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Combustion Festival kicked off this week with some sizzling performances at Toronto’s Bad Dog Theatre. Fan favourites The Sunday Service and Crush Improv were joined by new faces Dark Side of the Room, Big Ol’ Show (with returning Dad’s Garage alum, Amber Nash) and The Amie & Kristen Show.

If you missed the fun, don’t worry: all the teams will be performing again, along with more fantastic improvisers from far and wide. The festival runs through Saturday, May 30. Check the schedule for details.

Photo © Eric Logan

Photo © Eric Logan

Photo © Eric Logan

Photo © Eric Logan

Photo © Eric Logan

Photo © Eric Logan

Photo © Eric Logan

Photo © Eric Logan

Photo © Eric Logan

Photo © Eric Logan

Photo © Eric Logan

Photo © Eric Logan

Fans of unscripted theatre, rejoice: the 2015 Combustion Festival is here, and it’s gonna be smokin’.

Toronto’s Bad Dog Theatre is bringing together some of the hottest talent from across North America in this week-long celebration of comedy. The line-up includes such diverse acts as Crush, Junior Varsity, Folk Lordz, The Sunday Service, and Dark Side of the Room, to name a few.

In addition to shows, there’ll be workshops by instructors from Atlanta, Buenos Aires, New York, Montreal, and Vancouver. There’s even a series of $5 drop-ins every night of the fest.

Check out the full schedule, and buy tickets and festival passes here.

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

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

Photo © Marcel St. Pierre

Photo © Neil Muscott

Here’s a rant for ya

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sorry for the pity party
Krinky Ding-Dong

Photo © Kevin Thom

Photo © Kevin Thom

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

Rob Norman did his first solo set when Adam Cawley and Jason DeRosse couldn’t make it to a Cage Match competition. Their team was called Maybe. Rob opened the set by saying, “When I asked Jason and Adam if they’d like to do Cage Match with me, they said…maybe.”

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

Solo Formats

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

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

Here are some forms to explore:

The Phone Call

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

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

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

Monoscene

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

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

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

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

Single Character 

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

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

Play People You Know

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

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

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

Solo Musical

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

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

Your Solo Is Part Of A Symphony

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

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

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

Most live theatre is aimed at stand-up, sketch, improv, or concert audiences. Live From The Annex combines all of them – with a side of hummous – in a series of shows the first Tuesday of each month. We spoke with Artistic Director Brian G. Smith and Programmer Sasha Wentges about the project.

Photo © Robert Trick Photography

Photo © Robert Trick Photography

P&C: Tell us a little about Live At The Annex; how it came about and what the audience can expect.

BGS: Well first of all, Sally, it’s called Live FROM the Annex, and so now I’m pissed off. Nice start: you made a middle-aged, single father cry. Way to go.

SW: Live From the Annex grew out of a class that Brian was teaching at Annex Improv. Laurie Murphy (LFTA co-producer) and I were both students in the class at the time. We pitched the idea of doing live performances in a cabaret setting to Brian at our local watering hole after class one evening. We planted the seed. He watered it and out grew Live From The Annex.

BGS: It occurred to me that if we created a third level to the Annex Improv program (Performance Ensemble), and gave it an on-camera element, that would help make the idea of producing a cabaret justifiable business-wise for me. ‘Cause I needed another thing to do every month like I need another three-year-old who won’t eat anything but pizza and who takes 20 minutes just to get his goddammed shoes on. Seriously, I’m so busy with that shit already it’s insane. But another revenue stream for the school seemed like a good idea.

SW: So Brian created another level to his classes with the understanding that whoever was in that class would get a chance to perform in the monthly cabaret series. The 12 of us drank a bunch of beers one night after class and came up with ‘Brunswick Stew’ as the name. They would become the ‘host troupe’, and we rounded out the evening with a guest musician; a sketch troupe and some audience participation.

BGS: I hired Lisa Merchant to teach/direct the Performance level. She’s a kick-ass teacher, and that’s what they needed to get in shape for a show of this calibre. She focused intensely for six weeks on ensemble character and relationship work, ’cause apparently I suck at relationships, so what did I have to teach them. That’s why I’m picking up endless Spiderman shit by myself day in, day out.

P&C: Live From The Annex combines theatre with an online streaming component. How do the two relate to each other?

BGS: I have been working at finding a way to bring Toronto improv to another (audience) level ever since the days of Bruce Hunter’s Workshop at the Second City Tim Sims Playhouse in the late ’90s.

I would go home after watching those shows and think: “How can this amazing, world-class, local comedy talent get out to a bigger audience?” When Livestreaming became a thing, I bought a bunch of HD gear and started to do that around town (e.g.  Pat Thornton’s 24 Hours of Stand-up for Stephen Lewis, and Streamfest).

SW: Brian decided that he really wanted to have not just the studio in-house participation, but also the live-streamed audience participating through twitter feeds etc. We launched a ‘pilot’ version on April 7th. Audiences can expect a well-crafted show with some top-notch performers and a live ‘visual classroom’ with Brunswick Stew – and of course, free hummous!

