Tag Archives: Toronto

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

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

Piece of Garbage Sex Dungeon: A Night of Sophisticated Comedy

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***See below for chance to win tickets!***

L to R: Kirsten Gallagher (Producer), Sara Hennessey, Big in Japan cast Jess Grant, Kevin Thom, Ken Hall

Don’t let the name deceive you. Piece of Garbage Sex Dungeon: A Night of Sophisticated Comedy has a title that can be a little misleading. Sexy? Sure. Sophisticated? Indeed. But garbage? Hardly!

The brainchild of Toronto improvisers Kirsten Gallagher, Mandy Sellers, Annie Bankes and Kevin Thom, Piece of Garbage Sex Dungeon is high caliber comedy at a deal of a price. For 5 loonies, you get a mélange of stand-up comedy, improvised acts from up-and-coming and established artists, and to cap the show, an improv jam including audience participation. Every week is different, and there’s always something new. All this, in the funky, character-rich space of Unit 102 on Dufferin Street in Toronto.

“The goal is to create a quality improv show that is consistently diverse so the night never feels stale,” explains Gallagher, who produces the show along with Sellers, Bankes and Thom. The four met while improvising together at the Impatient Theatre Company. “[We] decided we wanted to produce a fresh-feeling show and use our combined skills (graphic design, business sense, photography, film, writing, promotion) to push the show, not just to the comedy community, but to a wider audience.”

The show opened its doors on March 4 and plays every Sunday night. Audience members can submit their names as they arrive for a chance to improvise with the week’s cast during the improv jam. Winners’ names are drawn at the end of the performance, and they also win back the price of admission.

The emphasis is on creating opportunities for improvisers. The evening starts with producer Gallagher introducing the show before the night’s host takes over. She encourages people to visit their Facebook page and website, where artists can pitch their acts to be considered for an upcoming show.

The evening I attend (May 6), the host is Sara Hennessey, a young and sassy performer who makes stand-up look easy. She has the audience in stitches discussing topics such as the extinction of cursive handwriting (ah, the infamous upper case Q that resembles the number 2), the lack of eye contact in Toronto, and how wearing pantaloons is an indication that you’re in a comfortable relationship.

There are three improv sets, beginning with the Improvniacs and the Puns of Brixton, who are very funny, but the headline act Big in Japan definitely steals the show. Big in Japan, consisting of Jess Grant, Ken Hall and Kevin Thom, is improv at its finest. Performing with incredible energy, fantastic movement and organic progressions, Big in Japan amazes.

Before two audience member’s names are drawn to improvise with the cast, the host returns to continue the entertainment. The evening runs about 2 hours long, and is well worth the price of admission. Expect great comedy and lots of laughter.

Poster by Alice Moran

Piece of Garbage Sex Dungeon: A Night of Sophisticated Comedy performs every Sunday at 8pm at Unit 102, located at 376 Dufferin Street in Toronto. Admission is $5.

-Cindy Hackelberg

WIN TICKETS!!!

5 lucky readers can win a pair of tickets to see Piece of Garbage Sex Dungeon!

To enter for your chance to win, submit a comment below. Contest will be open for 1 week.  Five (5) random names will be selected on May 22, 2012 from all comments submitted. Winners will be notified by email.

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

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.

BREAK

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


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

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

Allowing the body to lead

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Had my second improv class this week, and it was even better than the first.

Traffic was good driving into Toronto, so I got to class a little early. Tony, the SCTV and Saturday Night Live alumnus, was also there early and I had the opportunity to chat with him. I was a little awe-struck the first week, but he’s very approachable and friendly. I’m really glad to have Tony in our class – he’s super funny and there’s so much to learn from him. He takes the simplest ideas and turns them into amazing scenes. (see exercise “Exchanging Gifts” below)

As class started, I initially felt a twinge of nerves, despite this being our second week – can I do three hours of this? Will it get harder? But the three hours really went by quickly, and I’m becoming more confident as time goes on.

