These shows are bringing stage actors and improvisers closer together.
There’s a twist on the ol’ “forgot your clothes” nightmare, for actors—it’s “forgot your lines,” and it was enshrined in a play about an actor who is dropped into a play without lines or plot: Christopher Durang’s The Actor’s Nightmare.
Some performers, though, learn to love the thrill of having to make it all up on the spot, in improv, a particular form of performer adrenaline addiction. The strange thing in Toronto, however, is how stage actors and comedic improvisers so rarely interact. But a pair of shows—Wonderstruck Live (which ran Sunday), and Mixed Company (which runs tonight)—feature actors improvising plays and pair actors with improvisers in scenes, and work to better blend the two disciplines.
“My favourite time as a performer to date has been improvising plays,” Ron Pederson explains to us after a performance of Wonderstruck Live at the Storefront Theatre, where it was in residence every Sunday in August. (The show is moving to Monday nights at the Bad Dog Theatre, starting September 7.) As an alumni of The National Theatre of The World, Pederson (along with Naomi Snieckus, Matt Baram, and many guest performers) did over 200 improvised one-act plays around the world, but he’s been mostly performing scripted work of late. “I missed longform, and wanted to do [improvised] plays again.”
When Pederson, at the beginning of his career, began performing in improv in his hometown of Edmonton, it was mostly with stage actors. “I improvised with Die-Nasty, the weekly soap opera, and that cast was populated with actors on their day off. It was our version of a bowling night; actors taking a break from Shakespeare, or David Mamet plays.”
Wonderstruck Live guest performer Raoul Bhaneja, a veteran musician and actor still perhaps best known to Torontonians for his role on the improvised TV series Train 48, has also guested on Die-Nasty a few times, and concurs. “It was populated by hybrid theatre-actor/improvisers, which we don’t see much of in Toronto. There are people who improvise professionally here, who make a living at it.”
That’s in large part due to Second City Toronto, which employs many of Toronto’s best improvisers in its mainstage revue and touring company. Alan Kliffer, who produces Mixed Company, explains that talented improvisers also land many writing jobs in television—and ace TV commercial auditions. “[Improv] definitely makes you a better auditioner, to start.”
That career stream sets improvisers apart from stage actors in an odd way in Toronto, though, as the improv scene is almost entirely geared towards comedy. Both Pederson and Kliffer clearly think more actors should be involved in improv, though their shows take different approaches at integrating them. “My company in general is trying to blend theatrics with improv,” says Kliffer, who also produces One Night Only, an improvised musical. “I’m trying to combine the two communities.”
Mixed Company gives their featured actors “sides” (a script with just their lines) from a play, and pair them with improvisers, who don’t know what play is being used, and make up their side of the scene. “It’s often actors who’ve never done improv, paired with very skilled improvisers,” says Bhaneja, who’s guested on Mixed Company as well, as an actor, despite his improv background. He confesses he’d prefer to go back as an improviser—but then, suspects many of the actors who participate feel the same way afterward. “Once you get that high of doing improv, as a performer, it’s hard to walk away from it. I have to keep telling my wife, ‘Uh, I’m going out on Sunday night and not making much—maybe any—money”.
(That’s a sticking point for Kliffer: “A lot of improv comedy shows are free, which I frankly think devalues a show, and brings down the quality. I’d love to create more [actor’s union] Equity jobs for improvisers.”)
For the initial pay-what-you-can run of Wonderstruck Live, Pederson didn’t seem to have much trouble attracting top-notch performers. “These are actors who regularly work at companies like the Stratford Festival, or Soulpepper.” Some, like Haley McGee and Katherine Cullen, were new to improvising for an audience, and had very little preparation beforehand. “My own initial experience with improv was being thrown into it,” says Pederson, “no classes, just, ‘Here’s your character, here’s your costume, and—go.’ But as actors, we already have a shared vocabulary.”
Unlike with The National Theatre of the World’s Impromptu Splendor, which created new plays in the style of specific playwrights, Wonderstruck Live is trying to create something entirely new each time. “The first week,” muses Bhaneja, “was a lot like a Neil LaBute play, a comedy of manners. This [third] show, it was more like Chekov,” though there’s not any intentional emulation of specific playwrights’ tropes.
Pederson and his cast also focus on quiet moments and pauses, which rarely occur in improv. “In [improv comedy format] Theatresports, you’re taught to immediately figure out who you are, where you are, what you’re doing. Here, we focus on who and where, but we don’t rush the what—it’ll eventually show up. And the pauses aren’t an improviser’s pause to think, but an actor breathing to inhabit the role. We’ll even breathe on the side to ‘feed’ the actors onstage, almost like a zen thing. ‘Feel more, think less.'”
All three clearly think highly of the improv comedy scene in Toronto. “I feel intimidated sometimes, only dabbling in improv,” admits Bhaneja, “because we have genius-level improvisers in this town, who can create incredible comedy out of thin air—it’s unreal improvising with Colin Mochrie, for instance.” But they also think there’s more opportunity for quality (and dramatic) improv shows, and for improv to be employed for more than just easy laughs.
“You can literally walk across the street [from Storefront Theatre] and see people being hysterically funny at Comedy Bar,” says Bhaneja. “So [Wonderstruck Live] offers something a little different.” With Mixed Company, you’ll get to see eight actors paired with eight improvisers. And with Wonderstruck Live, you’ll get something, according to Bhaneja, that’s “a little edgier, a little darker, and more emotional.”
An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated Wonderstruck Live would be taking place on Sundays in September at Bad Dog Theatre. We regret the error.