A family affair

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“Performing together has created many opportunities for us to spend some great moments together,” says improviser Norman Ryan about performing with his son Luke. “Most of the time, I lean on him and his support of me.” Photo credit: Brent Robichaud.

For Norman Ryan, improv is a family affair. The retired high school teacher-turned-improviser performs improv and sketch comedy alongside his son, Luke Lynndale. Together, they are the cooky father comedy duo DUO DAD.

Norman, who was born in Australia, immigrated to Canada in 1960, where he earned two bachelor’s degrees, two master’s degrees and a PhD in engineering. And that’s just one chapter in his life. In a later chapter, in 2009 to be precise, he turned to improv, at the suggestion of his son, to further his public speaking and listening skills.

Now, Norman, who is turning 85 this week (let’s eat cake!), performs across Toronto as one half of DUO DAD. I caught up with him about his journey in the improv and comedy scene…and his life in general, because we want to know more!

First off, happy birthday Norman! Can tell us a bit about yourself? 

I first immigrated to Canada with $50 in my pocket. Now, I’ve earned a Master’s degree in education at McGill University, a Master’s degree in engineering at Concordia University, and a PhD in metallurgical engineering at Concordia. I also play bridge three to four times a week and I love to travel. I’d love to visit Bucharest next.

Holy degrees! And how did you get into improv?

In 2009, I wanted to improve my public speaking and my son suggested that I take improv classes at Second City. Since then, I’ve taken the improv program at Second City, classes at Impatient Theatre Company, Bad Dog Theatre and The Social Capital Theatre, as well as The Improv Retreat in Wisconsin.

What has the journey been like for you after getting started in improv?

I’ve struggled with listening due to my lack of hearing and have often been told to listen more. I work hard at being a good listener. Also, I have found the openness of all the young people in improv lovely. I have been accepted with open arms.

What would you say is your biggest accomplishment as an improviser?

Being invited to perform at the Boston Improv Festival.

That is amazing! What was that like?

Amazing! The sellout crowds were enthusiastic and wonderful. I felt like a star.

Do you have any favourite moments or scenes?

Performing with my son, Luke, as DUO DAD. In 2017, we made it to round three of the World’s Biggest Improv Festival and it was a thrilling ride.

That’s so cool that you perform alongside your son. How did the idea for DUO DAD come about?

We were taking a workshop with Matt Folliot and we ended doing a scene together and Matt thought it was hilarious. Performing with my son is a joy. He’s one of the most generous people I’ve met in my life.

How has performing with Luke impacted your relationship? Are you guys closer now?

We are definitely closer now. Performing together has created many opportunities for us to spend some great moments together. Most of the time, I lean on him and his support of me.

How has improv made a difference in your life?

Improv has improved my interpersonal relationships. I feel more free and confident to by myself. Being a very mathematical and scientific person, feeling comfortable to think on my feet has not always been easy.

One of the fundamental rules of improv is that it’s okay to make mistakes. Can you tell me about a time that you’ve messed up on stage and just rolled with it?

With my age, I’m not good with names. I’ll sometimes refer to a character as Henry and then later in that same scene refer to that same character as George.

What advice do you have for anyone looking to get into improv?

Don’t give up. Take the stage as often as you can. It’s a great experience.

Where can we see you on stage?

I perform regularly at The Social Capital Theatre and any where they’ll have me.

Is there anything else you would like to add or anything you would like to plug?

On December 6th, my son is producing a show called Normando in honour of my 85th birthday. The show will take place at The Social Capital Theatre at 10pm. I will be interviewed by Lance Byrd and then improvisors will create scenes based on those interview answers.

Thank you so much for sharing! In case you’re wondering, there will be cake at the show on December 6th. Happy 85th birthday, Norman! 

Pushing past your fears through improv

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“It’s been an exhilarating journey learning to push past my own fears and perfectionism,” says actor and improviser Samara Stern, pictured left with fellow improviser Dana Puddicombe on the right. Photo credit: Peter Stelmach

When Samara Stern started pursuing improv, she learned rather quickly that it’s okay to make mistakes. “It taught me that I can make mistakes and it will be okay,” she says. “The world won’t end. That lesson has helped me take bigger risks in my acting, writing and personal life.”

