Tag Archives: improv

Gordon’s Big Bald Head, Under the Mango Tree, Sonder closing

On the day of our show Sonder‘s closing, I woke up early and rushed around with a to-do list in my head.  I ended up photocopying more programs for the show at the Strathcona Library because I didn’t have time to do them at home, for example.   We ended up giving out almost all the programs and having a nearly-full house for the last show in our successful run.  It’s been a great experience producing a show in a lottery venue at the Edmonton Fringe, and I’ve loved working with all the other artists of The ? Collective.

I also managed to fit in to my day some quiet times and conversations, some naan and some knitting and some Diet Coke.  And I saw two shows.  (I had been hoping to see Holly Cinnamon’s This is the kind of animal that I am as well, but it didn’t fit with our post-closing schedule.)

I’d never before seen Gordon’s Big Bald Head, an improv show with Jacob Banigan, Mark Meer, and Chris Craddock, but in future years I will definitely put them on my priority list.  In this show, the improvisers use a semi-random process to select one other Fringe show from the program, read out the synopsis, and then spend an hour creating and playing their version of a show that could fit that synopsis.  The show chosen this time was You Can Use That, and the synopsis mentioned a stand-up comic selling his soul to the devil.  Their version had each of them playing several characters each in different parts to the same narrative, and not very much switching out who was playing each.  I was impressed at how tightly plotted their story turned out to be.  And I laughed a lot, because these three improvisers are all very funny and clever people.

My next show was Under the Mango Tree, a solo performance inspired by the creator Veenesh Dubois’ own family history, growing up in Fiji and waiting several years with her grandparents while her father worked in Canada.   The fictional story told on stage didn’t have such a happy resolution, but it was artistically satisfying.  The performer played several characters, a grandmother, father, aunt, and baby as well as the narrator at the ages of 10, 15, 16, and I think about 21.  Her base costume was a salwar kameez, with a red scarf that she wore in various ways to portray the grandmother, a teenager, a bride, and so on, and she also changed her hairstyle effectively.  I liked her child character’s stubborn free un-self-conscious body language.

 

Fringe Day Nine: four solos and a goofy pair

I spent much of Friday going to solo shows, since I hadn’t seen many yet this Fringe.

Tonya Jone Miller wrote and performed A Story of O’s, about being a phone sex operator.   (She’s from Portland Oregon, and the apostrophe in O’s is a legitimate American style choice.)  She alternated talking to the audience as herself, and “taking calls”, wearing a headset and giving us her responses to an imaginary caller.  That was made more visually interesting and more credible by her simulating some of the actions she was claiming to be doing on the call.  She didn’t really explain how her character got started in that work and why she stayed, but many of the calls included in the show were from clients with whom there was an ongoing relationship, and for whom she was clearly an important connection in their lives.  One may surmise that it was mutual.  Late in the show a new caller asks her to describe her actual body instead of the one she is pretending to have in the ad, and she disrobes to her underpants to talk about how she feels about her body.  This was powerful, along with what we could overhear from the call about the caller’s late wife.

Jack Fry, who did They Call Me Mister Fry last year about his first year of teaching in an inner-city school, wrote and performed Einstein, in which he’s telling the story of Albert Einstein’s life as the character of Einstein (and occasionally as his wife, lover, son, or colleague).   I hadn’t known how long it took him to prove his theory of relativity by using measurements taken during eclipses.   But I did not really like the character Einstein as portrayed in the show, partly because of his misogynist comments.

Next up was Daddy Issues, written and performed by Peter Aguero.  His delivery was perfect, a non-stop slam-poet hum that built on the unrelenting turmoil of growing up with a father who had survived childhood abuse and the Vietnam war.  The story of his relationship with his father did not have a tidy resolution, either a rapprochement or a dramatic cutting-out, but the terse credible acknowledgement that neither likes the other much.  I was on the edge of my seat with tears running down my face.  I admired Peter Aguero as a performer and as a person and I would definitely see him again if I had the chance.

Then I went back to the Cabaret space for Jessica Moss’s Polly Polly.  This was in some ways the least clear narrative of the day, and I’m not completely sure I understood all the details, but I didn’t mind because she convinced me that there was a logical framework, with the premise that a solitary woman with an uninteresting life suddenly begins hearing a narrator in her head, and she sets out to find her more exciting self.  I was impressed by the way that everything about her movement and posture conveyed character choices.  And I loved the scene about attending a yoga class as part of the attempt to find herself.

