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On March 28, improv powerhouses Mantown and Notorious (featuring Ashley Botting) come together to use their power for good, with a hilarious night of comedy to benefit Haven Toronto, a drop-in centre serving homeless, marginally housed, and socially isolated men age 50 and over. Producer Mat Mailandt described his experience working with the men from Haven:

“Every day I walk by homeless people. I never know what to do or say. Do I make eye contact and smile? Do I apologize for not giving any change? Do I ignore them completely? I’m confronted on a daily basis by my privilege, and saddened by their lives. Generally I feel hopeless and overwhelmed; truthfully, these interactions make me very uncomfortable.

It was with this sense of discomfort that I visited Haven Toronto for the first time. I’d arranged to train some of their guys to improvise. Walking in, I was incredibly nervous. I didn’t know what to say, if I’d act in a way that would offend someone, or if the men would be open to doing improv.

The second I walked, everyone turned and looked at me. I clearly stood out. Someone said ‘You look like a lawyer!’ I replied, ‘I’m not, but I’ll take that as a compliment.’ I smiled, took a deep breath and reminded myself that everything worth doing is scary.

The first class started like any other: chairs in a circle, eye contact, introductions. I expected the process to be difficult; I figured these guys would have built up some walls, understandably. I thought some of them would get up and leave the workshop with no warning.

What I discovered pretty quickly was these men were some of the most open, kind and supportive students I’d ever worked with. Within minutes we were laughing and cracking jokes. They all entered into exercises with enthusiasm, took feedback well, and told stories about their lives. They shared things they loved, like one former truck driver who missed meeting women on the road, especially in Kansas. Another guy talked about his struggles trying to find an apartment amongst the waves of Syrian refugees looking for the same thing. These men seemed to have so little, but they still have an incredible ability to create. Their perspectives were diverse, touching and shockingly, full of hope.

Now I’ve completed my training sessions with them. On Tuesday, they’ll perform in a fundraiser show for the organisation that supports them. I’m excited to raise some money for a worthy cause. But equally important is that these guys are going to get the chance to get onstage. Our goal is to shine the light on elder homelessness. And we’re going to do it. Literally.

A friend of mine told me we’re all one life event away from being homeless. That really resonated with me. For most of my life I’ve felt sympathy for those less fortunate, but basically I’ve done nothing to help. My excuse was always that I’m broke and so what could I give? I can barely pay rent, let alone donate to charity. What I now realize is that I do have time. And I know how to listen.

The whole experience at Haven was less about improv and more about sharing. I shared my expertise and time and they shared their experiences, their struggles and their joys. What I realized is that in that room, the one with the most walls was me. The hardest part was walking in the door. The rest, I improvised.

About the event:

A night of improv to benefit Haven Toronto, featuring top Canadian comedians and a very special performance by Haven members. Hosted by comedic duo and real-life bothers Freddie Rivas (Rapp Battlz) and Miguel Rivas (The Beaverton).

Tickets are $20, available here. For more info visit: www.notimprov.com

March 28, 8:00 p.m., Comedy Bar Cabaret, 945 Bloor Street West

 

Photo © Jenna Szabo

Kyle Dunnigan is an American comedian, also known for his role as Craig in Reno 911!. Kyle just booked a supporting role in Gus Van Sant’s new film, He Won’t Get Far on Foot and his original pilot Shit Kids just premiered at Sundance Film Festival. He was a writer and performer on all four seasons of Inside Amy Schumer and he won an Emmy for writing the song Girl You Don’t Need Makeup. He continues to be a regular contributor for The Howard Stern Show. Kyle is also a recurring cast member on Tig Notaro’s Amazon series, One Mississippi. He is launching a new website soon: kyledunnigancomedy.com

Josh Bowman recently spoke with Kyle about his upcoming tour, improv comedy, work on Inside Amy Schumer, his mother’s thoughts on his Emmy, and his dog Olive.

JB: So I just thought I’d get your plugs, what dates you’re playing, stuff about your movie, Inside Amy Schumer, anything you want to talk about first.

KD: The tour dates are the most important. The thing [Shit Kids] that went to Sundance…we’re gonna start pitching it soon but that’s about it. And the Inside Amy Schumer thing is, that show’s over now, but…I miss it. So…

JB: Is it done? Why don’t…I feel like I should’ve known that.

KD: Yeah they don’t make any big announcement, they kind of just stop doing shows. It’s a little weird. Sometimes they don’t even tell you if you’re a cast member. Your manager or agent goes “don’t go in tomorrow, it’s not there anymore.”

JB: That’s…crazy.

KD: Yeah. It is crazy. Cause it’s like a family, it’s almost like a family and you go to war together and it’s just, like, it’s over. But that’s the nature of it. Yeah.

JB: And then Professor Blastoff, that ran for a while, and then I guess Tig got too busy with touring and stuff? Because that was a really great podcast, I really liked that podcast a lot.

KD: Yeah…oh thank you. I really liked doing it, you know, Tig and David are my friends and it just felt like chatting, it didn’t really feel like a job and you know we started getting a good following. Yeah, you know it was kind of bittersweet, but we were all pretty busy, and it just wasn’t practical. But I think we may do a special. We’re talking about doing a ten-episode run here and there to kind of keep it going a little bit.

JB: Cool. Yeah, and I think I read somewhere you were thinking of doing another podcast called Brainmail, does that sound right?

KD: Yeah, I feel so bad because I was going to do it, and then Earwolf was dragging their feet and a couple months went by and I was in New York working on the Schumer show and I just got too busy to do it myself. I can go and show up somewhere if someone else has a podcast but for my own I just never really got enough time and energy to throw that way.

JB: It feels like a lot of work.

KD: It really is, and work that I’m not interested in doing. You sort of get into show business because you don’t like to do clerical stuff, and there’s so much of that, and you have to get the website up and all that stuff. Like, my website’s gone, I don’t have a website anymore because that’s how terrible I am at upkeeping.

JB: Yeah I saw that, it was like a spam site…

KD: Yeah it will just destroy your computer, my website just destroys people’s computers now.

JB: Thanks. Yeah.

KD: But I got a new website –  kyledunnigancomedy.com, and that will not destroy your computer and I should have dates up there, tour dates.

JB: Great! So you won an Emmy which is amazing.

KD: Yeah!

JB: Did you bring your mom? Was your mom there with you?

KD: I did. Yeah. I brought my mother to the Emmys. She’s very into award shows. It’s almost like I couldn’t not invite her, like whenever there’s an awards show she tells me who should win, even though I don’t even ask her or care she just likes to tell me.

JB: Sure.

KD: Whenever she sees a movie she goes “So-and-so I predict will be nominated for Best Supporting Actor.” She just lets me know that, and I think she gets dressed up to watch the Oscars and the Emmys, that’s just my hunch. She gets dressed up at home.

JB: So what’s her take on the Oscars thing, on the La La Land thing? Does she have like…I’d love to hear her opinion on that.

