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Most live theatre is aimed at stand-up, sketch, improv, or concert audiences. Live From The Annex combines all of them – with a side of hummous – in a series of shows the first Tuesday of each month. We spoke with Artistic Director Brian G. Smith and Programmer Sasha Wentges about the project.

Photo © Robert Trick Photography

Photo © Robert Trick Photography

P&C: Tell us a little about Live At The Annex; how it came about and what the audience can expect.

BGS: Well first of all, Sally, it’s called Live FROM the Annex, and so now I’m pissed off. Nice start: you made a middle-aged, single father cry. Way to go.

SW: Live From the Annex grew out of a class that Brian was teaching at Annex Improv. Laurie Murphy (LFTA co-producer) and I were both students in the class at the time. We pitched the idea of doing live performances in a cabaret setting to Brian at our local watering hole after class one evening. We planted the seed. He watered it and out grew Live From The Annex.

BGS: It occurred to me that if we created a third level to the Annex Improv program (Performance Ensemble), and gave it an on-camera element, that would help make the idea of producing a cabaret justifiable business-wise for me. ‘Cause I needed another thing to do every month like I need another three-year-old who won’t eat anything but pizza and who takes 20 minutes just to get his goddammed shoes on. Seriously, I’m so busy with that shit already it’s insane. But another revenue stream for the school seemed like a good idea.

SW: So Brian created another level to his classes with the understanding that whoever was in that class would get a chance to perform in the monthly cabaret series. The 12 of us drank a bunch of beers one night after class and came up with ‘Brunswick Stew’ as the name. They would become the ‘host troupe’, and we rounded out the evening with a guest musician; a sketch troupe and some audience participation.

BGS: I hired Lisa Merchant to teach/direct the Performance level. She’s a kick-ass teacher, and that’s what they needed to get in shape for a show of this calibre. She focused intensely for six weeks on ensemble character and relationship work, ’cause apparently I suck at relationships, so what did I have to teach them. That’s why I’m picking up endless Spiderman shit by myself day in, day out.

P&C: Live From The Annex combines theatre with an online streaming component. How do the two relate to each other?

BGS: I have been working at finding a way to bring Toronto improv to another (audience) level ever since the days of Bruce Hunter’s Workshop at the Second City Tim Sims Playhouse in the late ’90s.

I would go home after watching those shows and think: “How can this amazing, world-class, local comedy talent get out to a bigger audience?” When Livestreaming became a thing, I bought a bunch of HD gear and started to do that around town (e.g.  Pat Thornton’s 24 Hours of Stand-up for Stephen Lewis, and Streamfest).

SW: Brian decided that he really wanted to have not just the studio in-house participation, but also the live-streamed audience participating through twitter feeds etc. We launched a ‘pilot’ version on April 7th. Audiences can expect a well-crafted show with some top-notch performers and a live ‘visual classroom’ with Brunswick Stew – and of course, free hummous!

BGS: Also, Lisa and I came up with a super-cool idea to make the Brunswick Stew portion of the show a visible classroom, where she would not only side-coach to help them out if they got in trouble, but also to point out shit that was really working – so that the audience would get an education about improv strategies while they enjoyed the show. Then Lisa fucked off to do a gig in England, and so I have to do it. Relationships, am I right?

P&C: How do you choose the acts for each show?

BGS: That’s Sasha’s baby.

SW: I tend to go out to see a lot of stuff in the city. I’m restless that way; I choose from whom I like and who is available at the time. Then Brian and I look at our options and put together the best combo for variety and overall excellence.

P&C: Brian, you’ve been involved with the Centre for Social Innovation for some time, filming, teaching improv, and now with Live From The Annex. What’s different about CSI than most other venues?

BGS: CSI Annex is a very cool place with a culture all of its own. NFPs, charities and tech start-ups mixing and connecting with each other. Over the last couple of years, I’ve outfitted one of CSI’s big flexible meeting rooms (The Garage) with a stage, lights, etc. It’s become a 75-seat cabaret theatre and we’ve had a bunch of parties and shows and video shoots down there for all the CSI members and guests. I charge them SO MUCH MONEY! I’m telling you, I’m rolling in it – shooting fish in a fucking barrel.

SW: I think the main message at CSI is the art of collaboration. Just as the three of us, Brian, Laurie, and Sasha are collaborating, so is CSI collaborating with us.

BGS: That’s a better answer. Please don’t print my last bit.

P&C: As improv continues to grow in popularity, do you find audiences are no longer just improvisers performing for each other?

SW: Having other elements in the show (e.g. music, CSI member profiling) exposes all our acts to potential new crowds.

BGS: My goal is to get as many people as possible to watch the shows on the www. Laurie has worked hard to pull together all the social media clout of our partners and sponsors (100s of thousands) to drive traffic to our livestream: Dailymotion.com/YouAndMedia. I want to disrupt the notion that improv and live club comedy doesn’t translate to the screen. I think you just have to serve it up in a way that’s palatable. And that starts with really good audio. Then add three-camera live switching. Then really good Toronto comedy, which we have in spades.

