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Posts tagged improv comedy

“Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone” – Joni Mitchell

For the last six months I’ve been studying Harold with Alex Tindal.

I signed up because (a) it’s Alex Fucking Tindal, and (b) I was tired of doing montage-style sets, and wanted to challenge myself. It had been years since I last did a Harold, and I was excited to be part of an ensemble again.

The course was thorough, taking us back to basics with scene work, group mind, physicality and point of view, culminating in the classic “training wheels” structure.

After our grad show, we decided we’d like to keep performing as a team. Someone suggested we enter a festival, and a teammate replied:

“We’re the only true Harold team in the city so we definitely offer something unique…”

I’m sorry…what?

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I stopped and re-read what I’d obviously misread.

Then re-read it again.

Improvisers, amiright? I mean, phhhhht, c’mon. There’s gotta be at least…uh…well…let me see now…there’s…uhhhhhhhh…hmmmmmm…

Now, before I get banned from every long-form show in Toronto, let me just say there are lots of great teams doing great long-form shows. But I couldn’t think of a single group who identifies as “a Harold team,” performing what they’d call “a Harold” on a regular basis.

Back when Cameron and I first learned long-form, The Harold was so revered that several schools had entire nights devoted to it. Teams performed for 25 minutes. Each.

So what happened???

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Come with me now, as we travel back to the year 2007.

Guitar Hero was cool, The Colbert Report was just hitting its stride, and the world was about to discover what “subprime” really means.

Cameron and I had completed Level E at Second City, plus a teaser class called Intro to Harold. That was all the long-form they offered, and we were jonesing for more.

Matt Folliott told us about a place called Impatient Theatre Company, whose sole emphasis was on teaching The Harold. Cameron and I enrolled the next day, and from the very first class, we were hooked.

Long-form seemed like the answer to our prayers: a way to expand and explore the skills we’d learned at Second City.

Image © nobodyssweetheart.com

Image © Dyna Moe

It took me about a year to wrap my head around openings, beats, tag-outs, group games, tangents, connections, and callbacks. (And don’t get me started on game of the scene.)

But once I had the Harold down, a whole new world opened up.

Suddenly I was writing scripts – something I’d been doing for years as a copywriter – faster, better, and funnier. I saw patterns and connections in everyday life, and ruined TV shows and films by analysing their structure out the wazoo.

ITC wasn’t the only place teaching long form. Bad Dog Theatre had a thriving Harold program, and Vanguard Comedy Theatre offered classes as well. Different theatres had different styles, and there were heated debates on the merits of organic versus premise-based.

Every week we’d watch other Harold teams, inspired by the sheer variety on stage. There were physical teams, cerebral teams, teams that used the whole theatre as their stage, teams who did ghosting, teams with no chemistry, and teams who thought and moved as one.

It was fun and inspiring as hell. But after a few years of doing opening/first beats/group game/seconds beats/group game/third beats, the structure that had brought so much joy started to feel like handcuffs.

When Charna Halpern visited Toronto in 2008, she taught a workshop on Cat’s Cradle. It’s a form where all the performers are onstage all of the time. There’s an opening, but no set beats or group games, and the structure can be anything you want.

“Cat’s Cradle,” Charna told us, “is a Harold.”

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It was like finding out your old toy truck was actually Optimus Prime.

Other improv legends came to teach: Joe Bill and Mark Sutton, David Razowsky, Susan Messing, Todd Stashwick, Jet Eveleth, and TJ and Dave.

Their organic, be-in-the-moment approach fired our imaginations.

The idea of not thinking or pre-planning moves was very appealing. Many improvisers also attended festivals, where they saw long-form teams doing sets without openings (gasp!).

More and more teams started trying what they’d learned on stage. But – and this is a huge but – they already had the Harold training as foundation. Subconsciously or not, they were able to fuck around without structure in a way that still made sense. Like a pianist who learns scales before playing jazz, the improvisation was still connected to skill.

People began producing shows independently, experimenting with their own styles of long-form. Performers from different schools of thought started coming together, and new teams were formed.

Fast forward to 2013.

After years of struggling financially, ITC closed its doors. Vanguard had already ceased to operate, while Bad Dog was forced to close when their lease expired.

It was a dark time for improv in Toronto.

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Some teams, like Mantown or Standards & Practices, still drew regular crowds at Comedy Bar. But for less-skilled performers, the road was much rockier.

Players took whatever slots they could. With so few theatres and so many people vying for stage time, sets shrank to 15 minutes, 10, even 5. And since no one was attempting a Harold, it didn’t seem to matter.

