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Confession: I’m a Beatlemaniac. As a teen I attended Beatlefests in Chicago and New York, toured Fab Four shrines across the U.K., and decades later my love for them hasn’t waned.

I’ve often wondered what made them so different from hundreds of other groups. According to Malcolm Gladwell, the answer is 10,000 hours of hard work. While that definitely helped, I believe something else was at play. Namely…

The Beatles Played Together

Not just instruments; they played games. Silly ones. They laughed and joked and had fun together, and that playfulness infused every part of their lives.

Even when they worked crazy hours, they still made time for play. It helped them cope with stress, and kept their brains open to creative input. Here’s John in Hamburg’s notorious Reeperbahn district after playing an eight-hour set. One of the other Liverpool bands dared him to read a newspaper while wearing his underpants.

They didn’t follow the rules. In the early ‘60s, up-and-coming artists were expected to leave songwriting to “the pros” of Tin Pan Alley. And while their first albums included cover songs, The Beatles always wrote their own stuff.

None of The Beatles could read or write music using traditional notation. Instead they viewed music as a process of discovery, listening to records and mimicking them, or creating their own sounds. Their Producer, George Martin, transcribed and translated their ideas in the studio.

They also weren’t afraid to challenge convention in other ways. When The Beatles toured the southern U.S., they were stunned to learn venues were segregated. Having been influenced by artists like Chuck Berry and Little Richard, they refused to play segregated concerts – and the laws changed as a result. They also spoke out against the Vietnam War, considered a no-no for mere pop musicians.

They were curious about everything. The Beatles weren’t just fascinated with music. They were also deeply interested in art, fashion, film, photography, writing, comedy, and other cultures. That curiosity spilled over into everything they touched, from clothes to cover art. Before The Beatles, pop albums looked like this:

The Beatles changed all that, pushing the possibilities of what an album could be and turning each one into an event. By 1965 they were so well known, Rubber Soul was released without their name anywhere on the front cover. The “White Album” went even further, with each edition numbered like a work of art. The Butcher cover, meanwhile, is so legendary it deserves an article to itself.

They treated everything as a potential instrument. Paul’s shoe tapping in Blackbird. Ringo playing a packing case on Words of Love. George’s guitar feedback at the beginning of I Feel Fine. Their improvisational, “anything goes” attitude changed how people approached and listened to pop music.

They also preceded mash-ups, smashing together two completely different songs (A Day In The Life), and speeding up and slowing down the same song in two different keys (Strawberry Fields Forever).

And it wasn’t just sounds that inspired them. John wrote lyrics based on a circus poster (Being For The Benefit of Mr Kite), newspaper stories (A Day In The Life), and things he heard in everyday conversation (She Said, She Said).

They were constantly learning. In the movie Help!, The Beatles needed to ski downhill in one scene. None of them had ever skied before. Director Richard Lester gave them one day to learn…and filmed it. The result is a lot of shots of them falling down during Ticket To Ride, one of the film’s most memorable scenes.

They were really, really connected. Look at any live performance, and even though they’re playing to the audience you can see their eye contact and checking in with each other.

They collaborated with others. How many lead guitarists would ask someone else to play lead on While My Guitar Gently Weeps? And yet George did just that, giving Eric Clapton’s superb slide guitar centre stage.

The Fabs also enlisted George Martin to play harpsichord on In My Life, Billy Preston to play organ on Get Back, and Brian Jones to play sax for You Know My Name (Look Up The Number).

When Revolver came out, they could have got anyone to design the artwork. They asked Klaus Voorman, a friend from their Hamburg days, whose B&W ink-and-photo collage earned him a Grammy for Best Album Cover.

They also supported emerging artists of all kinds, including one Yoko Ono.

With the 50th anniversary of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, I’m still in awe of their talent and contributions, and still a Beatlemaniac at heart. Their lives and songs have inspired my writing and countless improv scenes. I hope you’ll be inspired to put some of their principles into play.

Portrait of the author as a young fan. © Sally Smallwood

Getting the hang of Harold takes time, and third beats tend to be trickiest. Really, it’s about mashing up characters and making connections in the world you just invented. It’s that second part – making connections – that can seem scary, leading to hesitation on the sidelines.

Here’s a way to help get past the fear. This warm-up shows how putting two things together is just plain fun, however it turns out.

Photo © New York Musical Improv Festival

Part One: Freak Tag

First, play a regular game of Freak Tag. Someone is “It” and they try to tag people. Once you’re tagged, you maintain whatever physicality you were in at the time you were tagged, until you tag someone else. Then you can resume your regular posture.