KD: Well, I didn’t talk to her too much about it. She didn’t love the movie. Which, I was surprised. It seems right up her alley. She thought it was OK, but didn’t love the dancing and the singing all that much, but when I won the Emmy, the first thing she said to me was “Can they take that away from you?” Those were the first words out of her mouth.

JB: …can they take that away…?

KD: Yeah, I mean…you can just talk to a therapist forever about that.

JB: Yeah…thanks mom.

KD: Yeah it’s always hedging…you know they mean well, they’re afraid of being disappointed so they hedge it, they just try to figure out…you know, what’s the worst thing that can happen and just shoot for that?

JB: I feel like there’s a certain level, there’s a base level where they’re like…OK, it’s OK. They have a roof over their head, you know?

KD: Yeah, and I can imagine, you know, you have a kid, you don’t want them ever to feel pain, but…if your kid doesn’t feel pain they’re gonna grow up to be a useless person.

JB: Yeah. Do you feel like that’s kind of the premise behind Shit Kids at all?

KD: Yeah, actually…yeah. Yeah, it’s almost like, coal without pressure on it, you don’t get the diamond. People who are just gorgeous and life is easy… I think they have it really tough later in life because inherently life isn’t easy. And so you get the message early on that you can just coast through on your looks or your…whatever, and you’re gonna have a rough moment somewhere. Everyone has to feel disappointment and heartbreak, it’s too bad but we all do or else, I don’t know you just come out weird.

JB: Yeah…so on that note, I thought Professor Blastoff was awesome, and part of the reason was because you were all very philosophical and very open. Do you find there’s like a balance in your stand up between going to those places in terms of pulling stuff out that you can use, and then like just doing dumb, funny bits that are just…goofy?

KD: Yeah I kinda drift back and forth. I think I like the silly stuff better to be honest. I think right now the flavour is people being really open, and I think that’s cool and interesting, but I like to be goofy, which isn’t really in right now. But I’m gonna keep doing it.

JB: It’ll come back around, right?

KD: It always does.

JB: So…what is your relationship with music, cause you’ll play the keyboard and you’ll beatbox but you also do it in a way that’s sort of jokey, like that character you did on the Schumer show [Rapper Boyfriend], but then you wrote a song that won an Emmy so you obviously play.

KD: I always played music, kind of like a hobby, therapy type of thing. I never thought that I would win an Emmy for it, it was sort of just for myself. This opportunity came up where Amy said do you want to write the music and I was like “yeah!”

JB: But it’s not just that…like you’ll have a keyboard in your set or you’ll have a loop pedal in your set…

KD: Yeah…I had a very musical uncle and I think I got some of his interest in music. I’m probably trying to live out a rock star life. Without a lot of people noticing.

JB: Secret rock star!

KD: Yeah, in my head like I’m playing for a huge crowd that thinks I’m cool.

JB: Yeah. I mean, aren’t comics like rock stars now?


KD:
Yeah…some of them are, some of them have this swagger, like they walk around and they point and squat. It does feel like some of them are doing rock shows. And a lot of rock stars wanna be comedians. It’s a weird thing. Like I know some successful musicians and they kinda wanna be comedians and all comedians kind of wanna be, you know, cool…

JB: Right.

KD: We don’t wanna be so black and white – “you can’t pigeonhole me!” So we wanna do something else…

JB: Yeah…I think you’re right, or I think maybe like that part of your brain that’s creative, there can be some parallels with musicians and with comics, right? Like maybe there’s a similarity like you’re kind of weird in high school or you always wanted to perform or you wanted to face your fear…

KD: Yeah, you’re right. There’s also a lifestyle similarity of being on the road, there’s some similar things, and I relate to people who are musicians and their life is sort of similar.

JB: Yeah. So I know that in one of your interviews you said, and I don’t know if this was tongue in cheek, but you said you might be further along if you had just focussed on stand up, but that you like working on different projects and you find that exciting.

KD: It depends on what you want. Like the lifestyle I wanted…I wanted to do different things. This is right for me to jump around, but if you wanna be like the best stand-up comedian for example, you really need to focus on it. That’s just how it is. I feel like people want you to be one thing, and I understand that. Like Dudley Moore, he was a funny actor and he actually was a really good piano player, and one time I saw him on TV playing the piano and in my head I was like, I want him to stop it! Cause I was like, you’re Dudley Moore, not a good piano player. I was confused.

JB: Yeah.

KD: I kind of jump around. I mean, like right now I’m doing a lot of home improvement stuff on my house. I think I wanna be a contractor for buildings. Like every month I wanna do something different. So I might go into that. Building homes.

JB: Yeah, so this interview is kinda pointless…have fun…

KD: Well, I don’t know, a homebuilders magazine might be interested in this interview.

JB: Yeah you’re right.

KD: Like I refinished my floors last month. There’s a lot of fun stuff here.

JB: So you did improv with Groundlings and then improv in New York? Is that right?

KD: I was in a couple of improv groups in New York, yeah. One was called “Some Assembly Required”, we’d do corporate gigs, we weren’t all that great. I was in another group when I first got to New York but they were charging me, it was just kind of a scam.

JB: Right. So the Groundlings was kind of where it took off for you would you say?

KD: No…I was in New York and I sort of realized there’s no money in improv or sketch, there’s really no money unless you get on Saturday Night Live. So I had done stand up once in high school and I thought, let me do that. Once I started doing that I got some attention and then I got on Conan O’Brien. I got a few things off that, like a manager and agent in L.A., and that’s how it sort of took off for me, and then I did the Groundlings once I came out here kind of just for fun.

JB: Oh OK…interesting. So you wouldn’t say that the improv stuff was foundational for your stand up or for your career?

KD: Not really, to be honest. The Groundlings was…I met a lot of great people there and I’m really glad I did it but it was so crowded. We had 21 people, and I was in the Sunday Company, you’d have like one sketch. They’ve since pared it down, they don’t do that anymore. They keep their classes small.

JB: Interesting, OK. Yeah. So the reason I was asking about that was it feels like a lot of people who do comedy now that is their background.

KD: Oh yeah, yeah.

JB: And it’s interesting for you to say “I did it, it was fine, but it wasn’t really my…”

KD: Yeah it didn’t really help me career wise at all, like I did a sketch show before I did The Groundlings, it was called Cedric the Entertainer, it was on Fox, and that was the only real sketch, you know, thing I made money doing and that was before the Groundlings.

JB: So a lot of your characters, you choose weird-looking people that you do impressions of. Is that physicality a big part of the comedy for you?

KD: I guess…yeah that Craig character on Reno I’ve been doing since I was very young. I have pictures of myself like at 9 years old doing that character. I don’t know, I just deform my face and that character kind of came out of that, making that face.

JB: Right. So then when you do Caitlyn Jenner and Donald Trump…

KD: It’s kind of funny, like Caitlyn Jenner talks like that…she’s kind of like “Oh yeah!” Her voice goes right up high, she has kind of a lisp on her ‘s’s and stuff.

JB: Yeah…

KD: You know what I mean, like… “yeah baby!” It’s her catchphrase…yeah baby.

