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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.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Last Chance to Dance

Calgary I love you so. But I'm moving away in September to Toronto. One of the things I will definitely miss is teaching improv in this city as the students are a constant source of inspiration. Calgary has this amazing blend of improv history as well as a desire to create new, avant guard forms and structures. As such the students I have worked with have been brave, knowledgeable and willing to try pretty much anything. It's simply wonderful.

So, I've decided to do one last round of intensives on Aug. 24. I would love to work with past students one more time as well as newcomers. I design these intensives so that they require no previous experience. But the focus is on personal coaching. So, if you have been around for while I'll make sure to push you.

As usual, I'll be teaching out of the The Lab. It's located at 112 16 Ave NW, Suite 200. I has a King Kong statue climbing up the side. Pretty hardcore. If you're interested in signing up please email me! Each course is $50 for three hours of instruction. But if you sign up for both I'm knocking off 20% and the price will be $80. Learn more, pay less. That's math. Spaces are limited. All the info is below. Hope to see you out!

Musical Improv Intensive

Sunday, August 24 | Time: 2:00 pm – 5:00 pm |Location: The Lab – 112-16th Ave NW
Do you often wish you could break into spontaneous song? Delve into the sweet sounds of musical improv for one day only. You’ll learn fundamentals of rhyming, song structure and musical support. Your singing in the shower is guaranteed to improve upon completion of this workshop. This class often sells out quickly, so confirm your attendance today.

Joyful Failure Intensive

Sunday, August 24 | Time: 10:00 am – 1:00 pm |Location: The Lab – 112-16th Ave NW
Learn the art of joyful failure from someone who has been doing just that onstage since 2001. Experience this engaging class centering on making your partner look good and joyful failure, with a focus on personal coaching. And if you’re not failing, you’re doing it wrong.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

The Joy of Being a Failure

Improvisers are failures. And not just from our parent’s point of view. We are masters of messing it up, falling flat on our faces in front of dozens, or even hundreds of people. I strive for it. It is an essential part of my work onstage. I enjoy it.

But why? Shouldn’t we be striving for excellence, comedy, uproarious applause? Should we not go out there and perform at the height of our skill, training and intelligence? Isn’t that what audiences are paying for, a good no a great show? Shouldn’t we do our best to avoid failure?

Keith Johnstone says that every few scenes you should have a bad one to remind the audience that you’re improvising. I tend to agree though not for the same reasons. Modern audiences, at least in Calgary, pretty well understand what improv is. However, if all the scenes are excellent than there is both extreme pressure to succeed on the performers and also no rest for the audience. Even the most masterfully crafted comedic films have scenes that are so-so, that lack the punch of the best ones. Audiences need a break. The peaks aren’t as high if you remove the valleys.

So how can we accomplish this? I don’t think we have to throw scenes on purpose or plan to do bad work. I think the best way to achieve this is simply to take risks. Each and every scene we have the ability to set ourselves up for failure. And if we do, the upside is huge.

When I perform I like to think of it as jumping off a cliff without a parachute. The sensation of freefalling is exhilarating and the risk of going splat is an incredible motivator. I feel like all my senses are heightened and my awareness of my partners, the room and my own body is augmented. When I take that leap of faith I’m truly in the moment. I’m ready for anything. Sometimes everything goes my way. Incredible unplanned words come out of my mouth and the scene writes itself. Other times I collide with the ground. Hard.

But here’s the next bit. I get up. I keep going. Unlike in true base jumping, no bones are broken by an improv fail. I smile, climb back up to the top of the cliff and jump off again. I don’t apologize to the audience with my face, my body or my words. I don’t beat myself up. Because they get it. This shit is scary. Performing in front of people is terrifying enough as it is, let alone without a single pre-planned line of dialogue. When they buy a ticket they know the risk. That’s why they come. They want to suspend their disbelief, not to absolve you of your improv sins. It takes bravery to fail with grace. If you let the audience know you’re okay with it you will truly win them over and they’ll enjoy it. If you show that that you’re embarrassed or upset, they’ll begin to feel bad for you and you will lose them.

There have been complete shows when I have lived in my head, recycled old jokes, characters and planned every line. When you’ve been improvising as long as I have, you develop cheat codes. But not only is this technique less fun, but I was cheating everyone: the audience and more importantly myself as an artist. Because when we risk failure we grow as performers and as people. If you are never failing you aren’t becoming a better performer. You’re developing habits that are stifling your creativity.

So take that leap of faith your next performance. That negative voice in your head is going to tell you not to take the risk, that you’re going to suck if you try something new and that the audience is going to hate you. That voice exists in all of us. But if you can overcome your own personal naysayer the results could be incredible. Or you could fail. Either way is a win for you and the crowd.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Calgary Improv Newsletter

As of last week there is a brand new Calgary improv newsletter hosted by your one stop shop for YYC improv:

If you want to sign up all the improv in Calgary will come to your inbox. No more searching the internet and getting distracted by cat videos on youtbe.