Warm-ups – Gestures

We started class with a few warm-up exercises. Standing in a circle, Chris, our instructor, made a gesture, and all of us mimicked it. After doing this for a few rounds, Chris then would make a gesture towards a specific person in the circle, and that person would mimic it back to Chris. Then, that student (A) would make a different gesture to another student (B). B would mimic it back to A, and then direct a gesture to another student. It was similar to the “Point, yes” exercise from Week 1, but instead of pointing, a gesture was used, and instead of responding with “yes”, the gesture was mimicked back.

The above exercise evolved into actions using just the face, and then actions using no hands (hands behind the back). It’s interesting to isolate or restrict parts of your body and see what gestures you come up with.

Name Game

After these warm-ups, we played the Name Game. I really like the Name Game. It’s a fun exercise that tests your memory.

It started with Chris. Chris introduced himself by saying his name, and then describing himself with an adjective starting with the first letter of his name. He would also make a gesture. For example:

“I’m Chris and I’m clever” (pointing his index finger to his head)

Then it’s the turn of the person next to Chris in the circle. That person must first repeat Chris’ name, adjective and gesture, and then introduce him/herself. For example:

“I’m Chris and I’m clever” (pointing index finger to head)
“I’m Mitch and I’m mighty” (flexing his arms up beside his head like a muscle man)

Now it’s the next person’s turn. The next person must always repeat the introductions of all the people before him/her, and then introduce him/herself. If you’re the last person in the circle, you have the biggest challenge, trying to remember everyone’s name, adjective and gesture!

Some of the adjectives were really neat. Let’s see if I can remember them all:

  • Chris – clever
  • Mitch – mighty
  • Toni – timid
  • Elise – energetic
  • Mary – morbid
  • Lou – luscious
  • Michelle – mini
  • Mark – marvelous
  • Jill – good (meant to ask if she spells her with a G. She gestured “quote marks” for her action)
  • Nick – noble
  • Steve – stylish
  • Cindy – cheerful
  • Alexa – asymmetrical (I liked this one – very original)
  • Tony – tender
  • Amanda – abstract
  • Kate – kinky
  • Christian – creative (I think 😕 – hard to remember the last one)

Not bad – I remembered everyone’s names, and all but one of the adjectives. It definitely is a good exercise to help in learning names.

Bonus points go to Christian. He came to class late, and with one only viewing of the circle, was able to repeat everyone’s name, adjective and gesture. Like I mentioned in my last post, we have some amazing students in the class.

Allowing your body to lead you

The next exercise set us up for the Freeze Game.

  • Person A is in the centre of the circle and repeatedly makes a motion, like swinging a baseball bat.
  • Person B enters the circle and copies the motion, then, slowly allows it to evolve into a different motion.
  • Person A exits and Person C enters. Person C copies the new motion made by Person B and then allows it to evolve into another motion
  • This continues.

For example, person A is swinging a baseball bat. Once person B has successfully copied this action, then as he allows the action to evolve, the action may end up changing into throwing a pizza pie over the head.

The change needs to be organic and fluid – just let it happen! Do not think about it, but rather let the body lead and see what evolves.

Freeze Game

After practicing the body leading an action, we played the Freeze Game.

Two people are in the circle, acting something out. At any point, the teacher claps his hands, and the two people freeze. The next person in the circle jumps in and takes the place of the person who has been in the circle the longest, and puts himself in the same pose. He must now act something different out, using that same pose.

This was a little different than how I know the Freeze Game, in that the teacher stopped the action by clapping his hands (instead of the person who will jump into the circle, who may stop the action when he or she is inspired to do so), and that the person who was clapped out was the one who was in the longest, instead of choosing either one of the two people in the circle.

Exchanging Gifts (between three people)

The last exercise before the break was my favourite of the class: Three people giving gifts to each other

Three people are in the scene, sitting in chairs next to each other. The premise of the exercise is that each person gives the other two a gift (therefore six gifts are given in this exercise). It could be for any occasion. It could be three people with the same birthday (ie. triplets), it could be Christmas, just because, whatever.

