One of the highlights of improv festivals is the chance to meet and talk with performers from all over. During the recent Ottawa Improv Festival, we gathered a panel of performers from different cities for a casual discussion: Kirsten Rasmussen (co-founder of Montreal Improv, producer of The Girls Show at Toronto’s Bad Dog Theatre), Alia Rasul (Inclusion Director of Bad Dog Theatre, producer of Humans of Improv), Alex Wozny (VP of uOttawa improv and member of Outtake Improv, originally from Red Deer, Alberta), and Sarah Burns (from ImprovBoston and member of Big Bang). The following is a lightly edited transcript of our discussion.
Moderator: What’s something in your improv community that you think is exciting?
KIRSTEN RASMUSSEN: I’ve been in Toronto for almost 5 years, but I go back to Montreal a lot to teach workshops and hang out with the crew there. And when I was coming up in that city, or when we started the [Montreal Improv Theatre], it was very straight, and very male. And something that’s been exciting and inspiring to me, especially in the last couple years, is there’s this amazing group of amazing younger Queer women who are just kicking that scene’s ass.
ALIA RASUL: It’s similar in Toronto, too. There’s all these new shows in the last two years that really show diversity, in a lot of aspects. Not all the time, there’s still accessibility, of course, but it’s a conversation we’re starting to have. For example, a lot of theatre spaces and comedy spaces in Toronto are upstairs, they’re not accessible. But recently, there was an All-Access Sketch Show which is great. And there’s a lot of POC [performer of colour] shows and new LGBTQ+ [lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer, plus] shows and then, at Bad Dog we have a [age] 50+ show, so they do a workshop, which I think that’s great. But yeah, for me, accessibility is very, very exciting.
ALEX WOZNY: I’m really excited with the university team, we travel a lot, and I’m really excited about it, mostly because we travel in Ontario but also in Montreal, the opportunities that groups are getting to collaborate and work together. And I’m noticing that both in cities and at a greater level, we’re trying to connect improv groups together and share that audience, because oftentimes we have our own group of people who come to our team, our company or whatever.
SARA BURNS: Yeah, that’s awesome. That makes me think, we just posted a college comedy festival at ImprovBoston, and one of the things we included this year was a workshop on inclusion. And it was just amazing to see all of these young improvisers come out and feel like they had a place and a voice and they were able to maybe eventually be a part of our theatre. It’s been really incredible to see that.
MODERATOR: What do you see as a challenge in your community?
RASUL: Just speaking from an inclusion lens, I think there’s a lot of effort to bring in people, but I think there needs to be more effort in capacity building. For people in leadership positions, in mentorship positions, we also need to develop their skills into how to make classes more inclusive and not oppressive before we bring people in. So before we bring in People of Colour and people that are LGBTQ, you really need to build a capacity to make sure that the spaces that we’re inviting them into are safe.
BURNS: Something that I think about in Boston a lot, for a long time we’ve operated under the mentality that we’re going to raise our artists up to another city, get them good and then we ship them off to LA, Chicago or New York. And I think in recent years, we’ve been trying to move towards this idea that we can be a hub too, and we can grow our own scene and have a theatre that blossoms in permanently there, with artists that stay there instead of move onto something bigger. Boston can be the place to be.
WOZNY: Something I’ve noticed in Ottawa that I’m really happy about is the diversity of improv and the comedy community in general. There’s a lot of different groups doing different things. And something I noticed back home, and not so much in Edmonton but in Calgary, is often there’s like one improv group or sort of style that will dominate that city, and people in that city will only know that kind of improv.
RASMUSSEN: Touching upon what Alia was saying about teachers, ’cause I teach a lot and I feel like there’s this thing right now where it’s like, grow and learn, or die. In a good way! In Toronto there is an old guard which not every city has, which I think is very exciting, in that people are just like, “I’ve been doing this forever, why would I need to change?” Well, because the way that we were doing it wasn’t the greatest, and that’s not anyone’s specific fault, but it’s just learn, educate yourself. And it can be a bit overwhelming as a teacher when I’m not an expert on communication, I’m not an expert on mediation, I’m not an expert in ethics or anything like that. I know comedy, there is a big learning curve to all this new stuff that’s coming in.
RASUL: People go for years and years and years to be a teacher, right? So, so the institutions, the big theatres, it’s their responsibility … you’re hiring them because they’re great at comedy, we can’t expect them to be great teachers. Some are. It’s rare. So at Bad Dog, we do teacher training. We recently asked everyone to do AODA training, the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disability Act. Every single business, non-profit, if you have volunteers and all that stuff, you have to do this training. By 2020, Ontario’s gonna be fully accessible, that’s the goal. A lot of conversations right now are like, “you can’t say that.” We need to develop a skill set and a vocabulary and a way of doing this.
