Illustration by Isabelle Cardinal
Mirror, mirror on the wall. Who’s the most judgmental of them all?
About 50 of them stand outside of what I think is the room where I’ll soon be taking my first improvisation class from Rapid Fire Theatre. The 33-year-old company stages weekly Friday and Saturday shows at the Citadel, where improvisers ask the audience to yell out settings and character details, so the actors can create on-the-spot stories. It happens so naturally you’d never guess most of these actors have spent years honing their razor-sharp wit.
The company hosts several festivals throughout the year, along with four levels of workshops for the public, starting with a four-day course, spread out over four weeks, covering the basics of the craft. I’m starting at the beginning – it’s my first time taking any kind of acting classes.
My eyes are sunken from pressure due to a sinus cold, and my sandpapered throat lends me a stand-offish Jack Palance growl – all the better to improvise with. “You’re here for the improv workshop, right?” I wheeze towards the teenagers at my right. I’m interrupting their heated debate about which students they think will fail the upcoming term.
“What? No! We’re just waiting for someone.” The girl raises her eyebrow at her friends. I’m embarrassed, and now late for class. As I walk away, I can hear some of the teenagers snickering. It would be paranoid to think they’re laughing at me, but I turn around to look and a couple of girls quickly avert their eyes, turning back towards the main group. In the back of my mind I push back the idea that this could be foreshadowing what’s to come in the workshop.
I stumble around, sneezing and wheezing, and find the right classroom. A group of people in their 20s and older (thankfully!) sit in a circle. I’m armed with only a few questionable acting tools – a southern belle accent, a spot-on old man impression (thanks to the raspy throat) and a generic robot dance.
The idea of acting without preparation or a script with about 10 class members holds its own kind of terror. For days, I’d been worrying about the class. But oddly, my cold is holding my nerves at bay and, as I look around the room, something else is blooming.
Childhood delusions of grandeur.
I’m a child of the ’80s; a generation who grew up with teachers saying we could be whatever we wanted. Sit at the front of the class, pay attention, swish your fluoride, eat as little glue as possible (they weren’t completely unrealistic) and you can all be movie stars. Our elementary classrooms were full of future Gilda Radners and Dan Aykroyds. And, as I sit with my new classmates, it’s all coming back. I can see it in their eyes.
After all, Nathan Fillion, loved by sci-fi geeks and desperate housewives alike, didn’t just get his start somewhere; he got it right here, at Rapid Fire. I imagine he slugged it out in improv, one generic robot impression at a time.
“There are three things that make improv great: Be present, be positive and be confident,” says Jessie McPhee, who’s running the class along with fellow Rapid Fire improviser, Paul Blinov.
Somewhere at the back, there’s a part of my brain that’s still functioning. It’s the part that keeps me from taking a muffin tin from the stove without wearing any oven mitts. I recognize a guy in the class; we took some writing classes together a few years back. We smile hello. It’s one thing to embarrass myself in front of strangers, but knowing someone in the class gets the SOS synapses in my brain to start wildly firing.
But it doesn’t matter, because they throw us into action immediately. We’re asked to walk around the room and if one of us does something – it can be anything from tying our shoe to doing a little dance – then everyone in the group runs up to him or her and screams encouragement. I adjust my scarf self-consciously and the whole group surrounds me. Work that scarf! That’s the most beautiful scarf I’ve ever seen! I’ve never seen anyone adjust a scarf like that!
I feel like Radner must have felt with all her fans yelling from the Saturday Night Live audience. This isn’t so bad. But things are just getting started. We play a lot of games, which are warm-up exercises, designed to get us ready to improvise and be in the moment.
We throw around pretend boulders and dance like Scooby-Doo. Next, we go around the classroom naming everything we see – easy enough – but the second part of the game involves naming the last thing we saw while we point to a new object. Not so easy. I mess up numerous times and get really nervous as the guy I know stands next to me, rattling off the items like he’s reading right from a grocery list.
Oddly, I’m challenged the most when we have to point at objects and just randomly name them; they can be anything except what they are in real life. You’d think it’d be easy, but I keep getting distracted by everyone else’s voices, and I can’t focus on naming the door that someone already christened Obi-Wan Kenobi.