The rule is that the person who receives the gift, loves the gift, and decides what the gift is. For example, the receiver opens the gift and says “I love it! I’ve always wanted a swiffer sweeper.” Or “How did you know I’ve be looking for an ancient dinosaur fossil.” It doesn’t need to be creative, it could be anything. Then, the other two people (the giver and the observer), each need to give a reason why the gift is ideal for the recipient.

Things to keep in mind are the weight and size of the gift being presented. It should make sense what comes out of the gift once it’s unwrapped.

This exercise was so much fun to watch and to perform in. There were many ways in which the scene could develop, by unwrapping the gift, using the gift, etc.

My favourite gift given was to Tony. He took his time opening the gift, and it was a bar of soap – Zest in fact – so simple, and also so unexpected. His partners gave reasons why soap was a good gift for Tony. He agreed, saying he could use more soap. His delivery was so honest and pure, and the whole class was in stitches! What I noticed about Tony was that he accepted all offers so effortlessly, and added to them, but let the scene evolve, without changing the direction it was going in. It sounds easy, but I’m realizing it takes a lot of skill to do this.

The part of this exercise that worried me was will I be able to come up with an idea for a gift quickly?

I was amazed when Jill was given a really long gift, and without skipping a beat, she opened it and was thrilled that it was a dance/stripper’s pole. Jill set it up and started using it, and it was a great scene. I found it creative and believable.

Seeing my classmates come up with these great ideas, I tried to resist the urge while watching to think of ideas of what I could open (if it was small, big, heavy, light) when it came to be my turn. This is the opposite of what we are meant to do. Improv is about getting out of your head.

I was impressed by Toni. She really took her time opening the gift, allowing herself time to figure out what the gift would be. She unwrapped, took out lots of packing peanuts, got to another box, then took her time being amazed at what the gift was, thanking her gift givers, asking how they knew how much she wanted it. There was a lot of anticipation of what the gift would be. In the end, it turned out to be a coin that belonged to her late father.

Watching her, I realized I should allow myself the time I need and not panic to try to come up with an idea quickly. Anxiety is not helpful (which I am prone to feel).

When it came to my turn, I had a lot of fun. I even got a few laughs, which I wasn’t expecting. It’s nice when they do happen!

BREAK

Mime

At the end of the first class, Chris gave each of us a homework assignment – to learn how to mime one common household activity.

After break, each student presented their mime. After miming out the action one time, Chris asked us to mime it again, this time having difficulty with the action, and really paying attention to all the intricacies that are involved with performing the activity

What I noticed, was the mimes I enjoyed the most were the ones that were simple. Jill mimed out painting her nails with nail polish, and this was really good. Alexa mimed waxing her legs. When she did it with difficulties, the wax burned her, got caught in her hair, it developed into a terrific scene.

The mimes that had many actions involved were harder for me to follow or understand what the action was, especially when it was done quickly. But overall, all of the mimes were really enjoyable to watch.

This is the part of class I really like, when most of the time is involved in watching! (We did this for over an hour, most of the time as spectator to our classmates)

For myself, I mimed putting contact lenses in my eyes. I’m not overly confident with miming, but I heard a few mutters of “yeah, that’s exactly what happens” and I had someone ask me if I wear contacts, so I got the feeling that I did an ok job.

One mime that was really funny, was Christian shaving. During the part where he had difficulty, water didn’t come out of the sink. He tried the shower, and that also didn’t work. After much deliberation, he mustered up his courage and did the unthinkable – splashing his face with water in the toilet. It was priceless!

Lessons Learned 

  • The simplest ideas and actions often are the most believable and can result in the funniest scenes
  • Allow your body to lead you into your next action or idea. Go with the flow of energy and do not force the process. Just see what happens.
  • When you let go, that’s when magic happens
  • Take your time 🙂

Jumping In…

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This week I started my first class with the Second City Training Centre in Toronto: Improv for Actors.

I’m really excited about this class. I love watching improv and have seen numerous mainstage performances at the Second City, but I must admit, improvising personally makes me feel rather nervous. I was relieved to find out that a number of my classmates feel the same way. Taking this class for me is about conquering those fears, being in the moment and jumping in, and seeing where it takes me.

