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Thursday, August 25, 2016

Calgary vs. Toronto Improv

In the two years since I moved from Calgary to Toronto, I’ve thought a lot about the difference between Calgary and Toronto improvisation. There are some funny little differences, like the terms ask for vs. get. Offer/acceptance turs into improv move and the heavily Second City influenced Yes And. There’s also another quirk that separates the two cities. Apparently, and I can vouch because I do this, Calgary improvisers always make a sound when the open a beer onstage. This is not the case in the east.

Aside from these surface level differences, I’d say on a deeper level the Calgary scene favours narrative scenes while Toronto favours funny scenes. In Calgary, trying to be funny is not desirable. You’re coached away from it all the time; to admit that you’re trying to be funny onstage will garner disapproval from most of the improvisers in the room. In Toronto, the funniest people get the jobs and the stage time. So I wouldn’t say it’s overtly coached into young improvisers though neither is it discouraged. Funny is currency in Canada’s largest comedy scene. Which makes sense, to a degree.

When I arrived, my Calgary trained brain immediately judged that this was fundamentally wrong. In Calgary, or at least in the short form scene that dominates the city, story is more important than characters and it is definitely more important than the performer’s desire to be funny. Tell a good story. Remove the ego. Make your partner look good. Set them up for jokes. And ideally if they are doing the same for you your scene is hilarious because it’s incredibly supportive. Funny is merely a side effect of strong narrative work.

In Toronto I hear the phrase: Follow the Funny. It’s something I’d never heard until I came here. And despite my initial aversion to the idea, there is one huge benefit of approaching the work that way. What you’re doing is taking care of the audience, in a sense. They came to laugh. More often than not, the way you get them there is of no consequence. Save the few improv aficionados in the house the words long form, short form, montage or Harold mean nothing. Coming out of a show audiences only care if it was funny or not. That’s the mark of success or failure in their eyes. In Calgary (and elsewhere) we say the audience is king. So by that virtue, shouldn’t we all be trying to deliver really funny shows night after night?

Keith Johnstone identified early on in Calgary’s improv history that people telling jokes was not creating good scenes. I believe that in order to protect the audience he bred that habit out of the Calgary improv community. Trying to be funny was bombing every single time. Before him there was no improv being performed, basically anywhere in Enlgish speaking Canada. He needed to find a product that audiences would enjoy and return to watch more of.

But failure is perhaps the most important tenant of all in improv. It is the only way we learn and grow. The significant risk of failure is part of what makes improv so dynamic. If you can figure out what does not work in front of an audience early in your career, you’re going to get better faster than if you make safer choices. This requires a lot of supportive crowds which luckily exist in the current Toronto community. We don’t have the pressure of building an audience from scratch. 

If audiences are willing to put up with the failure of new performers trying to be funny the payoff is huge. At first the pursuit of funny usually leads to blocking, selfish, bad improv. But with time audiences get to witness the wonderful moment when performers stop trying. Following the funny is the natural evolution of trying to be funny. It happens when experience lets performers relax, listen and zero in on the idea that takes the scene to incredible, hilarious heights. Chris Farley, Mike Meyers and Robin Williams are perfect examples of comedians that mastered this. They are relentless in their pursuit of funny to the sometimes detriment of the story or scene.

When this style of improv hits it’s so good. Everyone in the room can feel it, because everyone is a part of it. It’s fun. It’s cathartic. It’s totally unpretentious. But it’s risky. If the scene isn’t funny and the story isn’t solid than there is nothing for the audience to fall back on. It’s all or nothing.

So, is it possible to synthesize the two styles? I’ve opened a few cans of beer thinking about this. And made the sound every time. Now my approach is kind of a combination of the two philosophies. I actively try and identify what’s funny about a scene but I do that by really focusing on and supporting my partner and the story. Half of me is engaged with the audience and the other half is engaged with my partner. Is this a struggle? Absolutely. Before moving to Toronto I felt I had improv figured out, more or less. But I had only figured out Calgary improv. I was only fluent in the comedy language of one city. The great part about learning a new way of doing things is that is requires me to be 100% present onstage. My short cuts don’t work anymore. I’m growing, which is a great feeling.

