Tag Archives: Second City

Actor Spotlight: Tony Rosato

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Tony Rosato needs no introduction. He is a comedy legend in his own right. Having starred in SCTV and Saturday Night Live, he continued to work on numerous television shows and movies, alongside big name celebrities.

What you may not know about Rosato, is how gracious he is. In a candid interview, Rosato opens up to Improv inTO about his life in comedy, discussing topics such as working with John Candy and Joe Flaherty to starring in a sitcom with Bea Arthur, being inducted to Canada’s Walk of Fame, the struggles of staying well-known, thoughts on profanity in performance, and his 7-year old daughter.

After a hiatus from acting, Rosato is returning to his roots in improv, and taking classes at Toronto’s Second City– a testament of dedication to his craft. As one of his classmates, I am amazed week in and week out at his talent, quick wit and genuineness.

You are incredibly funny. When you perform, it seems effortless. Were you funny as a child?

Yeah, I was mischievous. I hung out with a group of brats. We were always into trouble, doing pranks around the school.

Growing up who were some of your role models or inspirations?

I started going to movies when I was around eight. I used to sneak into the theatres in Ottawa. I saw a few Italian films that I really liked, Fellini movies, with Marcello Mastroianni. He was a role model. I liked all the Warner Brothers cartoons, with Mel Blanc doing the voices, like Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck. I watched The Three Stooges, and The Honeymooners with Jackie Gleason. Burt Lancaster was one of my favourite actors. But you know, I liked all of the old comedians. I liked Charlie Chaplin a great deal.

When did you know you wanted to be a comedian? 

In my second year of university, when I had no idea what I was going to do in university, I came down to see a Second City show. I was invited by a friend; I had never heard of Second City. And I saw my high school buddy up on stage, Peter Aykroyd, Dan Aykroyd’s younger brother. I realized that they were the Aykroyds that I grew up with in Ottawa, and my next door neighbours. And here [Peter] was on this stage at Second City. And so I got talking to him about it later on. I had so much fun watching the show that I thought “Wow, I’d really like to do that.”

Had you ever done comedy or improv prior to that time? 

No. I had done a little bit of stage work at the Ottawa Little Theatre, and the Jewish Community Centre. I did a Neil Simon play Come Blow Your Horn. That’s about as close as I got to doing comedy.

What was your family’s reaction when you decided to stop your studies and pursue comedy?

They were not that pleased. It was just my mom and I. My dad passed away when I was 12. So it was with my mom’s permission. She wanted to see me get into something like be a lawyer, be a doctor, be something that’ll really have a solid career down the road. But once I told her how much I was enjoying it, and invited her and my other family members, cousins and so on, to see the show, they really enjoyed it. I was in the [Second City] Touring Company’s show and doing improv with them, so my family saw that I was really enjoying it. That was the important thing to them, that I was doing something that I cared about.

How did you get to be on SCTV?

Once I had that conversation with Peter Aykroyd, he convinced me I should join the workshops [at the Second City]. So I went down and did a workshop with them, and they said “You’ve got talent; we’d like to put you in the master class.”  And I said “Oh, ok, what’s that?” “That’s the more evolved class that leads to getting into the touring company.” And I said “OK, I’d love to do that.” And I did, and then one of the Touring Company members got ill, and they needed someone to replace him. He was in a car accident – Don Lamont. So I took his place and I never left. They kept me in the show, and I just kept reaching for the mainstage show. I finally got to the mainstage show in a couple of years.

And this is before you’re on the air with SCTV – this is with Second City.

Right. So once I got on the mainstage, I was there for about four years, and then John Candy and Joe Flaherty asked me if I wanted to be in the television series. I said yes, and so did Robin Duke. We [Rosato and Duke] both got invited from the same cast.

No audition? They just knew you were good and they said “We want you Tony.”

Yeah, would you like to be on the show? I said “Sure!”

And we had been doing small parts on the show already, as extras, just in the background of certain sketches. So we had already kind of got our feet wet being on the show that way before they asked us to be on full-time.

Rosato looks at a photograph from his time at the Second City (pictured at the Second City Training Centre in Toronto)

And then from SCTV you get onto Saturday Night Live

Yeah, I only did two seasons of SCTV, three with bit parts. And they didn’t know if they were going to continue the show. People were having changes of mind whether or not they wanted to continue doing SCTV. John Candy wanted to do his own show. Rick [Moranis] and Dave [Thomas] wanted to do their own show, as the McKenzie brothers. It looked like the show was falling apart. And one night, while we were doing the Second City stage show still, somebody from Saturday Night Live came to watch the show, for the purposes of hiring people. So they approached me at the end of the show and said they’d like to hire me. So I said “Yeah. I’d like to do that.” Catherine O’Hara got invited as well. We both went to New York to do Saturday Night Live. But Catherine didn’t quite like the vibe of the head writers and the way it was set up, so she left, but she suggested that Robin Duke replace her. And so [Saturday Night Live] offered Robin Duke the role as well.

What was it like living in New York compared to Toronto?

It’s so much more fast-paced. It’s such a huge city. It’s overwhelming, really. There are a lot of exciting places to go catch theatre and live shows. There’s Broadway. Just knowing Broadway was there was so exciting.

How was it working on Saturday Night Live versus SCTV ?

Completely different. Saturday Night Live was a high-tension, stress show. It was a live show; it had to be produced live every Saturday night. So by Saturday night you had to have 90 minutes of comedy material written, and we seldom had time to rehearse the entire 90 minutes of material. That’s why we had cue cards. You had to get to know the host. We had famous actors who would come and host the show. You had to take care of them as well; some of them had never done sketch comedy. I was a writer and an actor on the show; it was very difficult trying to balance the two, and just trying to write for other people, as well as write for yourself.

You wouldn’t just write for yourself, you’d also write for other people?

You had to write for other people as well.

Wow. That must have been really high-pressure.

It was high pressure, yeah. It was.

