Set in the heart of Ottawa’s Rideau neighborhood and nestled between the sights and sounds of downtown, you’ll find Improv Embassy. A place dedicated to nurturing and highlighting improv and sketch comedy in town. Founded by Dani Alon and Chris Hannay, with the help of Val Perelshtein as the initial company’s business director, it has since become a premier space for independent comedy.
Improv Embassy is a non-profit and run with the help of a great team of volunteers. They offer classes that are great for anyone and everyone, whether you’re looking into introductory classes or working on honing your skill set and developing your craft further. Dani and Chris also help run workshops and fundraisers, with a commitment to the wider Ottawa community. One such event is the Ottawa Improv Festival, which will be held from March 1-3, 2018.
Ahead of the coming spring, and on a snowy winter afternoon, Apt613 sat down with the duo to discuss improv, the fascination behind the art and how it differs from stand-up comedy.
Apt613: Good afternoon Dani and Chris. Can you tell us how you two first met?
Chris: I’ve been doing improv for about 12 years, starting in University. I was inspired by (the show) “Whose Line Is It Anyway”, as a kid. When I moved to Toronto (from Ottawa) in 2010, I became involved in (improv) and met Dani there…
Dani: …Yes, I also liked “Whose Line Is It Anyway” when I was younger too, but the reason I got involved in iprov was because I loved “The Kids In The Hall”. I realised that all five of (the actors) in “The Kids In The Hall” had done improv so I started taking classes at Second City (Theater). I did a conservatory (program) there and then really fell in love with the craft while at Impatient Theater Company. Chris and I met and fell in love, while on student teams there.
What do you love about improv?
Dani: It’s a way of connecting with people. It’s a way of communicating and of being receptive and just being playful as an adult…
Chris: …I’ve also always been interested in artistic pursuits. I’ve always loved improve because it is inherently social and inherently a live format…it’s something that has to be seen live as you’re creating in the moment, with the other performers on stage. You’re part of an ensemble, but you’re also creating with the audience as well. Everybody is in that moment together, it happens one time, and then it’s gone…
Dani: …it’s a very special experience that everyone shares…it happens spontaneously and everyone takes part in it, making it something special and then it can’t be captured or explained after…
What’s the difference between improv and stand up?
Chris: Both arts forms make people laugh, but the source of laughter is quite different for each one. Stand up is a lot about carefully crafting jokes ahead of time and workshoping them and refining them and developing some kind of stage presence too. Of Course there are some comedians that can work things as they happen on stage because their personalities are so engaging…improve is more about the experience of creating things together. Some people are very witty and there are performers who are very clever and can say some very good jokes. But a lot of times, the humour is from the joy of watching people perform under pressure, sometimes with restrictions, and try to create a story together. Sometimes there’s mistakes that happen, but often times, those are some of the funniest things…
Dani: …the tension of watching two people walk the tightrope of trying to be funny on the spot and collaborate with somebody else, while not knowing what they’re going to say…that tension can contribute to the comedy. It’s also at the intersection of a lot of performance art. There’s elements of dance, elements of theater, and I think the biggest difference between improv and stand-up is…the chemistry of the performers on stage together.
What motivated you to start Improv Embassy?
Dani: I’m used to being in a place where there’s more than one venue to do improv and that’s where you meet all of your friends and social network. When we came to (Ottawa) there was a very vibrant highschool and university community to have improv, but not as much opportunities for adults to be able to pursue improv. So we wanted to be able do that here. Most of our students are actually from other cities and they started doing improv to meet new people and make new friends. So being able to build that sense of community here…to make it as big as possible, to have as many different improv styles as possible, just a place for adults to be able to find their artistic voices, make friends, make comedy…there’s so many people here that just need an outlet.
The kind of improv that Chris and I specialize in is long form improv. It’s the type of improv that is the basis of sketch comedy. It’s less about wordplay and more about seeing fun characters come to life on stage that are inspired by real life.
You also run the Ottawa Improv Festival. Can you elaborate on the event?
Chris: This is the third year that we’ve run the Ottawa Improv Festival and we bring acts from Toronto, from Montreal, from the US, to showcase all sort of different styles and performers doing improv, over the 3 days of the festival. There’s a lot of good interest in it and we’ve gotten a lot of good reviews from the audiences. It’s also a way to help connect local performers with performers from other cities.
Dani: Many of the performers that come from out of town, like New York City and Boston…we have them do guest workshops so that people who are really hungry to learn have a chance to learn skills from people who aren’t here very often.
You have a very inclusive mandate at The Improv Embassy, can you tell us about it?
Dani: Our mandate is “punching up”. What we mean by that is we encourage our students to just tell their personal truths. Don’t rely on stereotypes because artistically it’s lazy, but socially it’s irresponsible. We also have an inclusion scholarship because we find improv and stand up comedy to be quite homogenous…and it’s just so nice to be able to get another unique perspective. Through improv, I want to see people’s soul, I want to see genuine authentic self…that’s the kind of stuff I like to see, so we try to encourage women, people of colour, LGBTQ+ performers to try and see that the craft is for them too and there’s a place for everybody in it.
Tickets to the Ottawa Improv Festival are available online. Follow the Festival on Twitter or Facebook for the latest updates. To register for classes , attend an upcoming show, or rent their space for one of your own productions, visit Improv Embassy online.