Riffs on improv, innovation, and what it means to be curious

CURIOUSER & CURIOUSER

Process Over Product

Sometime last spring, I was wondering about the limitations of theatrical improvisation. I was dreaming about an improv project not bound by time or resources, and not pressured by an immediate audience. I was thinking about how improvisors, with more time, could explore concepts in greater depth, and how with some resources, I could make it practical for an ensemble to prioritize improvising over other things. I was fantasizing about how nice it would be to show up to a rehearsal and really work. I was craving something meaningful, something risky, something a bit impossible. I wanted to experience an open, enduring development process.

Improvisation itself is a process; it is a dialogue between performers and audience. In recent years, I think pressure has been growing on improv organizations to produce more of a polished product, with a guarantee of success. Thus, more and more improv shows appear semi-scripted, and the true essence of spontaneity is diminished. I was thinking about how to counter-act this trend by creating new highly-spontaneous forms in improvisation, and not rushing them to production in front of an audience. I began writing grants, and selecting collaborators.

In the late summer, I received news that my grant to pursue a research and development project called Brio had been approved by The BC Arts Council. While I did not receive funding from Canada Council, apparently my application created a bit of a stir in the jury as to what constitutes theatre, so while more funding would have been nice, I think we can still call that a win. One stipulation of the grant is because it is research focused (rather than production focused) the project cannot make revenue through ticket sales. Without national funding, our plan for a full year process was reduced to 6-months.

Trying out “Monkey Trees” with Meredith Kalaman.

‘Brio’ is defined as the vigour of performance, and over the past four months, I have been working with an ensemble of artists who bring so much vigour and curiosity to their work, it is a pleasure to experience. The Brio ensemble is made up of: Ese Atawo, Travis Bernhardt, Jeff Gladstone, Meredith Hama-Brown, Josephine Hendrick, Tom Hill, and myself. Our project wouldn’t be possible without the support of Chris Ross, and the magical space that is The Dusty Flowershop. We kicked off our process in September by brainstorming what we never see on improv stages, and what we think might be impossible to see. Then we began sharing our own skills within the ensemble through self-led workshops on clown, gender studies, being ourselves on stage, filmmaking, and audience disruptions. We also had the absolute pleasure of having multidisciplinary instructors come in to work with us. Mike Kennard from the clown duo Mump & Smoot worked with us on emotional access, and Meredith Kalaman, an amazing contemporary dancer, lead us through balancing, contact improv and physical connectedness.

Our next phase in this process is continuing to explore and experiment, all the way up to a very casual workshop performance in late January. This performance will be an opportunity to try out some of our theories, concepts, and questions in front of an audience. I can honestly say this process has made me realize how obsessed I am with product. Even though I am pretty comfortable “failing happily”, I certainly like to have a sense of what a show will be like. Is it short or longform? What are the edits? How do we get from point A to point B?

When we finally hit the stage in January, with people in the seats, my goal is to deeply trust my fellow performers. I want to give in to truly not knowing, and trust that all the work we have done in rehearsal will be evident in the show. I dream of a time when improv is not only seen as a comedic medium, but as an art form with no limits on its content. I believe that improv can be funny, but it can also be gut wrenching, truthful, and beautiful.

The Brio ensemble “surfing”.

Stay tuned for more Brio news! In the New Year we’ll have a workshop performance, and we will be offering an open public workshop to share with fellow actors and improvisors, what we learned in our process. And after that? Who knows? More to come, but for now, back to the rehearsal space!

Matching Outfits: The Secret to Improv

Photograph by Chelsea Petrakis. http://www.chelseapetrakis.com/

My mom asked me the other day, “What happened to your blog?”. This confirmed two things:

  1. I haven’t written in far too long. Apologies to you, Dear Reader! It has been a busy summer for this li’l improvisor, and if I am being completely honest, a challenging one. The great news is though, as the autumn leaves fall, I’m back baby!
  2. My MOM reads my blog. Which is pretty much the best thing that has ever happened to me. If my mom wants to read my intellectual ramblings, then heck, I should write them down.

So, here goes!