SCTV was much more laid back. It had no set standard of time by which we had to have the shows written. We would take a block of time over the year to write the shows and then we would take these written shows to camera.

So you’d do it all at once. You wouldn’t do a writing, a taping, and then go back to writing?

No. We tried to do all the writing upfront. When we got to tape, we’d have all our shows, and then if we had to fine tune anything, we’d bring it back in and workshop it or fix it in a writing session. But we had all our stuff written and then we’d go to tape.

Did you prefer one experience over the other?

They both had an exciting edge to them. I can’t say I like one or the other better. I found both of them really a lot of fun.

Do you have any special memories of your time either at SNL or SCTV?

I liked working with some of the actors that we got to work with. Working with John Candy was a real treat. Working with Joe Flaherty all the time was really great, he was such a genius. The SCTV cast members that were there, Andrea Martin, Catherine O’Hara, Robin Duke, and people like that, were so good. On Saturday Night Live, Eddie Murphy was really exciting, he’s a really good performer. The cast I worked with was just a great cast. We had guest stars and bands that were really great as well.

Do you have a favourite skit or a role that you played?

Rosato and Kazurinsky in “Wedding Day” sketch on Saturday Night Live. (Photo from http://snl.jt.org)

Yeah, I played this Italian character, an Italian father. Derek McGrath and I started it on stage at Second City, and it was called “Groom” as in bride and groom. It was a father and son having a conversation about the upcoming marriage that is happening in about 5 minutes. He’s talking to his son sort of backstage. It’s all about the fact that he doesn’t think [his son] should be getting married at this point in time. And so it almost becomes this immense argument, that leads into a crescendo of gestures, Italian gestures that we throw at each other from this to this to this (Rosato gestures). That was a good scene, and it was the first scene that they showcased for me at Saturday Night Live

When I joined Saturday Night Live, Tim Kazurinsky played the son. Poor guy, he got thrown into it at the last minute. It was about a 20 minute sketch. The cue cards were there for him, but he was really strong at improvising, so he was able to go through the scene with me as I led him through it. He did a great job.

After all your achievements, why are you currently studying improv at the Second City? 

Well, because I hadn’t done improv in a long time. And it’s a skill, as you know. You have to stay fresh with it otherwise you start losing that sense of gravity that any good improviser has, that sense of courage, and strength. I hadn’t been well in the past few years, and I was trying to get back on my feet, trying to get strong again. So I went back to my roots, to try to get back to doing what I started to do, and just find it from the beginning again.Second City classes seemed like a good idea, since they have a whole series of them, and you can work your way up to a higher level within each class. And I wasn’t really a strong improviser when I was at Second City I don’t think.

No? 

I don’t know. I may have been and maybe just didn’t know it. But I didn’t think I was. And so I really wanted to do improv this time around and learn what I may have missed. Just to get strong, to get strong again.

What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced in your career? 

Trying to stay in a certain position of recognition. Trying to stay strong where people know who you are in your career. Trying to keep yourself in front of the audience. That’s the biggest challenge. It’s trying to stay well-known, recognized, still doing good work, in projects that have some merit, showcasing yourself. You want to be well-known in what you do, because you want to do it well. You want people to say that you’re doing a good job.

What did you work on after Saturday Night Live? 

I ended up on a sitcom after that, with Bea Arthur from The Golden Girls. She was coming back from doing a series called Maude, and the series had ended. She was looking to do her next series, and she bought the rights to Fawlty Towers, which is a series with John Cleese, and it was called Amanda’s (or Amanda’s by the Sea). It was about this hotel. This woman was running this hotel by herself, and with her crazy Italian waiter.

You? 

Yeah, so I got that role. But we only did one season of it, and that was it. [Bea Arthur] got ill, and we had to call the show off. She got ill again later on with throat cancer.

So I came back toTorontoagain and got work here and stayed here. I always seemed to get work when I stayed here so I ended up staying here longer than I should probably.

Aside from you having this remarkable ability to make people laugh and genuinely feel good in your presence, you’re very humble. How are you so humble, after having so much success? 

Wow, that’s so gentle of you to say. Gee, I guess if there is any sense of that, then I think it must come from the fact that I just appreciate how hard it is to work in this industry, and I appreciate all the people who are in it, and who are struggling to stay in it. It’s not easy. It’s a really difficult practice and art form to be part of, and to have any success in it at all is really tough, and to stay there with it is even tougher. I’m going through a period where I haven’t worked in it for a long time, other than doing animation, which has been good for me for the past couple of years and some voice work.

You’ve worked on a lot of neat cartoons. 

79 different cartoons. That’s a lot of animation.

Is there a project or time that you’re particularly proud of? 

I liked doing that sketch that I did with Tim Kazurinsky on Saturday Night Live. Belushi liked it, Aykroyd liked it a lot, and I know that Gilda liked it. We got good reviews in the Chicago Sun Times and the New York Times. So it was a proud moment for me. Especially since it was the premiere of the season. A new season, a new show, a new cast. It was exciting.

I think when we [SCTV] were being inducted into the Walk of Fame, with Joe Flaherty, Eugene Levy, Robin Duke, and Martin Short and everybody, and we got an honorary Gemini from the mayor Barbara Hall, those two recognitions were really important. They came at a time when I needed a pat on the back, and it was very strong, it was very nice, and they were very receptive to us as performers. [It] made us realize that they thought we were doing a really good job and had been doing a really good job over the years, as opposed to just over one period time. The honorary Gemini was for overall achievement, so I was really proud of those two awards.

SCTV cast inducted into Canada’s Walk of Fame in 2002.
(Photo from http://www.canadaswalkoffame.com/inductees/2002/sctv)

I admire how you can be very funny and also quite clean in your delivery. What are your thoughts on profanity in comedy? 

You know, I came from a school where they didn’t allow it. Del Close, and Catherine O’Hara, Robin Duke, the cast that I was in, we weren’t allowed to swear. We had to watch our language on stage. It had to be for a very, very, very strong reason to pull out a swear word. Otherwise you just didn’t swear at all. I know it sounds really weird, maybe too clean, but that’s the way we were taught.

