Once yes, once for a lark; twice though loses the spark: Dora and Improv Collide

rebecca northan as mimi and the national theatre of the world
A few weeks ago I read an insightful and eloquent blog on the Summerworks 2010 Propaganda website written by Matt Baram, an improviser, actor and one of the founding members of the Toronto-based Improvisational Theatre Company The National Theatre of the World. In it he speaks passionately about Improv and its place in the Canadian Theatre Community.
Since its inception in 2008, The National Theatre of the World, specifically through its highly successful and critically acclaimed improvised play series, Impromptu Splendor, has been working stalwartly to bridge the gap between theatre and Improv. As their 2009 Canadian Comedy Award proves, Impromptu Splendor is beloved and admired within Toronto’s vibrant comedy community, but it has also gained acceptance, distinction and esteem from theatre communities not just in Toronto where they have found a monthly home at Theatre Passe Muraille and built a loyal theatregoing audience during their two week run at the 2009 Summerworks Festival, but also in Hamilton at Theatre Aquarius (where they performed sixteen improvised plays in two weeks) and in Halifax at Eastern Front Theatre’s SuperNova Theatre Festival. It is clear that the theatre community here and indeed, across the country, has embraced The National Theatre of the World and their creation of work that is exciting, dynamic, innovative and of outstanding and professional calibre.
Matt Baram cites Canada’s proud history with Improvisation and the integral role it has played in the development of some of this country’s most iconic and historical productions in his article saying, “Improvisation has been a huge part of Canadian theatre history too. Off the top of my head, I can think of a couple of Toronto’s theatre legends who have used the art of improvisation to create their masterful work; Dean Gilmour, who I was fortunate enough to assist during Chekhov’s Longs, used improvisation to adapt the writings of the famous Russian playwright to bring his words to life. Of course the enigmatic Paul Thompson who facilitated the creation of The Farm Show, one of Canada’s most iconic successes of all time used improvisational as a tool to create his brilliant and influential work.” Yet, despite the fact that The National Theatre of the World has been successful in creating a production that deftly employs the most magical and unique of improvisational proficiency while creating a play that has all the elements of a professional theatrical experience, according to the Toronto Alliance for the Performing Arts, they are not eligible to be honoured for this city’s professional theatre awards.
In an email that Matt Baram received from a member of TAPA regarding Impromptu Splendor’s eligibility he was told that, “There is no way for an improvised show to be effectively and fairly judged by the jurors since the content and performances change every night.” In his blog, Baram makes a strong case for the fact that improvised theatre is not an anomaly in its penchant for transformation; indeed that it is theatre’s ability to expand and change which makes it so special. Performances grow as the actor’s relationship to his or her character becomes more enriched, moments solidify with time and the emergence of an audience has the power to root performers more ardently, or, conversely, to change the dynamics of an entire evening unexpectedly. All this without even taking into consideration, as Baram says, the revisions that plague a new work not only during Previews where entire scenes are regularly scrapped, added or rewritten, but sometimes beyond Opening Night. I am certain that no two jurors for the 2001 Tony Awards saw Nathan Lane give the same performance in The Producers, but this did not disqualify him from (deservedly) winning the award for Best Actor in a Musical.
I have been ruminating on Matt Baram’s insightful piece since first reading it and then yesterday something entirely curious and absolutely wonderful happened when the 2010 Dora Nominations were announced. Rebecca Northan, a highly brilliant improviser and actor, was nominated for Outstanding Performance By a Female Performer in a Leading Role for her show Blind Date, which was nominated for Outstanding Production in the Independent Theatre Division. Blind Date was described by Harbourfront Theatre as, “Part improvisation, theatre and social undertaking, Northan takes you on one of the funniest and most unpredictable rides of your life.” Indeed, Blind Date is a show created around a captivating and sensuous clown named Mimi, who chooses a “date” from her audience after being stood up by her blind date, and the show proceeds from there. As Steve Fisher at Gracing The Stage says, “there’s no advance planning, and whichever volunteer Mimi pulls up to replace her no-show blind date will be going in with no idea of just how the “date” will turn out.” Richard Ouzounian even specifies in his review of the production that the version of Blind Date he saw was a unique theatre experience saying, “ I have to stress that this review is based on the interaction Northan found with one particular partner and the show could be totally different with another guy. Still, I’m willing to wager that no matter who this gifted woman selects by chance from the audience, the end result is likely to contain the same mixture of uproarious laughter, honest sexuality and genuine emotion.” How does this performance differ from Impromptu Splendor? At their very essence, both achieve the same feat. Both Northan and The National Theatre of the World use the highest forms of improvisation to create theatrical works in front of an audience.
Rebecca Northan and Blind Date are unmistakably worthy of their Dora Nominations, but it seems to me that the Toronto Alliance for the Performing Arts has, perhaps unknowingly, found itself in the middle of the bridge and that glorious place where the theatre world and the Improv world collude. Matt Baram closed his blog by saying that he felt that Toronto, “has a huge opportunity to take the lead in welcoming improvised theatre into the mainstream so that the gap between improv and theatre can be bridged for years to come,” and it seems to me that in choosing to honour Rebecca Northan at the Dora Awards TAPA has inadvertently forced itself to re-examine theatre that it had recently excluded. How can The National Theatre of the World be told that their show is not eligible because the jurors would see a different play each night, when Blind Date is eligible despite the fact that each play the jurors saw was different?
Fundamentally, I think that the Toronto Alliance for the Performing Arts is overlooking the essence of the theatre in their view that the lines that are spoken and the story that is told must be identical for a production to be fairly assessed. They have chosen Rebecca Northan and Blind Date as eligible for Dora Mavor Moore Awards based on the quality and the level of talent and proficiency that she exhibits, which is constant despite the fact that her lines may change and her stories and tactics, objectives and motivations are flexible. This is what we take away with us after we leave the theatre and although The National Theatre of the World may produce one hundred different plays and Matt Baram may play one hundred and fifty different roles, the end result is ultimately the same; Impromptu Splendor features consistantly top-notch performances, poetic, insightful and witty dialogue and the perfect mixture of laughter and heartbreak. The details should not matter; it is the overall experience that the Dora jurors will judge.
It disheartens me that a theatre company can make such incredible strides toward an ideal amalgamation of Toronto’s disturbingly segregated theatre and comedy communities and then for the Toronto Alliance for the Performing Arts to refuse to acknowledge a show like Impromptu Splendor as being professional theatre. Too often I read reviews where performances of known improvisers, such as Rebecca Northan and Colin Mochrie, are described with a degree of surprise by critics, as though it is remarkable to think that a “comedian” could actually act. The inequality that exists between the theatre and comedy community in Toronto is, quite frankly, unacceptable. And furthermore, given the brilliant performers who call the Toronto Comedy Community home, this segregation proves even more absurd. I sincerely hope that Rebeccca Northan and Blind Date being nominated for 2010 Dora Awards will prove to be the first step in an exciting movement that knocks down the walls between these two vibrant communities and embraces both the theatricality in that which is impromptu as well as the splendour that can come from rehearsal.
TAPA, you are poised in consequential position in Canadian theatre history, please do not let our community down.

Leave a Reply