In this blog, I plan to write about each class and share personal lessons learned. I will also write about improv activities and events that take place outside of class, mostly at the Second City in Toronto.

Class 1

Upon arriving at the Second City Training Centre, I was directed to studio 9. I recognized a few classmates who I had met at the orientation a few days earlier. There was a sense of excitement and energy in the room, as we got together, waiting for the class to begin.

We started with introductions. There are about 18 students in the class of varying ages and backgrounds. The prerequisite for this class is that you’ve either studied acting, or are currently working as an actor.

I feel privileged to be amongst the company of some seasoned actors, one in particular was very exciting to meet. We have a student in the class who has been a cast member of SCTV and Saturday Night Live!

Once we began exercises, I was impressed by the skill level of my classmates, which means I have some great examples in class to look up to.  🙂

Note: I named the following exercises using names I felt were descriptive. If you know the actual names for these exercises, please leave a comment and I will edit the title.

Exercises

 Lessons Learned:

  • Improv is based upon trust. It is important for improvisers to take care of each other
  • In life, people are predisposed to rejecting offers, to saying “No”, or “Yes, but”…this is because they may be afraid of what’s unknown, giving up their power, etc. In improv, it is important to accept all offers, and add a new offer. This is known as “Yes, and!!!”
  • Nobody will laugh if they don’t believe you. Be believable.
  • Make your partner look good. When you focus on making your fellow improviser look good, the pressure is taken off of you.
  • There is fun to joining in – you can build upon what someone else is doing, instead of playing an opposite character (ie. Wayne and Garth from “Wayne’s World”)

Week 1 Exercises – Improv for Actors

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Below are descriptions of the exercises from the first week of the “Improv for Actors” class at the Second City

Exercise 1 – Point, “Yes!”

We all got into a circle. The instructor (person A) started by pointing at someone. The person being pointed to (person B) would respond with “Yes!” Once person B said yes, person A would walk towards person B to take his/her spot in the circle (walking cannot begin until this the “yes” response has been received). As soon as person B says yes, s/he would point at someone else (person C) and wait for them to say “yes.” This cycle continues throughout the circle.

This could speed up pretty quickly, so it was important to keep your eyes alert to see if someone was pointing at you.

Exercise 2 – (Delayed) Mirror

After a fun warm-up, we jumped right into a more challenging exercise.

The instructor (person A) asked for a volunteer (person B) to help him demonstrate. Person A starts by making an action (with or without sound) and his partner B would then mirror the action back to him. Person B then makes an action, which person A mirrors. This continues back and forth, by mirroring the action, and then creating a new one to be mirrored.

After the instructor demonstrated, each of us in the class had to do this with a partner in the circle in front of our classmates.

The hard part of the exercise for me was thinking quickly – or rather, trying not to think or worry about looking silly. To mimic the action and to just do another action without giving it too much thought.

Exercise 3 – Giving a gift

We got into partners. Person A would mime giving person B a gift. Person B would open the gift, and demonstrate what was received. Then vice versa.

When receiving the gift, it’s important to notice how big and how heavy the gift is. If person A gives person B a big and heavy gift, it will not make sense to pull out a comb and start combing your hair with it. It will not be believable, and believability is crucial to improv.

Exercise 4 – “Yes, and…”

The premise of improv is to accept offers (Yes!) and to build upon them (and…)

In this exercise, we got into pairs, with the intention of throwing a party (the idea could be anything). The first person starts and says something like “Let’s plan a party.” The second person then responds by saying “Yes, and …” and offers another suggestion, such as “Yes, and let’s invite our improv class”. Every response after the first statement needs to start with “Yes, and”. For example:

Person A: “Let’s throw a party”
Person B: “Yes, and we could have a carribbean theme”
Person A: “Yes, and let’s invite our improv class!”
Person B: “Yes, and we could ask Margaret if her brother’s calypso band would like to play some music”
Person A: “Yes, and we could have it be a potluck.
Person B: “Yes, and …….”