Do you think profanity adds, or takes away, from humour? 

It steals a little bit from language, if you use it too much. You can get away with it if it’s used very punctually, and very succinctly and very appropriately – where it’s just an opportune moment to swear, if there is one. It can sometimes be hilarious. But overly done, it starts to diminish language, and when that happens, the rest isn’t as much a surprise. It’s supposed to be poetry at it’s best, as poetic as you can be.

What do you currently like to watch? 

I just saw a cartoon with my daughter, my 7 year old, called Madagascar 3. I enjoyed it. Marty Short is brilliant in that movie. I thought that was really terrific. I know that sounds kind of cheesy, but it had some great names in it.

What advice would you give to someone starting off in comedy, or with aspirations for a career in the performing arts? 

Aim high. Aim really high. Really get your talent together, really nurture your talent, nurture your skills. Take whatever class you can to nurture your skills. Find a good teacher that you can work with. And try to get involved in the best productions that are out there. But keep going at it.

What’s next for you? What would you like to work on? 

I’m trying to put a troupe together. A comedy troupe. I’d like to take it and turn it into an exceptionally well known troupe.

Based in Canada?

Based in Canada, and hopefully get work in the US as well. I’ve still got my green card and my working papers. I’m anxious to get a group together. A big group even, doesn’t have to be a small group. But strong on improv. We’re putting together some people who want to do it. Yeah, I’d like to see that get off the ground.

You mentioned your daughter. Do you think that she might be a budding comedian? 

I think she’ll be a singer. My wife’s a singer, and an artist, she paints as well. And writes, she sold a book of poetry for publishing. Yeah my daughter’s quite a good singer, she has a karaoke set up at home.

Sounds like a very artistic family. 

Yeah, my daughter has a lot of energy. She likes to dance a lot.

With Daddy? 

Yeah.

– Cindy Hackelberg

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Improv for Actors 2 Performs!

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This is us: Improv for Actors 2.

For two terms, we have studied improv together at the Second City in Toronto as part of the “Improv for Actors” program. In the second class, we lost a few faces and gained a few new ones, but what has always stayed the same is our close bond.

I think I speak for all of my classmates in saying we have a special group, and felt early on that we could really trust one another, which is so important in improvisation. I feel fortunate to have formed close friendships with all my fellow improvisers, to have been inspired by them and to have learned from their abilities.

On June 6, 2012, we put our improv skills to the test: We performed live at the John Candy Box Theatre at the Second City Training Centre in Toronto. There was nervousness and excitement in the air before going on stage. We had so much fun, and based on all the positive feedback we received, we have a lot to be proud of.

A special thanks to Shari Hollett and Chris Earle for being such fantastic teachers!!!

Make A Story

In this game all the players on stage will be telling a story. To make things more interesting, each player is assigned a specific genre. Individual players speak when directed (the director points at the player for their turn), and continues the story, but in their genre. It makes for a very funny scene!

Switch (or Freeze)

Switch/Freeze is an improv exercise with two players performing, and standby players, waiting for a moment to join in. At any given time, one of the standby players can clap their hands and shout out “Freeze!” The two performers on stage must freeze. The standby player then takes the pose of one of the players, and that player leaves the stage. A new scene is resumed. A very fast paced activity.

Sounds Like A Song

“Sounds Like A Song” is an improv activity, where at any given time (an inspired time), a director or audience calls out “Sounds Like A Song.” At that point, the last person who spoke launches into a song based on the last line that was spoken, often accompanied by a pianist. Heightens the scene and adds drama and musicality.

Switch Left

“Switch Left” requires 4 players. The players stand in a square, 2 by 2. Each pair of players receives a suggestion from the audience (a relationship or a non-geographical location). The two players in front begin to perform a scene based on their premise. When the director calls out “Switch Left”, the players rotate one spot to the left. Now, two new players are in front, and act out a different scene. The players rotate, but for every unique couple, their scene stays the same, and continues to evolve as it comes back to their turn. Each player ends up in two different scenes.

Clap

Clap is an improv exercise with 3 or 4 couples. One couple performs at a time, and at any given time, one of the standby players can clap. The new couple comes on the stage, and they start their scene (completely different scene) using the last sentence that was spoken by the couple before. Ideally, the exercise ends when all three scenes can end on the same sentence.

Sounds Like A Song 2

It’s such a fun scene, we decided to do another one!

And here’s a happy picture of our incredible class! Here’s to our next performance! 🙂

Toronto Second City Improv for Actors 2 class

On the road again…

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So here we are again. The start of a new improv class at the Toronto Second City: Improv for Actors 2! After a two week break, it’s exciting to get back into the swing of things and start our next improv course. We have a lot of familiar faces, and a few new faces in the second Improv for Actors class, one being our fantastic new teacher: Shari Hollett.

I can already tell Improv for Actors 2 is going to be a lot of fun. Shari made us all feel comfortable from the start and we played some really neat games which I enjoyed (see below for the exercises).There are two new elements to this class, which we didn’t have in the last Improv for Actors class:

  1. We’re going to be incorporating musical improvisation.
  2. We’ll be having a final performance, which is scheduled for Wednesday, June 6 at 9pm at the John Candy Box Theatre at the Toronto Second City Training Centre.

I’m not sure how I feel yet about performing improv live in front of an audience. I’ve performed on stage a number of times as an actor and loved it, but I felt confident knowing I had a script, and a director, and rehearsals. Improv is another story – it’s all in the here and now, just using the skills we’re been taught and seeing what happens. That said, I’m not going to worry. I have amazing classmates and I’m studying improv to be in the moment. If I start getting nervous about a show that is over a month away, I’ll be defeating myself. There’s also a small part of me that’s excited to perform for family and friends. 

Narrative Poem 

Standing in a circle, we continued our work on narratives from IFA1 by telling a narrative poem.

Every student in the class started one poem, and each poem contained only as many words as people in the class (one word per person, going around in the circle).

