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Posts tagged Bad Dog Theatre

“Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone” – Joni Mitchell

For the last six months I’ve been studying Harold with Alex Tindal.

I signed up because (a) it’s Alex Fucking Tindal, and (b) I was tired of doing montage-style sets, and wanted to challenge myself. It had been years since I last did a Harold, and I was excited to be part of an ensemble again.

The course was thorough, taking us back to basics with scene work, group mind, physicality and point of view, culminating in the classic “training wheels” structure.

After our grad show, we decided we’d like to keep performing as a team. Someone suggested we enter a festival, and a teammate replied:

“We’re the only true Harold team in the city so we definitely offer something unique…”

I’m sorry…what?

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I stopped and re-read what I’d obviously misread.

Then re-read it again.

Improvisers, amiright? I mean, phhhhht, c’mon. There’s gotta be at least…uh…well…let me see now…there’s…uhhhhhhhh…hmmmmmm…

Now, before I get banned from every long-form show in Toronto, let me just say there are lots of great teams doing great long-form shows. But I couldn’t think of a single group who identifies as “a Harold team,” performing what they’d call “a Harold” on a regular basis.

Back when Cameron and I first learned long-form, The Harold was so revered that several schools had entire nights devoted to it. Teams performed for 25 minutes. Each.

So what happened???

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The year was 2007. Guitar Hero was cool, The Colbert Report was just hitting its stride, and the world was about to discover what “subprime” really means.

Cameron and I had completed Level E at Second City, plus a teaser class called Intro to Harold. That was all the long-form they offered, and we were jonesing for more.

Matt Folliott told us about a place called Impatient Theatre Company, whose sole emphasis was on teaching The Harold. Cameron and I enrolled the next day, and from the very first class, we were hooked.

Long-form seemed like the answer to our prayers: a way to expand and explore the skills we’d learned at Second City.

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Image © Dyna Moe

It took me about a year to wrap my head around openings, beats, tag-outs, group games, tangents, connections, and callbacks. (And don’t get me started on game of the scene.)

But once I had the Harold down, a whole new world opened up.

Suddenly I was writing scripts – something I’d been doing for years as a copywriter – faster, better, and funnier. I saw patterns and connections in everyday life, and ruined TV shows and films by analysing their structure out the wazoo.

ITC wasn’t the only place teaching long form. Bad Dog Theatre had a thriving Harold program, and Vanguard Comedy Theatre offered classes as well. Different theatres had different styles, and there were heated debates on the merits of organic versus premise-based.

Every week we’d watch other Harold teams, inspired by the sheer variety on stage. There were physical teams, cerebral teams, teams that used the whole theatre as their stage, teams who did ghosting, teams with no chemistry, and teams who thought and moved as one.

It was fun and inspiring as hell. But after a few years of doing opening/first beats/group game/seconds beats/group game/third beats, the structure that had brought so much joy started to feel like handcuffs.

When Charna Halpern visited Toronto in 2008, she taught a workshop on Cat’s Cradle. It’s a form where all the performers are onstage all of the time. There’s an opening, but no set beats or group games, and the structure can be anything you want.

“Cat’s Cradle,” Charna told us, “is a Harold.”

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It was like finding out your old toy truck was actually Optimus Prime.

Other improv legends came to teach: Joe Bill and Mark Sutton, David Razowsky, Susan Messing, Todd Stashwick, Jet Eveleth, and TJ and Dave.

Their organic, be-in-the-moment approach fired our imaginations.

The idea of not thinking or pre-planning moves was very appealing. Many improvisers also attended festivals, where they saw long-form teams doing sets without openings (gasp!).

More and more teams started trying what they’d learned on stage. But – and this is a huge but – they already had the Harold training as foundation. Subconsciously or not, they were able to fuck around without structure in a way that still made sense. Like a pianist who learns scales before playing jazz, the improvisation was still connected to skill.

People began producing shows independently, experimenting with their own styles of long-form. Performers from different schools of thought started coming together, and new teams were formed.

Fast forward to 2013.

