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Photo © Kevin Thom

Photo © Kevin Thom

There are some fascinating and important discussions going on on the internets right now. One that’s very close to our hearts is that of artists getting paid what they’re worth.

A few years ago, I was talking with someone in the improv community who expressed shock, even disdain for how much Second City paid its teachers. Not because it paid them too little, mind you, but because it paid them well.

I tried to process what I’d just heard. “Why the fuck wouldn’t they pay their instructors a decent wage?” I thought.

Was improv really held in such low regard – even by improvisers - that it wasn’t worth paying for?

After all, we’re talking about something that makes people feel good, helps them both professionally and personally, and dramatically changes lives. If improv were a pill, Big Pharma would be making billions off of it.

(I should point out this person is the only one who’s expressed such a view to me. It was their stature and tenure in the community that gave me pause.)

The line between art and commerce can be a murky one, as this open letter to Oprah reveals. In it, the author (a hula hoop performer named Revolva) talks about this whole notion of working for free, or very little.

I’m a big fan of “do what you love, and the money will follow.” And if you write or act or sing or dance or paint because it gives you joy, great. It’s when others profit from what you’re doing and don’t give something back that things can turn sour.

There’s a big difference between inviting friends to perform in your show at The Bishop & Belcher (now with hot and cold buffet!), and asking total strangers to do what they do professionally, for free.

A couple of years ago Standards & Practices did a St Patrick’s Day show. They wanted some Irish step dancers to open for them, so they called up a dance school, who suggested two of their students. Like most improvisers, S&P don’t have deep pockets, but they pooled together and offered the dancers $100 for five minutes.

The night of the show, the girls danced their hearts out. One of them played the fiddle at the same time, like something out of Riverdance. It was electrifying, the audience was thrilled, the dancers were happy, and S&P felt it was money well spent.

And that’s something I’ve noticed: it’s often struggling artists who make sure other artists get paid – perhaps because they’ve done so many “freebies” themselves.

They’re the ones who put $20 in the Pay What You Can jar. Or who donate to festivals and fundraisers, even if they get nothing in return. Not because they’re rich, but because they know that art makes us all richer.

Need a nice poster for your show? Throw your improviser buddy who does graphic design a few bucks.

Want to mix things up by hiring a stand-up to host? Ask them what their rate is; don’t just assume they’ll do it for beer.

It’s about respect for each other, and each other’s skills.

That’s why I’m hoping Revolva’s post won’t just get shared, but will shake things up, and help give more talented artists their due.

In the meantime – aside from teaching – doing improv will probably never pay a king’s ransom. And as long as no one’s taking advantage of performers, that’s fine. We do it because we love it, because it’s a privilege, and because it’s one of the few places you can fail in public, and laugh about it.

That, to me, is priceless.

Bears & Balls: The Colbert Report A-Z is the definitive guide to the Peabody-winning satire that rewrote the rules of comedy. We asked co-author and superfan Sharilyn Johnson for the truthiness, the whole truthiness, and nothing but the truthiness.

Cover Design © Kurt Firla

Cover Design © Kurt Firla

P&C: You’ve been covering comedy for 16 years, in print, radio, and with your blog, third-beat.com. When did you first become aware of Stephen Colbert, and were you a fan from the start?

SJ: I was a loyal Daily Show viewer when Colbert was still there, but I wasn’t a fan of the correspondents. At the time, the field pieces still had a bit of the “weird news” angle, and I often didn’t feel good about their choice of targets. It felt like they were making fun of well-meaning people. I didn’t pay close attention to Colbert until I saw him on a Daily Show panel in 2005 at the Just For Laughs Festival in Montreal. The energy and warmth he had in that context totally sold me. By the time the Report premiered that fall, I already had a sense of what was underneath the character, which made me appreciate the show more. Attending my first taping the following summer put me in overdrive.

P&C: Your book, Bears & Balls: The Colbert Report A-Z covers almost a decade. How has the show evolved over the years?