It was amazing how well the poems worked. I think having a definite length to the poem and knowing your position in the poem in relation to the person who started (ie. if you’re close to the end, try to bring the poem to closure) helped to guide the direction and make the exercise successful.

Beads on a String 

This exercise was so much fun.

The goal of “Beads on a String” is to “string” three random sentences together to create a story.

Three people start the exercise, and can say any sentence at all. Player 1’s sentence will be the beginning of the story, Player 2’s sentence will be a sentence somewhere in the middle of the story, and Player 3’s sentence is the end of the story.

The three people stand apart with space in between them and say their sentence.

One at a time, people go up and say one sentence to support the story, and “bead the string,” helping to connect the sentences and the story together. When someone goes up, s/he stands between the first and last person, in the position where they would like the sentence to be. (For instance, if 6 people are up, and you want your sentence to go right after the first person’s sentence, you would stand right beside player 1 in the second position). The only positions someone cannot stand is the first or last position (the beginning and end of the story remains constant, hence the need to bead the story together).

After someone goes up, all the sentences are repeated in order.

In the end, there should be a completed story.

Complaints Department 

I have to say this exercise was particularly exciting for me, because I got to play with Tony Rosato!

Tony, an SCTV and Saturday Night Live alum, was in my class last term, and I was completely awe-struck. I didn’t jump at opportunities to improvise with him because I felt timid. I mean, he’s really amazing. Even though I wanted to work with him, I also loved just getting to sit back and watch him. He’s incredibly funny and entertaining, and I’ve learned so much by watching him.

I wish I could say that now that I’m in Improv for Actors 2, my timidness has suddenly gone away. Not so much the case, but Shari put Tony and I together for this exercise, and boy am I glad – it was so much fun.

So, let me explain this exercise. The idea is that there is a complaints department. There are two people who play. One player is the customer, who has a complaint (ie. a return to a store). The other player works at the complaints department, and tries to handle the customer’s complaint in a positive manner and to the customer’s satisfaction.

For this exercise, each student would play three different customers, and use different characters for each one. They would improvise with the same complaints department worker. The complaints department worker would not change character.

There were so many fantastic scenes, and because each student played three different customers and also later played as the complaints department worker, we did not have enough time to finish this exercise in class, but I can’t wait to continue next class.

As a customer, I played an old lady returning a sweater without a receipt, who used a walker and wanted to set up the complaints department worker (Steve) with her granddaughter. I also played a high status woman who was upset that her cashier mistakenly did not take 40% off her purchases as advertised. Then when it came to the third character, I ran out of ideas, and just played a medium status person returning a toaster.

When I was the complaints department worker, I had Tony as the customer. He had me in stitches. For one of his characters, he played an Italian man who wanted to return a pair of pants that he was wearing. He was so deadpan and serious, I had to hold back laughing. I thought it would be really fun to put up some barriers and say we can’t take back pants that are being worn, but I remembered that as the complaints department worker I’m supposed to satisfy the customer. Later, I saw that other students did put up some barriers, and I wished I had taken the opportunity to do so and not be overly accommodating. Next time I’ll take more risks. If I’m wrong, I’ll learn, and that’s not a bad thing.

I would love to write about all the other scenes, but it would be much too long. Mitch played some incredible characters, one that was completely in mime with no dialogue. Again, I’m so amazed by my classmates and feel very lucky to have the opportunity to not only play with but learn from them every week!

Lessons Learned

  • Listening to your partner is very important.
  • If you realize that your partner hasn’t heard something you’ve said, do not ignore it. Bring it up without blocking. The audience notices everything and if you ignore it, it won’t make it better. (For instance, in the above exercise, if you return something without a receipt, and your partner says he sees on the receipt it’s within the return period, you could then say “My, you really are helpful, you even managed to find my receipt!”)
  • Be willing to take risks

Image: hinnamsaisuy / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Q & A with Kevin Matviw

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Kevin Matviw is a triple talent: Writer, improviser and director – but he doesn’t let it get to his head. I met Kevin Matviw after a performance at the Second City, and my first impression was what a nice guy he is. After sitting down with him, I realized it’s not an act. Talented though humble, Kevin Matviw is a performer to watch.

Kevin came to Toronto six years ago from his hometown of Victoria BC, where he first discovered that he could be funny. While studying at Humber College’s School of Comedy in Toronto, he also took classes at the Bad Dog Theatre, studying with Bad Dog founders and improv greats Kerry Griffin and Marcel St. Pierre, as well as Jan Caruana, Jack Mosshammer and David Shore. After a year at Humber, he dropped out in pursuit of more stage time and to hone his craft. He has since been improvising with the Bad Dog Theatre for five years and is a three time Toronto Theatresports Champion.

Kevin recently co-founded the Naked Friday Players, a comedy troupe that performs every Friday night at the Second City’s John Candy Box Theatre, in which he is not only a performer, but the head writer and director. Improv inTO sat down with Mr. Matviw to learn about the life of a busy improviser, and his recent work at the Second City and Naked Fridays.

When did you start working at the Second City? 

Kevin Matviw (KM): About three years ago, I applied for an audition. I applied once and didn’t get an audition, and the second time I did. I didn’t hear back for a month, and then I got a phone call telling me they wanted me to come in for the Educational Company (EdCo), which is a sketch comedy improv show for high school students and slightly younger.

Are you still doing that? 

KM: No. I moved up to the National Touring Company (TourCo) about a year ago.

Have you taken any classes with the Second City? 

KM: Yes, when I was in the Educational Company, I really wanted to show how dedicated I was so I enrolled in the Conservatory program and did that for the year while I was doing EdCo.

What would you say was the biggest lesson you learned in the Conservatory program or the Second City? 

KM: I learned a lot of lessons.

I learned that you can be as funny just by being supportive in a scene, and the value of remaining grounded and anchoring a scene when people are improvising and things are going totally crazy – just being that guy that keeps things in reality and sort of being the representative for the audience.

