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. “

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.”

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 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

Doing it Write

2009 June 16
by admin

Ghost Jail and the smarter side of improv

Thank goodness for strangers, and thank goodness for strange lands. For if not for these things, then Toronto’s Ghost Jail Theatre Company might have never come to be. They may never have become a thriving weekly show and a not-for-profit with designs on Canada-wide domination. They may never have been named after Pac Man.

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Good Sports

2009 January 18
by admin

Vancouver TheatreSports League, past, present and future

Every day, hundreds of Vancouverites walk past the first home of Vancouver TheatreSports League. Some even go in. And some order forty-nine cent hamburgers. Downtown on Thurlow Street once stood the City Stage, the first place that a comedy-loving theatregoer could see TheatreSports in Vancouver proper. And now, it’s a McDonald’s.

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You Can’t Keep a Good Bad Dog Down

2008 October 17
by admin

How Toronto’s Bad Dog Theatre Company beat all the odds

On 138 Danforth Street in Toronto, you will find the home of Bad Dog Theatre Company. Open since 2003, the venue boasts a 60-seat house and two training studios. According to Artistic Director Marcel St. Pierre, however, Bad Dog’s home base has another name altogether. “We lovingly call the theatre ‘The House that Harry Patter Built,’” he says. “That show did keep us going that first year.” Like most young improv companies, Bad Dog was finding its feet, battling for funding and trying to pull in an audience. But there are the normal problems, and then there are the extraordinary ones, and Bad Dog was up against something worthy of Voldemort when SARS broke out in 2003. For a company that was fighting for its then-infant life in a city that was virtually under lockdown, the ubiquitous boy wizard was a gift from the theatre gods. Harry Patter attracted an audience that improv shows rarely see: kids and their parents. And so Bad Dog was born.

Five years on, Bad Dog boasts a schedule most improv companies would die for: an average of five nights of shows per week, sometimes even seven. Many of these are parodies, like Patter—whatever happens to be under the public’s pop culture lens at the moment. Recently, they closed a Battlestar Galactica show, as well as a popular medical drama called Hot Doctors in Love. “My character became a vampire in it,” says St. Pierre, with a laugh. That’s what the kids are thinking about, it would seem. The parody formula is Bad Dog’s key to keeping audiences coming back. “It’s definitely something we borrowed from Vancouver,” St. Pierre says, referring to Vancouver TheatreSports League’s shared parody predilection. To wit: Bad Dog just ran Vancouverite (of Urban Improv, and a recent Toronto transplant) Diana Frances’ A Twisted Christmas Carol. St. Pierre loves the collaboration: “We have a wonderful relationship with those folks [in Vancouver].”

But while parody might have built Bad Dog, it’s not the only thing that sustains it. The company also has a healthy Harold night—run autonomously, St. Pierre points out, by James Gangl and Carmine Lucarelli—and the theatre is Toronto’s flagship TheatreSports venue. Keeping the thirty-year-old art form of TheatreSports fresh and lively is another job that Bad Dog takes seriously. “We let it grow and change,” St. Pierre says. “It’s not the games that keep it relevant. It’s the improvisers themselves.”

It’s this outlook, which is both simple and refreshing, that sustains Bad Dog: the company puts all of its stock in people. The people who are already there, sweating volunteer hours, and the people who might show up on their doorstep tomorrow. St. Pierre puts it this way: “I try to keep the place very open and welcoming to other improv schools of thought and other improvisers. We’re always trying to be a leader, but really maintaining an open-door policy.” St. Pierre is quick to say that he doesn’t see other Toronto groups as being exclusive; it’s just that he wishes the occasional negativity that rolls through the scene didn’t happen. “It doesn’t matter what improv company you support,” he sums up. “The fact that you’re supporting improv is good for everybody.”

To see how they cultivated this faith in humanity, it pays to look back at Bad Dog’s history. The detailed version is available on their website, but essentially, Bad Dog sprung forth from the remains of Toronto TheatreSports (which was sliding out of notice as Second City gained momentum in the ‘90s) and combined with the big ideas of St. Pierre and Kerry Griffin, who visited Chicago’s Annoyance Theatre on the eve of its 10th Anniversary. The visit was eye opening. “It was just this collective of people who all worked together and loved the theatre,” St. Pierre recalls. To him, the key was settling down: if TheatreSports Toronto was going to survive in some capacity, it needed to stop moving. Together with Griffin and Bad Dog’s General Manager and workshop director Ralph MacLeod, he lobbied the board for a theatre, and for the money to lease it. They got the money, and five years later, they’re still here. And while Patter helped, it wasn’t magic that kept Bad Dog’s doors open—it was the people, and their energy.

Going forward, St. Pierre says, the company is hoping to put on their second annual improv summit—a small get-together of improv companies and performers from across the country—next year. They’re also seeking a permanent home, and to put together an actual season. The latter is a goal that St. Pierre acknowledges is difficult for any improv theatre, especially one that is fed by new, up and coming people as well as the ideas floating around in pop culture. Still, if any company can do it, Bad Dog would seem to be it. After all, if you can weather SARS, what can’t you do?

It’s no small feat, to be a thriving, independent improv entity on Second City’s territory, and in one of the most improv-thick cities in the world, to boot. As Bad Dog performer Jan Caruana puts it, “In the Toronto scene, there is so much out there. It’s often hard for a show to find its audience, and it’s impossible to see everything.” But improvisers visiting Bad Dog can be assured that the door to the House That Harry Patter Built is open, and that they will always be welcome. As for St. Pierre, he’s not going anywhere anytime soon—improv is his calling. “I found this journal I’d written in college recently,” he says. “I talked about going and checking out Loose Moose in Calgary and Second City. And I’d completely forgotten about it.” And then twenty-odd years passed, and here he is. “You do what you’re supposed to do, I guess.” i.ca