Improv & I

For at least a decade I was ever-present in Toronto’s improv scene. I was not a star, or even that notable, but I was present. And then I wasn’t. I suppose this is my explanation.

Improv was one of the most enjoyable social pastimes in which I ever participated. At its best, it’s an art form that focuses on being good to each other, as well as collectively building a story out of thin air. Up until just a few years ago, half of my weeknights would comprise of watching a show, rehearsing for a show or performing a show. I would have never dreamt I would stop.

Looking back, I think I was different than a lot of my friends with whom I attended classes at Second City and performed Harolds. First of all, I started improvising much later in life. Chances are most of your favourite improvisers first took up the craft when they were teenagers. They figured out early that they enjoyed being on stage in front of a crowd. Not me. I had no idea improv even existed until well after graduating from university.

The other significant way I was different from my fellow players was that I had no ambitions as an actor. I was attracted to improv as a storytelling technique.

Looking back, it’s kind of embarrassing that I was a teenage fan of SCTV’s entire cast while having no idea of what improv was. I didn’t actually attend a show at Second City until my late twenties.

I became aware of the practice of stage actors constructing narratives on the spot in the late 90s when The Comedy Network aired the British version of Whose Line Is It Anyway? I was amazed by the seemingly limitless potential of performers like Colin Mochrie, Ryan Stiles, Josie Lawrence and Tony Slattery to concoct hilarious interactions from nothing. These people seemed super-human. I wished to have their quickness of wit, their easy manner and their confidence. None of that seemed within my grasp.

The improv I was watching on television fascinated me more and more, to the point where I wanted to try it. Toronto Theatresports (which later evolved into the Bad Dog Theatre) offered free weekly improv workshops at the Poor Alex Theatre, so my friends and I decided to check them out. The instructor I remember most from these workshops was Albert Howell, who has since gone on to write for Jimmy Fallon and Conan O’Brien. He was excellent at explaining the core principles of improve: Always say yes to anything your scene partner proposes, and further that suggestion with yet another. The more economic term for this is “yes and.”

I merely observed the first few workshops. When I resolved to hop up on stage, Albert asked for either five or six people. There I was up on a big stage, clad in a jean jacket like a true professional. Albert told us that we were at the edge of a cliff and one of our friends just jumped off. When he called for the scene to start, I simply lined up with everyone else and looked down. I allowed the other players to take the lead, since I assumed they had more experience. Instead of horror, we were reacting in amazement that our friend had the chutzpah to jump. One of the guys jerked back and grunted with delight as our friend bounced off a rock, and we all jerked back in kind. After our friend met his demise on the ground below, people started to have different reactions. One woman started to cry in despair, since she was romantically involved with him. Another player claimed to have always hated him. As more and more players started expressing their thoughts on what they just witnessed, I was growing painfully that I hadn’t contributed a damn thing to the scene. I was sure that Albert was going to call an end to it, and my only improv experience would have amounted to nothing. So I waited for a gap in the other characters’ conversation (obviously I wasn’t listening too intently) and, when one appeared, I spoke up in the most natural way.

“I’ve arrived at a decision,” I declared. “I’m glad he’s gone.”

I heard my friends in the audience laugh. Emboldened, I looked at the actress who had just lost her boyfriend.

“He was no good for you,” I said. “He treated you like crap. I wouldn’t treat you like that.”

Acting out the fantasy of “nice guys” everywhere, she enthusiastically came over and wrapped me in an embrace. We pretended to make out. I guess she was thankful to have something new to do in the scene.

Albert complemented me on my choice, and that was it for improv… for a while.

As much as I enjoyed the experience, I had no desire to attend a regular class. I simply didn’t possess any ambition as an onstage performer. But I already let it slip to you that improv would become a huge part of my life. Something must have happened to make it so. What was it?

I have always been horrible in matters of romance, and much of that has to do with being inhibited. If I’m attracted to someone, I’ll probably not reveal my feelings. The reasons are myriad. Perhaps I feel like I would be burdening them with a complication they don’t need. Perhaps I’m worried about whether or not I’d make them happy as a partner. Perhaps it’s residue from being relentlessly bullied growing up. Who knows? As Aristotle once spoke, “It is what it is.”

