Monthly Archives: April 2012

Wrapping Up “Improv for Actors”

Toronto Second City "Improv for Actors" class photo

Toronto Second City Improv for Actors class - celebrating at Gabby's

We did it! 18 students came together to embark on an improvisational journey at the Second City in Toronto, and 7 weeks later, our improv course is complete. I can hardly believe that 7 weeks went by so quickly.

I’m really glad I signed up for this class.

One thing I loved about “Improv for Actors” was the diversity of my classmates. A class geared towards students who are either working as an actor or have studied acting, we all had that aspect in common. But otherwise, our backgrounds, ages, experiences – were all so different, and I really enjoyed and appreciated this.

Another great thing about our class was our teacher: the amazing Chris Earle. Every week I came away with so many lessons (improv lessons and life lessons), that I was inspired to create this blog. Chris not only made the class fun, but he brought great insight and expertise and helped us all to grow as improvisers.

I met many wonderful and talented people. Some of us will continue with Improv for Actors II, which starts next week (stay tuned for my new journeys). Some are busy this summer working on acting opportunities, and some will move on to other improv programs. Hopefully we will keep in touch. All my classmates had a positive impact on me and I wish every one of them success in their endeavours.

I’ll discuss our last class and then end with some final thoughts.

Class Narrative 

In week 6, we worked in pairs to tell a narrative. This week, instead of in pairs, we did this collectively as a class.

Starting with “Once upon a time,” we went around a circle and each student contributed one word to the story.

After a couple stories, Chris gave us some ideas for more narratives (not necessarily beginning with “Once upon a time”). One was a letter of resignation. We decided what the company was (a fruit plantation), and we went from there.  Another was a call home from summer camp.

The challenge in this exercise is to keep the pace going steady and not hesitate or think too long to say a word, and to also give offers that help the narrative develop. Overall, I think we did a good job and came up with some very amusing tales. 

Building an Environment 

This was a neat exercise, requiring a group of four people (two pairs of two). There were two activities in this exercise:  1. The building of an environment, and 2. acting in the environment. First, two people from the group would build the environment. Then, the remaining pair would perform in the environment that was created.

The environment builders (Pair 1) 

Each person from the pair gives three offers, for a total of six environment traits. Of the three offers, two should be realistic, and one can be kind of whacky.

The environment builders do not act or improvise, they simply state their offer out loud, setting up an environment for the actors.

For example, an offer could be “there is a old dresser sitting on a street curb. It has five drawers and is rather old. The second drawer has some trouble opening.”

Steve and Mary built the first environment. It was kind of crazy: Downtown Toronto (King and Bay), on a street curb, with an old dresser and a condemned building, and a toilet somehow dangling from a rope. I think a dog was in the scene somewhere too.

The actors (Pair 2)

After Steve and Mary finished stating their six environment offers, Mark and Elise acted out in this scene. I was impressed with how they used the environment. Elise was a real estate agent, showing Mark an area of town he may be interested in. Of course, Mark was apprehensive with how things looked. It was quite funny.

Afterwards, Mark and Elise switched roles with Steve and Mary, where they built the environment and Steve and Mary acted it out.


Feedback from Chris 🙂 

To end the class, Chris put two people together who he felt had similar strengths. He told them what he thought their strengths had been in the class and where they may want to focus more attention on, and then he gave them a premise for a short scene along with some side coaching.

It was really great to get Chris’ feedback. I was impressed by all of my classmates, and I feel a number of them will go far. It was really an honour to work with all of them.

The feedback I received was that I’m good at playing low-status characters, and that I’ve been funny in these roles. This surprised me. I actually worked on trying not to automatically play high status, so I was quite happy to receive this feedback. Kate and I played a scene where we were in a club, both starting off low status, and trying to get a drink from a bartender who wasn’t giving us any attention. The challenge was for us to switch to high status when this happened. It was a fun scene.

Two scenes that I really liked a lot were with Christian and Elise and Michelle and Mary. Christian and Elise were a married couple decorating their first Christmas tree. They started off happy but then they began to argue. During the argument, Elise saw a spider and insisted that Christian kill it as it’s the “man’s job.” Christian killed it and then quickly retorted that Elise clean it up, the “women’s job” – a quick-witted response to Elise’s comment. The argument and status contest was quite entertaining.

