Posts from the Guest Posts Category

Photo © Mae Martin

Photo © Mae Martin

If you’re me and you like to write, you’ll rewrite something over and over again. In improv we don’t have this option. We are writing in the moment with no editor and sometimes no forethought whatsoever.

When we start off as improvisers doing this crazy thing like writing in the moment with others on stage, we often dislike or forget to honour and explore the first few things we offer up. I mean, why would we? We are just dumping our mind garbage, to quote my friend Freddie Rivas, all over the stage and hoping that within that heap of waste there is something worth taking a deeper look at.

We often run past or own brilliance at the top of a scene with blinding speed and agility. We think it can’t be that easy. That look, that line of dialogue, your body language. No it can’t be that simple. Let’s find something else to explore! We are complicated begins and when we make stuff up we often bring our own complexities on stage and forget to listen to the precious, brilliant and simple things we offer each other.

Everything we say and do on stage is precious.

Every look, every line, every movement or gesture can be the key to unlocking the greatest scene you’ve ever played. Stop running past the top of your scene and start being precious with every moment.

In improv you’re right. It’s not like the outside world, where we are constantly told we aren’t right, and that we aren’t good enough and that we have to be better. In improv we are always right.

The choices you make and the choices I make are right and they were never wrong, we just have to stop and recognize how beautiful, how simplistic and how precious these moments really are.

Only you can give yourself an improv scene, start trusting that your offers are good enough, start being precious with the things you say and do on stage, but remember: they are precious only in the moment. When that scene is over it will never be done again and there is no going back. That is when we no longer need to be precious. We celebrate the moment and move on, hopefully taking a lesson learned with us to the next.

This is The Precious Nature of Things, and I’m David Suzuki.

Kidding. I’m Matt Folliott.

Matt Folliott is an actor/improviser/comedian, and member of Standards & Practices. He’s performed in festivals across North America, including DCM, CIF, VIIF, Out Of Bounds, Improvaganza, and Mprov.

1. Nobody forgot their medication. They’re always like this.

Photo © Kevin Thom

2. You don’t need to look for it. It’s right in front of you.

Photo © Kevin Thom

3. You have a surprisingly strong opinion about what your partner is doing.

Photo © Kevin Thom

4. If you really don’t want to do something, do it.

Photo © Kevin Thom

5. Yes, you should have edited there.

Photo © Kevin Thom

6. If you do it twice, you have to do it three times.

Photo © Kevin Thom

7. No house painter has ever had an amazing new house painting technique.


8. You’re never just doing stuff. Figure out why you’re doing it the way you’re doing it.


9. We don’t care about what you don’t care about.


10. Why you do what you do is what you’ll do next.

Screen shot 2014-01-19 at 2.58.10 PM

All photos © Kevin Thom

Doug Sheppard is a Web developer by trade, and a writer and improviser by vocation. He lives in Toronto and considers it one of the finest places in all of Canada. You may also be amused by his twitter.

Photo © Kevin Thom

Photo © Kevin Thom

What if you could start over whenever you wanted? What if you could begin again? What if you could begin again again? What would you do differently if you could do it differently? When do you have the chance to do THAT?


Well, you can each time you step on a stage, sit before a blank page, pick up your axe, sit at the bench, stand by the easel. You just have to decide that you are starting fresh. All it takes is your being aware that always your point of view can be at the “Point of New.”

What’s stopping you from starting anew?

You. Your story, your decision to think that you’re helplessly, hopelessly connected to your past actions. You know the dialogue:

“That’s what always happens.”

“That’s just the way we are.”

“I’m the kinda person who…”

“My family’s history is…”

“I’ll never get it.”

Or the classic:

“I don’t know.”

You do know, don’t you, that it’s your decision to state those statements, to engage in that text, to play that part? All of those sentences you decide to utter. Your choice to engage the thoughts then carry on with what you think is your destiny. We do it mindlessly.


Be mindful that your words matter. Be aware that your thoughts are being thought. That your mental texts have weight. You give them weight. You give them meaning. You choose to dwell on them. Think about it. You might not say the “C” word or the “N” word. These are two of the heavy weight heavyweights. For some these words are “cringe-worthy” because we’ve given them power.