So check it out. Featured this edition are the amazing Improv Games: Catching Funds event, An Improvised John Hughes and NOTORIOUS: Back to Jail.

Sign up and keep laughing.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

May Class Madness

I've got a few classes coming up that I thought I would let y'all know about. For all of them, I'm partnering with the Kinkonauts and teaching out of their brand new studio space: The Lab. It's located at 112 16 Ave NW, Suite 200. I has a King Kong statue climbing up the side. Pretty hardcore. If you're interested in taking a class but don't want to pay by credit card, please email me!

Sunday Drop Ins - $10

First of all my Sunday Drop-In classes are back! Every week from 1-2:30pm I'll be throwing all sorts of weird and wonderful improv games and exercises your way. No experience necessary. And it's only $10. Cheap and delicious.

Sundays starting April 13.

This one is back by popular demand. I've taught it before and it tends to sell out.

Delve into the sweet sounds of musical improv for one day only. You'll learn fundamentals of rhyming, song structure and musical support with live accompaniment from Ryan Sheedy of NOTORIOUS. Your singing in the shower is guaranteed to improv upon completion of this workshop.

Sunday, May 4 - 1-4pm

Storytelling from Scratch - $125

Improvisers are storytellers. But unlike other performers we make up everything on the spot. Which is incredibly exciting and terrifying.This four week course will explore improv games and scene work alike that put storytelling in the spotlight. Students will learn how to use their own real life experience to create compelling, true, hilarious stories from scratch.

Thursdays May, 1, 8, 22 & 29

For more info or to register for any of these classes please visit the Kinkonauts website.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Calgary Improv Directory

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Calgary is experiencing an improv renaissance. Never before in the 40 year history of the art form in YYC has there been more diverse or exciting improv going on. Some students of mine have been asking for an improv directory and after a month or so of procrastination here it is. I encourage you to go check out one or all these hilarious troupes if you live in Calgary or are looking for a laugh while passing through. And if you have a group that I don’t mention here, please comment and I’ll happily add you to the list! Calgary, you’re just getting funnier and funnier… The asterisk* means I am a regular performer with the troupe.

The Loose Moose Theatre Company*

Over 35 years of history make this one of the longest running improv companies on the planet. They literally helped invent improv as we know it all over the world. It’s pretty special that this company is in our very own backyard. They are the only group in town with two weekly shows both of which a guaranteed great night out. They also offer kids programming throughout the year as well as a special late night showcase slots to senior performers.

The Kinkonauts*

This company is Calgary’s Improv laboratory. They push boundaries, bring in wonderful guests and are Calgary’s pre-eminent long form troupe. Five or six times a year they host these amazing mini-festival weeks where they pack tons of shows into a tiny black box theatre on 16th Ave. NW.

Obviously Improv*

All of the senior performers of the Improv Guild have broken out and founded this exciting new troupe. While it is so new that no one knows what type of improv will be presented by the group, it will be sure to feature the fun, fast-paced comedy that many of its actors are known for. They are going to take short form to the next level. Obviously…

Dirty Laundry

This fully improvised soap opera has kept Calgary laughing for the last fourteen years. Featuring some of Calgary’s funniest actors, as well as one of the most talented musical improvisers in the city in Cam Ascroft, this is unique in that every week the show picks up where it left off last time. Each episode is standalone funny but one big storyline is carried throughout every season. This year the soap is entitled Legal Briefs.


Freestyle Rap. Improv Comedy. It doesn’t get any fresher than Notorious. It is fast paced, in yo’ face comedy with improvised hip hop songs peppered in. They are a ridiculous, high energy comedy experience unlike anything else in the city. They headline a monthly show at Café Koi and perform at Kinkonauts show week.

Attack of the Heart*

This two person troupe features myself and Clare McConnell. The format is a love story improvised in reverse, beginning with a breakup and ending with the first time a couple meets. Sprinkled in are ukulele loves song and a little freestyle rap. We’ve done the show across Europe and Canada.

One Lions

This improvised duo is a house troupe at the Kinkonauts featuring Covy Holland and Stephen Kent. Compelling extended scene work and a playful performance style are why this group has become quite popular over the last year. Every show features a bold, live piano score provided by Eric Nyland.

Past Your Bedtime

Long-time Loose Moose players Andrew Phung and Renee amber are pretty much improv married. They have fabulous chemistry and their duo show is a must see. All their scenes are inspired by true audience stories and fortune cookies which are handed out to all the audience members. This show happens weekly at 10:30pm on Fridays at the Loose Moose.

