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!

The magic of improv

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“Some days just going into a theatre is a huge accomplishment. Sometimes just putting on pants is a huge accomplishment. It’s all relative,” improviser Dan Frampton, pictured right, said. Photo credit: Brent Robichaud

As Toronto improviser Dan Frampton says, “I couldn’t have found a better thing to have in my life.”

I could not agree more. For me, improv has been like a fun and awesome but unpredictable friend, who forces me out of my comfort zone. “Hey dude, we should get up on stage together. And you should get down on the stage floor like a rat. It will be funny,” improv would say to me. You may be scared initially of hanging out with your friend named Improv, but you learn to love him.

Anyways, let’s meet Dan, who recently graduated from the improv programs at Second City and The Assembly. He’s also a singer, songwriter and vocalist with his band, The Dean Project, which he describes as an acoustic spoof act that satirizes music culture. They toured the country with their makeshift drum, a three-foot-tall plastic nutcracker named Munchie.

Disclaimer: Dan and I were classmates together at Second City. He’s a friend and he’s awesome. Here’s what he had to say about his journey in improv.

How did you get into improv?

Unfortunately, this is where the story takes a bit of a dark turn. While driving home from a show in Peterborough, we were hit by a transport truck. My best friend, and namesake of the group, Dean, didn’t survive the wreck. The five years that followed were the hardest years I could imagine having. It took much soul searching and episodes of Frasier for me to realize what I needed in this new life of mine.

Then one day, I started thinking, “Hey, just do improv. The Dean Project was just an untrained musical improv troupe. Just learn this fer realz.” So, I dropped into Second City and the romance began.

I’m so sorry to hear about your friend. What has the journey been like for you after getting started in improv?

It’s actually been so fucking crazy. Life-changingly crazy. I find that improv fucks with my head in so many beautiful ways. One day, in one scene, a concept makes total sense. It works! Yay, laughs! The next day, in a new scene, that concept ruins everything. Boo, no laughs! The learning, I feel, is all in the play. The “rules” don’t dictate what’s good. That immediate response from the audience tells you what’s good. And I love that! That constant discovery is what keeps me going.

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

Some days just going into a theatre is a huge accomplishment. Sometimes just putting on pants is a huge accomplishment. It’s all relative.

I totally agree. Just putting on pants is an achievement for me. Do you have any favourite scenes?

I was doing a jam at The Social Capital. My character was a waiter. Every offer made him need to pee more. Halfway through the scene my nose actually started bleeding, giving my character the motivation to run to the bathroom. I yelled “I can’t work anymore” and ran to the actual bathroom. To this day, the SoCap 3rd floor stage has a bit of Dan Frampton DNA soaked into it. Totally gross, man!

How has improv made a difference in your life?

It’s a whole new life. I couldn’t have found a better thing to have in my life. I truly love improv. I love warm-ups. I love short form games. I love classes and drop-ins. I’m in love with long form. But to me, it’s all about the community and the shows! I’m often not the best in social scenarios and the politics of the scene sometimes really fuck with me. Those are things that I’m always working on. I’m endlessly thankful to have a community where I get to work on some shit with.

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

I’d say my improv style consists of only mistakes and trying to dig myself out.

Where can we see you on stage?

I’m not playing on many stages these days. Mainly because “improv audition” is a major oxymoron to me. It bends my brain in many unnatural ways. Improv is an in- the-moment experience. It lives and dies simultaneously. To bring that to a panel of judges seems unfair me. I’ll be going to events that I see posted online. While there, I’ll be doing my best to make friends. If there’s a jam, I’ll likely play. That is unless I don’t like the host!

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

I’m producing my very first show on August 16 at The Social Capital Theatre. The Social Capital has been a very important to me. It’s my improv home. It’s a magically place to me. I wish Ralph MacLeod and Carmine Lucarelli, the owners, knew how much I love and appreciate them. It means the world to me to have my show up on their stage.

