The Mane Attraction

2014 January 30
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photo:Cassie Molyneux

Stephen Kent knew a good thing when he saw it.

He’d been dipping back into improv after a few years out of the scene (and out of performing at all, really, in the aftermath of two seasons as part of  the Stratford Festival), doing shows with The Guild in Calgary, having fun, and realigning himself to the stage.

But something was missing, something that revealed itself to Kent in 2012, when he spent a week at Rapid Fire Theatre’s Improvaganza, as part of the festival ensemble. There, he got a sense of the troupe-based improv that was in vouge elsewhere in the country but had been invisible back home in Cowtown. It resonated with him.

“Coming up to Ganza, seeing what people were doing, and the kind of improv that was happening, and especially hearing about what was happening in Vancouver,” Kent says. “I wanted to bring that indie, improv-groups-as-bands vibe to Calgary. There wasn’t a big, younger indie vibe here. I’m in no way young, but I wanted to bring that sort of energy, something different, to Calgary.”

His current troupe, the grammar-defiant One Lions, was born there, at least in basic idea. “Ganza got my brain whirring with possibilities,” he recalls. “Who could I do a show with? What did I want to do?”

Kent knew Covy Holland, a fellow Calgarian, was relatively new to improv, but harboured a similar sense of ambition.

“He was up at Ganza doing a bunch of public workshops, and just seeing whatever shows he could,” Kent says. “And I’ve taught some classes with him, and I knew he was super keen and passionate about improv, and was really funny. And it was basically a shot in the dark to say, ‘hey, do you want to do this thing with me?’

The pair began jamming, and a loose structure emerged: One Lions would do a harold of sorts, five scenes—a long one, a short game, a long one, a short game, a long one to close it out—the transitions between each paired with the removal of a layer of clothing (ladies and gentlemen, please restrain yourselves). The form’s adjusted itself somewhat since then.

“I wanted each article of clothing that we took off, we got closer and closer to the nerve-centre of the story, and it got more raw and more emotional,” Kent says. “And this year, we’ve cut out these two ‘let’s take a break’ sort of harold-style games. Now, it’s just a matter of the two of us coming on stage; we could do that first scene for 45 minutes, if things were really cooking, and we were finding a lot of stuff, or we could do 10 scenes, each demarcated by the taking off of a piece of clothing, the idea being it’s rawer and more emotional as we descend towards the ending.”

(Kent notes that no One Lions show has brought either himself nor Holland to nudity. Yet, anyways: “If we do that many scenes in a 45 minute show,” he clarifies. “we’ll go there, and we’re not afraid of doing so.”)

One Lions’ emergence was well-timed: in 2012, Calgary was a Cultural Capital of Canada, meaning there was surplus grant money available for all sorts of arts start-ups. the group applied for and received a grant large enough to give them a season of shows that didn’t involve worrying about funding venues.

“We didn’t have to get 40-50 people a show; we could do it for 10 people, or our wives and girlfriends, and it would still be fine,” he says. “So. It was really neat.”

Now, while still its own disctinct form/show, One Lions has merged with Calgary’s Kinkonauts. Together, the two troupes are offering Calgary a long-form improv home in among the shorter fare. And back in September, One Lions got to introduce itself to the Vancouver, troupe-based scene that inspired it, with a showcase at the Vancouver International Improv Festival.

“Both Covy and I wanted to spend the first year in Calgary, working on the show, and doing it in this community where we felt comfortable,” Kent explains, “But we knew, after the first year, that we wanted to take it on the road, ’cause we were really happy with what we were exploring, and what was happening.

“We were nervous about [going to Vancouver], because it’s the first chance to do our thing in front of the Canadian Improv community. And you don’t want to have a crappy show in that context. And the community is great. It was the biggest crowd we’ve ever done a show for. We’ve kind of just rode that energy—we did what we do. “

Pulp and Paper

2013 November 15
by Tom Hill

An Improvised Quentin TarantinoDave Morris, Paper Street Theatre, and improvisation’s great expectations


As part a panel discussion at the 2008 Vancouver International Improv Festival, the question was asked: what do we do to grow improv audiences in North America?

Former Artistic Director of Rapid Fire Theatre and current AD of Dad’s Garage Theater, Kevin Gillese suggested that we stop people from doing so many bad improv shows.

