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When one of Canada’s longest-running improv teams-slash-shows makes changes, it’s big news.

When one of those changes involves adding more X chromosomes to a show called Mantown, it’s even bigger.

Founded in 2006 by Adam Cawley, Jason DeRosse and Rob Norman, along with former Big City Improv Festival Artistic Director, Bob Banks, Mantown has been hosted by Rob Baker for the past seven years.

Now some of Toronto’s rising stars are joining in the debauchery: Sharjil Rasool (Second City Touring Co), Andrew Bushell (Bamboo Kids Club, Fake Cops), Carson Gale (Moist Theatre), Leanne Miller (Bae Watch, Abra Cadaver), Geoffrey Cork (Orson Whales) and Noemi Salamon (Chakra Khan, Orson Whales).

We trust that they’re all legal drinking age.

You can enter the city of Mantown the first Friday of every month, 10:30 pm at Comedy Bar.

Image © Mantown

Image © Mantown

David Lynch is one of the most celebrated and, for those who still remember Dunevilified creatives of our time. But through all the epic highs and lows of his career, his vision has remained intact.

This video uncovers not just Lynch’s creative process, but every artist’s. You can learn more about it in his book, Catching The Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness and Creativity.

Improvisers aren’t just creative on stage. They’re also artists, musicians, photographers, filmmakers, dancers, writers, podcast hosts and more.

Some of these things turn into new careers, but for most, they’re a chance to shift gears, experiment, and try something completely different.

Like Austin Kleon says, “Side projects and hobbies are important.” So we thought we’d showcase some of our favourite improvisers’ talents, starting with Second City alum Kirsten Rasmussen’s hilarious doodles.

You can follow Kirsten on Instagram and Twitter.

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All artwork © Kirsten Rasmussen

All artwork © Kirsten Rasmussen

“No one who grew up watching comedy says, ‘One day I hope to do openings.’” – Matt Besser

Whether you agree with Besser or not, openings are a fact of longform life. If you’ve been on a Harold team for any length of time, you’ve probably grappled with what form your opening should take, how long it should be, and what (if anything) to take from it.

We’ve all seen – and God knows I’ve been in – plenty of terrible openings. They’re instantly identifiable by:

• “whooshing” sounds

• players standing in a semi-circle, waiting for someone else to make a move

• one player making a move while everyone else watches

If you find yourself struggling with openings, here are some tips to help you get more out of them. Whatever you do, it’ll be exponentially better if you commit to whatever is happening right now.

Standards & Practices are known for their high energy, character-driven openings. They start with a word and quickly generate ideas, characters and situations using physicality and soundscapes. These may or may not come back later in the show.

Watch how they go from zero to 60, forming different points of view while staying connected in this opening:

Sometimes their openings are so physical, they go into their first scenes out of breath. The opening isn’t a separate entity; it’s an integral part of the set. And check out that time: just under two minutes, or about the length of a good youtube video.

Get Cooler Gets

The drunk guy in the third row has been waiting all night for this. If you just say “Can I have a one-word suggestion?” odds are he’ll yell out “Fuck!” or “Shit!” or the more imaginative “Dickwad!”

Instead of making them go through their mind dictionary, help the audience by narrowing it down. For example:

“Can I have a location that would fit on this stage?”

“What’s your favourite sport/colour/product?”

“What’s something you would never pack on a vacation?”

“What’s a tattoo you’ve always wanted?”

It doesn’t really matter what the question is. Just keep it as short and focused as possible. And if the first suggestion is “shit,” wait for another. There’s nothing set in stone that says you have to take the first suggestion. Be choosy.

“If we’re on the same stage, we’re on the same page.” – Joe Bill

It sounds so basic, but the most important thing you can do in an opening is agree. However many players are on stage, your opening will be stronger and more dynamic if you build on each other’s ideas right from the start. That means really listening to whoever initiates, yes-anding and either matching or heightening their physicality, behaviour, voice, and whatever else they put out there.

