Rapid Fire Theatre: back live, and back on their home turf in Old Strathcona

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Rapid Fire Theatre has a new home for the new year.

The agile Edmonton improv company, 41 seasons old (but young at heart), de-camped this week from downtown and moved back to their traditional stomping ground, Old Strathcona.

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After eight seasons, the Rapid Fire ensemble of improvisers, some 40 strong, is exiting the Citadel’s Zeidler Hall. For the next year they’re leasing the adaptable ex-warehouse black box theatre on Gateway Boulevard that’s had such distinguished occupants as Catalyst Theatre, the Fringe (as a venue in the summer), and for the last half-dozen years Theatre Network. And after that, they have big still-secret plans in Old Strathcona.

You’ve known it as Catalyst or C103 in its time, the Roxy on Gateway, maybe Fringe Stage 17 or “that space next to the Yardbird.” Starting with a 2022 season launch party Jan. 14, you’ll be calling 8529 Gateway the Rapid Fire Place (I just made that up) or words to that effect. And you’ll be thinking up cues as you watch quick-witted people, in a variety of permutations and combinations, create characters, scenes, sometimes entire plays or musicals onstage, before your very eyes in weekly shows and special events.

Eight years ago Rapid Fire outgrew its longtime home at the Varscona Theatre, where their crammed shows were limited to late-night slots. And they moved across the river to the Citadel’s Zeidler Hall. “It was a great location for us,” says artistic director Matt Schuurman, an improviser of note himself as well as a video and projection designer. “And we had long-term plans for downtown,” including a move to the stalled Artists’ Quarters east of the Citadel.

The pandemic and its uncertainties changed that vision. So did the feasibility study RFT conducted with its fans a year ago, says Schuurman. “The response was overwhelmingly in favour of us moving back to Old Strathcona! That’s where we were for over 20 years. And that’s where we’ve been looking to re-establish, coming out of the pandemic.”

Zeidler Hall, the Citadel’s long, narrow, strikingly non-intimate ex-cinema, isn’t exactly a natural for the kind of audience interaction that feeds improv. The ex-Roxy on Gateway is a much more share-able room in which to return to live in-person performance. “The flexibility of the space, being able to re-configure on the fly, to improvise if you will, is really an advantage right now!” says Schuurman. “When you don’t know what capacity restrictions will come, it allows us to adjust. And it allows for distancing … to respond to a variety of comfort levels, to meet the audience where they are. For all those reasons it’s going to be a great little space for us!”

As Schuurman points out, “Rapid Fire is no stranger” to the ex-Roxy on Gateway. That’s where they’ve often performed The Big Stupid Improv Show and Off Book: The Improvised Musical during Fringes past. In Fringe incarnations, the space has has 120 or so seats. “For the time being, we’re treating it as 75-seat capacity,” he says. The plan for the season is some risers and some spaced cabaret seating, which works well for distancing. “And it looks intentional, not just an empty theatre,” he laughs.

The Rapid Fire crowd, with its younger demographic, is tuned to the vibe of the Old Strathcona entertainment ‘hood. “It feels like the most obvious, most natural fit,” says Schuurman of the move from downtown. “It’s where I first started going to Theatresports,” he says remembering his high school excursions with classmate Amy Shostak, his predecessor in the Rapid Fire artistic director job. “We were going to late-night shows off-Whyte. Our parents loved it because we weren’t going to a bar or a nightclub. We were going out to see some theatre!”

“It has a special place in my heart. And to be living that magic again….”

The season launch on the 14th is a variety show, featuring samples from shows that will be onstage live during the season. “We’re especially excited to bring back Theatresports!” says Schuurman of the team matches that gave that classic improv format its name. “It’s definitely the bread and butter of what we do as a company. It’s a show the audience love, and it’s a show that really strengthens our ensemble too.”

Theatresports had a short run at the Fringe. But when Rapid Fire moved its improv programming online in ingenious ways in response to COVID, they didn’t adapt Theatresports for the digital world. Live interaction with the audience, and direct feedback, were just too indispensable, Schuurman thinks. “We had a lot of success with online stuff, and if that’s the way we have to move, we certainly know how. But that’s what we’ve missed the most, creating an experience together with the audience.”

“We’re bringing back a lot of audience favourites, shows that were cut short, or didn’t happen, due to the pandemic,” says Schuurman. Chimprov, for example —  veteran performers creating long-form improvs in virtuoso formats, fuelled by audience suggestions — is back.

The RFT ensemble embraces a variety of smaller troupes with improv specialties (Gordon’s Big Bald Head, Sphinxes, Improvised Dungeons & Dragons among them). They’ll rotate through the season. The Late Night Double Feature Improv Show, “two of our troupes doing their thing,” starts Jan. 15. The sketch troupe Marv N Berry is back in June with a run of the show they never got to finish in March 2020. You can expect a run of Off Book: The Improvised Musical later this winter.

And the season includes the return of RFT’s festivals, including Wildfire (for student improvisers across Alberta), Bonfire (RFT’s experimental long-form improv lab), and the international Improvaganza. Valentine’s Day, April Fool’s … Rapid Fire celebrates all the known high holidays with special shows.

New this year is Kidding Around, a series of Saturday matinees for kids, directed by RFT’s Joleen Ballendine, a new parent herself. “We were inspired by our proximity to the Old Strathcona Farmer’s Market,” says Schuurman.

Rapid Fire does 300 shows a year. Find the schedule, as it unfolds, at  rapidfiretheatre.com.


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