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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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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.

One of the things that I do when I bring improv into the world of social work and/or academia is an exercise that I now call “The Drawing Exercise.” I learned it from the wonderful Jess Grant (in a group rehearsal with a bunch of very awesome people).

The exercise goes like this:

The premise is that the group works to create a picture together: line-by-line, person-by-person. Individuals take turns, but there’s no given order to the turn-taking. This is a silent exercise. The group is given one marker and a large sheet of paper on an easel (or on the wall). The instructions given are minimal.

  • draw ONLY one line or mark at a time
  • no talking
  • make your mark and then wait, facing the group, until someone takes the marker from you
  • the final drawing should appear drawn by one hand.
  • find your ending; when the group feels the picture is complete, you agree to this (non-verbally) and stop drawing

The group stands back about two meters from the paper, forming a semi-circle facing it. The facilitator makes a single mark on the paper, then stands by it with the marker in their hand until someone in the group (“A”) takes it from them. “A” proceeds to make another mark on the paper, and once again steps away from it with the marker in hand and stands until someone else continues the activity. The process continues until the group feels their picture is complete.

There are a ton of great things within this exercise, but for now I’m going to talk about making one mark at a time.

As an improvisational exercise, having to make one mark at a time is meant to induce the process of making room for the ideas of others. It’s intended to point to how it feels to do this kind of sharing, and to point to the experience of creating together and/or “having to” create together.

The technique of making one mark at a time also ensures that people take turns, and in doing this, give up some control, while making the concept of having control or personal power, visible.

Allowing for the ideas of others is an improvisational technique; not just allowing, but necessitating/obliging/enforcing. We’re forced to make room for the ideas of others, forced to “hear” those ideas because they are then “in the world/on the paper.”

We can’t ignore the reality that has been created because it is visible, concrete. In this way, it’s training for the improviser: to begin to say “yes” to, to work with, to engage with and accept, the marks of others.

The mark begs our consideration, as does our fellow players’ existence. Their words, their stories, their body language: these are all changing the space, shifting the flow of the air in the room, altering the shape of our body when we sit down or shake their hand or pull our gun (hahaha Michael Scott).

As an improviser, this is what we learn to do. We learn to actively consider the existence of others; their ideas, their postures, their words, their silences. We actively consider the existence of others and ourselves.

As we’re forced to consider the marks of others, it makes us reflect on how we feel about it, how we react to it. It helps us to hear the voices of others, to consider their marks, and to consider them in the context of what was drawn before and what will come after, as part of a whole process of creating together.

Sometimes this is exciting and sometimes this is shitty. But it’s usually an awakening. So I’m really thankful for improv and the way it does.

cathyblog

Cathy Paton is an Arts Facilitator who has worked in Canada and internationally with many groups, exploring movement, improv, and communication. Trained in long-form improvisation, modern dance, life/art performance method, and red-nosed clown, she is currently working on a PhD project that looks at how we can change our ways of relating through the art of improvisation. Cathy has a background in social work, and is always looking at ways of combining the arts with ways of being together.

“It took me ten years till I felt like, ‘Ohhh, this is how I play.’ Not mimicking someone else or thinking so hard or trying to be funny, or seeking to serve the group and lobbing everyone else underhanded pitches and never being the one to fucking swing for the fences…

Just give it time.

You honestly have all the time in the world. And you may be saying, ‘But, but, but…!’ And I’m here to tell you:

You have all. The time. In the world.

I did bar-prov, and improv everywhere I could, anytime I could in Chicago for a decade.  Early on I auditioned for the Second City Touring Company and got a callback, and I was like, ‘Fuck yeah!’ And then I didn’t get it. So the next year when the TourCo auditions came up I went back and auditioned and I didn’t get called back, and I was like, ‘So I’m getting worse?’

The next year I went and auditioned for the Touring Company again and didn’t get a callback so I thought, ‘OK, I guess it’s just not for me; I’m not what they’re looking for, for whatever reason, nothing personal.’

My dream had been to play at Second City, but then I thought, ‘I think I have a new dream. My new dream is to do what I love with people I love.’ And so I did that for eight more years in Chicago, playing with people I admired, and doing work that I felt proud of.

And then a friend of mine said, ‘You need to go audition for Second City again.’ And I was like, ‘It’s too late.  I’m too old.’ I was 33 and I thought, ‘They want people on stage who are in their 20s, blah blah blah…’  But eight years after I first auditioned I went and tried again and was hired.  I became an understudy for the Touring Company, hooray!  But then I sat on the bench for two more years.