In Michelle and Mary’s scene, Mary played a single mother going on a date and Michelle her teenage daughter. Michelle was giving Mary advice for her date. Mary played the low status role wonderfully (she was nervous about the date and what to talk about), and Michelle was high status, giving her mother a pep talk and lots of encouragement, including advice on how to get physical with her date. Mary’s discomfort in the situation as the mom and Michelle’s positivity and excitement made the scene really enjoyable to watch. Chris suggested to Michelle that she play the role as if she were chewing gum, and suddenly there was a character transformation just with that little change.

Final Thoughts

We are all improvisers. Every day, we as humans improvise. It is how we interact with each other. As Shakespeare wrote, “all the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.”

I learned a lot in this class, not just improvisation lessons but lessons applicable to broader areas of my life. Learning to be in the moment, learning to breathe and listen, learning to relax, learning to take time, learning to trust my partner and to say “yes, and…”. These are important not only in improv, but to life beyond the theatre. I still have a ways to go to worry less and relax more – that is something I strive to improve. But so long as we are learning and growing and having fun, I would say we’re achieving success. 

"Improv for Actors" collage


Narratives and Emotions


Our week 6 class of the Second City’s Improv for Actors course focused on learning to tell narratives and using emotions.

Developing a Narrative – One Word At A Time

A narrative tells a story. “Once upon a time” has begun many a narrative, and the possibilities are endless from where to go from there. You can create the story in the moment, as we did in this exercise.

Working in partners, each player takes turns saying one word at a time, telling the story together. The beauty of this exercise is that you work as part of a team to develop the narrative and without pre-planning or knowing what to expect, the story unfolds.

* See further reading to learn more about Narrative Improvisation

The narrative begins with “Once upon a time” and continues on:

Player 1 (P1): Once
Player 2 (P2): upon
P1: a
P2: time
P1: there
P2: was
P1: a
P2: beautiful
P1: girl
P2: who…

There are a couple challenges I noticed in this exercise. When I did this with my partner, I felt that I was often on the end of saying words like “a”, “that,” “was,” “of,” etc, which wasn’t as much fun as using big adjectives and creating twists and turns. But just be patient. You’ll find that there comes a shift where you get to make more creative offers.

Offering a multi-word thought, such as “wishing well” or “piece of pie” can also be challenging. You can’t expect that your partner will think the same way, especially when you’re doing this somewhat quickly. So if there was a sentence like “There was a” and I said “wishing” and expected my partner to finish the thought with “well”, it can be confusing and not the best offer. In cases like this, it’s better to simply give an adjective or noun.

In this exercise, you not only learn to build a story by bringing a brick, but also to take care of each other, by making offers that will help the story to evolve and succeed, instead of offers that will hinder the development of the story.

Developing a Narrative using “Magical” suggestions 

After practicing with our partners, each pair told a narrative in front of the class. The class gave a suggestion of something “magical” to be incorporated into the story, like a “magical boot,” “magical toaster,” “magical fairy,” etc. When telling the narrative, this element should be included and used to build the story.

Emotional Join-In

In this exercise, there are 5 players. Player 1 is the host of a party, and starts the exercise, with neutral emotion. This player starts the scene alone, perhaps setting up for the party. The four other players are assigned an emotion. One at a time, each player enters the scene, using their assigned emotion. Every person who is present in the scene at that point in time must join in on the emotion. For example, when Player 2 enters the scene, there are only two players in the scene: Players 1 and 2. Player 2 enters the scene angry, and Player 1 joins in on this emotion and is also angry, until the next player enters the scene. This continues until the last player enters.

After Player 5 enters the scene and has been in the scene for a sufficient amount of time, player 5 exits. When player 5 exits, all four remaining players resume the emotion that was there before P5 entered, which was the emotion brought into the scene by Player 4. Player 4 exits, and Player 3’s emotion is resumed by the remaining three players. This continues until only Player 1 remains.