Then, I start to worry that everyone is judging Tom Selleck’s moustache; or rather the fact that I’ve crowned the poster on the wall this famous bit of facial hair. I stare at a chair, challenging the foreign object to reveal its true nature. The options are endless … and that’s the problem. “Throne,” I say in a panic as I immediately realize a throne is a type of chair. Who fails at the name game? Not a future Gilda Radner.
By this point, the delusions are fading rapidly. Cold realism is taking hold. McPhee says it’s time for a break, and I brace myself for the awkward interactions between people who obviously know what they’re doing (my classmates) and someone who clearly doesn’t belong (me).
But the judgment I fear doesn’t seem to exist as we stand around the water cooler outside the classroom. Everyone (myself excluded) is still genuinely excited to be there, and there isn’t a division between the classmates. It’s starting to seem weird that I thought I’d be entering some kind of high-school theatre program where the cool kids would judge the fumbling socially awkwards.
We’re back in the classroom and Blinov says: “There is no judgment here. It holds us back. If you’re judging yourself, if you’re judging others, that will stop the flow of ideas. You’ve got to say yes to everything.” So, we continue to get (or at least appear to get) excited about everything. Laugh at everything.
We’re acting like giddy teenagers with no judgment or cattiness. It seems like an oxymoron to me, but not to McPhee. He started improvising when he was a teenager, as did the majority of the actors who make up Rapid Fire Theatre. McPhee says most of the Rapid Fire improvisers came out of the high school educational system and high school tournaments, like the Nose Bowl.
But since the company moved from the Varscona to the Citadel last year, an interesting shift happened. McPhee noted enrolment for the workshops has increased and he’s witnessed groups of people go through the four levels of workshops together, with some even making it into the company by the end. Looks like my delusions weren’t that far fetched; it is actually possible to become a real-deal improviser through these classes.
However, McPhee assures me that not all the people take the classes because they want to be professional improvisers. “We tend to see a couple types of people: Those who are really into improvising and are big fans of it and then those who maybe are in a law office or something and they want to be better at speaking because they never do anything crazy like this,” he says.
Our group is no exception. We have an engineer, a news writer, a lady who has improvisation classes on her bucket list and a guy who enjoys doing improv, along with role playing, as a method of unwinding.
It’s halfway through the second class, and now that I’ve let go of my dreams of being a professional actress, I’m being less hard on myself and am actually starting to have some fun. We’re playing a game where one person says a word and the other says the next word, and the two partners create a story together. My partner and I tell a tale of a mouse that creates an app to help a snake manouevre the Internet without any opposable thumbs. It’s nonsensical, yes, but we’re laughing and, finally, I feel like I’m not judging my ideas.
Next, the whole class does the same thing, each person saying one word as we go around the circle, creating a story. It’s a convoluted tale of a bobcat in a forest, and when it gets to my turn, I go for an adjective. “Shiny.” Suddenly we have a shiny truck in the mix and next there’s a shiny volcano. Nothing makes sense. Things have gone sideways quickly. McPhee breaks in with some words of advice.
“So, when you’re given a choice in improv between making a decision and letting someone else do it, you should always make the decision. Don’t hesitate. Don’t give an adjective when you can give a noun,” he says. “We call that wimping, actually maybe even pimping, in improv. Wimping is not making a decision. And pimping is when you’re forcing the other improviser to do all the work or to make the decision for you.” I have an older brother, so it’s not the first time I’ve been called a wimp. The pimp thing is new, though.
I look across the circle and the guy I know gives me a smile and a nod as if to say: “It’s true; you’ve made an idiot of yourself.”
I’m a little thrown off. I was told not to worry; there are no wrong answers in improvisation. No mistakes. Meanwhile, not only are there mistakes, there are terms for the mistakes. I can’t imagine Nathan Fillion enduring the trauma of being called a wimp. A pimp? Maybe, but only in jest.
But Gordie Lucius, a performer with Rapid Fire, begs to differ. “Any improviser has been told those things at one point or another,” he says.
“Actually, mistakes are a big part of improv,” says Lucius. He started improvising in 2006, while in high school and joined Rapid Fire in 2008. He’s also taught workshops for the University of Alberta’s improv group. While he was a class clown, improv did not come easy to him. He struggled with feeling comfortable performing, and, for a year and a half, was cut from the Rapid Fire stage. In the meantime, he continued to perform with the U of A’s improv group, and now he’s back to performing with Rapid Fire.
“I think it’s because I wasn’t challenging myself. I was playing the same characters and playing it safe,” he says. “The main thing you should get out of improv is that failure is OK. You can’t succeed without failing.”