Teams stopped rehearsing. After all, why rehearse every week when your only show this month (if you’re lucky) is a jam, or a 10-minute montage?

Sets deteriorated into free-form fuckfests, with players going meta and no stakes whatsoever. Audiences felt the lack of commitment, or simply couldn’t understand all the inside jokes. There were often more people on stage than in the house.

Without new students to fill the seats, even long-running shows failed, and many teams (my own included) called it quits.

But then, somewhere on the horizon, hope appeared.

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Today Second City has a comprehensive long-form program, led by improv impresario Rob Norman. The course teaches Harold, but also encourages students to develop their own forms.

Ralph MacLeod and Carmine Lucarelli created a new place to play and take risks, with the Social Capital Theatre. Their repertory program teaches Harold, and also gives ensembles a dedicated coach. And…(drumroll)…they’re bringing back Harold Nights in early 2016.

Bad Dog Theatre re-opened, first at Comedy Bar’s Cabaret space, then their own home just down the street. When they asked Alex Tindal what he’d like to teach, he told them, “A classic Harold.”

And so, like the Harold, things have come full circle.

Thanks to Alex and my talented teammates, I’ve rekindled my passion for the form.

And while the training wheels format may not be the only “true” Harold, it was only when it went away that I realised how important it is.

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Image © David Kantrowitz

If you’ve ever got a note you didn’t know what to do with, this is for you.

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Camp

Meatball

Like Me

Harsh Improv Notes is a blog by Kory Mathewson, of real notes given by and for real improvisers. It’s fascinating reading the range of feedback, from passive-aggressive to sexist to just plain whack.

According to Kory, it was born from the idea that we often give and receive notes in improvisation, and more often than not we take the negative ones to heart, stewing on them and thinking them over long after the note was given.

Seen in this new context, the notes become something else: something to be laughed at, allowing us to shake our heads and move on. (And if it helps instructors become more mindful about how they’re speaking, that’d be awesome too.)

A reader commented: “Some of those notes seem to be shared by people who needed to hear them. Is it really a harsh thing to tell someone they need to get over themselves, or do they just need to get over themselves?”

Some of the notes do appear to be constructive. For us, the problem is when personal notes are given in front of classmates or peers – often to get a laugh. It’s easy then for constructive to become destructive. Like a boss who chews out an employee in front of co-workers, the humiliation is what will be remembered, not the note.

Image © Harsh Improv Notes/Kory Mathewson

Image © Harsh Improv Notes

Now you can flaunt your love of long-form at home, at work, or on that scary subway ride after the show. Our new collection of tees, pillows, mugs and more looks great whether you’re sitting, standing or bending.

Click here or below to browse the full line.

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One of Toronto’s most loved performers posted a message recently about his struggles as an actor. Anyone who’s played with, watched, or been taught by Kris Siddiqi will tell you that he is hilarious, talented, kind, and generous.

We’ve written before about rejection, and the need to refocus your efforts. While that’s true, it doesn’t mean there isn’t room for change. Kris spoke in more detail about his decision with The Backline Podcast. Click here to listen.

Photo © Marcel St. Pierre

Photo © Neil Muscott

Here’s a rant for ya

There’s this feeling I get when I go to pick up my son from school – it’s a feeling of being unwanted, of not being good enough, of never having the right amount of…something. There are times when I stand at the school doors to pick up my son, and upon the very first glance of me, he begins to cry. He cries because I’m not mom. He was expecting his mom. It’s a feeling that hits me so hard in the gut and the heart – to know that I’m so undesired that the sight of me causes my son to burst out in tears. It make me want to burst out in tears.

This feeling is the exact same feeling I get when dealing with the world that I work in. And after feeling this not only from my son, but from the business that I’ve tried so hard to navigate, I’ve decided that I’m done.

After a long time of trying to be part of this machine one calls the Entertainment Industry, I’m finished, I’m done. I’m hanging up my hat and walking away from years of frustration, stress, anxiety, depression and complete and utter hopelessness. I’m done with having to know that I’m not white enough, or I’m not dark enough, or that my complexion is too confusing. I’m done losing sleep over auditioning when I know a role will go to someone who is full white, or full brown, or full black. I’m done questioning my talent level and my ability. I’m done with trying my best and my hardest only to have this ongoing silent rejection rule my life.

And why am I done? Well, I’m done because of you – because you who work in casting, in production, at networks – because you don’t know what you’re doing even though you like to make it seem like you do. You are the decision makers and the gate keepers and you would rather stick to the same old than take a chance. I’m done because you are only tools of a bigger entity that also thinks they know everything: “the client”. I’m done because “the client” rules everything and because they don’t have any interest in me. I’m done because even though I think I could work on your project, you don’t think so because of the complexion of my skin or because I’m just not talented enough. I’m done because all of you make me wish I didn’t have this skin colour – I wish I was all white or all brown, so at the very least you would consider me for your roles as cabbie, or tech help, or delivery man, or whatever other shallow role you’d like me to audition for.