I did this exercise with Elise, Mitch, Jill and Kate. I started the scene in neutral. Elise entered with anger. We were both angry. She was angry that the party sucked. I was angry that no other guests had arrived. We only felt that emotion. Then Mitch entered. Mitch was depressed. All three of us were all depressed. Jill entered with joy. We were all so happy that Jill arrived, and the party was now fun and joyous. Finally Kate entered, feeling paranoid. All five of us felt and acted paranoid. Once Kate left, we felt joy once again. When Jill left, we felt depressed. When Mitch left, we felt angry. And when Elise left, I went back to neutral, tidying up after the party.

It’s a lot of fun to “join in” and to not oppose another player and what they are offering. In this exercise, the offer was an emotion. We ‘yes, and-ed’ the emotion by accepting the emotion, and building the scene on it.


Oscar moment

During the second part of the class, we worked on “Oscar moments,” aka emotionally heightened spotlights.

Each scene would have three people in an environment, such as an office. There would also be an issue or dilemma. At any point in time, our teacher Chris may call out “Oscar moment” to a player, and that person would heighten their emotion and go into a monologue of Oscar award worthiness.

There were lots of amazing scenes.

The first scene was with Kate, Alexa and Lou. They were workers in an office, sitting side by side in cubicles. The issue was that there were no staples left in the stapler.

When Lou had his Oscar moment, he went all out. He was worked up that his coworker Alexa, who he had a crush on, didn’t notice him. He was angry that they couldn’t get their work done. And at the climax, he was livid that there was no staples left in the stapler. It was brilliant and hilarious.

When the Oscar moment was over, the scene went back to normal and emotions were stabilized. But during the Oscar performance, emotions ran wild (just for the one player, the other two remained neutral and said nothing or very little, allowing their co-player to shine in the Oscar moment).

Another great scene was with Jill, Michelle and Steve. They were also in an office environment, and the issue was that the printer was out of ink/toner. During Jill’s Oscar moment, she panicked that the printer was out of toner, and that she had so many copies to make, which she left until the last moment, and really had to get them printed off. Her emotions included a lot of great physicality.

When it came time to Michelle’s moment, she was strong and affirmative, assuring Jill that there would always be toner available to her. Jill and Michelle worked really well together, and their Oscar moments and emotions complemented each other nicely.

Lessons Learned 

  • In improv, big is better. Heightened emotions and big emotional reactions can be very funny, and are great offers for heightening a co-player’s emotions.
  • Joining in on emotions can be just as funny and satisfying as playing an opposing emotion.
  • Working together to create a narrative helps to keep players in the moment and not predict or plan ahead for the story’s development.
  • Making eye contact and listening to your partner will help you figure out what to do next.
  • When making an offer, be aware of what you are giving your partner to work with, instead of rushing to get an offer out. It is important to take care of each other and helps to build trust between players.

Further Reading


What lessons have you learned about emotions through your study of improv? What has worked well for you in improv scenes? Leave your comments below. 

Q & A with Dale Boyer


Dale Boyer

Dale Boyer is a funny lady. Acclaimed actress, writer and improviser Boyer (pronounced Boy-é) studied with the Second City and went on to star in four mainstage revues, winning awards along the way, including a Canadian Comedy Award for Best Comedic Play. Last summer she said goodbye to Second City and hello to the world, starring in a new web series which is taking the internet by storm. Ms. Boyer sits down with Improv inTO to discuss her beginnings in comedy, success as a comedienne, and her latest project, taking her improv in new and wacky directions, Live from the CenTre.

How did you get started in acting and improv?

Dale Boyer (DB): I did a lot of it in high school, but my high school didn’t have an improv group, so I started my own. Then I went to the University of Waterloo to become an actor and I thought ‘I’m gonna be a serious actor.’ My last year there this voice woman said to me “You know, you should go do Second City.” I came to Toronto and after a year I quit my job as a stage manager and said that’s what I’m doing.

What were some of your early gigs?

DB: When I first started in Toronto, I started with a group called the Holy Diaphragms. We did long form rock operas. I had just gotten out of university, and we did the Cage Match through the Impatients. [Impatient Theatre Co] hosted the Cage Match and we won six or seven weeks in a row.  We were dominating. Then we got sent to Chicago as part of the Super Cage Match Chicago Improv Festival and went up against people from New Zealand and all over the world…We did so bad in Chicago. But we did a lot with the Holy Diaphragms and that was my start with improv officially.

