Amanda Campbell (AC): Where did the idea for improvised plays come from?
Ron Pederson (RP): Ummm, it comes from a thing in Edmonton that Stewart Lemoine started in about… 1999, or if he didn’t start it, he at least titled it. It was called Sudden Premiers. The Varscona [Theatre] was fresh by then, as far as programming was concerned, and it was February, February in Edmonton, that the whole idea sort of started. We didn’t do different playwrights, we would do an act of an improvised play and then we would have an intermission, and after that we would do the first act of a different, new play, and the audience would decide which play would get a second act the next night. So, it was still sort of gamey. It was still a game. And I specifically remember not being allowed to participate in one evening. Dana Andersen said, “Tonight we’re going to do Mature-prov”- they were going to make the scenes very adult. And I was nineteen… or twenty years old… and, maybe this was a different evening, I’m not sure, it’s all a bit of a blur, but I do remember going, and watching it, and not being allowed to be in it. And I remember, it was like a Woody Allen film. It was all about the relationships and how they were being negotiated. It was so adult. *laughs* I don’t even really know what that means. But, they weren’t going for the jokes. And I saw that their hearts were really in it. And I knew these guys, and I wanted to be able to do this with them.
And then Matt and I met Gary [Rideout Jr, the owner of Comedy Bar] and he saw us at Ghost Jail [Theatre] and he told us about this place and asked us what we would like to do. He basically said “You can have Thursdays at eight!” So, Matt and I met up at the Jersey Giant and all I said to him was that I wanted what we did to be really “adult.” I wanted to do Mature-prov. I just wanted what we did to be real, and to be adult. To not have it be baloney and wiener humor. Not the whole “what’s your favourite cereal?” sort of thing.
AC: Didn’t you do that Sunday at Carnegie Hall?
RP: Yeah! Exactly. Making fun of what I hate. The Carnegie Hall Show is our chance to roll our eyes at Improv, or what it can be, when it’s done badly.
AC: Impromptu Splendor and The Carnegie Hall Show [which plays at the Bread and Circus on Wednesdays at 9:00pm] are both presented under the umbrella company, the National Theatre of Canada. Does the National Theatre of Canada have a mandate?
RP: It’s developing, yes. It’s sorta how I like to act and improvise. It’s how you create from the outside in. We had a poster [for Impromptu Splendor] before we knew what we were going to do. We had a name. If you remember, our original poster didn’t say “A New Improvised Play Every Week,” it said, “Spontaneous Theatrical Marvels.” What the fuck does that mean? We were being grand and general.
AC: That’s a good mandate. “The National Theatre of Canada seeks to create theatre while being grand and general.”
RP: Yes, but we’re becoming more specific. In The Carnegie Hall Show we break every rule of Improv. And with Impromptu Splendor, we are being encouraged to keep doing it and to commit deeper. I mean, we’ve only done nine shows. This Thursday will be our tenth show. We’ve only had three guests. I had never improvised with Kayla when I decided that she should join our group. I think I told you this story, how I phoned Matt and I said, “I think we should add Kayla.” And he said, “Great! I’ll tell her tonight.” And I was like “huh? You mean, you… she… what… huh?” And he was like, “She’s our roommate.” It’s like there’s this organic blessing going on with this show. Like, without getting too New Age, I feel like there’s someone who wants us to do this. Like, for example, the week that we did Steinbeck I found a bale of hay. We were at the meeting beforehand and I was all boastful that I was going to find us a bale of hay. And everyone was like, “In Toronto? Where the fuck are you going to find hay in the middle of the city?” And so on Thursday, the day of our show, I went out and found us some hay.
After we meet to talk about the playwright, we are each in charge of a different aspect of the show… the set, or the costumes, and I’m in charge of the record. And Stewart Lemoine is our musical consultant. Did you see that?
AC: Yes, I did.
RP: Yeah. So, I was thinking about doing Philip Glass this week, but then Stewart messaged me and said “Beckett is a little trickier because of the absence of any recognizable emotional drive”… Beckett, after all, is emotionally bereft. And to put a Philip Glass tune overtop of it, is to insinuate that the play is going somewhere, when so often it isn’t. And that chair that was in our scene today, I found that outside in a snowdrift when I left my house this morning. And it was the most existential thing I had ever seen. So I brought it on the subway. We had talked about just using a light bulb. We brainstorm a lot. We were talking about maybe filling the stage with crumpled paper and hiding under there for the first ten minutes. Just staying under there. Our imaginations just abound, and take us in limitless directions.
I’m so proud of it. The people who see it, they… they go, “was that really improvised?” That’s my favourite reaction. And the actors who come see the show, who see what we’re doing, they come up to us afterward saying, “I know what you could do next!” So, if we’re exciting people, that’s something. The show is really about what the actors are doing and we’re really trying to use the theatre to really bring people together. That sounds pretentious….
There was one [Impromptu Splendor show] I wasn’t in. I was doing a workshop in Edmonton [for Extinction Song]- [I wasn’t in] the Tennessee Williams one, and we always videotape them all, so I was watching it on video. Actually, I started to transcribe the Judith Thompson one, and while I was doing it, I realized, “this is a way to write! This is writing!” And when I typed it up, it actually looked like a Judith Thompson play. And so, when I was away in Edmonton, and I was so sad to miss out on doing the show, I saw what they had done on video and it really was like an undiscovered Tennessee Williams play.
It really encapsulated one of my favourite rules of Improv: Don’t push it. Tennessee Williams lends itself to language and pace, and Naomi and Kayla were playing these two sisters, and there was music playing and they were drinking real bourbon onstage, and there was this languid scene that went on for like twelve minutes. Twelve minutes! In Improv, that’s an age! And it was all about what they didn’t say, which is what all great plays are about. Rich Talarico, my Improv guru, always says, “don’t push the plot.” It’s like, in journalism, you have the whole who, what, where thing, right? He says, “Fuck the what. Let the what show up.”
The perfect example is that scene with Kayla and Naomi, they were being very Southern, and the tension was mounting because there was something that they weren’t saying. You can block the action in this type of Improv because it’s a play and tension and conflict are the most important. Saying “no” here is paramount. Kayla said to Naomi, “no, I don’t want to dance anymore.” You can’t really say “no” in a five minute improvised scene or else you are getting nowhere. But in a play, sometimes the characters don’t get anywhere and that is the point. So, Kayla goes, “No, I don’t want to dance anymore ‘cuz I hurt my foot” and Naomi goes, “You’ll find a man…” blah… blah… blah… and then Kayla says, “Where’s your brother?” And Matt is offstage waiting to come on, so that is kind of a gift, since now Matt knows what his job is and we know in some small way what the play is going to be. And then Naomi says, “I’m not marrying my brother.” And there it is. The plot has shown up in its own time.