STACEY HALLAL performing at the Toronto International Improv Festival in Normalville (August 19 at 10 pm) and Sutton & Hallal (August 20 at 7:30 pm), both at Alumnae Theatre (70 Berkeley). Fest runs until August 21, various locations. $10-$15. 416-238-7337, www.torontoimprovfest.com.
Next time you open up a box of Lucky Charms or grab a bottle of Mr. Clean, think of Stacey Hallal. The ace improviser's day job includes consulting on dozens of brand-name characters. If they have a backstory, Hallal knows it.
"Mr. Clean is an allegorical character. He's the spirit of clean," she offers, when I prod. "Cleaning is an innate part of our lives. You get self-esteem from it, feel like you're in control. He inspires you to do all that."
The Chicago-based Hallal is used to creating rich characters, with or without cleaning obsessions. She recently debuted her one-woman improvised show The Humperdink Family Reunion, where she comes up - on the spot - with 20 characters at a family reunion. Talk about multi-tasking.
For this year's Toronto International Improv Fest, Hallal's performing in two shows. She and Mark Sutton (of Chicago troupe BassProv) are presenting Sutton & Hallal, a terrific concept they introduced to the fest last year; she's also taking part in Normalville, about typical citizens of a town that turns out to have deep, dark secrets.
Sutton & Hallal features three consecutive genre scenes, each inspired by the same random track from a random CD picked out by an audience member at the top of the show.
"There's an old saying that in every life there's comedy, tragedy and romance," says Hallal. "Playing within these genres gets us to really stretch. It's not just funny. We can build broad and quirky characters at the beginning, but the tragedy can be so many things. It gets pretty emotional. And the romantic scene is often influenced by what's come just before, to relieve the tension that's been built up."
Normalville, on the other hand, allows her and fellow improvisers Asaf Ronen, Jill Bernard and Bob Ladewig to try their hand at small-town types. Think Waiting For Guffman with a Blue Velvet underlining.
"It's all very slice-of-life, where things appear normal but aren't," she laughs.
Aren't there a limited number of small-town types?
"Not really," she says. "It depends on what kind of community it is. It could be a beach town, a small professional community full of workaholics. You can play things so many different ways. Every town has people who surprise you."
Speaking of surprises, this fall, you can briefly see Hallal in the TV show The Apprentice, where she acts as a consultant to the newest batch of Donald worshippers in an episode devoted to creating a character for a brand.
"I was working with the girls' team, and they were more interested in jingles than in thinking about the stories for their characters," she says. "I felt a bit like someone at a cheerleader rally."
Did she get in any improvised zingers?
"I did a lot of takes to the camera," she laughs. "Kind of like Tim in The Office. But I don't know if they'll use them."