This is the first time ever that I’ve felt like I’ve wasted my life. I’ve wasted time and energy and mental stability on you. I don’t want to feel like that anymore, so I’m moving on.

I apologize for placing such a pompous, arrogant, shameful, cry-baby, feel sorry for me rant on the one place I hate posting stuff like this. I apologize for coming across as ungrateful, or snide, or egotistical…I don’t mean to.

Why then am I posting this? I honestly don’t know.

Maybe I think someone will take sympathy on how pathetic I am and give me a job. Perhaps somebody will read this and think “oh, what a privileged jerk! There are bigger things in this world than your inability to book a show/commercial/anything.” Maybe deep down I am looking for sympathy and want to collect a huge amount of likes and comments on this, but in the end I think really all I’m looking for is to feel wanted, like the days when I go to pick up my son and his face is beaming with smiles because I’m there, no one else, no mom, just me. Maybe that’s the feeling I’m looking for from this industry, but will never find, because the decision makers and gate keepers are not a 5 year old child.

Sorry for the pity party
Krinky Ding-Dong

Photo © Kevin Thom

Photo © Kevin Thom

If you ever get the chance to perform on your own, do it. No matter how much it scares you.

Rob Norman did his first solo set when Adam Cawley and Jason DeRosse couldn’t make it to a Cage Match competition. Their team was called Maybe, and Rob opened the set by saying:

“When I asked Jason and Adam if they’d like to do Cage Match with me, they said…maybe.”

When the laughter subsided, he got a suggestion, then did some word association as an opening, followed by a montage of scenes inspired by those words. It was a mix of ghosting, narration and monologues.

Solo Formats

Maybe you wanna wing it on the night, like Rob. Or maybe you’d prefer to choose a specific structure beforehand.

Some performers have a signature style, like Andy Eninger’s Sybil, David Shore’s One-Man Harold, or Mike Brown’s Solo Improv Extravaganza. Whatever form your show takes, just remember: if it’s fun and interesting to you, it will be to the audience as well.

Here are some forms to explore:

The Phone Call

Choose an audience member and invite them onstage, then ask them about the important people in their life: a significant other, a BFF, their boss, a sibling, an ex-lover… Try to get as much detail as you can, spending one to two minutes on each person and their role in the audience member’s life.

Once you’ve got info on three to five people, thank the audience member and find a spot on stage. Then answer (or dial) imaginary phone calls with those people.

The audience sees and hears only the improviser’s half of the conversation; the other characters remain unseen and unheard.

Monoscene

This is like a standard monoscene, except you play all the parts.

You can create a two- (or more) person scene by ghosting different characters. Changing your topography, voice, and physicality on stage will help define and differentiate characters – for you, and the audience.

Use whatever you need to build your scenario: monologues, scene painting, object work, and that most awesome of all tools: silence.

For inspiration, read about Jason Mantzoukas’s epic, silent one-person monoscene at UCBLA.

Single Character 

Choosing a character ahead of time and playing the set as that person is another option. By having your “deal” when you walk onstage, you can hit the ground running with a strong point of view right away.

For examples of character-based solo formats, click here.

Play People You Know

When Cameron’s team, Standards & Practices, went to Vancouver, he stayed in Toronto and performed a one-man show as S&P. Because he knows them so well, it was easy to take on the physical and verbal characteristics of teammates Matt Folliott, Isaac Kessler and Kevin Whalen. (Or at least, Cameron’s version of them.)

You can do the same, playing anyone from other performers to friends, relatives, famous authors, celebrities, or anyone living or dead.

How about a Talk Show where you’re the moderator, as well as the guests?

Solo Musical

If you sing or play an instrument, why not utilise your talents by merging improv and music?

Josh Bowman performs an improvised musical using a loop pedal, vocal percussion, and guitar. (In his words, “Think Reggie Watts, but totally different.”)

Your Solo Is Part Of A Symphony

The only way to really do improv all by yourself is performing in an empty room. The moment you set foot onstage, you realise you’re not alone. The audience becomes your scene partner, and you share the experience together.

For more ideas, check out Chapter 11 of Mick Napier’s Improvise. There are lots of fun exercises you can practice on your own; you might even find something to inspire your set.

And while nothing can quite match the magic of group mind, at least when you’re alone on stage, it’s a lot harder to talk over top of yourself.

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

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