deb mcgrath & colin mochrie (with naomi snieckus & matt baram)
Despite the fact that I have been away from Toronto for the last two years, I am continually reading about what is new and what is exciting in the community there. I care about it as ardently as ever; and currently I’m beginning to prepare for my move back to the city. Sometimes change is rapid, but more often it is a gradual one and these can take much longer for people to notice. Recently I came across this poster for The National Theatre of the World’s newest show I Seen You On TV and upon further reflection and investigation I realized that I barely recognize one of the theatre companies that had made me so excited about the future of Canadian theatre four years ago.
What in the World is happening?!
The National Theatre of the World’s debut show, Impromptu Splendor, was born the day after my twenty-fourth birthday. It was a Thursday evening in October at the Comedy Bar, before the Comedy Bar had its bright sign, and it was easy to miss the stairs leading into that magical laughing place on Bloor. Being there to watch the birth of this new company was special; as it is always exciting to be there to witness something truly new emerge into the Canadian Theatre, bursting with potential and optimism. I had only been in Toronto for a year, TWISI was just a year old too, and from that day before Halloween in 2008 until late in the Spring of 2009 you could find me every Thursday at 8:00pm at The Comedy Bar watching Ron Pederson, Kayla Lorette (who would leave the company to pursue her own projects in 2009), Matt Baram and Naomi Snieckus improvise a brand new Canadian play in the style of a different iconic playwright.
Impromptu Splendor was so special for me because I knew of the rarity of this experience. I was not only seeing something that I had never seen done before, but I was seeing something that was rare to do, bold to try- creative and innovative and smart, and in the most deft hands of improvisers who could spin an entire play, in all its depth, complexity and heart, in front of your very eyes! Consistently. Magic. I had a feeling that not only was Impromptu Splendor going to become extremely successful, I also had a nagging hunch that The National Theatre of the World was going to become an important shaping force of the Contemporary Canadian Theatre. I was right. At least, I was initially.
The success was rapid. Spring of 2009 brought Impromptu Splendor to Theatre Passe Muraille, where it would go on to play monthly shows (if haphazardly) for the next three years. They all won Canadian Comedy Awards. They played at Festivals in Toronto and toured to Festivals in Los Angeles, Chicago, Edmonton, Charleston and Halifax. Impromptu Splendor played Off-Broadway. It played in Europe. The National Theatre of the World’s other weekly show, The Carnegie Hall Show– a madcap improvised variety show, played to wildly enthusiastic crowds every Wednesday at the Bread and Circus Theatre and featured guests from Colin Mochrie to Ron Sexsmith. Fiasco Playhouse was born during Summerworks 2010 as a way to use Improv to bring multidisciplinary arts together in an impromptu collaboration- to create something new. At its essence The National Theatre of the World was continually seeking to use the Art of Improvisation to create something new that was theatrical, comedic, heartfelt and unique.
I championed The National Theatre of the World on TWISI because Pederson, Baram and Snieckus were passionately advocating for the Canadian theatre to redefine its perceptions of what Improv can do. In January 2009 Ron Pederson said, “I’m defensive of Improv. I feel like Improv is dismissed as a parlor trick and seen as only a tool to get somewhere, instead of a way to get us all to do something valuable. It needs a mature movement…. Playwrights have the ability to expand our minds, and shouldn’t we be able to do the same thing through Improv? We have to create this something of our own… We can use [Improv] to say what is important to us.” Pederson was continually dedicated to the idea of building a bridge between the comedy and the theatre communities in Toronto by encouraging artists from both to come together and to use improvisation as a tool to create new Canadian plays.