People who got hired to understudy after me were being put onto the casts of Touring Companies and I was still sitting on that damn bench. And again I thought, ‘Man, maybe I’m just not what they want.’

And then when I started to lose hope I got pulled from the bench and put on a touring company.  I got in because a spot opened up and they literally had no one else, so there I was touring on GreenCo.  I toured for four months and immediately got put onto the Main Stage where I wrote three revues and played for three years.

I’m a really late bloomer. Some people move really fast, but some people don’t, and so take it from me: You have all. The time. In the world.”

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Holly Laurent is a member of the longstanding improv group The Reckoning, and is a consulting writer for The Onion News Network.  As a cast member of the Second City main stage in Chicago she wrote and performed in their past three revues Southside of Heaven, Who Do We Think We Are, and Let Them Eat Chaos.  She trained at iO Chicago, the Annoyance Theater, 500 Clown, and toured with the Second City touring company.  Holly holds a M.A. in Interdisciplinary Arts from Columbia College and teaches improv everywhere.

Photo © Mae Martin

Photo © Mae Martin

If you’re me and you like to write, you’ll rewrite something over and over again. In improv we don’t have this option. We are writing in the moment with no editor and sometimes no forethought whatsoever.

When we start off as improvisers doing this crazy thing like writing in the moment with others on stage, we often dislike or forget to honour and explore the first few things we offer up. I mean, why would we? We are just dumping our mind garbage, to quote my friend Freddie Rivas, all over the stage and hoping that within that heap of waste there is something worth taking a deeper look at.

We often run past or own brilliance at the top of a scene with blinding speed and agility. We think it can’t be that easy. That look, that line of dialogue, your body language. No it can’t be that simple. Let’s find something else to explore! We are complicated begins and when we make stuff up we often bring our own complexities on stage and forget to listen to the precious, brilliant and simple things we offer each other.

Everything we say and do on stage is precious.

Every look, every line, every movement or gesture can be the key to unlocking the greatest scene you’ve ever played. Stop running past the top of your scene and start being precious with every moment.

In improv you’re right. It’s not like the outside world, where we are constantly told we aren’t right, and that we aren’t good enough and that we have to be better. In improv we are always right.

The choices you make and the choices I make are right and they were never wrong, we just have to stop and recognize how beautiful, how simplistic and how precious these moments really are.

Only you can give yourself an improv scene, start trusting that your offers are good enough, start being precious with the things you say and do on stage, but remember: they are precious only in the moment. When that scene is over it will never be done again and there is no going back. That is when we no longer need to be precious. We celebrate the moment and move on, hopefully taking a lesson learned with us to the next.

This is The Precious Nature of Things, and I’m David Suzuki.

Kidding. I’m Matt Folliott.

Matt Folliott is an actor/improviser/comedian, and member of Standards & Practices. He’s performed in festivals across North America, including DCM, CIF, VIIF, Out Of Bounds, Improvaganza, and Mprov. To learn more visit his website, or check out his Fuck Yes! with Moniquea Marion podcast.

1. Nobody forgot their medication. They’re always like this.

Photo © Kevin Thom

2. You don’t need to look for it. It’s right in front of you.

Photo © Kevin Thom

3. You have a surprisingly strong opinion about what your partner is doing.

Photo © Kevin Thom

4. If you really don’t want to do something, do it.

Photo © Kevin Thom

5. Yes, you should have edited there.

Photo © Kevin Thom

6. If you do it twice, you have to do it three times.

Photo © Kevin Thom

7. No house painter has ever had an amazing new house painting technique.

Reid&Jen@RevelbyKThom

8. You’re never just doing stuff. Figure out why you’re doing it the way you’re doing it.

Ken@RevelbyKThom

9. We don’t care about what you don’t care about.

M+A@RevelbyKThom

10. Why you do what you do is what you’ll do next.

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All photos © Kevin Thom

Doug Sheppard is a Web developer by trade, and a writer and improviser by vocation. He lives in Toronto and considers it one of the finest places in all of Canada. You may also be amused by his twitter, or you can see him perform live improvisational comedy without a net with the Tomes Adventure Hour.

Photo © Kevin Thom

Photo © Kevin Thom

What if you could start over whenever you wanted? What if you could begin again? What if you could begin again again? What would you do differently if you could do it differently? When do you have the chance to do THAT?

Hm?