It just so happened that in July, I was at a festival with a high concentration of fierce, brilliant women improvisors. We’re talking crème-de-la-crème here. And it JUST so happened, at that same festival, one of the headlining acts was detained, and couldn’t make it. And so, a time slot needed to be filled. And it just so happened, the festival directors asked six of these fierce, brilliant women I mentioned before to perform.

It’s rare, an opportunity like this, and it’s pretty much my favourite way to improvise. Find a relatively high-stakes scenario (like performing on the sold-out final night of a festival). Put together a random assemblage of performers who you admire. Decide right before the show what you will attempt to do. Do a couple circle warm ups. There’s not much more you can do to be ready. You don’t have time to worry, days leading up to your show. You don’t have the woulda-shoulda-couldas post-show.

The best part? Improv actually feels spontaneous.

Our show was electric. From the first second we were on stage I felt like I was glowing from the inside out. How could I not be? I was on stage with one of my oldest friends, and the brightest talent, Kirsten Rasmussen. Next to me was one of my creative besties, the ever-rad Ember Konopaki. Then there was Leigh Cameron, who I performed with in a VIIF ensemble, who is brilliant with characters, and a gorgeous weirdo. Oh, and as if that wasn’t mirth enough, Kristen Schier was there too! She’s an absolute beacon of positivity and inspiration. And Laura Doorneweerd from Amsterdam, who has a great mind for form, and a beautiful patience when performing. Basically, you took a bunch of my heroes and put them on stage together. We were also joined by a musician who I had just met, named Kyle, who was also pretty damn special. Oh, and did I mention, we all wore matching outfits and it looked FUCKING GREAT?!

Witches melting. Photograph by Chelsea Petrakis http://www.chelseapetrakis.com/

We had planned to do a form that Kirsten had pitched: alternating matching scenes (where improvisors join the energy of the other characters on stage) with an increasing number of improvisors (first 2, then 3, then 4, 5, 6), with more grounded two-person scenes. By the third beat of the show, which was a very funny group game about basketball players who are constantly losing the ball, we all had jumped in, and the format was OUT THE WINDOW. We were flying beat to beat, completely flowing in agreement, soaking up the whole stage, throwing in a song in the middle of a group game, making some amazing callbacks, and ending on a bookend to the beginning of the show.

When it was all over, I was shocked. The audience also seemed shocked. They stood up for an ovation. I was awash in the whole mystical experience.

How could we have done such a cohesive show? Some of the women hardly knew one another. We didn’t rehearse. We randomly asked for a musician, having no idea how we would use him. And between you and me, our outfits could have matched more… HOW WAS THIS SHOW EVEN POSSIBLE?

We had no idea what would happen. They audience understood that too. And that excitement, when combined with the power of our training, our belief in one another, our commitment to good work, and our trust in the moment gave us an amazing show.  That’s the magic of true spontaneity.

Surfing the Chaord

“Last Wish”: Dave ‘climbing a rope made up his clothes’. Photograph by Patty Varasano. http://www.varasano.de/

This post is derived from a talk I was invited to give at Nerd Nite Vancouver on January 25, 2017. 

Improv as we know (that is, improv for improv’s sake) it is a relatively new art form. When theatrical improvisation started gaining popularity in the 1960s, it was a rather radical concept. The founding voices of modern improvisation are, to me, voices of rebellion, mischief, and innovation. Keith Johnstone (inventor of Theatresports, and Maestro) talks about his experiences watching professional wrestling, and longing to bring the wild energy of those performances back to traditional theatre spaces. Del Close (founder of Improv Olympic, father of long form improvisation) is quoted as saying, “Fall, then figure out what to do on the way down.” Viola Spolin invented Theater Games that allowed people from different cultural backgrounds to express themselves freely, with little theatrical training. To me, all these voices call for more expression, more vulnerability, more curiosity, and more chaos.

Me and Nerd Nite Vancouver. Photograph by Lindsey Elliot. http://lindsaysdiet.com/home

Improvisation is inherently risky because it puts process in front of an audience, rather than a polished, rehearsed product. A scene might fall flat, an actor might freeze, the audience might be uncomfortable. Things seldom go as planned. But herein also lies the joy of improvisation; the moments of true surprise, the triumphs of unlocking a group’s impulses, and the catharsis that occurs when a whole room feels something together.

