“Welcome to Montreal’s MPROV Festival, the place where everything is made up and the points don’t matter.”
That Whose Line is it Anyway tagline may be what some audience members would expect to hear at the beginning of any of the improv comedy festival’s shows over the past week, seeing as the popular show accounts for the total exposure many people have to improvisational theatre. But in reality, it only gave viewers a small sample of what improv can be.
In Whose Line, a group of four comedians make up situations and jokes on the spot, and this is indeed the core of improv; however, the show is based off of a series of games that are concerned with speed and limitation, intrinsically keeping the created scenes goofy and short. In this manner, the comedians usually make one good joke and move on to a new scene without worrying about character development or setting. This is funny, but not nearly the best that improv has to offer.
The Montreal Improv Theatre hosted nine MPROV shows last week, each involving three groups of improvisers on the bill, and each presenting a different flavour of improv comedy. There were group performances, duo performances, musical improv, and an improvised soap opera among other variations of longform and shortform—from 15-second scenes to 30-minute story arcs.
Shortform—which includes, but isn’t limited to the quick games that Whose Line ran—consists of the improvisers performing a series of independent scenes, each creating a new plot and characters. These can be as simple as two friends climbing on each other to try to activate a fire alarm, or as absurd as the moon inviting the sun to not set and party with him and the stars all night. Sometimes scenes can carry characters from one into the next; for example, when the improviser concocts a hilarious individual like an omniscient robot with the voice of a smooth jazz radio host, and wants to see him in a different setting.
Longform takes this one step further, creating a world throughout the duration of the show. This world can be established in the first scene and see the story continue linearly like a film, or it can be built piece by piece as each scene reveals a new aspect of the same world, with characters eventually overlapping and conflicts coinciding. On Friday night, the duo K$M performed six scenes over the 30-minute set, each taking place in the same setting. The duo Easy Action began with a motocross racer getting an x-ray from his drug dealer/doctor “Uncle Bob” at night, and ended with that same character falling in love on a pirate ship delivering suicide-inducing drugs the next dawn. When the world is improvised, things are not always—or nearly ever—straightforward, but the silliness drives the humor.
The other determining factor for performance type is the size of the cast. A show can consist of any number of improvisers, with the average size group of casts typically being around five members and the other most common being only two. A duo show, like Rapid Fire Theatre’s “Sex with Your Ex” on Friday, must have high-energy improvisers to put on a 30-minute show without the same two people becoming boring. This one took a suggestion from the audience for a difficult relationship to structure their first scene around, and then transitioned into new scenes by physically running across the front of the stage to wipe it clean for the next sketch, or simply by making funny faces at each other until that transitioned into a new idea. This show welcomed audience interaction, basing an entire scene on a conversation with a spectator, whereas others like “Summer Boyfriend” began without a suggestion and run the full time without a single interaction.
Improv comedy can be hilarious or it can be awkward depending on the comedians’ overall skill as well as their level of creativity. Because performances are entirely original, even the best improviser can have a terrible show if they are not fully alert—or they can unwittingly have the perfect show. This is the excitement of improv: It cannot be predicted and must be experienced live. Sometimes, as Bob Banks from Kitty & the Bee demonstrated on Friday, the best humour comes from watching somebody actively realize that what they are saying is not logical but cannot stop: “I live above a pizza shop, and I’m lactose-intolerant—it sucks. It’s like living above an ice cream factory…and…still being lactose-intolerant.” Shows like those at the MPROV Festival are one-time-only events, and there’s no telling what such creative minds can fabricate when armed with a stage and a concept.
Information on upcoming improv shows taking place in Montreal can be found at www.montrealimprov.com.