Later in the evening, I squeezed in to a sold-out performance of Scratch, the improv show of Arlen Konopaki and Kevin Gillese, both former Rapid Fire performers now working in the USA.  They meet up and perform at the Edmonton Fringe every year, and have a loyal following who love the high-speed, physically-active, frequently-sexual stories that they tell in a long-form improv format.  In the show that I saw, they collected audience suggestions of an important event in someone’s life (learning to surf), an object (a teleprompter), and a Disney movie and a war movie to mash up (Aladdin and 300).  This generated several story threads and many digressions and side characters not all of whom were human.  The Princess Theatre is probably a difficult venue for improv because it’s a long thin movie theatre with a small performance area, but the performers use headset mics and a couple of rehearsal boxes to good effect.

Superheroes and amazing drums

Between my beer tent shift and getting ready for Sonder’s evening show, I fitted in two performances Sunday afternoon.

Harold of Galactus is a longform improv show with local improv stars Chris Craddock and Mark Meer.  (“Harold” is the name of a common thematic longform improv structure, and Galactus is a comic-book character).   In the show I saw, the performers asked an audience member for the name of a comic-book superhero, and a front-row fan said he’d once made up one called Mortar.  Chris and Mark then had a brief conversation on stage about comic-book tropes and how they might play out for a superhero called Mortar, and then created a series of scenes and stories about the character and how he’d be portrayed in the different eras of comics, from 1942 to near-contemporary.  This let the audience have the fun of noticing all the quirks of Golden Age comic stories (“Is Hitler a hero because he killed Hitler?  But he also killed the guy who killed Hitler!”) and the tropes of more recent comic-book storytelling  (a sidekick who is invincible but nervous, very few women except the occasional supervillain, a league of criminals, and so on), bouncing between eras and landing at a satisfying resolution just before the time was up.  I love watching improv partners who have played together for a long time, because they pick up on each other’s cues so smoothly they seem to be telepathic.  Later in the week I have tickets for Rocket Sugar Factory (Jacob Banigan and Jim Libby) and for Scratch (Arlen Konopaki and Kevin Gillese), so I will get to admire that some more.  Chris Craddock occasionally fell out of character to grin at what was happening, which did not distract me from the story and just added to the sense of the performers having fun that is a mark of good improv. Fun and clever.

Then I managed to slip out quickly, dodge crowds, and get from Strathcona Library to King Edward School in 15 minutes to see Godzilla vs. Led Zeppelin, an hour-long performance of taiko drumming from Fubuki Daiko, an ensemble of four amazing drummers from Winnipeg, Hiroshi Koshiyama, Bruce Robertson, Naomi Guilbert, and Giselle Mak.  They were as exciting to watch as they were to listen to, and the show I saw was sold out.

 

Sonder’s next show is today, Monday at 12:15 pm, and the next one after that is Wednesday at 11:30 pm, both at Venue #5, King Edward School.

 

 

 

 

 

Long form improv with UCB

When I asked my improv teachers for recommendations of what to see in New York City, I immediately started hearing recommendations for Upright Citizens’ Brigade, a famous long-form improv company in Chelsea (they also have a theatre in San Francisco).Some of their shows are free (after lining up), and some have advance sales.  So I bought a ticket for an early show Sunday evening called ASSSCAT 3000.  That might stand for something but I haven’t figured out what yet.

UCB has their own theatre, and they have shows every night of the week.  When I got there, there was a line for people with reservations for the show, another line for people hoping to get in if some with resservations didn’t show, and yet another lineup (before 7 pm?) for the free 9:30 show.  And the people in line looked like the people who go to see improv in Edmonton, so I felt right at home.

The performance space is below ground level, and the ceiling is a bit low, but it is otherwise an excellent space to do shows with audience connection.  There are five rows of seats on three sides of a medium-size stage.  They sell pop, Pabst Blue Ribbon, more interesting beer, and the textbook for their improv classes.  (They apparently also sell t-shirts but they were sold out this week.)

The way ASSSCAT 300 works is that a guest monologist gets a word from the audience, then tells some stories provoked by that word, and then the troupe does several scenes inspired from that monologue.  After a while the monologist tells another story, they do more scenes, they have intermission, and they do it again.

The guest monologist for the show I saw was Scott Auckerman, a self-effacing charming man with a dry wit who is a leading light in the UCB Los Angeles company.  (Imagine if David Francey the Scottish-Canadian folksinger was doing improv.)  And the evening’s host, who also participated in the scenes, was Amy Poehler (who I know as Leslie from the TV show Parks and Recreation, but she’s also been on Saturday Night Live and other comedy things I think.  (Did I mention that I was in the second row?)  When she came out to start the show, lots of people cheered and squealed, and others whipped out their cameras but she made them shut off their cameras.  So I guess it was kind of a big deal to other people that she was there too.