Your engaging in the sentences above are just as cringeable. Those two pieces of architecture have the same energy as the words you might use on yourself: the story that you “suck,” that “others are better at improv than you,” that others have “more experience,” are “blessed with wit,” or good looks or a better family who cares more for them than you perceived your family cared for you. These are bullshit memes that lets your ego control your artistry.

Your ego does not control you. You choose to let your ego control you. You do it by listening to it, then engaging in it. In all of the museums, in all of the theaters, in all of the galleries, in any hall or field or closet or on any wall there is no artwork that was created through the union of inspiration and ego. None. It can’t be made because that voice that you’re letting to speak drowns out the voice that you use to produce your output of you-ness.

Each time I stand at the entrance to the stage I’m aware that I’m standing in the middle of absolute nothingness, emptiness, a blank canvas. It’s the opportunity for me to be aware of non-engagement. I am not attached to my past performances, I am not aware of what I’ve done “wrong,” or what I’ve done “right.” I am just there. When I’m just standing in that void I’m present to my openness, my chance to listen to all that is happening. Not what has happened, nor what I hope will happen. It’s a sacred space, that place right where I’ll be entering the stage. My awareness to the stillness that’s there helps me to be affected by whatever stimulus I enter into on the stage, the stillness that’s there not because I put it there, but because it’s been there the whole time.

It’s the opportunity for a birth. Not a re-birth. A birth. Clean, fresh, aware, awake, alive, alert. It’s not an opportunity to run the mental newsreel, to make sure that the plan is going to go as planned when you planned it during the time that you planned it. It’s your opportunity to leave the baggage in the car, to store the stuff in the locker, to time to start anew. To keep what went on yesterday securely stored in the “history bin” you keep out of reach. Now is the best time. Now. Now. Now.

The time is always there. Always. Just like the moment is. Weird, huh?

©2013 David Razowsky

If you’d like to learn more about David’s workshops, shows, podcast, and other cool stuff, visit davidrazowsky

If you’re a regular improviser, my guess is that there are two elements of the improv universe that keep you coming back over and over.

The first is that it’s fun. Being up onstage helping to create something out of nothing that delights an audience is a pretty spectacular feeling. Not only that, but you are surrounded by kind, hilarious and unique fellow improvisers, whom you quickly build friendships with, spending many nights laughing over drinks while recounting the insane moments of that night’s performance. “I can’t believe we kept bringing back Dr. Fart Sandwich!” you’ll say to me, and I’ll agree: I can’t believe it, either.

The second aspect of improv that has you trudging through bad weather to do a 20 minute set for 5 audience members is this: you want to get better. Beyond the joy of getting laughs and living in the moment, you have a desire to improve your craft and become the sort of performer you look up to. Let’s talk about how to do that. I apologize in advance for doing most of the talking.

In his book Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else, Fortune magazine editor Geoff Colvin theorizes that those who truly excel in any area of life engage in something called purposeful practice. Purposeful practice is just what it sounds like: it’s practice with a specific goal in mind. Using Tiger Woods as an example, Colvin argues that Woods does not just mindlessly hit golf balls for hours on end, hoping he will improve through sheer repetition. He works relentlessly on minute aspects of putting, chipping and driving the ball – often getting worse before he gets better – in order to achieve the ultimate aim of becoming a more well-rounded professional.  He’s also doing it to get laid.

And so it goes with improv. If you want to become a better improviser, you need to be able to honestly assess where you’re at, identify what you need to work on, then use your stage time effectively in building up a specific skill. Yes, taking classes can help, but if you are not actively training yourself to understand why some improv choices are stronger than others, you are mostly wasting your time and money. No matter how great your instructor, she can only give you exercises to do and feedback to consider: it’s up to you to internalize what she’s saying.

But here’s the good news: the opportunity to grow as a performer is all around you. If you are fortunate enough to live in or near a city with a large comedy community, you are truly blessed with the possibility of watching some of the best improvisers in the world perform for you. Every night. For free. Rather than simply watching them passively and marveling at their brilliance, look for what they’re doing. Maybe someone plays hilarious original characters, or is brilliant with ‘game of the scene,’ or, even better, can sit in real emotions and be genuinely affected. Add these tools and hone them in shows of your own.

