Toronto improvisers rejoice: game-based long form has a new place to play, thanks to Geoffrey Cork, Martha Stortz, and Spencer Thompson. We spoke to Geoff and Martha about their new creation, The Assembly.
Image © The Assembly
P&C: I thought I’d do a more organic type of interview…
MS: “Interview, interview, interview, interview…”
GC: Organic opening!
P&C: (laughs) Love it. OK, we’re here to talk about The Assembly. What is it, and why did you start it?
MS: Well as you know, long-form [teams] had a home at Second City for a long time, and unfortunately they had to rejig their show schedule, which means we didn’t have shows there anymore.
We decided we couldn’t let this wonderful thing die, so we created a new long-form company called The Assembly. It’s a collective of 12 teams; all the teams that were alumni teams at Second City, as well as some of the older, more recognized teams that do game-based long form in Toronto: Mantown, 2-Man No-Show, R&N Cawls. And we also have a sassy “featured” team made up of some of our favourite improvisers, coached by Matt Folliott.
P&C: And that sassy team is called…?
GC: [There were] all these up-and-coming improvisers who were showing so much potential and just needed more time to do more shows, so it’s very exciting for us to continue it in a different place.
P&C: Let’s back up for a second, and tell us about each of your backgrounds.
GC: I’m an improviser and producer in Toronto. I started doing improv about five years ago. I joined Long Form at Second City maybe a year and a half after I started, and I’ve been there ever since on various teams, just trying to grow as a long-form performer, and watching other performers. Improv is already kind of a cultish thing, but long form is like a cult within that cult.
P&C: I’m surprised to hear you say a “cult within a cult” because 10, 12 years ago there was more emphasis on short form, but I think of long form as the dominant type of improv nowadays.
GC: Mick Napier came to Second City recently and people were asking improv questions, and he would answer with a long form head about it, y’know? He was talking about long-form concepts in improv. When I say “a cult within a cult” I mean within Second City; there was a branch at Second City who were these performers who did a different type of program [than short form].
P&C: Got it.
GC: I knew nothing about improv, I came to Second City and I assumed improv is improv. Then I learned there’s this thing called long form. I started doing it and over time I started to understand why the lessons being taught in this program are informing all of my improv.
They’re making characters important, they’re making moments important… Before it was “Who can yell the loudest in 12 seconds to get the most attention?” Now we’re focusing on coming back to characters, building strong [scenes]. I think it’s one of those things that starts taking improv more seriously. I mean, people should have fun when they’re doing improv, but it’s that thing of taking fun seriously.
P&C: Totally. Martha, tell us about your improv journey?
MS: I’ve been doing improv for about five years, [taking] classes at Second City and Bad Dog. I’m currently a member of Orson Whales, which is a member of The Assembly. I’m a member of Bad Dog Featured Players, and I’m on a team at SoCap called Ins and Outs. I also had the opportunity to be a Senior Producer with Second City’s Long Form [program], which involved making a lot of really fun shows and getting to work with a bunch of producers there. We also did Haroldfest at Second City, which was a three-day festival.
P&C: Is that coming back?
MS: Yes, not this year but next year.
Jibber Jabbar at Haroldfest 2016, Photo © Geoffrey Cork
In terms of short form versus long form, I do think long form has a big place here, but we shouldn’t discount the role that short form plays. I know Bad Dog has a short form class, and I’ve [done] some short form at Bad Dog and it’s so much fun. It does emphasize different muscles. It’s like the difference between a sprint and a marathon. I know there’s some rivalry between short and long form, but I think it’s time we come together to settle this.
P&C: (laughs) It’s true. Mick Napier was speaking to long form when he was here, but he says improv is improv; he’s an equal opportunity improviser, I guess.
Getting back to The Assembly, there’s been a lot of interest from people in the community for, I think, something less tied to a particular theatre. Not that – I have to go on record here – not that the theatres we have aren’t awesome! But sometimes it can be hard to get stage time if you’re not enrolled in a specific program. What is your plan, your vision for The Assembly?
GC: We specialise in game-based long form, but the best improvisers I know do improv everywhere around the city. The best way to become a good improviser is to do it everywhere, to do all shows. That’s something we’ll tell our teams and students. They’re already doing shows at Comedy Bar, Bad Dog, Second City…those are the types of performers we want. All these theatres work together to make better improvisers.
