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.
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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!

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.