Over time though, as improv has gained popularity, it has moved further away from being process on stage. As audiences more commonly understand the concept of improvisation (thanks to media like Who’s Line is it Anyway?, and Don’t Think Twice), and as a growing number of actors perform improv, we have are constantly carving out and defining what a improv is. We have expectations about what an improv show is or should be. We practise how to successfully play games, how to teach edits, and how to use common language about improv. Most shows start with a host coming out, asking for three audience suggestions as a warm up, and then bringing out the improvisors. Many word-at-a-time stories end with “The moral of the story is…”. Many open scenes start with a person opening a cupboard and pouring a cup of water. I understand why we teach students how to succeed, but I also wonder if we should be teaching students to experiment more. If an improv show can be anything, than why does a lot of improv around the world look more or less the same?

In one of my courses at Simon Fraser University (Dialogue 701: The Practice of Engagement), we recently talked about the concept of the chaordic space.

Image source: Chaordic Commons http://www.chaordic.org/

‘Chaordic space’ is a term coined by Dee Hock; the founder and former CEO of VISA. The term identifies the intentional blending of qualities of both chaos and order in an organizational process.  In the context of my course, we were talking about how to find the chaordic space build a safe place for generative dialogue; when you are preparing to bring people together, you want to have some structure, but leave space for the unexpected without predetermined outcomes.

I think there is a clear application to improvisation here. When we step on stage to do a show, what are the expectations we put on ourselves as performers, and our audiences? Do we have predetermined outcomes? Do we have an inkling about how the show will likely feel? Order has its place, but if there is too much order in improv, shows can read as safe, boring, fearful, and controlled.

On the other hand, total chaos is… well, chaos. Ideas don’t connect, no patterns are found. It’s hard to tell a story. The reason we play set structures in improvisation is the create a container with which to improvise in. We often get suggestions from the audience to narrow our focus, to provide inspiration. Without any structure, the openness can be stifling.

To work in the chaordic space is a balancing act – it is where the unexpected happens, where the audience is as surprised as the performers. I think in the chaordic space lives improvisation at its best.

So, how can we build improv shows that challenge what is expected of improv? How can we create organizational culture that supports the inherent uncertainty of true risk taking? How can we push ourselves to be less comfortable, and more curious?

Several months ago, I had the pleasure of taking part in a show called Last Wish, directed by the amazing Maja Dekleva Lapajne. I think her theatre company, Kolektiv Narobov from Ljubljana, Slovenia, is one of the most interesting improv companies on the planet, and they are consistently doing challenging work. In thinking about the chaordic space, to me, Last Wish exemplifies a show that existed in teetering space between success and failure, organization and radical freedom.

“Last Wish”: a scene where Daniel is now a chair. Photograph by Patty Varasano. http://www.varasano.de/

The concept of the piece was simple: one microphone in a spotlight, where any of the performers could step up and share what they wished for the show. It could be a wish for a particular improv scene, or a wish for the audience, for fellow actors, or the space. In workshop, Maja helped us establish trust in our ensemble, she fed our curiosity, and trained us to be patient with our choices. The result of her excellent direction was a surprising, chaotic, and wonderful improvised show.

We didn’t take a suggestion, we just agreed to let themes emerge in the first few beats. We did scenes in the dark. We had a conga line. We did scenes in heaven. We endowed audience members as people in our lives we needed to apologize to, and apologized to them. We told a great escape story. We had silent scenes underscored by music. We climbed on each other. We made inside jokes. We cried. We looked behind the curtains. We had a dance party with the audience. Some of it was pretty bad. Some of it was the best improv I have ever done. Some people in the audience thought it was indulgent and hated it. Some others loved it. I think some people were bored. Looking back, it was one of the best creative experiences of my life.

By creating a simple container for the improvised content, we were able to take risks, while trusting we could change the trajectory of the show at any time. Our director urged us to let go of what we thought the show should be, and just let it happen. While on stage, I felt the clear pull of expectations on the show, and felt my fellow ensemble members push to abandon them. Once we got past that, it truly felt like anything could happen. When I came off stage, it felt like I had been caught up in a whimsical wave of impulse.

I want to feel this on stage more often.

What is your scene saying?