JB: Right. Is that her catchphrase?

KD: Yeah kind of…doesn’t it feel like it? I don’t know if she’s ever said it, but it kind of feels like it.

JB: It feels like she says it in like her, in just the way she is.

KD: Yeah. And Trump is like “terrific,” “believe me,” that’s his phrase. “Believe me.”

JB: Yeah yeah…oh God he’s…yeah. This is a weird time.

KD: I know it’s…it’s exhausting. I’m exhausted.

JB: It’s exhausting, right?

KD: When I do the impression in my stand up now, I can feel people just like…they don’t even want to hear the impression, they’re just so mad. Sometimes it’s hard to lampoon him because he’s such a cartoon of himself. You usually go a little bit further than what the person does and that’s what’s funny, but he goes there for you, and there’s almost nothing to say other than what he actually says.

JB: Like Tina Fey did with Sarah Palin but it’s somehow different now.

KD: Yeah. But we’ll get through it, we’ll live.

JB: I mean I’ll be fine. I’m doing great.

KD: You’ll be fine. You’re in Canada.

JB: I’m in Canada, I’m white, I’m male. I’m really….

KD: Yeah, you’re all set.

JB: Do you find writing partners like Tig, or Amy Schumer…is it like if that dynamic clicks you say I wanna work with you, I wanna write with you…is that kind of how it happens?

KD: Different ways…I mean with Tig, I just…you know I just loved her right away, we just immediately clicked, we had the same sense of humour pretty much. You know it was obvious, we just had so much fun together.

JB: Yeah.

KD: I’m writing with somebody now, and that happened a little differently. He’s a funny comic and he just had an idea for a movie and I thought it was a good idea, so that’s how we started writing together.

JB: Do you think you could write with anyone?

KD: Pretty much…some people will be more helpful than other people. I think I couldn’t write with somebody who was very strong-headed and had a different sense of humour, that would be impossible. If you didn’t agree that something was funny and weren’t willing to compromise, like…that won’t work.

JB: Let’s suppose there’s a big network comedy that stinks but pays good money. Do you feel like you could write for it but it wouldn’t be great, or have fun with it…?

KD: I would like to think I would have fun, but I wouldn’t do it unless I needed some money. There was something I turned down recently that was good money but just not something I wanted to be involved in.

JB: Right.

KD: I liked writing on Amy’s show because it’s nice being with a group. In stand up a lot of what I write is alone. And having a schedule’s nice.

JB: Yeah yeah…it’s not just you in a room in your pajamas like at 3 a.m., right?

KD: Yeah, like a crazy person.

JB: …collecting your fingernails…

KD: Like a raving lunatic.

JB: Yeah…yeah, I feel like there’s a fine line between successful comedian and raving lunatic.

KD: There’s no line. Same thing.

JB: The only other thing I wanted to say, because it seems to keep coming up that you like Billy Joel.

KD: Oh yeah, I love Billy Joel!

JB: So there’s a soca song called Go Down Low and Wine, and it’s like a parody I guess, or like a version of For The Longest Time?

KD: Oh OK.

JB: And I just really think you should listen to it because it’s really weird.

KD: I would love to.

JB: Yeah, it’s pretty great. Anything you wanted to add?

KD: No…I’d love people to come to my shows, because I do these little rock clubs now, and they’re fun shows and I used to get like a lot of Professor Blastoff people, those are the best fans…they just bring me things. This is my first tour without Professor Blastoff, but I hope they still come because I would get like little gifts and stuff. It’s nice.
Catch Kyle on tour in the following cities:

March 24-25th – Arlington, VA

March 28th – St. Paul, MN

March 30th– April1st – Madison, WI

April 2nd – Iowa City

April 3rd – Kansas City

April 4th – Omaha

May 11-14th – New York Cit

*     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *

Josh Bowman is a professional fundraiser, story-teller, comedian, and blogger. He has worked and consulted in Vancouver, New York, and now Toronto for almost a decade. Josh also runs and writes for tenthingsivelearned.com, writes for The Huffington Post, sings and improvises

Photo © NPS

Parks and Recreation on NBC had a first season that was kind of rocky, but one that was utilized skillfully in the end (spoilers ahead).

Modeled after The Office, the show starts with an enthusiastically awkward Leslie Knope balancing the challenges of local government bureaucracy and a romantic entanglement with the much less enthusiastic Mark. They both work at City Hall in Pawnee, Indiana, which is decorated with embarrassing murals about its gruesome history.

After a retooling of the show to drop what felt like imitations of The Office and focus instead on what was working and unique to Parks and Rec, Leslie changed a bit, and Mark disappeared to be eventually replaced in the love interest department by Ben, who is similarly well-versed in all the negatives of the work they do.

We continued to see more of those murals, which the writers easily could’ve dropped or even literally painted over, but they kept using them. Before long, we see Leslie and Ben in love in front of the only beautiful mural in the building, of a field of wildflowers.

That good mural is so impactful because of all the bad ones. That good love interest is so impactful because of the bad one. The Leslie we see in the last episode is so impactful because of the Leslie we see in the first episode.

They weren’t planned out that way in advance; they were discovered by using what had already been laid down. Those first choices really can’t disappear; they’re always going to be part of the story, wherever it goes.

Improv is like that, we create something, and it’s good or not. We then have an impulse to reject our stumbles, but it’s to everybody’s benefit if we embrace them instead.

If you hate what you just did, chances are that your partners and the audience did as well, but you can make it seem “on purpose” by accepting it, engaging with it, and finding a way to make it work. If you don’t do anything with it, it just becomes something to remember and say “oh yeah, what was that?” about.

Beginner improvisers seem to think they need choices that are different from what they just did, smarter or funnier or better or edgier or more emotional. Really, they just need to make something out of the choices that everyone in the room just invested in.

If you’re writing a story alone, it’s easy to trash what you don’t like and start erasing, but we don’t have that option. We’re writing in ink, and that’s the story; it’s already been delivered to its recipients. You can’t go back. You have to make it work as is, somehow.

If you’re weaving a rug, and you put a blue square where a red one should be, make that same mistake on purpose when you get to the opposite side.

If you play an F-flat instead of a C, decide that later on you’re also going to play a D-flat instead of a B.

“Why did I just do that?” pops into our heads in improv, and it’s not a rhetorical question; give us all an answer. Why did you? Find the reason.

We say “Yes, and” to whatever we receive, but we can also accept and deal with the things we give ourselves.

Another example from TV is from the show WKRP. In the first episode, we meet broad caricatures, only to see them get fleshed out into realistic people throughout the show. You could look back at that first episode and think they didn’t have it right, call it a mistake.

But in one of the final episodes, The Creation of Venus, everything that had been established is reinforced and replayed, only now with prequel scenes. What you saw is still what you saw, but with new details.

They embraced what could not be erased.

In the first episode of That 70s Show, we meet Mrs. Forman through a POV shot from her teenage son. Actress Debra Jo Rupp says she played an exaggeration, more shrill and embarrassing than she might have if not for that directorial choice, but then she had to embrace it and deal with it for a decade.