His point remains relevant. With improv still relatively young as an art form, the majority of the entertainment-consuming public in North America still hasn’t seen a live improv show. The form doesn’t have a sufficiently universal reputation to challenge the expectation a bad show establishes in a new audience’s mind. In other words, if a half-baked improv show is your first experience with it, that greater consciousness of the potential of the medium isn’t there for you, and you might reasonably avoid seeing the Crumbs, The Big City Improv Festival, or the Sunday Service. A half hour of improvised dick jokes is enough for a lifetime, says hypothetical you.

Improvisers have to try and educate the audiences they perform for, and in that, Paper Street Theatre Artistic Director Dave Morris is as focused on audience expectations as anyone in improvisation. Maybe more. Having moved to Victoria, BC five years ago to settle in as a performer and teacher in that community, he found himself immersed in a city that had little in the way of improv experience, classes, or ready-made fans.

Daunting though it was, Morris notes that working to foster an improv scene in a relatively new market was a welcome opportunity to manage his burgeoning audience’s expectations.  “In some ways it’s nice, because you can kind of throw away these preconceived improv expectations from the audience,” he says. “They don’t come to the show expecting Vancouver TheatreSports™-style comedy and they don’t come to the show expecting the Sunday Service.”


For Morris, managing those expectations is what motivated the creation of shows that are, to put it bluntly, easy to explain. He and the Paper Street Theatre ensemble have spent two seasons delivering shows you can sell in a sentence. Most recently, they presented An Improvised Quentin Tarantino at the 2013 Victoria Fringe, parodying Pulp Fiction’s iconic poster and telling stories filled with the content you’d recognize in Pulp or Reservoir Dogs.

The move to more accessible fare comes after years of Morris producing his own solo improv shows as part of his “Dave Morris Is A” series. While critically well received (2011’s Photo Booth won the Pick of the Fringe Award), his shows were a mouthful to pitch to potential Fringe-goers.

“I would say, ‘It’s an improvised Quentin Tarantino’ and they would go, ‘Oh great, I can’t wait to see it,’” Morris explains. “As opposed to ‘I’m doing a show called Photo Booth, it’s a one-man improv show where I take four suggestions from the audience and sort of…weave them together.’

Paper Street’s new approach has led to box office success. The company enjoyed a sold-out run at the Victoria Event Centre as part of the Victoria Fringe, winning the Overall Audience Choice Award for Tarantino. They have also consistently packed houses at Intrepid Theatre Club, where they produce a season of shows that run for a weekend each.

Having more butts in more seats does suggest Paper Street is realizing one of Morris’ other goals: sharing improv with an audience of non-improvisers.

“I’m really trying with Paper Street to not target improvisers but to target audience—just regular people who like theatre,” he says.

Producing fun, accessible material remains a focus for Morris and Paper Street. The company’s 2012-2013 season featured shows around the works of literary figures like Jane Austen and H.P. Lovecraft. And the company—whose name is, appropriately enough, a reference to Fight Club—is venturing into the film world this season, with an improvised John Hughes show coming in December.

As Paper Street grows, teaching classes and adding ensemble members, Morris foresees the company embarking on work that aligns with their history of telling stories theatrically, but without the pop culture hook.

“I’d like us to eventually just start doing our own theatre shows. Like pick a theme or a mood or just an idea for a show, like ‘babies,’ and do a show about babies, but still keep this history of doing theatre,” he says.

No surprise there. Even as Paper Street rides their recent success into their new season, you can count and Morris and company to continue to challenge, twist and most of all leverage what’s expected of them.

You can find more information about Paper Street Theatre at paperstreettheatre.ca

20 years in an Instant

2013 October 18
by Paul Blinov

It’s easy to settle for less, artistically or otherwise. But talk with artistic director Alistair Cook about Instant Theatre and its 20 years spent offering alternative improv to Vancouver and beyond, and the picture that emerges is one of a dedication to finely realized DIY, a steadfast commitment to aligning the improv company in his head with the one he has performing shows on a weekly basis.

“I think we would love to be seen as Vancouver’s alternative improv giant,” he says. Talking to the guy, you get the sense it isn’t such a pipe dream.