And then I did Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding. I did other theatre gigs along the way, but Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding was a big hit for me.

[After Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding] we started (sketch comedy troupe) Shame Is Right!. We did Shame Is Right! for a couple years, won some awards with that. I guess someone took notice, probably Klaus [Schuller] at Second City, and hired me for the [Second City] Touring Company.

Not only are you an improviser, you’re a writer. Where do you get your ideas from?

DB: I consume a lot of media. I watch a lot of news and I listen to a lot of news, and I rip it. My husband Trevor [Martin] and I rip the news apart. I think the news is probably one of the funniest things to watch on TV. It’s infuriating and very, very funny. I’m usually issue-driven.

Who were some of your role models?

DB: I didn’t realize until last year how much SCTV had influenced me, until I got the box sets of all the SCTV and I started watching them from the beginning, and realized, how much I knew and had already seen, and how much I loved Andrea Martin. I was definitely affected by that

When I was a teenager, I used to record Saturday Night Live. I asked my parents for Christmas for another VCR and then I would take my favourite sketches and put them on another tape and have a tape of all my favourite sketches. I did that for years. I probably still have them somewhere.

What was your favourite show to work on at the Second City?

DB: My favourite show was Something Wicked Awesome This Way Comes. Definitely my favourite show.

And that won an award.

DB: It won a Canadian Comedy Award, and it was also the top grossing show, to date, that [Second City] had in their new building. It was such a satisfying show to work on because you felt like you actually could address issues. Things I wanted to address I could, and I was given a voice to do that, through the director.

You and your castmates wrote Something Wicked Awesome This Way Comes?

DB: Yep, and Chris Earle, who was the director, and Matt Reid, who [was] the musical director…yeah, sometimes you just click with a director, I clicked with him.

Tell me a bit about your latest project, Live from the CenTre

DB: I left Second City with Adam Cawley and Rob Baker. We all got hired at the same time into Tour Co. We spent two years there together. And then we all got moved to Mainstage at the same time, which is unusual to have three people move up at once. And we did four shows together. So by that point we had spent four years together and had quite a good short hand with each other and we got along very well. And we’re very different performers which is helpful. Chris Earle, who directed Wicked Awesome, who I had a great connection with – the night that we left Second City, he was like “I think you guys are all so talented, I can’t wait to work with you one day again, do you want to work tomorrow and create a web series?”

This was just after your last performance?

DB: This was literally the day we were leaving Second City. [Chris Earle] said, “Brian Smith (You and Media) and I want to do a web series. We think the three of you would be great to star in this web series.”

Obviously I was like ‘Yes, that’s awesome!

So we sat down, we talked and [Chris] said “You know, Second City does all this work to nurture and build an ensemble, and then when you leave Second City, you really don’t work with those people again, unless you happen to get into a commercial together, you happen to get on a series together. You get to do shows at Comedy Bar and things like that, but you don’t get to work in that kind of capacity, and you’ve worked all these years at building an ensemble. Before you all go off on your separate ways, why don’t we take advantage of it, and do a web series?”

How did you create Live from the CenTre?

DB: We basically went about creating the CenTre in the same style as you would create a revue style show at Second City. So I think it is a unique experience the way that we put it together. Rehearsals, writing meetings, that weren’t writing meetings per se, they were like pitch meetings the way you would have at Second City. Days on set were treated like Second City. We just improvised in front of the camera, in the moment, and treated it really like that.

How long does it take to tape one webisode?

DB: Each webisode has three or four elements in it. We do the interviews in one take. We don’t do them twice. All those things you’re seeing are improvised, first time, that’s it. One go at it. Unless, let’s say I have a really good line, and I screwed up saying it – I can just pause, and say it again, and it will get edited. Apart from that, it’s completely unscripted, and it’s one time through, and that’s it. The interviews are 10 minutes long and we just take our favourite five minutes from it.

So are any scenes written?