Catch Live From The Annex starting tomorrow, Tuesday, May 5. Doors open at 7:30 pm. Featuring Colin Sharpe, The Templeton Philarmonic, Dr. Ew, Brunswick Stew and host Brian G. Smith. With talent like this, it’s just a matter of time before they get Sabra to sponsor.

Photo © Robert Trick Photography

Photo © Robert Trick Photography

The Whiplash

A Coach comes out, introduces the team and says, “Thank you ladies and gentlemen, we’re very excited to be here. Tonight we’re going to kick things off with a brand new format. It’s unlike any long-form you’ve ever seen: bold, original, hilarious, and heartbreaking. The team’s been working on it for months, so please sit back and enjoy The [Mosquito/Can Opener/Banana/Shoelace/whatever pops in the Coach’s head].”

He gives the stunned performers a smirking look, and exits.

The Get                                                                                                            

A 25-minute set where the team spends the entire time getting the suggestion.

They start by explaining the rules of the show they’re about to perform (“This microphone is a lever that takes us to another dimension.” “When I snap my fingers, we start speaking in Russian.” etc.) Players can also riff off of each other’s suggestions, tell monologues, scene paint, or do whatever it takes to fill their allotted time.

When they finally take a suggestion, lights out.

The Deep End

Grab a Level A student and throw them in with your highest-ranking Harold team.

Photo © Kevin Thom

Photo © Kevin Thom

Short Form Long

A 25-minute set of a short-form game. If it’s “Sit, Stand, Bend,” openings and group games would incorporate all three actions, and edits would be done while bending over, or sitting in a chair and scraping it across the stage.

See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil

Three players. One puts on noise-cancelling headphones, the second blindfolds him or herself, and the third tapes their mouth shut for the entire set.

The Tweet

At the start of the show, everyone (performers and audience) logs on to twitter.

Players are seated with their smartphones on stage. They tweet to each other, line by line, never looking up from their phones.

The audience watches the show the same way.

Deuce

Create a stage at the back of the theatre and have two competing sets. Each team gives and takes focus, going scene by scene.

Halfway through the show, the audience faces their chair towards whichever show is better. One team wins when they get the other audience’s whole front row to turn their backs.

Reverse Steamroller

A strong improviser who normally drives scenes walks out on stage. Before they can utter a word, players on the side narrate all of the dialogue and action for him/her.

The Dinner Party

Two performers show up at a formal dinner party to provide the entertainment. No matter what they do, the diners ignore them and carry on their own conversations.

Time Traveller

The team gets in a time machine (for real) and goes back in time, changing a historical event to make it funnier. They come back to the present and reference it on stage.

Jokes will not land, as the audience will only know of the event in its new form.

Normally we’re suspicious of anything titled “Spoof! Funny!” It’s a bit like the greasy spoon with the “Best Coffee In Town” sign. But with Chef Gordon Ramsay as clickbait, how could we resist?

We’ve written before about not acting funny if you wanna be funny, and this video is a perfect example of how contrast creates comedy. With skilful editing, Ramsay is the straight man to a crazy situation, and the results are effing brilliant.

Click here or below to view.

Ramsay Spoof

Photo © Kevin Thom

Photo © Kevin Thom

One of the great reasons to love improv is its fleeting nature. There’s no record of it. It comes, it goes. We’re left with our memories of it. Our memories. It’s a nice gift we let ourselves have. It helps if you like you.

One of the great things about performing improv is that we aren’t able to watch ourselves improvise. We have a vision in our skull of what we look like when we’re in the act of unfolding a character. It helps us unfold and evolve that character, for there’s no evidence as to whether we’re “doing it right” or “doing it wrong.” Because we don’t see it, we give ourselves the opportunity to just create without self-judgment.

That is, until someone does something that puts our process smack dab into our eyes.

When I was the Artistic Director at Second City Los Angeles we had a very small space that was our theatre. Just a black box, a small riser of a stage, and flat black walls. One day our stage manager, all on his own, decided it would be a good idea to put mirrors up on the walls. All the walls. Covered ’em. Now every interaction was brilliantly reflected, every action apparent, every movement mirrored.

I hated it. I’m long gone from that event and I still cringe. When I was on stage living a character that was a beautiful woman, now I could see that I wasn’t. I was me…a man. When I was on stage being a young boy character, now I could see that I wasn’t. I was me…a man. When I was on stage acting all suave Daniel Craig-y, now I could see that I wasn’t. I was me, Jewish David Razowsky.

That mirror invited my ego in, my “self” in. It trumped my imagination, it heavily challenged my suspension of disbelief, it brought “me” in, when I didn’t need “me” to appear, nor to be an arbiter of how I was doing.

Over the years I’ve learned to be mindful, to be in the moment, to give focus to what serves my joy and my scene partner. I’ve learned to stop looking into a mirror, realizing that so often that mirror isn’t literally a mirror, rather it’s a mental reflection where we artists sacrifice the joy of the process for the “thrill” of falling down the rabbit hole of doubt, dancing with judgment and second-guessing. I’ve learned to see the mirror, but not to look into it.