I was around 30 years old and I had a group of co-workers and colleagues over at my place for a social gathering. I had grown attracted to one of these women to the point that I should, at the very least, let her know so she could either stop me from fantasizing or maybe join me for a date sometime. At the end of the night I walked her to the subway station, and I knew that it was the right time to tell her how I felt. But I hugged her, and I told her “Goodnight,” and nothing else. As I walked away from the station, it was with a fresh realization that my inhibition was holding me back. I had to do something to change things.

If there were people who didn’t seem to have problems with inhibition, it had to be improvisers. Colin Mochrie didn’t seem to have any difficulty speaking the words that need to be said in any scene I ever witnessed. That was what sparked my decision to enrol in an introductory improv class at Toronto’s Second City Training Centre.

Second City’s adult introductory improv program is divided up into five 8-class sessions labelled A through E. My Level A instructor was Jack Mosshammer, and he was excellent at keeping the class fun while teaching us the fundamentals. On top of the gospel of “yes and,” he drilled in that improv is about making each other look good on stage. It is not an art for the selfish. Knowing your team is committed to making each other look good lets the stage become a safe environment where you can act on your instincts and take the biggest risks, consequently creating impactful scenes.

Instantly, improv class became my favourite activity of the week. As soon as one class was over, I was looking forward to the next one. I found the ability to act crazy within the safety of the class truly liberating. Once Level A was done, I quickly signed up for the subsequent levels.

For Levels C, D and E, my instructor was Tracey Hoyt. You may have seen her in such TV series like The Tournament, Doc or The Ron James Show, but you’re even more likely to have heard her voice in things like Care Bears and Sailor Moon. Tracey is a very spiritual instructor. She makes regular references to chakras, and runs excellent warm-ups that clear away pre-class drama and get students in tune with their bodies. Her approach turned out to be key in what, for me, was one of her greatest lessons: creating characters. For this she got all of us to walk around in a circle, altering our physicality little by little. Ever so slowly, a character would emerge, completely independent from ourselves. Then she had us sit down in groups of four while she conducted a group interview. My character was an incredibly bitter divorcée who believed wallpaper was the answer to everything. In reality – newsflash – I am nothing like that.

But the mantra I still cling to from Tracey’s class consists of just three words: “Permission to fail.” I had never existed with that philosophy before. I had never lived in a culture where failure was allowed. I don’t think many of us do. Tracey’s often repeated mantra opened up an entire new way of life where it was okay to take gigantic risks, because if they didn’t work out it’s wasn’t the end of the world, because failure was permitted. But an exact consequence of the permission of failure is that many more risks are taken, which leads to many instances of inspiration and success.

If more of us raised our children to be unafraid of humiliation and failure, and more confident to pursue their most improbable dreams, just think of how much more uplifted our world would be. There would be more advances in so many different areas like science, medicine and the arts. There would certainly be a lot less negativity.

After a year of weekly improv classes, I was nearing the end of Level E. That meant my class was going to put on our own improv show in front of an actual audience. This was a big deal for me, since I had never performed on stage as an actor before, but I was comforted by the presence of the rest of the class. We were all there to make each other look good. I was kind of surprised by how nervous I wasn’t. I felt safe. I had permission to fail.

Tracey scheduled me in two different scenes. The first was called “Speaker’s Corner,” and four of us would improvise two rounds of monologues about a topic suggested by the audience. They suggested “people on the street asking for change.” I chose to listen to the others do their monologues and go last.

As I began walking up to the empty chair at the lip of the stage, I realized I had no idea what I was going to do. So I loosened up my step. I relaxed my shoulders. I heard a voice I could do. I remembered someone I gave loose change to in the past. I sat down in the chair, and I said (in a voice identical to the one Eddie Murphy used for his Velvet Jones character on Saturday Night Live), “Hi. I’m Kevin Willis, and I want to be the mayor of Toronto.”

The audience erupted with laughter. I went on to say that I lived under a bridge at the intersection of Bayview and Dundas, before openly (and honestly) questioning whether those two streets actually intersect, then deciding that they do. I informed the audience that mayoral campaigns are expensive, and that it costs money to get your name out in front of the public. “You need to buy Bristol board, and you need to buy magic markers – the good kind that smell like fruit.” I asked them to donate to my campaign, and I retreated to the back of the stage to enthusiastic applause.