Like scenes, your openings will be so much better if whatever you’re doing, you commit, fully and joyfully.

Information, Sound & Movement, and Stage Picture

Too much stand-and-talk is boring. Look for ways to add to what’s being created. You can:

• Narrate the action

• Scene paint

• Use your environment to create a more interesting stage picture. If the suggestion is “baseball,” maybe you take up positions on the stage like a baseball diamond.

• Become an object. Someone taking the form of a physical object is always more interesting to watch than an empty stage.

• For bonus cool points, use symmetry. If someone moves on one side of the stage, mirror them.

Go Deep, Not Broad

It’s easy to go on a tangent and start listing things (“salad ingredients,” as Jet Eveleth aptly calls them).

Player #1: We see a ball.

Player #2: It’s a colourful beachball.

Player #3: There’s a man holding it.

Was Player #3 listening? Absolutely, and you could argue he yes-anded. But in openings you want to go deep, not broad.

Explore the first thing until you’ve exhausted it, before you move on to something else. Is the ball made in China? Is it partly deflated? Does it have shark toothmarks on one side?

A Word About Length

During a rehearsal, my team got the suggestion “shining.” I initiated with “Heeeeeeere’s Johnny!” One of my teammates stepped out and said “Heeeeeeere’s Dave!” Others joined in: “Heeeeeere’s Marcie!” “Heeeeeere’s Donna!”

We went on to a second and third beat of that opening, but our coach pointed out that we could have ended it after the first. “Your set could be about exploring each of those characters you initiated.”

Boom!

Sometimes the simplest ideas are the best.

“Decide what you want from an opening. Once you’ve got that, you can end it.” – Cameron Algie

In other words, you don’t need three beats, and it doesn’t have to be five minutes long, unless that’s what the team feels like it needs.

Finding Your Own Style

After you’ve performed as a team for a while, you’ll probably find yourselves gravitating towards a specific kind of opening. Then you can really have fun exploring it.

Mantown is another team with a signature opening style. They stand and face the audience, beer in hand, and deliver short monologues based on a word or topic. But really, they’re taking turns trying to make each other laugh. The audience goes crazy for it. Here’s a sample from one of their shows:

Adam Cawley: Sega Genesis was the better Sega.

Bob Banks: Better than the master system? Of course. It was the second generation of the master system. That’s like saying Super Nintendo is better than Nintendo. Yes!

Jason DeRosse: Genesis was the second-coolest book in the Bible.

Bob Banks: It was also the second-best time in Phil Collins’s life.

Like S&P, they throw out tons of information that they can use to inspire the set – or not. The monologues are fun in and of themselves. You can see a Mantown opening by clicking here here.

For another, thoughtful take on openings, check out this guest post by Erik Voss.

Photo © People & Chairs

Photo © People & Chairs

You already know the secret to transformative improv.

Sprawled on the floor of your college dorm room, Radiohead’s Hail to the Thief on repeat, waiting for an electric buzz to drop you through the floor into another dimension. You travelled inward to chart unseen inner realms.

Tripping may be the best improv class you can take.

But if you can’t wait for the next Burning Man, here’s some simple tips to turn your next improv scene into a profound, spiritual and/or transformative experience.

  1. Tripping is Not About Drugs. Yes, some people use drugs recreationally with the sole intention of getting high. Similarly some improvisers use 40 minutes of uninterrupted long form to chase an adrenaline rush through a series of puns and tired jokes. But tripping, like improv, can be so much more.

Your improv, like your next trip, has the potential to become a psychonautical experience. A psychonaut is an explorer who alters their state of consciousness to better understand the human condition. An astronatu travels beyond their planet to explore space; a psychonaut journeys deep within their Self to find spiritual and/or psychological awareness.psychological awareness.

Inebriation isn’t the end goal. For a psychonaut, psychedelics are the vehicle used to explore traverse inner worlds, spiritual realms, and the human mind.

