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Posts tagged Second City Toronto

“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

Devon Hyland is one of those annoyingly talented people who acts much older than he is. (Meaning he’s as funny as Don Rickles, but without the receding hairline.) He writes and performs award-winning Fringe plays, plays a mean guitar with his band Fashion Tips, and does improv with The Second City among other things. When he’s not making people laugh, Devon has been known to attend the occasional Blue Jays game.

Photo © Ian Brown

DISCLAIMER:

Firstly, I was asked to write this article about improv. Don’t be getting all uppity because you think I’m not smart enough to be writing articles on anything.

Secondly, I was going to write an article called Shows Not Starting On Time! or Behaving Professionally! or Angry Face Emoticons: A Visualization Of My Views On Toronto Improv!, but I realized that was completely negative thinking.

Improv teaches us to be positive, so instead of telling people what I think is bad, I’m going to focus on the good. That’s why I chose to write this positive list of positive things that I have found to be positive (true) about improv.

1. People Change: You And Your Fellow Improvisers Will Get Better

When I was a younger pup than I am now, I’d sometimes watch performers and write them off. I determined that they were “the performers that they were,” and that I had seen all I needed to see from these people to know how good they would become. They did not have the “It” factor. Because of this, they were simply not destined to be performers.

I imagined they would eventually slip away and I would be left, alone, centre stage, reaping the benefits of being born with the “It” factor. It was only a matter of time.

Now, however, I do not believe that someone cannot obtain this coveted “It” factor.

This is because I’ve been shown over and over that I was wrong in my initial assessments. These performers are funny, I discovered, and I don’t know why! And it’s not just me; they now succeed in entertaining rooms full of varied audience members with ease. These are the same people I thought were never, ever going to become as mysteriously wonderful as I now think they are. And with good reason: they stunk!

They were lacking confidence, quiet, hunched, and non-deliberate in their actions. They literally repelled my eyes. Why couldn’t they realize they weren’t meant to be performers? Why couldn’t they realize that people like me – naturally wonderful people – had more of a right to the stage?

Now I look on and mope as a bubble of beautiful potential (the “It” factor, I’d argue) surrounds their bodies.

With hard work, performers have the power to find the gifts that are hidden within themselves. Maybe barking jokes isn’t your thing. Maybe subtle acting ain’t your forte. You’ll eventually discover what you believe to be your skill set. This skill set is the reason you started improv in the first place, and once you’re confident in it and can show it to your audience, the world’s your oyster.

People do change, and the boring performer you’re watching (or are), has the potential to blow you away (or blow yourself).

2. Somebody’s Probably Enjoying It

The unfortunate reality is this: many audience members do not want to be there. So as an improviser, you’ll often perform a show for crowd of people who:

a) have no interest in improv, or

b) have no interest in you

This is usually demonstrated by eye rolls and yawns. But even though it seems like the whole crowd is against you, I’ve found that there’s more often than not at least one person in the audience who’s enjoying him or herself. There’s no way to know where this quiet, happy peanut is sitting, so why don’t we just pretend he or she is at the back of the room? Play to this person and don’t worry about the naysayers.

And while you’re at it, why not play to someone else at the back of the room, too? Imagine a person you love and want to impress. Maybe it’s your soon-to-be-girlfriend/soon-to-be-wife/soon-to-be husband. Maybe it’s Lorne Michaels. Perform your heart out for that ghost person. Hopefully doing this will bring out a better performance in you, and those dumb yawners will shift their focus to the stage. After all, yawners change.

3. You Can Learn From Anyone

I used to think I was above taking classes from my peers. Ohhow wrong I was! Please don’t believe that just because you have equal or greater experience than someone that they can’t teach you anything. And please don’t disregard somebody’s opinion because you think you’re a better performer than they are.

Because I’ll tell you this: you are not a 100% all-around perfect performer. In at least one instance, I’ll bet these new scrubs have got you beat.