Well, you can each time you step on a stage, sit before a blank page, pick up your axe, sit at the bench, stand by the easel. You just have to decide that you are starting fresh. All it takes is your being aware that always your point of view can be at the “Point of New.”

What’s stopping you from starting anew?

You. Your story, your decision to think that you’re helplessly, hopelessly connected to your past actions. You know the dialogue:

“That’s what always happens.”

“That’s just the way we are.”

“I’m the kinda person who…”

“My family’s history is…”

“I’ll never get it.”

Or the classic:

“I don’t know.”

You do know, don’t you, that it’s your decision to state those statements, to engage in that text, to play that part? All of those sentences you decide to utter. Your choice to engage the thoughts then carry on with what you think is your destiny. We do it mindlessly.

UH-UH!

Be mindful that your words matter. Be aware that your thoughts are being thought. That your mental texts have weight. You give them weight. You give them meaning. You choose to dwell on them. Think about it. You might not say the “C” word or the “N” word. These are two of the heavy weight heavyweights. For some these words are “cringe-worthy” because we’ve given them power.

Your engaging in the sentences above are just as cringeable. Those two pieces of architecture have the same energy as the words you might use on yourself: the story that you “suck,” that “others are better at improv than you,” that others have “more experience,” are “blessed with wit,” or good looks or a better family who cares more for them than you perceived your family cared for you. These are bullshit memes that lets your ego control your artistry.

Your ego does not control you. You choose to let your ego control you. You do it by listening to it, then engaging in it. In all of the museums, in all of the theaters, in all of the galleries, in any hall or field or closet or on any wall there is no artwork that was created through the union of inspiration and ego. None. It can’t be made because that voice that you’re letting to speak drowns out the voice that you use to produce your output of you-ness.

Each time I stand at the entrance to the stage I’m aware that I’m standing in the middle of absolute nothingness, emptiness, a blank canvas. It’s the opportunity for me to be aware of non-engagement. I am not attached to my past performances, I am not aware of what I’ve done “wrong,” or what I’ve done “right.” I am just there. When I’m just standing in that void I’m present to my openness, my chance to listen to all that is happening. Not what has happened, nor what I hope will happen. It’s a sacred space, that place right where I’ll be entering the stage. My awareness to the stillness that’s there helps me to be affected by whatever stimulus I enter into on the stage, the stillness that’s there not because I put it there, but because it’s been there the whole time.

It’s the opportunity for a birth. Not a re-birth. A birth. Clean, fresh, aware, awake, alive, alert. It’s not an opportunity to run the mental newsreel, to make sure that the plan is going to go as planned when you planned it during the time that you planned it. It’s your opportunity to leave the baggage in the car, to store the stuff in the locker, to time to start anew. To keep what went on yesterday securely stored in the “history bin” you keep out of reach. Now is the best time. Now. Now. Now.

The time is always there. Always. Just like the moment is. Weird, huh?

©2013 David Razowsky

If you’d like to learn more about David’s workshops, i-Acting classes, shows, and other cool stuff, visit www.davidrazowsky.com. And if you haven’t already, subscribe to his podcast, A.D.D. Comedy with Dave Razowsky and Ian Foley. It really is the shizz.

If you’re a regular improviser, my guess is that there are two elements of the improv universe that keep you coming back over and over.

The first is that it’s fun. Being up onstage helping to create something out of nothing that delights an audience is a pretty spectacular feeling. Not only that, but you are surrounded by kind, hilarious and unique fellow improvisers, whom you quickly build friendships with, spending many nights laughing over drinks while recounting the insane moments of that night’s performance. “I can’t believe we kept bringing back Dr. Fart Sandwich!” you’ll say to me, and I’ll agree: I can’t believe it, either.

The second aspect of improv that has you trudging through bad weather to do a 20 minute set for 5 audience members is this: you want to get better. Beyond the joy of getting laughs and living in the moment, you have a desire to improve your craft and become the sort of performer you look up to. Let’s talk about how to do that. I apologize in advance for doing most of the talking.

In his book Talent is Overrated, Fortune magazine editor Geoff Colvin theorizes that those who truly excel in any area of life engage in something called purposeful practice. Purposeful practice is just what it sounds like: it’s practice with a specific goal in mind. Using Tiger Woods as an example, Colvin argues that Woods does not just mindlessly hit golf balls for hours on end, hoping he will improve through sheer repetition. He works relentlessly on minute aspects of putting, chipping and driving the ball – often getting worse before he gets better – in order to achieve the ultimate aim of becoming a more well-rounded professional.  He’s also doing it to get laid.

