The Big Lebowski and The Soft Chin Show
Part of Comedy Bar’s Festival of New Formats
Festival runs January 2-8
By Meagan Snyder
The fourth night of Comedy Bar’s Festival of New Formats was the second of two nights curated by Toronto’s Impatient Theatre Co. Founded in 2001 by artistic director Kevin Patrick Robbins, the Impatient Theatre is primarily focused on long-form improv, offering classes at beginners and masters levels, as well as regular shows at Comedy Bar performed by their house teams. They are unique in Toronto for their commitment to The Harold as their signature style, a form Del Close created and developed with Charna Halpern at Chicago’s iO Theater in the 60s. It remains the signature style of iO as well as the Upright Citizens Brigade theatres in New York and Los Angeles.
Those familiar with The Harold can attest to the fact that while long-form improv at its best seems like magic, with ideas and connections pulled from thin air, in actuality it is truly a structured, codified craft that takes years to master. That fact is one reason why watching seasoned players at work is so utterly satisfying. Although (in the spirit of the festival) there were no Harolds performed tonight, watching ITC’s players experiment with finding their way into scenes through different forms was satisfying indeed.
Real Autobiographies featured nine players improvising scenes framed by excerpts of Jay-Z’s autobiography Decoded, as read by Kevin Patrick Robbins. The form was reminiscent of the Armando, where scenes are inspired by a monologist (much like UCB’s popular ASSSSCAT), but with a different dynamic due to the juxtaposition between the narrator and the writer of the autobiography, and added opportunities for humour found in ironic moments based on the audience’s knowledge of the celebrity author, pieces of poor writing, et cetera.
While the excerpts were perhaps slightly too lengthy for the audience to be able to keep the various threads in mind, the improvisers had no difficulty launching into montages of scenes connected to the excerpts in a variety of ways. Some drew directly from the anecdotes (such as a discussion about hip-hop with Bono), some created analogous scenarios (someone unable to conceive being forced to watch a friend’s healthy ultrasound as consolation after Robbins read about a young, poor Jay-Z’s class trip to his teacher’s Manhattan brownstone), always building on and calling back to the previous beats. The scenes were fast-paced and funny, and the players were energetic and innovative. While I thought there were some standout moments courtesy of Meagan Crump, Cameron Algie, and Sean Tabares, it was clear that the entire cast played together smoothly and had fun onstage.
Third Wheel was a particularly unique form. It began with ITC improviser Matt Folliott (Standards and Practices) interviewing a long-term couple (Amie Everett and Jeremy Voltz) onstage. The interview itself was entertaining – Folliott is quick-witted and engaging – and I knew that these anecdotes and trivia about the couple’s private life would serve as good inspiration for the improvisers. What I didn’t realize, because I didn’t read the show description properly, was that Folliott and the couple themselves would perform the improv. I fully expected a group of improvisers to come out and perform with Folliott after listening to the interview, as in UCB team Death by Roo-Roo’s Your F’ed Up Family. It turns out that Everett and Voltz are both on ITC student teams, and they performed two long three-person montage sets with Folliott, divided by a second interview.
While the scenes were perhaps at times a bit rougher than they might have been if performed by a larger group made up of more experienced improvisers, the interesting dynamic created by an actual couple drawing from their own stories to improvise together, the addition of the “third wheel,” and having improvisers with very different experience levels perform together, was perfect for the nature of the festival. Improv may be the most freeing comedic artform, with endless possibilities, and it was exciting tonight to watch ITC’s players make the most of it.