House lights dim, the buzz of the crowd quiets, and the performers spring onto stage; but what happens next is unrehearsed. Such is the way of improv, the theatrical technique of improvising based on audience suggestion.
Harry Potter in outer space, smoothies, and why Theresa May does not know how to hug, are just a few of the topics covered at Ottawa’s annual improv festival this past weekend at Arts Court Theatre.
“Improv is the best because it is a unique experience every time and it’s hilarious,” says Val Perelshtein, business director of The Improve Embassy. “Improv has changed my life so much. The stuff you learn helps not only with confidence, but positivity. You become more adaptable.”
This is the place where mistakes are encouraged. Names remembered wrong become character flaws and word slips develop plot twists.
There is an emphasis on the warmth of community surrounding the never-say-no comedy style.
“You learn to get over yourself,” says Perelshtein. “We’re an accepting safe space, all about cool, woke, alternative comedy.”
Notions of kinship are echoed by festival volunteer Jennifer Constant who participates in a local Ottawa improv troupe.
“The improv community is tight as hell,” she says. “We’re all really supportive and go to each other's shows. It’s hard to get people to consistently come out, so they’ll be the ones there, cheering you on.”
(Improv Fest/Natalie Pressman)
Ottawa’s improv festival has been running on and off for the last six years, and under The Improv Embassy for the last two. The Embassy, previously experimental farms theatre, was founded in 2014 by two Toronto natives looking to fill a gap they felt leaving Second City Theatre behind.
“It allows for a creative outlet in a way that is low stakes and super fun,” says Embassy co-founder Dani Alon.
It is impossible to predict how each show will play out. Even walking out on stage, performers have no indication of what the night will bring but to many, that is the excitement factor.
The crowd, buttered up with drinks and free popcorn, eagerly participates. They yell out suggestions for scenes and volunteer well indenting, yet unsolicited, side comments throughout the show.
“Improv is being able to rely on your partners and the audience for suggestions,” says Alon. “You’re supported and you don’t have to do it on your own.”
“You treat your partner like a poet, an artist, and a genius,” she adds. “There really are no dumb ideas.”
The festival drew in substantial crowds, selling out on their third and final night.