Samara, a Toronto-based actress, turned her talents to improv in 2013. Now, she teaches improv at Second City’s Education Company and summer camp. “It feels really good to be giving back to the community by helping kids express themselves and take creative risks,” she says.

Here’s what Samara had to say about her journey in improv.

How did you get into improv?

Throughout the years, my teachers and friends encouraged me to enrol at Second City. I really love script analysis and so the idea of going on stage without knowing the guideposts of the scene was really scary to me.

While I knew I was funny in the way I interacted with the world, I didn’t think I could be intentionally funny. I took Foundations 1 at Bad Dog Theatre in 2013 and loved it. I turned my focus to screenwriting for awhile but then signed up for Improv for Actors at Second City in 2016. With no expectation that I would get in, I auditioned for the Second City Conservatory. All I knew was that I was having fun and wanted to keep having fun. I was accepted into the Long Form Improv Conservatory and have been hooked on the art form ever since.

What has the journey been like for you after getting started in improv?

It’s been an exhilarating journey learning to push past my own fears and perfectionism. I used to constantly second guess and judge myself. I learned quickly that there is no time for those negative thoughts because by the timeline is out of your mouth, you are already in the next moment of the scene. One of the core principles of improv is support so I know that whatever idea I throw out on stage, my scene partner will support it.

What would you say is your biggest accomplishment as an improviser?

I am in the improv troupe Abra Cadaver which has been rehearsing and performing together for over two years. That’s like a marriage in improv years! I am proud of the way we always find something new and exciting to play.

Haha. I love the name Abra Cadaver. How did you come up with it?

Abra Cadaver was a Second City grad team formed out of the long form Improv conservatory so likely the name was created by Rob Norman or Martha Stortz.

Do you have any favourite moments or scenes?

It was an absolute blast playing with so many of my improv heroes in The Harold Experience at the Next Stage Theatre Festival.

That’s awesome! Who are your improv heroes?

The Harold Experience was a masterclass in improv. I could watch Ken Hall, Paloma Nuñez, Ashley Botting, Matt Folliot, Becky Johnson, Adam Cawley, and Rob Baker forever so it was a huge thrill to work with them. Rob Norman directed the show. He was my teacher in terms one and two of the Longform Conservatory so it was wonderful to work with him again.

How has improv made a difference in your life?

The greatest gift I’ve gotten from improv is the consistent practice of putting myself out there without being attached to the outcome. That has translated to all aspects of my life. It’s one thing to say you are confident. It is another thing to practice, fail, and learn in your bones that no matter what situation you are in, you can handle it.

One of the fundamental rules of improv is that it’s okay to make mistakes. Can you tell me about a time that you’ve messed up on stage and just rolled with it?

I was able to audition for the Second City Conservatory with a theatre degree but had never previously performed in an improv show. My first show was after my first conservatory class and my scene did not go well. I am so grateful for that experience because it taught me that I can make mistakes and it will be okay. The world won’t end. That lesson has helped me take bigger risks in my acting, writing and personal life.

What advice do you have for anyone looking to get into improv?

There are so many beginner and drop-in classes that you can try. In fact, Second City has an Improv for Anxiety course. My experience was that the only way to push past the worst case scenario voice was to practice going outside of my comfort zone in a safe, supportive environment

Where can we see you on stage?

I perform regularly with Abra Cadaver. Dana Puddicombe and I host the Fresh Start improv jam at The Social Capital Theatre on the first Monday of every month as our duo FoxTrap!

Is there anything else you would like to add or anything you would like to plug?

I had a blast playing Alex in the web series Wholesome Foods I Love You… Is That Okay?, which is streaming on Amazon Prime US/UK, YouTube, Stareable, SeekaTV and www.wfily.com.

In 2014, I wrote a short film that screened at film festivals and am currently writing the second draft of a feature film.

www.samarastern.com
www.instagram.com/samarastern

Thank you for sharing your story, Samara!

Creating something out of nothing is as good as it gets

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“Improv has made an enormous impact on my life,” says Joe Amero. “It changed my entire way of thinking and dealing with people.”

For Joe Amero, a social worker turned improviser, his biggest accomplishment is pursuing his dream of getting into comedy. “Walking out there with nothing and creating something funny or sweet or brilliant or whatever with someone is as good as it gets,” he says. “It’s pure joy.”