Instant’s formative days were the early 90s: a few improv groups that graduated out of the high school Canadian Improv Games formed the company’s bedrock cast. Shows began at what was then Vancouver’s Globe Theatre, before the company moved over to The Vancouver Little Theatre, where Cook began managing the space. It was the era of grunge—Cook recalls a lot of flannel—and a counterculture sensibility was reflected in city’s alternative comedy scene, then beginning to bubble up after stand-up’s ’80s heyday began to wane.

“When you’re 20ish, you think there’s nothing going on other than what you’re doing,” Cook says. “So you end up creating a lot of stuff. And I think that’s where the waves upon waves upon waves of the alternative comedy scene that just came out of nowhere comes from. At that time, we had a wonderful organization, Vancouver TheatreSports, and many of us had trained there; they did 5-6 shows a week, and we ran our show— spoofs of the X-Files, and TheatreSports-like shows. Short form games.”

At the time, Instant’s improv steeped in the ideas of Keith Johnstone, with whom Cook had trained. Near the end of the ’90s, Cook and co began to work with Randy Dixon of Unexpected Productions of Seattle, who introduced the company to Del Close’s ideas; perhaps most importantly, to the Harold, which Instant latched on to. Partly, it helped differentiate them from the other local groups around in the era.

“No-one else in town was doing longform at the time,” Cook says. “Although some people say they were—it comes back to ‘what is long-form?’ So let’s say Harold-style or montage-style shows.”

From there, the company went deeper into exploring that aspect of improv, eventually switching over to almost exclusively longform-style showcases. Around the turn of the milleinium came Instant Theatre’s international improv tournament, VIIF, which has now become one of Canada’s flagship gatherings of improvisers.

“We had such a wonderful family of improvisers across Canada working with the Canadian Improv Games, that the idea of bring all those people together in Vancouver, working with Randy, working with other instructors, and producing great longform shows was absolutely something that had to happen. So we made it happen, and I ran the theatre, and we ran a full week of festivals,” he says. “It was a gangbuster success.”

There were plans to have Close himself come up and work with the ensemble at the 2000 festival, though the man’s declining health—he passed away a few months before the festival happened that year—prevented it. Close was, even in his decline, idiosyncratic. “He wrote me a letter saying ‘Sorry I’m going to die,’” Cook recalls.

There were a few years where Instant was on the backburner: after some tumultuous personal times, Cook scaled back the company’s scope, and took an associate artistic job at Vancouver TheatreSports. After a few years there, his focus returned to Instant. In 2011 he gave the his own company a new home: The Instant Shop. There’s a cool T-shirt shop/foosball emporium in the front, and a pivotal improv training centre in the back.

“I started thinking about how the general public reflects on improvisation, and what they like,” he says. “And the combination of Johnstonian and Del Close styles can produce wonderful works. So given the opportunity at Vancouver TheatreSports, then wanting to do much, much more of it, I started my own studio to teach. And now, I guess we’re three years later: we have weekly shows, a season, a festival, a sketch fest starting, and the Young and Spontaneous festival.”

(The public’s clearly responded as well: comedy website Splitsider recently dubbed the Shop the best place in Vancouver to take comedy classes. )

Instant’s approaching 20th season sees rich spread of shows and showcases: in addition to its alternating weekly shows of Cagematch and Streetfight (they’re each every other Sunday) come a season of special stylized shows, all of them happening at the Havana Theatre.

The first—opening this weekend, if you’re reading this in October, 2013 (sorry, future readers)—is The Drive-In Double Feature, directed by Cook and attuned to the halloween atmosphere of the season: part slasher film remake, party Euro creature film. In November comes Cornelius Fontaine’s Secret Family, bringing the improv compnay into a new, risky territory: sketch comedy. It’ll feature a mix of improv and written works performed both live and screened on video, helmed by Canadian Comedy Award-winner Peter Carlone (of Fringe darlings Peter N’ Chris).

December will ring  The 12 Days of Kickin’ Ass, a made-up decking of halls that borrows as much from Die Hard idea of season’s greetings as that of the Christmas Carol’s. February will being “improvised dystopian rock musical” dubbed Thunder Awesome and the Lightning Fantastic, which will find Instant making up a musical as they go. And to close the season out in March, will come Professor Mendelson and His Mind. The first half sees the troupe using the first five pages of a script to set the stage, throwing it away when it runs out and improvising the rest; the second, led by the indestructible Warren Bates, recalling his memoirs with the help of the audience.

