SLAP HAPPY (Kerry Griffin, Sandy Jobin-Bevans, Dave Pearce and Tabetha Wells), performing w/ Pat Shay Dancers and Plain Cake Donuts at the Jamboree Toronto International Improv Festival Friday (August 15) at 10:30 pm. $20. Poor Alex Mainstage (296 Brunswick). 416-979-9762. www.torontoimprovfest.com
After six years, improv troupe slap happy is learning how to shut up. That's pretty radical for a comedy act best known for their wonderfully witty and erudite banter. Put this foursome on a stage and they'll take you on a hilarious verbal journey to clever-clever land.
Past Slap Happy shows have seen them concoct vivid scenarios - everything from a cyclist linked to an evil Stephen Hawking to a girl whose mental powers are harnessed by the military.
Sure, their stories might seem strange in synopsis, but onstage they come alive. The laughter arises from watching the performers dream up situations, run with them in vivid detail, occasionally get into trouble and then land the various plots in surprising and satisfying ways.
So why are they zipping it up?
"We're trying to get more physical," explains troupe member Kerry Griffin.
Last year, they were the first Canadians ever invited to perform at an international improv festival in Amsterdam. For most of the audience, English was a second language.
"That knocked us out of our comfort zone," adds Tabetha Wells, who's heading with the troupe this fall to an improv fest in Belgium.
"Not to sound too cocky," continues Griffin, who seems to have the most energy of the four at a Queen and Spadina café the day after a performance night, "but in the past we've relied a lot on banter and fabulous wordplay. The experience in Europe made us use our bodies more, become simpler in our relationships and ideas."
Physically more dynamic in recent shows than ever before, they're as good as improv gets in this country. And the rest of the world is noticing.
Consider a few Slap Happy facts.
Their "character slap" technique of slapping someone out of a scene while keeping one character in is taught and performed on stages and in improv classrooms from Chicago to L.A. Ditto their recent Narratron structure for long-form, story-based improv.
At the prestigious Chicago Improv Festival - the largest in the world - they've graduated from playing small showcase gigs to opening and closing galas, sharing the bill with acts like the casts of Whose Line Is It Anyway? and Mad TV.
Not that they're readily recognized on the street, unless you're a Second City or Theatresports fanatic - they've all performed or taught there. Sandy Jobin-Bevans rejoined the Second City Mainstage cast recently, and Griffin is co-artistic director of Theatresports.
Fact is, although it's been around for decades, improv's only recently become respectable, which makes this week's second annual Jamboree Toronto International Improv Festival such a big deal for the local comedy scene. Slap Happy perform there tomorrow (August 15).
In some comedy circles, improv's actually still disparaged.
"A lot of stand-ups hate improv," wells points out accurately.
"I think stand-ups look at improvisors as people who are trying to do instant stand-up," says Griffin. "What we do is closer to sketch and theatre than it is to stand-up."
You won't find much improv at a comedy festival like Just For Laughs. And even an award like the Tim Sims Encouragement Fund Award for comic newcomers seems to favour stand-up and sketch artists.
Only recently has the art form found its way onto TV, first on the short-sound-bite show Whose Line and now on largely improvised narrative shows like Curb Your Enthusiasm and Train 48.
"We'd love for somebody to give us the opportunity to do a live-to-air improv special," says Wells. "But they'd have to hire special camera operators and directors. We'd want people who work in sports, who are used to following action."
A couple of things set Slap Happy apart from other improv acts. First is their natural chemistry: Griffin's the grounded one, Dave Pearce adds a wicked glee, Jobin-Bevans smoothly moves scenes along, and Wells, as well as being the token girl, has a calm, slightly superior air.
Still, they avoid pigeonholing themselves.
"We always try to surprise ourselves," says Griffin. "We're quick about fitting into what a scene needs, regardless of our strengths and weaknesses."
The other thing that sets the troupe apart is their unabashed braininess.
"The greatest mistake you can make is dumbing down to what you think an audience wants," says Jobin-Bevans, who's one of the troupe's main reference-droppers, along with Pearce.
"You've got to play to the highest level, and the audience will come to you. In sketch or improv, if you think the audience won't understand something, you're wrong. You'll never challenge yourself."
Right now, the troupe's at a juncture, looking for another challenge.
"After a certain point, because there are only so many stories in the world, you end up playing variations on those," says Pearce. "You get to the point where you know too early where something's going and that blocks you from all the other possibilities. That's deadly."
"When you improvise so much, you can end up flatlining," adds Griffin. "You feel like you're doing the same scenes, characters and relationships over and over again. How can you attack things from a new angle, keep it fresh?"
As a result, the troupe's working on creating a new format. Eventually, they have their eye on a two-act show, but for now they're trying out something at this week's festival.
It's long-form, they say. It'll be more physical. They'll be wearing outfits, says Griffin.
"It's more like a 'look,'" adds Wells.
"This could totally blow up in our faces," admits Pearce. "But hey - that's the nature of improv." firstname.lastname@example.org
other awesome improv acts As Toronto audiences learned at last year's Jamboree fest, improv comedy knows no boundaries. Here are other improv acts you don't want to miss this weekend. ANDY ENINGER (August 14 at 10:30 pm) - Last year Chicago's Eninger blew us away with his one-man, multi-character improv-format Sybil (hmm... a reference to the Sally Field flick?). After a suggestion from the audience, he walked us through an entire world, populating it with characters and situations that were heartbreakingly real. Don't expect huge laughs, but be prepared to be spellbound.
BASSPROV (August 15 at 9 pm) - Chicago improv vets Joe Bill and Mark Sutton have hooked one of the cleverest acts I've seen. The two play small-town fishing buddies who, with two suggestions from the audience, spin out a long, rambling conversation that manages to comment subtly on good ol' American values as well as the social and educational differences between the two guys. Astonishing.
JOEY POON (August 17 at 9 pm) - One of the youngest and quickest rising improv duos in town, Joey Poon ( Jan Caruana and Sarah Buski ) present their Always A Bridesmaid Relationship Hour. I've seen the two crack up a room with their small-town ladies, Ruth and Betty. Here, they play drunk bridesmaids Joanie Couch and Mercedes Bench in a talk show that features guests (and ace improvisers) Nick Johne and Kerry Griffin .
ALUMNI CAFE (August 17 at 10:30 pm) - Last year's fest ended on a high note with this troupe of old-school improv artists including Bob Martin , Paul O'Sullivan , Teresa Pavlinek and Janet Van De Graaff . They made it look easy, even though late arrival O'Sullivan momentarily upset the show's equilibrium. Expect a solid set - and everyone in the house on time.