But there are many psychonauts who experience meaningful trips via non-chemical means: meditation, yoga, sensory deprivation, drama therapy, shamanism, controlled breathing, Reiki, or most commonly, psychiatry. Oh, and improvisation.

Try this: Your character is a powerful pscyhonautical tool that can transform your state consciousness. Focus on changing your perspective or emotional filter, as opposed to just playing a superficial accent or funny voice.

  1. Your Trip is 100% about You. You can only control your own experience. Release yourself from the judgment of others. Let yourself get weird. Your responsibility on this trip is to fully experience the moment and explore its potential.

Try this: Change your goals for tonight’s show. Instead of orienting your improv towards laughter or praise from a coach, aim to realize each experience for yourself. Maybe your character Angry Dad isn’t getting any laughs onstage, but did you succeed at exploring frustrated fatherhood? If the answer is Yes, you don’t need an audience or coach to validate your experience.

  1. Go Deep. Tripping isn’t purely recreational. If you want it to be meaningful, push yourself.

Try this: Create a list with two columns. In the left column, list all your favourite improv characters you do regularly. Beside each entry, in the right column jot down that character’s antithesis. Find three characters in the right column that are too challenging, scary, or inappropriate to play onstage. Play those character onstage tonight.

  1. Pack Lightly. You’re about to go on an intense one-way journey. Try not to bring unnecessary baggage. Leave behind jealousy, ambition, frustration, regret, self-doubt, or anything else that might slow you down along the way.

Try this: Forget agents and producers in the audience. Release yourself from the fight you just had with your boyfriend. Let go of your petty improv feuds. When the lights come up, start from zero.

  1. Journey with Friends. Don’t waste your trip with people you don’t trust.   There will be moments of vulnerability, confusion, and fear. These obstacles are best tackled with an intimate companion, one that will offer unconditional support. You’re going to need it.

Try this: Play with people you love. Don’t have someone like that? Cultivate those relationships.

  1. Your Trip is a Journey. Trips aren’t always easy, comfortable, or enjoyable. Remember your last road trip? The time you backpacked across Europe? Every journey is full of uncomfortable, unsettling, and sometimes downright miserable moments. Those who want constant comfort should stay home. Your next trip should be reserved for adventurers who want to overcome obstacles and experience something new, despite the danger.

Try this: Your scene just took an awkward turn? Don’t pull out of the experience in an attempt to fix it. Instead, try sitting in that moment. Experience it fully and completely. A weird moment doesn’t mean you’ve screwed up; it only means your experience is weird. But improv scenes, like life, are full of weird (but valuable) moments. Whoever told you improv should be fun all the time, lied to you.

  1. Seek Out Ego Death. Ego Death occurs when the tripper feels their Self dissolve into something greater than the individual: nature, ancestral spirits, humanity, or the cosmic universe. In improv, the term Group Mind describes the experience of an individual giving over to the collective decision-making powers of the ensemble.

Try this: Let go of trying to be different in scenes. Revel in sameness. The Group Mind will take you to places you could never get to on your own. (See: Organic group games, mirroring).

  1. Be Safe. You’re going to need support on your trip, so support those around you. By making others feel welcome, smart, and valuable, you empower them to do the same for you.Stressed out, fearful and/or distrustful trippers worried about their own shit are unable to help you on your journey when it gets rough.

Try this: All the things listed above. But remember your own journey         shouldn’t come at the expense of your improv partner. Help each other go deeper in your scenes for more satisfying scenes.

Yes, improv is a fantastic writing tool. And improv exercises can be used to facilitate corporate communication workshops. Dr. Know-It-All can be a real hoot at children’s birthday parties.

Beyond that, improv can deliver truths about the human experience, invoke forgotten deities, or transport you to hyper-corporeal realms beyond the stage you stand on. You choose the course of your improv journey every time you step onstage.

