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|Written by Agnes Cadieux|
|Tuesday, 16 February 2010 00:00|
Instead of acting out well-rehearsed choreographies, spewing scripts, and using proper stage etiquette, Insensitivity Training (IT) focuses on thinking on the fly, reacting rather than acting, and bouncing off each other's best ideas. They are an improv group.
Composed of Jim Davies, Dan Dicaire, Phil Genest, Mike Kosowan, Matt Sloan, and Chelsea Sterling, the group is an unusual gathering of scientists, engineers, and stage workers, who have all fallen in love with the quick-thinking game. The group has been together since 2007 and is geared to celebrate three years of performances, including a milestone 150th show in March.
Even before the club opened to the public the energy was infectious. As the six members started to trickle in, the atmosphere took on a pleasantly positive air. It was obvious the chemistry was electric between them, and the performers showed promise of a good show. While I waited deep in the basement of Elgin's famous Yuk Yuk's comedy club to experience this improv phenomenon earlier this month, I got the opportunity to speak with Phil Genest, one of the founding members of IT about what this type of comedy really means to him.
(Cult)ure: What do you like most about improv?
Phil Genest: Personally, it's a rush. There's nothing more exhilarating than doing a show, even for a small audience. We always have fun when we can get the audience to have that "ah" moment, especially in a comedy show when we're not just going for punches. It's like a great tennis match; you throw it [out] and if they don't get the joke or they don't like it, then the entire show goes on that motive of 'back and forth.'
Even though the skits are purely on the fly, is there any sort of preparation you do beforehand, such as practices or warm-ups?
PG: Normally before every show, we take two hours, and we jam. We'll go over scene structure, or some new games that we want to try out because most games will follow a specific format and there will be a gag, or a built-in rule that everyone has to abide by, so we all make sure we understand what those are and how to make the game work for us. Some companies will have a pre-show song or a warm-up, but because we have that time to jam, we just mill around beforehand, talk, and see who's here.
Because of the nature of the comedy, no two shows are ever the same. Do you find yourself ever running out of ideas?
PG: No. We push each other a lot, and we'll call each other out; for one-liner games like "World's Worst" you'll get the same kinds of examples and [we'll] know someone's re-pulled a joke from an old show. We have more fun seeing where we can take this [comedy].
How much do you involve the audience in your skits?
PG: Some of our key games, like "Should have said," the improvisers will do a scene and at any moment, anyone from the audience can control the scene by saying "should have said." It makes that improviser rephrase or come up with a new idea. There are more games like that, but those end up becoming our bread and butter. [They're] games we like to play a lot because it gets the audience involved, and the more we get them involved, the more we can instigate that tennis match. They know we're making it up, they know we're on the seat of our pants, and, when we can invite an audience member to live that chaos, the rest of the audience appreciates it.
In reference to tonight's prorogue event, do you often try to fit themes into your shows?
PG: Tonight is more of an event. I don't want to say that we're theming most of the show on politics (but there will be some political games), but we like to hold events. Once a month we'll hold a competitive night with another team and invite teams from Ottawa or Montreal or Toronto to come and play. And we do a show every week, so we like to try and spice things up. It's all about finding an idea that in our minds is hilarious. It's the way we have fun with the show. We've always said the show can't stay the same otherwise it'll just get boring for us to play.
Are there topics that are off limits?
PG: Not really, but we wouldn't be making Haiti jokes. We gave Heath Ledger a few months before we got our first crack at him. It's in certain bounds, but sometimes we'll make a joke that's a shirt-tugger, and the audience is like "oooh, too soon."
Dan Dicaire: Sometimes comedians do this for shock value; we like to think we stay away from that, but at the same time we feed off a lot of current events.
PG: It can end up being cathartic for some of the audience members, to be able to talk about things through us that maybe they wouldn't start talking about themselves. We aren't purposely out of taste, but we are ready to push a joke. We just tend to not be afraid of overstepping the bounds, but not be hurtful.
I see you're keen about teaching or leading workshops, including high school groups. What do you enjoy most about them?
PG: Improv had a huge impact on me when I was a kid. I was confident, able to talk and express myself [because of it]. It's a great vessel, because the more you give the more they give. Sometimes [at workshops] you're asked to help out on a certain structure, or certain game, and on a couple of occasions, together you work out something that is great. At the high schools they have the best groups to work with because they're so dedicated, and willing to learn. Some improv games can get competitive like "Questions Only" and you want to win, but it's going for something bigger than just winning. To get [the community teams] past the point where this is about their personal space, and actually get the whole group involved is what I love about it.
Do you believe that anyone can learn to do improv?
PG: Yeah. People have natural talent, that's for sure. But it's just about reacting. Someone is reacting and you're actively listening and contributing. What happens a lot when you're talking to [people], is that they are only waiting for the next turn to talk. While in improv you learn to listen and be like, "Okay, that's where you're going." You're just working together. It's the idea that the best idea wins, regardless of if it's yours.
Almost immediately after our interview, the bar opened up and people started pouring in. Before long, the club was brimming with life. The members mingled with the crowd, welcoming old friends and making new ones. The majority of patrons were young, and included all sort of visitors, including a girl dressed up as a fifties gal and a guy in a full-body rabbit suit. It was evident they were there to have some unstructured fun, and that was exactly what they got.
Right from the very beginning IT drew the audience into the show by getting everyone used to shouting at the stage and started out with a game that relied on the patrons' ideas. The games were entertaining, and it was impressive how quickly the six cast members could think on their feet. They played off each other very well, and the chemistry I had witnessed earlier that night made their skits believable. The porgies during the intermission were a great touch and really seemed to revive the crowd for the second half of the show. For five dollars, this is a great way to spend a Sunday evening. IT plays at Yuk Yuks on Elgin every Sunday night at 9:00pm, and you can be sure that no two shows will ever be the same.
Tags: cancon, foundation, improv, insensitivity training, interview, ottawa, phil genest, theatre, yuk yucks