It’s an ambitious spread of shows to tackle, but Cook’s confident in the crew he’s assembled around him to see it through. And moreso, to match the vision of Instant he’s always had percolating in his mind.

“We are known as a place for emerging improvisers,” Cook says. “I’m looking forward to the next step, which is a place known for its fantastic professional improvisers doing amazing shows. I think we were, for many years; I think we have a new cast that’s amazing, and I can’t wait to show the city.”

Joy to the Outside World

2013 October 2
by Tom Hill

The members of Outside Joke say the word “joy” a lot.

Joy inspires the playful, inventive musicals they improvise in Winnipeg and around Canada.  They precede every show with a dance party onstage.  In fact, the joy they find singing and playing together is what led them to try improvising musicals in the first place.

It’s charming as all hell, both in chatting with them and onstage.

“I think that’s part of what makes our show successful,” says one of Outside Joke’s six members, Toby Hughes.  “Audiences are willing to forgive gaps in logic or bad rhymes or whatever else because they can see that we’re really having a good time coming up with this stuff together.”

Outside Joke creates shows most groups would be afraid to attempt.  Each hour-long set involves interwoven storylines, many-part harmonies, and at least a couple particularly ambitious numbers featuring the entire cast.

While the cast has spent significant periods studying the structures of classic Disney and Broadway musicals, theirs are anything but traditional.  Shows regularly feature imaginative, perverse characters, twists on archetypal story arcs, and game-filled explorations of tangential, joke-filled storylines.

“It’s not Oklahoma where everything turns out great,” says one of Outside Joke’s three female members, Jane Testar.  “Everything does turn out great, but in a really bizarre way because we do these bizarre storylines—like a monkey on the moon—and still make it make sense.”

“An Outside Joke show is like a surprise birthday party that you actually want someone to throw you,” the other lady, RobYn Slade, adds. “It’s a little bit wild, but you’re just in the perfect mood for it.  And everything gets taken care of, so you don’t have to worry about clean up, we’ll do it for you.”

This unique dynamic sees the group to leverage the conventions of musicals as tools to craft the stories they’re telling, rather than as the direct inspiration for the stories themselves.  The result is a show that combines the wild excitement of a good improv show with the pageantry and spectacle of a full-blown musical.

“We set playful goals and playful boundaries for ourselves now as opposed to being very married to the format,” Slade says.

After spending years of performing more traditional, non-musical long form shows, the core group of Hughes, Testar, Slade, Chadd Henderson, Andrea del Campo, and Leif Ingebrigtsen gravitated towards the sheer fun they had making up songs offstage.

“We started singing random songs in our shows and then in our fifth year anniversary we sort of inadvertently did a full musical,” Hughes says, “which was just phenomenal.”

Ingebrigtsen has made Outside Joke’s full-time commitment to musicals possible, offering a rare combination of improv experience and musical acumen that allows him to both lead and follow the group from the chair/captain’s seat behind his piano.

Building from their revelatory fifth year, the group has blossomed in a Winnipeg comedy scene that has seen them earn rave reviews at Fringes, showcase at festivals around Canada, and enjoy many a sell out.

Outside Joke is entering their second season at the Gas Station Arts Centre, during which they will produce five shows with special guests The Crumbs, Hot Thespian Action and Toronto’s Kirsten Rasmussen.

All independent creative professionals in their own right, the group’s six members make professionalism a priority in all their shows. “We’re not just doing a season of goofy little make-em-ups to get some beer money,” says Hughes.

Ten years on and Outside Joke’s joy hasn’t faded a bit.  Ask any of its constituent members what keeps them going, and hear an answer like Hughes’: “being onstage with some of your best pals for ten years, and being completely on the same page, and laughing at each other’s jokes, it’s awesome.”

Shoot from the Hip

2013 September 10
by Paul Blinov

Hip.Bang! take their playful absurdism on the road

On paper, looks like a written-down sound effect. Reading it evokes an explosion in abstract: fun combustion, or maybe more a sort-of propulsive celebration. But whatever your take on Hip.Bang!, the Vancouver-based improv duo of Tom Hill and Devin Mackenzie do their best to earn the abstract mischief their name conjures up.

