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Today marks the launch of Toronto’s new independent improv fest, Big City Improv Festival. We asked Gary Rideout Jr of Comedy Bar (the venue and the Bite TV series) for the 411.

P&C: This is the first annual Big City Improv Festival. What’s different about it from festivals Toronto has seen in the past?

GRJ: I think the thing I’m most excited about is the production team. There are a lot of passionate improv people involved, and everyone’s not afraid to share the workload so that everything gets done with plenty of time and attention. As someone who’s been an Associate Producer with Toronto Sketchfest since day one, I know it takes great leadership and a solid support team to build a great festival.

Julie Dumais produced the Combustion festival for a few years and she did a great job. I think it took something like that to prove we could put on a world class improv festival here in the city of Toronto. Something that would help our reputation in other markets, and something that would show the international acts that we have great audiences who do support good improv.

P&C. Comedy Bar has become a hub for improv, attracting some of the best local and out-of-town talent. What kind of acts can people expect on both the main stage and side stage at this year’s festival?

GRJ: I can tell you that with the production team involved, cultivating submissions from the best local, national and international acts won’t be a problem.

That said, coming up with a great festival schedule is like coming up with a good running order for a sketch show, or composing a great piece of music. There’s ebb and flow, and there will be both massive highlights and hidden gems. There’ll be party shows and thought-provoking shows, all with the onus being on what is funny and now, and what, with this great opportunity, can we present to the public to get them coming out to see improv, not just every night of the festival, but year round.

Festivals are a great place to showcase local favourites or have a local show become a new local favourite. The lingering effects of a great performance here can translate into continued success for that act.

P&C: Are there any special guests planned?

GRJ: We’re tinkering with the idea of some special guests. Bringing in someone famous helps get press for the festival as a whole, and gives a bunch of improvisers the opportunity they might not have otherwise to perform with someone cool. That said, with this being our first year it’s also important to focus on all the already-great local acts that exist in this city, and help expose them to the general public and let them know they can see those acts year round.

P&C: There’s been an explosion of interest in improv in the last few years. What do you think accounts for this?

GRJ: It’s crazy. I’ve always had a theory that the interest in styles of comedy goes in waves. For awhile, everyone’s doing stand-up, then sketch gets big for awhile, right now we’re in an improv boom.

The Second City Training Centre expanded and always seems to be full, and everytime I see a Bad Dog class in the cabaret at Comedy Bar, it’s full. It’s a great time.

I think before Comedy Bar, there were opportunities to perform improv but you really had to be pro-active in terms of finding a space where you could produce an “improv show.”  In some ways improv was being looked at as an exercise you do just to get better at improv. So you go on stage for 25 minutes and then sit around and get told by someone else what they would have said or done in that situation.

With Comedy Bar, it’s kind of paint by numbers; you pitch a “show concept,” then you produce and perform that show for an audience. Bad Dog and National Theatre of the World have strived to put a focus on the value of improv as the presented artform, not just the vehicle to get to the content. Other acts see that and are doing the same thing in their own way. Improv is the show.

One of the first things I did with Catch23 when we brought it to Comedy Bar was move it from Mondays to Fridays. I wanted more people to see the show and the stories that come out of it, not just in the scenes but in the fake competition and relationships between judge, audience and players. It’s always packed, and almost always a great show. (I said “almost” there on purpose, I can’t help being a little bit critical.)

P&C. What’s the vision for the future of Big City Improv Festival?

GRJ: Big City Improv Festival has an opportunity to be the improv festival that properly represents the city, and all the great performers that call Toronto home. It’s something we’ve desperately needed for a very long time, and something that could go a long way to help Toronto’s reputation internationally

Submissions are now open. The festival runs October 15-20 at Comedy Bar.

Image © Big City Improv Festival

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