Why I’m Not Nervous Watching Improv Anymore

naomi snieckus and matt baram
photo by skye regan
I feel ridiculous admitting this now, but when I first moved to Toronto in 2007 the idea of going into a “Comedy Bar” and watching “Improv” made me nervous. To be honest, comedians intimidated me because from the stereotypes I encountered many of them seemed so brash, at times obnoxious, and ready to pounce on anyone for the sake of the cheap shot. The Comedy World seemed to be the exact opposite of the one I inhabited where everyone sported a boa while belting along with Streisand. I was quite terrified that these comedians would immediately realize that I was far nerdier and far dorkier than they were and that their humour could provide them with the perfect justification for being really hilarious bullies. And, there was also the matter of my having no real interest in watching Improv.
I managed to never be quite old enough to go to Stayner’s to see Jeremy Webb’s Improv Knights in Halifax and my older sister and I had an awful experience with an epically lame Improv show in Orlando when I was eighteen, which was a formative experience for me as I sought to determine what sort of performance I was most interested in exploring. Yes, it would take a theatre actor, someone who is nerdy and dorky in the same way I am- someone whose opinion I value and trust wholeheartedly, to bring me into this new world of Comedy.
Improv is risky business not only for the performers, but also for the audience. The entire experience is centered on the magic of the unknown and relishing in the unexpected. As audience members of the theatre most of us just want to feel secure, safe, comfortable and confident that we know what to expect and that we will not feel as though we wasted our time or our money. In the Winter of 2008 I made a magnificent discovery that I have since endeavoured to share with anyone who will listen to me and that is that Improv can be just as consistently sophisticated, professional and resonant as any other type of performance, but that its intrinsic magic is significantly more alluring. I also learned that the comedians in the community where I now belong are not only some of the most talented, but also the kindest, most accepting and curious, smart and respectful, hilarious and wonderful people you could ever wish to meet and they put their varied audiences at ease the moment they open their mouths.
The most pertinent example of Improvisation that has all its magical spontaneity intact and heartily embraces the deliciousness of infinite possibility in every moment, while still providing its audience with all the security of a rehearsed and scripted show is The National Theatre of the World’s Impromptu Splendor playing Friday May 7th at 8pm and Saturday May 8th at 4:30pm as part of Eastern Front Theatre’s SuperNova Festival. My mother, Shirley Campbell, whose only connection to theatre of any kind is that she gave birth to me, summed up Impromptu Splendor’s entirely improvised play from last evening, created in the style of David Mamet, better than I could saying: “It really looked like the play had been scripted and that they had had a lot of rehearsal for it.”
Wednesday’s play The Steamy Root Cellar was created in the style of Tennessee Williams and centered on the reunion of two cousins, Tim and Louisa, and the discovery of their dark, sordid and disturbing past by their hired hand Bertram just as the cousins find themselves trapped in the steamy entrails of their familial roots. Although the play was filled with hilarity and wonderfully witty lines, as all the Impromptu Splendor plays are, I was struck particularly by the relationship between Tim, played by Ron Pederson and Bertram, played by Matt Baram, in this particular play. Pederson’s character was a tormented alcoholic with an affinity for grandiloquence while Baram’s was a slower and far more simple-minded man who seemed to see the world with innocence and naiveté. Pederson filled Tim which such bitter resentment of Bertram, providing him with the opportunity to seek to belittle and destroy him, and clashing with Bertram’s simpleness created such a heartbreaking situation on stage which held the audience in captivated and silent awe.
In Thursday’s play Wet in the Rain, Baram and Pederson switched roles, and Baram became the cold, unstoppable, machismo funeral director B.J. who bullies Pederson’s grieving, poetic, tender librarian Ted while trying to decide upon the proper burial for his wife. The result was similar to the evening before, as the play proved to have so much humour while also being incredibly sad and beautifully eloquent and moving. The laughter tended to die down, or to change, about midway through the play, but the audience remained powerfully engaged in the very palm of The National Theatre of the World’s hands to the very end.
Haligonian actor Kyle Gillis said of The Steamy Root Cellar, “their ability to create such rich characters and a cohesive narrative is incredible and impressive and as a performer, watching the performances of Impromptu Splendor is very inspiring.” Lise Cormier, also a local actor, hails the show “Fanflippintastic.” And indeed, they are a marvel of wits, of incredible, almost divine, inspiration, of poetry and art and they can write new plays before the audience’s delighted eyes that are better than some of the work laboriously written, workshopped and meticulously rehearsed in this country.
It is the magic of Improv at its very best and to be there is utterly splendorous.

Impromptu Splendor plays Friday May 7th, 2010 (Chekhov) at 8:30pm and Saturday May 8th, 2010 at 4:30pm (Wilde) at Neptune’s Studio Theatre in Halifax. For more information or to book your tickets please call 902.429.7070.

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