Ask a Trainer! Shawn Norman explores the theme of THEME

By Averie MacDonald

Just in time for Nationals! Ask a trainer catches up with veteran CIG Judge and Trainer Shawn Norman for some hot tips on the Theme event! 

Shawn Norman Headshot

Vancouver’s head judge Shawn Norman is gonna rap to you about themes



The Trainer: Shawn Norman

CIG Gig: Head Judge and trainer in Vancouver’s Lower Mainland tournament, and long-time judge for the national tournament. He was previously the Regional Director for the Victoria tournament, and is a Social Media Ninja for Canadian Improv Games!

Other Gigs: Trainer and performer with Vancouver’s Instant Theatre Company, member of local improv troupe “The Bobbers”, and one half of “Psycho,” an improv duo with the great Warren Bates!

The Chops: Shawn’s travelled far and wide as an improviser with Instant Theatre, including appearances at the Seattle International Improv Festival! And btdubbs, he got his start in the CIG, just like you!






THE QUESTION: Connor Lewis asked…

“In the Theme event, a common improv game is the Harold. Are there other games that work just as efficiently as Harolds? My team has been struggling to find a game that explores a theme in as many ways as possible but also provides story and character.”



Most Theme events are just miniature Harolds — collections of scenes, games, and monologues. But  you could do a Character event and make it a Theme (event), or you could do a Style event, for example, and make it a Theme (event). If you want to bring story and character into your Harold, absolutely do that! Maybe have a couple scenes that you come back to. We want to see characters that we care about in the theme event, definitely, and we want to see stories that we care about in the theme event. One thing that we rarely see in Theme is stakes, if you can have a character say ‘I need to do this because these are the consequences if I don’t,’ you’re already at a higher level.


Q: Can you describe the theme event at it’s best?

A: “The theme event at it’s best is when the team has all agreed to ‘play the game’ of making the scene about that theme. So, rather than just showing a list of examples of that theme, we’re seeing scenes that are perspectives on how the theme affects certain people or … how it plays out in different genres, or how it plays out in history — what it means to people, not what it is. So the whole team, is looking, watching, and supporting that idea, with smooth transitions between the scenes, and a variety of tones, pacing, and types of scenes.”

Q: Does it matter how many scenes teams can fit into their four-minute theme event?

A: “I’ve seen great Theme events that are just one scene before. What we’re looking for is a breadth and a depth of exploration. You can show a theme from many different angles in just a few scenes.”

Q: @lisahac asked, “Is use of puns in Theme good or not so good?”

A: “The theme that you’re given is what we want to see explored. We don’t want to see a play on the word itself. That’s not an exploration. NO PUNS, unless the scene is about puns!!”

Q: What can teams do, physically, to improve their Theme event while on stage?

A: “(Maintaining) eye contact with each other is huge. Also, if a team can create a physicality that is inspired by the theme, that’s amazing! If they can create an editing style that’s inspired by the theme, or a pacing that’s inspired by the theme, that’s huge, high-level stuff! But also, we want to see variety … so we want scenes where there’s a flurry of movement, followed by a scene where there’s stillness and silence.”


To practice generating ideas from a theme, Shawn recommends this game!

Shawn says, “Another great exercise would be to get the players in a back line, give them a theme and have them one by one explain what that theme means to them or how it affects them, and a time that they have seen that theme affect others, or how the theme has made an impact on the world. The goal is to make the players focus on the theme beyond the surface level.”


Succeeding in the Theme event is all about committing to the moment:

“Make sure that you’re listening to the scene that’s happening now, and not thinking about the next scene,” says Shawn, “Also, don’t be afraid to jump out without any idea because if your whole team is playing the game that this scene has to be about the theme, your team will help you. If you just come out and shape some space and start tasking (miming an environment/activity), your whole team will make it about the theme.”

Big ups to Connor Lewis and @lisahac for sending in some Theme-related q’s! Keep an eye out for our extra special National Festival edition of Ask a Trainer. Keep on tweeting your CIG-related questions to @CanadianImprov with the hastag #AskATrainer. Heck! Even email them to or leave ’em below in the comments. Go Crazy!