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Photo © Robyn Bacon

Matt Stone and Trey Parker worked on The Book of Mormon for seven years. One Night Only: The Greatest Musical Never Written achieves greatness in one night – with no script, no pre-planned choreography, and no clue what the show will be about until the audience tells them.

Created by Alan Kliffer and directed by Melody Johnson, One Night Only is the most ambitious improv spectacle I’ve seen in a decade. When cast member Jan Caruana nudged an audience member who was slow to give a suggestion, saying “It’s a two-hour show,” I thought she was joking.

As the show progressed – the night I went was dubbed “Nerd Alert: The Musical” – it seemed impossible that they could keep the energy, laughs, and all those improvised balls in the air for a second act.

How wrong I was.

The talented cast of Ashley Botting, Jan Caruana, Reid Janisse, Carly Heffernan, Ron Pederson and Alex Tindal performed like a well-oiled machine: one that was being built right before our eyes.

Unlike most improv shows where everything’s mimed, the characters were enhanced with a few well-chosen props. My favourite was Reid Janisse’s fluttering lace fan – a hilarious counterpoint to his Randall character’s menacing megalomania.

The story revolved around Caruana as Linda Johanssen a.k.a. Debbie Dynamite and Pederson as her long-lost love, Gavin. Botting and Janisse played Equestria and Stable Boy (a.k.a. Randall), Dynamite’s rivals who eventually leave show biz for horseplay of a different kind.

Scenes were punchy and playful, culminating in a show-stopping number where all six players came together for a song called “More,” made all the more awe-inspiring for its on-the-spot harmonies.

Special props must go to the orchestra. With back-up vocals from Kevin Vidal and Miriam Drysdale, musicians Ewan Divitt, Jake Koffman, Dave Stein, and Justin Han were every bit as (forgive me) instrumental in the creation of what happened on stage.

Besides their musical chops, they knew just when to cue the next number, and were clearly having fun with the cast. While Ashley Botting’s pipes never fail to astound, it was Ron Pederson who stole show after being badgered into one more solo by the band.

One Night Only has been playing to packed houses, and runs until February 14. Avoid disappointment; book now.

Photo © Kevin Thom

Photo © Kevin Thom

It started in Chicago and LA: a wave of women speaking out about sexual harassment and sexism in the improv community. But as the discussion grows, it’s clear this isn’t just a U.S. phenomenon.

The “yes, and” culture of improv can be tricky, especially for beginners. When you’re encouraged to say and do anything without censoring yourself – and respond to whatever your partner throws at you by “agreeing” – how do you know when the line has been crossed?

It’s something teachers, coaches and Artistic Directors need to be especially mindful of. This isn’t about political correctness. It doesn’t mean no one can ever touch anyone again, or that men should fear women.

It’s not that women “can’t take a joke,” or “have it in” for men. We just want what everyone wants: respect, and a safe place to play. Improv is built on trust, and when that trust is broken, it can be devastating. Some women leave comedy entirely because of it.

I was 40 and in a relationship when I started improvising, so never had to deal with the same things as 20-somethings. Still, I sometimes felt uncomfortable. One guy on my Harold team had a tendency to make scenes a string of sexual innuendoes. It was probably out of fear, knowing he’d get an easy laugh, but it didn’t make doing scenes with him any easier. I’d leave the stage feeling icky and weak, like I’d sold out myself and women in general.

The other women on my team felt similarly. When I brought it up with our coach, he said “[That person] has years of bad habits I’m trying to correct,” implying it was no different than blocking offers, or being late for rehearsal. Nothing was done. And so, one full half of the team did not feel heard.

Once you’re established, it’s easier to choose who you play with (or don’t). But when you’re enrolled in a class or on a team that’s been put together by the A.D., there’s a lot more room for toxic behaviour to go unchecked.

I asked other women in the Toronto comedy community to share their thoughts and experiences. The responses may surprise you:

“Years ago I did a trust exercise where we had to take turns being lifted into the air by the entire class; kind of a ‘light as a feather, stiff as a board’ thing. When it was my turn, I felt a male classmate grab my ass while saying ‘Wow, you really are curvy.’ I quickly asked to be put down and was disgusted. The instructor (also the Artistic Director) saw the entire thing and did nothing, nor mentioned it even after another male classmate (and friend) told the guy off.

Shortly after, I was on an incubator Harold team with all guys, who proceeded to make me into a prostitute or touch me inappropriately every time we were on stage together. The coach didn’t care, and when I complained he would say something along the lines of ‘committing to being endowed.’ If this were now, you better believe I would have stuck up for myself, but I was 22 when all of this was happening. I wanted to get ahead and I thought playing along was the only way that would happen.