From these and other choices that could’ve been seen as missteps and then dropped, some great stuff came, but you’ll never get to that genius connection, that inspired idea, if you spend your time wishing you had an eraser or a time machine.

Don’t wish for a different scene. Be in the scene you’re in and find what’s going to make it great. There’s something great at the end of the path you just started; you just have to find it.

Find what’ll make the audience go “oh, now I get it!” Find what’ll make you happy you made that “mistake” to challenge you. Find your wildflowers.

Matt Holmes has been performing, teaching, and directing improv since 1998, including “best new house team” Hey Rube at Philly Improv Theater, and “arguably the best improv group Philly has ever produced,” Rare Bird Show. He performs improv with a complete stranger from the audience in Matt& (mattandimprov.com). 

“Nobody in life gets exactly what they thought they were going to get. But if you work really hard, and you’re kind, amazing things will happen.” – Conan O’Brien

That quote pretty much sums up Ken Hall. He’s done improv and sketch across North America, performed as a clown with Cirque du Soleil, teaches improv and presentation skills at Second City, and plays an alien on the Conan-produced comedy, People of Earth. We spoke to him about the long and winding road to get here.

P&C: How did you get into improv?

KH: It was probably about 12 years ago. I’d never done drama or any acting or anything like that–

P&C: You didn’t go to theatre school?

KH: Oh no, good lord no, I barely got through high school. (laughs) I took the Social Service Worker program at Centennial College, and so the idea of performing was never on my radar. And the biggest thing too, was I so shy, I was such an introverted, scared person, fearful of so many things and so the idea of putting myself out there was really unheard of.

And then in my late 20s, I was doing creative writing night school classes, and for the first time in my life I was like, wow, I had no idea that I was actually a creative person. It was interesting because there was a lot of resistance to go in to class. I was like, “I don’t wanna go to class. I wanna play Vice City and stay home.” But I found that once I would go there and actually start writing, something took over and it was thrilling and exhilarating and I couldn’t stop.

I did that for two years and wanted to keep writing, but I wanted to do something else. I was going through the course calendar, and literally the night before registration was going to end I landed on the theatre page. I saw Beginner’s Drama, and at the bottom of the page it had the harlequin mask, the happy face/sad face, and I read the description and just had this weird sensation, this weird feeling of like, “Do it. Just do it.”

I still remember, I know where I was, where I was filling it out, and it was like an out-of-body experience. I did it on a whim, and this was very unlike me. There was a big part of me that was like, “What are you doing? You’re not this person.” Almost like “Stop what you’re doing. Stay here in the safety of your apartment with your video games,” and that world. But I signed up.

I didn’t tell anyone until about halfway through the course, when I told my best friend. He said “Great, man. You should’ve been doing that years ago.”

That very first class, we were doing exercises like, “Be an animal and go around the room,” and it was just so much fun. I loved it. When I [went] for the intermediate class not enough people signed up, so it got cancelled. But at that point I thought, I have to keep doing this. Someone in my class said, “You’re pretty good, man. You should go to Second City.” And for me Second City was John Candy, Eugene Levy, Martin Short, all these wonderful people that I grew up watching on SCTV, and I’m like, all right, slow down, I’m just starting. But I realised it was something I had been missing so much in my life. The idea of playing, being creative, and feeling connected with other people.

For many years I was very much adrift… My whole life, actually, I’ve never felt that I had a place in the world. I always felt, because I look physically different, and I just always felt different to everyone, I never felt like I fit in, and the world never really made a lot of sense to me. So this was something for the first time in my life where I found a community that was so supportive and encouraging and affirming.

The beautiful thing about improv is that it really affirms you, as a person. And even if the end result is that you don’t remain in improv, if you’ve had a taste, it still has the possibility to transform and change you. We know people in the Toronto community that have sampled some improv and they actually changed as people. It’s a really remarkable thing.

So I signed up for a Level A class at Second City, terrified, scared, happy that they had carpets because I felt like I was going to pass out! (laughs) The lights were so bright, it felt like a dream.

I still look back at those classes, and I know that they were fun, but I also remember them as just being a blur, almost like running through a burning building, just trying to get through it! (laughs) But I loved it at the same time. And I knew very early on that this was the very thing I needed in my life.

I went through A through E and took a few specialty classes, and then was encouraged to audition for the Conservatory program. I was going to school at George Brown and again, was like, “I’ll do this,” and that’s where I met Isaac [Kessler], my comedy partner.

My experience is interesting in the sense that, I relate it to my background in career and employment counseling: it’s about connecting with more things that you love in your life.

You don’t know what that end goal or result is gonna be, but if you just fill your life with more things that excite you, inspire you, that you click with creatively, then the probability of something good coming from that just increases.

There’s never any guarantees with any of this stuff of course, but I just feel like that’s the nature of improv: you’re just open, and it changed how I lived, it changed how I looked at the world, how I interact with people. This person who was incredibly shy and anxious and scared of the world is now…it’s the most remarkable transformation, it’s day and night.

And I don’t think that I’m so special in that sense, because we know the power that improv can have, and just the philosophies of “yes, and,” being open. My default used to be saying “no” to things, and being very resistant to change and trying things.

P&C: I think that’s the human default. (laughs) Cameron’s much better at saying “yes” because he lives it and practises it teaching improv. He’ll say “Do you wanna do blah-blah?” and my first instinct is “Nope!” (laughs) But I do have more self-awareness now. I think it’s something you keep applying to your life.

So, when did you first know that you wanted to do this for a living? When did it stop being a hobby?

KH: It was probably about eight years ago. I was working at an employment agency. It was a full-time job, 9 to 5, and an opportunity came up to take a one-week vacation. At that same time [I was] doing Cage Match on a team called What Would Jesus Do? and I was the only one who showed up in costume.

P&C: What was your costume?

KH: We were supposed to dress up in religious clothes. I went to Malabar’s [and] rented robes and a rope belt and a beard and dressed as Jesus. When I [got to the show] no one else was in costume. I was like, “I don’t wanna be the only one wearing a costume!” but they said “Can you please wear that?”

We did well, we started winning, and one week I went to New York City for the first time in my life. I saw UCB had a 101 intensive, and thought “Great, I’m gonna do that.” The intensive was Monday through Friday, but we had Wednesday off, and that was the night of Cage Match in Toronto. So I flew back to do the show, which we won, thankfully. (laughs) I flew back the next morning to finish the intensive and it was that moment where I realised, this is more than just a hobby.

As far as pursuing it as a career, I don’t know. While I was still working in employment counselling, an improv guy got in touch and said “Hey man, there’s this show that’s looking for improvisers.” So I got in touch with the Casting Directors for a show called Freak Encounters. It’s very similar to Scare Tactics, where you dress up like a monster and you scare friends or family members that are being pranked.

I started doing these gigs and it was like, “This great, I’m doing TV!” So fun. And then one of the Casting Directors reached out to me to say an agent is looking to expand her roster, she’s looking for someone with your skill set and size, and so she connected us, and she’s been my agent ever since.

