On a Sunday night in Vancouver, most streets are eerily quiet. But the half block around the Hennessey Restaurant on Broadway is wide awake. At first, it just looks like every hipster you know has decided to go for dinner at the same restaurant. Then you notice the four guys commiserating on the stage up front.
“Most people come the first time by word of mouth,” said Taz VanRassel, a founding performer of the Sunday Service, which has been doing a weekly improv show at the Hennessey for a few years (before that, they performed at the now-defunct Wink Café, under the auspices of Alistair Cook as part of !nstant Theatre). “Once they come in the door, they’re sold,” VanRassel added. He, along with Ryan Biel, Kevin Lee, Aaron Read and musician Emmett Hall play to a packed house every week.
Disclosure city: I am an improviser. Over the past nine years, I’ve performed with everyone who speaks in this article. I am part of the all-female Rosa Parks Improv, a cast member at Vancouver TheatreSports League (VTSL) and an organizer of the Vancouver International Improv Festival, along with the aforementioned Alistair Cook. I may seem hyper-involved, but so are most improvisers, because improv is d.i.y. by nature. In fact, I have a theory that punk rock in the late ’70s parallels improv theatre today. I like this theory for a lot of reasons, one being that it casts me and my friends as punks. But I also like it because it works.
The Sunday Service, Rosa Parks Improv and VTSL are part of a scene in Vancouver that grows by the year—as more young performers learn about the art form in high school, see shows by local groups and test the waters with their own performances, the scene is guaranteed perpetuity. Cook has been putting on improv shows for more than 15 years, and running the Vancouver International Improv Festival for 11, but he said the last decade in particular has seen improv gain serious ground, both here and worldwide. “Lots of styles have been brought here, through the festival and other means. It’s been cool to see.”
The core of the growth, however, is the spontaneous nature of things. “Improv is about creating life on stage that you don’t get to see every day,” said Nicole Passmore of Rosa Parks. “It’s a pretty beautiful blend of comedy and art.”
At improv’s fast beating heart is a basic proposition: Say Yes. In the teaching of improv, this is the wellspring from which all else flows. Two people get on a stage. One says something. The other says, “Yes!” This creates action, which translates as a simple equation: You + Me + Yes = Scene
Really all we need to make improv happen is you and me. Sure, a stage helps. So does lighting and all that other good theatre stuff. But it’s not essential. What is essential is that relationship between two people. “It’s really accessible, no matter what resources you have available to you,” said Sasha Langford from Rosa Parks. “This is culture created by regular people for an audience. It’s not created for money.” Creation out of nothing, for next to nothing. The d.i.y.-est!
Of course, it’s not that simple. After agreeing to say yes, serious skills come into play, and the best improvisers are the ones whose training is near-invisible. Like punk, there’s this feeling of rawness that comes from the ease of skill, or from experience. And then, of course, there’s always the possibility of failure. “Hold on tightly, let go lightly,” Taz VanRassel said about improv performance. Fellow Sunday Servicer Ryan Biel added, “We don’t take ourselves too seriously. It’s about taking the piss out of ourselves, and out of improv in general.” The idea of failing joyfully is one that definitely prevails. So does taking the audience along for the ride.
“When we bite it, it’s funny and we make fun of ourselves,” said Kevin Lee. Biel added, “But when we get back up, the audience is right there.”
The appeal of this can’t be underestimated: the improviser is free to fuck up, and to bounce back, and the audience gets to feel the catharsis of watching someone else fail and rise again. In the real world, failure is deeply depressing. In improv, it’s an opportunity.
As it is in punk, the average improviser is on a stage because they saw someone else doing it and wanted in. “I remember watching Taz and Ryan with !nstant,” Aaron Read said. “That’s the cool part of improv—my heroes weren’t on SNL, they were doing a fucking awesome show in a tiny venue like Little Mountain.”
Primordial swamp-wise improv has its share of founding fathers. But for the sake of argument we’ll stick with two: first, Del Close, the so-called “guru” of long form improvisation. Close and his fellow performers began staging theatre happenings in 1960s California that were completely invented on the spot—and that would eventually congeal into a form he called the Harold. The Harold is the foundation for all long form improv and is essentially a series of scenes, games and monologues that come together to create a full, interconnected narrative.
Close, who would eventually be killed by his heroin addiction (another unfortunate punk link), bestowed the Harold upon his students, who in turn took the form across North America and Europe. The Harold came to Vancouver through Close student Randy Dixon, of Seattle’s Unexpected Productions, who taught it to the !nstant Theatre cast.
Contrast this with short form, which features games, scenes and monologues that are generally not interconnected. One originator of this form is Brit Keith Johnstone, who brought the concept of TheatreSports to life; Vancouver’s TheatreSports franchise is the second one ever created and has been in operation since the ’80s.
These two variations are often fought over in the improv world—almost everyone goes through a phase when they dislike either form. But the well-rounded improviser comes to see the value in each. “Just because it might be less complicated or less mysterious, doesn’t mean it’s not amazing,” Read said of short form. The Service guys open their show with short form. Likewise, VTSL has a show that blends the two (Stretch, on Wednesday nights).
So Vancouver’s improv scene embraces all kinds. And now, as well, audiences get it. “People now understand that improv is something that’s learned,” Sasha Langford of Rosa Parks said. “I used to have to use the jazz analogy a lot,” added Passmore. “In jazz, musicians improvise, but they have to know how to play their instruments first. Now, people get that about improv theatre without me having to explain.”
On a recent episode of Elvis Costello’s awesome music show Spectacle, Bruce Springsteen said that great art comes from making 1+1=3. There is you, the product and that something else, that bit of magic that springs out of the collision of you and your art form. I’m no expert (though I like that Bruce and I both enjoy equations), but there are only two places where I’ve truly witnessed 1+1 equalling 3: excellent concerts and excellent improv shows.
“Stand up and sketch are more like currency,” said Kevin Lee, who’s performed all three comedic forms in the past. “It’s ‘I’m giving you something. Laugh at it.’ In improv, the audience and the performer are in it together.” Suffice it to say that I think you should see as many improv shows as you can, not only because I am in some, but because improv is, quite literally, magical. “We’ve all laughed at cheap jokes, because they’re funny,” Passmore said, “but at our show, you feel good because you invest in the characters and the story. You’re laughing at the connection you have with the material.”
And the show you see today will never happen again, just like that one-time concert experience that convinces you and your friends to start a band. “Improv is the most live experience in live theatre,” said Alistair Cook. Passmore agreed: “It’s wonderful; it’s limitless.”
There is no wrong answer to the improv question, but there are a lot of right ones. Where else in life does this exist?
The Vancouver International Improv Festival is Oct. 5 – 9 at Performance Works on Granville Island (vancouverimprovfest.com).
Rosa Parks Improv performs the third Thursday of every month for the rest of the summer: June 17, July 22 and Aug. 26, 7 p.m. at Carousel Theatre on Granville Island.
Stretch is at the Improv Centre on Granville Island, Wednesdays at 7:30 p.m. (vtsl.com).
The Sunday Service is every Sunday (duh) at the Hennessy Lounge at 9 p.m.
See also: Sister Act, UBC Improv, Hip:Bang, The Last Duchess, improvisation.ca