As always I welcome feedback and thoughts on this subject. What is the improv style of your city? How does it affect the way you play?

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

2 Workshops and 1 Beer Garden

I’m back in yyc for a few weeks and I want to mention two things.
  1. I’ll be at the Calgary Fringe performing in A NOTORIOUS Beer Garden. It’s basically the most fun you can have at a NOTORIOUS show. It’s outside, there is delicious local beer and NOTORIOUS runs the stage. Last year was amazing. We even performed in a thunderstorm. If you’re in Calgary, come.
  2. Two I’m teaching two intensives on Sunday, Aug. 9: Unforgettable Characters from 2-5pm and Stories Worth Telling from 6-9pm at the Lab (112 16 Ave NW). It’s the only time I’ll be teaching in Calgary for the rest of 2015. I’d love to see you there. I’ve learned so much in the last year in Toronto and I’m excited to bring it all home. Both intensives are $50, but I’m doing 20% off ($80) if you book both together. Email me to confirm your spot. I’m only taking ten students in each.

Unforgettable Characters Intensive

Sunday, August 9 | Time: 2:00 pm – 5:00 pm |Location: The Lab – 112-16th Ave NW Instant characterization is one of the most important skills a character can have. This intensive will provide the tools you need to create believable, dynamic characters on the spot that last until the scene ends. Learn how to identify who the scene what your character can do to get the most out of any situation.

Stories Worth Telling Intensive

Sunday, August 9 | Time: 6:00 pm – 9:00 pm |Location: The Lab – 112-16th Ave NW Within about 15 seconds, the audience can tell if a story is worth watching. This intensive examines what we can do to hook an audience right away, and keep them on the edge of their seat until the fat lady sings. Using longform and shortform narrative approaches, this course will breakdown the art of spontaneous storytelling for improvisers of all levels.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

YYC March Improv Madness

I’m back in Calgary for the month of March producing Fresh Notes: Festival of Musical Comedy. And I gotta say, what an incredible gift it is to come home to such a vibrant improv scene. Having lived in Toronto for the past six months, I have witnessed some incredible performers, formats and tacos. Lest I forget tacos… So coming home I didn’t know how I would feel. Would the improv hold up? Would I get stir crazy with the lack of shows? Rest assured YYC faithful that Calgary, as usual, did not disappoint. March is a packed month, comedy wise. So I thought I’d give everyone a quick rundown of the shows I’m involved in, as well as a few that I’m not.

Fresh Notes: Festival of Musical Comedy

I am so stoked to be producing the innagural year of a brand new, guaranteed-to-be-hilarious-festival. I feel so strongly about this that I need to hyphenate. Anchored by NOTORIOUS, this festival will run four days at three great downtown venues. I’m especially excited about A NOTORIOUS Finale, which will feature a full length NOTORIOUS romp as well as the best of Calgary’s sketch scene at Yuk Yuks. It’s going to be off the hook. And I don’t say that lightly. Check out the festival website for all the details.

The Improv Games: Catching Funds

This event was perhaps my 2014 highlight, improv wise. And it is back in 2015, better than ever on April 4 at 8pm. All of Calgary’s best improv troupes come together to battle it out in a Hunger Games style fundraiser where the audience is truly king. No holds are barred as teams fight for survival, representing their districts with pride and ridiculous costumes. And the food spread last year was to die for…

Kinkonauts Week

Darling of the Calgary indie scene, the Kinkonauts have been producing these mini festivals five or six times a year for the last few. Each week has a different theme and special guest making these shows incredibly brave and unique. If the only improv you know in Calgary is the Loose Moose, you owe it to yourself to check a Kinks show out. I’ll be performing in the Obviously Improv Showcase on Thursday, March 12 at 8pm and in the Mixtape show on Saturday, March 14 at 10pm.