The choice of venue for Impromptu Splendor was always significant (and I know a bit precarious). For the first seven months the show had roots in the comedy community, in the new and rapidly flourishing Comedy Bar, which was ablaze with exciting and innovative new work, troupes and zealous young comedians and their ambitious and perpetual ideas seven days a week. At first Impromptu Splendor brought the theatre and its playwrights into the Comedy Bar, and this was new. It also brought a slew of guests from the Canadian theatre such as Ted Dykstra, Maja Ardal and Daniela Vlaskalic into one of the hubs for comedy in Toronto. As the winter melded into spring the audience for Impromptu Splendor was starting to become a more eclectic mixture that included people who had likely never seen a show at The Tarragon before and those who had likely never been to the Comedy Bar before. There were people who came because it was George F. Walker week and didn’t know much about Improv, and there were people who had never heard of George F. Walker but who knew Improv theory inside and out. There were people who just came to laugh. The bridge that Pederson had been so passionate about creating was starting to be put in place. It helped that Impromptu Splendors happened weekly because the building of momentum was consistent, every week the chosen playwright was different, and initially they were being tried for the first time, so the elements of novelty, danger, freshness and innovation were palpable. Around this time I interviewed Matt Baram and he echoed Pederson’s sentiments about their ability to shape Canadian Theatre history saying, “At our age, we could potentially be the leaders of the theatre community. I think it is our responsibility to be those people, those leaders. We should be pioneers. And I think that people will ultimately look back on Impromptu Splendor as a sort of Movement. As something important. I think it is a Movement.”
The Movement continued as Impromptu Splendor moved to Theatre Passe Muraille, which attracted more audience members from the theatre community and opened up the dialogue within the industry about the place of Improv in the creation of new works of “legitimate” theatre. As the Splendors became monthly endeavors I worried that the momentum for the Impromptu Splendor Movement would begin to lag, but their houses at Theatre Passe Muraille were initially enthusiastic and full and attracted increasing attention from those in the theatre community. I wondered if the move had alienated them from their comedic roots and if the other comedians and improvisers were following them to Queen Street West. Yet, the comedy community was certainly patronizing The Carnegie Hall Show, so the bridge seemed to still be in the process of being realized. Paul Thompson said that Impromptu Splendor seemed to him to be the next generation of what he had started forty years ago at Theatre Passe Muraille, a theatre that brought a new audience into the theatre. Something new. Something bold. Something exciting. I accepted the shift from weekly to monthly shows as being part of the new contract with Theatre Passe Muraille and hoped that this new alliance would help bring further momentum to the Movement. I hoped that by rooting Impromptu Splendor in the very foundations of Contemporary Canadian theatre there would be more opportunities for more dramaturgy and a wider access to the Canadian theatrical canon, which would allow the Splendors to continually evolve, to stay fresh, to cut new ground and to keep getting even better. Sadly, I watched instead as that momentum of The National Theatre of the World as a Movement, especially in Toronto, gradually slowed down and eventually the company morphed into something that I barely recognized.
I now find myself concerned about the direction and the intention of a company that I love, a company that I felt a powerful investment in. The Carnegie Hall Show fell victim to the loss of its beloved Bread and Circus Theatre and seemed ill-suited to its short-lived home at Second City. Impromptu Splendor plays at Improv (but not theatre) Festivals around the world now (fantastic), but it has lost its consistency at home. I was shaken to learn of the departure of Ron Pederson from The National Theatre of the World last June. Since Pederson’s departure I have watched, confused, as Baram and Snieckus have taken The National Theatre of the World further and further from their initial mandate. According to the website, the mandate of the NTOW is “creating new Canadian work and to encourage the theatre and improvisation communities to come together.” There is already a giant powerhouse for Canadian comedy located in Toronto, The Second City, and the National Theatre of the World originally emerged as something unique and different, as an alternative rather than a facsimile. This was part of the idea of creating something new.