I go to see one of the Theatresports performances on a Friday night and it’s hilarious. I’m amazed by how the performers can create such entertaining characters and scenes that the audience actually cares about. The show culminates with a musical about a Double Down, the Kentucky Fried Chicken sandwich enclosed by two pieces of chicken rather than a bun. A jealous onlooker sings to the sandwich, that also has its own solo, and then the Colonel reminds everyone about the Toonie deal. There’s something hilarious about watching the performers trying to improvise themselves out of a corner right before your eyes. I go home and YouTube some past improv performances and none have the same impact as the live show I’d just witnessed.
When I ask Kory Mathewson, a performer from that night, to name his favourite scene, he’s quiet. “Honestly, I can’t remember much of anything.” I’m reminded of something that the host said before the performance: “You’re about to see performances that will only exist here. Once we’re gone, that’s it.” Improvisation is an elusive type of acting, one that performers never seem to really remember once they leave the stage. And it’s a freeing thing. Lucius calls it a “disposable” type of performance; if no one really is recording or remembering, there’s nothing holding performers back. At least that’s how it looks for Mathewson.
He was daring on stage, never hesitating, always throwing himself into the centre of the action. “I don’t have any formal acting training. But I’ve spent more time improvising than building any other skill I have,” he says. He began improvising in high school, in 2005, and now performs about three times a week or more with Rapid Fire, plus once a week with Die Nasty, a live improvised soap opera at the Varscona. He’s also the founder of an improv group at the U of A.
Mathewson’s not pursing acting as a full-time career, but working on a masters in biomedical engineering from the U of A. His ultimate goal is to be a professor – he knows his improv skills would be a benefit in lectures.
But his belief that improvisation can help people’s lives extends far beyond public speaking skills. And a project that he conducted, along with U of A professor Lisa Guirguis, sought to prove that. In 2009, while Mathewson was Students’ Union president, he partnered with the Faculty of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences to create a program that used improvisation to teach students the communication, listening and empathy skills needed in their profession. And Guirguis also conducted a research experiment whereby she tried to determine if the skills learned in improvisation are better suited to teach communication than more scientific and analytical ways of teaching. The results? While not everyone found improvisation to be a better learning tool, some of the group found it to be extremely beneficial, particularly with improving their abilities to listen to patients and to focus on what is being said in the moment.
By this point, I know I don’t want to be a professional improviser. Onstage spontaneity isn’t my style. I’m not so much a Gilda Radner as I am a what’s-her-name who works behind the scenes. And I’m happy with that. But I also know that there are benefits to be had by actually giving improvisation a chance. Now, I realize improv isn’t about avoiding mistakes; it’s about making them and being OK with them. It’s about looking stupid – even embracing it. Better yet, it’s about letting go of all that and just having fun. I like the idea of being spontaneous without thinking too much about the consequences. And I’m inspired by the fact that improvisation has actually been used to improve people’s communication skills, in particular their listening skills. Because that’s what I’m struggling with the most, maybe even off stage.
The biggest challenge is trying not to plan ahead – to listen actively to my fellow improvisers and play off what they’ve created. Now that I don’t have to worry about impressing anyone, I forget about trying to be funny – I never really succeeded with that anyway – and just try to be a character.
Mathewson gives me some tips when we chat, and the biggest thing that sticks with me is his take on nervousness. He doesn’t claim to be nerve-free. He says that’s to be expected in improvisation. “The improvisers that you enjoy watching are the ones that can attack the nervousness and do something interesting with it; they step into the pool of sharks that is the audience,” he says.
I look at the audience and they’re hungry for something more than what I’ve been feeding them.
It’s a three-person scene. We need to pretend to be parents and our child is sneaking back into the house, having been gone for hours. I’m the mom. I decide to be a clueless mom. I ask the dad if he thinks our kid’s been bad recently … she seems to be sneaking out a lot. “No,” he says. I say: “You’re right. Like today, for example. She’s been so good, up in her room, so quiet. You can’t even tell she’s there.” We continue to have a lengthy chat about how well-behaved our child is while she sneaks in behind us.
People are actually laughing.
I look at the shark pool and my acquaintance smiles and nods again as if to say: “It’s not Saturday Night Live material, but it’ll do.” I nod back this time. There’s no judgment here, after all.