It’s frequently hilarious but in the end Rapid Fire Theatre’s Improvaganza Festival thrives on a shared experience between actors and their audience, inventing stories in the moment.
“Improv in its nature tends to be quite funny,” said Matt Schumann, artistic director of Rapid Fire Theatre and an improviser himself. “It’s not necessarily because we’re trying to be funny but you’re discovering the show at the same time the audience is and these moments of surprise and realization are inherently funny. More serious work can seep in around the edges, too.”
More than 20 acts and 120 performers originating from Amsterdam to Bogota, to Ljubljana, Slovenia, from across Canada and the U.S. will play and compete in the 17th annual Improvaganza Improv and Sketch Comedy Festival. Five Edmonton groups are included in the program happening June 14 to 24, the enticing capper to season 37 for Edmonton’s veteran improvisers Rapid Fire Theatre.
“It started out predominantly as a theatre sports tournament and a way to bring our favourite players to town,” Schumann said. “And now it’s so much more than that. Theatresports is still a large component but we also feature showcases by the visiting groups to show off their style or take on improv and jam shows that feature a mixed-up cast of guests working together.
The festival even includes a few groups doing scripted sketch comedy work, but Schumann is especially excited about the 10-member group of international improv collaborators.
“The International Ensemble involves a bunch of individuals who combine as sort of a super-group for the first time. They perform four times, twice on each weekend of the festival, each time with a different director, to absorb that director’s style.”
On the opening weekend they will be learning to improvise in the style of Tennessee Williams.
A special greatest hits presentation from CBC Radio’s The Irrelevant Show has been put together for the festival, reflecting the fact that the show’s cast all started at Rapid Fire Theatre. You can even take in The Kidprovisors, Rapid Fire Theatre’s educational side involving farm teams of young performers, ages six to nine, or nine to 12 years of age.
The festival marks the end of Rapid Fire Theatre’s fifth season in the Citadel Theatre complex. Most evenings will offer a couple of shows with special events on weekends. Shows in The Club tend to start with a round of theatre sports followed by a showcase for one troupe, with more events in Zeidler Hall or the Maclab. See a detailed breakdown at Rapid Fire Theatre’s website.
Perhaps you’re curious about doing theatre sports, or maybe you want to fashion a musical comedy? Several daytime public workshops will augment the numerous evening shows.
So what makes a good theatre improviser?
“The one thing we all have in common is the ability to think on our feet,” Schumann said. “But the cool part about Improvaganza is that you get a sense of all the different approaches there are to improvisation, especially in the showcases. For example, Calgary’s Missed Connections do improv based on real-life Kijiji.com postings, like ‘I saw you at the train station …’ inspired by what might have happened if two people actually met.”
Another unusual troupe, Speechless, brings together a DJ from Winnipeg with two circus-trained improvisers from Bogota, Columbia, who all met at Improvaganza a few years ago. After working together in theatre sports they formed the new group to do non-verbal work that Schumann characterizes as “kind of like a silent film in a Buster Keaton vein,” which is then scored with improvised music from the DJ.
He contrasts Vancouver ’s award-winning veterans The Sunday Service as “very silly, fun and joyful on stage,” with the more calculated angle of Calgary’s One Lions troupe improvising plays in the style of a famous playwright, “to perform a pitch-perfect homage.”
The inspiration for every set — plot and character elements — comes from the audience. Some groups even suspend the action part-way through to poll the audience on where the story should go.
At its best, improv theatre can work so well it’s hard to believe something wasn’t planned in advance. Some groups integrate music for magical results. Is there a way of preparing?
“I think the preparation comes in being a student of the world around you. The more personal life experience and worldly knowledge we can bring to the stage makes us better story tellers. The rest just comes from practice, from a familiarity with your fellow performers and a kind of shared brain that can develop. When people tell us, ‘I can’t believe this wasn’t scripted,’ that’s probably the best compliment that you can get.”
Between the 20-plus acts there’s a broad vision of what improv theatre can involve. Schumann is pleased that audience demographics have grown wider along with the stylistic breadth of the acts.
I wondered, are there any particular traits tied to the performer’s national origins?
“I think you can generalize. The Europeans tend to lean more to the dramatic side and to move a little slower and patiently. American improv is usually bigger and louder, and Canadians tend to be a little faster with the wit and the jokes, but those are very broad strokes.”
In a nod to Canada’s 150th anniversary, this year’s fest features national or international groups that had a past connection to Rapid Fire Theatre or Improvaganza.
“Some of the groups first met here at Improvaganza before they went on to tour the world.”
Actress Kirsten Rasmussen is quick to assert her most valuable personal trait as an improviser.
“It’s curiosity, but improvising is really a skill. Certainly, there are natural talents like being committed, curiosity, being emotional and quick-witted, but you have to work at it. You have to put in the time and practice.”
Being a good observer helps too, but ultimately hootspa is more important.
“People think you have to be an expert in everything, but it’s really about having a certain amount of confidence and being able to bull—- when you have to make stuff up.”
Rasmussen appears in Improvaganza next week as part of the duo act K$M, a collaboration with friend Matt Folliott involving completely improvised shows. They were nominated for Best Improv Troupe at the Canadian Comedy Awards and the same organization voted Rasmussen Best Female Improviser in 2015.
Based in Toronto now for four years, the actress is an alumni of Edmonton’s Rapid Fire Theatre and of Toronto’s Second City. She has written for television shows like This Hour Has 22 Minutes, appears in Schitt’s Creek, and continues to teach at Second City and direct various comedy projects.
Focused chiefly on improv work, she has always been attracted to doing comedy.
“You tend to find a more eclectic range of people working in comedy. It’s more risky and interesting and you feel more involved with the audience.”
A native of Lumsden, Sask., Rasmussen got involved in theatre sports in high school before she became a BFA grad in dramatic arts at the University of Alberta. She was involved with Rapid Fire Theatre for four of her seven years in Edmonton before a move to Montreal found her exploring more solo opportunities in theatre and comedy and she co-founded a bilingual theatre company devoted to improv there before re-locating to Toronto and joining Second City.
Improvaganza Improv and Sketch Comedy Festival
With: Iglu Theatre, K$M, Reckless Theatre, Speechless, ‘Ganza International Ensemble and others
Host Company: Rapid Fire Theatre
Where: Citadel Theatre
When: June 14 to 24
Tickets: individual tickets from $15 to $37, festival passes $175.
For full details see the Rapid Fire Theatre website