Experimental improv, sketch comedy and stand-up at Toronto’s Comedy Bar’s Festival of New Formats
Over the first week of January the Comedy Bar presented their annual Festival of New Formats; a 5-day event of free theatre where sketch troupes, improv teams and stand-up comics pitched their ideas for new shows to be showcased at what could be argued is one of Toronto’s foremost locations for improvisational and sketch comedy. Sadly, I was only able to see the final night of the festival, but if what I saw was anything to go by the Comedy Bar is sure to have some exciting new shows in the near future.
There’s something exciting about seeing new styles of improvisational theatre before they’re completely polished. There’s an energy that permeates everything, from the performers to the audience, because pretty much nobody knows what to expect. An idea that was absolutely incredible in workshop can fall flat with a general audience while at the same time a concept that didn’t seem to have legs can tear the entire house down. When the first show began a short breakdown was given of the entire concept of the festival was given and I was grateful for it as the core conceit of the event (show pitches as opposed to full programs, hence the free admission) is one that a paying audience may not have appreciated as much.
Take for instance the first show, Home Improvment. As the performers explained in their intro it was a simple concept; an entire episode of the Tim Allen sitcom Home Improvement improvised through a title suggestion by the audience. The incredibly talented performances from the cast made it clear that the improvisational aspects of the show barely missed a beat, but the concept of the show needed a little fine tuning. I must admit Home Improvement was never one of my favourite sitcoms so while I understood the references to Wilson and Tool Time I couldn’t really tell how accurate the show was in its general portrayal of the show. Because this show was free, I was able to just sit back and enjoy it for what it was and leave my expectations at the door and give the rough draft of the pitch a worthwhile consideration.
With my expectations properly aligned I was excited to see what else the festival had to provide. Up next was The Symposium, a presentation style improv build around Power Point presentations and Grant Proposals. Of course, the performers didn’t know what they were giving a proposal on, or what their slide shows were going to entail. This led to a really fun environment that blended the excitement to see what each 2 person team was going to say next as well as what the next slide on the projector was going to be. I really liked the choice each team had, namely that because they couldn’t control the presentation they were going to bring an interpersonal narrative in with them that would drive the story throughout each presentation. Of all the pitches I saw on Monday The Symposium was probably the strongest with a clear concept and strong teams that knew what their strengths and weaknesses were within the format.
The next show was So You Think You Can Rant, a more “Stand-Up” style of improv that its creator Ian Atlas explained, came from open mic nights. The idea is simple: performers have 5 minutes to prepare a stand-up routine based on 2 random topics and then must perform it. The idea is an intriguing one and there is something very exciting about seeing a stand-up routine built off of only 5 minutes of prep. If anything I wish they’d incorporated the title a little more into the proceedings, maybe had some judges to make snarky comments or had the audience vote on whose rant was best.
I had initially intended to stay for the whole run of shows, but sadly due to the horrors of real life I was only able to stick around for one more show, namely Late Night after the Apocalypse, a traditional talk show with scripted monologue and improvised guest sections, all set after the nuclear holocaust. Now for me, this should have been right up my alley. I love post-apocalyptic fiction and pitch-black comedy and this show had the potential to have both, but sadly while it touched on these things occasionally, all too often it got caught up in world-building and toilet humour. There were some high points however, especially the opening monologue (which had some very good “Talk Show” style jokes) and Crystal Light, the Coke Demon. While I wasn’t thrilled with the actual performance, the concept has some strong legs and with some more tweaking the show could be something very special down the road.
Overall, from what I saw, the Festival of New Formats was an evening I’m glad I attended. Obviously the price tag was right up my impoverished alley but more than that, getting to see creative people trying to create new performances and new formats is something incredibly novel these days. I applaud the Comedy Bar for creating such an interesting festival as well as the creative people who took a risk and made a pitch for it. From what I saw, the future looks very bright in improv in Toronto.
Photo provided by The Comedy Bar