Hey there, time traveller! This article was published 16/7/2019 (550 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
If a fringe theatre festival has an element of danger, surely no genre is more dangerous than improvisation.
The Winnipeg Fringe Theatre Festival
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178 shows in 30 venues
July 17 to 28
Tickets at winnipegfringe.com
As if performing a scripted play wasn’t stressful enough, making up a play as you go is a notion fraught with tension. Yet no less than seven local troupes are bringing improv to the festival this year, including musical improv masters Outside Joke, Horrible Friends, the Crosseyed Rascals, Unexpected Results, ImproVision, the Probable Cast and D&D Improv.
So we sent representatives of each troupe a questionnaire, and let them explain, in their own words, why their improv shows are risks worth taking.
1. What was your gateway drug, your first exposure, into improv?
Stephen Sim of the Probable Cast: "I first saw improv on television in the mid-80s. I don’t know who it was — probably Nichols & May (the influential American comedy duo developed by Mike Nichols and Elaine May) and I was captivated. The first improv I saw live was in the early ‘90s and it was Slade & McIntyre." (Robert Slade and Sim’s future Crumbs partner Stephen McIntyre effectively jump-started improv in Winnipeg in the ‘90s, and as it happens, Slade’s daughter Robyn carries on the family business at Outside Joke.)
Robyn Slade of Outside Joke: "For most of us (in Outside Joke), first exposure to improv through the Canadian Improv Games in high school. The other, for me, was growing up with a dad who was an improviser."
Alan MacKenzie of ImproVision: "The first time I ever saw improv live, I believe, was on the outdoor stage at the fringe. The fringe was also my first real exposure to live theatre. Improv was always synonymous with the fringe for me."
2. For most people, first exposure to improv was the show Whose Line Is it Anyway? What would you like audiences to know about how that show might deviate from an improv show at the fringe?
Luke Falconer of Horrible Friends, probably the booziest of fringe shows, returning to the Duke of Kent Legion: "Our show is much like Whose Line, but we aren’t constrained by draconian broadcast standards, and we lean hard into that."
Liam Marshall of Unexpected Results, whose specialty is long-form improv: "They focus on short-form improv and improv games. It’s more focused on telling a full story over the course of 15-60 minutes."
Tim Webster of Crosseyed Rascals: "While Whose Line is highly enjoyable, it’s also highly edited for television. Improv at the fringe is all live, and covers a wide range of formats."
Chadd Henderson of the long-running Dungeons and Dragons-inspired D&D Improv. (Henderson also does double-duty at Outside Joke): "Improv is as diverse as theatre or film. There are so many different styles: drama, comedy, musicals."
Slade: "Whose Line is like an appetizer before the main course," says . "Our show is an hour-long improvised musical. Once we get going, the audience settles in for a full meal."
MacKenzie: "Whose Line is like a family picnic. ImproVision is also like a family picnic, but only the drunk uncles showed up."
3. Improv godfather Del Close of Second City wrote 11 commandments for improv performers including "You are all supporting actors," and "Never enter a scene unless you are needed." Do you have any personal rules you practice?
Sim: "‘Mistakes’ really can be unexpected gifts."
Falconer: "For me, the quality of a scene is paramount. I’m a proponent of ditching the rules of a game if they are hampering the quality of a scene."
Marshall: "A rule of thumb that I always keep in mind is: telling the story is the most important thing. Don’t always go for the joke for the sake of a quick laugh, the funny will come naturally through the story, characters and situations that you and your group creates."
Webster: "Acceptance, being present, being curious, being generous, listening and trusting one’s instincts and teammates."
Henderson: "Remember the audience is smarter than we often give them credit for and we should never ‘dumb down’ what we do because we think the audience won’t get it."
Slade: "We’ve found over the years that if we’re not having fun, neither is the audience. We try to keep the energy up, and show the audience the ‘seams,’ so to speak, so they feel some ownership of what we’re creating together."