And so it goes with improv. If you want to become a better improviser, you need to be able to honestly assess where you’re at, identify what you need to work on, then use your stage time effectively in building up a specific skill. Yes, taking classes can help, but if you are not actively training yourself to understand why some improv choices are stronger than others, you are mostly wasting your time and money. No matter how great your instructor, she can only give you exercises to do and feedback to consider: it’s up to you to internalize what she’s saying.

But here’s the good news: the opportunity to grow as a performer is all around you. If you are fortunate enough to live in or near a city with a large comedy community, you are truly blessed with the possibility of watching some of the best improvisers in the world perform for you. Every night. For free. Rather than simply watching them passively and marveling at their brilliance, look for what they’re doing. Maybe someone plays hilarious original characters, or is brilliant with ‘game of the scene,’ or, even better, can sit in real emotions and be genuinely affected. Add these tools and hone them in shows of your own.

But how do I hone these skills, you ask? Simple: you fail. A lot. You fail spectacularly and brilliantly. You do cringe worthy scenes with a dumbfounded audience that sits in hideous silence. You feel intensely uncomfortable and wish this damn scene would just end already. But you persevere: you’re going to portray this Scottish bartender as realistically as possible, damn it! And you learn through this. And your brain starts to make distinctions. And you grow.

That’s mainly what I had to say, but I’ll leave you with a few additional thoughts on getting better and improv in general.

  • If you sign up for an improv class, I beg you: take notes. Six months after the course ends, you will have forgotten 90 percent of what you were taught (I made that percentage up, but you see my point). Review these notes early and often. Internalize them.
  • You are an improv free agent. Your improv team is temporary and will soon break up. That is not to devalue the experience, however: use the time you have with your team to learn how to work with performers of varying playing styles. And build lasting friendships, too, of course!
  • Want a practical tip on how to become a better improviser right away? Here you go:  stop walking into scenes. If you watch enough improv, you’ll notice that walking into scenes is almost always a terrible choice, and is by far the biggest pitfall of intermediate improvisers. Yes, there are some wonderful and hilarious walk-ons that enhance things, but this is usually pulled off by very high caliber players. Want to help out with the scene? Sweep it.
  • Replicate real human behavior on stage. Not every audience member will appreciate your super-specific Star Trek: Deep Space Nine references (even if they should, because it was a great show) but everyone can identify with an overworked mom, an emotionally distant dad or a controlling….cousin? Sorry, it’s late.
  • Want to know your improv secret weapon? It’s you! Your life experience and personality is unique to you and you alone. My best imitation of you would pale in comparison to the genuine article. Show us who you are and let us into your heart.
  • If you can do all this and incorporate Dr. Fart Sandwich you have mastered the art form and can move on to Ultimate Frisbee or something.

Jordan Kennedy is an improviser in Toronto. He’s not the best improviser around, but he’s got a little better over time, so he thought he’d write about it.       

Photo © Chris Frampton

Photo © Chris Frampton

Focus, grasshopper.

That one word, focus, means so many things to those of us in the entertainment industry. It could apply to a camera lens (the gate), a spotlight, a level of concentration or being the centre of attention. For our purposes, let’s consider the latter.

Focus, to an improviser, means everyone is paying attention to one thing and one thing only. It could be a person, an object, an atmosphere (as set by the lights) or a sound, even if only for a split second. You are in a scene where you and your scene partner are on the lam when suddenly the stage is flooded with red and blue lights. Did that get your attention? Then focus shifted.

There are only two ways focus shifts. The first is to surrender it to someone. Some folks prefer to say you offer it but since the word ‘offer’ already has a significant meaning in improv, I like the term surrender. To surrender focus is to either give it away voluntarily by acknowledging another improviser has something new to offer to the scene (see, the word in action) or because it was stolen and you resigned yourself to the fact that you lost it.

Which leads us to the second way focus shifts; it is taken. It was surrendered to you and you accepted it or, again, you stole it. Stealing focus need not be a bad thing. BANG! Did that get your attention? Then the sound stole focus.

And the two MUST always work together. Scenes fail when someone surrenders focus but no one accepts it OR a second improviser steals it but the first refuses to give it up. Often, that’s when the scene becomes confused and irritating.

Ideas grow strongest if they are diverse. Everyone should contribute, everyone should play. If you wanted to do it alone, you’d be doing a one man show … or stand up (wait, did I just diss myself here???).