Joe started improvising three years ago. Born and raised in Toronto, he lives in Hamilton with his family and commutes to Toronto for work and for improv. He notes that his commute is filled with podcasts, reflective thoughts and endless tears. Here’s what Joe had to say about his journey in improv and what he has gotten out of it.

How did you get into improv?

When my wife was pregnant with our first daughter, I took her to see a live performance of Night of the Living Dead at Theatre Passe Muraille for her birthday. After the show we were walking and talking about life and it hit me, that’s what I wanted to do!  After all the years of studying and paying my dues in the social services field, I forgot about my first love: comedy! Here we are talking about how we’re going to teach our kids to follow their dreams, and I’m just completely sidetracked doing what I needed to get by instead of what I truly wanted to be happy. The next day we were walking through Trinity Bellwoods Park and I found a tiny flyer for classes at Second City Toronto on a lamp post. It was a sign, literally, so I looked them up online. At the very last second, I chickened out and pushed the button for the comedy writing program since I had zero improv experience and figured I could check it out safely from there. I loved everyone I met there and would check out the long-form shows after every class. I was hooked!  As soon as I finished the writing program, I signed up for improv level A and there was no turning back.

What has the journey been like for you after getting started in improv?

The journey for me has been completely amazing so far. I’ve studied with the best instructors, formed a troupe that has trained and failed and failed and succeeded together. We’ve travelled to festivals and had our own monthly show. I’ve made great friends whom I would have never otherwise even met and we’ve laughed and shared and created and played together. Plus, we’ve gotten to be a part of The Assembly since the very beginning!

That’s awesome! Can you tell us more about your troupe?

My improv troupe Pepperoni Pizza Cats was born in the long-form conservatory at Second City. We soon started our own monthly show, stuck together after graduation, and have played in festivals in Toronto, Detroit and New York City.  We voted on the name, I lost, and I’m glad I did because people seem to love it as much as I have grown to. Pizza Cat is one of those things on the void that is the internet that makes zero sense, yet says it all, and is just for fun, which suits us perfectly.

What would you say is your biggest accomplishment as an improviser?

My biggest accomplishment as an improviser is becoming one in the first place. Walking out there with nothing and creating something funny or sweet or brilliant or whatever with someone is as good as it gets. It’s pure joy.

Do you have any favourite scenes?

One of my favourite moments so far was at a workshop with Mick Napier.  He said, “Improvising is the least important thing you will ever do in your whole life, or at least it should be.”

Great perspective!  At break time, he told me I was pretty funny and I said, “Thanks! So are you.” He laughed.

How has improv made a difference in your life?

Improv has made an enormous impact on my life. It changed my entire way of thinking and dealing with people. I don’t get the same anxiety I used to (I get a different anxiety but I know how to use it for fuel) and I look forward to every day and every situation to see what crazy shit will happen next. I’m more curious about the world and how different people see it in different ways. I’ve also drank the Kool-Aid and I’m sure people see me as a proud improv nerd.

Can you tell me about a time you’ve messed up on stage and just rolled with it?

I remember a scene with my homie Bradley Tingle where one of us, or maybe both of us, messed up our word right off the top. We just dug in deep and did a whole scene that seemed to make perfect sense to us and the audience, in complete jibberish. It was awesome!

Where can we see you on stage?

I play as much as I can on my own at people’s shows in Toronto at The Social Capital Theatre and Bad Dog Theatre, where I’m currently studying. I’m on a house team in The Assembly called Pepperoni Pizza Cats and we play those shows all the time at SoCap, Comedy Bar and Cahoots Theatre. I also volunteer for Funnies For Families and so should you!

Is there anything else you would like to add or anything you would like to plug?

The Pepperoni Pizza Cats Show is the 3rd Wednesday of EVERY month at The Social Capital Theatre (3rd Floor/PWYC!).

Thank you for sharing your story, Joe!

Be fearless in pursuit of what sets your soul on fire

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“Mistakes can be a beautiful thing in improv. We just need to learn to accept and embrace them,”  says Alia DeSantis, a Toronto-based actress and improviser.

When Alia DeSantis was younger, her mother had taped a note to their mirror that said “Be fearless in pursuit of what sets your soul on fire.”

It’s a common adage (sadly, a two-minute Google search didn’t identify who first coined it) that inspires us to find something that excites us, that sets our soul on fire, and to pursuit it relentlessly.