It was a very funny show.  It was risque without being in poor taste.  Four of the seven improvisers were women.  I didn’t catch everyone’s name in the speedy introductions, but I particularly enjoyed Tami Sagher, Shannon O’Neill, and another fellow who said he was out of practice.  I think probably Anthony Atamaniuk, and Chad Carter were also performing.  There were stories about working as a Disneyland character, applying to homeschool/college and not getting in, having a lesbian foursome, trying to date when stuck with a not-cool friend, a Disney funeral, auditioning to be a princess, a restaurant specialising in last-dates, and other amusing scenarios.

I would definitely see them again.   I’ll link their website when I get back to a more familiar computer.

The Eleven O’Clock Number

Grindstone Theatre started doing a musical improv show at the Varscona sometime last winter, at first every couple of weeks, and now every Friday night.  But I didn’t get around to going to see one of their shows until last week, on a painfully-cold Friday night.  And I had to look it up more than once to be sure, but yes, The Eleven O’Clock Number does start at 11 pm.   Apparently, “eleven o’clock number” is also an expression in musical theatre for a big memorable song in the second act.  So it’s a good title for a late-night musical improv show.

In the performance I saw, Katie Hudson was the on-stage host/narrator, Erik Mortimer provided musical inspiration and accompaniment on keyboards, and the improvisers were David Johnston, Jessica Watson, Mark Vetsch, Nathania Bernabe, and, I think, Brianne Jang.  After singing a theme song together, they started by collecting some audience suggestions, and generating a title for their production of “Never Cold”.  They then immediately launched into a catchy classical-show-tune finale scene, then jumped back in time to create the plot leading to that scene.   Mostly the narrator would call for breaks and mention the setting or maybe characters for the next scene, but did not give hints as to what would happen the way the Die-Nasty narrator/director does.

The performers built an interesting set of characters, created some plot problems that started with David Johnston’s character being infertile and his wife (Brianne Jang) having a creepy boss (Mark Vetsch) while being newcomers to the cold snowy climate from Baja California (or possibly the state of California, it wasn’t clear).  They then sang and acted their way through a not-too-convoluted story to a resolution, introducing a few more characters along the way.  Jessica Watson’s small child character was probably my favourite, with age-appropriate reasoning, self-focus, and way of speaking.  Nathania Bernabe played the small child’s mother and also had an amusing cameo as Brianne Jang’s character’s mother with an accent that I couldn’t quite place, possibly the Californian version of Brooklyn/Jewish.

The Eleven O’Clock Number plays every Friday at the Varscona Theatre, at, yes, 11 pm.  It’s a good addition to the strong improv-theatre scene in Edmonton. There’s an intermission and you’re allowed to bring drinks in to the theatre (if you buy them there, of course).  I think the show I saw finished a bit before 1 am.    You can get tickets ahead of time at Tix on the Square until sometime early on the Friday, and then you can buy them at the door.  I was also going to tell you that they’d been chosen in the Fringe venue lottery for next summer, but when I went to confirm the Fringe webpage wasn’t working.  So I’ll fix this note if I’m wrong.

Some of the long-form improv at the Fringe

As usual, there are lots of opportunities to experience improvisational theatre at the Edmonton Fringe.  Edmonton has lots of improv performers and fans, and improv works well with Fringe audiences.  And the way improv works is that you can never see all of it, because every performance is different.

This year I saw three long-form improv shows, Scratch, Rocket Sugar Factory, and Off Book the Musical.  Long-form improv creates one (or more) coherent (more or less) narratives throughout the performance, and wraps them up by the end of the show.  (Or else it leaves enough loose ends to make you come back for a sequel, as in the local improv soap-opera Die-Nasty.)  As you can see from that attempt to define long-form, improvisational theatre starts with some rules or guidelines but doesn’t necessarily stick to them.

Rocket Sugar Factory is the company of Jim Libby and Jacob Banigan, North Americans who currently perform in Austria.  I loved their show at last year’s Fringe so I made a point of fitting them in this year, and they didn’t disappoint me.  They started by getting suggestions from different sections of the audience – starting with audience suggestions is one of the improv traditions.  The performers built affectionate rapport while collecting suggestions in the intimate setting of the Walterdale Theatre, and because their separate conversations were simultaneous the result ended up more of a surprise.  In the show I saw, they concocted a horror tale (which was more of a classic ghost story) set in 19th century England.  Both performers made effective use of accents and body language to distinguish among their characters and delight the audience.  They switched roles frequently, occasionally confusing me but mostly following each other’s lead to build a funny creepy story.  Jim Libby’s occasional corpsing (falling out of character momentarily to laugh at what was going on) did not detract from the audience’s amusement and illustrated that they were having fun.  Rocket Sugar Factory has one more show, tonight at 6:30 pm.