BGS: Also, Lisa and I came up with a super-cool idea to make the Brunswick Stew portion of the show a visible classroom, where she would not only side-coach to help them out if they got in trouble, but also to point out shit that was really working – so that the audience would get an education about improv strategies while they enjoyed the show. Then Lisa fucked off to do a gig in England, and so I have to do it. Relationships, am I right?

P&C: How do you choose the acts for each show?

BGS: That’s Sasha’s baby.

SW: I tend to go out to see a lot of stuff in the city. I’m restless that way; I choose from whom I like and who is available at the time. Then Brian and I look at our options and put together the best combo for variety and overall excellence.

P&C: Brian, you’ve been involved with the Centre for Social Innovation for some time, filming, teaching improv, and now with Live From The Annex. What’s different about CSI than most other venues?

BGS: CSI Annex is a very cool place with a culture all of its own. NFPs, charities and tech start-ups mixing and connecting with each other. Over the last couple of years, I’ve outfitted one of CSI’s big flexible meeting rooms (The Garage) with a stage, lights, etc. It’s become a 75-seat cabaret theatre and we’ve had a bunch of parties and shows and video shoots down there for all the CSI members and guests. I charge them SO MUCH MONEY! I’m telling you, I’m rolling in it – shooting fish in a fucking barrel.

SW: I think the main message at CSI is the art of collaboration. Just as the three of us, Brian, Laurie, and Sasha are collaborating, so is CSI collaborating with us.

BGS: That’s a better answer. Please don’t print my last bit.

P&C: As improv continues to grow in popularity, do you find audiences are no longer just improvisers performing for each other?

SW: Having other elements in the show (e.g. music, CSI member profiling) exposes all our acts to potential new crowds.

BGS: My goal is to get as many people as possible to watch the shows on the www. Laurie has worked hard to pull together all the social media clout of our partners and sponsors (100s of thousands) to drive traffic to our livestream: Dailymotion.com/YouAndMedia. I want to disrupt the notion that improv and live club comedy doesn’t translate to the screen. I think you just have to serve it up in a way that’s palatable. And that starts with really good audio. Then add three-camera live switching. Then really good Toronto comedy, which we have in spades.

Catch Live From The Annex starting tomorrow, Tuesday, May 5. Doors open at 7:30 pm. Featuring Colin Sharpe, The Templeton Philarmonic, Dr. Ew, Brunswick Stew and host Brian G. Smith. With talent like this, it’s just a matter of time before they get Sabra to sponsor.

Photo © Robert Trick Photography

Photo © Robert Trick Photography

The Whiplash

The Coach steps out and introduces the team, saying:

“Thank you ladies and gentlemen, we’re very excited to be here. Tonight we’ll be doing a brand new kind of improv, unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. It’s breathtakingly bold, hilarious, and heartbreaking. I promise you’ll never forget this astonishing set. The team’s been rehearsing it for months, so please sit back and enjoy The (Mosquito/Can Opener/Banana/ Shoelace/whatever pops in the Coach’s head).”

Coach smirks at the performers, exits.

The Get                                                                                                            

A 25-minute set where the team spends the entire time getting the suggestion.

Players start by explaining the rules of the show they’re about to perform (“This microphone is a lever that takes us to another dimension.” “When I snap my fingers, we start speaking in Russian.” etc.) Players can also riff off of each other’s suggestions, tell monologues, scene paint, or do whatever it takes to fill their allotted time.

When they finally take a suggestion, lights out.

The Deep End

Grab a Level A student and throw them in with the highest-ranking Harold team.

Photo © Kevin Thom

Photo © Kevin Thom

Short Form Long

A 25-minute set of a short-form game. If it’s “Sit, Stand, Bend,” openings and group games would incorporate all three actions, and edits would be done while bending over, or sitting in a chair and scraping it across the stage.

See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil

Three players. One puts on noise-cancelling headphones, the second blindfolds him or herself, and the third tapes their mouth shut for the entire set.

The Tweet

At the start of the show, everyone (performers and audience) logs on to twitter.

Players are seated with their smartphones on stage. They tweet to each other, line by line, never looking up from their phones.

The audience watches the show the same way.

Deuce

Create a stage at the back of the theatre and have two competing sets. Each team gives and takes focus, going scene by scene.

Halfway through the show, the audience faces their chair towards whichever show is better. One team wins when they get the other audience’s whole front row to turn their backs.

Reverse Steamroller

A strong improviser who normally drives scenes walks out on stage. Before they can utter a word, players on the side narrate all of the dialogue and action for him/her.

The Dinner Party

Two performers show up at a formal dinner party to provide the entertainment. No matter what they do, the diners ignore them and carry on their own conversations.

Time Traveller

The team gets in a time machine (for real) and goes back in time, changing a historical event to make it funnier. They come back to the present and reference it on stage.

Jokes will not land, as the audience will only know of the event in its new form.