Again, just the idea of being open and saying yes to opportunities, it’s just the nature of improv. You do a show with people and it’s a very close-knit community, and so when people [say] “I love your stuff, do you wanna do a show?” you say yes. And so for me it’s felt like a natural transition. It was never “I have to do this as a career,” it just slowly evolved into it. I went from full-time down to a part-time employment counselling, and it really allowed for that to take off. And now I don’t do any career counselling, just acting, comedy, teaching.

P&C: How long did it take before you felt, not just “I like this” but “I’m good at this”?

KH: It was when I was doing A through E. But I also feel like that was a big part of my ego. I was like, “Oh man, I’m great at this.” I still was very “wild stallion.” It wasn’t grounded, it was so, like, throwing paint up against the wall. It felt very manic, very uncontrolled.

That’s part of my own evolution, is trying to minimize my ego and calling myself out. That was a really awesome moment for me, because I got to realise I really don’t know anything. And it was very liberating in that sense. Not that I carried around this big head, but inside I felt like my capabilities were much further than where they actually were. And so that was a tough learning part, but it was so great. And now I just approach it like, “What do I know?”

I’ve done so many workshops with [David] Razowsky and Jet Eveleth and [others], and I love learning. I don’t want to come to a point where I’m like, “I’m a master at this.”                                             

The lovely thing about improv is that it keeps you humble. I did a show many years ago, it was a duo fest and my partner didn’t show that night, they ended up working. So I went into it knowing I had to do a 12-minute solo set. I got a standing ovation and thought, “Wow, I’m really good at this.” And the very next night I did a show at Bad Dog and it was terrible, it was awful. (laughs)

P&C: In addition to improv, you’ve studied clown. What effect has that had on your performance?

KH: [I studied with] Phillipe Gaulier. Isaac had trained with him. Isaac’s always been the pioneer, he’s always been the one to do all these classes and then [say], “Wow, you’ve gotta do this.” So I had the chance and it was expensive, but I decided this is such a great opportunity. I spoke to one person who said she’d taken his Bouffon workshop to help her get over her fear of authority.

Clown, [like] improv, has a lot of personal transformative effects. So that’s the stuff that I’m really excited about, because it’s terrifying! Stepping out there with no script to make the audience laugh, but you don’t know what is going to make the audience laugh. And what you think will make the audience laugh, doesn’t make them laugh. It’s exhiliarating.

I trained with Paola Coletto, who’s based in L.A., and Francine Cote in Montreal, one of the absolute best clown teachers.

Me and Isaac had already been doing clownish things without even being aware of it. Our director for 2-MAN NO-SHOW was Mark Andrada, who’s got such a huge clown background. But we just saw him and liked that he likes breaking rules and convention, which is very clown-slash-Bouffon.

We were doing it and people [said], “We love the Vaudeville aspect.” I’m small, he’s big, I guess there’s that aspect. Mark Andrada [said] “Guys, it’s a sloppy show.” But that’s part of our charm. We’re not looking for technical precision, we’re looking for fun.

Photo © Alaine Hutton

Photo © Alaine Hutton

For me clown has been so transformative personally, but also bringing it back into improv, I began to look at improv scenes in a different way, and looking to add an element of mischief and to mess things up. It’s just fun for me to do that, and to be aware of what’s working with the audience and kind of check in with them. They’re sitting there, I don’t have to pretend there’s a fourth wall there, let’s bring ‘em in, let’s include them in the environment.

P&C: Let’s talk about influences. Who are your improv or comedy heroes?

KH: Robin Williams was someone I really admired growing up. For me he kind of represents all the things that I would love to be: a great actor, funny, manic… I loved that energy and the fact that he was so fast and so quick, and I feel like he had a big heart as well.

John Ritter was one of my heroes, too. His physical comedy is exceptional; he was super talented. I remember emulating that kind of behaviour when I was in school, joking around.

I think of Isaac, who is, in terms of physical comedy, probably one of the absolute best that I’ve ever seen. And the amount of characters and playfulness, and the ability that we’re able to connect and trust each other and go all the ridiculous places that we do…

I remember quite a few times being on stage and Isaac just left the venue. He’ll go through the back, through the parking lot, and come in through the front. And it’s all good, it’s great. He’s such a great comedy mind and he can make anything funny, and anything playful, and I love that spirit and I’m very drawn to that.

Rob Baker has a similar energy. Rob is an absolute joy to play with. Again, it’s this unbridled, almost an unending well of exuberant playfulness. And for a big part of my life I didn’t really have that, so I feel like now I get to play.

Jan Caruana, Kayla Lorette and Becky Johnson, Kurt Smeaton, Carmine Lucarelli…it’s such an infinite list of people. Then there’s people I haven’t necessarily seen a lot of, but I really admire their work, like David Razowsky, TJ and Dave, all the guys from Cook County Social Club.

I love the S&P style, it’s just fun, and like, [if] anything happens, it’s just jumped on. Everyone’s so happy to play that idea, there’s no self-consciousness. That’s something I really struggled with in my life, and it’s such a freeing experience to watch a team do that. With me and Isaac, I think the less time I spend in my head, the better. The more time I spend in my body or in the moment, then I’m on the right track.

P&C: What is the best, worst, or weirdest improv set you’ve done?

KH: One of the best: two years ago for Big City Improv Festival, Isaac came back from L.A. We did a show where we started out, we’re sitting on chairs. I was the father, he was the son, we’re waiting to see the Principal. Isaac had done something wrong, and in the first minute he said something kind of belligerent and I backhanded him. So of course Isaac went flying off the chair, really selling that moment, and he just lay there. And he didn’t move for the whole set.

I didn’t react either, I just kind of sat in that. I mimed getting on my phone, eating trail mix, and the audience was killing themselves laughing, and it was just such a lovely moment.

We’d often done sets where we said, “Oh, wouldn’t it have been great if you’d just done this the whole entire time?” This was exactly how it was supposed to go down, where he literally lay on the ground for 15 minutes.

P&C: So it was a completely silent monoscene?

KH: Yeah, from there on in. But all the things I was doing, all the expressions were from clown-based stuff, with the audience laughing at the absurdity of it all, and then I started laughing because it was just so absurd I couldn’t believe what was happening. That was absolutely one of the most fun and funniest sets that I’ve done.

In terms of worst, I did a corporate show out east. We had these mics that kept falling off, and it was at the end of the day, and no was interested. It was a room full of 200 people and they couldn’t care less. Once the side talking starts happening, it’s like… But they’re not there to see us, they’re there to see other people and drink and have fun.

P&C: What advice do you have for someone starting, or who wants to make improv a career?

KH: It sounds ridiculous, but I’ve always said to people starting out, just have fun. That’s such a big part that I think people can’t miss. The other thing too is, trust the process. If you want to make improv your career, it will happen, because that’s just the nature of it [if] you go through training and you put in time.

It’s like a gym. You can’t expect to be the best there is in a short period of time.