I’ve taught plenty of men who thought it was totally OK to make every scene a rape scene or an excuse to touch women in ways they shouldn’t. I was in [a drop-in] a few months ago where a guy started every scene with ‘I have a dead hooker in my trunk.’ Every. Single. One. I was the only woman in the drop-in. The instructor did speak up, but the guy continued to do it. If it were me, I would have been clear that it was unacceptable and they’d have to leave if it continued.” – Candace Meeks

“As a teacher you see a lot of young men trying to assert power and dominance in classes and it starts with making a woman a whore or a bitch in a scene. I once had a pretty well-known actor call me a whore in the first line of an improv scene – the key is to know that it comes from fear and to YES AND it into being the whore who steals the scene.

I think the culture is shifting to women not being afraid to speak out about this kind of thing. I do get a bit uncomfortable when a prominent/well-respected improviser starts dating a rookie or a student. The inherent power dynamic means the less experienced person might not be as willing to speak out if something did happen for fear of angering the person who they think has power.

I think women need to talk a lot. About anyone in and around the scene who mistreats or harasses women, so we can all be armed with more knowledge.” – Ashley Botting

“In the ten plus years I’ve been improvising, I’ve actually been really lucky. I’ve never experienced what I’d consider to be overt sexual harassment, or been in a situation I thought was dangerous. For that, I am thankful. But I have been in situations, on stage or off, where I’ve experienced or witnessed behaviour I would consider to be uncomfortable and unprofessional.

I’m so proud of the brave, resilient women who move past the bullshit and continue to perform even after experiencing some horrendous situations. [Also], there are so many awesome, thoughtful guys in this community who are huge advocates for women and stand up for us, and we probably don’t give them enough credit.

I want to be more aware of this happening and be a stronger advocate, not just against sexual harassment, but any injustice I witness. While the light has been shining on this one particular topic, I think there’s also a huge issue when it comes to how people of colour or sexual orientation is treated in comedy.” – Mandy Sellers

“In a way I’m not the right person to ask because, fortunately, I hardly ever feel victimized for being a woman. But it has happened, and it stands out all the more for being so rare.

I experienced a firsthand, highest order case of sexual harassment. I was asked to co-host a comedy night that was a benefit for cancer research in honour of a woman who had died and left her husband and son behind. The widower produced it, it was a great evening, and afterwards we all went out for drinks. The next day I received an email from the man, telling me how attractive I was and that he’d like to take me to dinner. I was taken aback, considering we’d spent the entire evening honouring his dead wife, and replied I wasn’t interested, was in a relationship, and said I trusted this would be the last I’d hear of it. The next year, everyone was asked back to the event but me. Now, I have a feeling he was trying to avoid an awkward situation, but the outcome was that I lost a gig because of his personal feelings about me. The classic workplace scenario! I was pissed.

As far as inappropriate behaviour in a show or rehearsal, I have to confess it’s often me who is leading the innuendo, or improvising scenes with breastfeeding or crazy sex in them. So it might appear that I’m just OK with all that. Here is the main point though: I only engage in that kind of fun with people who I trust, who I’m confident can tell the difference between play and reality, and people whom I’m confident will know that I know the difference too. Sometimes I wonder though, if the trust I have with my fellow performers is invisible, and that we are unwittingly giving people the idea that sexy humour just gets a blanket pass. If someone I didn’t trust tried that with me I would shut it down pretty fast, but I almost never feel disenfranchised and have always felt free to speak. That’s not true for everyone though. It’s a fine line surrounded by a grey area.

The two most sexist people I’ve encountered professionally were women, and both were my boss. One insisted that I and my fellow female performers look pretty and sexy no matter what character we were playing, even at the expense of the scene. The other openly talked about how much she hated feminism and told me that if a male co-worker was being inappropriate, it was my job to shut it down because I was the woman and it was easier for women to control themselves. In both cases I felt powerless to protest because of (a) my contract or (b) I really wanted the job and didn’t want to be fired for expressing my political views on feminism (a real possibility in that case). Sexist attitudes can come from anywhere, even women who have internalized them. When I look back I regret not saying anything, but at the time I really felt I couldn’t without suffering for it. So I made the choice to just bitch about it behind the scenes.

What would I like to see changed? Well, perhaps the Judeo-Christian underpinnings to our society? No one ever talks about that, but when the religious foundation of a culture has the inferiority of women built into it, it’s hard to fight. On a practical level, what I’d really like to see is women losing their fear of speaking up in the moment, both figuratively and literally. I’d like all women to be as loud and authentic and daring as the dozens and dozens of fantastic women I work with in the comedy community. I’d like young girls to be rewarded for more than just being ‘nice.’ I’d like the wider world to see how the men in the Toronto comedy community have figured out how to be masculine, vulnerable, funny, strong and respectful all at the same time. The men in my life are truly awesome and I so rarely experience bullshit from them. When I hear about guys being dicks I ask who they are and make sure I don’t work with them.