Scratch is the show of Arlen Konopaki and Kevin Gillese, both of them Rapid Fire Theatre alumni who are currently working (separately) in the USA.  It’s playing at the Princess Theatre, to packed houses of fans.  The theatre isn’t an ideal venue, because it’s long and narrow, making it hard for the performers to hear audience suggestions.  Both of them wear cordless mics during the show, and they were easy to hear thanks to tech Cadence Konopaki.  Their style is very physical, and I could see that the mics were inconveniencing them, though.  In the show I saw, very physical included climbing Mount Everest, flying around as Game of Thrones dragons, playing piano, lumbering around as a yeti, and a lot of admirably athletic simulated sex.  Like the performers of Rocket Sugar Factory, it’s clear that Arlen and Kevin have been playing together for a long time, the way that they pick up each other’s cues, switching roles seamlessly and spinning around to signal a transition into another scene or set of characters.  In Scratch, most of the show had scenes alternating among three separate stories, with some fitting together at the end.  Scratch plays tonight at 10 and tomorrow at 3. 

Off Book is a completely improvised musical-theatre performance.  It’s a Rapid Fire production at the Yardbird Suite, which seems to be a great venue for performers although it is probably visually a bit unsatisfying for people sitting at the back since there aren’t any risers.  The acoustics are good though.

Rapid Fire Theatre hosts Off-Book performances sometimes as part of their regular season long-form improv offerings on Saturday nights, so if you enjoy this show you can watch the Rapid Fire website and Facebook group to see when you can see more.  The troupe is led by Matt Alden, and accompaniment is provided by the talented Joel Crichton on keyboard.  Other performers in the show I saw were Amy Shostak, Joleen Ballendine, Kory Mathewson, David Walker, Vince Fortier, and I think Jocelyn Ahlf.  Starting from the audience suggestion of a graveyard as location, they generated all the tropes of musical theatre from a catchy ensemble opening number “It’s a great day to be dead!” to a romantic plot with supporting sidekicks, impeccable rhymes, occasional dance numbers, harmonising two musical themes, a deathbed solo, and a tidy ending recalling the melodies explored earlier.  I thought that the performance I saw was particularly strong, and I thought that the venue was more conducive to appreciating the nuances of the lyrics than Rapid Fire’s usual space in Zeidler Hall at the Citadel.  Off Book plays today at 2:30, but is probably sold out.

January playbill

I’d noticed before that sometimes food businesses with a holiday rush sometimes close for vacation in January – bakeries, restaurants, vendors at Strathcona Farmers’ Market.  But I’d never noticed before this year that theatres and performance spaces might also be dark at the start of the year.  It seems a little counterintuitive that there isn’t much to watch between Christmas and New Years, when people with academic schedules might have time off and be done their pre-Christmas to-do lists, but it does make sense for performers to take a break after New Year’s, when it’s cold and dark and the viewing public might be feeling frugal or unsociable.

Both Rapid Fire Theatre and Die-Nasty were dark between Christmas and New Year’s, but then jumped right back in to their weekly entertainments.  Rapid Fire is now filling up Ziedler Hall for many of their Friday-night and Saturday-night shows, so fans should buy tickets on line or line up early.

Other companies have been in rehearsal, meaning that several shows are opening this week.  The new Canadian opera Svadba, in Serbian with English subtitles, is playing at C103, the space formerly known as Catalyst Theatre.  Azimuth Theatre previews Free-man on the land at the Roxy starting Tuesday (tickets here).  A Clown Double Bill opens Tuesday at The TACOS Space in that awkward bit of neighbourhood that nobody can decide whether to call Ritchie, CPR Irvine, or “you know, behind Wunderbar, there” (tickets through Tix on the Square). Westbury Theatre, Transalta Arts Barns, welcomes the musical Legally Blonde starting Wednesday.

Deep Freeze Festival wraps up (see what I did there) today, Ice on Whyte sparkles in a couple of weeks, and ForkFest fills up January.  So if you’ve been hibernating the last couple of weeks, it’s  time to bundle up and check out what’s happening in Edmonton entertainment.