I Seen You On TV is a celebration of Canadian television and commercials. It brings together a myriad of comedians to do Improv together, most of whom can be seen doing Improv at either the Second City or the Comedy Bar or both. I don’t see how this show is creating new Canadian theatre. I don’t see how it seeks to bridge the comedy and the theatre communities and I don’t see how it seeks to do something new. I do see that it has the potential to draw audiences, putting Ron James and Colin Mochrie in the same room is likely to sell tickets, however, I also remember how electric it was to watch Mochrie improvise a new Canadian play the first time he performed at Impromptu Splendor, while he was in rehearsals for Art at Canadian Stage. This was a successful (and oversold) example of The National Theatre of the World’s mandate at work. It makes me sad to think that Baram and Snieckus are letting that fall by the wayside.
Last winter The National Theatre of the World departed from improvising altogether and Matt Baram wrote the musical comedy It’s a Wonderful Toronto, which played at the Theatre Passe Muraille and featured a cast made up of members from the comedy community. One could argue that since it took place at Passe Muraille and was a new musical that qualifies as bringing the communities together and creating new work. However, it is still a radical departure from what the company was originally imagined as, “a multi-disciplinary Toronto-based, not-for-profit theatre company that creates exciting, provocative and instantaneous theatre through the art of improvisation.” I cannot comment on the caliber of It’s A Wonderful Toronto, as I was in Halifax when it was produced, but I wondered how different it was from a show like the Shehori Brothers’ Stephen Harper: The Musical, which played at the Second City in 2010? Their newest venture, Baram and Snieckus, which takes place at the Second City, will see Naomi and Matt doing a vague medley of sketch, improv and stand up together, which, once again, seems to fit the Second City mandate far better than it fits their own.
It is not that I don’t want to see Matt and Naomi do sketch, stand up and improv together, it is not that I don’t want Matt to write satirical musicals about our embarrassing mayor, it is not that I don’t want to see a wide array of Canadian television stars improvise wonders together. I would gladly go see any of these things at The Second City (or the Drake Hotel) and I’m sure I would enjoy myself thoroughly. But I miss The National Theatre of the World. I miss spontaneous marvels. I miss wondering which new playwright they were going to tackle this week, and which Canadian theatre actor they were going to bring out to improvise with them. I miss those eclectic audiences filled with the strangest assortment of people that would come to Carnegie Hall and show up for the Splendors at Comedy Bar and the madcap devising of multidisciplinary collusion that turned into Fiasco Playhouse. I miss brand new Canadian plays being born right in front of me, as part of a significant movement in theatre history, in the pursuit of something that had never been done before. I miss Ron, Matt and Naomi. Without Pederson the company is short one essential and very palpable heartbeat.
If Matt and Naomi want to re-imagine their company now that Pederson has left, if they want to create a new mandate and branch out into different things, I think perhaps they should consider starting their own company afresh, like Ron Pederson did with the Theatre Department, when he began producing his own work that didn’t fit into the NTOW’s mandate. There was something so magical about The National Theatre of the World and if the work that they are doing is not improvised, brand new Canadian Theatre, for me, it isn’t a real National Theatre of the World show.
I don’t want to advocate here for the end of the National Theatre of the World. To be honest, I am not sure what the solution is. I wanted Impromptu Splendor to grow into something like Die Nasty’s Soap, a show that was weekly, successful, consistent and that became part of the fabric and the history of the theatre and comedy communities. I knew it had the potential for that. As Matt said, initially it was a Movement and an inspiring one. It seems like the momentum to be leaders, to be pioneers, has lost its traction and I wish I could blow some wind back into The National Theatre of the World’s sails.
A few weeks ago I gave a lecture to the first year theatre students at Dalhousie University on Contemporary Canadian Theatre and I highlighted for them several companies that have been redefining what theatre in this country can be. I showed them a clip of an early Impromptu Splendor, the first that was done in the style of Sam Shepard and I watched it blow the minds of these smart, passionate young theatre lovers and makers. I watched it have influence and inform their perceptions of the art form and I watched it spark their imaginations. It is this legacy of The National Theatre of the World that I want so ardently to continue.
Please say Yes.