Bad Dog Theatre's Combustion Festival brings improvisers from across the continent (and further) to try out new formats and cross-pollinate their art.
All this week, improvisers from across North America (and further afield) have been converging at Bad Dog Theatre for the Combustion Festival, a smorgasbord of improvised theatre and comedy featuring faces familiar to Canadians from their commercials (because improvisers nail a lot of those lucrative gigs), and voices familiar from cartoons (improvisers have an upper hand getting those jobs, too). They may not be household names, but they may be the best value per entertainment dollar – especially because many of Combustion’s shows showcase unusual and unexpected team-ups, even for the performers themselves.
Lisa Amerongen, Bad Dog’s general manager, lists some off: “We’ve got people from all over; Vancouver’s Sunday Service, Montreal’s Easy Action, Atlanta’s Big Ol’ Show, Junior Varsity from New York, and of course, Toronto improvisers. We even have an Argentinian, Feña Ortalli, who’s been a pen pal of Julie Dumais Osborne, our Artistic Director, for ten years; they’ve never met in person until now.”
There’s a lot of excitement over this year’s festival, since it’s being held for the first time in Bad Dog’s still very new Bloor and Ossington theatre space. “The first Combustion Festival was at Comedy Bar, before that venue even had proper floors or ceilings,” reminisces Alex Tindal, a faculty member at Bad Dog who most recently appeared in their shows 9 to 5 and Dust Bunny (and is recognizable to Canadiana for starring in the most recent Tim Horton’s Roll Up The Rim contest commercials). We also recall those shows, which served beers out of plastic tubs in coolers (both Comedy bar and Bad Dog now have gorgeous bars). Tindal also recalls what made those shows, and the festival in its current form, so special. “it brought together performers who hadn’t worked together before, who were excited to do so.”
Of course, improvisers are one of the few performers who can be thrown together with no notice and challenged to make something special immediately. Tindal recalls the first “blind date” show that Combustion, and its now defunct parent troupe Project. Project produced. “Simon Pond, Norm Sousa [host of Discovery’s Never Ever Do This At Home], and Rob Baker were called up, and none of them had ever performed together – they were from different worlds. Before they’d even started their scene, people in the room were losing their minds; if you were an observer of Toronto’s comedy scene, you knew these guys, but they’d never collaborated before.”
It’s not just local performers who are trying something new at Combustion, either. Atlanta, Georgia theatre Dad’s Garage, for instance, has sent several troupes, including The Big Ol’ Show, a duo comprised of Matt Horgan and Amber Nash (best known as the voice of Pam Peevy on FX’s Archer cartoon] who do Southern Civil War-set “epics”, and Dark Side of the Room, a new all African-American troupe. “We were all individual performers at Dad’s Garage,” explains troupe member Jon Carr,”and we decided, ‘let’s make a format for a bunch of black guys!'”
Carr laughs when he says this, and his troupe doesn’t shy away from addressing the elephant in the room; their first scene at the festival’s opening sampler show asked the question (and then showed the audience), ‘what were the black guys doing during the movie Jaws‘? When we ask if their troupe is often in the minority, same as with Toronto’s still mostly white improv community, Carr agrees. “It’s the same in Atlanta; improv is seen as a nerdy white guy thing. But Dad’s Garage has an emphasis on diversifying, reaching out to different audiences and cultures, as as a result, there were enough African-Americans playing there that the four of us here thought, ‘we should put together our own group’.”
We mention to Carr our recent feature on Zabrina Chevannes’ ‘Things Black Girls Say‘ stand-up showcase, and the concept, recently explored in a Vice Canada article on women of colour in music, that diversity first and foremost makes for better art. Carr agrees, but wants to emphasize the work involved. “This wasn’t just getting together some people who’ve been doing improv for 6 months to say, ‘we have this group’; this is the result of us putting a lot of time and effort into our art, individually. I’ve been doing improv 10 years, so it’s always great when you have the chance to do something unique and different.”
That concept of mixing things up, trying new things, and showcasing different acts,pervades Combustion’s programming. “This weekend also features Folk Lordz, an Edmonton duo who tell stories using Aboriginal and Russian traditions,’ details Amerongen, “and of course our Saturday night flagship show, TheatreSports, will feature lots of guests with local improvisers, plus an improviser throwdown late that night to wrap up the festival.” Tindal, having been part of Combustion since the beginning, is thinking on a more macro level. “It’s really exciting to see Combustion in this physical space. Toronto has some great performance spaces, like Comedy Bar, of course, an the Social Capitial Theatre. But in terms of spaces designed to watch improv in, this theatre’s very rare. It makes sense to watch improv here.”