It’s an experimental long form format that I came up with and want to try. It’s called Total Fucking Chaos. I’m hosting it in my Dean Project persona with our resident nutcracker, Munchie. It’s going to be a mix of all my favourite things. Punk rock, pro wrestling and long form improv. Be there!

Another disclaimer: I will be performing in Dan’s show, Total Fucking Chaos, so you should really check it out. 

Thank you so much for sharing, Dan! Improv has definitely become one of the best things in my life and I don’t know what I would do without it.

Taking the leap onto the stage

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I never saw myself as the type of person who could be comfortable and have fun on stage, let alone love it as much as I do,” improviser Laura Stricker said. Photo credit: Marko Bezic (Toronto_Improv Instagram)

The first time I performed on stage, I was terrified. I had no idea what to expect. But I took the leap regardless, performing in a scene where I played an angry guy trying unsuccessfully to get fired from his job (fictional, of course!). It was silly…but I loved it. Now, I get up on stage every chance I get.

Anyways, let’s meet Laura Stricker, an improviser based in Toronto, who recently took the leap as well. Laura started pursuing improv last year after wanting to branch out and get out of her comfort zone. Now, she has graduated from Second City’s improv program and she is currently taking classes at The Assembly. Laura opened up about how she got into improv, how her journey is going so far and how she conquered her fears of performing on stage.

How did you get into improv?

My start in improv was due to a rather serendipitous series of events. In December of 2016, I was feeling down for several reasons. I thought getting involved in an activity would help cheer me up. I’d taken baking classes and gone to the Toronto Sport and Social Club. I wanted to try something new but had no idea what that could be.

I was on Twitter one day when I saw a tweet from someone mentioning how much they loved taking improv at Second City. That piqued my interest but also terrified me. I’m a pretty quiet person, so the thought of standing up in front of a bunch of strangers and making up scenes on the spot made me feel ill. I went to the Second City site to read more about the classes – and discovered they offer Improv for Anxiety. It seemed like the perfect way to give improv a try in a supportive environment. I signed up that day and got the last spot in Cameron Algie‘s class. Luckily I only had about a week to be a ball of anxiety before classes began!

What has the journey been like for you?

The journey has been incredible. I never saw myself as the type of person who could be comfortable and have fun on stage, let alone love it as much as I do. I’ve met many amazing people through improv and it has also benefitted me in pretty much every aspect of my life.

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

My biggest accomplishment so far has been conquering my fears of performing on stage. When I think back to the first time I performed – in front of maybe 10 people in my classroom at Second City – to now, the difference is amazing.

Any favourite scenes?

I was in a show in May and we did a fun scene about “floor people” versus “chair people.” (I was a chair person) Another that comes to mind is a radio play about missing fish, an evil and mysterious stranger stealing all the fish, and characters with video game names.

How has improv made a difference in your life?

I’m a lot less anxious, more comfortable speaking up and giving presentations at work, and much happier with life in general. Friends who have known me forever also comment on how much more confident I seem since starting improv. Before getting involved in improv I had no idea there was such a great scene in Toronto, with so many talented and hilarious people. Going to improv shows is now one of my favourite things to do.

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

Nothing specific is coming to mind, but I know there are times when my tongue works faster than my brain and what I say makes absolutely no sense. I don’t see it as messing up, because those mistakes often lead to delightful scenes. Pretty much all of my teachers tell us to not be afraid to try things and fail big, which is great advice for improv AND life.

Where can we see you on stage?

You can see me next in Assembly Tuesdays at The Social Capital Theatre on July 31 at 9:30 p.m.

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

If you’re considering giving improv a shot but are scared, just go for it! Everyone I’ve met in the community is really supportive. Taking that leap and facing my fears is the best thing I’ve ever done for myself.

Thank you so much for sharing, Laura! You’re absolutely right. If you’re interested in improv (and why wouldn’t you be?), go for it and take the leap.

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.