By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
A weekday morning in the life of an improviser:
Wayne Jones is hanging with Chekhov. He’s spent the a.m. watching The Seagull and Uncle Vanya. Who does that?
The producer/artistic director of the 30th annual edition of Die-Nasty, Edmonton’s venerable live weekly improvised soap opera (returning Monday to the Varscona stage), is in research mode.
The Stroganoffs, the first of Die-Nasty’s three “mini-seasons” this year, will take us to pre-Revolutionary Russia c. 1900. And Jones, a veteran improviser who cheerfully admits that theatre history isn’t his jam (“I don’t have a big background in plays”), is soaking up the flavour, the atmosphere, the character types, the cadence of the era, via Chekhov. “I’m immersing myself in the time,” he says. “Detail, specificity is one of the secrets of doing good improv…. It helps you commit to the character!”
And there’s this: “If you paint the picture of something the audience recognizes, in detail,” laughter ensues, says Jones, who has an impressive archive of comedy stage gigs on both sides of the border to prove it. He remembers improv classes at 2nd City in Toronto: “you’d have to make a sandwich in front of the class, and describe every single item, every colour, that went into it….”
The Stroganoff era is rich in suds potential: inflammatory passions, treachery, betrayals, agendas both romantic and political. The core cast of deluxe improvisers, including Jones, has spent the week mulling over character possibilities for the mini-season that Stewart Lemoine and Jana O’Connor will jointly direct.
Like the best of the Die-Nasty season concepts — which have launched from such settings as Ancient Rome, 19th century Brontë world, the Golden Age of Hollywood, the early days of vaudeville, Lord of Thrones, Westerns —the gallery of pre-Revolution Russians is gloriously expansive. Aristocrats both entitled and faded, land-owners, peasants, climbers, arrivistes, plutocrats, political insurgents and infiltrators, artistes, bon vivants, émigrés….
Jones, who grew up in Edmonton — “it’s my home base but I have a hard time sitting still”— has spent much of his showbiz comedy career living and working in Toronto and L.A. He wasn’t a theatre kid per se, he says. He was the kid who “was always trying to make people laugh, being silly all the time….”
“I was in a band, I was pretty serious about hockey.… All through my 20s I was planning events, parties, hosting them. I’d rent night clubs and invite a couple hundred people, and I’d get onstage with a mic and hire a DJ, tell jokes, roast people.…”
Jones worked construction; he got a degree in criminology (he mentions this as an afterthought). He even considered going to law school, attracted mainly by the idea of performing in court, he says. “The one thing I seemed to be best at was bringing people together for a good time, making them laugh.”
So Jones’ inner career-planner stepped up with a question: “what kind of comedy can I do where I can just sort of wing it?”
Bingo. He left Edmonton for Toronto: “I needed to start new; in a new place I could reinvent myself…. I’m so happy that I was able to do what I love to do, and figure out how to make it into a job! When you’re surrounded by people who love what they do, Wow! It’s not just me trying to figure it out. There’s a whole community here!”
It was in Toronto, where he’s a key player in the improv troupe White Rhino Comedy, that he got his start in improv in 2010. A man of engaging enthusiasm and modesty, he re-creates his thinking at the time. “The scene was so vibrant and strong out there…. I thought ‘holy cow, people are so talented! I figured I was good at bringing people out and promoting shows. So if I could get those people to do a show with me, I’d get a lot better a lot faster. I’d have to do everything I could to keep up’….”
A few years later it was in Toronto that Jones made his Edmonton connections, among them Die-Nasty’s Dana Andersen and Amy Shostak, the artistic director of Rapid Fire Theatre at the time. His Edmonton improv family expanded when Die-Nasty played Toronto, at Soulpepper Theatre. A world-record 55-hour Soap-A-Thon at Soulpepper Theatre attracted a stage guest list of Toronto’s best (including re-located Edmontonians Ron Pederson and Matt Baram and their National Theatre of the World) and some high skilled imports from across the pond (among them Adam Meggido, who will direct Peter Pan Goes Wrong at the Citadel later this season).
“It was a festival of the best improv from around the world. I barely squeaked in the door,” laughs Jones, whose improv history has included training in such hotspots as Chicago, New York, and L.A. .
Jones, who’s toured with Colin Mochrie (“a dream come true!”) and done Edmonton improv gigs with Pederson, has been a Die-Nasty guest ever since 2014. In that Downtown Abbey season, one of his faves, he guested as “a steel salesman from Pittsburgh, in England to seal a deal with the family…. And I was blown away: packed houses, such talent. Edmonton really has something Toronto doesn’t have.”
“When you get called into a scene with people so talented, who know how to commit, and you know they’re gonna give it their all because they’re trained stage actors, it’s such a treat.”
He played the Norse demi-god Cannabis The Chosen One (“powerful, but a stoner too, always forgetting where he put his weapons”) in the Viking year. He was “an Italian business magnate,” with a particularly snazzy costume, in the Medici year. At last summer’s Fringe edition of Die-Nasty, he was a celebrity realtor, whose face was on every bus stop bench in Strathcona.
“I was very lucky,” Jones muses, “to be from here, and be sort of an out-of-town guest in my own home town.”
Although he’s constantly out of town for gigs, Jones has lived in Edmonton since 2017. He moved back from Toronto when his dad became very ill. One of his “biggest joys” was that his dad in his final years was in the front row when he and Mochrie played big theatres like the Citadel’s Shoctor and the Martha Cohen in Calgary.
This year’s experiment in dividing the Die-Nasty season into three series, each with its own genre and characters, is a response to the long-term uncertainties built into these pandemical times. “The cast can commit to shorter periods. And it keeps things really fresh.”
What kind of Stroganoff will he be (and what kind of hat will he wear, to ask a crucial question)? As his Chekhov binge continues, Jones is considering a character inspired by Konstantin, the high-anxiety playwright in The Seagull. “He wants to be somebody. He doesn’t know much about the world, but he wants to change the world.”
“I purposely leave myself in the dark until a day or two before,” Jones says, “The adrenalin kicks in; the danger and risk get stronger. That’s the energy that’s so exciting to me about improv…. I’m a thrill-seeker.”
Die-Nasty Presents: The Stroganoffs
Directed by: Stewart Lemoine and Jana O’Connor
Starring: Tyra Banda, Delia Barnett, Hunter Cardinal, Belinda Cornish, Tom Edwards, Jesse Gervais, Kristi Hansen, Nikki Hulowski, Wayne Jones, Mark Meer, Matt Schuurman, Stephanie Wolfe, and special guests
Where: Varscona Theatre, 10329 83 Ave.
Running: every Monday through late December. A second Die-Nasty mini-series (to be announced) begins in January, and a third will run through May.
Tickets: $15 at the door, or varsconatheatre.com.
Safety protocols and proof of vaccine requirements: varsconatheatre.com/covid19