But how do I hone these skills, you ask? Simple: you fail. A lot. You fail spectacularly and brilliantly. You do cringe worthy scenes with a dumbfounded audience that sits in hideous silence. You feel intensely uncomfortable and wish this damn scene would just end already. But you persevere: you’re going to portray this Scottish bartender as realistically as possible, damn it! And you learn through this. And your brain starts to make distinctions. And you grow.

That’s mainly what I had to say, but I’ll leave you with a few additional thoughts on getting better and improv in general.

  • If you sign up for an improv class, I beg you: take notes. Six months after the course ends, you will have forgotten 90 percent of what you were taught (I made that percentage up, but you see my point). Review these notes early and often. Internalize them.
  • You are an improv free agent. Your improv team is temporary and will soon break up. That is not to devalue the experience, however: use the time you have with your team to learn how to work with performers of varying playing styles. And build lasting friendships, too, of course!
  • Want a practical tip on how to become a better improviser right away? Here you go:  stop walking into scenes. If you watch enough improv, you’ll notice that walking into scenes is almost always a terrible choice, and is by far the biggest pitfall of intermediate improvisers. Yes, there are some wonderful and hilarious walk-ons that enhance things, but this is usually pulled off by very high caliber players. Want to help out with the scene? Sweep it.
  • Replicate real human behavior on stage. Not every audience member will appreciate your super-specific Star Trek: Deep Space Nine references (even if they should, because it was a great show) but everyone can identify with an overworked mom, an emotionally distant dad or a controlling….cousin? Sorry, it’s late.
  • Want to know your improv secret weapon? It’s you! Your life experience and personality is unique to you and you alone. My best imitation of you would pale in comparison to the genuine article. Show us who you are and let us into your heart.
  • If you can do all this and incorporate Dr. Fart Sandwich you have mastered the art form and can move on to Ultimate Frisbee or something.

Jordan Kennedy is an improviser in Toronto. He’s not the best improviser around, but he’s got a little better over time, so he thought he’d write about it.       

Photo © Chris Frampton

Photo © Chris Frampton

Focus, grasshopper.

That one word, focus, means so many things to those of us in the entertainment industry. It could apply to a camera lens (the gate), a spotlight, a level of concentration or being the centre of attention. For our purposes, let’s consider the latter.

Focus, to an improviser, means everyone is paying attention to one thing and one thing only. It could be a person, an object, an atmosphere (as set by the lights) or a sound, even if only for a split second. You are in a scene where you and your scene partner are on the lam when suddenly the stage is flooded with red and blue lights. Did that get your attention? Then focus shifted.

There are only two ways focus shifts. The first is to surrender it to someone. Some folks prefer to say you offer it but since the word ‘offer’ already has a significant meaning in improv, I like the term surrender. To surrender focus is to either give it away voluntarily by acknowledging another improviser has something new to offer to the scene (see, the word in action) or because it was stolen and you resigned yourself to the fact that you lost it.

Which leads us to the second way focus shifts; it is taken. It was surrendered to you and you accepted it or, again, you stole it. Stealing focus need not be a bad thing. BANG! Did that get your attention? Then the sound stole focus.

And the two MUST always work together. Scenes fail when someone surrenders focus but no one accepts it OR a second improviser steals it but the first refuses to give it up. Often, that’s when the scene becomes confused and irritating.

Ideas grow strongest if they are diverse. Everyone should contribute, everyone should play. If you wanted to do it alone, you’d be doing a one man show … or stand up (wait, did I just diss myself here???).

As improvisers, it’s important to know who has focus and who wants it. We do this by listening, not just with our ears, mind you, but with all our senses (okay, maybe not smell unless you can detect that whiff of fear in a rookie). If it is true that our function on stage is to make our scene partners look good, then sharing focus is the primary method by which we accomplish this.

And how do we share focus? By holding on to it until someone is willing to accept it, then surrendering it graciously. This seems obvious, I know, and yet so many improvisers insist on retaining focus longer then they should.