I’m now, happily, in a position where I’m starting to have the power to hire people. I’m very excited to give lots of ladies the opportunity to be seen, to make people laugh, and most importantly, to bring home a paycheque for doing what they are meant to do. I’m thrilled also to make parenting possible for the Moms in the community. I think support for parenting in the workplace is the next big issue that feminism needs to tackle. We should be able to figure that out, at the very least.” – Aurora Browne

“In my experience, the sketch community in Toronto is quite different from the stand-up or improv scene. There seems to be a sense of camaraderie among sketch troupes – however it’s not without its own issues regarding sexism and harassment.

Briana and I are most often referred to as ‘the women,’ ‘the ladies,’ or even worse, ‘Those two hot girls whose name I can’t pronounce!’ We have performed on shows out of town where the first thing out of the host’s mouth when he introduced us was, ‘These girls sure don’t LOOK like comedians!’ and as much as people may think this is a form of ‘flattery,’ it’s not. When is the last time you heard a male comedian introduced as ‘This hot guy!’ or ‘Man, this guy has the greatest clothes and hair!’ before he goes on stage? Never. It’s always about how talented and accomplished he is first and foremost.

I only know secondhand what women in the stand-up or improv scene have had to deal with, which from the sounds of it is a lot worse. We are often the only women on a bill of about 10 men because they ‘needed women.’ We’ve also been bumped out of doing a tech cue run altogether because the other male troupes ‘needed more time.’ However, I think the good news is that times are a-changin’ and more often than not now, we are treated as equals with the men on the same bill. We’re lucky – the Toronto sketch scene is pretty great.” – Gwynne Phillips

“I started improv classes when I was 28 – a very late bloomer by improv standards. During my first year or so, I dated an instructor. After seeing me perform he said, ‘You’re funny for a girl!’ He rambled on about how typically girls aren’t funny, and especially not funny and pretty.

Somewhere deep down, I sort of understood what he was saying. He was speaking a comedic truth. I was funny…for a girl. Which meant I could keep up with the guys. Like, my funny on its own wasn’t enough, it was only good by comparison to a male performer. So, I got the big seal of approval from him and countless others. I was in. I was one of them. I was ‘Male Approved.’

I was in improv troupes, sketch troupes, tons of shows, performances, and comedy plays; usually the first female selected and always asked ‘Do you know any other girls who are funny?’ I was in. I was one of them. I was ‘Male Approved.’

I was hit on, touched, groped, innuendoed, leered at, lechered upon and sexified in every way, more times than I could possibly reference. I didn’t shy away from sex or anger, so I never felt victimized per se, even if I was being monumentally marginalized. In the moment though, I trusted the men I was working with and, don’t forget…I was in. I was one of them. I was ‘Male Approved.’

Looking back, there were a ton of guys who preyed upon women, especially the new girls. Putting them in awkward sexual scenes and ignoring the trust component that we need so much in our improv work. I would warn the girls about the guys to avoid and try and give those guys a bit of their own medicine if I was ever in scenes with them. It’s 19 years later, and I don’t know if things are really any different.” – Leesa Gaspari

*     *     *     *     *     *

So what can we take from all of this?

It seems to me there are two main issues facing the community: sexual harassment off-stage, and sexist or demeaning treatment of women on-stage.

Like most fields, comedy has long been dominated by men. The explosion of interest in improv in recent years has left some theatres and instructors unprepared, both in terms of sexual harassment policies, and how they approach teaching.

Personally, I’d like us to move to a place where women don’t feel “lucky” for not being harassed or objectified. That said, this isn’t all on the guys. Women can help or hinder each other, too.

The good news is there are men and women who are showing the next generation of improvisers to be respectful, make stronger choices, empower each other, and that getting laughs by being truthful or vulnerable is way more satisfying than recycling tired old Family Guy jokes.

For tips on how to support women in comedy, we highly recommend this post by Meg Kennedy, and WomenInComedy.org’s guide. Also, this, from my long-time scene partner Maria Hajigeorgiou. 

As the comedy community grows and evolves, maybe it’s time our lexicon did too.

Toronto actor/improviser Alex Tindal recently posted on facebook:

“Hot thought for improviser friends, maybe let’s stop using the term ‘pimping’ forever and never look back?”

The response was swift and spirited. Some people suggested the word “endowing,” while others pointed out that endowing is seen as a positive move.

“I think ‘pimping,’ as we know it, has both positive and negative connotations,” said Rapid Fire Theatre’s Amy Shostak. “The mischief of setting someone up to do something difficult can be charming and fun, if that person is up for the challenge. However, in a beginner setting, it seems like a cruel offer that forces the less-confident scene partner to become uncomfortable. I always think of it as a ‘Don’t dish it, unless you can take it’ kind of a thing.”