Photograph by the amazing Patty Varasano.

A couple years ago, a long-time fan came up to me after an improv show and said she noticed a pattern of behaviour in the stories we were telling. She observed that “being an orphan” was often used as a punchline in our scenes. She then, very gently, suggested that this was problematic because there were likely people with different family structures in the audience, and it was unfair to constantly use orphaned children as the brunt of jokes. I politely listened to her speak, but the whole time I was thinking to myself, “I guess we do mention orphans a lot, but we are clearly talking about orphans in the archetypical Dickensian sense! We aren’t commenting on what it must like to actually be an orphan!”

RED FLAG! My emotional reaction to this legitimate observation was absolute garbage, and it exposed in me the defensive feeling that so many people in positions of power must be feeling these days. Instead of listening empathetically, acknowledging my role in the narrative I was a part of, and working to change it, my gut reaction was to pay lip service to the complaint, while actually dismissing it.

And this is a big problem. After all, there are a lot of words other than “orphan” you could substitute into this all-too-familiar story.

Given the recent events in America, and the fierce ripples being felt here in Canada, I think, as artists, we all must reflect on what our work means. Some people are saying this week’s #BoycottHamilton controversy is a distraction from the real issues happening in the States, but to me, it is a strong reminder of my crucial role as an artist.

The deeper messages of the stories we tell on stage have lasting impact, and therefore we are responsible for them. We make meaning when we improvise, when we make art, when we communicate. Improvisation is part of a dialogue about our world, about ourselves, and about each other.

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Photograph by Patty Varasano.

Improvisors Joe Bill and Mark Sutton from Chicago, talk about how the scene isn’t about fixing a bike, or painting a fence, or taming a lion. The scene is about relationships; it’s about humanity. Kevin MacDonald, from Kids in the Hall, calls this “The About About”. Scenes aren’t about scouts on a camping trip, or businesspeople out for lunch, scenes are commentary on youthful independence, or ruthless corporate culture.

At Rapid Fire Theatre, we talk about “punching up” or “punching down” in our scene work. Punching down is poking fun at a person with little or no societal power (ie. making jokes about homeless people), while punching up is satirizing a person in a position of power (skewering an ignorant dictator, satirizing a billionaire, mocking the patriarchy). Punching up opens a dialogue about an issue and questions the inherent power dynamic in our society, punching down is a cruel, privileged, lazy way to shock people. You can improvise a scene about any topic; it’s what you say about the topic that matters.

Are your scenes about the courage of a child who is silenced, the bravery of a woman protagonist, or how to embrace a different way of life other than your own? Or do your scenes lean on cultural stereotypes, shrug at rape culture, or back away from saying anything important at all?

When I get off stage, I hope that the audience better understand my joys, fears, and curiosities about the world. It’s true that some stories are hyper-political, and others are less-so, but as long as we bring self-awareness to our work, we will tell stories that are deeply important to us.

If we are complacent, safe, and choose to say that theatre is “just for entertainment”, I think we are doing a disservice to our rights and freedoms. We are silencing ourselves from doing work that matters, and we are taking away the audiences’ ability to see themselves reflected on stage.

Our world is in too much danger to perpetuate ignorance. We have to stop making excuses for scenes that punch down, and scenes that reinforce dangerous patterns of behaviour with no consequence. Artistic Directors, instructors, and fellow performers, in a time where the arts may be faced with more censorship than ever before, I urge you to use your voice for good. Inspire. Provoke. Share your passion.

Photographs of the Würzburger Improtheaterfestival by Patty Varasano. “An Artist’s Duty” video with Nina Simone released by her estate.

2 Fast 2 Curious

Improvising as a duo can be exposing, terrifying, and one of the most liberating experiences you will have as an improvisor. You have your partner, yourself, and that’s it.

Rapid Fire Theatre’s Rå Power. Photograph by the amazing Aaron Pedersen. http://www.aaronpedersen.co/

The year was 2006. Capri pants were in. Katie Holmes inexplicably married Tom Cruise. And I formed my first improv duo with a fellow Rapid Fire Theatre improvisor Marc Schulte. We were called Bacon n’ Eggs. Why were we called that? As with most improv troupe names, no one really knows or cares!