Also the value of teamwork. Doing EdCo and TourCo and Conservatory shows, the emphasis is on an ensemble collaboration, so learning to work with others in that kind of environment, and building on others’ ideas.

What is it like when you’re touring? 

KM: I did EdCo for two years and I’ve been doing TourCo for one.

For EdCo we had to get up sometimes at 5 in the morning and be downtown at 5 or 6, or some crazy time, and then jump in the van and drive off to a school somewhere and be funny.

One of the greatest lessons I learned working for EdCo is that it doesn’t matter how tired I am – I‘ve done shows with 3 hours sleep. I have insomnia sometimes, and the pressure of “Oh man, I have to get up at 5 in the morning” makes it even harder to get to sleep. But you’ve got to do it. You just get up and you can’t even think straight. It doesn’t matter – you just do it, you find a way, you find the energy somewhere.

Those shows were really fun. It was a bonding experience. We all enjoy working for the company. Everyone’s like “It’s so early, the kids aren’t gonna laugh at this. What are we gonna do?” You really get to know each other well in those van rides.

You also teach classes with the Second City? 

KM: I’m starting to. I was teaching the youth classes with EdCo. After the EdCo show we would do workshops with the students that had seen the show. We would teach them the basics of improv so they could theoretically do what we were doing on stage.

Since leaving EdCo to do TourCo, I’ve taught less of those classes, so I’ve been trying to get into more teaching here, and I’m teaching an intensive, my first official adult class here at the training centre. 

How did you get involved with Naked Fridays? 

KM: I was doing this show called Sunday Night Live with this group called The Sketchersons [at the Comedy Bar] last year and the idea behind that was to write a new show every week. It was based around the structure of Saturday Night Live, so we’d all have to write new sketches every week. And that really got me writing a lot. Then I took some time off from doing the show because I was directing a Fringe show last summer, and I decided that the tremendously long day on Sunday before the show for Sunday Night Life was too much and I wanted that day back so I decided to leave the group. But I still wanted the opportunity to put something up whenever I wanted.

So I overheard Ben Johnson [host of Naked Fridays] and Chris New [musical director of Naked Fridays] talking about how they should have a resident sketch troop and I kept it in the back of my head. I don’t think they knew I was listening to their conversation and later on I was like “Hey guys, I’m looking to put up material every week and I know you have this need and this interest, so maybe we can combine these two ideas.” And that’s how Naked Friday Players started.

First Cast of Naked Friday Players:
Matt McCready, Paul Kingston, Ashley Seaman, Kirsten Gallagher, Kevin Matviw,

How do you prepare for each week? 

KM: Basically on Tuesdays we meet and people come in with written sketches which we read. We usually go to Kirsten’s [Gallagher] house, she has all this food, it’s amazing. She has a hot tub, we’ve considered going into the hot tub and doing it in there, but we haven’t done it yet.

So we read the sketches, I give them notes and they have to give me the rewrites by Thursday afternoon, and then I look at them and I may make more changes, and then by Thursday evening at the latest, I send it all back to them to be memorized.

And then we meet on Friday at 6pm and we rehearse from then until 8:30 

The show goes on Fridays at 9pm. Is that your first rehearsal with it all memorized? Wow! 

KM: People in the cast – and I’m actually fine with this so long as the show goes well – will show up not even having their stuff memorized and will just learn it by doing it over and over and over again.

We’re really bonding as a group because of all of this. I’m the head writer, but I’m like “What do you guys think about this? Let’s bounce some ideas around. We need a new ending for this scene, what can we possibly come up with?”

All of the cast members currently are improvisers, so there’s a lot of funny stuff that just happens. I’m pretty cool with them going off book a little bit during rehearsals, we might keep it or we might not.

So you put that all together in a matter of just a few days. That’s impressive. 

KM: Oh thanks. It’s a lot of fun. Those guys are very very creative, they have a lot of very funny ideas, so it makes it a lot easier.

How did you form the Naked Friday Players? 

KM: We had auditions, and coincidentally I worked in some way with every one that’s currently in the cast in the past. So I was already familiar with their work a little bit. We as a group made the decision – me, Chris New, Josh Murray [Naked Fridays Producer and Announcer] and Ben [Johnson]. We all sat around and were like “That’s what we like and want to see more of.”

The cast is fabulous. 

KM: Thanks, they are, they are great.

Where do you get your ideas for sketches? 

KM: Something that I learned when I doing Sketchersons Sunday Night Live show – cause I would have to write something – I would give myself a deadline and then I would sit there and I would think of things like: What are two opposites that don’t belong together? Or what is a scenario that is normal, like say a birthday party, and what’s not supposed to happen? Often I would sit there and watch TV and flip through the channels and watch a dramatic cop show or something, and then just say the next thing that I think they will say, and if it made me laugh, I’d write it down.

I came up with this idea –  So what’s something that’s really high status?: A ninja. And what are ninjas like? They’re stealthy, right? Cool, let’s just have some incredibly loud ninjas who are terrible at what they do, and that’s it. That was in my auditions for The Sketchersons and that’s what got me in the show.

What advice would you give to someone pursuing comedy as a career? 

KM: I’d say just get out there and do it as much as possible. See a lot of comedy, live comedy, but also get inspiration from stuff that’s worked before. Mr. Show with Bob and David is one of my favourite sketch shows ever,  or Monty Python. Just watch that a lot.

But when you’re watching a live comedy show, and you notice that something doesn’t work – like you can tell when someone is trying to be funny – and if you hear no one laugh, and you’re not laughing either, I’d sit there and think to yourself  “Why is it that no one is laughing at this right now?”

Or the opposite – if someone is destroying, think “What did it take for them to get to this point?” I say that especially if you’re performing as well. Eventually, you will get an idea of the language that an audience needs to understand your point, and how to be as clear as possible. It’s sort of like working on a muscle, the more exercise you do, the stronger you’ll be.

Do you think anybody can learn to be funny? 

KM: Yeah, I do.

