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. “