“The name came from wanting to stay away from anything literal, and instead try and replicate the absurd fun we have onstage,” Hill explains. “So it is not meant to be anything about hips or bangs, but rather the sound and energy of saying the name itself. That’s why the punctuation is so key: there’s no space so you just come in hard on the “p.”, don’t take a breath and punch out into “bang!”—which is the sort of absurd explosive energy we imagine to be important to what we’re doing.”

In that doing, the concept of Hip.Bang! involves destabilizing the well-trod territory of a two-man long-form improv show by embracing a decided lack of structure. They start with a sole word, with that one lone suggestion playing key to unlocking whatever follows after, which is often a non-linear romp through characters, situations, call backs and joyful chaos.  A Hip.Bang! show has the air of a cap-gun mexican stand-off: tension and purpose undercut with knowing winks and a pervasive sense of mischief.

“I think we purposely resented the idea of structure and form, and rode this idea of an organic herald, as what we wanted to do,” Mackenzie explains. “To keep it loose and to find form within the show.”

Hill elaborates: “That’s where I think there’s just the most opportunity for discovery. It’s still based on the group mind mood: we could end up doing a really gamey set or a really story-based set, but that’s so much more natural than being like, ‘Oh, well, I really don’t feel like doing prolonged characters in this show, but we have to ’cause that’s what we’re supposed to do.’ The only thing we’re supposed to do is whatever comes out of our minds.”

Hip.Bang! began with a modest alignment: after both joining UBC improv while attending the post-secondary institution, Mackenzie and Hill decided to try going it as a duo in one of the group’s end-of-year tournaments. They’d worked together prior in larger groups, but something about the paring stuck after the festival was over.

“I think we’ve just always loved each other’s ideas,” Hill says. “A willingness to get very absurd, and really treat that with a lot of respect, and to go to the furthest lengths of an idea, just to see how interesting it can get, regardless of anything else.”

That choice, to embrace their own absurdity, has paid off. As Hip.Bang!, the pair now produce a weekly show back home in Vancouver, and they’ve now spent a few summers as venerable road warriors, touring Fringes and comedy festivals all over the continent. When we talk, they’re in separate cities, capitalizing on a tiny break in scheduled shows: Hill’s back in Vancouver, prepping a sketch show for the Edmonton Fringe while Mackenzie’s taking some downtime in Winnipeg. (After that, the pair met up and drove to Detroit Improv Festival before heading to Edmonton. Remaining on the summer tour schedule are stops at Austin, TX’s Out of Bounds Comedy Festival and the Victoria Fringe.)

All that restlessness has garnered both critical acclaim and further opportunities for the duo: an appearance at the San Francisco SketchFest saw Hip.Bang! sign with two agents, a literary agent in Los Angeles, and a booking agent out of NY.

Of course, so much time on the road can also prove trying, but they’ve seem to have managed to manage. Mackenzie, in particular notes, they’ve learned some effective touring wisdom—”Respect the show more than the party”—as well as a growing awareness that their pairing works not just on stage, but off, too.

“You can’t just tour with anyone—you can’t just tour with any group,” he says. “I think it’s pretty unique that Tom and I have been able to do this and stay friends throughout the whole thing. Because it can be bit of a pressure cooker at times. But it’s a pretty humbling experience to be able to do this with one of my best friends.”

Raising up the comic highwire

2013 June 15

 Aaron Pedersen at 3TEN Photo

“Open the article with that: what’s in my mouth?”

The answer was, first, a hair, and nachos shortly after, but as Rapid Fire Theatre’s Amy Shostak sits in a neighbourhood pub just a week away from the opening of Improvaganza—Edmonton’s 11-day alternative comedy festival—the contents of her alimentary canal are ultimately more of a backburner concern: she has bigger, non-literal things to be chewing on. As artistic director of the host company (which, full disclosure, is also my company), Shostak’s the organizational eye of the festival’s comic storm, busy locking in details like flight confirmations, airport rides and, even this close to the festival’s opening, a finalized-finalized lineup.

“I think improvisors are, by nature, in flux: one thing I’ve noticed is it’s hard to to pin ‘em down, hard to get ‘em to book a flight, hard to get ‘em to commit,” Shostak says. “but once they do, they’re usually so excited.”