MacKenzie: "We believe it’s not really a show until someone gets hurt. That’s why things like mousetraps, clothespins, buckets of water, shock collars, hot sauce and Spam have all found their way into our shows."
4. Like any fringe show, improv runs the gamut from G-rated to R-rated. Where does your show fall on the spectrum? And give us your pamphlet pitch.
Sim: "Classy and G-rated. We play to the audience in the room, though from show to show, there can be variance. One Great Winnipeg is an improv show inspired by Winnipeg. Each show features a guest storyteller and a rotating cast of guest improv performers. We have some great guests (Kids in the Hall’s Kevin McDonald and Kal Barteski for example) and some great improv players as well as the amazing Ben Sellick playing live music."
Falconer: "R-rated. Hard R. I’d say don’t bring Grandma, but let’s not put Grandma in a box like that! Brewicide Squad is the only show that will buy you a drink! That’s one of the many things we will do to make sure you have fun. Naturally we can’t do it for every audience member. We don’t have Crumbs money. But we will buy you a drink if you volunteer to join us on stage!"
Marshall: "(We) are professional and cater the show to all audiences and ages. However due to the nature of improv, there are moments when explicit language may be used briefly. If we were to give a grading, we would say, roughly, PG-13. Everything we do is in The Daily Special is completely improvised and we tell a different genre-based story every night chosen by our incredible Wheel of Fate! So, no show will ever be the same!"
Webster: "Family-friendly... except for the Uncensored Show on July 23, at 10:30 p.m. In Improv Comics: The Adventures of Poncho Kid, we have been perfecting a new ‘Pass or Play’ format, using our Improvisational Enhancement Deck (IED) either to pass cards to each other for mistakes or to play when we want to add a little something extra to the scene."
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Henderson: "I’d say my show is rated PG-13. However there can be some more adult language and content at times. If you let your kids watch LoTR or Marvel movies, our show will be fine for them.The DnD Improv Show 12 has something for everyone! Action, romance, comedy, drama and more. It’s a fun show from start to finish and there will be at least one character that you’ll fall in love with."
Slade: "Our shows usually fall into the PG-13 category. We get so much joy out of creating these shows on the spot, and we’d love to share it with you ... and 231 of your closest friends."
MacKenzie: "We’re never a G, sometimes an R and usually somewhere in between. Ultimately it all depends on the audience and what they give us. And if you think that a group of librarians will skew toward a G, you are very, very wrong. ImproVision: Meow Chicka Meow Meow is our 20th year doing improv together, and our sixth in the cozy Duke of Kent Legion. This year we’ll be donating $20 from every sold-out show to Craig Street Cats, a local animal shelter."
We’ll be honest. In the past few years, The Winnipeg Fringe Festival grew so large, it became a challenge for the Free Press to keep up with the sheer number of shows and venues.
But somehow, in the festival’s 32nd year, we managed to catch up.
Hence, the Free Press will offer up 178 fresh reviews of every single show at the 2019 fringe. (The fringe program lists 180 plays, but two — Studio 76 at Venue 2 and Singing Without Ears: Randy’s Farewell Tour at Venue 11 — have been cancelled.) With 20 plucky reviewers in our critic army, we’ll review them all, and we’ll be the only media outlet to do that. And with the exception of Josephine at Venue 16, which doesn’t commence until next Wednesday, July 24, all the reviews should be viewable online by this Sunday evening.
The reviewers will include some expert witnesses. For Dear Samantha, a show about an advice columnist, we’ll be deploying our own Miss Lonelyhearts, Maureen Scurfield.
For the weedy comedy The Day the Earth Stood Stoned, we’ve got our cannabis reporter Solomon Israel on the case.
What’s more, all the online Free Press fringe reviews will be viewable to all for free, with no paywall. Fringe reviews will hit our pages beginning Friday.
But they should start appearing online as early as tonight.
Go to wfp.to/fringe to read ‘em all as soon as they start rolling in.