SJ: It’s been fascinating watching some of the old, lesser-known clips again. In the show’s initial eight weeks, in late 2005, the character was very heavy-handed. His voice was different. And he was a bit more of a jerk at the beginning, when the show was intended to directly mirror The O’Reilly Factor. It did find its stride quickly, though. Within the first year, the show started creating its own world, with its own rules, and the execution of the character loosened up. These days they really can do anything they want. They can think big, and Colbert is free to openly show the audience how much fun he’s having, both of which result in the show’s greatest moments.

P&C: TCR has a killer team of writers, including Stephen. How do you think his improv background has helped with his character and the show itself?

SJ: The majority of his writers have improv backgrounds. They typically work in teams of two to generate material, so collaboration is part of the process from the start. I think they use their improv brains to approach their writing the same way any improviser would. In any news story, they’d be looking for that “first unusual thing.” In the book, we talk a bit about the construction of The Word, and you could look at the verbal portion of that segment as an “If this, then what?” thought process.

As for Colbert himself, his interviews are perhaps the most obvious illustration of his improv skills at work. He has some prepared questions, but for the most part he’s reacting to the guest’s responses as his character. He’s also an incredible listener. Viewers might not realize that, because his character listens to nobody. That’s something we’ll see more overtly when he takes over the Late Show.

He’s sometimes talked about how at Second City, he learned to wear his character “as lightly as a cap.” I think his ability to show his humanity underneath the character has been an essential, if not the most essential, ingredient to the show’s longevity. Viewers would’ve gotten tired of “Stephen” if there wasn’t something else there to connect with.

P&C: When Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, Tom Lehrer said that political satire was obsolete. Why do you think TCR (and TDS) are so popular?

SJ: Aside from being hilarious? It used to be just the politicians who told you what to believe and what to think. Now it’s “journalists” doing it. People have this overwhelming sense of wanting to call bullshit on everything that’s being fed to them, but don’t know where to start. I think Colbert, Jon Stewart, and John Oliver are doing that for us. (But mostly, it’s that they’re hilarious.)

P&C: The Colbert Report is so brilliant night after night, it’s hard to think of highlights. That said, what are some of your favourite segments or episodes?

SJ: There are some obvious ones. Walk up to any Colbert fan and utter the word “Munchma,” and watch them dissolve in giggles. The Super PAC stuff was brilliantly executed. The Daft Punk episode was incredible, even more so when you learn what happened leading up to it. The Wheat Thins “sponsortunity” was proof positive that sometimes the simplest idea is the best idea. An early 2006 episode that had both the Charlene video and Stephen’s Laws of Love was a great one-two punch.

As far as lesser-cited ones? There’s a segment from 2011 called “Close Sesame” where he incompetently does the “marshmallow test” on himself. It’s pure clown and just wonderfully, innocently dumb. He was clearly having a blast performing it, too.

The band Gorillaz, which is made up of animated characters, was on the show but “Stephen” refused to interview the real guys behind the characters. He stormed off the set and returned in his own street clothes to interview them as the mild-mannered “Steve Colbert,” which was a wonderful reality-bending meta moment.

For the medical segment Cheating Death, he introduced a fake medical product called Vaxa-Mime, and did a great little mime routine to go with it. I’ve heard he did killer object work as an improviser, which I would’ve loved to have seen.

And obviously, I’m partial to the 13 episodes that I saw live in the studio.

P&C: Was there anything you learned about Colbert while writing this book that you didn’t expect?

SJ: Is it egotistical of me to say “no”? There might’ve been if this was a celebrity biography, because I’m not really interested in his personal life and I just don’t retain that information. But I’m deeply interested in his work, as is my co-author [Remy Maisel], and that was our focus. I like to say that I’ve been researching this book for nine years. The hardest part about writing it was compiling the citations. Almost every little-known detail in it was something one or both of us had been carrying around in our noggins all this time, but we had to go back and find legitimate sources for them. It was almost like writing the book backwards.