But what if they didn’t know anyone else wanted it? Then why is everyone else on stage? Pay attention, your fellow improvisers will cue you. Of course, they can always steal focus, which is the most obvious cue of all. If they do, surrender it graciously. Don’t worry, you’ll get it back and when you do, the scene will be that much richer, with so much more in it to work with.


Photo by Nicole Cianfarani

Peter Cianfarani is both shiftless and without marketable skills. He is usually brought on board a project where results are not important. Given this, he isn’t even qualified to work as a Stand Up and/or Improviser but somehow managed to become the Chief Coordinator for the Improv Alliance (a group of Ontario improv troupes including Durham Improv, Georgetown Little Improv Company, Hamilton’s Staircase Improv, McMaster University’s Improv Team, Oakville Improv Theatre Company, Orangeville Improv, Peterborough Academy Of Performing Arts, Toronto’s Centre for Indigenous Theatre and York Region’s Triptych Lounge Comedy Improv, to which he is also the Artistc Director), a founding member of the Dog’s Hind Leg and the co-creator of ‘The Ladder’ improv competition. Now who says you can’t achieve mediocrity without trying?

Photo © Kevin Thom

Photo © Kevin Thom

If you’re a comedian living in Canada, it’s likely you’ve heard about this Guy Earle case. And for good reason.

In 2007, while dealing with a table of hecklers (Lorna Pardy and her girlfriend), stand-up comedian Guy Earle let loose a series of lesbian jokes (maybe homophobic slurs?) which later brought him in front of the Human Rights Tribunal. He lost the case and was forced to pay $15,000, which coincidentally is the annual income of the average stand-up comedian.

Last week the Supreme Court of British Columbia upheld the ruling.

So what does that mean for you, an improviser working (for free, probably) in Canada?

You have to deal with the audience’s suggestions every night. And most of those suggestions are “dildo.” What rights do you have?

Plus, you’re not perfect. Some scenes work, others fail. Most new jokes fail. And like all comedians, you love pushing boundaries. (Have you ever seen the Catch-23 improv game, “More Rape, More Retarded”? You’re probably better off if you haven’t…)

The question for every comedian in Canada is: What jokes are in your act that could get you pulled in front of the next Human Rights Tribunal?

More importantly, is Canada still a safe place for edgy, alternative comedy?

This question bothered me so much, I spent a weekend with a bottle of Glen Livet and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and found out the answer. And it’s yes. Surprisingly, yes. Canada is a great, safe, liberal place to make jokes at the expense of others. But there are some limitations.

With the help of a few lawyer friends, I put together some easy guidelines (not actual legal advice, they made me say that), to prevent you from accidentally joking your way into Guy Earle-like martyrdom.

The Guy Earle case has taught me how much freedom we as comedians actually have, and how one stand-up could get absolutely everything wrong in a single set. So let’s get started…

1. There’s a big difference between playing a paid set and an open mic.

At an open mic or an improv jam, you’re a patron of the club just like everyone else. But as soon as you become a paid comedian, you could be considered an employee of the club. Now you’re subject to workplace discrimination laws, which are more restrictive than the “freedom of expression” afforded to you in the Charter.

Guy Earle wasn’t charged for Hate Speech (inciting violence towards a minority group, one of the few limitations of free speech), but rather discrimination in the workplace. Section 8 of the Human Rights Code protects minority groups from being harassed while obtaining a service available to the public. The Supreme Court ruled the heckler (Ms. Pardy) had the right to hear Earle’s act without being singled out as a “stupid dyke.” [324]

2. Your jokes about ethnicity, sexuality, and gender are protected by the Charter of Rights and Freedom.

Even if you’re being paid, most jokes you make are protected as free speech. Even if they are offensive. Even if they aren’t funny. Even if they seem racist, sexist, or homophobic to your audience. Or if you clumsily parade sensitive topics like rape, incest, or the Holocaust. You are welcome to act like a bigot onstage, provided you can argue that these jokes “expose prejudices” of bigots. [336]

Guy Earle argued that his interaction with Lorna Pardy was satirical: “an aspect of self-realization for both speakers and listeners.” Which is kind of insane. He argued he was pointing out the problems with homophobia, by directing slurs at an actual lesbian. But if the same exchange had occurred between two comedians onstage (or at least not directed at a specific audience member), Earle’s case may have been summarily dismissed. [453]

3. Leave what happened onstage, onstage.

When hosting a comedy event, you have to shut down hecklers. It’s one of your few jobs. (Others include pretending that last act was funny, continually asking: “Is everyone having a good time?” and sitting in the green room playing Kingdom Rush on your iPad.)

