Lighting a (bon)fire under improv

Photo by Andrew Paul

By Liz Nicholls,

Wrap your mind around this terrifying idea for an improv show: 

What if an improviser found himself onstage in a fully rehearsed, costumed, blocked 30-minute play he knows nothing about — without a script, as a character he hasn’t met?   

The idea for Improvisers Worst Nightmare, the brainchild of Joe Vanderhelm, is either brilliant or insane. It’s impossible to know in advance. Which is the whole point of Rapid Fire Theatre’s annual Bonfire Festival.

Bonfire, which ignites its flammable 20 experiments in long-form improv comedy Tuesday, for the sixth annual edition of the festivities, is what happens when you say YES! instead of ‘You’ve GOT to be kidding!.’

Bonfire Festival 2016. Photo by Andrew Paul.

“Who knows? We say Yes, and see what happens,” says Rapid Fire artistic director Matt Schuurman calmly. “Unhinged? Exactly!” Unhinged from the standard, the usual, the reasonable: of Bonfire’s 20 experiments in improv comedy this year, 20 have never been tried by the company before.

They could go either way. “Some of these experiments become our Next Big Thing. Some we’ll never hear from again. It’s our comedy laboratory.” 

As for Improvisers Worst Nightmare, says Schuurman, “it’s the inverse of Rapid Fire’s Christmas special, where the actor who plays Scrooge (in the Citadel production of A Christmas Carol) appears on the show, and says all the lines he always says, and we improvise a show around him.”

Saturday’s grand finale show, Burlesqueprov!, sounds equally terrifying. “It’s a blend of burlesque and improv,” says Schuurman, amused. “Theatresports and striptease…. A few of our performers and a few of the Send In The Girls (burlesque troupe).”

Bonfire is fed by what-if? ideas pitched by members of the Rapid Fire ensemble, about 50 strong. “We have a pitch session for everyone,” explains Schuurman. “Directors come forward with an idea, and there are sign-up sheets. It’s so exciting!”

Bonfire Festival 2016. Photo by Andrew Paul.

It’s a measure of the improvisers’ love of risk — “or possibly that we’re suckers for punishment,” laughs Schuurman — that the first  sign-up sheet to fill up was Punish Prov, opening the festival tonight. Joey Lucius’s idea, which came from a university science course, is based on behaviour modification principles, explains Schuurman. “Can we make someone a better improviser using that?

This involves “a small electrical shock” applied to improvisers on audience command after an improv scene. After this, “they will  attempt the scene again.”

Punish Prov, incidentally, isn’t Bonfire’s first dalliance with science. In last year’s edition scientist Kory Mathewson improvised with an artificial intelligence, in the festival’s highest-tech show.

As always, some of the Bonfire experiments are about sustaining quickie improv games into a full 30- or 45-minute show. Genre Rollercoaster, a Vincent Forcier initiative, is an escalating high-speed thrill ride through movie genres, for example. Jessie McPhee’s 4Square confines four participants and four storylines in a box.

Bonfire Festival 2016. Photo by Andrew Paul.

Some experiments are responses to the peculiar nooks and crannies of pop culture that intrigue members of the ensemble. Rapid Fire Walk With Me is inspired by the surrealist adventure of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. The Navidson Improv (House of Leaves) is spun from an obscure, hard-to-read cult novel. Karaoke Bar, well, I’m just going to leave that idea with you; it has a gruesome hilarity all its own.

“It’s all comedy research,” says Schuurman. “We have to be students of, well, everything: pop culture, literature, science, math…. Our audience is all those things, so we have to be too.”

“There’s a family show on opening night, there’s burlesque, there are immigrant stories that connect real-life to improv…. Bonfire reinvigorates our ensemble. They come out so thrilled, so pumped!”

  Like the man said, unhinged.


Sixth Annual Bonfire Festival

Theatre: Rapid Fire Theatre

Where: Citadel Theatre, 9828 101 A Avenue

Running: Tuesday through Saturday

Tickets and full schedule:

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