So…what’s a new, better word for it that doesn’t connote “forced sex work”? Other suggestions were:

• setting up

• middle manager / managing

• squimping

• fratting

• fruitcake (i.e. a “gift” that nobody wants)

• The Force (like, forcing someone to do something they don’t want to)

But the favourite by far, from Bad Dog’s Julie Dumais Osborne, was “ugly sweater.”

As in “Don’t make your scene partner put on the ugly sweater you just gave them in front of everyone.”

What do you think? Would you say “Don’t ‘ug’ me,” or “Don’t make me wear that!”? Is there another word for it in your community? We’d love to hear your thoughts.

Screen shot 2016-01-30 at 6.13.46 PM

More and more people are discovering the power of improv to help them overcome anxiety, that it’s OK to make mistakes, and in fact, life’s way more fun when you laugh and embrace them instead of striving for unattainable perfection.

If you’ve ever wanted a peek inside the Improv For Anxiety classes Cameron teaches at Second City, here’s a look courtesy of CTV. Click here or below to view:

Screen shot 2016-01-14 at 10.46.49 AM

Jason Chin was a beloved improviser, teacher, director, and Associate Artistic Director of iO, whose sudden passing a year ago stunned the Chicago improv community.

Fortunately, Chin’s influence can still be seen and felt in the teams he coached, the long-running shows he created, and his book, Long-form Improvisation and the Art of Zen

You can also find his thoughts and ideas on An Improvised Blog, and JasonChinFTW, which covers improv, popular culture, and his own entertaining fiction. (We especially love the post he wrote about the long format, The Dream.)

Click below to hear him talk about why some people are innately good at improv, from the documentary Whether The Weather.

Image © Whether The Weather

Big laughs; small moments; when you come in with a serious character but can’t help but smile when you look at your scene partner… There are so many reasons we heart improv.

When you both say the same first word during Mind Meld.

Doing organic openings in an alley while passersby stare in amazement.

When you keep your Noo Yawk accent, even though your scene partner’s is Bahston.

Struggling to find the opening in the curtain, so you just play the scene from behind it.

When the tech person makes you laugh.

Ruining a perfectly good scene because you wanted to use the God mic.

When “the quiet one” starts tearing it up on stage.

When you say or do something with your back to your scene partner, and afterward they say, “How did you know what I was doing?!”

Photo © BCIF

Photo © Jim Goad

When you finish putting the mimed coin in your pocket even though you’ve been swept, because it’s so real to you.

Playing the opposite sex, or a superhero, or a rhododendren with issues.

When you don’t remember what you said or did…you just know it felt awesome.

Leaving the stage still laughing and drenched in sweat.

Coming off stage to find the people in the green room clapping.

When you find out after a great set that your work friends came to see this one.

When your students come to your show.

Overhearing someone in the audience say “They wrote that in advance.”

Photo © BCIF

Photo © Jim Goad

When there’s three people in the audience and you fucking kill it.

Being surprised on the way out with “your cut of the door.”

When someone outside the community says, “I’ve seen you perform. You’re really funny.”

Performing at an out-of-town festival for the first time.

Getting past the border guards, then remembering the joint in your pocket.

Seeing DCM wristbands around NYC and feeling like you’re part of the club.

When your body forgets it was sick until after the show.

Making someone who never breaks corpse.

Photo © BCIF

Photo © BCIF

Thinking you blew the audition, then getting The Call.

Seeing your friends on the Main Stage.

Seeing your friends in commercials.

Seeing your friends in commercials like this, and never letting them forget.

When you hang with your team and don’t talk improv.

Having so much fun coaching, you feel bad taking money.

Watching TJ and Dave perform.

Discovering that the coolest, smartest, most talented improvisers are also the kindest, humblest, and most generous.

Getting to perform with your comedy heroes, and making them laugh.

Photo © Caleigh LeGrand

Photo © Raw Photography

#Grayson12HourDrop

Our friends at Grayson Matthews are ringing in the holidays with the #Grayson12HourDrop – 12 hours of build. 1 epic drop.

All day long today they’re building a beat to a catastrophic drop – a drop, to end all drops. So we figured we’d invite our improviser pals to help craft the build. Send them sound ideas and they’ll add it to the freaky beat. Want to hear “a stuttering ukulele,” “a porpoise being spanked” or even a “robot farting underwater”? Whatever you can think of – fire anything their way and they’ll add it in real time.

Submit your suggestions by hashtagging #Grayson12HourDrop on Twitter or commenting on their Facebook – you can even hit up their Instagram.

Tune in live to Grayson12HourDrop.com to see them build the drop and to see your crazy contributions go live. And then tune in at 5pm for the MEGA DROP!

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