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This morning we wrote a post about how Gilda’s Club was changing its name to the generic “Cancer Support Community.”

A lot of people were upset by the news: cancer survivors and their family members, Gilda fans, and Second City alumni among them.

Josh Bowman decided to do something about it, so he created a petition (now closed) to keep the name Gilda’s Club. At the time, he (and we) believed that the name was being phased out, based on various news reports.

Thanks to the petition, the story got huge coverage in both social and traditional media.

Josh contacted the Cancer Support Community, and after speaking with an executive, he’s written a post to set the record straight. You can read the full story here.

The great news is, Gilda’s name is here to stay. The person Josh spoke to assured him they will:

• Correct the inaccuracy online that suggests that individual chapters of Gilda’s Club will be mandated to change their names. Individual chapters will keep the name “Gilda’s Club” unless a decision is made at chapter level to change it. Josh’s understanding is that no more names will be changed, particularly after today.

• Provide clarification as to why the Madison, WI chapter has changed their name. Josh will discuss this further with representatives from the Madison, WI chapter to work towards keeping Gilda in the name

• Keep Gilda in everything they do.

We’re thrilled to hear this – and to see the outpouring of love for a hilarious and brave lady. If you’d like to learn more, her bookIt’s Always Something, is a moving and inspiring read.

Marcel St. Pierre is a founding member and former Artistic Director of The Bad Dog Theatre, a Second City alumnus, and one half of bacon, music and comedy duo, Egg Zeppelin. You can catch them with special guest-slash-improv legend Colin Mochrie at Comedy Bar on Wednesday, December 5. 

People sometimes ask me, “Has improv changed since you started?”

2012 marks the 21st year that I’ve been doing improv – and by that I mean regularly – at least a couple of times a month. I feel really lucky to still love doing it, and there are probably a dozen or so improvisers I know in Toronto who are right around the 20-year mark, too, and a handful more that are probably around or beyond the 30-year mark.

Other than the occasional audience member being eaten by stealthy dinosaurs that raided our improv caves back then (clever girl…), I’d say a lot of things are still the same in terms of what MAKES a person an improviser. And by improviser I mean a comedic performer who CALLS themselves an improviser first.

I know improvisers today who go from show to show, and sometimes, two to three shows in one night, doing one set at say, The Black Swan at 8 pm, then going across town to do a 9:30 Bad Dog show at Comedy Bar, then going even later to Unit 102. The next night they’re on a Harold team with Impatient Theatre Co., and then it’s a duo rehearsal for a show in two days at The John Candy Box. Luckily it’s not heroin, but clearly, at that stage of the game, improv is your addiction. YAY FOR YOU!

This was pretty much the road I took when I started back in ’91. I was taking classes at least two nights a week, and began teaching intro classes in exchange for other free classes. Then I was doing lights and stage managing shows one or two nights a week with The Chumps at Big City Improv* on Queen Street.

After doing several seasons of Theatresports (which for years was the only game in town other than Second City), I’d been lucky enough to be in one of the city’s premier troupes, The Stand Ins, who took over Big City Improv after The Chumps moved on. We had four weekly shows for nearly a year before Big City closed in 1996.

After that, we continued to produce sketch and improv shows for several years, and guested wherever and whenever we could. We were hungry for stage time and we fought hard to get it.

And that would pretty much be the case until May 3, 2003, when The Bad Dog Theatre Company put up a stage and workshop space on The Danforth. That event was a big game changer in Toronto improv.

I think the current scene in Toronto really flourished because of the existence of an improv training institution that not only offered excellent training, but added as its mandate the addition of giving stage time not only to the cream of the crop, but to students at nearly every step of the way in their training. Imitation is the highest form of flattery, and today there are at least five or six places you can name in Toronto that do this, because it’s such a successful model.

What this has led to is what I think really has changed in Toronto’s improv landscape: the sheer amount of stage time available to improvisers, and in some cases, actual sustainable gigs where you get paid to improvise, which allows IMPROVISERS to continue to be IMPROVISERS!

It’s something I couldn’t even dream of when I started, and it’s a blessing in terms of just being able to get up and do stuff and get better in front of an audience. I think today’s newer improvisers sometimes take that for granted, and when they do, it can lead to some of the laziest, shittiest improv I’ve ever seen.

You know the shows I mean; shows that are promoted by their producers as “the best in the city,” with casts who really have no business being on stage yet, feeding each other’s bad habits and ultimately delivering a product that not only annoys good improvisers watching you, but also makes non-improvisers in the audience hate improv and take their comedy money somewhere else (or stop going to comedy altogether, chew on that!).

If you are that type of improviser or producer in today’s improv scene, you’ve been lucky to have the chance to do that kind of crap more than once and still have places to play. Please knock it off.