Me and Marc Schulte in 2007 at Rapid Fire Theatre. Photograph by Tiffany Panas.

Before my first duo sets, I’d feel sickly nervous before we’d hit the stage. I was petrified of blanking, stressed about embarrassing myself, and not knowing how we were possibly going to pull off a 30 minute set. Normally, when I played Theatresports™ , we’d play short form scenes on teams of four. I was most comfortable being the third or fourth person to enter a scene, and I had no idea how to be on stage longer than three minutes. I was good at supporting other peoples’ ideas, but not super comfortable with investing in my own.

And then Marc and I would start our show. It felt like a free fall. For the first time, I felt out of control. Marc constantly surprised me with his choices, and with the extra space on stage, I even started to surprise myself. Marc constantly had my back, and I had his. There was a true sense of discovery. I didn’t have time to judge my own ideas, or hesitate in the wings, and so, I just had to trust in my ideas.

That’s the real joy of playing in a duo. You push yourselves to places you never thought possible, because you are forced to trust each other wholeheartedly. What you create is the synthesis of your two creatives selves, and the only limit is your curiosity.

So how can you find the right person to form a duo with? First, I’d say, think of all your duo partner options, and think BIG (just because someone is more experienced than you doesn’t necessarily mean they’re not interested in pairing up with you). Who is that person that you admire, and find unpredictable? Maybe it scares you a bit to perform with them? Maybe you’ve done scenes you’ve absolutely loved with them before? There’s a good chance this duo dynamic is worth investigating.

My latest duo is with long time pal Joleen Ballendine of Rapid Fire Theatre. We’ve been performing together in ensembles for years, but never just the two of us. When we decided to form a duo, we talked about how the troupe could serve us. Your duo can create the space you need to work on a particular challenge, or to try out a new form or style. Your duo should inspire you! After all, it’s 50% YOU!

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Rapid Fire Theatre’s Rå Power. Photograph by the amazing Aaron Pedersen. http://www.aaronpedersen.co/

Joleen and I talked about how we both have been performing for most of improv lives with a lot of great duo partners, who happened to be men. We both identified a tendency for our role in these duos to be driving narrative, and grounding scenes. We decided that the most exciting direction for our troupe would be for us to push in the complete opposite direction. We wanted to do a non-narrative show, where we focus on following impulse, however weird, and we just generally, go a bit nuts.

And so, 10 years after my first duo, Rå Power was born. Our show encompasses all the things we love in improv: sometimes we sing, often we dance, we push each other to share truths. There is no structure, which terrifies us both. It’s a place where we get to do the things we don’t often do. And every one of our shows so far has been dark and meta and something I am proud of.
r_power

Want to dip your toe into a duo? Instant Theatre often runs classes specifically around forming a duo and finding your unique dynamic. Plus, Instant’s monthly show Double Down explores spontaneous pairings of improvisors randomly selected to perform their first duo set. Come see for yourself!

Back to School!

Photograph by Ryan Parker for Work of Arts Magazine. Pictured with Adam Rozenhart.

The leaves are changing colour. The air is crisp. Time to buy some new sneakers, sparkly duotangs, and get back to class!

For me, for the first time in nearly 10 years, I am returning to the classroom this week to start a certificate program at Simon Fraser University in Dialogue & Civic Engagement. I have been looking for a way to marry my love of applied improv, and my experience as an engaged (possibly too-engaged) citizen.

I am hoping that this program will push me to further understand how the philosophies behind improvisation can be applied to communication, problem solving, and community leadership. Already, I am loving the readings for the course, which emphasize listening and collaboration, as the way to truly make change.

Over the next two years, I will also be doing a practicum related to community engagement. Right now, I have no idea what that will look like, but I can assure you, it will involve getting people excited about sharing ideas using improv techniques! Wish me luck!

Photograph by Ryan Parker (http://pkphotograph.smugmug.com/), for The University of Alberta’s Work of Arts Magazine. Article: “Arts Leaders in a City of Champions” by Justin Bell.

What’s in a Laugh?

Photograph by Edmonton's Billy Wong.

Photograph by Edmonton’s Billy Wong.

