willing to risk imperfection, can we make new discoveries.

The Museum of This Morning is the final act of the competitive section of Late Night Knife Fight. This is a single improviser (Jim Fishwick), who gets underway with a very slick patter that feels closer to stand-up comedy than to improv but is clever nonetheless. Even if slightly pre-prepared (the format comes from a show that Fishwick, a former Australian National Improv Champion, has been developing for some time), it’s clearly still relatively fresh material, because it’s about real events that have only happened this morning.

Fishwick then calls on the audience to think through where we were at certain times this morning. We immerse ourselves willingly in this task and then he calls for sharing. One offer in particular intrigues him, and he competently teases more details from an audience member in a strong display of how to build instant rapport and trust with an audience. He skilfully draws the audience member out, until we have all heard a quite personal story that is, in itself, delightfully amusing and entertaining.  The last juicy details are still being extracted when a warning bell sounds and the improviser goes into overdrive: chalking the stage with an object that was central to the story, and rapidly talking us through a couple of millennia of consequences resulting from the audience anecdote we have just heard, from the perspective of a futuristic museum guide.

This part, Fishwick has clearly made up on the spot. The audience member’s story was about putting on headphones so as not to hear the soft involuntary moans made by a sleeping partner. We are whizzed forward through history to a future in which human beings cannot stand the human sounds made by other humans, so they have blocked them out for so many generations that evolution has robbed us of the ability to listen naturally, and we hear only – piped directly and electronically into our brains – a soundtrack of our choosing.  In light of the loss of human contact we have all just experienced under lockdown, this is chillingly prescient and offers an insightful social commentary on the importance of accepting the spectrum of human interaction, even the irritating habits or noises, as a truly precious part of life. 

It is no surprise when The Museum of This Morning wins the competition: there was something profound about the story he wove but also, he seemed to just be getting started when his time elapsed and the audience are hungry to see what he could come up with given more time. He will be back as the headline act at the next Late Night Knife Fight on August 29 (and you can also catch him at the Nelson Fringe Festival on August 19).

After the break we are back for this month’s headline act, that is, last month’s winners: The Hall Monitors (Liz Butler, Amelia Cartwright and Ben Jardine). Headline acts have the whole of the second half of Late Night Knife Fight to demonstrate their proficiency and develop their story, without the pressure of competition. It’s a wonderful opportunity to see promising improvisers expanding their repertoire into the longer format.

The three members of the Hall Monitors come on stage one by one, out of the audience.  This piece is an unashamed tribute to The Breakfast Club, one of the jewels in the crown of late, great filmmaker John Hughes, who also wrote many of the National Lampoon comedies and a string of teen-angst comedies that have achieved near-cult followings, such as Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

At first glance, here are 1980s ‘Brat Packers’ Molly Ringwald, Judd Nelson and a sort of mashup of Ally Sheedy and Emilio Estevez, rebooted on the BATS stage. This is a well-known improv game: to ad-lib a new story ‘in the style of’ a movie classic. I feel like I might be the only audience member old enough to have watched that film thirty-three times over on its first release and to know every word, though, and at first the depth of correspondence – a bunch of very different but seemingly stereotypical teenagers stuck together in detention and forced to interact to forge new knowledge about themselves and each other – is slightly startling.

Then again, creativity is evolution not revolution, and it quickly becomes apparent that The Hall Monitors have made this homage their own. Jardine’s character Simon is not just Nelson’s moody-cool-guy but a layered character where a scared small boy is allowed to peep through the tough guy veneer at key moments; Cartwright’s Patricia is not just Ringwald’s icy prom queen but a compassionate young woman with a natural warmth busting to surface from her stereotype; and Butler’s Winston/Winnie is not just the geeky academic over-achiever desperate to be accepted by the others, but also crack-up hilarious, generating some of the best comedic one-liners of the show and delivering them with droll aplomb. That the Winnie character doesn’t seem to know they are funny is a perfect touch: this is the drama of ‘coming of age’ played out compellingly for us, where we were all actually already fully formed humans, we just didn’t know it yet or trust ourselves to be at home in our own skins.