But shutting down a drunk, belligerent heckler is when things can get out of hand.

Do what you need to onstage, but don’t continue the conflict at the bar. Go home. Have a smoke. Get back together with your ex. Do whatever it takes to stop yourself from re-engaging with your heckler.

A big problem for Earle was that he continued to call Pardy names after the set was over. He even escalated events by breaking her sunglasses. It was impossible to justify Earle’s comments as “performance” after it continued away from the stage. [330]

4. A “justified response” has a lot to do with what has come before, and what your peers are doing.

Shutting down a heckler is a common practice in comedy. How other comedians deal with the audience is a great benchmark for how you should treat your audience. If you can prove your jokes are common practice, then it’s harder to suggest discrimination.

You don’t have to perform the same jokes, sketches, or shortform games as others, but as long as you’re in the same ballpark, these could be argued as “common practices.” But as my lawyer friend explained: “ultimately, it depends on context.”

One of Earle’s biggest problems was that he couldn’t prove his conduct was typical for a comedy club. Not when he personally dealt with hecklers. And it wasn’t part of his act. He couldn’t even prove that it was an average response for other stand-ups dealing with a hostile crowd. This part of the ruling made me wonder if Earle was even trying to win the case.  [332]

5. Clearly establish the heckler before ripping into them.

Asking “Who just said that?” is great protection for comedians. Shutting down a heckler is common practice (so it has a justified response), but accosting a random audience member out of the blue is not. Just make sure you have the right person first, then let your Reign of Burns begin.

Improvisers might also think about getting consent before bringing an audience member onstage. Or riffing with them in the crowd. You might be able to argue that by agreeing they are now a participant in the show. Which is an entirely different legal relationship.

Earle’s lawyers argue that just by Ms Pardy calling out, she involved herself in the show, making anything said part of the show. Unfortunately, no one could prove Ms Pardy heckled during the show. None of the other comedians or witnesses could confirm that fact. Another major fail for Earle.  [323]

6. This isn’t legal advice at all. It’s common sense: don’t be an asshole.

It has happened to every comedian I know. Something goes wrong in your set. You offend someone and then during or after your set you are confronted. Maybe you break every guideline listed above. If you do, find that audience memeber and make it right with them.

That doesn’t mean you have to apologize for your joke. But sympathize with their concerns. Try to explain your perspective on why what you said onstage is important. Don’t expect to change their viewpoint, but just by listening you lessen their outrage. The less angry they are, the less likely they are to take legal action.

Lorna Pardy has spent the last five years dealing with lawyers, testifying in court, and dealing with appeals. That’s a massive commitment of her life. No one wants to take legal action. No one thinks “I’ll sue that comedian wearing Modrobes pants from 1995 and then I’ll be rich!” They do it because their beliefs are important to them, and if they don’t stand up to you, no one will. So make it easier for them. Let them be heard.

Personally, I think Guy Earle could have prevented this whole situation with a simple apology afterwards. Instead his stubbornness and pride (how proud can you be when you’re hosting a Tuesday open mic at a place called Zesty’s?) allowed this to become a human rights issue.

This has become an important issue for comedians in Canada. None of us want to sit around making safe jokes about the suburbs (Whitby) and making fun of shitty universities (Lakehead).  Ethically, we are obliged to push societal taboos and challenge our audience. It is literally in our job description. So go ahead and keep doing it.

Just don’t get yourself sued. And if you do get sued, it’s probably because you’re a gay retarded Muslim woman rapist. (Thank you Charter of Rights and Freedoms.)