As improvisers, it’s important to know who has focus and who wants it. We do this by listening, not just with our ears, mind you, but with all our senses (okay, maybe not smell unless you can detect that whiff of fear in a rookie). If it is true that our function on stage is to make our scene partners look good, then sharing focus is the primary method by which we accomplish this.

And how do we share focus? By holding on to it until someone is willing to accept it, then surrendering it graciously. This seems obvious, I know, and yet so many improvisers insist on retaining focus longer then they should.

But what if they didn’t know anyone else wanted it? Then why is everyone else on stage? Pay attention, your fellow improvisers will cue you. Of course, they can always steal focus, which is the most obvious cue of all. If they do, surrender it graciously. Don’t worry, you’ll get it back and when you do, the scene will be that much richer, with so much more in it to work with.

PeterC

Photo by Nicole Cianfarani

Peter Cianfarani is both shiftless and without marketable skills. He is usually brought on board a project where results are not important. Given this, he isn’t even qualified to work as a Stand Up and/or Improviser but somehow managed to become the Chief Coordinator for the Improv Alliance (a group of Ontario improv troupes including Durham Improv, Georgetown Little Improv Company, Hamilton’s Staircase Improv, McMaster University’s Improv Team, Oakville Improv Theatre Company, Orangeville Improv, Peterborough Academy Of Performing Arts, Toronto’s Centre for Indigenous Theatre and York Region’s Triptych Lounge Comedy Improv, to which he is also the Artistc Director), a founding member of the Dog’s Hind Leg and the co-creator of ‘The Ladder’ improv competition. Now who says you can’t achieve mediocrity without trying?

Photo © Kevin Thom

Photo © Kevin Thom

If you’re a comedian living in Canada, it’s likely you’ve heard about this Guy Earle case. And for good reason.

In 2007, while dealing with a table of hecklers (Lorna Pardy and her girlfriend), stand-up comedian Guy Earle let loose a series of lesbian jokes (maybe homophobic slurs?) which later brought him in front of the Human Rights Tribunal. He lost the case and was forced to pay $15,000, which coincidentally is the annual income of the average stand-up comedian.

Last week the Supreme Court of British Columbia upheld the ruling.

So what does that mean for you, an improviser working (for free, probably) in Canada?

You have to deal with the audience’s suggestions every night. And most of those suggestions are “dildo.” What rights do you have?

Plus, you’re not perfect. Some scenes work, others fail. Most new jokes fail. And like all comedians, you love pushing boundaries. (Have you ever seen the Catch-23 improv game, “More Rape, More Retarded”? You’re probably better off if you haven’t…)

The question for every comedian in Canada is: What jokes are in your act that could get you pulled in front of the next Human Rights Tribunal?

More importantly, is Canada still a safe place for edgy, alternative comedy?

This question bothered me so much, I spent a weekend with a bottle of Glen Livet and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and found out the answer. And it’s yes. Surprisingly, yes. Canada is a great, safe, liberal place to make jokes at the expense of others. But there are some limitations.

With the help of a few lawyer friends, I put together some easy guidelines (not actual legal advice, they made me say that), to prevent you from accidentally joking your way into Guy Earle-like martyrdom.

The Guy Earle case has taught me how much freedom we as comedians actually have, and how one stand-up could get absolutely everything wrong in a single set. So let’s get started…

1. There’s a big difference between playing a paid set and an open mic.

At an open mic or an improv jam, you’re a patron of the club just like everyone else. But as soon as you become a paid comedian, you could be considered an employee of the club. Now you’re subject to workplace discrimination laws, which are more restrictive than the “freedom of expression” afforded to you in the Charter.

Guy Earle wasn’t charged for Hate Speech (inciting violence towards a minority group, one of the few limitations of free speech), but rather discrimination in the workplace. Section 8 of the Human Rights Code protects minority groups from being harassed while obtaining a service available to the public. The Supreme Court ruled the heckler (Ms. Pardy) had the right to hear Earle’s act without being singled out as a “stupid dyke.” [324]

2. Your jokes about ethnicity, sexuality, and gender are protected by the Charter of Rights and Freedom.

Even if you’re being paid, most jokes you make are protected as free speech. Even if they are offensive. Even if they aren’t funny. Even if they seem racist, sexist, or homophobic to your audience. Or if you clumsily parade sensitive topics like rape, incest, or the Holocaust. You are welcome to act like a bigot onstage, provided you can argue that these jokes “expose prejudices” of bigots. [336]

Guy Earle argued that his interaction with Lorna Pardy was satirical: “an aspect of self-realization for both speakers and listeners.” Which is kind of insane. He argued he was pointing out the problems with homophobia, by directing slurs at an actual lesbian. But if the same exchange had occurred between two comedians onstage (or at least not directed at a specific audience member), Earle’s case may have been summarily dismissed. [453]

3. Leave what happened onstage, onstage.

When hosting a comedy event, you have to shut down hecklers. It’s one of your few jobs. (Others include pretending that last act was funny, continually asking: “Is everyone having a good time?” and sitting in the green room playing Kingdom Rush on your iPad.)