AUDIENCE QUESTION: This is my experience with inclusivity. A lot of the conversation around including people with disabilities is about making places physically accessible. But a lot of the places that comedy is done at are not inclusive for people with intellectual disabilities or sensory issues. What sort of steps can be taken in order to make that more of an inclusive space?
RASUL: Well, again, education, right? We’re still trying to understand what that whole category means. Like we just had a whole conversation about … strobe lighting and gunshots, which are very overwhelming, sensory-wise.
BURNS: In Boston, something that I think is really exciting is when we had an artist who was differently abled. We do our best to have a conversation with that person about what it’s like to improvise with their ability. So for someone who can’t see, we all do a scene in the dark and experience what it’s like to not be able to improvise with our eyes and what it’s like to improvise with all the tools that that person has at their disposal, and rising to their level instead of expecting them to improvise differently. And I think giving them the opportunity to improvise with their ability is really important.
RASMUSSEN: There’s a strain of workshops happening in Toronto that are Improv For Anxiety which I think are really exciting, really cool. And I feel like that might be something that we see more of.
COKO GALORE (Audience): We also want to make sure that we’re not leaning hard on the people that are already marginalized and having them give us all the information. We also have to be accountable and do the research and educate ourselves, instead of just leaning, because it’s really hard and it’s emotionally laborous to be the one who is not only vulnerable in the community, but also have to risk your position in order to tell them how to change their system to fit you.
MODERATOR: To go back to something Sara said, what about the feeling of always needing to move to a bigger place? Ottawa gets a lot of that.
BURNS: A lot of times, maybe a few years ago, when I told someone that I was a professional actor in Boston, their first response was, “When are you moving to New York?” or “When are you moving to LA?” And my answer would be, “Eventually.” And now, I don’t say that, because I don’t want to do that anymore. I’m really passionate about growing this community that we have and giving more artists opportunity to come to Boston and play there. And I think that there’s something really special about a smaller community that grows, as opposed to moving to a larger community and trying to find our place there.
RASMUSSEN: I moved around so much and I think what I love about that, especially kind of ending up in Toronto, I’ve been in a lot of communities, which I think is so advantageous to improv. When I got to Toronto, one of the things that really shocked me was because it’s a destination city in Canada, they were like, “WE do improv best.” You don’t even know how good improv is in Winnipeg, or. . . There’s amazing improv in Winnipeg. Regina is bubbling right now, they have a really cool scene that has quadrupled in the last couple years, and I think that touring is so advantageous to improv. And it really is a Canadian thing to be like, but it’s not a big deal or anything. Like whenever I think about Quebec and their French star system, I think, why can’t we have that in English Canada? I feel like every day in Toronto, people are like, “Are you working on your Visa? Are you working on your Visa? Are you going to the States?” And I’m like, “Do you see what’s happening down there right now? Why would I want to go there? I have a family doctor!”
RASUL: I’m just wondering, to the question, how do we keep the best people here forever?
BURNS: I think it’s about how you define success as a comedian. Is it being famous? If so, yeah, maybe you are gonna want to move to a bigger city. Is it feeling artistically fulfilled every day and getting paid to do that? That’s a whole different thing. I think there’s more opportunity in smaller cities to feel artistically fulfilled and have that be your definition of success.
RASUL: I’m happy when someone moves to LA. I’m very concerned when I hear about things in our communities where someone who’s amazing at improv, or an intermediate improviser, has invested a lot of time, has potential, to hear about them leave because of a really shitty experience. Because they were treated badly in a class, you know, that’s more how do you keep our people? I started improv because I was so damn scared to speak up? And it’s helped me, I’ve only done improv for 3 years, but it’s changed my life and there’s so many people within our communities and within our cities who don’t know that yet, and how do we bring those people in? Because the practice of improv is so beneficial to them and their mental health, and it’s a very accessible artform. You can do with it what you want.
MODERATOR: Any final words?
WOZNY: I think just make sure that you’re viewing the improv community as a community and taking advantage of all of the people who are part of it, both in your city, in your own company, or troupe.
RASMUSSEN: Something … that I’ve been talking about with Coko [producer of The Party Show], we have so many discussions about our politics, and so many discussions about how to change the improv scene and I think that producing shows with those ethics in mind sometimes can be the biggest help to that change. Produce a show with that. That’s really been inspiring to me.
RASUL: And support those shows. Just your energy in that audience matters. Sometimes I’ll produce POC format shows, and it’s not that not many people go, but maybe there’s something about it that makes them not feel welcome there? Which is weird to me, and maybe that’s a whole different conversation, but yeah, invest your energy, just be there. Or ask about it.
BURNS: To go along with that, to just take every opportunity to learn from the people who are teaching you, of course, and also the people who you’re teaching. In Boston, we put ourselves on just constant professional development and maybe that means having a conversation with a student and using that conversation as a diving board into the next round of classes, or maybe it’s [playing in] another city and taking this opportunity to pull from the people that we meet there. But constant learning, constant growth, there’s always room to get better.