It’s the repetition of continually doing shows and classes, without that sense of entitlement, and you’re going to get asked to do more shows. You’re going to have the opportunity to do more classes, you’re going to have the opportunity to coach teams, and then you’ll have the opportunity to teach. That’s just a natural evolution, depending on where you are.

If you live in Chicago, Toronto, you have an opportunity to perhaps work at Second City, to perform, and maybe there’s Comedy Sports or things like that. Performing and getting paid for it, that’s a rarity, but you can still be connected in that field, teaching, coaching, and trust that that will happen. But you have to put in that time. It’s a lot of hard work.

Always remember why you’re doing this in the first place: it’s because it’s fun. If it’s like an end goal, fine, I guess, but I don’t know if that’s going to work necessarily. Not just with improv, but with anything, it has to mean something to you and it has to be fun, otherwise why are you doing it?

There’s going to be ups and downs. You can have a bad show but still be like “But there’s going to be another one.” As long as you can say I still enjoy it, I love the community, I love putting myself out there. For me, I feel there’s going to be a lot more yeses than there are nos, but if there are some nos, that’s fine too. Look at those things and say, OK, if it isn’t improv, what is it that you’re really interested in? What excites you, what are you passionate about, what are your values?

I remember Mick Napier talking about the [Second City] generals, and seeing so many players who don’t do great because they take it so seriously, like, “Aaaargh, I’ve gotta get hired!” And he said, man, if they’d just let go and have fun and breathe into it… So I’d say just remember that, and trust in the process, and that good things are gonna happen.

P&C: Speaking of which… For people who don’t know you, you’re on People of Earth. It might seem like you’re this overnight sensation, when you’ve been working towards this for more than 12 years. How did the role come about?

KH: I went for an audition. About two weeks before, for the first time in my life I started working with an acting coach. So much of life is very serendipitous, and again being open to opportunities and saying yes to things.

There was a general audition for Storefront Theatre where I had to learn a monologue. I was teaching clown at a place that offered a variety of things, like Shakespeare, voice over, on-camera techniques. The teacher, Michael Gordin Shore, said “Hey man, when are we going to work together?” He kept asking and I was like, I don’t know. But he said if you want, sit in on my class. So I did, and I realized oh, this is great.

P&C: And he became your acting coach?

KH: Yes. Not too long after the Storefront audition came up. And then a week or two after that the audition for People of Earth came. And I put in so much work, and I realized, wow, I’ve been going into a lot of auditions relying too much on improv, not being 100% on my lines. So this time when I went in I was so on-book and so focused and so confident, not like ego, but in terms of, I know I’ve done the preparation so therefore I can play.

I got a call back and Greg Daniels was there, the creator, David Jenkins was there. We did the scripted portion and then they were like, “OK, we’re going to give you some premises and we’re just going to improvise some stuff.” And I was like, all right, let’s do this! So again, it was about being open, being in the right place at the right time, putting the work in and showing up prepared.

Not too long after that I found out I got it. We shot it, and we found out new year’s eve that it was picked up to become a series.

It was so thrilling. It was the best experience that I’ve had so far, just the people I get to work with and the amount of comedy talent on that show, and the writers and the directors. It’s a dream come true.

P&C: Where do you see yourself 10 years from now? Or where would you like to see yourself 10 years from now?

KH: Happy and healthy.

P&C: What?! (laughs) With a gold statue of you as a fountain on the front lawn of your L.A. mansion.

KH: (laughs) I love the surprises. I’m already on my way, wherever this is going to go. It’s like, great, let’s find out what happens.

Photo © Ken Hall

Photo © Ken Hall

You’ve trained. You’ve rehearsed. You’re ready to rock’n’roll. But where?

In the past, improvisers performed where they studied, or looked for existing shows to be part of. Now a new breed of players is getting creative in the ongoing pursuit of stage time.

Pop-Up Improv

Image © Countdown Theater

Image © Countdown Theater

Retailers have pop-up spaces, why not improvisers? The idea “popped” in my head last year. But while I was still musing, Kelly Buttermore was making it happen. Countdown Theater is a pop-up improv space in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. (Could it be any cooler?) It opened February 1st this year, and closes April 1st. In her words, it’s “an ephemeral space for an ephemeral art form.”

Do what Kelly did: keep your eyes peeled for potential locations, then get in touch with the landlord or lease holder. Invite other teams, and maybe even collaborate with other artists in your community (musicians, dancers, painters, etc.) It’s a buzz-worthy way to showcase talent, and who knows where it could lead? To learn more about Countdown, click here.

Podcast Your Passion

There’s a podcast for practically everything nowadays, from modern love to mental health to mostly made-up movies. Most podcasts are two people and a mic in a basement, but why not do it in front of an audience? Here are three podcasts that do just that.

Improv Nerd is a show, a podcast, and an improv master class rolled into one. Host Jimmy Carrane has interviewed and performed with the cream of comedy, including Key & Peele, Scott Adsit, Rachel Dratch, TJ & Dave, and The Improvised Shakespeare Company to name a few of his over 200 guests. If you can’t make it out to a live show, you can listen on iTunes.

Comedy Bang! Bang! The show that launched a thousand catchphrases, Scott Aukerman’s Comedy Bang! Bang! has been making fans laugh with improvised nonsense since 2009. While it started on Earwolf and later aired on TV for five seasons, the core players have also performed live. Last year they toured North America, as well as four stops Down Under. Regular cast members include Paul F. Tompkins, Lauren Lapkus, Jason Mantzoukas, Andy Daly, Ben Schwartz, Matt Besser, and Bob Odenkirk. All joking a salad, we heart CBB. 

Illusionoid Nug Nahrgang, Paul Bates, and Lee Smart have been bringing their brand of sci-fi comedy to audiences for almost a decade. Past guests include Colin Mochrie, Sean Cullen, The Templeton Philharmonic, and Scott Thompson.

According to Nug, “The show is like Twlight Zone or Tales from the Crypt. There’s a host, and it’s this man from the future, the last surviving human, and he’s sending these stories backwards in time in hopes that we’ll prevent these horrible things from happening.” (We can think of something we’d like to prevent, Nug…)

They’ve just signed with Antica Productions, the folks behind Gord Downie’s Secret Path. If you can’t catch the show in person, subscribe here.

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If you really want to think outside The Harold, go beyond improv and appeal to a whole new audience. Abra Cadaver met in the Second City Longform Conservatory program, and have gone on to perform for packed houses across the city. We asked them about their signature show, Bunz Live.

P&C: Your show is called Bunz Live. How did you come up with it?

Molly: Cameron Algie was our coach at the time–

P&C: Terrible.

Molly: (laughs) He was really encouraging us because we’re a very theatrical group, to kind of use our bodies because we’re all really comfortable “movers,” to try and find a form that would encapsulate that. And there’s also this burgeoning community called Bunz. It’s an online platform where you can trade items for anything. Like, if I have an extra shoe, I can trade it for some ramen noodles.

Robbie: Of all of the examples, that was not the most amazingly descriptive example, but…

Antonis: Let’s say this: someone can teach you piano, but they won’t ask for money, they’ll ask for a sofa because they really need a sofa.

