Rob Norman is a pillar of the Toronto – make that Canadian – improv community. If you’ve seen him perform or taken a class, you’re a fan. We asked him about the serious subject of make-’em-ups on the eve of launching his new book, Improvising Now.
P&C: You’re one of the busiest improvisers we know. You act on TV, do The Backline podcast with Adam Cawley, teach at Second City and Bad Dog Theatre, and perform with Mantown, Filthy, and other teams. How did you find time to write a book?
RN: Finding the time wasn’t a problem. As a comedian, you work nights, leaving your days free. I have some friends who spend that time going to the gym or taking acting classes. Instead I wrote a book. It took me seven years and my body looks disgusting when naked. But I wrote a book.
P&C: How did you get started in improv?
RN: I was part of a youth community theatre group producing musicals at this huge 500-seat theatre. As a side project, I offered to put together a small improv show. The Board (consisting of one 26-year-old and a bunch of teenagers) approved it. So I went out, found a copy of Truth In Comedy, and auditioned 16 people to be in the cast. I was in Grade 11 teaching longform that I had never seen or done myself.
I’m sure the improv was terrible. And I was a terrible teacher. But we did it for three years to sold-out crowds. I’ve been doing jobs that I’m unqualified to do ever since.
Fun fact: In that original troupe was Steve Hobbs (El Fantoma) and Joel Buxton (The Sketchersons). They both work as teachers at the Second City Training Centre now.
P&C: What’s been the biggest change you’ve seen since you started?
RN: So much has changed! When I started Second City had gone bankrupt. The Bad Dog was struggling. The only company doing longform was collapsing. No audiences. No mentors.
Toronto improv is better now than it ever has been. Improv shows sell out. Consistently. Improvisers are booking TV and film, but sticking around to build the live comedy scene.
It’s the kind of comedy boom I dreamed of when I was first starting.
I used to get made fun of because I was so eager. I had read every improv book. I knew the Second City archives better than my teachers. I was a very special kind of improv nerd. There is an army of beginner improvisers mastering Game of the Scene, shortform and narrative structures early in their career. It’s a work ethic that makes my generation look uneducated and lazy.
P&C: Your book is subtitled “A Practical Guide to Modern Improv.” How do you define “modern”?
RN: I teach a lot of improv classes. And there are some lessons that I’ll look at and think, “I have never used this technique onstage. No one I know does this onstage. Why am I teaching it?”
Improv has changed so much since the 1980’s. Not only our own improv vocabulary, but also the expectations of our audience. You have to be faster. More direct. More revealing of yourself.
For me, modern improv is the techniques, tricks, and tips that improv professionals are using onstage right now. I don’t want to hear anecdotes of how improv used to be. I want to know what I can do tonight onstage.
P&C: Do you think it’s necessary to learn different styles of improv, or is it possible to fall in love with one approach and stick with it – even though you also perform outside your particular theatre?
RN: Modern improv is a mosaic. You are responsible for knowing all of it. Personally, I tackled each of them one at a time (I should say, I am tackling them…)
It’s not about forcing your style on a show. It’s about understanding the dominant energy of the room, and complementing that shared mental model.
P&C: Do you think it’s possible to unlearn bad habits (blocking, dropping offers, etc), especially if an improviser has been doing them for years?
RN: Sure! But I don’t believe in good improv/bad improv. There’s tons of improvisers bulldozing, blocking, dropping offers – AND getting paid for it. Really good players doing “bad moves” that audiences and other improvisers love. The difference for the experts is that these moves are choices. They come from a place of power.
Your desire to block, be negative, to avoid being affected by your scene partner, is a symptom of a more fundamental problem: your fear, panic, or issues with control. Don’t unlearn anything. Try something new. Find another path. Focus on doing something you’ve never done been before. Way better than using your psychic energy to avoid doing something you always do onstage.
P&C: What do you think separates good improvisers from great ones?
RN: Talent is an exceptional love of something. Some people LOVE being funny onstage. Others LOVE the act of improvising. I want to play with people who understand the craft, who cultivate technique, and get off on building something with someone else.
P&C: A lot of improv teams break up or dissolve within months. Very few last more than a couple of years. What’s the secret to long-running teams like Mantown?
RN: Friendship. Adam, Jason and I have been best friends for ten years. I didn’t know Bob Banks and Rob Baker incredibly well when we started working together. But over eight years you become incredibly close. Ending Mantown would be like ending a marriage.
P&C: In the States, a lot of students see improv as a means to get on Second City’s Main Stage, and ultimately, SNL. What about Canada? What do improvisers aspire to here?
RN: Yeah. There’s this idea that you if work hard as an improviser, you’ll get hired for Second City and then whisked away to star on Saturday Night Live. But it’s not true in Canada. And I think that’s increasingly less true in Chicago. Lots of my friends have finished Mainstage or starring on television shows, then gone back to working day jobs.
Your aspirations as a comedian in Canada should be simple: work in comedy. Build things. And then try to sell them. If no one is buying them, build them anyway.
P&C: Do you consider yourself an improviser, an actor, or both?
RN: Improviser. I could star in the best scripted show, and I wouldn’t be satisfied. We’d finished bows and I’d already be in a cab on my way to Comedy Bar. It’s a problem really…
Order your copy of Improvising Now from Amazon. It’s a must-have for any improviser’s library.