Rebbaca Northran is back with another show which is getting its world premiere run in Calgary. Blind Date and Legend Has It are two incredible shows and I’ve no doubt this one will follow suit. I have nothing to do with this show, but if Rebbecca is attached to a project you usually can’t go wrong.

Improv Macbeth

Doing Improv Hamlet was the most fun I have ever had onstage. Period. After more than a year’s hiatus, the Improv Guild is back with the Scottish play completely improvised. If it is anything like Hamlet it will be worth checking out. Again, I’m not involved in this project. But it is a rare chance to see a true blend of theatre and improv.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Playing with New Improvisers

Since moving to Toronto, I have been immersed in the city’s culture of improvisation. As a new member to the community, I’ve been playing in a lot of Micetro shows at Bad Dog. This means that I’ve played with many improvisers who have had little, or no experience in the art form. One of the beautiful things about Micetro, which is well understood by the lovely Gavin Williams who facilitates it, is that anyone can and should be picked for the show. You just need to show up and have the guts to raise your hand when the director asks: “Who is interested in playing tonight?” No previous experience required.

So how does it change improv when your scene partner has less experience than you?

Well, I believe that it doesn’t.

Should you compensate for their lack of skill, make sure you lead the scene in the right direction and generate most of the content to take the pressure off them?

I don’t believe you should.

Let me illustrate by example. A few weeks ago a man named Andres came and did a micetro at Bad Dog. His family have a very popular and funny vine account at ehbeefamily. But he had never done improv in his life. Immediately I thought: how can I take care of this guy? He must be kind of terrified. He was taking a risk; he might fail in front of people. Luckily for him, if you’re failing at improv you are doing it right. But he didn’t know that.

So how do you make a complete beginner feel comfortable making up stories and jokes on the spot? Is it possible to distill improv fundamentals down to ten words of wisdom overtop the music when the lights are down? Well, I tried. I gave Andres two pieces of advice. This first was to be agreeable. Agree with everything your partner says in a positive way. The second occurred when the lights were down before a one minute scene we did together. I simply guided him to the front of the stage and told him this is where we should do the scene.

Each counsel was off the cuff. But upon reflection they both make sense. Basically I tried to convey my two biggest improv values: Say yes and be brave. We began the scene. Now the game changes. New players tend to block, try and be funny and stop listening to their partner. Luckily, Andres had great instincts. As I mentioned, his vine is great. He understood comedic timing innately. But he still fell into the usual improv traps a bit: saying no to ideas, trying to be funny. My approach was simply to set up a strong platform and then value everything he said. I let him drive the scene. He was leader. I was an eager follower. I made the first offer and then he made all the rest. I genuinely believed in him. I tried to play with him the same way with him that I would with any skilled improviser.

How was the scene in the end? Not bad. There were funny moments. I was proud of our work. It wasn’t improv brilliance, but the audience was with us the whole way through.

Andres had a great first improv show. He didn’t win micetro; neither did I. But he proved to me that zero experience and a great attitude can be a wonderful combination, so long as the rest of us with more experience are willing to take care of our new colleagues. Because when the lights are up and the audience is in the house, all improvisers are equal. You sink or swim together. Every improviser is a star if their partner has the capacity to make them shine.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Calgary Musical Improv and Fresh Meeting on Dec. 6

I'm going to be in Calgary for a couple of days in December. So, on Saturday Dec. 6 from 2-3:30pm I'll be holding a drop in Musical Improv Workshop. It will be $20 and a lot of fun if you can join.

As well, from 3:30 to 4:00 I'm going to be holding an information meeting about Fresh: A Musical Improv Festival that NOTORIOUS is going to run in March. That part is of course free. So please come for one or ideally both. Maybe a troupe will even form out of the drop in. Anything could happen...

Both will take place at The Lab (Kinkonauts Trianing Centre) located at 112 16 Ave NW.