Yeah? I don’t think I could be like you. I think you’re very funny and I think the cast is very funny. 

KM: I honestly think that you could. Like if you really wanted to and you wanted to put the time in. Because I think in high school, I wasn’t very funny. I’m terrible at telling jokes and I always mess them up, but I’ve learned how to write sketches and how to succeed in improv just by doing it trial by fire. Because when it fails, you’re like “Oh man, I do not want that to happen again. I’ll do anything that I can to make sure I avoid it.” 

What’s next for Kevin Matviw? 

KM: What I want to do is focus on writing for TV, actually. I’m not super interested in doing the audition life of an actor. I’m more interested in having my idea out there as opposed to being the person who is the messenger.

I’m kind of getting a kick out of writing the sketch and casting other people in it, which I’ve been doing in Naked Fridays a little bit and other solo shows. It’s really satisfying seeing something come to life and seeing it from an outside perspective.

I want to be the writer, and be the reason that someone is performing it and the reason that the director is there and all that stuff.

Naked Friday Players can be seen performing at the Naked Fridays show, every Friday at 9pm at the John Candy Box Theatre, located at 70 Peter Street in Toronto (Second City Training Centre) . Admission is PWYC (Pay what you can)

– Cindy Hackelberg

Wrapping Up “Improv for Actors”

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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.

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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

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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.

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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

 Thoughts? 

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

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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 DailyMotion.com. 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 LiveFromTheCenTre.com.  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 LiveFromTheCenTre.com or follow them on twitter @TheCenTreLive

– Cindy Hackelberg

Character Endowment

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We continued our work on status in our week 5 class of Improv for Actors at the Second City in Toronto. It’s hard to believe there are only two more lessons left of this course. The time is going by quickly, a sign of an enjoyable class.

Class Check-In

We started class with a check-in. Sitting in a circle, Chris asked for our impressions of the course so far, and any questions we may have. A number of classmates remarked that they’ve been using the improv techniques we’ve learned during their auditions, with positive results. Michelle teaches musical theatre classes to children and has been employing some of our improv activities in her lessons. I believe that everything we have learned in class, and will continue to learn in the study of improvisation, can be used in many facets of our lives. Particularly with the study of status, it’s helped me reflect on my relationships and my status compared to those around me, and how our actions and behaviours shape people’s perceptions.

I asked Chris while we were sitting in the circle about the mime exercise from week 3. In the exercise, we mimed activities while interacting with another player and building a relationship. Chris emphasized that we continue to mime our activity throughout the scene and resist moments where we would stop the action. I asked why that was important…

Why action is important

Chris explained that action heightens a scene. Even when a scene is interesting based on the dialogue itself, action helps to improve it. For example, if two people are having an argument, that can be good, but if two people are having an argument while they are having trouble putting up a Christmas tree, and everything is going wrong, it adds to the scene and makes it that much better.

Continuing with an action also rewards the audience for paying attention and noticing what is happening in a scene. If someone mimes reading the newspaper and puts the newspaper down, and then a few minutes later picks up the newspaper again – the people watching who didn’t miss those details are rewarded by the activity being continued, and it shows the audience that their attention is being valued. I found this really interesting. It makes complete sense, I had just not thought about this before. For instance, last week I watched an improv performance and noticed that one of the players put a clipboard down (at least, I believed that’s what she did). When she picked the clipboard back up a few minutes later, I realized that I was correct in my assumption, and felt kind of good about that.

Counting to 20 as a Group 

We started class with our usual warm-ups, with the addition of one new exercise. We stood in a circle, with our eyes closed. The goal was to count to 20 without any doubles. It was an exercise in listening, awareness and intuition. One person would say “one.” Then another person would count out “two.” The tricky part was to not say a number at the exact same time as someone else – if that happened, you start over. So you needed to be careful and have a sense of the right time to say the number aloud. It took us three tries I believe, and we made it to twenty!

Character Endowment 

In pairs, we were given a character endowment and had to act it out. Some of these were:

  • Fashion Models
  • High school cheerleaders
  • Bull fighter
  • Pine trees
  • Astronomers

Kate and Christian acted out being snowflakes. What is the character endowment of a snowflake? That’s a tough one, but they did a great job. Christian fell to the ground as a snowflake would. When he told Kate he was on the ground, she said “I’m on my way there” and she lay on the floor with him. Laying on the ground, they philosophized about their lives as snowflakes and what would happen to them as they melted away.

Status determined by Playing Cards

A group of 4 people would perform at a time. Chris gave each person a playing card, but they could not look at it. The playing card would be held to the player’s chest so the audience and other players could see, but was not visible to the individual player.

2 is the lowest status and ace is the highest status.

By knowing the other three players’ status, and noticing how you are treated in comparison to the others, you should get an idea on what your status is, and how you should play it.

For these exercises, groups of 4 players were either at a corporate retreat or a high school reunion.

Amanda, Toni, Jill and Laura were at a high school reunion. Amanda had the highest status with a King, Toni was close behind with a Queen, Jill had a 6 and Laura a 2.

In their scene, Amanda and Toni stuck together but did not give much of their attention to Jill or Laura. Jill, in the middle, tried hard to appease Amanda and Toni and get in their good graces. She was good at putting Laura down, almost as if she was doing it as a service for Amanda and Toni, who were of too high a status to even bother with someone so low. Jill offered to get drinks for Amanda and Toni, and then got Laura to do it for her. Eventually, Toni made a drink for Amanda, as only someone of her status could do it right.

BREAK

Quick offers of character endowment and status 

This was a fast paced exercise. Two people walk in, create a quick scene, and walk out of the scene. One person casts the offer of the other’s character endowment (ie. “Get me my slippers, Jeeves). This immediately defines the other player’s character and status, and well as their own status (if Jeeves is a servant, then the player making the offer is of a higher status). The partner responds. Then the original offer-maker ends the exchange, and the scene is done.

Here is a video I found that demonstrates this general idea.

