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Improv is filled with moments of brilliance. But once in a while something so unexpected and special happens, that 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)

Screen shot 2014-10-30 at 10.41.28 PM

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…

Even scripted music, plays, speeches, and other live events differ from night to night. It’s those inspired moments of improvisation that make people say “You had to be there.”

One of the reasons I started doing the podcast Improv Nerd was to show younger improvisers who are starting out that everyone faces struggles on their way to the top. What I find the most fascinating when I interview improvisers who have “made it” is how each of my guests have dealt with and overcome their struggles.

No one is simply handed a career. Everybody had to work hard, and most of my guests have experienced disappointment, rejection, doubt and fear along the way. It’s all part of the journey. Passion will always trump talent. And if you persevere, you will succeed.

If only someone had told me this when I was starting out.

Recently, I saw the move, Chef, written, directed, produced and staring Jon Favreau. I loved it. It had so much heart, and he did a great job with the entire film. Jon and I started out roughly the same time that I did at IO-Chicago, which was then called the Improv Olympic in Chicago, back in the late ’80s.

If improv was high school, Jon was not one of the cool kids. He desperately wanted to get hired by Second City, which didn’t happen, he couldn’t break in at The Annoyance, and his team at the IO was pretty much overshadowed. He was by no means embraced by the improv community.

Which makes his success that much sweeter. Even though Chicago didn’t pay much attention to him, Hollywood did. While still in Chicago, he was cast in the film Rudy as Sean Astin’s best friend. Jon’s big break was a huge part in a popular movie. Shortly after that, he moved to LA, and several years later, he wrote and stared in the independent film Swingers. He wrote himself onto the map. From there, he acted and directed in such films as Made, Elf, and Iron Man. The guy is a great film maker.

What inspires me about his story is that even though he did not have easy time here in Chicago, he preserved and succeeded on a whole other level. He was never improv royalty, never made it to the top of the improv ladder. He had modest success, but he did not let that define him or get in his way. He had a bigger vision for himself, something I aspire to do.

Improv can be both a stating off place and destination. It can be whatever you want it to be. It is a fluid art form.

Sometimes, some of us get stuck in this art form, and improv becomes too important and the center of the universe. I have seen improv creatively ruin people’s lives because they did not get on a team or they got cut from a team or did not fit in at one of the big improv schools. And when that happened, they thought their creative life was over. I don’t know what kept Jon going, but I am glad he did. He found his place, and more importantly, he has inspired people like me to realize that it’s up to me to make my own path.

Photo © Sam Willard

Photo © Sam Willard

Jimmy Carrane is host of the Improv Nerd podcast (http://jimmycarrane.com/improv-nerd-podcast/), and he writes an improv blog at http://jimmycarrane.com/blog/. He also teaches the Art of Slow Comedy in Chicago.

There’s an old joke that analyzing humour is like dissecting a frog: few people are interested and the frog dies of it. But for students of improv (and we’re all students, really), there’s nothing more fascinating than discussing this art form we all love.

The Backline with Rob Norman and Adam Cawley is part class room, part personal POV, and part witty banter-slash-sparring match. Like Lennon and McCartney, Rob and Adam perform brilliantly together, but they also spur each other on to greater heights. (Adam just won Best Male Improviser at the Canadian Comedy Awards, while Rob is currently shooting a new TV show. Check, and mate.)

Both are long-time fixtures of the Toronto improv scene, Second City alumni and long-form instructors at the Second City Training Centre. They’re also working actors who’ve studied with some of the greats (Napier, Messing, Cackowski, Joe Bill, to name a few) and have performed in festivals across North America. In other words, they know their shit.

Though it’s only been around for a few months, The Backline has already covered a wide range of topics, and each episode is filled with anecdotes and great advice. Themes include Getting Started, Fear, Competition, Ethics, and Cities, History and Comedy Scenes.

Whether you’re a newb or a seasoned vet, The Backline should be on your playlist. Click here to join their Facebook group, or subscribe for free here.

Photo © Kevin Thom

Photo © Kevin Thom

You’ve kissed more guys than women. And you’re straight.

Photo © Corbin Smith

Photo © Corbin Smith

You’ve had to compete with at least one of these while performing:

Photo © People and Chairs

Photo © People and Chairs

Photo © siaoyue

Photo © siaoyue

Photo © James Young

Photo © James Young

This was breakfast. And lunch. You don’t remember dinner.

Photo © Steve Del Balso

Photo © Steve Del Balso

You need to set your alarm for an audition at noon.

Photo © Kevin Whalen & James Gangl

Photo © Kevin Whalen

You get endowed as the President every time you hit the stage.

Photo © Kevin Thom

Photo © Kevin Thom

Deep down, you still dream of being a superhero.

Photo © People and Chairs

Photo © People and Chairs

If you read one more “Women aren’t funny” article, you’ll swear like Susan f#%$ing Messing. 

Photo © Kevin Thom

Photo © Kevin Thom

You feel cool because everyone’s a nerd.

Photo © Laura Salvas

Photo © Laura Salvas

When this guy says, “Take your crazy monkey dance back to Hitler Town,” you know exactly what he means.

Photo © Kevin Thom

Photo © Kevin Thom

It isn’t Halloween. Just a typical Thursday night.

Photo © Becky Feilders

Photo © Becky Feilders

The sign of a good rehearsal.

Photo © Madelyn Rideout

Photo © Madelyn Rideout

You’ve said things that would get you fired, disowned or arrested in real life. 

Photo © Kevin Thom

Photo © Kevin Thom

The answer to the question, “If your friends jumped off a bridge, would you?” is always “Yes!”

Photo © Kevin Thom

Photo © Kevin Thom

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