My improv buddies in Edmonton used to joke about LPMs: Laughs per Minute; a fictitious indicator of perceived success. For us, this was a joke, but for many improv companies, audience laughter is what defines a show as good. Without audience laughter, how can we tell if an audience is engaged in the performance?

If you have ever been on stage and received a warm response from the crowd, you probably know that audience feedback feels incredible. Making a huge crowd roar with laughter is one of the best feelings on earth, but laughter is just one of many responses we can solicit as improvisors.

Becoming addicted to laughter as the only and best response from an audience can become problematic when this goal begins to undercut the quality of scene work. An improvisor trying to make the audience laugh is very different from one playing honestly that happens to receive laughter. And, on stage, little is worse than the stanky smell of desperation.

Putting some thought into why audiences laugh can help alleviate some of the pressure to “be funny” as an improvisor, and allow us to trust that reactions will come, as long as we are in the moment.

Recently, in speaking to some students, I came up with four different types of laughter.

Laughter of Discomfort
We laugh when something shocks us. This is nervous, awkward laughter. We all know examples of this we have experienced. Being shocked can be thought provoking, but it can also be a cheap way to get a response.

Laughter of the Intellect
We laugh when something tickles us intellectually. A fun pun, a clever homonym, an impressive rhyme. These laughs often come during punchline games like 99 Blanks, World’s Worst, or Sex with Me. This laugh usually sounds like it is coming from the neck up.

Laughter of Recognition
We laugh when we hear something specific, something we relate to, or something that triggers a memory. In an improv scene, “run down, aquamarine 1986 Toyota Tercel” may get a laugh, whereas “car” may not. We laugh at specific images, and at things we relate to. This can be cathartic, deeper laughter, coming from the gut.

Laughter of Surprise
We laugh when something unexpected happens. If you are playing a scene in line at a grocery store, and you unleash a harrowing, Wilhelm-esque scream out of frustration, you may get a laugh because it is a surprising thing to do in this context. The audience is especially delighted when the improvisor is just as surprised as they are. This kind of laughter happens when improv is at its best, it is magical and involuntary.

All of these types of laughter are valid responses from an audience, but I think variety is the goal. Below is a Ted Talk from Sophie Scott, where she speaks about the difference between involuntary “helpless” laughter, and “posed” social laughter. Next time you are at an improv show, challenge yourself to listen for the laughter. What do you hear?

[ted id=2236]


Photograph by Billy Wong (http://www.semigravity.com/) for Rapid Fire Theatre‘s BONFIRE Festival.

Facing Your Fears

What is the worst that could happen on stage?

There is no limit to how many awful on-stage moments we can dream up when we are standing backstage. Fear and judgement are the evil siblings to joy and trust, and we all have moments before, during or after a show where the whispers of our nagging fears take hold.

“I’ll embarrass myself.”
“People will think I’m dumb.”
“I won’t have anything to say.”
“If I follow my impulse, I will say something offensive.”
“I’ll trip and fall.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about fear, and how we can better use what scares us rather than try and stifle it. As Jan Henderson, a clown teacher at the University of Alberta says, “What you resist will persist.”

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Graham Meyers & Kirsten Rasmussen at VIIF 2013. Photography by Liam Robert.

A few years ago, when I had to opportunity to direct the ensemble at the Vancouver Improv Festival, I took a gamble on a format. I had the whole ensemble write down their on-stage fears. We didn’t workshop it. Half the ensemble would do this mystery format, the other half would do one we spent a whole day working on.

We had huge sheets of paper, with the fears written on them. I reworded all the fears to be active challenges, that could be played.

“I am controlling.”
“I am too loud.”
“I am blank.”
“I ask only questions.”
“I am furniture.”

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In this photo, Ben is playing “I am furniture.” Kareem Badr & Ben Gorodetsky at VIIF 2013. Photography by Liam Robert.

I wrote out about 20 different fears; all of them very different. Performers would step forward, read the fear off their paper, and hold it up so that the audience could read it too. Each person knew their own challenge, but not their scene partner’s. The chances of getting your own fear were low, but not impossible. Then two performers would do a scene together, playing out their challenge. The combinations of fears (“I am too angry” with “I’m annoying”, or “I can’t stop laughing” with “I am robotic”) lead to really bizarre and delightful scenework.