David Razowsky is a master improv instructor. He’s the former Artistic Director of the Second City Training Centre, a co-founder of the Annoyance Theatre, and the host and creative force of ADD Podcast with Dave Razowsky and Ian Foley. He has a long list of celebrity friends, and an equally impressive collection of Bloody Mary photos.

David Shore is an alumnus of The Second City Mainstage and iO West. A 13-time Canadian Comedy Award nominee and two-time winner, he is the founder of Monkey Toast. In 2010 he relocated to the UK and is now Artistic Director of Monkey Toast UK, where he oversees both its improv school and shows.

David Shore & Monkey Toast Cast

When did you first know you wanted to do improv/comedy/acting for a living?

I don’t know that it was ever a conscious decision. It’s more something that just happened and I think a lot of people in my age range came about it this way. I wanted to write sitcoms and got into acting in a backwards way. I fell in love with long form the first time I saw Bitter Noah at the newly opened IO West. I never thought I could earn a living at this or the direction that it would take my life in. I just knew that I had to try it.

What were you doing before this?

I am overly educated. I have a BA and a BAA. The second degree is from RTA at Ryerson. I wanted to be a TV writer/producer.  That’s what took me down to LA and that’s where I discovered long form. As jobs I’d worked at a custom B&W photo lab, was the receptionist at a gay synagogue, and also worked as a headshot photographer. But I was trying, with minimal effort, to be a sitcom writer.

Who has had the greatest influence on your career, and why?

That’s really hard to say.  I’ve learned so much and have been shaped by my improv teachers and cast mates. Scot Robinson’s class at the IO West in LA had a profound affect on me. He’s simply the best teacher I’ve ever had. He doesn’t get enough credit. He’s one of the founders of The Annoyance. Shulie Cowen, my former coach taught me a ton and so did Jenna Jolovich, who taught me how to act while eating after a show at Canter’s Deli. Also, Paul Valencourt, who was in Bitter Noah and opened up the IO West and was my first teacher there. He was and is amazing.

There was one event that changed everything about the way that I play and the way that I teach was taking Alan Arkin’s workshop in Toronto at the Second City. He worked directly with Spolin and literally changed my life (and I know many others who took the course that felt the same way).

I still quote him to this day to all of my students and do some of the exercises that he did with us. Most importantly, he taught me that a character doesn’t need to change and in many cases, must not. I did a scene with Albert Howell, and Arkin told me to pick an emotion and play it. I was a baker in a bakery, and I chose happy. So when Albert came in, I was very happy. Then he said, “I’ve just seen Cynthia,” and I heard something in his tone, so I suddenly became sad. It was a good scene but at the end, Arkin asked me, “What was your emotional choice at the top of the scene?” I told him that I was happy. He then asked, why I changed. I told him because of Albert’s offer. He had us do the scene again, and told me, “This time, not matter what, stay happy.”  The scene worked on a completely different level. It was a real eureka moment.

What was your first paid improv-related job?

Well when I came back from LA to Toronto, I did a run of the One-Man Harold at the Tim Sims Playhouse and actually made some good money off of that. But I suppose it really would have to be when I was hired to join the Second City Mainstage.

How much have former instructors, coaches, and team members played a part in your career?

I guess I already answered this question. If you don’t learn from the people that you’re playing with, then there’s something wrong with you or you’re simply not learning. I was lucky that I got to play with these amazing Chicago alumni rather quickly out in LA.  That gave me the confidence that I could play. But the people on my Harold teams were tremendous influences on me. I had a core of about 3-4 people that I played with regularly for three years in LA, and it was just so supportive and fun and really cutting edge for the time.

Do you see improv as a means to doing other work, or an end in itself?

I think most people get into it to do something else, like writing or acting. I did it because I had writer’s block and I wanted to meet people and form a sketch troupe. But once I got into Chicago-style, I wasn’t so concerned with writing anymore. For me it is an end onto itself, but it has certainly made me a better writer (or at least I think so). It’s also one of the most social things that you can do. I made and still have great friends out in LA, and made a ton of new friends in Toronto when I returned (I was not part of the scene before I left). Now almost all of my friends in London are through improv. Because you’re onstage with people with nothing but “yes, and” and trust, you bond much quicker and form deeper friendships.

When you hear the words “working improviser,” what comes to mind? 

To me that’s someone who earns most if not all of their living via improv. I think the majority do it through teaching and corporate work. While corporate work pays more, it is much less rewarding. I think there are very few who can earn a living by just performing improv. In Canada, I don’t know if anyone outside of Colin Mochrie, and the Second City Mainstage cast who earn a living from just performing improv. Certainly lots of people act and write.

Describe a typical day in your life.

I don’t really have a typical day, and I suppose that’s typical. I teach a few nights a week and do a double on one day of the weekend. If it’s the weekend, I’ll drag my ass out of bed, eat, shower and make a sandwich before heading off into central London to teach. I’ll teach for six hours straight, and then most likely have a drink with the final class once it’s over. I may got out to eat, or meet my wife somewhere, but most likely I’ll head home and have dinner with my wife and spend some time with her.