Special thanks to Alex Colangelo, Claire Farmer, and Katie Beahan.

Rob Norman is an actor, improviser, director, and a writer for Sexy Nerd Girl. He’s also a Second City alumnus and four-time Canadian Comedy Award nominee. You can catch Rob performing at Comedy Bar with the testosterone-infused improv juggernaut Mantown.

Laura Bailey is a hilarious improviser, stand-up, sketch comedian and song bird who’s hawked her comedy wares from Toronto to Chicago to New York City and Chapel Hill, North Carolina. She hosts and produces femme phenom, Chicka Boom, with Jess Beaulieu. Catch Laura’s solo improvised musical, Unplanned Melody on Saturday, April 13, 10 pm at The Black Swan.

Photo © Jeff Higgins

Photo © Jeff Higgins

At some point in your “career” as an improviser, you will probably be called upon to participate in a “jam,” also widely known as a “complete and utter clusterfuck.”

Both novice and expert improvisers are routinely thrown off by The Jam. I cannot think of one improv class I have taken where, after learning a technique, some frustrated classmate has not lamented to our instructor, “But how could I possibly do this in a JAM!??” Sadly, I have never heard a great answer.

As with all improv, there is no magic formula for success in The Jam. Certainly familiarity with your fellow jammers helps a lot, but in its absence hopefully these tips will help you to at least enjoy yourself a little/not be an asshole.

1. Relax. Don’t take anything personally. As Todd Stashwick would say, “Improv is all toilet paper.” Should your precious offers be ignored, in reality there is nothing you could possibly do that will even verge on being important enough to be angry about. No one is trying to ruin the scene; believe that everyone who is improvising is doing their best the whole time.

2. Lower your expectations. A Jam doesn’t always have to suck, but OH BOY are there a lot of things working against it. Linda decided to play through her shingles and can’t actually move. Claudio has elected to be a coffee table in every scene for some profound reason that no one gets. Susan won the lottery spot to play with the Second City Main Stage cast, and she is FREAKING THE FUCK OUT.

My point is, the Jam is going to be as good as it’s going to be because not everyone is on the same page, and that is largely beyond your control. Don’t beat yourself up about it.

3. No touchy-touchy. For the young, white, sexually-repressed improv majority, a hand on the shoulder is just fine, thank you very much. If you don’t know your fellow Jammers that well, do not attempt kissing, hitting, lifting, licking, pushing, pulling, or any other such physical behaviour on your scene partner’s body.

Don’t yell in his face or spit on him. And for all you handsy motherfuckers, this is not “da club,” it’s an improv scene.

People improvising are vulnerable because they are trying to go along with what’s happening. Be respectful and don’t touch a stranger on stage in a way you wouldn’t touch them offstage consensually.

4. Be Positive. When it comes to The Jam, I recommend taking “Yes, And” literally. Getting into an argument with someone you don’t know is almost certain death for your scene. Not only are you trying to improvise with someone, you are also actually making a real first impression on another human being.

When speaking to an acquaintance, you wouldn’t open with, “Hey fuckface, where’s my dinner?” Despite this being a classic improv initiation, making this sort of offer right off the bat to a stranger has a similar effect to saying the real thing. Especially rude is throwing in “subtle” improv notes like “You’re not listening to me.”

An easy way to avoid making your fellow Jammer hate you is to simply back up whatever she says 100%. Just tell her why her ideas are the best thing that ever happened to Cat Island, meow. Why not? The people you play with will love it, and so will the audience.

5. Fill in the Gaps. As the Jam gets rolling, you should notice what’s happening and what’s not. Goofballs are doing ridiculous characters with bad accents. Newbs are not initiating. Every scene has eight people coming out off the top. If nothing else, just do what is needed.

Cartoon characters need a voice of reason. Point at a Newb on the back wall and just start talking to them. Or hang back, pick one person in the scene you want to riff on, and tag out the other seven people soon. And for God’s sake, EDIT. This isn’t to say you can’t go big and get your ideas out there. As Susan Messing says, “If you’re not having fun, you’re the asshole.” Just allow your ideas be motivated by what the set needs. You’ll end up challenging yourself in new ways by playing roles you don’t normally play.

