Four decades of playing without a script: the Rapid Fire Theatre story is now a book

Rapid Fire Theatre. Photo by Andrew Paul.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

The thing you’ve just got to love about Rapid Fire Theatre is that everything that makes you anxious (if not out and out crazy) in life is delightful to them. It’s their high-octane fuel, their motivation, their very raison d’être.

[I refer to uncertainty and risk, the not knowing in advance, the sweaty scramble to make improbable things work, the last-minute adjustments to plans that have fallen through, the figuring on your feet when you discover that there actually are no plans and maybe never were, the making of mistakes in front of people, the taking of leaps off promontories that aren’t even on the map.]

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And Edmonton’s premier improv company, an award-winner here, across the country and abroad, has the distinguished history to prove it. A new book about Rapid Fire’s first 40 years of providing spontaneous entertainment and provoking spontaneous bursts of laughter here, across the country and abroad, demonstrates in vivid detail that their own story may be unscripted, but it has a powerful narrative. We Made It All Up: Forty Years of Rapid Fire Theatre is by Paul Blinov, an RFT improv star himself. And it’s breezy, charming, and fun to read.

As Blinov recounts, the Rapid Fire Theatre trajectory started small. And it was in a way that was intertwined with theatre in this theatre town.

It was 1981, and little Theatre Network was ensconced in a very out-of-the-way north end location — OK, dive — in a defunct Kingdom Hall near the old Coliseum. TN Artistic director Stephen Heatley invited improv pioneer Keith Johnstone (founder of Calgary’s Loose Moose Theatre) to town to do a workshop of his improv “invention” theatresports — a fast and furious, short-form, competitive team sport.  

And so it began, Theatresports every Sunday evening. I remember occasionally being one of the trio of judges, holding up a score card and getting booed or cheered. And no matter what happened, or didn’t, onstage, the players seemed to be having a lot of fun (in lieu of making money). In true improv fashion, as Blinov tells the story, it gathered fans and players — actors and comics, high school class clowns, techies and musicians as it went: the Pied Piper effect endemic to the art form. In the chapter titled “The Smell of People Being There” Blinov quotes Wes Borg, a Theatresports geek who became part of the legendary spin-off sketch troupe Three Dead Trolls in a Baggie. “My mom thought it was a cult…. She was kind of right.”

Ah, the addictive thrill of spontaneity, with its high risk of flame-out. The magnetism of improv, for both the performer and the audience, is a fascinating mystery to us ordinary mortals. Is it, in the end, the lure of pure, raw live-ness? No one’s addressed it better than Blinov; he consults a whole range of improvisers to assist. “It was really formative,” as the ever-droll Borg says. “It made me into the poverty-stricken artist I am today.” 

Actor-turned-improviser Patti Stiles, who became the Rapid Fire artistic director later in the story (she’s now a top-drawer Australia-based improv guru and author who does workshops world-wide a la Keith Johnstone), was drawn to the galvanizing effect of improv on an audience. They were embraced and enlivened, she found, in ways that scripted theatre rarely managed. 

Gradually, exponentially, Edmonton’s Theatresports players found themselves an estimable part of a circuit of improv tournaments that included the U.S., Europe and Australia. Rapid Fire’s Improvaganza, running at the Gateway Theatre through Saturday,  is genuinely international in its lineup. And, amazingly, it always has been, almost by definition. There’s just something contagiously cross-cultural and expansive about improv (not least perhaps because of the drop-in spirit and the heartbreaking modesty of financial expectations). And Edmonton audiences have been the beneficiaries. 

When Theatresports became its own company in 1988 and stopped sleeping on Theatre Network’s couch (so to speak, an image that should probably not be pursued), Rapid Fire’s story gathered structure and homes. As you’ll see from Blinov’s account (chapter three, “Some Adulting Had To Happen”) the opposing forces of natural comradely anarchy and the requirements of being a theatre company (having a bank account and knowing how much is in it, paying rent on a place, having an artistic director) are a necessary tension that runs through the Rapid Fire story. 

After all, Rapid Fire takes its cue from the time-honoured improv dictum about saying Yes to creative impulses (instead of ‘well, maybe let’s think about it for a sec, or the more cautious ‘No! What, are you nuts!?’). As an historical imperative that has its dangers, of course. For one thing it urges expansion over cutbacks, and that’s sometimes a nail-biter as every theatre company knows.  

Theatresports on parade. Photo by Russ Hewitt.

Rapid Fire found a home first at the old Phoenix Downtown. Then the improvisers crossed the river to Strathcona and the college-kid part of town, and did hit late-night shows at an ex-firehall-turned-theatre called Chinook. And Rapid Fire was part of the theatre consortium that undertook to save Chinook from commercial re-sale (a shoe store? you’ve got to be kidding!). Enter the Varscona. When Rapid Fire got too big and busy to squeeze into Varscona scheduling after 20 years, they moved downtown for eight seasons to occupy the Citadel’s Zeidler Hall, not an easy space to have improv fun in.  

As Blinov details carefully, but in an easeful way, artistic directors changed; interestingly, four of them (including Stiles, Jacob Banigan, Kevin Gillese, Amy Shostak) who’ve taken their careers elsewhere return regularly to do shows with Rapid Fire. What other theatre company in town can say as much?

There have been crises, to be sure.  A manager embezzled, and then vanished. Debt has threatened to topple the whole operation more than once. But somehow creativity has prevailed, and so has the audience. 

The Coven, Rapid Fire Theatre. Photo by Billy Wong

Spin-offs into sketch comedy, film, and even full-length plays happened under the Rapid Fire flag. A seminal event was the introduction of long-form Chimprov, for which performers got offered a cut of the door. Blinov quotes Banigan: “It was like beer money, gas money. But as a token, it was a big gesture. It meant a lot to suddenly get a little bit of money for the stuff we love to do anyway.” And Chimprov, with its array of small troupes within the larger company, continues to be a staple of the Rapid Fire menu.

Speaking of which, Blinov includes an amusing sample improv “menu” from an early Chimprov format. There’s a choice of appetizers (“Typewriter scene” or “monologue” or “one event from many points of view”). Then the soup course (including “Story Out Of Order” or “Blow It Out Your Ass”), Tonight’s Special, Dessert (“available by enthusiastic request”). 

Rapid Fire’s expertise with experimental long-form improv, especially genres and dramatic storytelling, is noted in improv circles world-wide. This is one well-connected company. And that isn’t unrelated to its close ties, in performers, spirit, and skills, to the theatre community. Which sets Edmonton apart from other improv hotbeds. 

Rapid Fire Theatre general manager Sarah Huffman and artistic director Matt Schuurman

Like Rapid Fire itself, the story gains momentum in the current era (at the 2019 Fringe, Rapid Fire hosted an entire venue devoted exclusively to improv). And it’s not least because of their unsurpassed ingenuity, both technical and artistic under artistic director Matt Schuurman, in improvising vis-à-vis COVID-ian restrictions and workarounds. These days, at 41, one of the longest-running improv companies in the country is expanding their programming and outreach, a Schuurman priority as they reno a home of their own, the old Telephone Exchange in Strathcona.

It’s a great story of creative waywardness and smarts, virtuoso improv skills and zest for experiment. You can get yourself a copy of We Made It All Up at any Rapid Fire show (now at Improvaganza and soon at the Fringe) or on the Rapid Fire website.

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