It is difficult to write a review of an Improv show, which is likely one of the reasons that most theatre critics, even those who write about comedy, seem to generally avoid doing so. Improvisation is, by its own nature, in constant flux, which is part of what makes the art form so exciting and vibrant to watch. In practical terms, however, this also means that the performers frequently migrate from one Improv team to another and the teams themselves are continually being formed and dissolved and evolve substantially each time they perform with one another which makes it almost impossible for someone like me to definitively endow any of them with qualitative adjectives. The brilliance of Improv is that each time you watch it, even with the same performers; the show should be fresh and unique. This means that Improvisers always have a second chance to prove themselves. That’s not to say that certain performers or troupes don’t perform with some level of consistency, because of course some do, and I do find certain members of Toronto’s comedy community easier to write about with conviction because they have achieved such mastery of the art form that, barring spontaneous combustion, their comic genius and proficiency is dazzlingly unflappable. On the other hand, since most improvisers learn by performing in front audiences, whether they soar or flop, they tend to do it center stage in the spotlight.
So, how does one write about Improv considering that a performer who may seem like the weakest link today may be the toast of the Comedy Bar tomorrow? The answer: Very Carefully. Improv is all about being in the moment, unshackling ourselves from the burden of the past and not worrying but revelling in the uncertainty of the future. In this sprit, of course, you could argue that this article is already inconsequential because I am writing about shows from the past which a future audience will read. What is the point of writing about something that already happened that will never happen again, especially if everything is continually changing and there is very little consistency? That is a poignant question. I think it is important to write about Improv despite the fact that it is difficult because Improv is fascinating and watching good Improv is one of the most inspiring evenings you can spend in a theatre. At the same time, watching bad Improv can be psychologically painful, which is an experience that can be equally fascinating. Mostly, however, I know that there are some incredible performers in Toronto who are working and playing continually and diligently and impressively to create the best Improv in this city. There are certain performers who are so filled with promise and potential that it invigorates me to think of all the possibilities that their bright futures hold. It’s time to shine the light on them.
If you have ever read a book about Improv you probably know that you can’t learn how do Improv by reading about it, and if you have ever talked to an Improviser you may know that you can’t learn how to do Improv by watching an Improv show. No, you can only learn how to do Improv by doing Improv. I should preface this by saying that I grew up at Neptune Theatre School doing Viola Spolin exercises and even had the opportunity to test my mastery of Improv in Grade 11 when the actor playing Annie Oakley in my school’s production of Annie Get Your Gun failed to show up for our scene, leaving me onstage by myself in all my frenzied impromptu splendor. Yet, seven weeks ago, when I heard about Impatient Theatre Company’s FREE 101 (first level) Improv Classes (SIGN UP NOW! DO IT! Level 1 is FREE! DO IT!) I immediately jumped at the opportunity to refresh my skills and to learn about improvisation from the inside so I can write about it without feeling like a terrific imposter.
This was how I familiarized myself with Impatient Theatre Company, the second largest training centre for Improvisation in Toronto. The training centre offers a wide array of classes for Improv, Sketch Comedy and Screenwriting and their Improv Teams play at the Comedy Bar every Tuesday (7:00pm-9:30pm) and Wednesday (8:00pm-10:00pm). Watching ITC’s Harold and House Teams perform on Tuesday evenings as well as improvising with my classmates on Saturday has helped to inform my perceptions of the Improv that I see and has given me the confidence to speak with more authority on what I have observed to be the characteristics of a successful set and sharp improvisers. My teacher at ITC was Jess Grant. She is a terrific improviser who works with ITC and Ghost Jail Theatre, but she is also an incredible teacher who has infectious enthusiasm for everything and empowers her students out of their comfort zones and encourages them to take big risks and be the best improviser they can be. I would recommend studying with Jess to absolutely anyone, whether you aspire to become the next Tina Fey or simply want to have fun Improv play dates on Saturday mornings. She is the best. Go Team Jess!
I think that ideally improvisers are the perfect mixture of a comedian and an actor in that most of the features that define a particularly adept Improviser are also the groundwork of proficient theatre performance. From my perspective the distinguishing quality of a terrific Improviser is his or her ability to commit wholeheartedly to everything that occurs onstage and his or her tendency for strong and bold choices. There is no room for hesitation in Improv as an Improviser’s tentativeness is immediately palpable to the audience and their discomfort is powerfully contagious. There is a distinct energy intrinsic to great Improvisers that propel them from one idea to the next and that can fill even silence with a sense of anticipation and conviction.
There is a lot of great Improv to be seen on Tuesday evenings at the Comedy Bar and there are certain performers who shine particularly brightly each time I watch them. One of the most consistent of ITC’s teams is Big In Japan, which is made up of the talents of Jess Grant, Sean Magee, Sean Tabares and Kevin Thom. These four Improvisers have cemented their dynamic to a degree where they work so well together their improvisation appears entirely effortless. Thom makes continually unusual and unexpected choices, Grant infuses everything with insatiable enthusiasm and Tabares throws his entire body into a fray of nearly constant hilarity. Another strong team is Standards and Practices (Cameron Algie, Matt Folliott, Isaac Kessler and Kevin Whalen). These guys are incredibly inventive, continually clever and are especially adept at creating strong characters and thrusting them into interesting situations. Algie, Folliott, Kessler and Whalen are each individual bundles of jokes, but the strength of Standards and Practices lies in how well the four of them work together to accelerate each of their scenes and showcase one another’s talents.
WDWMKR (pronounced Widow-maker) is a team made up of seven female improvisers, and it is a treat and quite a rarity to see that much Estrogen storming the stage in a comedy club. These ladies are all fiercely talented improvisers, although their group dynamic is not quite as solid as that of the aforementioned, partly due, perhaps, to the fact that the team is considerably larger. Jess Grant gives WDWMKR a strong dose of her zesty spirit, while Janet Davidson excels at creating quirky characters, Paloma Nunez isn’t afraid to take big risks and Kirsten Gallagher is feisty and quick-witted. Edgewater Hotel is also a large team which suffers from the same sorts of inconsistencies as WDWMKR while boasting of an array of strong improvisers and some incredibly inspired scenes. The guys in this team are especially strong and Robert Ariss Hills shines particularly brightly. I think that he is a performer that you should definitely be on the look-out for because he has a captivating and unique presence which makes me think that we can expect exciting things in his future. Ken Hall from Nakatomi Protocol is also exceptionally quick witted and seems to possess the magical power to turn absolutely anything into a joke.
Improv is vibrantly alive in Toronto right now, energized by a plethora of passionate and talented performers who are soaking up every opportunity to learn, to teach, to share, to perform, to produce their own shows and to create strong, dynamic troupes, shows and alliances that keep places like The Comedy Bar saturated with laughter seven days a week. Something magical is happening right here right now, something that can never be adequately captured or recreated, but that must be experienced in the moment to be truly appreciated. Some of the country’s best improvisers live and play here every night of every week; you should swing by Comedy Bar sometime, get kicked in the funny bone and see what I mean.