During the week, I will get up and do whatever is on my to-do list. Depending on what time of year it is I may have a ton of admin to do as I run my own improv school. So I may have 4-6 hours of admin to do on any day (we’re looking for ways to streamline this). Right now, I don’t have much admin, so I might go run errands, work on promoting the upcoming show, book guests for future shows and then I’ll head off to work in central London. After class, I will sometimes stay for a drink and if not, I’ll head home and will relax a bit with my wife before going to bed.

What’s the salary range for an improviser in your city?

I really don’t know what the salary range is in London. I know that I earn almost all of my income from teaching and running classes. I always tell people that if they’re getting into this to be rich, then do something else. There are far easier ways to make money.

What are the differences (if any) between improv in the UK and North America?

There’s a tremendous amount of talent here and work ethic is impressive. Performance-wise, some of the biggest differences are the lack of the “where” when doing a scene, and the Brits’ tendency to try and be clever. There is also a false belief that audiences in North America are better educated in improv, but I don’t feel that’s true. I think improv is one of the most underrated and under-appreciated art forms pretty much everywhere.

Improv has been steadily infiltrating corporate and popular culture. With all of the interest in improvisation, why is it still so difficult to get bums on seats at shows? (Or is it, in your experience?)

I think there are lots of reasons for this. First off, in North America you need a machine behind you to put bums in seats because people just don’t go out as much. The Second City has people whose full time job it is to sell tickets. That makes a big difference.  Also, for whatever reason, if people see a bad improv show, they think all improv is bad. They don’t feel that way about stand-up or sketch.

Also, there’s a big problem with the way that groups promote themselves. How many groups promote themselves as being amazing or some of the best, when really they’re not very good or they suck? Yes, suck. Are you really pros? There is a difference, and unfortunately only people in the local improv community know the difference.

What’s the best, worst, or weirdest improv gig you’ve done?

The worst was easily when the Signa Nu fraternity bought out the Second City for their international convention. Playing before 400 frat boys was the worst experience that I’ve ever had. Maybe that only qualifies for sketch. Doing improv in a tent in North Hollywood was pretty weird. They had this beautiful theatre where we thought we were going to perform, but someone thought it would be great to put improv outdoors, near the music tent. They even promoted the should as a children’s show, which it was not.  My coach was furious, and at one point jumped into a scene and started shooting people. I have a vivid memory of a mother grabbing her young son and quickly taking him out of the tent.

Do you think it’s easier to make a living as an improviser today than it was when you were starting out?

I think that it probably is as there’s more people doing it so there’s more opportunities.

Where do you see yourself 10 years from now?

Healthy, happy and still teaching but doing more Radio and TV as well.

David Shore & son Cale

David Pasquesi is an actor/improviser and Second City alumnus. He’s both lauded and loved by everyone who’s anyone in the improv community, and is the Dave half of legendary improv duo, TJ and Dave. His film and television credits include Groundhog Day, Strangers With Candy, Angels and Demons, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and Veep.

Photo © Eleonora Briscoe

Photo © Eleonora Briscoe

When did you first know you wanted to do improv/comedy/acting for a living?

For a living? I didn’t know it was even possible. First class was with Judy Morgan around 1981. And I loved it from the start. I had found something I enjoyed that was not illegal and that I was not terrible at.

Who has had the greatest influence on your career, and why?

There are many people who have helped me immeasurably all along, but the single person? I would have to say Del Close. He is the person who I had the most contact with. He was a generous man with his knowledge and experience.

What was your first paid improv-related job?

My first paid job in the umbrella of entertainment was stand up. I was the M.C. at The Chicago Comedy Showcase as I was studying improvisation with Del.

Do you see improv as a means to doing other work, or an end in itself?

Both.

When you hear the words “working improviser,” what comes to mind?

Waiter.

Describe a typical day in your life.

Jesus. No typical day. Lately it’s been trying to run this fucking theater with TJ.

A lot of folks come to improv classes and get stars in their eyes. What advice would you give to someone who wants to pursue improv for a living?  

If you are pursuing improvisation for the money…you are a fool. Do it because it isn’t a choice. You have to. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, then maybe that’s your answer.

Improv has been steadily infiltrating corporate and popular culture. With all of the interest in improvisation, why is it still so difficult to get bums on seats at shows? (Or is it, in your experience?)

I think because it is viewed as something everyone can do, there isn’t a need for me to pay to come see you do something I can do, too. So why should I pay to see you do it? Also, there are so many shows there isn’t enough audience to go around.

What’s the best, worst, or weirdest improv gig you’ve done?

Trying to do a Harold outdoors with no stage in the summer in a park on grass and dirt between stands of trees at Taste of Chicago as tourists ambled past on their way to ribs and cheesecake. And also, no one in the world knew what a Harold was.

Best for me is TJ and Dave, some highlights were doing TJ and Dave at Town hall in New York City. Also a European tour doing TJ and Dave. Factory, a TV show improvised with other guys from iO. Mitch Rouse’s show with me, Jay Leggett and Mike Coleman. All of us friends, we had a bunch of our friends come do stuff with us. And of course, the beginning with Del and just starting the Harold. That was very exciting.