After years of struggling financially, ITC closed its doors. Vanguard had already ceased to operate, while Bad Dog was forced to close when their lease expired.

It was a dark time for improv in Toronto.

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Some teams, like Mantown or Standards & Practices, still drew regular crowds at Comedy Bar. But for less-skilled performers, the road was much rockier.

Players took whatever slots they could. With so few theatres and so many people vying for stage time, sets shrank to 15 minutes, 10, even 5. And since no one was attempting a Harold, it didn’t seem to matter.

Teams stopped rehearsing. After all, why rehearse every week when your only show this month (if you’re lucky) is a jam, or a 10-minute montage?

Sets deteriorated into free-form fuckfests, with players going meta and no stakes whatsoever. Audiences felt the lack of commitment, or simply couldn’t understand all the inside jokes. There were often more people on stage than in the house.

Without new students to fill the seats, even long-running shows failed, and many teams (my own included) called it quits.

But then, somewhere on the horizon, hope appeared.

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Today Second City has a comprehensive long-form program, led by improv impresario Rob Norman. The course teaches Harold, but also encourages students to develop their own forms.

Ralph MacLeod and Carmine Lucarelli created a new place to play and take risks, with the Social Capital Theatre. Their repertory program teaches Harold, and also gives ensembles a dedicated coach. And…(drumroll)…they’re bringing back Harold Nights in early 2016.

Bad Dog Theatre re-opened, first at Comedy Bar’s Cabaret space, then their own home just down the street. When they asked Alex Tindal what he’d like to teach, he told them, “A classic Harold.”

And so, like the Harold, things have come full circle.

Thanks to Alex and my talented teammates, I’ve rekindled my passion for the form.

And while the training wheels format may not be the only “true” Harold, it was only when it went away that I realised how important it is.

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Image © David Kantrowitz

It’s no secret there are a lot of sci-fi and fantasy nerds – uh, fans – in the comedy community. But you don’t have to be a diehard Thronie to enjoy the improvised parody, Throne of Games. 

We asked Director Colin Munch and fellow cast member Kris Siddiqi about their world of the Seven Kingdoms.

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Photo © Paul AIhoshi

P&C: What were some of the challenges in adapting a series as popular – and mammoth – as Game of Thrones for the stage?

KS: Everything.

CM: Yeah, pretty much.

Picking what was important and what wasn’t important was so difficult. What moments we were going to focus on, what characters we were going to include.

KS: Getting people up to speed on a really thick, huge universe. And just being able to sort of skim the top of that, get that basic information out that needs to be gotten out, and still be able to translate the intentions of the character, and their placement in the world.

CM: [It was] probably equally challenging for those who didn’t know the world, as it was for those who do. Because you have to choose between being a know-it-all nerd and actually making choices that are playable, rather than just dumping knowledge.

KS: Totally. I think as improvisers, we always play in genres no matter what. If it’s there, we’re playing in the genre.

But that’s what makes these challenges easier to work with, because we’re all well versed in the tropes and the idiosyncrasies of the genre. And something like this is steeped in every single trope and idiom that a fantasy genre comes in.

CM: Yeah, it’s not just a mediaeval fantasy. It’s a murder mystery, it’s a family drama, it’s a horror story at times. It covers all the bases.

P&C: The cast reads like a Who’s Who of Canadian comedy greats. How did you choose people for each role?

CM: Well, we wanted [Kris] for Ned immediately. It was definitely a bonus that you were already a fan and were available. But you were the first name that was put forward for the cast.

I really wanted [Conor] Bradbury for Khal Drogo right away. I knew I could put him in jean shorts and he wouldn’t argue with me.

KS: Did you choose more on just on physical appearance or…?

CM: Well Paloma [Nunez] and Alice [Moran] did most of the casting, because they’re more familiar with who’s who in the community.

I was really focused on temperament and attitude rather than what they looked like. Rob Norman doesn’t look like a 14-year-old boy, but he plays Joffrey really, really well.

P&C: It’s rare to see costumes used in improv, let alone ones as elaborate as yours.

Does performing in costume help or hinder players?

KS: It helps.