There’s an improv exercise by Viola Spolin called ‘On the Bus’ that teaches how to play to the space around you, not just to other players and the audience. The space should be part of the story: and these players have nailed it. They have the chairs set up at regular intervals, just as a well-regimented detention classroom would be laid out, and they parry and thrust with the restrictions and opportunities of that space, using the layout to make clear and funny character and story advances and retreats.

Simon prowls the room forebodingly before slouching in the far back corner. Winnie, arriving with pert energy, wrestles with wanting to sit close to him then overtly chooses the chair furthest from him, at the front of the class. Popular, pretty Patricia glides in, again visibly calculating her choices and the status and intentions they will communicate about her before choosing to sit next to Winnie. As Patricia and Winnie get to know each other better, Winnie performs a repeated ritual of getting up, moving her chair a few inches closer to Patricia, and sitting down again. Her naked desire to be liked is so endearing yet high risk in that wordless moment of playing with space: the audience sees human vulnerability writ large.

The high school setting provides a wonderful opportunity to do what longer-form improv does best: show people thinking through how to be human and investing every move, every glance, every sigh and every word with significance. This is what we all did under the microscope of high school, yes? We tried to figure out how to navigate the human jungle, by diagnosing what every move meant. The Hall Monitors plunge us effortlessly back into that sense of awkward self-analysis and second guessing. It is painful, poignant and completely enthralling.

It is also very, very funny. There are many moments where the audience is laughing long and loud, and if there’s one thing in particular The Hall Monitors need to work on, it’s to learn to wait for the laughter to stop: there were three or four moments where the next line started too early and was completely inaudible. It’s hard to wait for laughter to stop – it feels excruciatingly like dead air – but every comedy improviser needs to find their own way to pause and enjoy their moment of glory without being tempted to rush in too soon with the next idea. This is, after all, what you’ve worked for.

The Hall Monitors finish by recreating the same tableaux that ended ‘The Breakfast Club’ and we know for sure that this is an unconcealed, knowing homage. It is also much more than a homage: it has taken a scenario and character types as starting points but let the discovery process of live improvisation take them to brand new moments of intimacy, comedy and pathos that are fresh and unique.

Jen has told us that Late Night Knife Fight winners have gone on to other venues and festivals with their shows. Maybe this particular work is a bit too derivative of John Hughes’s genius to be the right work to invest a huge amount of additional time in and take elsewhere, but The Hall Monitors have certainly shown us that they have all the high level skills necessary to develop absorbing, strongly characterised, relatable stories live in the moment and have an audience laughing long and hard.

Locomotive is to be applauded on bringing back competitive improv (it’s exactly what we need in the world) and on the slick organisation. The rules are clear, the trophy is promptly engraved with the names of all winners, and the crew of Darryn Woods on lights and Liam Kelly on live music are well prepared and proficient with technical support to match and emphasise mood states to enhance the story. Woods plunges us into smoky purples and greens as Ems and Dubz sketch the Mercy Hospital vibe, while Kelly produces a hooting owl at exactly the right moment when Titania goes mysterious, and has a tin whistle on hand to chime in with Dubz’s exuberant singing. Locomotive has provided every ingredient to ensure this is a well-produced show.  Most importantly, though, Locomotive provides headline acts with coaching and mentorship to develop their show.

Late Night Knife Fight is a collaborative space for teams to grow their capabilities, learn from each other across companies and styles, and benefit from the coaching and guidance that Locomotive – Jennifer O’Sullivan, Clare Kerrison, Christine Brooks and Matt Powell – provide.

This is an important contribution to the development of the next generation of Wellington and Aotearoa’s actors, comedians and improvisers. That must take a significant dedication of time, effort and knowledge-transfer on the part of Locomotive, all of whom have a wealth of experience, and I hope that generosity is or will be funded accordingly by our arts funders. Some of the best entertainers, performers and storytellers on the planet were forged in the heated crucible of improv. It’s not just game-playing, it’s fundamental training in how to reflect the human condition effectively and affectingly back to audiences. I hope our arts and culture policy makers and funders understand just what a precious thing that is, how much it contributes to the health of our performing arts as a whole, and how incredibly lucky we are to have it going on right here in Te Whanganui-a-Tara. 


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