I think this show was successful because:
-It could have utterly failed. The show in itself was scary, and committing to it was a risk.
-The audience was let in; they saw both challenges, and watched the players discover each other’s  in the moment
-The improvisors committed 100%; the scenes did not look like the improv scenes we often watch. Each scene had a completely unique dynamic.

Once a fear is no longer something you are working against, or resisting, it becomes fun to play. Tripping a lot, or mumbling a lot, are great choices, as long as they are choices. The audience knows when we are nervous, or trying to hide something, but if we embrace it and do it more, we can harness our fears for good. And, once we stop resisting something, that feeling will pass, and we can move on to something new.

The gang at the Hideout Theatre in Austin, Texas, recently performed this format, directed by the lovely Roy Janik, at their 47-hour improv marathon. It reminded me how much I loved this experience!  You can read all the great fears that the Austin improvisors wrote down here.

Photographs of the 2013 Vancouver International Improv Festival by Liam Robert Photography.

Finding Fun in Others (aka. Happy Birthday, Kory!)

Kory improvising with an audience member at Rapid Fire’s BONFIRE Festival. Photograph by Billy Wong.

My friend Kory Mathewson made a simple request for this 29th birthday; reflections on “finding fun in others”.

I would like to start this birthday message by telling you about Kory. He is a top tier improvisor with Rapid Fire Theatre in Edmonton, where he tours with a rad show called TedxRFT. He is one of my favourite people in the world to be on stage with because no idea is too ‘out there’, no game is too experimental. His response to my ideas is always, “Let’s do it, Amer!”. Whether it’s an improvised parliamentary-style debate, a musical, or a show full of challenging pulse-edits, Kory is always up for taking a risk on stage.

Kory is a truly gifted improvisor, I think in part because of his broad experience of the world.  He’s not the type of performer who exists in a echo chamber, spending 6 days a week workshopping in a theatre; he’s constantly trying new things, traveling, and learning. He studies computing science, and biomedical engineering. He builds websites, and software, and ROBOTS(!!). He likes rock climbing, cycling, “schvitzing”, making up nasty slang words, and seeking out the best food in the city. He chases weird experiences, and it makes you want to do the same.

Once he invited me to the university for a CT Scan, and a researcher complimented me the symmetry of my brain!
Once we were bike riding and we quietly watched a family of beavers screeching on the riverbank!
Once, in Austin, we stopped at every bar on the way to a party and did 98 whiskey shots!

So, how does this all relate to “Finding Fun in Others”?

Kory and I having a laugh riot at BONFIRE 2014. Photograph by Billy Wong.

Kory is a master at making you feel like a million bucks. When you’re in a conversation with Kory, he immediately digs deeper than “How are you?” or “What’s new?”.  He makes the whole conversation about you by asking so many questions. He says “yeah!” and “absolutely!” non-stop. He wants to talk about you rather than himself. He takes any kernel of information and expands upon it. He can talk to anyone about anything for EVER.

Kory consistently strikes up conversations with strangers in elevators. When I first met him, I wondered, “Why? Why would he do this?” At first, I assumed it wasn’t genuine; he was just teasing the person he was talking to, or he had some other agenda. But I now know that Kory is just that curious. He is legitimately interested in what a random teen is eating for lunch, or where a bartender first tasted a certain liqueur, or why you like the dress you are wearing.

There are so many days in our lives where we feel insignificant, like the little things we do are inconsequential or routine. Kory is a great example of someone who shines a spotlight on little details, and makes you feel like you are the most interesting person in the room.

Kory has taught me to find the fun in others by helping them find the fun in themselves.

Happy birthday, Kor!

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Kory and I wearing matching “BUTT” shirts. Photograph by Marc-Julien Objois. http://marcjulienobjois.com/

Photographs by Billy Wong (http://www.semigravity.com/) and Marc-Julien Objois (http://marcjulienobjois.com).

The Improv Kiss

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Cathrine Frost Andersen & Mats Eldøen of Det Andre Teatret (Oslo, Norway). Photograph by Marc-Julien Objois. http://marcjulienobjois.com/

Physical intimacy is one of our storytelling tools as improvisors. How we touch, or don’t touch, and our proximity to our fellow performers gives the audience cues about the relationship. Indeed, a simple pat on the shoulder, or holding hands with a scene partner, can go a long way in terms of giving texture to the scene. So can a kiss, or a full body hug, or a well-timed, comedy stage-kick to the groin.