CM: Absolutely. The one challenge it creates is it, in a way, can lock our actors into playing a single character. Which can be detrimental to the show as a whole.

Paloma can’t just toss off her dress and jump on and play another character; she pretty much has to be Cersei for the whole show. Whereas I as Viserys could probably just toss off my wig and come in as something else if I needed to.

KS: But I think really that’s the only difference. Because again it’s being improvisers and being used to like, “Oh, where’s a joke I can drop?” or “How can I help this scene?” We’re not as able to do that in this, again, because those costumes clearly define who you are.

CM: And it lets us act a little bit more than we usually get to. You get to sit in your character more; you don’t usually get that luxury when you’re just guys in t-shirts and jeans.

KS: When you have that pomp, it totally adds to it. Me and [James] Gangl did a show years ago based on Deadwood

CM: Yeah, Dreadwood!

KS: We had a friend who worked at a costume store, and she did the fittings for everyone. And there was the day when everyone saw themselves in costume… The room was kinda silent, because everyone’s gears were turning in their head: “Oh, look at me, look at me!

And then there was a silent thing amongst the guys in the cast where they all started growing mustaches and muttonchops.

CM: It’s amazing the beards that have sprung up in the TOG rehearsal process. Etan [Muskat]’s got a beard. Ken Hall’s been growing that beard for like, six months.

Also, I love how crappy Nug [Nahrgang]’s costume is. We just throw a cape and crown over whatever Nug shows up wearing.

His character is so in contrast to the rest of the players in the show. He’s this super contemporary, 21st century party animal. I haven’t seen him yet, but he’s ordered Stark and Baratheon jerseys for everyone.

KS: That’s what I like; where I’m taking it so seriously and he…not that he’s not, but he’s not, you know what I mean? And that’s the good back-and-forth that we have, is that I have to be so loyal and Nug is just taking the attitude that, yeah dude, Baratheon’s just a party guy. He’s just an old frat boy.

CM: And that’s the advantage that we have, doing parody. Kevin Whalen can take Peter Bealish and just make him, essentially pootytang. Take him to the extreme of this pimp character. And he totally gets away with it because he plays it so well.

P&C: Each show revolves around a different part of the storyline. How much is improvised and how much is true to the original books?

CM: We have a specific series of moments from the first season that we need to hit, but the content of each episode is completely improvised.

P&C: Game of Thrones has a dark quality that’s been compared to Mad Men and The Sopranos. How does that translate to comedy?

CM: I think that you can get away with so much if you tell people they’re about to see a comedy. You can take people to a real emotional place, to a real dark place, if you hold their hand and tell them “Don’t worry, it’s all in good fun.”

That’s my big philosophy with art and theatre, and I do it with Bad Dog and Sex T-Rex.

KS: Yeah. My thing is always when you take the work seriously, then the audience sees you taking it seriously, and they go, we will now commit to their commitment.

Like when Bruce [Hunter] walked in as Tywin in the last [season].

Bruce has been doing comedy and writing and directing in this city for longer than some of us have been alive. So when he walks in with a stage that’s packed with like, Aurora Browne and Paul Bates and Nug, I just remember him taking the piss out of everyone. No one could say anything to Bruce. Just like Tywin.

When he turned to Alice and said, “Who’s this? Has anyone raped her yet?” And just that, that’s a very dark line! It’s very true to the world, but it’s still pretty dark man. But it worked.

CM: For one of your first lines on stage. When you come in as character…and that’s the first thing you say? I can count on one hand the number of people who could pull that off.

KS: I think that’s what the darkness translates to. It translates to knowing when you can take advantage of it.

CM: And we don’t shy away from it, either. Our world is just as dark as theirs is. Bran still gets pushed off that tower. People die.

KS: People fuck.

CM: People fuck. People go to jail.

I’m looking forward to taking that to the next level in the second and third seasons, because the world gets so much worse.  And I know that we’ll be able to pull it off because the comedy is so good.

You can see Throne of Games at the Next Stage Festival, January 2 – 13. 

 

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Image © Alice Moran

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.