6. Have ideas and set up clear games. There’s a point of contention in improv as to whether or not one should initiate a scene with a premise in mind, or develop a game organically with your scene partner.

Whatever your preference, in The Jam nobody knows what anyone thinks and all bets are off. No one has the faintest idea what to expect from anyone else. So, when you let your fellow Jammers know what to do, it’s as if you threw a life jacket to a drowning school bus.

You will never see agreement happen faster and with more gusto than when someone initiates a “Boardroom Idiots” scene in a jam. They know they’re being directed, and they are all just glad to have been thrown a frickin’ bone.

Was there a monologue or opening to the set? Draw any scene ideas you can and initiate them shamelessly. In a jam, it’s hugely supportive to have people who act like they know what the fuck they’re doing and actually including other people at the same time!

7. Don’t be a hero. Don’t go into the Jam thinking you need to do your best work. Most likely you will be outnumbered there. There will be some jams that where you need to do a lot (see: Newb Jam), there will be some where you need to do very little (see: Goofball Jam).

It’s easy to think of your time in these scenarios as “carrying the whole show” or “not getting a word in edgewise.” Think of it more as, different jams will need different things, and you can choose to do those things or not. Personally, I find it way easier to do what is obviously needed than to think of something else.

Somewhere in our pasts, either on stage or in the audience, we have all been horribly, irreparably scarred by The Jam. It is a rite of passage no improviser will turn down – especially if it means you can play with your heroes – yet it is also thought of disdainfully as the place where good improv goes to die.

Competing styles seem irreconcilable. Robot Ninja Pirates bleep-bloop through your pretend fairy rose garden that tells the future like it’s nothing. And yet, some Jams still manage to have moments of brilliance.

As clichéd as it sounds, all you can do is try your best and have fun. Wait a minute, what if you did that all the time…?

Photo © Dan Epstein

Photo © Dan Epstein

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.

This post is a must-read for actors, improvisers, and anyone who’s ever struggled with self-esteem. Reproduced with permission from Jimmy Carrane‘s blog.

I recently had an audition for NBC’s “Chicago Fire.” A security guard, a couple of lines. Pretty easy… or so I thought.

But, whenever I have an audition, I put so much pressure on myself that it’s no longer about getting the job, it’s about my self-worth. The sad thing is I have been going to audition after audition for more than 20 years — for commercials and industrials and bit parts in movies and TV shows — and 70 percent of the time when I leave an audition I sink down into a terrible pit, asking myself why I am even trying to be an actor.

At home, my wife, Lauren, ran the lines with me. It gets frustrating running the lines with her since she can memorize them after four or five readings, but I feel like I am back in high school cramming for a World History test.

We kept going over the script and each time, I wasn’t getting the reaction I wanted from her, so I kept losing confidence. Lately, I have been so needy in my acting and performing, looking for that outside validation from my wife, and when I don’t get it, I am more than willing to blow every opportunity that comes my way. They call that self-sabotage. I left the house feeling like I sucked.

When I walked into the room for the audition, the director and producer sat comfortably in the back on a leather sofa. I tried to find the girl who was going to read with me as someone handed me a tiny microphone to clip onto my shirt. Then I nervously began to read the script.

They let me read it three times, normally a good sign.

The second time, they said: “Don’t bend down when you deliver the lines.” The third time, they said: “This guy is business as usual.”

When I was finished, I felt like I might have a shot. I took direction pretty well and they had asked me to do it three times, which meant they must have seen something they liked.

As I was leaving the room, the casting director, whom I have known for years, followed me out and pulled me into vacant room and said in a very supportive tone:

“Do you know you are reading the first line?”

“Um… um…. No, I didn’t,” I said, feeling like a brick hit me in the head.

“I wanted you to know that. That is how you lost the last job.”

“Is that what I did in there?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said. Obviously, if I had to ask her, I was doing it in there.

“What can I do next time?” I asked, still seeing stars from the brick.

“You know the script. Memorize the first line. Say it to yourself five times in the waiting room before you go in.”