Recently, Steve Fisher of NOW in Toronto, wrote The Ins and Outs of On Stage Intimacy, in which he profiles the work of intimacy coach Tonia Sina. She offers that, “Intimacy must be treated as choreography and should never be improvised.” I think she has a point. The article got me thinking… As improvisors, we often make assumptions around safety when it comes to physicality (for example, I would never use fight choreography in an improvised scene, unless the whole cast had the same understanding of the physical vocabulary), so why don’t we do the same when it comes to physical intimacy?

For me, a kiss has often signalled the end of the scene. My scene partner and I embrace, lips touching, and often the lights fade. End of story. For better or worse, this is how I see most kissing in improv used: as a resolution to a scene about some aspect of romantic love. With ensembles I work with regularly, and even experienced improvisors who I don’t work with regularly, I am fine with a quick closed mouth kiss to end a scene, but I acknowledge that not everyone shares my opinion, nor should they.

However, a few months ago, I was in a mono-scene where I was seducing a fellow performer. We were half way through our 40-minute set – it was not the end of the show – and I could feel that we were building to a intimate moment. This choice was in context of the characters and the narrative we were exploring; two married people having a tryst while their spouses were out of the room. The spouses were gone, and it was time to finally show what we had set up.

Now, I trust this performer, on stage and off – we perform together a lot, they’re a dear friend, and a professional actor. But when the moment came to make a move, I was paralyzed. I had cornered myself into a game of chicken, and it was fun for a while, but now I was stuck there. I knew the lights wouldn’t come down if we kissed, because of the constraints of the show (lights were to stay on our whole set), so we’d have to kiss again. And then what? AND THEN WHAT?! My heart was racing, and my gut said no. I pulled away, changed the subject, and when we got off stage, I felt crummy for wimping so hard on his offers and my own.

Working up to this particular performance, which we knew would explore the dark parts of relationships as realistically as possible, we hadn’t made on stage intimacy part of the discussion. I think now if we had a mutual, previously-discussed understanding about physical connection, I think I would have felt more comfortable in the moment. Or maybe not. Either way, I made the right choice for myself in that instant. Even if my choice was because of my own insecurities with my partner or the audience, and it weakened our story overall, it doesn’t matter. We need to start defining behaviours, and our permissions around them, in order for them to be part of our repertoire as an ensemble, regardless of whether these behaviours become part of our shows or not.

Personally, I am guilty of having doled out some kisses on stage without knowing if my scene partner was comfortable with them. Often times, as an afterthought, I have asked, “was that ok?”. The countless instances of sexual harassment that have come to light in recent months in comedy communities across North America have affirmed that my previous approach was less than ideal. It is imperative to start addressing this topic in our performance groups, as well as workshops, proactively, rather than as an afterthought. It all comes down to respecting your fellow performer, and their boundaries, as well as your own. Consent is required.

When I visited the Contemporary Theater Company in Wakefield, RI, one of the young performers approached me before a Maestro show. “Is there anything that is off limits for you, physically?”, he asked. He did so in a way that was gentle, friendly, and not a big deal. It was a learning moment for me. Before a show, as performers, we are backstage for half an hour or more. It only takes two minutes to ask everyone. Maybe someone isn’t comfortable kissing, maybe someone has a back injury, maybe everyone is cool with writhing in a ball. It’s that simple, and it’s worth it. No explanations necessary.

Saying “yes” and accepting offers is one of the key tenets of improvisation, but when it comes to onstage intimacy, you don’t have to do anything that makes you uncomfortable. We need to make onstage intimacy part of the discussion before we hit the stage. Never say “yes” at the expense of your gut.

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Joe Bill & Lee White. Photograph by Marc-Julien Objois. http://marcjulienobjois.com/

A huge thanks to Paul Blinov, a writer and improvisor from Edmonton’s Rapid Fire Theatre, for editing this post for me. Photographs by the rad Marc-Julien Objois (http://marcjulienobjois.com).