P&C: That’s one of the things about Bunz, no cash is allowed, is that right?

Molly: Yes, exactly. No cash, only item for item.

Robbie: Side note: it ends up being a lot of people asking for tokens and beer, and subway tokens are kinda funny because it looks like money, people treat it like money, so why don’t they just give each other money?

Antonis: Plus it has an exact monetary value.

Robbie: Maybe they haven’t heard of this thing called “money.”

Dana: Another interesting thing in coming up with the form was that Cam kind of wanted to expand us to the idea of thinking outside of just the Conservatory. Thinking like, OK, if you’re gonna take the time and you want to explore something and make a show, really think about, “What’s something that hasn’t been explored in Toronto?”

That was something we weren’t necessarily thinking of when we were making our form. It [went from], “What hasn’t been done [in long form]?” to “What’s happening right now that hasn’t really been explored, that might have an audience?” And there’s a huge Bunz community.

Molly: I feel like we got lucky. In Toronto there was this online start-up company, and we were like this online improv company (laughs) no, live improv company. It just kind of worked; we were both coming up at the same time and a lot of people we knew were also involved in that community. And it was an audience outside of the comedy audience.

P&C: That’s what’s so interesting. As you know, improvisers often end up performing for other improvisers. We’re always asking “How do we get people from outside the community to come and see a show?” Especially when the players are at a certain level, performing to a handful of people, you think, “Aaaaahhh, if only more people could see this!” Get more people into the cult. (laughs) And I find the vibe in the room can be really great when there’s new people.

Molly: Absolutely. We’re just starting out, but even connecting with the Bunz team at their headquarters was so great to say, “We’ve got an idea, we’re trying something new. You’ve got an idea, you’re trying something new.” It’s awesome.

P&C: So how did you approach Bunz?

Molly: I’ve played in bands in Toronto, and I had played with Emily who started Bunz in a new year’s show at the Silver Dollar. She played in a band called Milk Lines. I was friends with her on Facebook and then noticed that she was starting Bunz. So when we started playing with the idea, I got in touch with her and it kinda went from there.

P&C: You said you’re a theatrical group. What do you mean by that?

Antonis: We all have differing backgrounds, in theatre, in film, in dance. I personally started in music theatre, I have a lot of dance background, and I try to bring that out in my comedy. I think that’s something about Abra Cadaver and Bunz Live that is really fun, is that we all have diverse talents and we all work hard to bring those talents out.

Dana: It’s all about becoming those objects or those people, so when we all started doing it together it was so wonderful to see other people jump into the form and really do it.

P&C: You’re a very physical team compared to “stand and talk” kind of shows that are more common. As an audience member it’s very cool to watch.

Robbie: All but one person have some kind of theatre background.

Antonis: That’s Jason, and he works at a museum, so that’s equally as fascinating, so I feel like his frame of reference is huge.

Robbie: And we need that difference. Also Jason’s a physical actor.

Antonis: He’s a very, very funny guy.

Molly: He’ll be an actor when we’re finished with him. (laughs)

Catch Abra Cadaver (Kate Fenton, Molly Flood, Robbie Grant, Ross Hammond, Leanne Miller, Dana Puddicombe, Samara Stern, Jason Voulgaris, and Antonis Varkaris) at Bunz Live, SoCap Theatre, Monday, March 13. Admission: $5, or bring an item to trade and enjoy the show for free! 

Photo © People & Chairs

Photo © People & Chairs

Click here for Parts One and Two of this series.

You hear a lot about “getting reps” in improv. And for most people, reps = stage time. But before you start making a Facebook event for your show, we’d like to focus on a different kind of rep.

What Are We Talking About?

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Once you’ve got a team together, you need to rehearse on a regular basis. Why? Because it’s a helluva lot easier to develop group mind when you know each other, understand your fellow players’ moves, and share a common language. And the only way to do that is to practice.

Finding a good coach is key. Choose someone who shares your group’s goals and needs, or whose approach you want to model. Ask yourselves what you want to achieve as a team. Is improv a hobby? Or do you want to make a dent in the universe? If that sounds too lofty, here are two stories to inspire you.

Jazz Freddy

Chicago’s Jazz Freddy is legendary, and with good reason. The cast reads like a Who’s Who of Comedy, including Pete Gardner, Brian Stack, Dave Koechner, Rachel Dratch, Noah Gregoropoulos, Kevin Dorff, Jimmy Carrane, Miriam Tolan, Pat Finn, Chris Reed, Stephanie Howard, Susan McLaughlin and Meredith Zinner.

Photo © ? (If you know, please let me us know so we can credit them)

Photo © ? (If you know, please let us know so we can credit them)

When Jazz Freddy debuted at the Live Bait Theater, they broke the mould with their innovative, patient style of improv and attention to acting skills. It was one of the first long-form shows to be done in a theatre, as opposed to a comedy club or bar. It was also one of the first ensembles to feature almost as many women as men – unheard of in 1992.

As Craig Cackowski recalls, “Everything about it exuded class, from the Ray Charles music that played as the house lights faded to the fact that they were playing on actual sets of regular Live Bait productions,” (a tactic later employed by Stolen House).

Director and cast member Pete Gardner said, “There was a feeling of bringing your A-game, which established a lot of trust. People let go and experimented with forms and structures. Everyone understood that they were playing it straight – truth in comedy – like Del taught. They weren’t playing for jokes.”

The form itself involved a “two back, one forward” concept with two-person scenes, as well as scenes involving large groups of players. Jazz Freddy is credited with the first use of tag-outs in long form, and was among the first to use cross-fade edits.

There were callbacks, relationships, time dashes, and a modified three-scene structure similar to Harold. But as Matt Fotis notes in his book, Long Form Improvisation and American Comedy, Jazz Freddy was “less about format and more focused on content, style, and dedication to craft.”

“Members made the group their top priority, turning down other jobs and rearranging schedules around Jazz Freddy rehearsals, something that has rarely occurred in a form that for 99 percent of improvisers doesn’t pay any money.”

In an interview with Pam Victor, Brian Stack recalled, “One of my favourite memories of Jazz Freddy involved a recurring scene in which two old men were playing chess in a park, and another unrelated recurring scene that took place in a mediaeval castle. At some point late in the show, a reference was made during the ‘castle’ scene to the ‘strange, checkered landscape’ outside. It became clear that the action in the castle was taking place in the rook on the old men’s chessboard. It was one of those totally organic on-stage discoveries that I’ll never forget, and it still reminds me of why I love improv so much.”

Big In Japan

That same dedication to craft was shared by Toronto long-form legends, Big In Japan. Like Jazz Freddy, their line-up boasted future comedy royalty: Alex Tindal, Sarah Hillier, Julie Dumais Osborne, Bob Banks, Sean Tabares, Sean Magee, Kevin Thom, Adam Cawley, James Gangl, and later Ken Hall, Jess Grant, Alexandra Wylie, Paloma Nunez and Molly Davis.