Exercise 5 – “Yes, but…”

Only the instructor and a class participant demonstrated this exercise, to show how using “Yes, but” makes advancing a scene difficult. “Yes, but” is similar to “Yes, and” except instead of building upon an idea, reasons are given why it won’t work (but…). Person B finds reasons to reject all offers suggested. Person A tries to make new offers, but it’s not easy to do so when they’re constantly rejected.

Person A: “Let’s throw a party”
Person B: “Yes, but it’s cold outside”
Person A: “Yes, but we could have it inside”
Person B: “Yes, but there are no places nearby”
Person A: “Yes, but??????”

Exercise 6 – “No”

This exercise is like “Yes, but”, but even harsher in turning down an offer. There is no where to go once the offer has been refused…

Person A: “Let’s throw a party”
Person B: “No, I don’t feel like doing that”

Exercise 7 – Last word begins next sentence

In this exercise, students get into partners. Person A starts with a sentence. Person B then must start their next sentence with the last word used by Person A. This continues with each turn.

Person A: “Let’s throw a party”
Person B: “Party rockers in the house tonight”
Person A: “Tonight I celebrate my love for you”
Person B: “You are so beautiful to me”
Person A: “Me me me, fa so la tee doe”
Person B: “D’oh, I forget to pay the bill”
Person A” “Bill me later”

Note: The last word should not be modified by making it plural or singular, changing its verb ending, turning it into an adjective, etc. Use the word exactly as it is.

Note 2: Try to avoid asking questions for the sentence.

Exercise 8 – Airport Shuttle (or Hitchhiker)

In this exercise, there are three chairs side by side. Imagine it is a shuttle bus to the airport, and passengers are being picked up. It starts with one person already on the shuttle (Person A), and one person is picked up (Person B). Person B has certain mannerisms. This can include sounds like grunting, humming, etc, but no talking/conversation. Person A mimics Person B’s mannerisms at the same time. For example:

Person A is sitting in the middle chair. Person B approaches the shuttle and sits beside Person A. While approaching, person B is scratching their neck. Person A simultaneously scratches their own neck. Person B starts scratching more. Person A scratches more too. Person B starts sighing. Person A sighs too.

Person A does whatever person B does. It is important for the participants to maintain eye contact, so that when actions change, they are aware of that and stay connected.

Now Person C approaches the shuttle. Persons A and B move over one chair, allowing Person C to sit down. Persons A and B mimic Person C’s mannerisms. For example:

Person C is flossing. Persons A and B also floss. Person C looks at their floss. Person A and B also look at their floss. Person C starts laughing. Persons A and B laugh with person C in unison.

Now another person approaches. Person A leaves the shuttle (exits), Persons B and C move over one place and Person D sits down. Persons B and C imitate Person D. And so it continues.

BREAK

After break, we did two exercises about environment.

Exercise 9 – Creating an Environment

In this exercise, the class was split in half. Half the class would perform the exercise.

The goal of this exercise is to establish an environment. It is not important for actors to interact with each other. Rather, the point is to build upon creating the environment.

It starts with one person doing an activity. For example, Person A is pushing a shopping cart and putting items in the cart.

Person B enters the environment. Person B is scanning items.

Person C enters the environment. Person C stands next to Person B and bags items.

Person D enters the environment. Person D is mopping.

It continues with people entering the scene and performing different activities that help to establish the environment.

It becomes clearer with each person and their activity what the environment is. In this example, the environment is a grocery store.

Exercise 10 – Environment Bench

In this exercise, there is a bench. Two people are in the scene at a time. They can interact without using words. The point of the exercise is for each person to add an element to the environment. When they leave the scene, they must not take the element with them.

For example, person A is sitting on the bench. She throws her gum into a garbage bin beside the bench (therefore she has introduced a garbage bin into the environment).

Person B, a runner, enters the scene and sits on the bench. She stretches her legs and does some cool down exercises. Person A interacts with her by offering her a water bottle. Person B refuses, but goes to the water fountain and takes some sips (therefore she has introduced a water fountain into the scene).

Person A leaves and Person C enters the scene. Person C takes a sip from the water fountain and also throws something out in the garbage bin (using the introduced elements). He sits down and picks up a newspaper off the bench (therefore he has introduced a newspaper into the scene).

And so it continues…