December 11, 2017 Amy Shostak

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!