Excited with good reason: since its establishment back in 2001 under the artistic directorship of Jacob Banigan, Improvaganza’s become one of the anchoring improv festivals in a country already known for good improv. Now in its 13th year, the festival’s growth has been lateral as well as vertical, expanding to include other styles of comedy: what began as a TheatreSports tournament with long-form showcases now includes sketch, a stand-up night, a festival ensemble, and spreads itself out over two venues with concurrent shows (both located within the Citadel Theatre’s four-stage compound).

“In 2008 – 2009, Kevin [Gillese, then-artistic director] started taking the festival in a different direction: we had more video elements and music and stand-up and sketch, and [were] trying to really expand,” Shostak explains. “At that time, Edmonton didn’t have a comedy festival. I think the intention was for Improvaganza to branch out and include more things to fill that gap.”

Now the city sports another, more traditional festival—plainly called Edmonton Comedy Festival—that caters to a broader audience. To Shostak, ‘Ganza’s curation of style, even as it evolves, is what sets it apart.

“I think the key is that it stays alternative: we don’t want to go down a stand-up route that’s traditional comedy club standup,” she explains. “I think it’s supposed to be innovative and interesting, and fit in with the style and feel of the festival.”

With that in mind, this year will feature, as always, a combustive mix of old favourites and new faces: mainstays like Crumbs, Dad’s Garage, The Sunday Service and London, UK’s School of Night will appear alongside the newer likes of Toronto duos the Sufferettes (tagline: “Life is Suffering”) and Dylan Goes Electric. Fringe circuit sketch darlings Peter N’ Chris are also in, as well as two members of Columbia’s physical theatre group Picnic, whom Shostak saw perform while attending a festival in Germany. From Chicago come The Boys, the pairing of two of that city’s improv dynamos, Susan Messing and Rachael Mason. The stand-up headliner this year will be LA’s Moshe Kasher, in addition to sets by Picnicface’s Mark Little and Evany Rosen, all backed by some local talent. And 10-days’ worth of more.

This is Shostak’s fourth Improvaganza as boss. In terms of her own influence on its development, she indicates pushing a more workshop- and collaboration-based approach; not just for the ensemble of guests, but for the younger members of Rapid Fire’s 40-strong cast as well.

“Normally you wouldn’t do an Improvaganza show unless you were a senior performer,” she says. “But I’ve been trying to integrate younger performers doing jam shows, and hosting and judging and that stuff. Because I think that’s like … we’re the hosts. We need to be present, and when we’re backstage, people know who we are. So that’s been important.”

Under her guidance, ‘Ganza has also opened up room for collaboration between its visiting groups, instead of simply offering them the chance to showcase their established structures. In its jam shows, in the festival ensemble workshopping together, in generally letting disparate groups of performers meet and hang out and party together, the festival looks to fuel further performance possibilities down the road.

“I think for a long time, improv was really siloed,” Shostak says. “But now that travel’s been easier, and companies are becoming more established and travel more, improv around North America starts to get more and more similar—which isn’t a bad thing. But I think a focus on working together to create new forms and working together to accelerate the art form is important, instead of just going, ‘We all know how to play TheatreSports and do a harold, and so that’s good enough.’ I think that collaborative element takes us into new places and gives us new ideas and—I dunno, it’s improvised, so the sky’s the limit, so the more we’re elevating, working on new ideas, the better.”

Shostak adds that she’s tried to ensure the most unlikely pairings of guests have a chance to perform together at some point during ‘Ganza.

“I think chaos is part of the point,” she says. “On my end, it’s just trying to put people together where I can’t imagine what this is like. That’s so fun. That’s just the best job ever— to take crazy risks.”

After all, that’s exactly what audiences come to Improvaganza to see: skilled comics attempting an unrepeatable highwire walk of comedy. That struggle, and the surprises it yields, are the point, “In the same way that a circus act is,” Shostak concludes. “People are really emotive in a circus act: ‘I can’t believe they did that!’ or ‘that was so risky!’ And our risk comes from almost humility, or failing, and doing so in front of people. That’s funny. Failure is really funny.”

Improvaganza runs from Wednesday, Jun 19 until Saturday, June 29. Schedule and ticket information are available at rapidfiretheatre.com .