Do you think it’s easier to make a living as an improviser today than it was when you were starting out?

God yes. There was no way to make money as an improviser. The only paying job was Second City. And that was not to improvise.

Where do you see yourself 10 years from now?  

I don’t.

Susan Messing is fucking awesome. When we asked for a bio, she wrote: “Susan Messing has been an improviser and comedian for almost 30 years. So far so good, as no one has kicked her offstage. Yet.”

Photo © Brian McConkey

Photo © Brian McConkey

When did you first know you wanted to do improv/comedy/acting for a living?

I have always wanted to be an actor, a swimming coach, or a hockey goalie. After college, discovered improv and was hooked, especially because I wouldn’t have to memorize anything.

Who has had the greatest influence on your career, and why?

I would say that Mick Napier had the greatest influence on the kind of comedy that pleases me as he was someone who was doing it. That said, there have been a myriad of people whose work I have admired: Lucy, Gilda, Dick Gregory…

What was your first paid improv-related job?

My first paid job was kind of improvised. I was hired for a murder mystery at the Clock Tower Inn in Rockford, Illinois. I was the ‘killer’ but had to pretend all weekend that I was someone who would actually pay money to spend a weekend at The Clock Tower Inn in Rockford, Illinois to do a murder mystery. Mostly lying as myself.

How much have former instructors, coaches, and team members played a part in your career?

Everyone I have ever met has seeped into the core of my consciousness and shaped who I am.

Do you see improv as a means to doing other work, or an end in itself?

Improv is both for me.

What comes to mind when you hear the words “working improviser”?

When I hear the words ‘working improviser,’ that sounds like it is describing my life, teaching and performing here in the States and abroad. That said, improvisers can become copywriters, astronauts, and corporate trainers. This question makes me want to slap someone.

Describe a typical day in your life.

A typical day in my life involves keeping my child alive. I teach either at iO, The Annoyance, or The Second City, and three nights a week perform in one of those theaters. I manage to see my husband and tell him he’s brilliant, because he is. We have dumb animals that I keep alive too. Usually one weekend a month I am booked to go out of town to teach and perform.

What’s the salary range for a working improviser in your city?

No idea. I primarily make my living teaching and performing improv comedy, but I don’t think that most people do here in Chicago. Nobody does improv for the hope of a great salary. Ever.

Improv has been steadily infiltrating corporate and popular culture. With all of the interest in improvisation, why is it still so hard to get bums on seats at shows? (Or is it, in your experience?)

Here in Chicago and on the road, I am very spoiled and grateful in terms of having the best audiences, ever. That said, there are so many improv venues and opportunities to play that I think that people might occasionally get overwhelmed at their options. Also, they might just want to sit in front of the couch and smoke weed and watch The Bachelor.

What’s the best, worst, or weirdest gig you’ve done as an improviser?

See first job. The other ones I have probably blocked out of my memory for damn good reasons.

Do you see any advantages or disadvantages to being a woman in improv?

No.

Where do you see yourself 10 years from now?

Ten years from now I hope to have the laughter and joy of a healthy and happy daughter and the continued love of my husband, family, and friends. I will be doing exactly what I am doing with exactly who I want to be doing it with just like the present moment. I will be spending a lot of time in the Redwood Forest in a tiny house or home in Chicago with our several golden retrievers and little to no cats. I will be super cute which will translate into very sexy. I will be in support of a far more humane world with improv as a fine template. Happy and grateful and hopefully helpful.

Jimmy Carrane is an improviser, interviewer, teacher, author, and long-time member of the Chicago improv community. As creator and host of the Improv Nerd podcast, he’s interviewed the comedy cognoscenti, from TJ and Dave to Rachel Dratch to Bob Odenkirk. He is currently writing his third book about improv.

Jimmy Carrane headshot

Photo © Julia Marcus/Zoe McKenzie Photography

When did you first know you wanted to do improv/comedy/acting for a living?

I think when I was very young. My first memory was I wanted to be a stand up. I always loved comedy. I thought I was going to be a big, famous movie and TV star and have my own sitcom. As you know, those guys make a lot of money.

Who has had the greatest influence on your career, and why?

Lately, I would say Howard Stern. I have always been attracted to this whole concept of truth in comedy. I love his honesty. He can really tell a great story and he does wonderful interviews. I am more inspired by him than jealous, which for me is progress.

What was your first paid improv-related job?

David Koechner tells the story, which I barely remember, that apparently I had gotten a gig for a group of us doing improv games at a race track. As I remember it, the gig was doing games for some guy’s birthday party. Either way, we got paid. They paid me directly with a check and I divvyed up the money. I went to the bank and cashed the check and then paid everyone cash. It was $50 bucks. This part we both agreed on: I Xeroxed the $50 bill that I paid him and said something like “Keep this as copy of the first money we made improvising.”

How much have former instructors, coaches, and team members played a part in your career?