DB: Some have premises, so for example, I’ll use the example of my own “Incubator Project.” I come in with a premise, like “Incubator Project,” and I say to Brian, all you’re getting is “Incubator Project.” So, he doesn’t know the questions he’s asking me, and I don’t know what’s he’s going to ask me, and I don’t know really what my responses are. I just know that I have a character that I’ve dressed for and I know the name of my company. That’s it.

Yeah, or like “Green to Grave” for example. I was like – I’m really interested in green funerals. I think that’s a really interesting and funny idea, and like how they dispose of the bodies, I think is gross and funny, and I said to Rob and Adam, these are some things that they do, let’s just go further: Bring a suit. Cause we’re going to be undertakers, funeral directors, bring a suit. And then Brian knew it was a funeral service. And then everything else is improvised.

So what has the response been like for Live from the CenTre?

DB: It’s funny, a lot of people don’t realize it’s improvised. I think that’s a great compliment. A lot of people think it’s written, which is funny, cause some of them are so improvised that we don’t even know what the title’s going to be or what our names are going to be. Like “Parking Doctors,” [Brian] said to us, “And we have the Parking Doctors” and we just made it up. Right there.

No idea what you’re going to be doing?

DB: No idea. First take. That’s all it was. Those were our characters. That’s what we did.

It’s been really good. It’s interesting, some people think it’s real. Some people don’t know what to think about it. It’s had a lot of hits in Europe. We hit 50,000 views today. 

And you just launched this on March 1.

DB: March 1. And today is [March] 26th. So we’ve gotten 50,000 views in 26 days.

That’s fantastic.

DB: It’s fantastic. We’ve partnered with When you have a good episode, it gets picked up for the front pages in different countries. So like today, it’s been picked up in Romania, and Ireland and Austria and China, and then all these other countries see it, all these other people see it.

Where do you hope to see Live from the CenTre go?

DB: It’s interesting with web series, because we’re in a pioneer time in this world. Advertisers don’t know how to take advantage of the talent that’s happening and at the same time it’s hard to monetize what you’re doing because you could say you have 50,000 hits or 5 million hits and an advertiser will go, ‘I don’t know how to give you money for that, or I don’t know if I want to give you money for that, or should we bank roll your next series?’

The world doesn’t really know what to do with web series yet, but Canadians are watching so many of them, so I don’t know what’s going to happen.

Even in the year that this web series has come out – it’s almost been about a year since we’ve started – already so much has changed in the industry.

Would you want to keep this strictly to the web or would you consider moving this forward?

DB: I do think it has legs to become a narrative or a series of some sort. It obviously would have to be expanded past the 6 minute mark that it is right now.

The Simpsons started with even shorter than that. 

DB: On the Tracy Ullman show, it’s true, it’s true.

I mean the bible’s there, the series bible is made. You can see the characters. And the crazy thing is, and I think this is something that is unusual, is the three of us are playing all the characters. I play like 15 different characters in the series, like Rob does, Adam does. We all play – everybody.

And the three of you have really good chemistry.

DB: We’ve worked together a long time, and we respect each other, and we’ve loved and fought each other – a lot. Yeah, I’ve had good fights with all of them. It’s good, it’s good for art.

How can people learn more about Live from the CenTre?

DB: They can go to  The website is a big world. There are member posts, which are all written by us, there are articles, there are events, there are all the different organizations, and we’ve spent months writing all that.

What advice would you give to someone studying improv?

DB: I would say to take workshops and classes from many different sources. Each place has its own philosophy: Second City, Bad Dog, Impatients, in Toronto. They have different philosophies, some are long form, some are short form. I think it’s good to know all of those things and to find the philosophy that works for you. Because what’s right for one may not be right for another. The people that I’ve worked with have come from all different types of learning.

The other thing I would say is to find your voice, and do what you care about. Cause otherwise, if you’re just chasing the funny, it’s always going to be elusive, and it’s never going to be satisfying.

And finally have a hobby that has nothing to do with comedy or improv. And live a life, and have friends that aren’t improvisers, and try to be a normal person.

Live from the CenTre is shot in Toronto and stars Dale Boyer, Rob Baker, Adam Cawley, Brian G. Smith and Chris Earle. Visit their website or follow them on twitter @TheCenTreLive

– Cindy Hackelberg