Photo © Kevin Patrick Robbins

Photo © Kevin Patrick Robbins

While different from Jazz Freddy‘s slow comedy style, Big In Japan carved a name for themselves with memorable, experimental ensemble work that was fluid and highly thematic. It was astounding to see so many hilarious and highly intelligent people on stage at once, all pushing boundaries while supporting one another.

Kevin Thom recalls, “I can’t remember how long we rehearsed before we actually played on stage, but it was a few months anyway. We were rehearsing in the ITC studio on Wellington Street. I remember that we did break down the Harold and work on individual pieces of it for very long stretches. We worked on organic openings for months, different kinds of organic edits for more months, etc.

Sometimes we were forbidden from doing things KPR (Kevin Patrick Robbins, Impatient Theatre Company’s Artistic Director and BIJ’s coach) thought we did too often. Specifically, Sarah was forbidden from doing scenes about cats. We were collectively forbidden from shitting on stage. Whenever KPR wasn’t there, we would do all those things as much as possible.”

Adam Cawley said, “I just remember really wanting to be on BIJ. I wasn’t on the original. I joined when I was prob 20, 21? But I remember looking up to them as a team. Once I joined I felt like I’d joined an all star team. At that time there were amazing improvisers around, but not all of them were interested in the Harold. But BIJ felt like some of the best longform players in the city.”

Two sets that will forever be remembered by those who saw them were for the suggestions “Anarchy” and “Misogyny.” According to Kevin Thom, “I remember the Anarchy set really well. That was at the Diesel Playhouse. We were up in the tech booth messing with the lights and sound, pulling props from backstage, breaking chairs, running through the audience. I think the ITC had to pay for the damages we did that night.”

Sarah Hillier recalls, “I had that moment while playing with Big In Japan, the ‘Oh, this is what improv is’ moment. Where it all connected for me and I will never forget that moment on stage. We broke the organic Harold open with Anarchy and the Misogyny set. We let it take us wherever it was gonna take us and didn’t necessarily do a traditional Harold. I feel like we decided to be a part of the improv and not just play it.”

For the Misogyny set, the male members of Big In Japan wouldn’t let the women on stage. Sarah remembers “being in the audience and yelling at everyone so much and somehow it was still improv, because we all completely gave in to it.”

Sean Tabares: “I wasn’t an original member, but I was close. I do remember spending a lot of time on specific concepts, but I feel that was partly because we were sort of figuring it out all together as we went along. The feeling at the time for me was that these ideas were all pretty new to our community, and any visitor or any time we visited someplace was a wealth of new inspiration.

I remember the early days as a time of learning by watching other out-of-town troupes and trying to figure it out on our feet. That’s why we rehearsed so much. A bit like teaching yourself an instrument but with access to a radio once a month or so. Guest instructors and classes abroad were so huge. The Anarchy show period was the first time I felt we were really doing it. The elusive Harold that only shows itself if the players are in the right mindset. Going beyond the rigid structure that started to seem like a cruel joke. That only after mastering this ‘form’ do you get to do the real Harold which is whatever it wants to be. Oh man, I do love this art form.

I forget the suggestion, but I’m also remembering one where the first scene involved a pig mayor, and each scene that followed took place in the stomach of someone in the scene prior. Russian doll stomachs!

I do know that I’ve never rehearsed with an improv troupe as I have with BIJ. Not just in terms of longevity. Density of rehearsals. Over my time with BIJ, I’ve been blessed to play with the best in the business, and the dedication to rehearsal has to be a factor. No coincidence there.”

Kevin Thom added, “We also did a set on the suggestion of ‘Palindrome’ where we started with one thing, did half a set and then started reversing everything until we ended up at the beginning again.

In general, I remember how much I loved playing with BIJ because of how everyone approached and studied improv as a serious art, giving it the respect it deserves, while still leaving room for the chaos and fun that makes it feel so good.”

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Photo © Kevin Patrick Robbins

In conclusion, both of these teams were stacked with talent, but they didn’t just focus on how many shows they had booked. Instead, they put in months of rehearsals, sometimes multiple times a week. When they finally did set foot on stage, they were unscripted but incredibly prepared.

We think Del would have been proud.

For further reading on Jazz Freddy, we highly recommend Matt Fotis’s book and Pam Victor’s blog, My Nephew Is A Poodle.

In Part Three, we’ll explore more ways to think outside the black box in terms of format and show location.

If you stay in the improv community long enough, change will come. Sometimes it’s good (a new theatre opening, more shows featuring women, people of colour, and the LGBTQ community). And sometimes it’s not so good (a theatre closing, a beloved performer leaving, your favourite burrito place shutting down).

Last week Toronto was shaken by the news that Second City’s Longform Conservatory program is ending. That means fewer Longform classes, no more stage time for grad teams, and the loss of a home for a strong and growing improv community.

There’s no way to sugar coat it: this is tough for a city with few outlets for long form, especially compared to Chicago, New York, or L.A.

When stuff like this happens, it’s common to feel the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally, finding a new burrito place. But having been through upheaval ourselves a few times, here’s what we’ve learned. 

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History Repeats

Whatever is happening in your community has already happened before. Institutions from Second City to iO to Annoyance to UCB have been threatened with eviction, lost their lease, teetered on the edge of bankruptcy, or worse.

Artistic Directors come and go, curriculums morph, and shows evolve. But as long as there’s a passionate group of people willing to play for the sheer joy of it, there will always be long-form nights.

“But how?” you might be asking if you’re in this situation. “Where do I start?”

Let’s begin with the basics: education. There are so many different approaches to long-form, you could spend years just learning them all. Ask your network for recommendations. Chances are there are some great long-form teachers who want to share their knowledge as much as you want to learn. (And could use the work!)

Don’t be afraid to look outside your home town for specialty classes. iO, Annoyance, UCB, Magnet and others have intensives year round from one to five weeks long. If you can’t get away, see if you can bring an instructor to you.

Isaac Kessler, Rob Chodos, and Mark Cotoia brought many A-listers to Toronto, exposing the community to a wealth of technique, forms, and viewpoints that enriched not only the students, but everyone they’ve since gone on to teach. Some of Cameron’s favourite exercises came from workshops he took with Jet Eveleth, Todd Stashwick, TJ and Dave, and David Razowsky.

If you don’t have an improv impresario in your town, maybe you’re that person. Ask your community who they’d like to learn from. Once you have a short list, contact them to discuss availability and rates. You’ll need to cover the instructor’s fee, plus transportation and accommodation. (Fortunately Airb’n’b has made the latter much easier.) And don’t forget to factor in renting a space for the class.

Calculate how many students you’ll need at what price to break even, and be sure to get payment in full up front. You don’t want to be left holding the bag because 20 people were interested and only four people showed up.

Finally, don’t limit yourself to improv. Acting, singing, clown, and mask are great ways to round out your theatre skills, so stretch yourself by trying something new.

Next, we’ll look at rehearsals and stage time, because you’ll need a place to perform. Before you book your parents’ basement, stay tuned for Part Two.

Photo © Kevin Thom

Photo © Kevin Thom