Immediately, my brain went to three places:

1. Oh god, they will never call me in again.

2. I suck.

3. I want to kill myself.

But after a few minutes I realized that her feedback was actually incredibly helpful, and I felt hopefully that she’d taken the time to give me some constructive notes. Maybe it meant she thought I had potential.

The next night I went to couples therapy with Lauren, and I still had a bit of an emotional whiplash from the day before.

At the end of the session I said: “Maybe I am projecting this onto Lauren, but I don’t think Lauren thinks I am a good actor.”

There was a long pause, and I heard her squirm on the couch next to me.

“I have to be honest with you. I don’t think you are a good actor.”

Another brick. Then I went to those three places again. (Refer to above)

I felt angry. She was telling me this now, after we just got married?! She is my wife, she is supposed to support me. I was devastated. What was I supposed to do with this?

Later, I talked to my friend, Dan, who said, “I don’t know what this all means, but I bet it makes you a better actor.” Though I still felt angry about this, I had to agree with Dan.

After a week of wanting to kill my wife for saying this, I started realizing something: What I hated wasn’t her opinion about my acting, it was my opinion about my acting. I was the one who didn’t think I was very good. And though in a perfect world your partner should think everything you do is Oscar-worthy, I would rather have her be honest with me than blow smoke up my ass.

And I started thinking about some of the lessons I’ve learned from other improvisers over the years. Jon Favreau used to be an improviser here in Chicago before he went on to become a hugely successful writer, director and actor. He wasn’t known as a great improviser, and he got lost at iO and couldn’t get any recognition at Second City or The Annoyance Theater. It was safe to say Jon wasn’t getting much validation from the improv community he wanted to to be part of, but he didn’t let that stop him. Favreau believed in himself. He believed he had talent. And he especially didn’t care what other people said. After he got a co-starring role in the film “Rudy,” he went out to LA and made things happen for himself, starting with writing and starring in “Swingers.” He surprised everyone, except himself.

When it comes to confidence, I am a work in progress. The one thing I am clear about is no one is going to have confidence in you, if you don’t have confidence in you.  If you believe you are good, they will believe you are good. Any TV and film jobs I have booked over the years all had the same thing in common: I went into the audition ready to play with confidence.

I am going to be blunt. Working on my confidence takes work. Constant work, hard work, and sometimes I will be able to get help form the people I am closest to and sometimes not. And the more confidence I get, the less I look for outside validation. Even from my wife.

At the risk of sounding like the old man standing on his porch shouting “Get off my lawn, you kids,” I need to kvetch.

One of the reasons many see improvisers as the 19th century public saw actors (“No Dogs or Actors Allowed!”) is that we don’t carry ourselves in a professional manner. We aren’t acting professionally nor are we treating each other professionally.

In the past month I’ve had three groups who’ve hired me to coach them cancel at the last minute. It’s unprofessional and it’s a bad precedent. I’ve lost work, time and money. I and many of the other teachers and coaches and directors that are hired spend a great deal of time preparing for these sessions, thinking about how to help individual casts find their voice, finesse their shows, further their careers, and, perhaps, make money. Yes, make money.

If you’re doing this for the art, cool, I get it. But there’s also a few shekels to be made from some of this work. The more of us who see the possibilities in that, the more the public will respond to the strong work being presented. The more we work on our craft with focused professionals the better we look. The better we look the more the public will see how great this art form can be. Should you blow off rehearsals when you’ve hired someone to come and work with you, you’re not just diluting the power of your work, you’re also continuing this idea that theatrical improvisation is merely a parlor game, or a series of easy jokes, or an evening of sloppy work delivered by shitty actors. I know that’s not who we are. I know we are able to do better.

No one can make you feel inferior without your consent. By the same token, you are the one that’s ultimately responsible for you being treated respectfully and honorably. If I say, “Hey, it’s okay that we scheduled a rehearsal and no one showed up,” that doesn’t serve any of us.

I allow you to treat me the way you do. Should I stand up and say, “No, we can all do better,” that doesn’t just make me stronger, it makes all of us see this work with professional eyes and hearts.

Honor me and my time. In the end that will serve us all.

Photo © Kevin Thom