Lighting the Bonfire: Rapid Fire’s wildest festival is back, and it’s live

Bonfire Festival, Rapid Fire Theatre. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls,

For two years, the members of the Rapid Fire Theatre ensemble have been storing up their wildest, coolest, most ridiculously challenging new ideas in improv. And that, my friends, is a lot of pent-up crazy.

RFT’s Bonfire Festival, a conflagration of “wouldn’t it be fun if…” experiments in long-form improv, all of them new, is back Thursday, for a short and intense three-day and night edition at the Backstage Theatre. And for the first time since 2019 the festivities are live.

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“It’s a pretty special occasion,” says artistic director Matt Schuurman, for whom ‘never-attempted-before’ is an ultimate incitement and not a caution. True, for two years Rapid Fire, at a youthful 41 years and counting, has been a veritable poster child for online adaptability. But for a theatrical specialty that’s all about exchange — performing with, and among, an audience — the return to live is momentous. “We can’t wait! We’re so excited!”

The improv festival that has sprouted such virtuoso hits as TEDxRFT, Probotics, Folk Lordz — is back with 11 improv ideas pitched and curated by ensemble members. Revealingly, many of them were inspired by theatre and film. And, as made up on the spot, all of them are on the spectrum between improbable (Screwball!) and manifestly lunatic (World Record). The Schuurman mantra? “If it wasn’t hard it wouldn’t be fun.”

Thursday’s opening night, for example, leads with The Play I Wrote. As Schuurman describes, it’s the brainchild of Nathalie Feehan. “One of our performers writes a script (spun from audience cues solicited online). And a cast of four or five find out who they’re playing, and in what, on the night!” In Act II, Edgar Allen Prov, devised by Breck Wiltshire, six improvisers undertake to make up a tale or two by the horror meister, ones he evidently forgot to write.

The intricate challenges of screwball comedy have deterred many a playwright before now. As Schuurman points out, not only is this “precursor to the romantic comedy” built on narrative complications, but “witty wordplay and gender dynamics” are everywhere in a form that had a golden age in the ‘30s and ‘40s. In Screwball!, Friday night’s opener, as thought up by Paul Blinov and Kelly Turner, you’ll see one created from audience cues on the spot. 

Bottle Episode, says Schuurman of the initiative of Dill Prusko, is inspired by sitcoms,” and more specifically, episodes of Community, an NBC comedy about friends at a community college. “The idea is characters are confined to a single space, and the narrative plays out in real time…. We’re leaning into relationships and dynamics.”

The improv idea with the maximum anarchy potential belongs to ensemble member Joe Vanderhelm. World Record is “pure chaos,” declares Schuurman happily. “Absolutely unhinged.” Our goal, he says, “is to set the world record for the most suggestions taken and incorporated into a single scene…. Of course, we don’t know what the record is that we’re actually trying to break,” or even whether there is one. The suggestions keep coming as the scene plays out. Guinness has not been notified. “100 should do it,” thinks Schuurman. 

In It’s A Mystery Show!, an idea from Susan Evans inspired by the Netflix improv-based series Murderville, “the premise is a detective trying to solve a murder,” says Schuurman. “The cast will have a murder plot they’re in on. And one performer, coming in completely cold, has to solve it.”

In a celebration of live, this year’s Bonfire even has a site-specific show, out of the theatre and into the world, Sunday afternoon at 2 p.m. Concocted Jane’s Walk, named for urban planner/philosopher Jane Jacobs, is a walking tour through the Queen Alexandra neighbourhood (106th St. south of Whyte Avenue), led by “tour guides who are making up everything on the spot.” 

In this, Schuurman muses appreciatively on the idea of “false narratives” in a real hood, thinking of (Todd Babiak’s) The Garneau Block and the “improvised ghost tours, totally fake” that proved a hit several Fringes ago. Concocted Jane’s Walk is a meeting of minds between site-specific theatre expert (and Found Festival co-founder) Andrew Ritchie of Thou Art Here Theatre, with Christina Harbak (“a master composter recycler” and educator) and Stephen Raitz, whose offstage career is in urban planning.

In Act I of Saturday night’s innovations, a cast of six undertakes Die Noired, an idea from Matt Kusmire. It pairs two high-contrast styles, buddy cop movies of the ‘80s and film noir. What will happen? No one knows … yet. 

Moot Courtroom, ensemble member Sarah Ormandy, who’s currently studying law, the cast improvises a court case according to the outlines of a classic law student exercise. 

The late-night Bonfire finale Saturday at 11 p.m. is a double-header. Lyrical Song & Dance, LSD for short, brings to life, in a poetic, lyrical, and trippy way, the inner life of an inanimate object. “It gets unhinged very quickly,” predicts Schuurman, “when you go deep into the psyche of a water bottle.” 

Avatar 2 is “an absolutely ridiculous idea,” Schuurman says cheerfully. “The sequel was delayed again and again, and the trailer just came out this week. So the timing is perfect!.” The premise of Michael Johnson’s concept is is that since Avatar has mined the Pocahontas story rather fully in its exploration of a world in space, it’s time for another classic story. Ah, enter the audience.

Johnson and his cast of six came to Schuurman this week with an inquiry about blue body paint. It’s a hint of the festival to come.


Bonfire Festival 2022

Theatre: Rapid Fire

Running: Thursday to Saturday, full schedule of shows

Where: The Backstage Theatre, ATB Financial Arts Barn, 10330 84 Ave.



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