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.

There’s no place like improv…I mean, home

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For more than 30 years, Velvet Duke has been doing improv. He says one of the main benefits is the opportunity to connect with others. Photo credit: Brent Robichaud

When I first got into improv last year, one thing that struck with me was the inspiring and supportive community that I found myself exposed to. Over the past year, I met a range of talented improvisers who continue to support each other.

One of them was Velvet Duke, an improviser and singer based in Toronto. Velvet started performing 30 years ago and hasn’t looked back. We caught up about his journey navigating through the improv community and how he sought to even further empower the community with some awesome shows.

How did you get into improv?

My high school theatre arts teacher introduced improv as one component of his curriculum. After that, I had an opportunity to go to school for programming or acting. I loved programming but didn’t think I would like it as a job. I took a year of theater in college and found it didn’t satisfy the way improv had.

Improv is the more interesting art form because you can throw yourself into the moment and each show offers different moments.

What has the journey been like you?

It has been a lifelong journey with some of my greatest joys and friendships, and some of my deepest woes.

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

Being thanked for some of my show formats — they were designed to uplift the community and that has seemed to have worked.

That’s amazing that you produced your own shows for the community. Can you tell me more about that?

It was new to me. I’m used to creating things but to have people thank me was really humbling.

Anyways, INTERSECTION was created to offer more stage time to diverse performers. It gives us a chance to see ourselves together as a group rather than one or two per show. It also brings in an audience that reflects that diversity.

Tough Love was part personal workshop and part show, where a featured performer could work through some of their bad habits. It was fun while it lasted and may come back.

The Sampler was a competition format that had performers working against strict timings to develop their skills for delivering and polishing material on demand.

What inspired you to produce these shows?

Initially I would look to see what I felt was a missing format in the communal landscape. Of the three though, INTERSECTION is the one I am proud of yet most similar to other shows. It isn’t the first show of its type — but there was still a hunger for it in the community.

Also, I love improv too much not to have things on the go.

What has the feedback been like?

Each sought to bring the community together. INTERSECTION often has the performers and audience talking after the show, continuing their personal stories.

Also, I’ve had professional performers unable to be part of the project thank me for creating it for the sake of the community.

That’s awesome. Anyways, back to you, my friend. Any weird moments or scenes that you can share?

I remember engaging with the audience at a Harry Potter themed show at Comic-Con. A little boy decided he was a very deadly potion but he also had the cutest giggle. At another Comic-Con show, a young woman decided she was a dragon. They were as invested as the performers!

How has improv made an impact on your life?

  • Finding the “yes” in seemingly difficult situations
  • Bringing humour to tense situations
  • Being able to empathize and connect with others
  • Being able to face down fears, to act through it
  • The joys of spending hours (okay, years) performing and talking about a shared passion
  • The friendships

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 how you rolled with it?

Once I coughed from the sidelines and that led me to be endowed as a sickly wife being used as blackmail to keep the husband working the smithy.

Also, I’ve developed aphasia and I already speak faster than I think, so I have made many unintended offers. Happy accidents!

Where can we see you on stage?

I perform across Toronto with my troupes The Dandies and OverDude. Also, I guest on shows at The Social Capital Theatre, Comedy Bar, Bad Dog Theatre, and regularly at the QAPD Collective, Toronto’s weekly LGBTQ open mic show, at Pegasus on Church.

 Is there anything you want to add or anything you want me to plug?

Learn everything you can by watching shows and taking classes but also hold on to your unique style, interests and, especially your weirdness.

Shows to plug:

INTERSECTION – the joys and struggles of Canadian life (next: June 6)
Diverse storytelling comedy show – 1st Wednesday of every month at The Social Capital

Holodeck Follies (next: June 9)
Spontaneous Star Trek and variety comedy show. 2nd Saturday of every month at Comedy Bar

Thanks for sharing, Velvet! Also, make sure you like his Facebook page and follow him on Twitter!

Laughing in the face of fear

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Cameron Algie started improvising at Second City Toronto 12 years ago. “I’m a completely different person now, thanks to improv,” he says. Photo credit: Adrianne Gagnon.

Someone once told me that if you’re scared to do something, that is the reason why you should do it. I forget who that person was (I have the memory of a chimpanzee), but their words stuck with me.

To kick things off, I spoke with Cameron Algie, an improviser in Toronto. Cameron teaches improv for anxiety at Second City Toronto and Play With Fire Improv. He also produces Laugh in the Face of Fear, a show based on the theme of anxiety. We caught up about his journey as an improviser and how it changed his life.

How did you get into improv?