P&C: A lot of TCR fans (ourselves included) are gutted at the loss of his character. While we understand the demands of the show, he did so much that transcends mere satire (the Super PAC, the White House Correspondents Dinner, his championing of Hachette authors, to name a few). What do you think the show’s legacy will be?

SJ: That’s hard to say. Many fans view this as the loss of a great political satirist. How political he’ll actually be at CBS remains to be seen, but even though the character will be gone, the point of view that informed the character will live on. Stephen will continue to view the world partially through that lens. He’ll just express that point of view in different ways. Plus, so many of his greatest bits on the Report are entirely apolitical. He could deliver a segment like Cheating Death in his own voice as a traditional talk show desk bit, and it would still work.

Something like the Super PAC, or his run for president, or even going back to the Green Screen Challenge — these are all games he’s played with his audience. He has a very unique relationship with viewers, and I think we’ll look back at that as something that couldn’t be recreated. The sense that we’re all in conspiracy with each other to create this world and propel these games forward.

I think the legacy of The Colbert Report will be determined largely by what the Late Show turns out to be. None of us have a clue what that is yet. But I sure am looking forward to finding out.

Bears & Balls is available now in paperback and Kindle editions. Click here to order.

Photo © Chantal Renee

Photo © Chantal Renee

Sharilyn Johnson has been an entertainment reporter since 1995, focusing on comedy since 1998. Her blog, Third Beat Magazine, has been called “the Wikileaks of comedy” by CBC Radio. Her comedy coverage has also appeared in the Winnipeg Free Press and the Toronto Star, and she’s appeared on CBC Radio’s LOL and Definitely Not the Opera. 

“For many things, your attitudes came from actions that led to observations that led to explanations that led to beliefs. Your actions tend to chisel away at the raw marble of your persona, carving into being the self you experience from day to day. It doesn’t feel that way, though. To conscious experience, it feels as if you were the one holding the chisel, motivated by existing thoughts and beliefs. It feels as though the person wearing your pants performed actions consistent with your established character, yet there is plenty of research suggesting otherwise. The things you do often create the things you believe.” - Benjamin Franklin

Photo © People and Chairs

Photo © People and Chairs

HEADSHOT1

Photo © Pierre Gautreau

Teaching new students the art of improvisation has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my career. The students are so vulnerable and so terrified, and the courage it takes them to simply show up for class deserves recognition.

It’s easy for any improviser to forget, after all the hours logged in classes and on stages in front of audiences, that they once started out as sweaty-palmed students. Whether you’re brand new to improv or you’ve been performing for years, I want to remind you all of the Squirrel in the Garage: the thing that will awaken you to your imaginative side, or the reason you started improv in the first place.

The Squirrel is your sweet, very easily frightened creative self; the one that may not have come out since you were a child. Open, free, innocent, visceral, uninhibited. It is the beautiful creative soul that many people don’t know they have inside of them! (Yes, I believe we ALL have this.)

The Garage is your mind, and the garage door for most people is slammed shut most of the time. The door makes you feel safe, it protects you from humiliation, ridicule, and primarily, judgement. But we know that squirrels shouldn’t live in garages, they should be free, running up trees, across power lines, out in the world.

I believe in creative endeavours we must let our squirrel out to play, and that the door isn’t actually protecting us, it is only an illusion. When we feel fear, our brain kicks in to analyze our situation and find a way to keep us safe. This is great, but only when you are literally trying to survive, like a lion is chasing you or something. When it comes to be art, “being in your head” will kill you. The more you do improv, the more you become aware of the “being in your head” phenomenon.

Most new students tell me that they want to get out of their head, they want to build confidence and feel more relaxed talking to people. Their Squirrel is dying to get out of the Garage.

Think about when you feel the most at home, where you can really just be yourself. Maybe with friends or family, when you’ve had a drink or two, or are in a really good mood. You say what you want, you may act silly, you may make people around you laugh. This is your squirrel running around outside the garage! What a fun free feeling (and now you know you have a Squirrel).