The Beatdown

Directed Covy Holland, this Kinkonauts house troupe explores Chicago style long form improv. This group is composed of a diverse cross section of performers hailing from different groups all over the city.

Dream Toast

This is another Kinkonauts house troupe led by Owen Chan. They throw all the rules out the window and create interesting stories out of chaos. Group scenes and reactive ensemble play are a hallmark of this group.

U of C Improv

The University of Calgary has been a hotbed of improv since the 1970’s when Keith Johnstone was a professor there. Now, improv is alive and well with U of C Improv offering long and short form troupes a couple of times a month. This group is also graduating some stellar members into the professional scene as of late. If you are a student at U of C now, see them perform or get involved.

MRU Improvination

Mount Royal University has been getting funnier and funnier over the last few years thanks to this group. They do short form performances a few times a year and a definitely worth checking out if you need a break from studying or a good night out.

Théatre à Pic

French improv exists in Calgary. Check it out if you’re French or a Francophile. I’ve performed with them many times and it is a truly unique improv experience.

The Improv Guild

The Improv Guild is not currently offering any shows. Check their website for more information.

Improv Adventure Theatre

I’ve never seen this troupe nor do I know much about them. But they have been performing since September and do monthly shows at Cardel Theatre.


This group of Kinkonauts student perform at every kinko show week. You never know what you’re going to see with STU!

The 404s

It’s self-proclaimed geekprov. They do shows at the Comic Expo and beyond but do not do regular performances.

The Stage Rats

This group was formed by Paul Saxberg, avid improv student and performer. I’ve seen them perform once but don’t know what they are doing nowadays. I believe it is a short form troupe.

I’m sure I’ve missed a troupe or two. But as you can see, the improv scene is alive and well in Calgary. Please email me with any info about other groups I have neglected to mention. Play on YYC!

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Why do Scenework When You Can do Scene-PLAY?

UPDATE: I only have one spot left so please contact me soon if you're hoping to attend!

I am thrilled to be offering a brand new improv workshop called Scene-PLAY coming up in March. I'm partnering with the Kinkonauts, Calgary's Improv Laboratory, who have recently opened up an improv training facility just north of downtown.

The class description is below.


Dive in. Get into trouble. And get out leaving the audience wanting more. Strong scene work is the key to great improv, no matter what style you perform. This course will take a fun look at platforms, narrative structure and instant character development. Because in improv scenes shouldn’t be work. They should be play.

Dates: Thursdays, March 13-April 3
Time: 7:30-9:30pm
Location: Unitarian Church of Calgary, 1703 1st St. NW (It's pretty much the corner of centre and 16th Ave. NW)
Cost: $125. Ask me about my student discount!

To pay online please visit the Kinkonauts website. Otherwise cash or cheque is payable at the first class.

No experience is necessary, just the desire to come out and play. You should sign up! With five friends. Class size will be limited to 14 students max.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Hey Calgary, Learn How to Fail With Me!

I've been teaching drop in improv classes for many years, which I love doing. There is something wonderful about seeing an improv concept click for the first time in a new student. To see someone's eyes light up and really understand the world in a different way is so joyful for me. The best improv workshops encourage playful discovery. That is what I'm passionate about.

So, I've decided to offer a four-week improv intensive starting next week. The details are as follows.

Dates: Tuesdays, January 28 until February 18
Time: 7:30-9:30pm
Location: Unitarian Church of Calgary, 1703 1st St. NW (It's pretty much the corner of centre and 16th Ave. NW)
Cost: $125

No experience necessary. The curriculum will centre around making your partner look good and joyful failure, with a focus on personal coaching. Class size will be limited to 12 students max.

I'm very excited. Hopefully this is the first of many such classes. If you're interested, please send me an email. Registration is first come first serve. It should be a wild ride. And if you're not failing, you're doing it wrong.

The Desire to Be Profound

It has been a long time sine my last post. To be honest, after my first few posts I put a little pressure on myself to be really profound about improv and kind of pysched mysef out of writing new posts. Which is ridiculous. Improv is many things. It is fast, silly and at it's best rife with beautiful failure. It is not precious and should not take itself seriously. At best it is accidentally profound. The intention to be so almost always ruins art in general and certainly doesn't help when a group of actors get onstage and make up stories on the fly.

So, here is something profoundly silly to shake it up a bit.

Colin Mochrie and Brad Sherwood have been touring improv for many years and they have a hilarious game I want to share with everybody. I first came across it on youtube a few months ago and I still can't get enough. It's even been picked up be the Whose Line is It Anway reboot, but this older clip is still my favourite. Enjoy "Sideways Scene."

More thoughts to come soon. And no more profoundness. At least not intentioanlly.