There aren’t many things more gratifying than a room full of people applauding after you succeed in doing something you didn’t know you could do. The fact that I had a lot of fun doing it made the moment even sweeter.

With the second round of monologues we had to connect our character to the others. Only one of us was a woman. She had already established that she was the daughter of another player who was cutting off her allowance. The other guy suggested a way for her to make more money. I started off my second monologue needlessly stating that she was “kind of cute,” so when I followed up by suggesting she needed to find a better outlet for her time and energy, I felt the audience grow tense, assuming I was going somewhere creepy. When I went on saying she should “help Kevin Willis become Mayor of Toronto,” all the pressure was released in a gale of laughter. It just increased as I reiterated the necessity of Bristol board and magic markers.

My other game was called “Scene three ways.” Two other players and I came up with an advertisement for a whale-shaped bowl. Most of the heavy lifting in this scene was done by my scene partner Jane Heo, but I gave myself the responsibility of telling the audience that “half the proceeds go to the Whale Extinction Fighting Fund.” This drew a laugh because it was obvious I was scraping at thin air for the name of the fund. As the name of the game suggests, we had to repeat the scene in two more styles. I can’t remember what the second style was (fantasy perhaps?), but I repeated the line about the proceeds to diminishing returns. Our last style was horror, and we proceeded to make the whale-shaped bowl the most terrifying thing in earthly existence. There was a slight silence that could have been a cue to end the scene if I hadn’t spoken up saying, “You know what scares me most about this bowl?” There was a pregnant pause before I continued. “That it’s single-handedly killing half the whales on the planet!” The audience again erupted in laughter. Set up – payoff.

Following that show, I felt like a million bucks. Applause and laughter from an audience provides an amazing high. A classmate invited me to join an improv troupe, and we took part in some shows in bars and cafés. However, we were humbled by some of the more experienced players on the bill, and being separated from Tracey’s instruction may have caused us to revert into our own personal bad habits.

After a student graduates from the introductory improv program, the natural next step is to try to get into Second City’s Conservatory Program. This is where you’re trained to stage a revue in the style for which Second City is renowned. If you’ve never seen a Second City revue, it’s a series of sketches, but they were born out of improvisation. The only way into the Conservatory Program is through an audition, and I had never auditioned for anything. Since I didn’t want my fun to stop, and improv was providing me with such fulfillment, I made up my mind to audition.

Because most of my classmates were aspiring actors, they all had professional headshots and acting résumés. Because I wasn’t an aspiring actor, I didn’t. You needed to provide a headshot to audition, so I found a professional photographer and hired him to provide me with some snappy headshots. I scheduled an audition and then showed up completely unprepared.

I didn’t recognize anyone with whom I was auditioning, so everything felt a little foreign as we warmed up. As we walked in and stood in front of the panel, I recognized Second City alumnus Bob Martin who, at the time, was in the long-form improv troupe Alumni Café, who I had grown to idolize. Suddenly I was putting more pressure on myself to impress, rather than be present in the scene. Case in point, I can’t remember what the scene my audition group performed was about. I think it may have involved terrorists and spies, but I can’t be sure. Needless to say, my first audition was a bust.

As more of my classmates’ auditions went nowhere, I carried on performing with them in cafés and bars. These shows were for no money, and eventually we would lose players to other commitments. Still, some of my fellow students from Tracey’s class remain very close friends.

After a few years of watching my improvisation opportunities slow down to a trickle, I decided to try auditioning for Conservatory again. Perhaps because I had taken my knocks as an improviser in bars and cafés, I felt more qualified to audition this time (even if I used the exact same headshot). My résumé had expanded, and I was better prepared to play with new people. I passed my audition, and geared up for an exciting year ahead.

Second City’s introductory level provided me with one student show. In the Conservatory level I got at least a dozen shows spread throughout the year. Also, because your classmates passed through the audition process, I felt more able to bounce wacky ideas off of them.

Our class grew very close. We would often meet outside of class to work on different sketch premises. We would en masse show up at bars to sing karaoke. Many of these people are still among my closest friends.

I learned a lot over the year, and slowly, slowly, our revue, entitled Like Taking Gandhi from a Baby, took shape. In it, I sang, I danced, I played accordion and I was crucified. (I was especially proud of that last scene. The only dialogue spoken by Dan Stolfi, Oscar Surla and me was gibberish.) For a year, we were kept busy learning, growing, and pouring ourselves into an activity we loved, and this show as the culmination. At the end of it, we received a standing ovation.