Anyways, let’s meet Alia, a Toronto-based actress and improviser, who knew since she was a child that she wanted to become a performer. “When [my mother] found out I wanted to be an actress, she set the note on fire,” Alia said while laughing. “Just kidding! My mother suggested I become a doctor when I grow up. My response? ‘Why be a doctor when I can play a doctor?'”

How did you get into improv?

I did a little improv in my high school drama class, but only really got involved with it when I was at Humber College. Like many improvisers, I grew up watching Whose Line Is It Anyway? and was completely enthralled by it. I’ve always been drawn to comedy, but improvisation held a special place in my heart. I find the whole thing very surreal but in the best way possible.

What has the journey been like for you after getting started in improv?

It has been an incredible journey thus far, and it’s only just the beginning! I’m still fairly new to the scene, but have absolutely fallen in love with performing, and hope to be doing it for a long time to come. I’ve been very fortunate and have had the opportunity to work with some incredibly talented people on some insanely fun shows. I’ve only been performing for about two and a half years, but the amount I have been able to do, and the amount I’ve grown as a performer and as an individual is immeasurable.

What would you say is your biggest accomplishment as an improviser?

I’d have to say my biggest accomplishment would be BOOZE CLUES, a monthly show I produce. There have definitely been other shows I’ve been a part of which I would consider to be huge milestones, but nothing compares to this. This is the first time I’ve ever created, produced and performed in the same show, and the whole experience has been eye-opening. To say it’s a lot of work would be an understatement, and I’m probably greying early from the stress of it all, but it has been such an insane process and so unbelievably worth it. I get to perform with my favourite people in a show I love and hold very near and dear to my heart. It’s like a dream come true, and next month we have Colin Mochrie joining us, so it literally will be a dream come true!

Do you have any favourite scenes?

All of them! Haha. I find it way more fun to be weird and absurd. I’ve played an animated broom, a male pirate, velociraptors (yes, more than once), Josh Murray’s father as a literal helicopter, and the groundhog from Groundhog Day. Recently however a very unusual thing happened to me on stage. Somehow in the course of the set I had cut my knee and it started to bleed pretty bad. I was oblivious to it, and continued to power through although I’m sure everyone in the audience was cringing. Tom Hearn was playing my son, and he had been killed in a zombie attack, (but not by a zombie, by Amanda Parker who was playing a visually impaired sniper). Cameron Algie and I laid on top of Tom in a Disney-like fashion to bring him back to life, and in the course of it all my blood ended up getting all over Tom’s arm. When he noticed I thought for sure he was going to pass out or puke on stage. The whole thing was absolutely bonkers, and the audience was going crazy. Tom and I have never been closer as we now share a blood pact.

How has improv made a difference in your life?

Improv has had such an incredibly positive impact on my life, and I honestly can’t imagine where I would be or who I would be without it. Some of my closest friends are ones I met through performing, and not only do they play big roles in my life, they have also shaped the person I am today. Improv is a great source of joy, laughter and creativity, and I am so fortunate to be part of such a special community.

Can you tell me about a time you’ve messed up on stage and just rolled with it?

I did a BeerProv show a while back, and made it to the final four (meaning I had to do a hoedown). For anyone who watches Whose Line?, it’s the exact same as they do in the show. You’re given a suggestion from the audience, and you have sing and rhyme eight bars worth of music. I really enjoy doing hoedowns, even though it feels like your heart and brain will explode in the seconds leading up to it. This particular time I had come up with the most perfect rhyme and was so ready for my part. However, when I opened my mouth to sing, what came out wasn’t English. It was like my brain malfunctioned, and every letter of the alphabet came out at once. I tried to power through it, but just kept spewing jibberish. Finally, I broke and started to laugh on stage. The audience got quite a kick out of it all too. Instead of allowing that situation to defeat me, I took a deep breath, waited for the song to cue up again and began to sing. Sure, I looked like a goof, but I had a great time and was able to laugh it off. Mistakes can be a beautiful thing in improv. We just need to learn to accept and embrace them.

Where can we see you on stage?

I perform monthly (2nd Friday of every month) in BOOZE CLUES at Bad Dog Theatre.

Is there anything else you would like to add or anything you would like to plug?