In the first 10 years I was doing improv, sometimes there was only one show per week – or even per month. This obviously made us more competitive and only the fittest survived. Ultimately I think the downside of this Darwinian scene meant that we lost out on some potentially great players who needed more time and nurturing to get better. It’s tough to be a nurturing community when you’re all fighting for stage time. So, overall I wouldn’t go back.

I think the improv community is more open and friendlier now, more nurturing and more vibrant than before, and more open to players of all stripes and abilities. And that’s a good thing. I think overall the current amount of talent on many improv stages in Toronto is very high, and it’s nice to have a mix of experience levels to play with…and I’m always learning new things from watching and playing with new players.

My advice to up-and-coming improvisers in Toronto is to never take the amount of stage time you have at your disposal for granted. Take improv seriously because you might be doing it 20 years from now! Play to the top of your intelligence. Be grateful for those in your midst who sacrifice the joy of being able to just show up and perform for the usually thankless job of producing stage time for the rest of you.

To all improvisers: I urge you, know where you are in terms of your experience and ability, and get training OTHER than on a stage. Take more classes, and not just from visiting superstars. Those are good, but consistent training and practice is key. And whenever possible, hug your improv producers.

To all improv producers: Know your show and don’t promote it as “the best improv in the city” if it isn’t. You give improv a bad name to paying audiences who will go somewhere else next time when you do.

And to everyone else: See more improv, and if you even think you might like to do it, come out and take an improv class. Obviously, I think you should do it at Bad Dog Theatre Company, but you get the idea.

* Did you even know there was something called Big City Improv at Queen & Bathurst way before The Big City Improv Festival existed? Now you do. It was a long time ago. All the audience was eaten by dinosaurs.

Photo © Adrianne Gagnon

Erik Voss wrote an interesting piece for Splitsider about game of the scene. (You can read the full article here.) Some of the improv community’s most respected performers weighed in, and I agree with their (sometimes differing) viewpoints.

The thing is, I don’t give a fuck anymore.

You see, early in my improv training, “finding the game” was the holy grail. The big cahuna. The mack daddy of all improv wisdom. Or so I thought.

When TJ and Dave taught a workshop in Toronto, I couldn’t wait to ask them about it. David looked thoughtful for a moment, then said, “I don’t really think about game when I’m performing.” TJ nodded.

This should have slapped some sense into my feckless, fearmongering brain, but no. I continued to search for The Game and how to recognize it in all its myriad forms.

One of my coaches routinely drilled us on “beating the shit out of the game.” Rehearsal after rehearsal, two people would start a scene, then others would tag in when they found the game. Afterwards, we were critiqued.

Let’s say Player A had a stutter, then someone tagged in and made a game out of forcing him to stutter. If Player A was also an alcoholic, then beating the shit out of stuttering, versus putting him in situations where he’d be tempted to drink, was deemed “less smart.”

While I understood the value in seeing patterns, few things put me in my head like trying to find the game, never mind finding the “right” game.

When I asked Susan Messing about it, she said that there can be many games within a scene; that each player might have their own game, as well as games that they play together.

The more I watched and performed improv, the more I found myself gravitating towards the kind of scenes where game just wasn’t as important as discovery.

Discovery of who the characters are. Discovery of the world they inhabit. The kind of discovery that happens when things are out of the players’ control and in the hands of the comedy gods.

What I learned, eventually, was that game can happen without effort. And that “finding the game” doesn’t always guarantee a great scene.

How many times have you seen improvisers find a game on stage, only to beat it so relentlessly that the scene loses any point, or dissolves into endless repetition?

Playing the game can be fun. It’s a bit like a ping pong match: I do this, then you respond that way. Repeat. But we don’t have to try so hard to find the paddle.

If we just allow scenes to unfold naturally, games will reveal themselves.

If you can, do yourself a favour and go see TJ and Dave, or Messing with a Friend, or Jet Eveleth and Paul Brittain, or Razowsky and Clifford, or Joe Bill and Mark Sutton’s Bassprov.

There is game inherent in their shows, but it’s not overt. That’s not to say game-centric shows like Asssscat aren’t awesome. They are. But if you’re struggling to find the game each and every time and it’s affecting your ability to have fun in scenes, give yourself a break. Take a breath and just respond to what’s happening right now.

If you do that, if you focus 100% on your scene partner and just react to what he or she says and does, you won’t have to find the game. The game will find you. Or maybe it won’t, and that’s fine. Because it will still be a way better scene than one where you’re not present because you’re too busy searching for something.

In seven years of doing improv, I can recall my best, or at least my favourite, sets in detail. And I can tell you that none of them involved me methodically thinking about The Game Of The Scene. In fact, what they all had in common was that I wasn’t thinking. I was just having fun.

Those are the kind of sets I want to do now. And that’s why I don’t give a fuck about game of the scene anymore.

One last thing. Someone asked TJ what he thinks about before he goes on stage. He answered:

• Don’t panic.

• Make an emotional choice, a point of view, so you’re safe no matter what.