One of the things that was pushed on us super hard by Rob Norman was going to festivals. Orson Whales and a couple of other troupes from The Assembly went to the Detroit Improv Festival and that was an amazing experience. It’s kind of scary to do improv in a city where you’ve never done it before; like, do they even find Canadians funny? And it was an amazing show and they were so supportive and they loved it.
P&C: Chris Moody is awesome.
GC: Yeah! I think that was a good lesson for all of us, and in The Assembly that’ll be pushed hard. We’re just game-based long form, this is a great place for advanced players to improve their skills. We want to expand to include more programs, but at this time we’re improving upon the skills people already have.
Of course you should be doing courses everywhere, you should be taking classes as much as you possibly can without bankrupting yourself…that’s how you become a better improviser.
P&C: And that’s why improvisers are broke.
MS: In terms of our long-term goals, it’s not only about having teams and getting stage time, it’s also about bringing in new performers through workshops, through education programs. It’s also about taking the performers we have and training them to be coaches and producers, and eventually getting them to a place where they’re able to teach or coach, which is great to constantly have this movement of people coming in and achieving the goals they set for themselves.
Right now we have a monthly show at Bad Dog and bi-weekly shows at SoCap. As we have more people, we’ll also have more opportunities for stage time and eventually we’d like to be in a place where we were before, going back to having a weekly show. And Toronto Haroldfest will come back. I’m on the record!
P&C: That’s great. I was thinking, when you’re starting out – and by starting out I mean your first few years doing improv – even just getting comfortable on different stages is a skill. Anyone who’s performed at SoCap and Comedy Bar and Bad Dog and the JCB, those stages are all so different. One’s deep, one’s skinny, one’s floor level… Speaking of levels, tell us a little more about the hierarchy of The Assembly.
MS: We have three levels of teams. Our grad teams are newer teams who haven’t been together as long: Abra Cadaver, Mana del Rays, Pepperoni Pizza Cats and Chakra Khan. We also have our house teams. These are the more permanent teams: Truman Chipotle, Grim Diesel, Orson Whales and Jibber Jabbar. Jibber Jabbar has been together for two-plus years. And then we have the older teams who’ve been around for a really long time [Editor’s note: Take that, oldsters]: Mantown, RN & Cawls, 2-Man No-Show, and then there’s our featured team, Strike, who’ll play all our monthly showcase shows at Bad Dog.
P&C: That is a stellar, stellar line-up. I do have a question about 2-Man No-Show. “L.A. Isaac” I guess is going to be the no-show, who’s going to be the other of the two men?
MS: I guess we’ll have to find out. Tune in and come to our shows and follow us on Instagram!
GC: What’s great about The Assembly is that all of these teams are pretty autonomous. They’re doing their own stuff, they’re producing their own shows. That’s why it’s such a great group, because they’re not only learning, they want to do their own shows. They all have their own [Facebook] pages.
P&C: I think that’s something that’s happened here in the last five years. Because there was a dearth of shows and stage time for less-experienced players, unlike 10 years ago, I think teams have taken it upon themselves to be proactive, produce their own shows, find their own gigs…but what is great is that you’re giving an umbrella opportunity to all these teams.
It’s also great for audiences. As much as I applaud student shows, and God knows Cameron and I did a ton of shitty shows, the fact is that people outside the improv community don’t want to see that. So you’re giving opportunities to a range of skill sets, but you’re also curating the teams, and I think that’s great for building the elusive “non-improviser bums on seats.”
GC: Part of what our promise for these teams is, we have a board of people who will support their shows. When you’re part of The Assembly, you have people who will produce shows, who have failed, who understand what succeeds, what makes a good show, why people want to go to shows… You have access to these people who will come in and help you make the show. Being part of The Assembly is like, we have your back.
The Assembly debuts Thursday, April 13 at 8 pm, Bad Dog Theatre. Tickets are $5, available here. For more info, visit theassemblyimprov.com and follow them on twitter @TheAssemblyTO
Photo © The Assembly
Some of Toronto’s hottest improvisers strike a pose (L to R): Rob Baker, Becky Johnson, Kevin Vidal, Jan Caruana, Ashley Botting, Rob Norman, Ken Hall