Jill and Steve had a quick exchange that ended in a bit of a twist. Jill was a call-girl, making an offer to Steve “Hey big boy, want to get together?” In this way, it is assumed that Jill is the lower status and Steve superior. Steve responds to her offer, and then Jill quickly exclaims “Never mind, you probably couldn’t afford it anyway”, putting her in the higher status position. This goes to show that status can indeed change in a scene!

Physical Offers 

We didn’t have time to finish this exercise, but we will continue next class.

Two people are facing each other (or standing side by side, or back to front). They stand there and take their time. One person might make a very minute gesture, such as their nose twitching, or squinting their eyes. It doesn’t have to be a big gesture, and it can just happen on its own. From there, the other person uses that small gesture and starts a scene. There doesn’t need to be any ideas as to how this will evolve, just let it happen.

Amanda and Tony did this well. Amanda was actually standing in front of Tony. They stood there for a few moments, and then Amanda brushed her fingers through her hair. From there, Tony asked what she thought of her haircut. He became the hairdresser and she the client. From that one small movement, the offer was made and the scene took off. 

Lessons Learned 

  • Offering your partner a character endowment or status is a wonderful gift, as it eliminates endless possibilities. Once an offer is made, the status and endowment can be accepted and it makes the scene that much easier, as options are taken off the table.
  • Having activity and motion in a scene, such as brushing hair, or putting dishes away, no matter how incidental it is to the dialogue, helps to heighten a scene and add interest.
  • Continuing with an action rewards the audience for noticing details and their attention.
  • When status is unknown, it can be intuited by how your character is treated compared to other players with known status.

Sizing Up Status

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Week 4 of the Second City’s Improv for Actors class focused on the study of status.

Status is an interesting concept. We all have status – be it high, low, or somewhere in between. Status can be defined in different ways. High status generally indicates power, which could come from birth, wealth, confidence, knowledge, etc. Two high status people can be quite varied. One could be dominant (using intimidation or fear) whereas another could exhibit pride and self-assuredness. 

* See further reading to learn more about status

I’m enjoying the work we’ve been doing on status, because it helps me to reflect on my relationships with family, friends, colleagues, etc, and pay attention to how status comes into play in our everyday lives – particularly, what is the role I play? How is my status perceived, and does this change depending on the relationship?

Walking with Status

To start our work on status, our instructor Chris had all of us in the class walk around the room randomly. Occasionally, he would tell us to stop. Then we would start walking again – very simple.

Next, we were instructed to walk around and make eye contact with the people we pass. Once we made eye contact, we were to quickly look away.

Secret Agent, Arch-Nemesis and Shield 

Premise: you are a secret agent and everyone else is an ordinary citizen. With this knowledge, you walk around the room with self-assuredness, cool and collected in the fact that you have this power.

Next: one person in the room is your arch-nemesis (you can choose anyone at random – only you know who your arch-nemesis is). Walking around the room, you are still confident knowing you are a secret agent, but you try to stay clear of your arch nemesis, who you do not let get close.

Finally: one person in the room is a shield (again chosen at random, and only you know who your shield is). When walking, you should try to always maintain a straight line between yourself, the shield and the arch nemesis, with the shield in the middle for your protection.

When we performed the exercise, many people in the class selected Alexa to be their shield. This was done unknowingly, but as Alexa moved, everyone was gravitating towards her to keep safe. 

Walk of Shame 

Individually, each student in the class had to walk through the room, attempting to make eye contact with other classmates. We all stood still on the spot, except for the one player walking through the room. The premise was that every bystander was an ex-lover, and things did not end well. The person walking through the room hopes someone will show some compassion or pity, but everyone just stares at him or her disapprovingly. It was difficult to walk through a crowd of people like this, being very low status. Generally, the player walking through the room felt sheepish, intimidated, scared, unworthy. As soon as eye contact was made, it would be broken. It was a neat exercise, and though it was not real, it was kind of uncomfortable feeling that low.

 High, Medium, Low Status 

In the next exercise, three people were in a scene at a doctor’s waiting room. Chris assigned status, one high, one medium, one low. In the waiting room, each player acted out their status, while also treating the other two people according to their statuses.

In this exercise, I was assigned high status. My classmates commented that I wasn’t snobby or mean, but instead I acted aloof rather than superior, and was still nice. There are many ways that high status could be played. (See next example)

When Status is Determined by…Coughing

A notable group was Nick (high status), Tony (medium status) and Christian (low status). Nick entered the scene very self-important and with purpose, I saw him as a corporate executive. Tony was coughing in this scene in the waiting room. Instead of Nick continuing to play out the scene disgusted by the coughing, or acting impatient with how long he was waiting, the scene changed gears when Nick started coughing too. Nick coughed louder and longer than Tony. It became a coughing match – with the superior cough having the higher status. It was a fantastic display of status and very original!

BREAK

Less Words = More Status 

In the next exercise, Chris put three students together in a scene. Two people were seated at a table at a restaurant, and the third player was the server. Each player was assigned a status. The high status player was allowed to use only one word at a time. The medium status player could say two words, and the low status three words. There was no speaking order, but someone else has to speak before you could speak again.

A typical scene could go like this:

Server (medium status): Order please? (2)
High status player: Wine (1)
Low status: I’d like beer (3)
Server: What kind? (2)
Low status: Heineken please – cold! (3)
High status: Chardonnay (1)
Server (returns with drink): Your drinks (2)
High status (inspecting glass): Unacceptable (1)
Low status: Not very good (3)
Server: What’s wrong? (2)

What was interesting about this exercise, was how much can be said with very few words, and how much can be expressed using gestures and physical communication/body language. 

Lessons Learned 

  • Status can define a character.
  • Eye contact can be an indicator of status. Those with higher status are generally more comfortable making eye contact.
  • Low status indicators include trouble maintaining eye contact, lowered head, nervousness, fidgeting, etc.
  • Status can be revealed in both verbal and non-verbal (physical) ways.