• Remember how fortunate you are.

It’s really that simple.

There’s a ton of comedy-related podcasts out there, with more being added every day (or so it seems). So it takes something pretty special to break through the clutter and grab our attention.

Well, get ready to add A.D.D. with Dave Razowsky and Ian Foley to your must-hear playlist.

Few people have as much depth and breadth of experience in improv as David Razowsky. His joyful outlook on life, sense of humour, and famous friends-slash-guests make this podcast a true standout.

The conversations are funny, interesting, and wonderfully honest. Whether you’re an improv student, a seasoned actor, or just a fan of comedy, you’ll find inspiration as well as entertainment.

Guests include Phil LaMarr, Susan Messing, Rick Shapiro, Joel Murray, George Wendt, and most recently, someone by the name of Stephen Colbert.

Stay tuned for the Colbert episode, November 21st on iTunes.

Photo © David Razowsky

“Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society.” – Mark Twain

For years, Chicago audiences have watched scantily-clad men improvise some of the dumbest scenes ever played on a stage. Now it’s Toronto’s turn.

Created by Mick Napier of The Annoyance Theatre, Skinprov is pretty much like it sounds: a bunch of guys do improv while wearing increasingly smaller pieces of fabric. Which makes the non sequitur scenes all the more hilarious.

Audience favourites Adam Cawley, Rob Norman, Wayne Jones, Kris Siddiqi, Dwayne Wilson and Matt Folliott bare their souls, or at least their flesh, next Wednesday, November 21st, 9:30 pm at Comedy Bar.

Ladies, start planning your staggette party.

David Kantrowitz has been illustrating respected improvisers’ quotes, with some stunning results. You can follow David’s tumblr here.

Quote by Billy Merritt • Image © David Kantrowitz

Quote by Jason Mantzoukas • Image © David Kantrowitz

Quote by Brian Gallivan • Image © David Kantrowitz

Quote by Jill Bernard • Image © David Kantrowitz

Quote by Seth Morris • Image © David Kantrowitz

“We think in shapes and pictures. The shape your character takes informs who that character is, and lets your fellow players recognize him/her/it when they see that shape again.” – Todd Stashwick

Photo © New York Musical Improv Festival

Physicality is a gift, not just to your scene partners, but to you as well. The second your foot hits the stage to enter a scene, notice what your body is doing.

Is it hunched over, taking small, shuffling steps? Or upright and striding confidently?

Are you snapping your fingers as you walk? Did you prop one leg on your knee as you sat down, or cross your legs demurely at the ankles?

All of these things tell our scene partner, the audience, and – if we’re paying attention – us, who this person is, before we open our mouth.

When we see a shape or image of any kind, our brain immediately goes to work, trying to find a “match” for that image. Todd Stashwick teaches an exercise that demonstrates this.

To begin, one person goes up and strikes a pose, any pose, and holds it.

The rest of the team then joins that person, one at a time.

For instance, let’s say the first person is standing with feet apart, hands on hips. The second person could go behind and stand with their hands encircling the first person’s waist. The third person could stand with one hand on the first person’s left shoulder. And so on.

If someone looks tired holding their pose, you can help by supporting them with the pose you take.

When everyone has joined in, the Coach/Director removes one person at a time, randomly. After each person is removed, pause to observe the new stage picture. It’s amazing how much it changes.

When only two or three people remain, see what the remaining pose suggests – what scene is revealed – then have those players perform it.

The last two people might look like a cop arresting a perpetrator. Or a woman proposing to her boyfriend. Or someone choking a co-worker. Or Kali, the goddess of death.

Even if there’s just one person on stage, their physicality can suggest things too. Stashwick teaches students to look at the negative space on stage, not just the positive.

But besides helping players recognize characters, shape can help your stage picture too.

Stage picture is something that’s often ignored in improv, especially after the opening (if there was one). We’re usually too busy talking to think about what the audience is seeing, and what they’re seeing is probably two people standing around yakking.

The next time you find yourself rooted to the floor, change your physicality and see how it changes the scene. Not only will you feel different, but it will immediately look different than 99% of improv scenes.

An easy way to create a great stage picture is through symmetry. Susan Messing teaches that doing stuff together makes it look important. If one person goes in as a guard, go in as a guard as well.

Observe what’s happening on stage, then mirror it. If your team is large, and more people mirror a move or a pose, it looks even more impressive. It’s the kind of thing that makes the audience think you rehearsed it.

Try it at your next rehearsal or show. Use physicality to shape your characters, build your environment, and support your team. It’s simple, it’s fun, and it works!

Photo © Adrianne Gagnon

We love this video, featuring some of Toronto’s – Hell, make that North America’s – funniest improvisers. (Carmine Lucarelli was born to wear a Phileas Fogg-style top hat and mo.)

Created to help raise awareness and funds for Movember, this is the first in a series, and we can’t wait for the rest! Kudos to everyone involved.