The number one enemy of this squirrel is judgement, aka the garage door: the antithesis of creativity. It is fear incarnate. But “No judgement” is much easier said than done, especially the judgement of oneself.

Veteran improvisers still have that damn door slam shut and scare that squirrel back into the garage, sometimes for weeks. The difference is it happens much less than it used to. And there are times when the door is left wide open and that squirrel can come out and play, and to me, that is the sweet spot of improvisation.

When my squirrel is out, there is no thinking, it is just being. I slow down and lock in on my partner/ensemble and everything seems to just come to me. The connections, the ideas, the offers, THE TRUTH. It feels like magic, the audience can’t believe that what you just created wasn’t written and rehearsed, and my cheeks are flushed with fun.

The brand new improv student will experience this a few times maybe, in the early weeks of their classes, but the confidence it builds is astounding. It’s a drug and the students are hooked on the freedom: the feeling that it wasn’t any work at all.

How could it be that easy? And how do I make it happen again? How do I entice the squirrel to come out? Well if that isn’t the age-old question, the problem that plagues improvisers of all ages and experiences.

Here is what I try to encourage in the early days of improvisation, and these points are a reminder for those who’ve been at it for years:

Failure

There is so much freedom in failure. Many of us are programmed to fear it, and

to strive for perfection. But perfection has no place in art. In comedy the goal is entertaining the audience. If that means playing an improv game terribly but with gusto, then you have succeeded. When we can earnestly put ourselves out there and try to do something whilst failing, we will delight others. When new students try and fail in front of each other, it inspires everyone to stick their neck out. This shared experience creates a bond and trust is born.

Trust

Trust to be oneself, and trusting our ensemble. Then the garage door opens. For new

Students, I ask them not to think about being interesting/funny/clever but just to do exercises to the best of their ability. Most of the laughs that come from the early days are because of a moment of truth or failure. When those laughs happen, it’s amazing how much a student learns to trust themselves, and that they don’t have to live up to an expectation of funny: just of true in-the-moment reaction.

Why am I sharing the Squirrel in the Garage with all of you? I know everyone has this beautiful self inside them. If you are finding this timid creature for the first time it can change your life no matter what stage you’re in. Improv isn’t just for people who want to be funny or make a career of performing. It’s for people who say “Fuck* fear, this is my voice!”

*(The word “fuck” does not scare the squirrel.)

If you find yourself in an in-your-head rut, remember those early days of learning and what really drew you to this art form: fun. It’s easy to take a billion classes and to get mucked up with all the things you should be doing, but how is your squirrel going to get out of the garage with all those rules in the way?

There is no perfect improviser, and no right way to do this art form, so go back to what makes you giggle and go from there. As the lovely Susan Messing always says, “If you’re not having fun, then you are the asshole.”

Paloma Nuñez is an actress/improviser/comedian living in Toronto. She has had the joy of performing improv for over 10 years and has performed in many festivals, including NYC, Chicago, the Carolinas, Vancouver and Edmonton. She performs with the Bad Dog Theatre Co’s Theatresports, and with the Canadian Comedy Award-nominated Bad Dog Repertory Players. She co-produced Throne of Games, also nominated for a CCA. Catch her in the feature film, Spotlight, coming out in 2015. She likes hugs. 

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FSF Chrome

Image © Sally Smallwood / People and Chairs

Cameron recently gave his students the instruction, “Find something fun, then do it more.”

As someone who struggled with game of the scene for years, I loved the simplicity of this phrase. What’s more, “fun” could be the tiniest, simplest, stupidest thing (maybe all three).

Last week Cameron and I did a scene where I initiated as a mafia don. I started with my back to him, inhaled a mimed cigarette and said,

“I hear you’re the best.”

I turned to see Cameron falling backwards awkwardly off his chair.

He picked himself up, dusted himself off, and said, “Yeah. Yeah, I’m the best.”

Great. In less than five seconds, we’d already found something fun.

The rest of scene played out with me grilling him to make sure he was up for the job. We learned that his character was named Johnny Paycheque, and his tone and physicality continued to communicate he was of course, anything but the best.

