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Posts from the Improv Tips & Quotes Category

Photo © Greg Stewart

David: To behave consistently and reasonably is the gift. If someone comes up to me and says I’m their cousin with one arm – that’s not a gift. That doesn’t have anything to do with anything.

TJ: It’s like, “Sister Theresa, everyone here at the convent has heard about your abortion.”

David: Yeah. That’s not a gift. That’s a sentence I have to serve.

From Improvisation at the Speed of Life: The TJ & Dave Book  by T.J. Jagodowski and David Pasquesi with Pam Victor

If you stay in the improv community long enough, change will come. Sometimes it’s good (a new theatre opening, more shows featuring women, people of colour, and the LGBTQ community). And sometimes it’s not so good (a theatre closing, a beloved performer leaving, your favourite burrito place shutting down).

Last week Toronto was shaken by the news that Second City’s Longform Conservatory program is ending. That means fewer Longform classes, no more stage time for grad teams, and the loss of a home for a strong and growing improv community.

There’s no way to sugar coat it: this is tough for a city with few outlets for long form, especially compared to Chicago, New York, or L.A.

When stuff like this happens, it’s common to feel the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally, finding a new burrito place. But having been through upheaval ourselves a few times, here’s what we’ve learned. 

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History Repeats

Whatever is happening in your community has already happened before. Institutions from Second City to iO to Annoyance to UCB have been threatened with eviction, lost their lease, teetered on the edge of bankruptcy, or worse.

Artistic Directors come and go, curriculums morph, and shows evolve. But as long as there’s a passionate group of people willing to play for the sheer joy of it, there will always be long-form nights.

“But how?” you might be asking if you’re in this situation. “Where do I start?”

Let’s begin with the basics: education. There are so many different approaches to long-form, you could spend years just learning them all. Ask your network for recommendations. Chances are there are some great long-form teachers who want to share their knowledge as much as you want to learn. (And could use the work!)

Don’t be afraid to look outside your home town for specialty classes. iO, Annoyance, UCB, Magnet and others have intensives year round from one to five weeks long. If you can’t get away, see if you can bring an instructor to you.

Isaac Kessler, Rob Chodos, and Mark Cotoia brought many A-listers to Toronto, exposing the community to a wealth of technique, forms, and viewpoints that enriched not only the students, but everyone they’ve since gone on to teach. Some of Cameron’s favourite exercises came from workshops he took with Jet Eveleth, Todd Stashwick, TJ and Dave, and David Razowsky.

If you don’t have an improv impresario in your town, maybe you’re that person. Ask your community who they’d like to learn from. Once you have a short list, contact them to discuss availability and rates. You’ll need to cover the instructor’s fee, plus transportation and accommodation. (Fortunately Airb’n’b has made the latter much easier.) And don’t forget to factor in renting a space for the class.

Calculate how many students you’ll need at what price to break even, and be sure to get payment in full up front. You don’t want to be left holding the bag because 20 people were interested and only four people showed up.

Finally, don’t limit yourself to improv. Acting, singing, clown, and mask are great ways to round out your theatre skills, so stretch yourself by trying something new.

Next, we’ll look at rehearsals and stage time, because you’ll need a place to perform. Before you book your parents’ basement, stay tuned for Part Two.

Photo © Kevin Thom

Photo © Kevin Thom

If, like me, you’ve been sucked down the stream of raw sewage that’s social media, I feel you. It’s hard not to, frankly, when the freedoms we thought we enjoyed turn out to be smoke and episodes of Black Mirror.

But if clicking emojis till your thumbs bleed has left you numb, doing it more won’t help.

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In 2005, when iPhone was still a gleam in Steve Jobs’s eye, Cameron and I were detached from the rest of the world. Back then the isolation was caused by his Generalised Anxiety Disorder. We holed ourselves up in our apartment and fretted inside a prison of our own making. The Internet’s a bit like that; we can see and talk to people, but there’s a wall of glass between us.

How we crawled out of that black hole and reconnected with humanity was the same way you can now: by taking an improv class. (And if you sign up on your smartphone, I won’t tell anyone.)

“We approach improvisation as a constant examination of the moment before us.” – Improvisation at the Speed of Life: The TJ & Dave Book

The first time I studied with David Razowsky, he said, “I’m hiding a class on mindfulness in this improv workshop.”

Improv teaches us to be present, to observe and listen to our scene partner, and respond by committing fully to our emotions. Focusing your attention takes practice, as anyone who’s meditated knows. But the more you do it, the easier it gets.

The other great thing about improv is, it’s fun. Laughter, like crying, is a form of release. Which makes it a powerful antidote to anxiety, depression, and fear. As Stephen Colbert says, “You can’t laugh and be anxious at the same time.”

There’s nothing more satisfying than taking your feelings of rage and channeling them into a scene about failed spaghetti sauce. Improv gets us in touch with our imaginations again. When you create something out of thin air, it’s a powerful reminder of our ability to effect change.

There’s a lot of scary stuff happening right now, and the problems are very real. But staring at a screen for hours won’t help. If you’re feeling disconnected, the answer isn’t stewing over Snapchat, Periscope, or Twitter. It’s listening, responding, and connecting with others in real life.

Now turn off your phone, go out and create something new.

So glad we got to spend this time together. (Photo © Steve Hobbs)

There are dozens of different classes available, for Beginners to Advanced, from Improv for Actors to Improv for Anxiety, Business, Singles and more. Just Google “improv classes” and your home town or city to see what’s available near you.

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Photo © Kevin Thom

Photo © People and Chairs

Photo © People and Chairs

How many times have you felt an unmistakeable emotion from someone – sadness, fear, joy, rage – without a word being uttered? Vibrations are powerful. Before you open your mouth on stage, try listening with your whole body and tune in to the feeling that’s already there.

Cameron and I saw True Blue at the Fringe festival, and five days later, it’s stayed with me.

The show is an hour of unscripted theatre in the style of NYPD Blue or True Detective. The pace is slower than most improvised sets, but it’s every bit as compelling. Unlike most improv, the actors weren’t going for laughs (although there were plenty to keep us entertained). But what was really refreshing was seeing improvisers sit in scenes long enough for nuances to emerge, and dialogue to breathe.

One of my favourite performances was by Shanda Bezic, an actor who I was surprised to discover only started learning improv last year. Her characters were grounded and authentic, yet still playful.

At the other end of the scale was Anders Yates’ hilarious turn as a coroner. It was clear he didn’t know much about coroner…ing, but scene partners Colin Munch and Amy Matysio used this gift to their advantage, and the audience’s delight.

I came away thinking how we don’t have to know everything, or be “expert improvisers,” as long as we commit fully to each tiny moment, and each other, on stage. And how being different – in format, style, or approach – is a wonderful thing.

True Blue was named Patron’s Pick, and there are still two more chances to see it this Sunday.

Photo © Connor Low