YES! BOOZE CLUES at Bad Dog Theatre is coming up on Friday, August 10th. We have Colin Mochrie joining us, and we will be donating all the proceeds to Rainbow Camp. It will be wonderful evening full of laughter and love, supporting both live comedy and the LGBTQ+ community.

Tickets are $15 and available at: www.baddogtheatre.com/booze-clues

More info:
Facebook : www.facebook.com/boozeclues.to
Instagram: @boozeclues.to

Thank you for sharing your story, Alia!

Improv is for anyone

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Shreya Patel (left) started improvising in January of 2017. She says pursuing improv has changed her life.

As Shreya Patel says, improv is for anyone. And she’s right. Before boarding the improv train last year, I never did any kind of performing. Hell, I never even imagined myself getting on stage. But getting into improv has been one of the best things I have ever done. Then again, I don’t do much.

Anyways, let’s meet Shreya, a model-turned-actress-improviser-and-filmmaker living in Toronto. She recently directed a documentary called Girl Up, aimed at raising awareness of domestic violence, human trafficking and social injustice. In addition to acting and improvising, she is also a mental health advocate and can be seen in this year’s Bell Let’s Talk campaign.

Disclaimer: Shreya is a friend of mine. We did classes together at Second City and we’re members of the same troupe, Coffee Breath. But she’s cool. Really cool. Here’s what she had to say.

How did you get into improv?

I was dealing with anxiety due to the negative environment at my workplace and I really needed a laugh which is when I decided to sign up for improv classes at Second City. It was something I always wanted to try and the time was right. I knew that taking my first improv class would keep me on my feet and help me be present in the moment which was hard to do at the time.

What has the journey been like for you?

The journey has been incredible. The teachers. The community. The people. When I first started my improv classes, I didn’t realize how addicted I would get to it or how far I would come. I am so grateful every day to the day I decided to do improv and signed up.

What would you say is your biggest accomplishment as an improviser?

I heard from teachers and peers that the Second City conservatory program is hard to get into. I was just finishing up Level E and didn’t think I was ready to audition so I didn’t sign up. On the last day of class, two days before the audition, our teacher Matt Folliott mentioned that if you audition and don’t get in, you will get good feedback for the future. I emailed to find out if any spots were still available and they squeezed me in with a group for the audition. I went to it stress-free because I was convinced I will be required to audition again and was there for just for the notes. I remember having the most fun on stage due to feeling no pressure. A couple of weeks later, I got an acceptance letter to the program. The feeling was incredible.

Any weird moments or scenes?

Oh, yes. I was performing at Comedy Bar with a great bunch of people and we did a pad set (a pad set is an audience-driven format, where improvisers come up with different premises based on audience suggestions). We got on stage and it got really weird. The premise involved Demi Lovato’s evil pants. I’m not kidding.  I played Demi Lovato, and two of my team members became my pants, one side each. One member became Owen Wilson and tried to save me from my pants.

How has improv made an impact on your life?

Improv has changed my life. My anxiety has healed and the amount of amazing people I have met on this journey is incredible. I am more involved in the community and I perform or watch improv shows every week. My ideal weekend is watching a show at Bad Dog Theatre or Comedy Bar, and hanging out after with everyone in the community.

If there’s one rule of improv that stuck with me, it’s that okay to make mistakes. Can you tell me about a time you’ve messed up on stage and just rolled with it?

Yes, there are many times as improvisers that we mess up on stage and we gotta know that it is okay. My Conservatory teacher Alastair Forbes gave us the best advice: If you are not having fun on stage, you are not doing it right! It really stuck with me and now every time I hit the stage, I always ask myself, how can I have the most fun right now and do that.

Where can we see you on stage?

We are putting up a show almost every second week at Second City for conservatory program and trying out new premises to see if it works. Our main show is on October 20 at 1pm at the Second City main stage. I will also be soon performing with my class at The Assembly Improv. Dates are getting finalized soon. For dates to the shows, follow @imshreyapatel.

Is there anything you want to add?

Improv isn’t just for actors. Improv is for anyone. I recommend it to anyone from all different backgrounds. It’s an excellent way to meet like-minded people, improve your mental health, build communication skills, have fun and…most importantly…laugh. Brighten up your day with some comedy. Do self-care. Do you.

Thanks, Shreya! You heard her, folks. Improv is definitely for anyone. Now go do some improv. Seriously.