My advice? Go limp. Enjoy the ride.

Artwork © Anne Douris

Artwork © Anne Douris

Rob Norman is an award-winning actor, improviser, and merry prankster. He is the author of Improvising Now: A Practical Guide to Modern Improv, as well as co-host of the weekly improv podcast, The Backline with Rob and Adam. For those interested in psychonauts, shamanism, and ethneogenic compounds, check out Breaking Open The Head by Daniel Pinchbeck.

Tracy Letts is an actor, screenwriter, and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright. If that’s not enough, he also performs from time to time with TJ Jagodowski and David Pasquesi. Thanks to David Razowsky for sharing this awesomeness!

A friend and highly respected comedian shared this recently, with the plea, “Dear Comedians, Don’t do this. Dear Marketers, Pay your talent.”

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Now, maybe you’re thinking, “What’s the big deal? It’s a couple hours of my time in return for a Domino’s Deluxe and some sweet, sweet Pabst Blue Ribbon.”

To advertisers, you’re just naturally funny people, and if you’re going to have funny ideas anyway, send them their way and they’ll actually make them happen.

What they don’t see is that it takes years of training and thousands of dollars to get to the point where your brain is worth picking. Just like they spent years of training and thousands of dollars learning about advertising.

Students pay around $300 in Canada, and $400-$475 in the US for classes. And as every comedy student knows, there’s a lot of classes. Acting, improv, stand-up, sketch, clown…it’s a field where you never stop learning.

It’s not that you can’t do favours. It’s just that you might be forgetting you’ve earned the right to ask for money. You went to school for what you do. You put in the time and money and now you can reap the rewards. Not just have others reap the rewards.

And by rewards I mean that sweet, sweet $35,000 a year the average comedian makes (with many earning far less). No wonder we’re willing to work for food.

In this age of Fivvr and crowdsourcing and Kickstarter potato salad, the line between an investment in your career and being taken advantage of can get blurry.

But stay strong, young Grasshopper. Because the real lesson here, buried in that ad, is Dollar Shave Club.

Two weeks ago, Unilever bought the company for $1 Billion.

The commercial that made DSC famous (23 million views and counting) wasn’t created by an ad agency. It was the brainchild of CEO, Michael Dubin.

Dubin studied and performed comedy for eight years at UCBT. He made the video, which he wrote and stars in, for just $4,500.

Michael Jones was an early investor. In a piece for CNBC, he said he wasn’t totally sold on Dubin’s business pitch. What convinced him was a rough cut of the video. After viewing it, he said, “I knew that Science Inc. needed to come on board…”

Comedy. It’s powerful stuff.

Research shows people rarely make rational purchases; they make emotional ones. Simply put, we buy brands we like. Dubin’s idea for a shaving company was worth something. But his comedic idea was worth billions. The value of Dollar Shave Club was made clear in that creative expression.

Sure, he could’ve given it away for some pizza and free razors. He’s a funny guy with plenty more ideas. But he didn’t. And now he never has to.

Neither do you.

All creatives – comedians, copywriters, art directors, designers, photographers, filmmakers, musicians, and yes, even comedy students – deserve to be compensated fairly.

Because now more than ever, ideas are our greatest currency.

*We initially quoted $30K as the average comedian salary. A Workopolis survey pegs the average wage for arts, entertainment and recreation at $30,186. Stats Canada reports an average of $40,300 for actors, comedians and drama teachers combined. (That figure seems high – to us and people we’ve spoken with – given that many seasoned performers live with roommates and scrape by working as film extras, servers, baristas, or real estate agents to supplement their comedy pay. Also, some stats are for Quebec; francophones book bilingual, as well as French-only acting roles, far more often than bilingual anglophones.) Still, according to StatsCan, one third earn $10,000 annually or less. 

Drumpfprov

A small black box theatre. The stage is bare except for two folding chairs, and an ornate gold Louis XIV knock-off, stage right. A dozen or so mostly Caucasian students sit facing the stage. They each have name tags in gold Sharpie.