No one was a better hands-on teacher than Martin DeMaat. Much of my teaching style comes from him, just from simply taking his classes and observing how he encouraged us to spend a lot of time warming up and having fun and how he could side coach and say very little but get a lot out of you. Del Close was a huge influence as well. He taught me about the importance of emphasizing truth in comedy, and he taught me to respect myself as an artist. David Koechner was my roommate when I was in my late 20s and early 30s, and before I met him, I really didn’t think I could do characters or impressions. But I would watch him do it and study him, and then I realized I could do it, too.

Do you see improv as a means to doing other work, or an end in itself?

It’s both. Improv is whatever you want it to be. Improv is flexible. For me, the skills that I learned in improv were extremely valuable when I started hosting a show on Chicago Public Radio. I knew how to listen very attentively to each guest, how to adjust in the moment to their personalities and drop my agenda in my questions. It helped me become an excellent interviewer, which of course has helped me in my podcast, as well.

What kind of things might an improviser do to make a living?

How do you know if you made it improv?

Any job that keeps you in the arts is something that can benefit from improv training. You can write for a sitcom, work in radio, create commercials, or work in advertising. Of course, if you want to stay closer to the comedy world, you can teach, coach, direct, act or produce. Over the years, I have done all of those as well as film and TV work that comes to town, acted at trade shows, written corporate shows and videos, served as an MC for events, and lead team building for companies using improv training. Anything that keeps you in the comedy-improv-acting-writing game is perfect for someone with an improv background.

What’s the salary range for an improviser in your city?

I do not know that one.

Improv has been steadily infiltrating corporate and popular culture. With all of the interest in improvisation, why is it still so difficult to get bums on seats at shows? (Or is it, in your experience?)

In my travels around the country teaching and doing live tapings of Improv Nerd, this issue of getting people to your improv is a problem in every market. I think most improv is still dependent on improvisers for their audience. Today, improvisers have more performance opportunities and are taking more classes than ever. If you ask an improviser if they would rather go see a show or be in one, I think you know what the answer would be. So those people who would 10 years ago be in the audience are doing bar-prov or are in class or at rehearsal. I think improv needs to be more accessible to a mainstream audience. Shows like Improv Shakespeare and Baby Wants Candy seem to have accomplished this, but it’s very difficult to do. If you figure out how to get more butts in the seats, let me know.

What’s the best, worst, or weirdest improv gig you’ve done?

I was with the Annoyance Theater and we were doing improv on a hot and muggy August day on a children’s stage at an outdoor festival in Chicago. It was around 1997, and the general public didn’t really know what improv was, especially kids. The show before us was Universal Studio’s Beetlejuice ahow. The set was amazing. It looked like and it cost half a million dollars. It was a set from a movie. It had smoke and all these special effects. The actors dressed like the movie. It was the slickest, most professional thing I had ever seen. The crowd was packed with kids and parents. The parents were more blown away than their kids. The response they got was like were at a rock concert. I was like, “Oh man, this is like trying to follow the Rolling Stones! God help us.” At this point, we hit the stage, dehydrated and with half the cast hung over because it was Sunday around 10 a.m. We had about 15 children with their parents sitting on the grass and in the first improv game, one of the least edgy cast members decides to go blue. The audience dwindles at this point. We try to explain what improv was, but it was futile. Nobody cared. We pushed through and kept going. The only reaction we seemed to be getting were families getting up and leaving. Though we were humiliated, we were grateful that improv is a team sport, and we had other people to share in our misery.

Do you think it’s easier to make a living as an improviser today than it was when you were starting out?

Yes, I think as a teacher there are far more opportunities both teaching in the corporate world and in improv schools and theaters. There are also more opportunities to get paid as a performer than when I started out. Today in Chicago, you can do a boat for Second City, or write or perform or do corporate training for most of the big improv theaters. There is even an ad agency in Chicago that hires improvisers to help with the creative side of adverting. Yes, there are a lot more opportunities.

Where do you see yourself 10 years from now?

I would like to have a national radio and TV show, be a best-selling author and be a famous stand up/storyteller doing one-man shows in huge, sold-out theaters for 1,000 to 1,500 people. And I’d also like to be a loving father who pays attention to his kids and a great husband who pays attention to his wife – unlike what I got in my childhood.

James Gangl is one of Canada’s awesomest improvisers. He’s a comedian, writer, storyteller, filmmaker, member of Bad Dog Theatre Company, and performer with improv troupe extraordinaire, Bonspiel! His one-man show, Sex, Religion & Other Hang-ups won the Ed Mirvish Award for Entrepreneurship and a Canadian Comedy Award. Follow him at: https://twitter.com/jamesgangl

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When did you first know you wanted to do improv/comedy/acting for a living? What were you doing before?

I always felt like an actor. I remember when I was three I would put signs up all over the house that read “the show starts in five minutes.” Then I’d herd my parents and whatever guests were over into our living room so I could put on a show. Of course I hadn’t planned the show…who needs a script, right? I just demanded attention, jumping up and down on the sofa and making up songs about vampires.

