club’s Mandate ranges from training new improvisors to performing across province
Improvisational theatre is getting its time in the spotlight at the end of February with the fourth annual Ottawa Improv Festival (OIF), and this year the University of Ottawa’s improv club will be kicking off the festival.
The U of O’s improv club is two-tier—there’s Room for Improv-ment, a group open to anyone with an interest in improv, regardless of skill level, which gives people a chance to try improv for themselves; and there’s MI-6, a touring group that performs at improv summits across the province. The club has been around for over a decade.
“Room for Improv-ment is the space for anybody who wants to try improv, we have weekly jams for people of all skill levels,” explained Charlie Campbell, a second-year philosophy and environmental studies student and an exec member of the club. “That’s the idea of ‘improv-ment,’ you can learn and try and grow. Then there’s MI-6 which is the competitive performance team, that will compete with other universities at summits and will do local shows.”
“There’s activities, games, things planned out … You start out, do some exercises, do some things that teach you improv fundamentals. At a certain point you’ll break off and start doing more traditional improv scenes that you’d see in an improv show.”
Although improv is, well, improvisational, there’s a lot of work that goes into preparing for a show. Campbell described it as tools to keep in your back pocket—knowledge of how stories progress, different genres and styles to perform, and other tricks and tools learned from plenty of practice.
“Every improvisor knows story structure, that’s one of the things you study in improv, and so you know how the scene has to go and everybody’s on the same page about where you are and what you’re doing,” said Campbell. “It’s controlled chaos, it’s not just chaos.”
Despite the many tools they can use, the best way to pull of a successful improv show is just to make sure your group has good chemistry. Practicing and workshopping with your group makes it easy to riff off each other when it comes to a performance.
The OIF is the biggest improv event of the year, a three-day festival that brings groups together from Ottawa and farther afield.
“It’s a really good opportunity because you have this amalgamation of improvisors from all over Ottawa,” said Aamir Sholapur, a second-year health sciences student and club exec member. “The troupes that are not affiliated with universities typically have some flair to them that make them different from other teams … so it’s really interesting to see how everyone’s taking a take on improv and that’s all seen at the festival.”
MI-6 opens the festival on Feb. 28 with a ten-minute slot, which is a challenging length of time. Most short skits, as Campbell explained, are five minutes, and long-form sketches run up to half an hour. The awkward timing has forced the crew to think hard about their approach.
“We’re aiming to do an improv longform game called “Cul-de-sac,” where it’s these really quick-cut little vignettes,” said Sholapur.
The festival setting isn’t just great to perform in; it’s great for the audience too, who can pack a variety of improv shows into a few days.
“It’s like improv that you’ve never seen before. Everyone there is interested in seeing what’s there. You get to talk with a lot of the improvisors,” said Sholapur.
“It’s like a little taster. We’re talking about different styles and genres and techniques—you’ll see them all,” said Campbell. “If you’ve never seen improv before this is a really good chance to see what the spectrum is.”