JAMBOREE 2002: TORONTO IMPROV FESTIVAL at the Tranzac Club (292 Brunswick), August 8-11. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNN
If your idea of improv comedy is the hit TV show Whose Line Is It Anyway?, you obviously didn't check out Jamboree 2002.The four-day fest, featuring troupes from Chicago, New York, Boston, Minneapolis, Detroit and the GTA, stretched the limits of this most unpredictable of comedy genres.
It also confirmed what I already suspected -- that Toronto harbours some of the best improv talent on the continent.
Here are some lessons I learned. 1. The best improvisers have some life experience behind them.You might be funny at 19, but you can't be a great improviser. You need access to worlds beyond your own, and that only comes from experience.
The strongest acts -- like Chicago's BassProv and Andrew Eninger, and Toronto's Alumni Caf, Slap Happy and Mosshammer & Morency -- featured performers whose ages ranged from late 20s to early 40s. Their points of reference were all over the map: Sherlock Holmes, boy scouts, tap dancing, Hitchcock films, German cabaret acts.
The youngest troupes (Minneapolis's Drunk Baby Collective, New York's goga: XXTreme Theatre) often came up with getting-drunk scenarios or sophomoric bits about senior citizens having sex.
On a related note: strictly all-male or all-female troupes (ImprovBoston: Secret Society, Drunk Baby Collective, GRRRLZ Show, goga) suffered because of the lack of other perspectives. Yin still needs yang.2. The best improv features strongly defined characters.Anyone can make A do something to B. But when you know stuff about A and B, the plot turns mean more.
Local musical troupe The Lamb Chops and the Alumni Café succeeded because the performers introduced and defined their characters at the top of their shows. Slap Happy has developed a structure where characters break into monologues -- another way to make us care what happens to them.
Mosshammer & Morency keep one character from a scene for their next one, so there's continuity. The result? The audience isn't disoriented.
And what makes a troupe like BassProv so entertaining is its two characters, Joe Bill's Earl and Mark Sutton's Donny, buddies who fish for bass and naturally, ingenuously get around to talking about the audience's two suggestions.3. There's no limit to what you can do in improv.The Josh And Tamra Show featured humans improvising with Muppet-style puppets, while solo performer Andy Eninger created and performed an entire cast of characters and let them loose on each other in a setting supplied by the audience.
On paper, these might seem like gimmicks. But they fly because of the vivid characters the artists create.4. You're only as good as your troupe's weakest performer.The following talented folks all shone: Jim DeSimone of the Drunk Baby Collective, Sandra Battaglini from the new local troupe L.A. (she also guested with Calibre: Gros), Ginette Mohr and Jan Caruana from the GRRRLZ Show, Karen Herr from goga, and Shaun Himmerick of Bare. They would have been even funnier, though, if their troupemates hadn't dropped the improv balls.5. Go big or go home.The best improv's about strong decisions. Slap Happy's cast delivered each improvised line and silly plot point cleanly and confidently. Old pros Mosshammer & Morency, even when faced with narrative obstacles, never shied away but made their "mistakes" part of their surreal comic world. And they always looked like they were having fun.6. End on a high note.A couple of clever turns can save a show. Closing-night headliners Alumni Café arrived without cast member Paul O'Sullivan and musician Evan Ritchie and were doing fine without them -- Teresa Pavlinek gambling on a Jamaican accent, Bob Martin creating a psychiatrist who puts on costumes according to his patient -- when O'Sullivan arrived and mixed up the show's energy and logic. Soon, though, the troupe regrouped, with Jack Mosshammer and Martin using a Hitchcockian climax scene to end the show with a hugely dramatic flourish.7. Improv rules.Improv comedy is one of the most exciting art forms around.
A fest like this deserves public funding as much as any theatre or dance festival. May it come back next year bigger and better. email@example.com