It ended with Johnny getting the contract and shooting himself in the face…causing him to fall backwards off his chair.

(Cameron later said when he felt himself falling at the top of the scene, he thought for a split second of “correcting” it, then just went with. The comedy gods are always right.)

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Like most improv truths, “Find something fun. Do it more.” applies to the rest of life, too.

Like drawing? Do it more.

Like blogging? Do it more.

Like reading or dancing or swimming or baking or making dioramas or doing musical improv…?

You get the picture.

Improv is filled with moments of brilliance. But once in a while something so unexpected and special happens, everyone in the room feels it.

It happened at Rob Norman’s book launch this past week. Ralph MacLeod and Becky Johnson had never met. But when they stepped out to do a scene together, the result was pure magic.

For those who missed it (or want to relive it), what follows is a master class in “Yes, and.”

(intro music)

Ralph: Hi, Becky.

Becky: Hello.

Ralph: I don’t think we’ve ever really met.

Becky: Hello, I’m Becky.

Ralph: I’m Ralph. It’s a pleasure to meet you.

Becky: Good to meet you. (to audience) I’m currently experiencing very severe abdominal cramps and I need, as a suggestion, a reason why a woman would stay seated?

Audience Member: Midol!

Audience Member: That heavy flow day that always occurs, like the second or third day!

(unintelligible)

Becky: We’re having a lady-share moment. What was that? “A really good book,” or “I have a stain on my pants”? (to Ralph) Do you prefer one of those?

Ralph: Nope. All right…uh…wow. I can’t follow that up with anything. (to audience) Why would you be in a particularly good mood? What would bring you joy?

Audience Member: Chocolate!

Ralph: Some chocolate. All right.

Becky: I’m going to take “a good book.”

(Becky mimes reading, Ralph enters the scene)

Ralph: Honey, I’m back from the…

Becky: Just a…

Ralph: …Shoppers. (pause) Are you mad at me?

Becky: What? No. No, I’m just reading the Encyclopaedia Britannica. I wanted to get smarter. More informed. Are you mad at me? Are we fighting?

Ralph:  No, no, no. Well I went to the drug store for something

Becky: What was it?

Ralph: Oh! Chocolates.

Becky: Did we fight last night?

Ralph: To be honest I can’t remember.

Becky: WHERE’S TIMOTHY? WHERE’S OUR CHILD?!

Ralph: We have a child?

Becky: Yes, we have a child! Timothy!

Ralph: You had a child with me?

Becky: Yes, yes! We had a child. You remember him: he was ten feet tall and hyperactive… (pause) WE MURDERED HIM!

Ralph: We said we would never speak about it.

Becky: He was a blight on the family and we killed him. Not speaking about it is one thing, but forgetting is a whole different issue entirely.

Ralph: Well, I am busy at work… The fourth quarter reports are due, I’m stressed beyond belief.

Becky: And I’ve developed a drug addiction that I haven’t…told you…about… (pause) I’ve developed a drug addiction.

Ralph: It’s quite all right. I’m sure I’ll forget it in a moment.

Becky: Did you?

Ralph: What?

Becky: Huh?

Ralph: Oh look, it’s Spring!

Becky: Ohhh – chocolates!

Ralph: The seasons changed and I didn’t even notice.

Becky: I bought you these.

Ralph: You are so thoughtful.

Becky: Why would I buy you chocolates? Have we been fighting? Oh, are you all right?

Ralph: (eats) Oh, it’s nougat. Why don’t they stop putting nougat in these things?

Becky: I love nougat. That’s the kind of chocolates you should be buying for me.

Ralph: Oh my God, it’s Summer! The seasons pass so fast.

Becky: They do. I have a question for you.

Ralph: Yes?

Becky: What does the name “Timothy” mean when I say it to you?

Ralph: It was my father’s middle name.

Becky: If we have a child, we should call him Timothy!

Ralph: I love you so much. You’re the best.