This continues until the Coach calls it.

Part Two: Zombie Tag

Again, just a regular ol’ game of Zombie Tag. One person is a Zombie, and they slowly lumber around trying to tag people. Once you’re tagged, you too are a Zombie. Unlike Freak Tag, everyone stays a Zombie until the last person is undead.

Part Three: Freaks & Zombies

Now let’s connect them.

One person is designated a Zombie to start. When they touch someone, that person stays in whatever physicality they were in (and makes any sound they were making) at the time they were tagged.

They’re now part of the Freak-Zombie Army, as it were, and must tag others in their lumbering freakish way until everyone is a brain-eating superfreak.

Variation

Take your own two favourite warm-ups and put ‘em together.

Love Big Booty? Got a fondness for Beastie Rap? Combine the two and see what happens. It’ll probably be a total headfuck, but that’s half the fun of warm-ups. Try it at your next rehearsal.

Hey gang, it’s time for our most popular posts from the archives, 2017 edition. It’s raining cats and dogs here in Toronto, so grab a blanky and snuggle up indoors with our best of.

How-To Posts

Eight Ways To Be Good With The Improv

Eight More Ways To Be Good With The Improv

How To Succeed At Anything by Being Yourself

Audition Tips From The Other Side Of The Table

How To Write A Kickass Performer Bio

Performance Anxiety: How To Dissolve Pre-show Nerves

How Cameron Got Over His Anxiety (And So Can You!)

Harold/Long Form & Scene Work

Openings: The Good, The Bad & The Funny

Somebody Edit This, Please

John Lutz on Keeping It Simple

Enjoy The Silence: Improvising Without Dialogue Part One and Part Two

On Coaches, Chemistry, And Finding Your Dream Team

Specificity: Why Pabst Blue Ribbon Beats Whatever You’re Drinking

All By Myself: Solo Improv

How I Lost Interest In Game Of The Scene And Found Something Way More Fun

Great Guest Posts

12 Tips For Festival Organizers by Amy Shostak

12 Tips For Improvisers Attending Comedy Festivals by Matt Folliott

7 Tips For Surviving An Improv Jam by Laura Bailey

Now’s The Time To Know The New by David Razowsky

How Not To Get Sued (A Guide for Canadian Comedians) by Rob Norman

Never Give Up by Jimmy Carrane

How To Avoid Being A Creep by Conor Bradbury

Improv Community & Insight

For The Love of Art, Pay People

Why Improv Is Good For Business

The Art of Comedy

When “Yes, And” Becomes No

Comedians, Don’t Sell Yourself Short

Random Fun Stuff

Improv Explained In Venn Diagrams

What’s Your Improv Persona?

It’s An Improv Thing

When Improvisers Date

An Illustrated Guide To Improvisers

Improv Forms That Don’t Exist (But Should)

When Ralph Met Becky

Web Series: Inside The Master Class

Stick This In Your Ear: The Improv Podcast Round-up

Video: How To Spot An Improviser

If there’s a silver lining in 45’s Presidency (and it sure is hard to find one), it’s all the great art and comedy being made as a result. From TIME covers to A Tribe Called Quest’s We The People, to Colbert overtaking The Tonight Show in the ratings, it’s been a brilliant if bumpy ride the last 100 days.

So we are thrilled beyond measure to see UCB improviser Anthony Atamanuik get his own show on Comedy Central with The President Show, which debuts tonight. We’ll be watching with Coca Colas in hand.

Sometimes you need to work on your acting skills. Sometimes you just need to have fun. This exercise is the best of both worlds.

Two people perform a grounded scene. Don’t try to be funny, just keep it real and commit to what’s unfolding between you and your scene partner. A third person provides fart SFX from the side.

Try it at your next rehearsal.

Photo © Jim Goad for BCIF

No need to hunt for the perfect Easter music: Second City alumni Adam Cawley, Rob Baker, and Jordan Armstrong have created an entire album of egg-cellent songs, with It’s A Great Friday.

Christmas has carols, Halloween has The Monster Mash and Thriller, and Adam Sandler slayed with The Hannukah Song. Now It’s A Great Friday takes Jesus’s ascension to new heights, with hilarious and beautiful harmonies the whole family can enjoy.

You can listen to the whole album for free here.

Photo © Lyon Smith

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…?

MS: Strike.

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.

(laughter)

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!

(laughter)

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

This video is the comedy equivalent of finding a Beatles “Butcher” cover. Whether it’s your first time seeing it or your 101st, enjoy Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert, David Razowsky and Paul Dinello singing The Obvious Song.