You hear a lot about “getting reps” in improv. And for most people, reps = stage time. But before you start making a Facebook event for your show, we’d like to focus on a different kind of rep.
What Are We Talking About?
Once you’ve got a team together, you need to rehearse on a regular basis. Why? Because it’s a helluva lot easier to develop group mind when you know each other, understand your fellow players’ moves, and share a common language. And the only way to do that is to practice.
Finding a good coach is key. Choose someone who shares your group’s goals and needs, or whose approach you want to model. Ask yourselves what you want to achieve as a team. Is improv a hobby? Or do you want to make a dent in the universe? If that sounds too lofty, here are two stories to inspire you.
Chicago’s Jazz Freddy is legendary, and with good reason. The cast reads like a Who’s Who of Comedy, including Pete Gardner, Brian Stack, Dave Koechner, Rachel Dratch, Noah Gregoropoulos, Kevin Dorff, Jimmy Carrane, Miriam Tolan, Pat Finn, Chris Reed, Stephanie Howard, Susan McLaughlin and Meredith Zinner.
When Jazz Freddy debuted at the Live Bait Theater, they broke the mould with their innovative, patient style of improv and attention to acting skills. It was one of the first long-form shows to be done in a theatre, as opposed to a comedy club or bar. It was also one of the first ensembles to feature almost as many women as men – unheard of in 1992.
As Craig Cackowski recalls, “Everything about it exuded class, from the Ray Charles music that played as the house lights faded to the fact that they were playing on actual sets of regular Live Bait productions,” (a tactic later employed by Stolen House).
Director and cast member Pete Gardner said, “There was a feeling of bringing your A-game, which established a lot of trust. People let go and experimented with forms and structures. Everyone understood that they were playing it straight – truth in comedy – like Del taught. They weren’t playing for jokes.”
The form itself involved a “two back, one forward” concept with two-person scenes, as well as scenes involving large groups of players. Jazz Freddy is credited with the first use of tag-outs in long form, and was among the first to use cross-fade edits.
There were callbacks, relationships, time dashes, and a modified three-scene structure similar to Harold. But as Matt Fotis notes in his book, Long Form Improvisation and American Comedy, Jazz Freddy was “less about format and more focused on content, style, and dedication to craft.”
“Members made the group their top priority, turning down other jobs and rearranging schedules around Jazz Freddy rehearsals, something that has rarely occurred in a form that for 99 percent of improvisers doesn’t pay any money.”
In an interview with Pam Victor, Brian Stack recalled, “One of my favourite memories of Jazz Freddy involved a recurring scene in which two old men were playing chess in a park, and another unrelated recurring scene that took place in a mediaeval castle. At some point late in the show, a reference was made during the ‘castle’ scene to the ‘strange, checkered landscape’ outside. It became clear that the action in the castle was taking place in the rook on the old men’s chessboard. It was one of those totally organic on-stage discoveries that I’ll never forget, and it still reminds me of why I love improv so much.”
Big In Japan
That same dedication to craft was shared by Toronto long-form legends, Big In Japan. Like Jazz Freddy, their line-up boasted future comedy royalty: Alex Tindal, Sarah Hillier, Julie Dumais Osborne, Bob Banks, Sean Tabares, Sean Magee, Kevin Thom, Adam Cawley, James Gangl, and later Ken Hall, Jess Grant, Alexandra Wylie, Paloma Nunez and Molly Davis.
While different from Jazz Freddy‘s slow comedy style, Big In Japan carved a name for themselves with memorable, experimental ensemble work that was fluid and highly thematic. It was astounding to see so many hilarious and highly intelligent people on stage at once, all pushing boundaries while supporting one another.
Kevin Thom recalls, “I can’t remember how long we rehearsed before we actually played on stage, but it was a few months anyway. We were rehearsing in the ITC studio on Wellington Street. I remember that we did break down the Harold and work on individual pieces of it for very long stretches. We worked on organic openings for months, different kinds of organic edits for more months, etc.
Sometimes we were forbidden from doing things KPR (Kevin Patrick Robbins, Impatient Theatre Company’s Artistic Director and BIJ’s coach) thought we did too often. Specifically, Sarah was forbidden from doing scenes about cats. We were collectively forbidden from shitting on stage. Whenever KPR wasn’t there, we would do all those things as much as possible.”
Adam Cawley said, “I just remember really wanting to be on BIJ. I wasn’t on the original. I joined when I was prob 20, 21? But I remember looking up to them as a team. Once I joined I felt like I’d joined an all star team. At that time there were amazing improvisers around, but not all of them were interested in the Harold. But BIJ felt like some of the best longform players in the city.”
Two sets that will forever be remembered by those who saw them were for the suggestions “Anarchy” and “Misogyny.” According to Kevin Thom, “I remember the Anarchy set really well. That was at the Diesel Playhouse. We were up in the tech booth messing with the lights and sound, pulling props from backstage, breaking chairs, running through the audience. I think the ITC had to pay for the damages we did that night.”
Sarah Hillier recalls, “I had that moment while playing with Big In Japan, the ‘Oh, this is what improv is’ moment. Where it all connected for me and I will never forget that moment on stage. We broke the organic Harold open with Anarchy and the Misogyny set. We let it take us wherever it was gonna take us and didn’t necessarily do a traditional Harold. I feel like we decided to be a part of the improv and not just play it.”
For the Misogyny set, the male members of Big In Japan wouldn’t let the women on stage. Sarah remembers “being in the audience and yelling at everyone so much and somehow it was still improv, because we all completely gave in to it.”
Sean Tabares: “I wasn’t an original member, but I was close. I do remember spending a lot of time on specific concepts, but I feel that was partly because we were sort of figuring it out all together as we went along. The feeling at the time for me was that these ideas were all pretty new to our community, and any visitor or any time we visited someplace was a wealth of new inspiration.
I remember the early days as a time of learning by watching other out-of-town troupes and trying to figure it out on our feet. That’s why we rehearsed so much. A bit like teaching yourself an instrument but with access to a radio once a month or so. Guest instructors and classes abroad were so huge. The Anarchy show period was the first time I felt we were really doing it. The elusive Harold that only shows itself if the players are in the right mindset. Going beyond the rigid structure that started to seem like a cruel joke. That only after mastering this ‘form’ do you get to do the real Harold which is whatever it wants to be. Oh man, I do love this art form.
I forget the suggestion, but I’m also remembering one where the first scene involved a pig mayor, and each scene that followed took place in the stomach of someone in the scene prior. Russian doll stomachs!
I do know that I’ve never rehearsed with an improv troupe as I have with BIJ. Not just in terms of longevity. Density of rehearsals. Over my time with BIJ, I’ve been blessed to play with the best in the business, and the dedication to rehearsal has to be a factor. No coincidence there.”
Kevin Thom added, “We also did a set on the suggestion of ‘Palindrome’ where we started with one thing, did half a set and then started reversing everything until we ended up at the beginning again.
In general, I remember how much I loved playing with BIJ because of how everyone approached and studied improv as a serious art, giving it the respect it deserves, while still leaving room for the chaos and fun that makes it feel so good.”
In conclusion, both of these teams were stacked with talent, but they didn’t just focus on how many shows they had booked. Instead, they put in months of rehearsals, sometimes multiple times a week. When they finally did set foot on stage, they were unscripted but incredibly prepared.
We think Del would have been proud.
For further reading on Jazz Freddy, we highly recommend Matt Fotis’s book and Pam Victor’s blog, My Nephew Is A Poodle.
In Part Three, we’ll explore more ways to think outside the black box in terms of format and show location.