Becky: Are we going to do it? Are we going to have children?

Ralph: Let me check…

Becky: All right, let me check…

Ralph: According to the calendar it’s my time of the month.

Becky: And according to the encyclopaedia, “Aardvark,” I guess.

Ralph: Somebody broke into our house and left chocolates!

Becky: Well why don’t you try one and see if they’re poisoned?

Ralph: (eats) Mmm, cherry.

Becky: I love cherry!

Ralph. Me too. I don’t think it’s a real cherry, I think it’s a fake cherry.

Becky: That’s what I like about it. I have found reality to be so unfulfilling.

Ralph: People get too caught up in “Who did this?” and “Who did that?” and “Who murdered their son?”

Becky: Oh, speaking of which, I just remembered something: our bathtub is full of blood.

Ralph: And there’s all this extra meat in the freezer.

Becky: I’d better call my sister. I’ll have her over for dinner. (dials phone)

Ralph: It must be Thanksgiving, because it’s Fall.

Becky: (dials phone) Hello, Janice? I murdered my son… I’ll call you back. Now what was I saying?

Ralph: I don’t know. It’s very peculiar.

Becky: Chocolates!

Ralph: Yes!

Becky: Oh honey, I love you.

Ralph: I love you so much.

Becky: With Christmas just around the corner, it’s my favourite time of year.

Ralph: It is. I can’t wait to stuff the turkey with you.

Becky: Like, put me inside the turkey?

Ralph: No, it’s a metaphor. I want to have a baby.

Becky: What was your father’s middle name?

Ralph: Timothy.

Becky: Let’s call him that.

Ralph: Shall we?

Becky: I love you.

Ralph: I love you too.

(outro music)

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Photos © Oavkille Improv Theatre Company / Bad Dog Theatre Company

Rob Norman is a pillar of the Toronto – make that Canadian – improv community. If you’ve seen him perform or taken a class, you’re a fan. We asked him about the serious subject of make-’em-ups on the eve of launching his new book, Improvising Now: A Practical Guide To Modern Improv.

Photo © Rob Norman

Photo © Rob Norman

P&C: You’re one of the busiest improvisers we know. You act on TV, do The Backline podcast with Adam Cawley, teach at Second City and Bad Dog Theatre, and perform with Mantown, Filthy, and other teams. How did you find time to write a book?

RN: Finding the time wasn’t a problem. As a comedian, you work nights, leaving your days free. I have some friends who spend that time going to the gym or taking acting classes. Instead I wrote a book. It took me seven years and my body looks disgusting when naked. But I wrote a book.

P&C: How did you get started in improv?

RN: I was part of a youth community theatre group producing musicals at this huge 500-seat theatre. As a side project, I offered to put together a small improv show. The Board (consisting of one 26-year-old and a bunch of teenagers) approved it. So I went out, found a copy of Truth In Comedy, and auditioned 16 people to be in the cast. I was in Grade 11 teaching longform that I had never seen or done myself.

I’m sure the improv was terrible. And I was a terrible teacher. But we did it for three years to sold-out crowds. I’ve been doing jobs that I’m unqualified to do ever since.

Fun fact: In that original troupe was Steve Hobbs (El Fantoma) and Joel Buxton (The Sketchersons). They both work as teachers at the Second City Training Centre now.

P&C: What’s been the biggest change you’ve seen since you started?

RN: So much has changed! When I started Second City had gone bankrupt. The Bad Dog was struggling. The only company doing longform was collapsing. No audiences. No mentors.

Toronto improv is better now than it ever has been. Improv shows sell out. Consistently. Improvisers are booking TV and film, but sticking around to build the live comedy scene.

It’s the kind of comedy boom I dreamed of when I was first starting.

I used to get made fun of because I was so eager. I had read every improv book. I knew the Second City archives better than my teachers. I was a very special kind of improv nerd. There is an army of beginner improvisers mastering Game of the Scene, shortform and narrative structures early in their career. It’s a work ethic that makes my generation look uneducated and lazy.

