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Ottawa Improv Fest: The magic of scenes you’ll never see again

By Apartment613 on April 18, 2016

Post by Adam Fowler

As the hosts of the Ottawa Improv Festival (OIF) say, the blessing and the curse of improv is that it’s totally original—magical, but you’ll never see it again. This year’s OIF ran from April 14-16 at the Arts Court Theatre, selling out both Friday April 15 and Saturday 16. A ton of acts, from absurd to inspiring, graced the studio stage across three nights of on-the-spot creativity fueled by drinks, (free!) popcorn, and a series of increasingly enthusiastic audiences. Through luck and a series of fast-food suppers, I slid in early enough for a front-row seat every night, and I’m missing it already.

Bringing together the combined talent of the Ottawa, Toronto, and Montreal improv scenes, organisers Dani Alon, Valerya Perelshtein, and Chris Hannay found the ingredients for three nights that had me laughing so hard I couldn’t breathe.

Bad Dog Theatre, photo from their Instagram.

Bad Dog Theatre, photo from their Instagram.

Thursday brought a pile of “mashups,” where hosts jumbled teams into new and exciting combinations. For instance, MI6, from the University of Ottawa, and the Carleton Improv Association (get it? CIA?) faced off in a series of shorts inspired by the strangest suggestions the audience could muster. “Rubber band balls” turned into a tragicomedy about a pair of lovelorn bowlers competing for the heart of a woman. A trio of experienced Ottawa troupes smoked cigars in an atmosphere of 30% hydrogen and lived to tell about it “through science!” The 6 women of Rock, Paper, Sisters, by contrast, thought up more ways to misuse a jacuzzi than I could have imagined.

By Friday, I was ready for the work week to be over and to dive headfirst into what turned into four and a half hours of killer performances. Local group Trevor Comedy—relatively new to the scene—and the experts from Crush Improv (Ottawa), GROSS! (Montreal), Coko & Daphney (Toronto), and Chad Mallett (also Toronto) brought their A games. It’s hard to capture how delightful twenty minutes of a pair of men just trying to have fun at Trampoline City can be.

Saturday achieved the organizers’ dream of showing the true diversity of improv. Slow Burn demonstrated that it can be more than just absurdity and crude audience suggestions. They told the bittersweet story of two best friends waiting for the results of a skin biopsy at a doctor’s office. To bring up the mood, BLT came back after intermission and did an impressive bilingual set that this Anglophone can assure you was at least 50% hilarious. Bad Dog Theatre learned how to pronounce archipelago in a geographic feature show. Finally, Quest of the Dragon King highlighted the narrative possibilities of polished improv as they wove the story of a football princess saving Toonsville from a raging Fire Titan.

Montreal's Quest of the Dragon King, one of the improv groups featured at OIF. Photo by Alex Tran from their Facebook page.

Montreal’s Quest of the Dragon King, one of the improv groups featured at OIF. Photo by Alex Tran from their Facebook page.

But it wasn’t all organised teams. On Thursday night, four green performers hopped on stage with veterans for two-person Pro/Am Jams. It highlighted the pool of talent and enthusiasm Ottawa has to draw on. Rich Hilborn, an “Am”[ateur] who performed with pro Dani Alon, told me, “it was fantastic to get to perform with a pro like Dani. I would do it again in a heartbeat!” Friday night was finished off with nightcaps and “Improv Standup.” Brave performers took the stage for four-minute sets of improv on topics from the audience (notice a theme?), ranging from chestnuts like airline food to oddities like lycanthropy.

Behind the scenes, pros offered workshops on the art of improvisation—a rare opportunity for Ottawa, compared to Montreal and Toronto. Out of curiosity, I attended a couple and discovered just how deep it goes. Ted Hallett (Toronto) ran “Scene Killer,” aimed at “being present, making strong initiations, and heightening with truth bombs.” Matt Folliott (Toronto) taught a class of 7 to create “a volcano that spews comedy.” On Sunday, Vinny Francois (Montreal) answered the simple question, “how do stories work?” Who knew you could spend 3 hours on each of these and leave wishing it were longer?

For all of you reading who missed this tour de force of local and national improv talent, too bad—the festival won’t be around till next year. But don’t worry, because local groups are performing across the city almost every night of the week. Check out the OIF page to get a sense of the talent in Ottawa, and when to catch their shows.