I knew I wanted to do it for a living as soon as I realized there was a living to be made. Again, I always loved it so I guess my dream was to be an actor but I was also super practical so I got a degree in Business and Computing instead. I worked in marketing for five years while auditioning on the side until I finally made the leap to focus on my passion full time.

Who has had the greatest influence on your career, and why?

Jesus.

I grew up super-religious and every aspect of my life was touched by my belief system. Mostly I just felt guilty about swearing and being lewd on stage but eventually my experience with religion became a wealth of inspiration for my writing.
Besides Jesus, my brother Alex was an excellent influence. My family wasn’t unsupportive of my ambition but they weren’t supportive either. I always looked up to my brother Alex and he was the only member of my immediate family who openly celebrated my love of performing. He was always behind me and he went to all my high school plays, beaming from the front row. He’d even brag about me to his friends. I get warm fuzzies just thinking about it now. His encouragement was a key motivator.

What was your first paid improv-related job?

A guy, let’s call him Jeff, from my level D improv class invited me to play a version “slide show” at his 40th birthday party. My job was to make up the narrative to Jeff’s life using real slides that were being projected. As slides flashed onto the screen I’d point to the people projected and label them as “Uncle Henry, the alcoholic” and “money grubbing Aunt Louise.” Unfortunately, the slides involved his real family and friends who sat shocked and offended in the audience. In hindsight, it may have gone better is I was actually introduced and the audience was told that I was improvising. Instead I was some stranger talking smack about the families most initiate memories. Ah well, hindsight is 20-20. $40 well earned.

How much have former instructors, coaches, and team members played a part in your career?

Their influence is huge. When I started I was watching Slap Happy (Kerry Griffin, Sandy Jobin-Bevans, Dave Pearce, and Tabetha Wells) tear it up. I thought what they did WAS improv, period. So I copied them completely. Alumnae Cafe was huge with Bob Martin, Jack Mosshammer, Paul O’Sullivan and Linda Kash…god were those folks pros. They made me realize how good improv really could be.

As I got better so did my friends and colleagues and because improv is my work and my play, my colleagues became my best friends. Now my pals are helping my growth. Jan Caruana regularly helps me with scripts and I’m always bouncing ideas off Alastair Forbes, Rob Baker and Ashley Botting.  Really, at this point I’m surrounded by stupidly talented people. I’m making a movie with former Theatresports member Alex Hatz, I get photos done with Big in Japan Alumni, Kevin Thom… Most of my artsy projects are done with improviser pals.

Do you see improv as a means to doing other work, or an end in itself?

Yes.

Look, if you are doing improv because you want to be a great actor, stop doing improv. If you are doing improv to become a great stand-up, stop doing improv. Same for sketch and film and music and cooking. Take an acting class, write jokes, write some sketches, buy a tambourine and a Dutch oven…that will get you to your goal quicker. Having said that, if you do improv because you love it, you will continue to do it. That’s what happened to me. I loved it. I was addicted. I couldn’t stop.

Improv was my introduction to the world of performance and became my means to doing other work.  Spending hours becoming a better improviser improved my stage presence and acting ability. It gave me confidence in my comedy. It helped me in front of the camera and gave me the motivation to write. It was the catalyst that lead me to everything else and continues to influence my work in wonderful ways. Having said that, there’s not a lot of money in improv. So YES! Beautiful improv is amazing and wondrous and fulfilling…but, if you want to live off your art you will likely need to learn how to act and/or write.

When you hear the words “working improviser,” what comes to mind?

I think a working improviser is someone who is regularly performing, teaching, coaching and directing improv. At the moment I don’t think it’s possible to sustain yourself with performing improv alone. At the very least a “working improviser” will be teaching as well.

My advice to the improviser that wants to pay rent is this: Get yourself an agent. Like right away. The agent doesn’t have to be good, they just have to send you out for commercials. Improv prepares you best for commercials. The ad industry loves improvisers even if they don’t know it! Ads are usually 30 seconds long and comedic, and therefore they use broad archetypes like “the geek,” “the love interest,” “the goof,” “the thug” as their staple characters. When I started improvising all I did was broad characterizations and that’s exactly the kind of stuff ad folks want. Plus you can improvise! Throw in a button at the end of your audition and everyone will think you’re a genius. Plus, commercials can pay tons of money. So…go get an agent. (And it wouldn’t hurt if you took some on camera classes as well. Acting in front of the camera is much smaller.)

Describe a typical day in your life.

The days are really different. A typical week looks like me going to a handful of auditions and prepping them if they are big and chunky. I cook a lot of my own meals, which is great because I can easily keep a stew bubbling as I run lines. I write too. I’m on the pitch list for DNTO and regularly come up with pitches for stories I want to tell on the radio. At night I teach and do the odd show and try to flirt with girls. And play embarrassing board games that 15-year-olds play.

What’s the salary range for an improviser in your city?

Honestly, I don’t really know. Most improvisers are doing other things to pay the rent. Here’s the range for various improv related sources of income: For teaching you make anywhere from $30 – 55/hr (CAD$). For coaching maybe $20 – 50/hr depending on who you are and who the troupe is. You might get paid $20 – $40 and some beer tickets to do shows at an improv or sketch stage at night. If you can get into corporate workshops or shows, well that’s a whole other story (put an additional zero on those numbers).