P&C: Your book is subtitled “A Practical Guide to Modern Improv.” How do you define “modern”?

RN: I teach a lot of improv classes. And there are some lessons that I’ll look at and think, “I have never used this technique onstage. No one I know does this onstage. Why am I teaching it?”

Improv has changed so much since the 1980’s. Not only our own improv vocabulary, but also the expectations of our audience. You have to be faster. More direct. More revealing of yourself.

For me, modern improv is the techniques, tricks, and tips that improv professionals are using onstage right now. I don’t want to hear anecdotes of how improv used to be. I want to know what I can do tonight onstage.

P&C: Do you think it’s necessary to learn different styles of improv, or is it possible to fall in love with one approach and stick with it – even though you also perform outside your particular theatre?

RN: Modern improv is a mosaic. You are responsible for knowing all of it. Personally, I tackled each of them one at a time (I should say, I am tackling them…)

It’s not about forcing your style on a show. It’s about understanding the dominant energy of the room, and complementing that shared mental model.

P&C: Do you think it’s possible to unlearn bad habits (blocking, dropping offers, etc), especially if an improviser has been doing them for years?

RN: Sure! But I don’t believe in good improv/bad improv. There’s tons of improvisers bulldozing, blocking, dropping offers – AND getting paid for it. Really good players doing “bad moves” that audiences and other improvisers love. The difference for the experts is that these moves are choices. They come from a place of power.

Your desire to block, be negative, to avoid being affected by your scene partner, is a symptom of a more fundamental problem: your fear, panic, or issues with control. Don’t unlearn anything. Try something new. Find another path. Focus on doing something you’ve never done been before. Way better than using your psychic energy to avoid doing something you always do onstage.

P&C: What do you think separates good improvisers from great ones?

RN: Talent is an exceptional love of something. Some people LOVE being funny onstage. Others LOVE the act of improvising. I want to play with people who understand the craft, who cultivate technique, and get off on building something with someone else.

P&C: A lot of improv teams break up or dissolve within months. Very few last more than a couple of years. What’s the secret to long-running teams like Mantown?

RN: Friendship. Adam, Jason and I have been best friends for ten years. I didn’t know Bob Banks and Rob Baker incredibly well when we started working together. But over eight years you become incredibly close. Ending Mantown would be like ending a marriage.

P&C: In the States, a lot of students see improv as a means to get on Second City’s Main Stage, and ultimately, SNL. What about Canada? What do improvisers aspire to here?

RN: Yeah. There’s this idea that you if work hard as an improviser, you’ll get hired for Second City and then whisked away to star on Saturday Night Live. But it’s not true in Canada. And I think that’s increasingly less true in Chicago. Lots of my friends have finished Mainstage or starring on television shows, then gone back to working day jobs.

Your aspirations as a comedian in Canada should be simple: work in comedy. Build things. And then try to sell them. If no one is buying them, build them anyway.

P&C: Do you consider yourself an improviser, an actor, or both?

RN: Improviser. I could star in the best scripted show, and I wouldn’t be satisfied. We’d finished bows and I’d already be in a cab on my way to Comedy Bar. It’s a problem really…

Click here or on the image below to order from Amazon. It’s a must-have for any improviser’s library. 

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There’s so much pressure in life to “do our best,” it’s only natural that some of that spills over into the world of make-’em-ups we call improv. But striving for perfection is a surefire way to suck the fun out of a scene. As Joe Bill says:

“Any consideration of ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ will fuck you over and put you in your head. Onstage is not real life.”

Think about that: onstage is not real life. That gives us incredible licence to do whatever the hell we want.

One time in rehearsal my teammate, Justin Kosi, was pimped into being John Travolta. He looked at our coach, Tom Vest, and said “I don’t know him.” “That’s great!” Tom told him. “Just do your John Travolta.”

Of course, Justin’s Travolta was nothing like the “real” one – and a million times funnier as a result.

If you want to take pressure off yourself, try doing something really badly. You can do it in a circle as a warm-up, as well as in scenes.