While I was studying improv, I had been diligent about catching a lot of different shows throughout the city, and the old short-form games popularized by Whose Line Is It Anyway? didn’t thrill me like they once did. A lot of those games seem designed more to showcase how witty a player is than to tell a story. I had grown more inspired by long-form improv, where a group works together over the course of half an hour or an hour constructing a single unified narrative. There was a long-form improv format developed at the ImprovOlympic in Chicago called the Harold that I wanted to study. Obviously I wasn’t alone, because a slew of my fellow Conservatory graduates joined me in enrolling in a Harold class. Afterward I was assigned to a Harold team at the Bad Dog Theatre.

The Harold begins with the group getting a single suggestion from the audience to use as a springboard to discover further situations and themes. The intention is to create three storylines out of this wordplay and unify them by the end of the set.

By the time I was doing Harold Night at the Bad Dog, I was pushing forty and I was definitely starting to feel my age. Some of the younger players on my team (which was called Action Slacks) were so quick-witted and energetic, to the point where they seemed born to improvise. By contrast, I felt I exuded the aura of someone who embraced this craft around their thirtieth birthday and was working very hard to keep up with everyone else on stage. Clearly, the safety I was able to find in a classroom setting wasn’t as easy for me to find on a stage. Obviously my discomfort was palpable, because one of the producers of Harold Night recommended I take a class called “Get Out of Your Head.” Knowing I was frustrated with my level of contribution to my team, I signed up.

The class was taught by Second City alumnus David Shore, and it focussed on the fundamentals of good improv: accepting what your scene partner gives you and adding to it, along with strongly establishing where the scene is set. That reminds me of one of the best lessons I took from this class – if you’re feeling overwhelmed, stop and explore your setting. Straighten a painting or admire a houseplant. Not only will this give you a chance to breathe, it will help you reintegrate yourself in the scene. This class cleared my head a lot, and the Harold format became much more manageable. It was around this time that I had my single superstar moment at Harold Night at the Bad Dog.

A couple of my fellow players began a scene driving away after committing a crime. I decided to join the scene as a cop pulling up behind them. As I drew near to pull them over, I decided to do something different. They stopped their car, and I tugged on a pair of reins, said “Whoa,” and then dismounted a horse. That immediately got a reaction out of the audience. I introduced myself as Sergeant Bilko (I couldn’t come up with a different surname so I ran with it), and I was extremely old but extremely fit. Even though the scene took place in the big city, I did everything the super-old-school way. Perhaps I was playing out my anxiety about being the oldest person in Action Slacks, but that didn’t occur to me at the time. At any rate, every line was drawing big laughs without me trying too hard.

I wasn’t in the next scene, but I was paying close attention to it. My fellow players were portraying historic scientists and one of them mentioned Einstein playing a trombone in Hell. Once I heard that, I told myself, “I want to play that.” Clearly, because I was being reacquainted with the fundamentals of improv, I was able to relax during a show and, by consequence, I was able to both pay closer attention and make bolder choices.

When the scientist characters came back, I walked out as Einstein with a crazily-exaggerated accent, and I punctuated every other sentence by lifting a trombone to my mouth and singing, “wah wah wah.” My teammates understood that the scene was now in Hell, and they started playing musical instruments too. It was a completely nonsensical scene, but the audience was eating it up. I remember my bandmates walking out on me, leaving me standing there alone on stage. I just looked out and said, “One bad equation and your damned for eternity,” and then I blew into the trombone, “wah wah wah.” I walked off the stage to applause and cheers.

That night saw my strongest personal work as part of Action Slacks. The stars and planets all lined up perfectly to my benefit.

After finishing “Get Out of Your Head,” I started regressing into bad habits again. I wouldn’t say I was a bad improviser, but I would often compare my work to my fellow players and that would prevent me from relaxing. But there was something else.

I was getting tired of so many improv scenes having no grounding in reality. As Action Slacks chased laughs, we kept making our scenes sillier and sillier, to the point where it was often hard to detect a story happening. Fortunately, I wasn’t alone in my frustration.

