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.

14859824_10208015107561139_508137106643817155_o

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.

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?


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

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!

387693_10150359642971582_411138496_n

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).