Bonfire: the improv festival that plays with matches

Bonfire Festival, Rapid Fire Theatre. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

How’s this for a cool and crazy idea for an improv show?

Lights up. Go. What if … a show was improvised from its own sequences of lighting cues?

That’s Lumen, one of the 24 experiments in long-form improv comedy at the seventh (and largest-ever) annual edition of Rapid Fire Theatre’s Bonfire Festival. And it’s the bright, possibly illuminating, and certainly rather terrifying idea of the company’s artistic director Matt Schuurman.

Schuurman happens to be a top-drawer lighting and video designer, who got the idea from an improv/lighting designer pal in France. He explains that he’s “creating in advance a randomized series of lighting cues” using the equipment in the theatre, RFT’s Zeidler Hall headquarters at the Citadel. When the lighting changes, the performers, who have no inkling what to expect, improvise scenes from the lighting design.

In this, Lumen lights a match under the normal order of things. “In improv, the technician is usually following what the improvisers are creating onstage.” In Lumen “you’ve got to work to meet the tech!”

Will this fly? The question mark is the draw, says the genial Schuurman of a festival based on the impulse to say “Sure, let’s give it a try!” instead of the somewhat more cautious “You’ve GOT to be kidding!”

Matt Schuurman, artistic director of Rapid Fire Theatre. Photo by Aaron Pedersen.

“It’s our playground!” declares Schuurman of a festival spun from company brainstorming, with newcomers and veterans alike on an equal footing. Bonfire is all about running with “wouldn’t it be fun if…?” he says. “It’s our chance to try formats we’ve never seen before. Or seen before somewhere else. Or guilty pleasures….”

“Some stuff sticks,” and gets incorporated in Chimprov seasons at Rapid Fire. Schuurman laughs. “Some stuff is ‘well, we got that out of our system; we never have to do that again!’”

Risk factor notwithstanding, the Bonfire archive of experiments is full of success stories. Folk Lordz, the innovative (and much-travelled) Ben Gorodetsky/ Todd Houseman improv that combines Jewish folk tales and Cree-Blackfoot storytelling, started at Bonfire. Kory Mathewson’s experiment in improvising with artificial intelligence crashed at Bonfire, as Mathewson recalls. But Mathewson, who’s working on a PhD in robotics and A.I., persisted and refined. And his show went to the Edinburgh Fringe last year, under the title Human Machine. It’s back for this year’s Edmonton Fringe, as ImproBotics.

Kory Mathewson and Julian Faid in TEDxRFT. Photo by Aaron Pedersen

TEDxRFT, an impossibly difficult, improvised PowerPoint presentation by the brainiac team of Mathewson and Julian Faid, has travelled the world. “The early seeds were planted at Bonfire,” says Schuurman.

An improvised Star Trek show, a Schuurman idea (“me, nerding out”) with “a huge video component,” was a Fringe hit here, joined the RFT season, and is headed back to the Fringe this summer. The refinement? “Special guests.”

This year’s edition of Bonfire has its share of groundbreakers,” says Schuurman. He points to Perfect Bound. Its perpetrator is Faid, whose idea as Schuurman explains is “an entire improvised magazine — stories, editorials, ads, comics, the works…. And you flip through the pages. The print media brought to life.”

Tokens, directed by Kelly Turner, ventures into social satire. It’s an improvised sitcom with “typical cheesy white issues … Friends, say, or Seinfeld, with a cast of our players of colour.” Schuurman himself plays a stage hand charged with wrangling “the live studio audience” between takes. We get to be the laugh track.

Cobra, an idea from newcomer Michael Johnson, is “so out there that, to be honest, I do not fully understand it,” laughs Schuurman. “It’s based on acid free-style jazz, a jazz ensemble where any one of the performers could take charge.”     

For every intellectually hefty idea there’s one founded on the airier principle of “pure unadulterated guilty fun,” as Schuurman says. Mark Kelly’s proposal, Jurassic Place, is one of those. “Wouldn’t it be fun to play dinosaurs some place chosen by the audience?”

Or how about Magic Marv XXS, an improv in the Magic Mike mode, with improvised male burlesque. The company is currently training with an expert. 

The logistics of Tap Tap Tap are daunting. The source is a traditional Theatresports challenge: an ongoing two-character scene is infiltrated by an improviser who taps a character on the shoulder and takes over. For Tap Tap Tap every performer in the company is onstage, and ready to tap. “Sixty people! It’s chaos!” says Schuurman cheerfully. “Just ridiculous!”

For Write On!, Vincent Forcier’s idea, improvisers perform a 10-minute scene. And based on it, two playwrights in the audience each write an entire script,  in 45 minutes, which then gets performed. Schuurman is finding it hard to believe this is even possible: “it’s so extreme, the challenge!.” This makes him happy. “We love to surprise ourselves.”

Inspired by the PostSecret website, The Confessional is your chance to spill the beans, anonymously, on your own misdeeds (https://www.tinyurl.com/rftconfessional). The RFT company will improvise your guilty stories. “It has the potential to be whimsical, or heavy and heartbreaking…. We just don’t know,” says Schuurman.

And here, potentially, is the craziest idea of them all: “a Bonfire take on a public improv workshop. “People can register for a two-hour improv workshop,” as Schuurman explains. Instead of one instructor, there are three — but they’re playing one person. “Yup, a three-headed instructor who has not put together a course outline or lesson plan of any kind,” says Schuurman. And here’s the kicker: “each of them only gets to say one word at a time.” 

“Imagine two hours of that!” says Schuurman. “In an intimate classroom setting!”

With a 24-experiment festival, be prepared to not be prepared. “What’s the worst that can happen?” Schuurman says affably. “Whether it flies or crashes and burns, it’s still fun — for us and for the audience.”

PREVIEW

7th Annual Bonfire Festival

Theatre: Rapid Fire

Where: Citadel Zeidler Hall

Running: Thursday through Saturday and April 19 to 21, various times

Full schedule: rapidfiretheatre.com/festival/bonfire/

Tickets: eventbrite.ca 

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