I was seeing a therapist for my anxiety and any time he tried to get me to be vulnerable, I’d turn to joking and trying to lighten the mood. He laughed a couple of times, told me I was funny, and said I should take a Second City class. I took it as him listening to me talk about how I felt alone and scared and sick all the time and unable to leave my house, and his solution was to go be funny on a stage in front of hundreds of judgmental strangers. I thought it over, and stopped seeing that therapist. But he had planted the thought in my head. About six months after that, I hit emotional rock bottom, and decided there was really nothing left to lose, so I signed up for a class.  I hated the idea and improv scared the shit out of me. After a few classes, I started to love it.

What has the journey been like for you?

Literally life-changing. I mean, I used to be a copywriter in advertising. I would go to classes or shows after work each night. Then I started teaching classes after work. Eventually the scales started to tip. I remember leaving work one night to do a show and the shocked expression on people’s faces that I would dare leave when there was still work to get done. But I’d found a new priority. When I finally worked up the courage to get fired, I decided to make a go of improv as a career. I make less, but I’m way happier.

Side bar, I recently went back and did a corporate improv show for the agency that fired me.

And how has improv made an impact on your life?

I’m a completely different person now thanks to improv. For one, I used to be a huge asshole. My inner voice was so judgmental and harsh. If I messed up at all, even flubbed a word, my inner voice would say something like, “You stupid useless piece of shit, no wonder nobody loves you!” I got used to that voice. It was all I heard. So used to it, it started to become my voice. I spoke to others the way I would speak to myself. If an account person (advertising person between the creatives and the clients) messed up at all, I would say something charming like, “You useless piece of shit…”

But I really took to the acceptance part of improv. This is how this is. Instead of constantly trying to change it, just give over to it and go along for the ride. It softened me tremendously. My inner voice is very loving now, and my outer has changed too. I hope there are people who can’t imagine me being an asshole, as much as I accept that there are still people from my ad days who can’t imagine me ever even smiling. Also, I smile all the time now.

I can’t imagine you being an asshole. Has improv changed the way you feel about yourself?

I felt I had to be perfect all the time. To constantly be better than I was yesterday and always growing and improving. It was a lot of pressure. I hated it. I hated life. Improv showed me mistakes were okay. I struggled to make mistakes at first, but then really grew to understand that there really is no such thing in improv. If you mess up and call cars “carbs” then your team builds a world where people drive carbs, and other people are worried about their weight and can’t drive carbs. The play is really in the mistakes. That carried over into my life and I was able to beat myself up less when something went “wrong.”

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

Oh man, probably thousands of times. None are popping into my head because they weren’t treated as mistakes, so they didn’t even register as one. I remember one time seeing someone stumble a bit getting onto the stage. Very embarrassing. For one second. Before the next player on the team also stumbled. Then the next teammate fell onto the ground. The rest of the team heightened till the audience was enjoying their “obviously pre-planned” stage entrance bit. Voila, no mistake!

I’m curious. Can you tell us about a particularly weird scene you’ve been in?

That’s the thing about improv, it’s mostly weird. But not weird. I’ve played a feather boa constrictor, driven a bathtub car, had laser legs, and a whole bunch of other crazy shit, but they all felt normal in the context of the scene.

Any tips for other folks who may want to try improv?
I feel like I should know how to answer this.
    • Bring a friend. I brought Sally and my buddy Tom to my first Second City class and it helped having them there.
    • Go see a show. The first improv show I saw (Catch 23 at Clinton’s) blew my mind. I actually said, “I could never do that.” But there was something that seemed so cool about it.
    • Try a drop-in. It can feel scary to commit to a full class, but improvising for a couple of hours makes it feel more doable.
    • Try improv by yourself or with a friend. There are resources out there that have lists of improv games.
    • Just practice playing. Board games, sports, any of the 365 ways to play on Instagram at @PlayWithFireImprov.
    • Know that you don’t have to be funny and you’re not expected to be good. It’s a class, meaning you’re there to learn. And you’re not there to get good at improv, you’re there to get okay with not being good at something.
    • The class itself isn’t scary, but the idea of it is, so most of the fear will come before the class. The hardest part is walking through that door the first time. So maybe sign up at the last minute. That way you’re not signing up two months before and then waiting and imagining all kinds of things for weeks before you go do it. Decide to do a drop-in that night.
    • Also go to the place where you’re thinking of doing a drop-in or class, and check out the space or see a show. Having that familiarity will make it easier the next time you go.
    • Breathe.

Where can we see you on stage?

Gonna plug my own show here: Laugh in the Laugh-in-Face-of-Fear-Feb-e1488170420246.jpgFace of Fear. There’s a free drop-in beforehand for anxious people who’d like to try improv but are scared to sign up a full improv class. Third Tuesday of every month, 8pm, at The Social Capital.

Other than that, I don’t have a ton of regular shows. Come see S&P whenever we perform. And Booze Clues and Blast from the Past, and any show that invites me to come play. Follow me on Twitter? Don’t, I don’t use Twitter.

Thanks so much for sharing, Cameron! You heard him, folks. Follow him on Twitter.