Please email me if you'd like to join either one!

Saturday, November 8, 2014

NOTORIOUS East Coast-ish update

I’m excited to announce an upcoming NOTORIOUS show Sat. Nov. 22 at Comedy Bar. Critics have literally said nothing about it. So we’re sitting at completely neutral public opinion about it. Which is pretty good in Toronto I hear.

Also, NOTORIOUS launched a website. Which is pretty dope.

Annnnnd we filmed our last show all together in Calgary. Which you can now see if you missed. Or if you were there you can watch it like a live concert you went to and bought the DVD of said concert afterwards online. Except its free.

Thoughts from Side Stage

Earlier this week I performed in a show at Bad Dog Theatre. It was a test format with many lovely performers. Two improv concepts struck me during the show. And it’s been a while since I’ve posted. Time to share.

Improv is a delicate business.

It’s taken me a long time to realize it. Maybe even until last night. I was sitting side stage watching a scene and I kept on noticing that the best moments were when something small shifted: an expression changed on a character’s face or a single word escapes their lips. The more extreme choices, my bread and butter as a younger improviser, did not lead to satisfying improv. They kind of felt like blowing your wad onstage. Afterwards, there was not much left.

It really comes down to listening: being so in tune with your partner that what they do really affects you. The audience is craving authenticity. That’s why they chose improv. They want to see people really experiencing each other, sometimes comically, sometimes tenderly and sometimes manically. Improv is authentic because we have no scripts. It’s our words, our characters and our choices. No one is to blame and no one is there to receive credit, except ourselves, when it goes so right or so wrong.

This delicacy requires patience and trust. They go hand in hand. You must trust that your partner will give you something amazing. If you genuinely feel this way, they will. Every time. No matter how much or how little improv they may have done. Because the beauty of improvised theatre is that every offer is a great offer, if it is greatly valued. Patti Stiles taught me this and it remains one of my great personal improv truths. Patience comes into play because sometimes you don’t have the perfect response at the tip of your tongue. Sometimes words are not the appropriate response. Sometimes it’s not your turn to talk. Often it’s not your turn to talk. So be brave enough to slow down the scene. Breath. Pause. Plus, silence after words instantly makes what you just said profound. Try it. I dare you.

My favourite improvisers have a soft touch. They gently but purposefully colour the scene and elicit strong work from their partner every time. I can’t wait to start exploring this more in my own craft.

The second concept that struck me today is also related to the idea of valuing offers.

Value offers. But keep the premise plausible.

I’ve seen the opposite a lot lately, but really it’s always been present in improv.

Example 1: Two performers are doing a scene. They are on a date. They clearly like each other. One of them gets down on one knee and proposes to the other. The person being proposed to says something like: “I just met you yesterday. This is crazy…”

Example Two: “Hey Lou. You see that hole in the ground?” “YOU MEAN THE ONE FROM THE ALIEN SPACESHIP?”

Both offers are clearly being accepted. Yes And… is happening. But the truth of the scene is being sacrificed for a joke. When I watch improv, I want to suspend my disbelief. But these two examples make it hard to do that. Alternatively, if you keep the scene grounded in reality so many more possibilities present themselves. And the payoff is way bigger for the audience. Value the offer. But keep the premise plausible.

Edit One: Two performers are doing a scene. They are on a date. They clearly like ech other. One of them gets down on one knee and proposes to the other. The person being proposed to says: “This is the place you took me to on our first date!” “Of course. I think the chocolate fondue is why you came home with me that night...” Pause. “And this ring. Wow. You know I love you right…”

Edit Two: “Hey Lou. You see that hole in the ground?” “I told you I’d repair it uncle and I will.”

In both edits the offer is valued but nothing gets out of control. The next brick has been laid in the wall. And you’ll build it all the way up with your partner until it comes crashing down on you both. There’s nothing wrong with a little absurdity in a scene. But you need to get there gradually if you want the audience to stay with you. Basically, you gotta keep it real.