Do the worst accent, the worst dance, the worst impression, the worst anything, and see if it isn’t the best.

Photo © Kevin Thom

Photo © Kevin Thom

There’s nothing quite like the high you get coming off of a great set. But while improvisers get to bask in the spotlight, some of their funniest moments wouldn’t exist without the skill and support of a very special person: the Tech Guy (or Gal).

To the audience they’re invisible, but make no mistake: he or she can make or break your show.

“Pulling the lights on an improv scene is hard,” says Rob Norman. “You have to have a supreme confidence to know when it’s over. To find the biggest laugh of the scene. Sometimes 30 seconds in. Sometimes waiting for 17 minutes.

But also there’s an egolessness about it. It’s not about adding sound effects. Or playing ‘funny’ songs from the booth. You are highlighting success and distracting from failure.

When tech is done right, no one sees your invisible hand. But you have to be completely confident in your job. So egoless that no one knows you’re adding essential elements to what’s happening onstage.”

It’s not easy to sit in a dark, cramped booth, changing lights and cueing songs at a second’s notice. But what about when tech goes wrong? We’ve all seen shows that suffered from poor technical choices. Things like…

• playing, shall we say, idiosyncratic music before a show (emo, nu-metal), instead of stuff that will pump up the crowd

* pulling lights way too early (like, 10 minutes in to a 25-minute Harold)

• not pulling lights, long after a show has died a slow, awkward, squirm-inducing (did we mention slow?) death

Learning how to tech a show takes time, and the only way to learn is on the job.

On the flip side, there are some are very talented light and sound technicians. In Toronto we’re fortunate to have folks like Darryl Pring, Gord Oxley, and Josh Murray toiling behind the scenes to make performers look good. And perhaps no one is more respected, even revered, than Mark Andrada.

Photo © David Leyes

Photo © David Leyes

Like Robocop or Steve Austin, Mark operates on an almost other-worldly level. To find out how he does it, we asked the community. If you want to know what qualities make a great technician, read on.

“[Mark] is a very skilled clown and improviser, so he gets it. He gets the timing of a joke or blowline, he gets where a scene starts and therefore where it should end. He can anticipate what’s about to happen and lend to it with a lighting change or music or even over the microphone. And if you don’t want him involved you can ask him to stay out and he’s not offended, unless he decides to jump in and fuck with you anyway.” – Gary Rideout Jr

“He is often the best improviser in the room – and that’s behind the tech booth. I’ve seen his tech choices save scenes and make them better, and I’ve been there when his choices are the scene. He is insanely quick with improvised tech cues, and they are always on point.” – Matt Folliott

“The shows Mark techs are alive. There’s this feeling of security when he’s in the booth. I trust him immensely. But also there’s this feeling of danger which I love, because he’s good enough to fuck with you and heighten what’s going on, so again, it’s like there’s an all-seeing, omnipotent being watching over the show and pushing you to play better. Oh, and he also appreciates and respects good theatre. So he knows how to push the boundaries of what’s possible.” – Isaac Kessler

“Mark Andrada puts a huge amount of effort into making sure Mantown is the best [show] it can be every month. We throw a lot at him and he’s never complained, been frustrated or unreliable.

Just this last Mantown, we had a pre-recorded insult that was supposed to show up in our second audience interaction game. We assumed the audience was going to have a hard time reading a joke we had written down and we could play the recorded “T-T-Today junior” from Billy Madison. However, Rob Baker got a little confused while explaining a game in the first half of the show and instantly Mark Andrada played the insult and it was perfectly timed and unexpected. The audience blew up with laughter and Rob Baker blushed, as he does.” – Adam Cawley

And there you have it. A great tech person listens, watches, pushes, and plays, shaping and heightening what’s happening, and lifting the performers, the audience, and the show.

It’s a demanding and often thankless task, so let’s show them some appreciation. For all those who do it, week after week, in Montreal, Vancouver, New York, Chicago, LA, London, and beyond, this one’s for you…

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