As the Bad Dog Theatre was going through a period of transition, Harold Night went the way of the dodo. Our team agreed that we wanted to keep working together, so we started producing a variety show on the second floor of the Black Swan. (Today that space is known as The Social Capital, the east end of Toronto’s church of comedy. I like to think Action Slacks gave Ralph McLeod and Carmine Lucarelli the idea of turning the top two floors into a comedy club.) After a while, my team chose to get more ambitious. When the idea came up of using Toronto’s history as a structure for an improv show, we were immediately inspired. We all went away and researched the city’s history, and we recruited Kris Siddiqi as director to help us organize our vision. We ended up booking three consecutive Monday evenings in the backroom of the Cameron House, and charged admission to the show. I look back on that show fondly because I think both us and the audience had fun learning about our city’s history, but also because we balanced out our comedic scenes with dramatic ones.

After the success of that show, my team brainstormed ideas for our next move. We had befriended a surf-rock band called Luau or Die at a previous show, and the idea was to do an improv show where we would portray a surf-rock band from the 60s thawed out of cryogenic suspension in the present day. Luau or Die would play behind a curtain. Action Slacks would bang away on instruments from the video game Rock Band while improvising lyrics. We used our profits from the history show to pay for singing lessons so we wouldn’t sound too horrendous, and we rented mics and amps for the show. We found a venue that was probably too cramped, and we filmed promo videos to share on social media.

In my opinion, this show was just too challenging from a technical standpoint. When the band was playing, it was hard to hear the words my teammates were singing. Also, one of us backed out of the show to tend to his wife after she was diagnosed with cancer. Setting up the gear in that small space wasn’t the best way to relax before each show. I’m proud of Action Slacks for being so ambitious, and Luau or Die is awesome, but that show was pretty chaotic for my tastes.

After that show, Action Slacks lost a member. The remaining players would get together and grab stage time in other people’s shows to do ten minute, single-scene sets. We were just a four-piece now. One scene we did at the Social Capital still makes me smile. We were trapped in a stuck elevator at the CN Tower. I became a terminally-ill kid who asked the Make-A-Wish Foundation for a trip to the top of the CN Tower. My upbeat mood contrasted nicely with the other three’s frustration. At one point one of them stated they had to pee, and I asked if he wanted to borrow my catheter. I still remember Carmine Lucarelli hooting with laughter at that.

But Action Slacks didn’t have much further to go. We felt ourselves getting pulled in different directions. We stopped scheduling further sets. I was helping organize student shows in the Second City Training Centre, so I still had a foot in the improv scene that way. I was, however, growing increasingly dissatisfied with the work I was doing.

Because the overwhelming majority of improv shows are comedic in nature, most people studying improv judge the success of their sets on how much laughter they drew. However, watching the students do their sets, I was recognizing the tendency to chase laughs by going wackier and wackier, rather than relax and focus on telling an honest-to-goodness story. I was finding it increasingly difficult to find a fellow improviser who wasn’t focussed primarily on chasing laughs, and the sad thing was that I was as guilty of it as anybody. If you’re an improviser on a stage and you’re 30 seconds into a scene and nobody in the audience has laughed, fear will kick in. You will worry that no one is enjoying your scene, and the only way to eliminate that worry is to trigger a laugh. So you make a joke. Someone will laugh and you’ll feel better.

I’ve done this so many times. I’ve done this after promising myself not to do this. I’ve gotten upset with myself for making scenes silly to the point of meaninglessness, and I’ve gotten upset with myself for failing to play a scene straight. After a while I had to ask myself: If my improv is making me upset with myself, is it a healthy thing for me to do?

So I’ve backed away and focussed more on writing. Occasionally friends will rope me into participating in an improv jam, and not all of those experiences have been painful, but I don’t want to get back to a place where I’m consistently disappointing myself.

Besides, I was never the greatest anyway. Sure, there were those couple of instances where I had the Midas touch, where for a minute or two I have may have been a match for Colin Mochrie or Ryan Stiles, and I’ll remember those instances fondly. I think improv has made me considerably less inhibited than I used to be. I love improv, but I felt like I was hurting it and it was hurting me. This is a trial separation. I assure you, improv and I still love each other. Maybe we’ll go into counselling. Maybe we’ll meet for a date. What we don’t want to do is put too much pressure on ourselves.

I can assure you all of another thing: Improv and I will never be truly over.