But shutting down a drunk, belligerent heckler is when things can get out of hand.

Do what you need to onstage, but don’t continue the conflict at the bar. Go home. Have a smoke. Get back together with your ex. Do whatever it takes to stop yourself from re-engaging with your heckler.

A big problem for Earle was that he continued to call Pardy names after the set was over. He even escalated events by breaking her sunglasses. It was impossible to justify Earle’s comments as “performance” after it continued away from the stage. [330]

4. A “justified response” has a lot to do with what has come before, and what your peers are doing.

Shutting down a heckler is a common practice in comedy. How other comedians deal with the audience is a great benchmark for how you should treat your audience. If you can prove your jokes are common practice, then it’s harder to suggest discrimination.

You don’t have to perform the same jokes, sketches, or shortform games as others, but as long as you’re in the same ballpark, these could be argued as “common practices.” But as my lawyer friend explained: “ultimately, it depends on context.”

One of Earle’s biggest problems was that he couldn’t prove his conduct was typical for a comedy club. Not when he personally dealt with hecklers. And it wasn’t part of his act. He couldn’t even prove that it was an average response for other stand-ups dealing with a hostile crowd. This part of the ruling made me wonder if Earle was even trying to win the case.  [332]

5. Clearly establish the heckler before ripping into them.

Asking “Who just said that?” is great protection for comedians. Shutting down a heckler is common practice (so it has a justified response), but accosting a random audience member out of the blue is not. Just make sure you have the right person first, then let your Reign of Burns begin.

Improvisers might also think about getting consent before bringing an audience member onstage. Or riffing with them in the crowd. You might be able to argue that by agreeing they are now a participant in the show. Which is an entirely different legal relationship.

Earle’s lawyers argue that just by Ms Pardy calling out, she involved herself in the show, making anything said part of the show. Unfortunately, no one could prove Ms Pardy heckled during the show. None of the other comedians or witnesses could confirm that fact. Another major fail for Earle.  [323]

6. This isn’t legal advice at all. It’s common sense: don’t be an asshole.

It has happened to every comedian I know. Something goes wrong in your set. You offend someone and then during or after your set you are confronted. Maybe you break every guideline listed above. If you do, find that audience memeber and make it right with them.

That doesn’t mean you have to apologize for your joke. But sympathize with their concerns. Try to explain your perspective on why what you said onstage is important. Don’t expect to change their viewpoint, but just by listening you lessen their outrage. The less angry they are, the less likely they are to take legal action.

Lorna Pardy has spent the last five years dealing with lawyers, testifying in court, and dealing with appeals. That’s a massive commitment of her life. No one wants to take legal action. No one thinks “I’ll sue that comedian wearing Modrobes pants from 1995 and then I’ll be rich!” They do it because their beliefs are important to them, and if they don’t stand up to you, no one will. So make it easier for them. Let them be heard.

Personally, I think Guy Earle could have prevented this whole situation with a simple apology afterwards. Instead his stubbornness and pride (how proud can you be when you’re hosting a Tuesday open mic at a place called Zesty’s?) allowed this to become a human rights issue.

This has become an important issue for comedians in Canada. None of us want to sit around making safe jokes about the suburbs (Whitby) and making fun of shitty universities (Lakehead).  Ethically, we are obliged to push societal taboos and challenge our audience. It is literally in our job description. So go ahead and keep doing it.

Just don’t get yourself sued. And if you do get sued, it’s probably because you’re a gay retarded Muslim woman rapist. (Thank you Charter of Rights and Freedoms.)

Special thanks to Alex Colangelo, Claire Farmer, and Katie Beahan.

Rob Norman is an actor, improviser, director, and a writer for Sexy Nerd Girl. He’s also a Second City alumnus and four-time Canadian Comedy Award nominee. You can catch Rob performing at Comedy Bar with the testosterone-infused improv juggernaut Mantown.

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