*Featured photo of Amy by: Aaron Pedersen at 3TEN Photo

Weird and Funny: Why Vancouver’s improv is so Jacked right now.

2013 June 12
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by Brent Hirose

Sitting across the table from each other in a bustling neighbourhood coffee shop, Nicole Passmore and Briana Rayner could easily be any couple of friends met together for a chat and caffeine fix. They sit comfortably and are dressed casually, easily bantering back and forth with the relaxed ease of a longstanding friendship. Any of the other patrons in the cafe could be excused for walking by without realizing that these ladies also happen to be one of the funniest comedy duos in town.

Rayner began her improvisation career in Victoria, where she met Instant Theatre’s Alistair Cook while working with a local improv group. Upon moving to Vancouver, she continued working and training with Cook, who had also been working with Passmore, a Vancouver native, for years. Both women would go on to become longstanding members of the Vancouver improv scene,working with various groups including Vancouver Theatre Sports, UBC Improv, The Bobbers Queer Comedy, Lady Benjamins and the Instant Theatre Company. Eventually the two would meet through mutual friends at VTSL, who were attempting to create a super group of funny women, a group that would eventually become Rosa Parks Improv.  While Rosa Parks eventually faded away as its individual members changed cities or moved on to other projects, Rayner and Passmore quickly knew that they had a connection that demanded further collaboration. That collaboration is Virginia Jack.

Virginia Jack is a power duo that has been ripping up the stage in improv and alternative comedy shows all over Vancouver for the past two years, a two woman improv tour-de-force that specializes in quirky, fully fleshed out characters, strong narrative storytelling and sharp, hilarious comedy. “We’re weird.” says Passmore, attempting to describe what makes their partnership work. Rayner quickly agrees, adding “We’re weirdos!” Both ladies nod as Passmore solomny intones “We’re unapologetically weird.” It’s that acceptance and exploration of weirdness that allows the ladies to delve deep into the plethora of characters that drive their form.

For the uninitiated, Virginia Jack’s show concentrates on a single location with no cuts, edits or other time manipulating tricks, where the two improvisors embody a host of characters (“Five to fifty” Passmore says, before smiling to add “But probably more like five to eight”). All of the characters are played by both women, requiring bold physical and vocal transformations as they play out their stories. “We’re inspired by groups like Scratch” they say, referencing the longstanding Edmonton duo “… but nobody out there is doing what we do. ” When asked what sets them apart esthetically, they look to each other before Passmore begins to list off. “Narrative, dark, artsy, character based.” Both ladies smile as she finishes off.  “We’re weird!”

That may not be a bad thing. The Vancouver improv community has no lack of top notch improv ensembles, with weekly shows all over the city on any given day of the week. Even among such company, Rayner and Passmore stand out. Surviving as a duo for two years is no small thing, and they have managed to stay together through continually pushing each other to achieve both their artistic and comedic goals. “I think we both want to be told what we’re bad at.” Rayner says and Passmore is quick to add on.  “We’re both the kind of people who like to get better at what we do. Even though we’re both stubborn and arguably a little bit crazy, we can take that criticism from each other. So if she comes up to me after a show and says I love you, but you fucked this up, I can take that and use it instead of getting upset about that.” That commitment to improvement has paid dividends: not only has Virginia Jack grown its reputation amongst their fellow improvisors, they can now stand tall as the 2013 Cagematch Champions, having defeated a field of twelve other teams in head to head longform competition. Virginia Jack is here to stay.

“We’re weird, we’re funny, we know how to tell a good story.”

When asked about their thoughts on being women in the comedy world, both ladies pause for a moment. Finally Rayner begins to speak “I don’t think it is as hard today as it would have been two or three years ago. I don’t think people care as much” “Do they care or do we care less?” Passmore asks. “I hate that it’s a topic of conversation now, in 2013”. However both admit to some frustration seeing the continuing trend of shows with very few women in the cast. Passmore continues  “I would never want anyone to do me any favors, but that being said, if you have just as many capable women as men, why have more men over women? That bothers me.” However, the duo don’t feel as if they have met any resistance to their own performances. “I don’t think we come across it as much because we are so confident in what we do and we’re pretty tried and true in how we do it. I don’t think people look at us and go ‘what a funny pair of ladies.’”