As a side note: if a producer invites top talent to play and uses their names on the bill, the talent should be treated very well. Be nice, buy drinks, have snacks. You’ll want the talent to come back even if you can’t afford to pay them well on that particular night. Having said that, if that producers fills the room they should pay well too (add zeros).

Improv has been steadily infiltrating corporate and popular culture. With all of the interest in improvisation, why is it still so difficult to get bums on seats at shows? (Or is it, in your experience?)

I think the amount of people seeing improv has been rising steadily. Fifteen years ago there were maybe two or three improv shows that ran weekly.  Those shows had ups and downs like shows do today. Compare that with today where there are three shows a night (at least). That’s part of the reason it’s hard to get bums in seats. The audiences have grown but the amount of improv performances have increased exponentially and so there is lots of competition for eyeballs.

The second problem is an old one but it persists: People don’t know what improv is. Yes, its popularity has been growing, but compare improv with more popular mediums and the challenge becomes obvious. Movies have trailers that tell you what you’re getting into. Stand-up is funny and has years and years of TV exposure. Even today, every late night talk show on network television starts with a stand-up set. Improv is slightly harder to explain and hence the barrier to entry is higher.

People order the same thing at the same restaurant because they know they’ll like it; improv is still an unknown element.

There are a zillion improv shows. Having a zillion show dilutes audiences, so even if the total amount of people going has increased, the number of improv show has increased exponentially too.

What’s the best, worst, or weirdest improv gig you’ve done?

The best improv gig I ever did was in Vienna. I was a  green improviser but I convinced Jim Libby at the English Lovers to let me play. It was the opening night of their new season and the space was big and beautiful and jam-packed. We were doing a montage and if the scene started in English it would continue in English but if it started in German it would continue in German. I speak German like a three-year-old and the audience found that out pretty quickly. The more I tried to speak the language (and failed), the more the audience loved me. The show ended with an improvised musical number. My scene partner was a professional opera singer with the Vienna State Opera and I wasn’t. Still, as the underdog I got to sing the last verse in terribly broken German and the crowd leapt to their feet. A standing ovation at an improv show… Crazy.

Do you think it’s easier to make a living as an improviser today than it was when you were starting out?

100%. There’s way more awareness and that has led to bigger houses, more students, more corporate work and more opportunity. Fifteen years ago paid improv coaches were virtually unheard of, now it’s common. It’s not easy, but there is money to be made.

Where do you see yourself 10 years from now?

Hopefully splitting my time between LA and Toronto. I love my city, but am also loving all my experiences in front of the camera. That’s driving me toward LA. I hope my day job is regular TV and film work, and I get to continue to write and perform my own solo work.

Either that or learning to cook professionally in Chile.

Laughter’s a funny thing.

What tickles you may not amuse your neighbour, as I can attest from heated discussions about Family Guy.

We tend to laugh more in a group than when we’re alone (although Colbert could make me corpse with a raise of his eyebrow). We also laugh more easily around friends and family.

It’s defined as “a physical reaction in humans and some species of primate, consisting typically of rhythmical, often audible contractions of the diaphragm and other parts of the respiratory system.” Ooooo..K.

So why do we do it?

The Laughter of Surprise

Sounds like: Shrieks, barks, sustained guffaws, often associated with cheers or applause.

When improvisers and the audience make a discovery, when a character takes a left turn into crazy, or when someone on your team brings back the suggestion everyone’s forgotten and ties things up with the perfect blow line…that’s the Laughter of Surprise.

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The Laughter of Recognition

Sounds like: A rat-a-tat-tat of laughs, chuckles, or sometimes a beat of silence followed by laughter and steady applause.

This type is like an “Aha!” from the audience. It comes when they hear something they can relate to: current events, pop culture, or just good ol’ human behaviour. Louis CK uses this type of comedy to great effect in his stand-up…

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“People can laugh hysterically at something as mundane as ‘junk drawer.’ Use your rich life experience, and bring that to the stage.” – Susan Messing

Finally, there’s…

The Laughter of Relief or Tension Broken

Sounds like: Either nervous tittering, or like a bomb just went off in the theatre.

When you’ve had a six-minute laugh-free set (intentional or not), the slightest thing can set off this kind of reaction.

It could be someone tripping on stage, slurring a word or saying it incorrectly, or any one of a million other tiny, inconsequential things. Anything that breaks the pattern that came before.

Sometimes the audience is nervous for you, in which case you’ll hear nervous laughter.

Other times, the tension can be created by drama. The scene’s not tanking, it’s just intense. The audience gets wound up, too. So the moment it tips from dramatic to deranged, it creates a laughter explosion.

All three kinds of laughs feel great. If I think back on old sets, I can still hear and feel the different reactions to scenes I’ve watched or played in. And to me, there is no sweeter sound.

“If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they’ll kill you.” – Oscar Wilde

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