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Posts tagged long-form Toronto

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

“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.

Image © nobodyssweetheart.com

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