Further reading:

Building Relationships

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It’s week three of the Improv for Actors class at the Second City Training Centre, and our exercises are definitely advancing, and warm-ups speeding up. Only a few weeks in and we’ve learned so much.

Warm-ups

For warm-ups, we started with a round of Point, “Yes!”, followed by mimicking gestures in a circle. After that, we mimicked just face gestures. For this, we got closer together in the circle and made very small gestures using only our faces. We need to always be ready to receive an offer, and with smaller and quieter gestures, it made it a little bit more challenging.

Name Game Elimination

Last week we played the Name Game, and now was time for a fun test. In a circle, we clapped/pointed to a player in the circle and called out their name. After a bit of practicing, it was time for elimination. If you pointed to someone and didn’t say the right name or hesitated, you were out of the circle. It was fast-paced. We got down to 5 players at the end before calling it quits. I was excited to make it to the final 5. These kinds of exercises I’m good at because I can easily remember people’s names and therefore I don’t worry and just have fun with it .

Gibberish

Gibberish is talking and keeping up a conversation with nonsense words. Even though the words may not make sense, there can be a lot of expression and truth in the delivery, without the hindrance of thinking about specific words.

In a circle, we practiced using gibberish, which we would use more in the next exercise.

Freeze Tag

Next we moved onto Freeze Tag. This exercise makes me a bit nervous, because I worry if I’ll be able to come up with an idea for a new action quickly.  (This week, we determined when we were ready to jump into the action by clapping, instead of our instructor Chris clapping us in) After a round of silent Freeze Tag, we played Freeze Tag using gibberish.

After Freeze Tag, I asked Chris a question:  What do you do when you freeze and can’t think of an idea quickly?

I don’t think many people in the class have this problem, but myself, I do not feel comfortable when I enter a scene and am not sure what to do in that moment.

  • First, embrace the uncertainty. In improv, there is always an element of uncertainty, and by playing and practicing, we learn to be more comfortable with the uncertainty.
  • Chris’ advice was to continue with the action or motion, when you can’t think of what to do. For example, if you are replacing someone who is frozen in a pose where he/she is reaching forward, then continue reaching forward and moving. You will find that through movement and allowing the body to lead, action will evolve, resulting in an idea.

Bring a brick, not a cathedral

In classical acting, an actor must discover what the character’s objective is (what the character wants) and the obstacle (what is preventing him for achieving the objective)

In Improv, the focus is more on relationships – what is the relationship between two people, and how can you make a game of it.

Chris, our instructor, discussed this, and the principal in improvisation of “bringing a brick, not a cathedral.” What this means, is that each actor, adds a piece to a story. The story evolves with each idea presented by the players. Brick by brick, the story is created (cathedral built).

Improvisors are not expected to know the entire story (ie. the cathedral) when they start a scene. That is the beauty of improv, and being open to accepting offers, and to “yes, and-ing” ideas

Making a game of it

In this exercise, two students performed at a time. Chris gave them a task (ie. setting a table), and both players would perform the task, but trying to “one-up” the other player.

The focus was on the relationship, and the game was “one-upping” the other player.

It is important to note that when trying to “one-up” or upstage the other player, you should not try to destroy something they have done. For example, when setting the table, if player A put a nice vase of flowers on the table, player B should not knock the flowers off the table. Instead, they should try to do something even more impressive.

A scene that stood out for me was between Alexa and Lou. Their task was to graffiti a wall. Right off the bat, Alexa added the element of “doing something wrong” by being on the look-out for anyone watching who could catch them in their mischief. It felt like a dance between the two of them, as they each created graffiti masterpieces on their walls. By the end, Alexa was helping Lou with what he was creating, and then one-upping that.

My task was to fish. At first I thought, there isn’t much to do. I can put a worm on a hook, I can cast my fishing rod. But it’s not just about the task. I could have simply opened a can of beer and showed off doing that. Or by putting on a special fisherman’s hat. I realized after the exercise, that it’s about thinking outside of the box, and not so much about what you’re doing, but how you’re doing it, and in advancing the scene and building the relationship.

During week 1, I believe Chris said something like “there is no box in Improv – Improv is all about thinking outside of the box”

BREAK

Mime Part 2

After break, we spent time on our mimes from week 2, but in a new exercise.

Chris paired two people together. Generally, the pairing was based on activities that were performed in the same environment (ie. people who mimed an activity in the bathroom were put together).

In this exercise, each person continued with their activity, while engaging in a conversation with the other person.

For my activity, I was putting contact lens on. I was paired with Michelle, who was brushing her teeth. The scenario that Chris gave us, was that we were in an airport washroom, and that we were two strangers. From there, Michelle and I performed our activities and developed a relationship by interacting with each other.

All of the scenes were really interesting to watch. Mary and Kate had a good scene. They were maids cleanings up a hotel room. Kate was making a bed and Mary was ironing. Doing these activities in the background, we learned that Kate was a seasonal employee going off to school in the fall, whereas Mary had a long time career working at the hotel. A lot can unfold brick by brick in these scenes.

Another great scene was between Amanda and Christian.  All they knew was that they were in a bathroom getting ready to go to a wedding. It was up to them to determine what their relationship was. First we learned that Christian was Amanda’s date to the wedding. Next we learned that it was Amanda’s brother’s wedding, which Christian did not know. I’m pretty all of us watching assumed they were boyfriend and girlfriend, and so it was odd that Christian did not know this. But it all flowed smoothly. As it then turned out, Christian was helping Amanda out by being her date and pretending to be her boyfriend, though he was in fact gay. By the end of the scene, however, Christian professed his love for Amanda and confessed that he was in fact straight. Brick by brick, the story was created, and what was great, was that all offers were accepted and built upon to make a great scene.

Lessons Learned

  • When an idea does not come to you right away and you feel “frozen”, embrace the uncertainty, take your time and relax, and follow through with the existing motion. Through movement, an idea will come.
  • Bring a brick, not a cathedral – Each actor adds a small piece to a story. The story is created brick by brick together by the players.
  • Take time, relax and be open to all offers