Committing themselves to the moment

The Canadian Improv Games’ annual Kingston tournament kicks off February 23, with volunteers from Queen’s taking part in the onstage shenanigans

Local competitors participate in the Kingston regional improv tournament.
Local competitors participate in the Kingston regional improv tournament.
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As the Winter Olympics heat up on the West Coast, British Columbia improvisation performer and teacher Alistair Cook has a competition of a different nature on his mind.

Cook—the national director of the Canadian Improv Games, calls his festival the “largest and most geographically dispersed theatre festival in Canada.” He displayed his improv performer’s sense of humour when I unwittingly woke him up on Saturday morning, not realizing he was in a different time zone.

I asked whether I should call back, Cook replied, “No, no, go ahead. It’s 8 a.m. You might really get some gold.”

Kidding aside, Cook was eager to talk about his love for improvisational theatre.

He said like others involved with the Games, he’s driven by his passion for the organization.

“We’re probably one of the largest volunteer youth theatre organizations because very few of our organizers and trainers get paid,” he said. “We love it so much that we donate our time.”

The culminating event of the games is the National Festival and Tournament at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa from March 22 to 27, where students from 14 regions in nine provinces across the country gather to compete for the title of Canada’s best high school improv team.

The Kingston Improv Games regional tournament, featuring local high school students and partly run by Queen’s students, take place from Feb. 23 to 27.

Students can also participate in an annual summer camp. Founded in 2003, IMPROVCAMP in Hope, B.C. is designed to give performers from high school across the country the opportunity to work together to develop their interest in improv, while also fostering leadership skills.

Cook said he thinks the competition allows students to set goals and achieve them, but there are benefits to getting students together in a non-competitive atmosphere.

“What we found was that the competition itself had a lot of young people working together in smaller groups and we wanted to break down the barrier of teams,” he said. “At the camp we have 120 kids [from] across the country working together and learning.”

The camp also provides leadership opportunities for graduating students or students in their first year of university who wish to further their involvement with the Games. Former players under the age of 23 also have the opportunity to participate with the Next Act festival, which is held annually in Victoria, B.C.

Many of the regional directors involved are former student players, Cook said.

Maryanne Sheehy and Laura Wilson, both ArtSci ’10, are two such students.

Having participated with the Games in Toronto and Ottawa respectively, both Sheehy and Wilson got involved with the Kingston Improv Games as soon as they came to Queen’s and have since moved up the ranks to become regional deirectors.

Besides participating in the annual tournament, Sheehy said she was also involved with IMPROVCAMP.

“IMPROVCAMP is the happiest place on earth—that’s what we call it,” she said.“You get put in ensembles with people who are around the same age, you do workshops all week plus it’s the regular camp stuff, swimming, canoeing, camp fires, that sort of thing, but just with a bunch of improvisers.”

Sheehy said one of the strengths of the annual tournament is its consistency across the country.

“All the events are the same in every region, the judging sheet is the same, the criteria, the skills that we’re looking for are exactly the same in every region, so each region sends a certain amount of teams to the national finals depending on how large they are,” she said. “The top teams play in Ottawa, and then they have a preliminary round Tuesday through Friday and then the top teams play Saturday at national finals. It’s really exciting.”

Wilson said the competition’s structure forces students to explore different skill sets.

“On a given night of play they’ll play four events, and we have different types of events so things like Life, Style, Character, Story and Theme. Theme and Life are mandatory,” she said. “So each of those relies on a different set of skills, a different approach to the games and they get scored by a panel of judges on how well they deal with some things like stage presence, physicalization and use of suggestion.”

Wilson said she thinks improv appeals to a lot of students who don’t see their interests reflected in other school clubs or teams. “I think a lot of players do it for different reasons. Some do it for the more competitive aspect of the game, whereas all players get out of it skills of thinking on their feet, public speaking—it’s really great for teamwork,” she said. “There’s something for every player no matter what your skill.”

For local high school students, the Games are about much more than titles or rankings.

“I really like when we get to play with all the different teams,” Holy Cross Catholic Secondary student Ciara Roberts said. “Even though it is a competition, it doesn’t feel like one because you have a lot of fun and everyone is so supportive. Everyone’s cheering each other on and trying to make each other laugh.”

Roberts, a Grade 11 student, said the camaraderie with her fellow improvisational artist, not the competition, is the focus of the Games.

“Our mentality has always been don’t go into it thinking about points of winning,” she said.

Roberts said she’s been competing for Holy Cross since her first year of high school.

“When I was in Grade 9 my sister and a whole bunch of her friends were on the team and they thought I would like it,” she said. “I went to the tryouts and we just played games and had a lot of fun. They liked what I did, I guess, and I made the team.”

Roberts said her experience in improv has equipped her with valuable life skills.

“You really learn how to work on your feet which can really help in so many areas in your life,” she said. “When you’re in improv you gain so much confidence to just be yourself.”

Roberts said her experience with the Games has inspired her to pursue a career on a different type of stage.

“I really hope to continue on in theatre. SNL [is] the big dream.”

Roberts’s teammate Josh Blackstock agrees the people involved are the best part of the games.

“[My favourite part] was just going into this new things and being welcomed and you just make so many new friends,” he said. “I guess for me it’s just like a place where you can be yourself and be supported by everyone, by your team and the other teams.”

Blackstock, a returning Grade 12 student, said the Holy Cross team is practicing and taking it easy before the Kingston tournament.

“We have a lot of work to do this week,” he said. “We’re trying not to think about it a lot and just go into it and have fun.”

Blackstock said like Sheehy and Wilson, he plans to continue his involvement with the Games after graduating.

“If there isn’t improv [where I go for] university, there’ll be coming home and helping out with the Kingston Improv Games or helping out with whatever area I’m in.”

The Kingston Improv Games preliminary tournament will be held at 7 p.m. from Feb. 23-27 at the Octave Theatre, 711 Dalton Ave. The finals will be held at 7 p.m. on Feb. 27 at Duncan McArthur Hall.on West Campus.

IMPROV 101

On a given night of play, teams must perform four four-minute scenes, each designed to hone a specific skill set. The games are:

LIFE: A mandatory event, players must explore a moment in someone’s life honestly and sincerely.

STORY: Teams must tell an original improvised story with a beginning, middle and end (althought not necessarily in that order) with the use of narration.

THEME: Recently made mandatory, teams must explore fully a given theme; these can be abstract concepts, axioms, or even images.

STYLE: Players must perform an improvised scene within the conventions of a given style.

CHARACTER: Players must create a unique and original character based on a given suggestion.

Monica Heisey

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