Dry ice fills the house as DRUMPF enters to the strains of “Born This Way.”

Drumpf:          Welcome to Drumpfprov. You made a great decision by coming here today.

I have the best class. I have the best rules. Believe me. You’re very fortunate. Until now, you could only learn Drumpfprov at one of my resort theatres, or from The Sharper Image.

(scans the audience) I see we have a lot of minorities. Minorities love me. Bigly. I’m tremendous with minorities. We’re going to build a wall. OK, let’s do a warm-up. Who knows one?

JANET, a slender woman in her early 20s, speaks.

Janet:             I like Big Booty.

Drumpf:          Disgusting. That’s disgusting. I don’t like a lotta junk in the trunk. (squints) Janice–

Janet:             Janet.

Drumpf:          You wouldn’t be able to play anyway, Janice. You’ve got a great piece of ass.

Besides, we don’t need warm-ups. I have the best exercises. Believe me. Let’s do some scenes.

Drumpf sits in the gold chair. CLAIRE and ZOE start a scene.

Claire:            Hi boss, I typed up those forms you wanted.

Drumpf:          Excuse me…excuse me!

They stop.

Drumpf:          Can anyone tell me why this scene is a disaster?

JORDAN, a 30-something black man, raises his hand.

Jordan:          There was no emotion?

Drumpf:          Wrong. The boss should be a man, and the secretary is like a 5 at best. Next!

MOLLY and DUSTIN start a scene.

Molly:             Dad, I’m going to school now.

Dustin:           Have a good day, honey.

Drumpf:          Excuse me…excuse me! You need to show her more affection. A lot more. Remember, she’s your daughter. OK, next.

DANA and JAKE sit centre stage. TOM enters, miming a tray.

Dana:             I’m really enjoying this first date.

Jake:              Me too.

Tom:              Here’s your mojitos. Are you ready to order?

Drumpf:         (turns to audience) Who has status here?

Janet:             Is it Dana?

(Drumpf rolls his eyes)

Dustin:           Tom does.

Drumpf:          Are any of you paying attention? I have status. I have the highest status. Always. Believe me.

Now I’m gonna teach you how to raise the stakes, Drumpf-style. I call it Drumpf Stakes.

Drumpf walks centre stage.

Drumpf:          Janice, get up here.

Reluctantly, Janet joins him.

Drumpf:          I love cats.

Janet:             Here, I brought you a kitten.

Drumpf:          I don’t like cats. I think I’ve made that very clear. I’ve never liked cats.

(to audience) See what I did there? OK, now everyone pair up. I want you to look at each other and tell me who you are to each other. Go.

Sara:               I’m a Harvard professor, and Matias is my student.

Drumpf:          Is that a joke? Did you even look at him? You’re obviously a receptionist, and Matias is a drug lord.

Drumpf turns to MATIAS.

Drumpf:          Where are you from?

Matias:           Buffalo.

Drumpf:          Yeah. But where are you from?

Matias:           You mean my parents? They’re from upstate New York.

Drumpf:          (sighs) Fine, Lyin’ Matias. If that’s the way you want it. I’m just saying play the scene a little more real. They don’t all have to be rape scenes, but a lot of them will be.

All right, we’ve got time for one group scene.

Zoe walks on stage. She clearly mimes being a scientist, using test tubes in a lab. DANNY enters.

Danny:           Hey babe, when’s dinner?

Zoe:                Uhhh…soon. I’m just mixing the salad dressing.

Matias enters. He starts to speak but is cut off by Danny, who throws himself in front of Zoe.

Danny:          Don’t rape her!

Jordan enters.

Jordan:           Whoa, what’s with all the screaming?

Danny points at him with rage.

Danny:            You’re the worst President!

SFX:               (slow clap)

Drumpf:           Great.

(Lights out)

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.