When asked about future plans for touring, both women almost simultaneously answer “Everywhere!”. Passmore adds “We’re going to Philadelphia for Duo Fest, applying for Portland. Basically, everything on the list, we’d like to go farther and farther out. All the festivals that are good.” Rayner laughs “I like how you had to qualify that.” Improv festivals, you’re on notice.

As we finish our conversation, I ask the pair to share their pitch to any future audiences that still need to be sold on their show. “We’re weird, we’re funny, we know how to tell a good story.” Passmore takes a moment before continuing “That’s all I’ll say to them and hope that they understand we’ll tell and incredible story, with wonderful characters and they’ll probably laugh. And maybe cry.”  If any of the passerbys catch her pitch, perhaps they’re intrigued: They should be. It may not be long before Virginia  Jack can’t escape notice. In fact, it’s probably just a matter of time.

Instant Gratification

2011 January 5
by admin

The Birth of Vancouver’s Instant Shop

It’s unassuming, at least at first—a little storefront on a quieter strip of Vancouver’s East Broadway, painted white inside. Cruising past the cluster of businesses around it, which include a convenience store, cake shop and Ethiopian restaurant, you might not even notice the shop at first. Closer up, it’s a little harder to ignore. In 650A E. Broadway there is, for example, the cool, handmade wooden front counter/bar area. Then there are the rows of t-shirt hangers on one wall. On the opposite wall, the beginnings of a cool, marshland-themed mural by local artist extraordinaire Ehren Salazar. And there’s a foosball table, too. Every once in awhile someone presses their face to the glass, craning for a better look. This is the Instant Shop, and its proprietor Alistair Cook nods at anyone curious enough to peek in.

Cook has been hustling for the last few months to spruce up the place, which he discovered on a walk through the neighbourhood (he lives just around the corner). With nearly twenty years of improv experience under his belt, and a lot of renovation chops built up from remodeling his own home, he saw the storefront as a potential home base for Instant Theatre, the local alternative improv company he’s helmed since 1994.

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The Best and the Borderless: Rapid Fire’s Kevin Gillese leaves Edmonton; joins Atlanta’s Dad’s Garage

2010 February 1
by Tom Hill

Kevin Gillese becomes Artistic Director of Dad's Garage TheatreKevin Gillese is moving away from Edmonton’s Rapid Fire Theatre, the organization he describes as “the best thing that ever happened to me in my whole life,” to take over as Artistic Director of Dad’s Garage Theatre in Atlanta, Georgia.  Yet despite the pressures of getting adjusted to a new city, a new apartment, and a new high pressure job all at once, Gillese is brimming with positivity.   “It’s a cold snap here and it’s -5 degrees Celsius,” Gillese says proudly, “in Edmonton it’s -45 degrees Celsius. I feel like I won the lottery.”

In fact at first blush, Gillese’s move—not to mention the decision of Dad’s Garage to move him—seems like a gamble.  Indeed, plucking an Artistic Director from a Canadian theatre like Rapid Fire and planting him at the helm of a larger company in the American South is, as Gillese himself points out, “crazy. Atlanta is closer to Cuba than Canada.”  Geographically distant though they may be, however, Rapid Fire and Dad’s Garage have a history that reveals a method to the seeming madness, and explains much of the artistic symbiosis that has landed Gillese in his sub-tropical paradise.

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The Vancouver International Improv Festival Presents…the i.ca relaunch!

2009 September 30
by admin

improvisationcaviif2Friends,

As you’ve probably noticed, improvisation.ca is undergoing a much-needed facelift. This is a time of great excitement for us, and a lot of changes are going to be rolled out over the next while.

Since this week is the Vancouver International Improv Festival, which is in part presented by improvisation.ca, we thought it was an appropriate time to see these changes start to take effect. And, since we love circularity, we’d like to announce that the VIIF is proudly presenting our relaunch. We’re going to have an official party and everything very soon, but in the meantime, feel free to bask in our new site, and to visit the Submissions page for information on how you can get involved in i.ca.

Thanks for joining us. We hope to see you at the VIIF shows (if you’re in Vancouver) and we look forward to bringing you a whole bunch of new content and great features in the weeks and months to come.

Take care, and keep reading and improvising!

Sincerely,

improvisation.ca