Whether it’s the way they drop puns into medieval references, or the way they paint the stage with more whimsical grace than an a-squiring knight, they have something to teach you. Everyone has something to teach you. There is no person in this world from whom you cannot learn, so take classes often and anywhere.

4. Don’t Wait Your Turn

Apparently I have been younger than everyone else my whole life, because no matter what my age, there’s always someone who pats me on the back and says, “Oh, you’re just a young thing.” I find this more telling of them than it is of me. After all, they’re only stating my age – something of which I should hope I need no reminder. In their case however, they’re pointing out that they see this as important. I do not.

While I’m not advocating that new improvisers should disregard experience as an asset, I would encourage newbies to believe that their experiences will resonate with an audience just as profoundly as those of a seasoned veteran.

It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been on this Earth; you’ve experienced life in an infinite number of unique ways that open-minded audiences are clambering to have shown to them. You’ve also experienced life in so many universally-common ways that crowds will have no problem connecting with you.

Show your audience you’re confident in the connection you have with them, and they will respond positively. You don’t need to wait until you’ve performed 300 shows before you start thinking your improv is worth watching. You are an interesting and funny person now.

Now get up there and let us all bask in your glory, jerkwad.

5. Good Show > Good Improv

I’ve watched improv troupes sink deeper and deeper into a hole of unfunny, boring improv about a thousand times. They’re stuck. The audience knows it, and they know it. What could the non-performing members on the sides be thinking at this point?

“This show is going so badly. I can’t wait for it to end. I’m going to stick on the sidelines of this scene and just ride it out. Eventually we’ll all get through this. Then I’ll grab a beer and think about my wrongdoings.”

Just sweep it. End it. Cut your losses. For your own sake and for the audience’s sake.

Nobody wants to watchfour more minutes of a boring scene so you can show us you’re able to weave your way out of a seemingly-contradictory situation. We won’t appreciate the accomplishment as much as we’ll appreciate laughing. And we want to laugh!

The positive angle on this seemingly-angry rant is this: you do not need to believe that your audience is only interested in “good improv.” They want to have a good time.

While it may be true that some on-looking improvisers will snub their noses at you for contradicting your stage mates, sweeping a struggling scene instead of saving it, breaking the fourth wall and engaging the audience, or pretending to eat what you’ve just said and moving forward as though it never happened (a favourite of mine), there are more people in the crowd who will thank God that they do not have to sit through any more “good improv.”

I’m not advocating that you sell your teammates down the river. I’m advocating for you and your teammates to recognize that the #1 goal in your performance… is a good performance.

Once we recognize something isn’t working, we have a chance to make it out alive. We just need to do something about it, instead of hoping the Improv Gods will respect us for playing nice and riding a terrible scene through to completion. Because they won’t respect you – they’ll be furious with you for boring the heck out of the audience members who aren’t improvisers themselves. This was positive, right?

6. Talk to People You Admire

One of my favourite early experiences in improv was congratulating Marty Adams after one of his first Second City Touring Company shows. He was thrilled. At least, he acted thrilled. He put on a big smile and shook my hand and said “Awww, thanks so much.” I felt great, I’m sure he felt great, everyone felt great. So don’t be afraid to talk to people you respect, unless you hate feeling great.

For a long time I was deathly afraid of talking to people I admired. I used to go and watch the improv sets at Second City, and afterward I would stand outside for a few minutes for the performers to come out. I’d only wait a few minutes because that’s how long my nerves would allow me. After that, I’d scurry back to the subway, thinking to myself, “I’ll never get the confidence to talk to those people and oh how they must think I’m square!”

My advice to shy people is this: engage the performers you respect. If you start a dialogue with a performer you admire, you’re more likely to learn something about why they are such a great performer.

On top of that, people love to be told they’re awesome. Can you name someone who doesn’t like to be told they’re awesome? If so, give him or her this email address: donttellmeimawesome@devonhyland.ca. I would love to talk to this freak. Seriously, that email address works and I would love to talk to this freak.