Groups co-operate to generate explosion of comedy

Renaissance is a dramatic way to describe anything but that’s how the Improv Guild’s Mat Mailandt characterizes the current state of Calgary’s improvised-theatre scene.

“Improv is undergoing a renaissance right now. There are a lot of emerging groups which is really exciting.… It’s really a time of growth and excitement for improvisers and for people who love improv” Mailandt says.

There are at least eight active improv groups in Calgary the four main ones being Loose Moose Theatre Dirty Laundry (“Calgary’s only totally live totally improvised soap opera”) the Improv Guild and the Kinkonauts.

Contrary to what some may think improv is not to be confused with standup comedy. “We’re trying to imitate in many ways all of the wonderful things theatre does. The drama the comedy the real stories real characters” says Mailandt.

Calgary has a long history with improvisation courtesy of the legendary Keith Johnstone who moved to Canada from England in the 1970s and taught theatre at the University of Calgary.

Rick Hilton a former student of Johnstone and one of the Improv Guild’s founders says improv wasn’t used as a performance device prior to Jonnstone. “Keith was a real pioneer because he took the improv we did in theatre class and presented it in its bare-bones form” he says.

In 1977 just as Calgary’s general theatre scene was starting to develop Johnstone and Mel Tonkin formed Loose Moose Theatre.

Current Loose Moose artistic director Dennis Cahill another former student says Johnstone’s influence is global particularly in terms of the creation and growth of Theatresports. Theatresports involves two teams of improvisers who challenge each other to a scene that often has some particular requirement attached such as the need for rhyming dialogue.

To this day Loose Moose is known for its Theatresports and Cahill says folks come from around the globe to train there.

Like Mailandt Cahill thinks Calgary’s improv scene is in a “growth phase” noting that new groups have emerged in the past decade.

The Improv Guild for example started in 2003 and Hilton says it has “undergone a dynamic growth spurt over the last five years” with more improvisers larger audiences and more money coming through the door every year.

Still that has not come without challenges. “We still take two steps forward and one giant punch in the stomach backwards” says Hilton.

Those “punches” include a lack of affordable theatre space the recent flooding of the Guild’s Impro Depot and a sense that “improvisation is looked down upon by traditional theatre people” — an attitude Hilton says is reflected in some arts-funding decisions.

Those challenges may be one of the factors bringing the groups together for events such as the Calgary Improv Festival an initiative the Guild spearheaded six years ago.

“We started with a three-day event. This year it’s a 12-day event” says Hilton.

Owen Chan one of the founders of the Kinkonauts says the festival is a big draw for audiences and has attracted big-name headliners like Colin Mochrie of Whose Line Is It Anyway?

Chan says the sense of community has contributed to the “explosion” in the city’s improv scene.

“We’ve all done shows in each other’s theatres and this is the first time in 30 years that has happened this cross-pollination” he explains.

For example Chan points to a project organized by the Improv Guild that involved members from the Guild the Kinkonauts and Loose Moose improvising scenes about Calgary’s early history.

The Kinkonauts themselves have a season at the Birds and Stone Theatre and often feature artists from other improv groups.

Unlike Loose Moose and the Improv Guild (both adherents of Johnstone’s improv techniques often called “short-form” improv) the Kinkonauts practice a form of improvised theatre developed by American innovator and educator Del Close (known as the Harold structure the Chicago style or long-form improv) that doesn’t use games or directors. Instead Chan says they “take audience suggestions for scenes and just go from there for about 45 minutes without any rules.”

Hilton says the two schools of improv reflect the general differences between American and British theatre. “American theatre is much more centred on the individual actor whereas the European influence is much more a group dynamic” he explains.

“They (Chicago-style improvisers) interact modestly with the audience. The scenes don’t end until an actor ends it. There is no role for a director. The lights never go down and an actor never leaves the stage.

“Keith is centered more on the theatricality of work. You need a director. It’s more team oriented than me oriented” says Hilton. “Scenes are ended. The director pulls the lever to bring bad work off the stage.”

Regardless of the form audiences are eating it up. “There seems to be a thirst for something different fun and affordable” says Hilton.

High-school improvisation tournaments are also grooming a new generation of improvisers and audiences so the interest isn’t likely to wane any time soon. “It’ll be interesting to see what the scene is like in another 10 years” says Cahill.