“Making Improv Magic, The Value of Play & Working with Colin Mochrie” In Conversation with Liz Johnston & Mimi Warshaw on ENTRANCES AND EXITS at the 2018 Fringe
Interview by Megan Robinson.
The concept of Entrances and Exits, a new farce on stage now as part of the Toronto Fringe Festival, is a complicated one. To make things more complicated, it’s also entirely improvised!
This impressive and unscripted farce is split into two parts; with the first twenty minutes playing out in the living room with a series of entrances and exits into and out of the bedroom and then restarting a second time with the same scenario, but set in the bedroom. This requires that the cast do an instant replay of sorts; filling in the blanks of the story, hitting all the main plot points, and eventually culminating with a satisfying resolution. And hopefully they can make us laugh along the way.
Somehow, the cast pulls this off without any planning and with very minimal mid-show discussion.
We sat down with actor, improviser, Bad Dog Theatre Company member and Entrances and Exits co-creator Liz Johnston and Howland Company member and E&E production manager Mimi Warshaw to figure out how they make that improv magic happen, some common misconceptions about improv, and, of course, what it’s like working with Colin Mochrie.
Megan Robinson: What does a rehearsal look like for this type of improvised show?
Mimi Warshaw: Paolo (Santalucia, the director) brought a lot of his acting training into it and was really interested in playing with characters, discovering characters and trying on some clown work. So that was the beginning, just to play. That helped to know how everyone worked. That was the focus of the first half.
The last month and a half was about finding the show. And it grew in pieces. There was a lot of, “Let’s play with one room, then the next room, now let’s see what happens if we flip the set.”
A lot of playing and coming back and saying, “How did that feel? What worked? What can we do better?”
MR: Is there anything not improvised? What might be consistent throughout the show? The characters? Anything?
Liz Johnston: You really don’t know what will happen.
MW: I’ve seen maybe a dozen versions, maybe more, and no two shows have been the same.
MR: How much do you play for each other and how much is for the audience?
LJ: The audiences have been really generous, so I think we’ve been playing a lot for the audience. The thing about improv is that you also get the joy of making each other laugh. There are so many fabulous moments where someone will say something, and you just can’t help it. And the audience feels kind of in on it because they know it’s improvised. That’s really joyful. That’s what I love more than any kind of theatre, where you can really have everybody be on the same page, and they can be like, “I know exactly why this is funny. I was here for every part of it.”
MR: What is a myth or misconception about improv?
MW: I firmly believe that people think improv is just people going up and being funny. But I think good improv is funny because it’s recognizable. When I’m at an improv show, there’s always somebody who gives a suggestion like, ‘we’re in a volcano at the end of the earth.’
And I’m like, ‘we’ll never be there so…’ Maybe it would be funny, but I’m more interested in seeing somebody in a bakery having a traumatic moment and seeing the comedy in that.
I don’t know if it’s a misconception, but I like seeing reality on stage, and I think there’s comedy in that. I think that’s funnier than just a bunch of jokes.
I also think people are terrified of doing improv because they think they aren’t funny…
LJ: Another thing is that it’s nice to have people now recognize that there really are different styles of improv, that are all valuable.
So you can go to an improv show and have big laughs and fast scenes and big characters and enjoy that just as much as going to see something like this longer narrative unfold and have unexpected turns, more dramatic moments, and have them both be beautiful and both be improv.
I don’t want to run into a trap here… I love short-form improv. I love games (an easy thing to describe it as is what you see on Whose Line Is It Anyway). There’s so much joy in that, and there’s so much talent in being able to do that well. It’s truly harder than anything else. So I never want to say those aren’t worth as much as a long-form unscripted piece of theatre.
MR: So farce is very slapstick and physical. How do you improvise that sort of thing? Or do you?
MW: It’s not just physical, it leans towards the improbable, leans towards the ridiculous, so it doesn’t need to be grounded to reality. And we definitely do that. As much as there’s still truth, it still has that sense of play.
The other thing I’ve been told about farce is it doesn’t need to have to have a moral. It can just be a really beautifully fun and hilarious time.
LJ: I always forget we have so many different definitions we’ve gone through describing what farce is, but again leaning towards the improbable.
Like: There’s a dead body in the other room, this is true, what else is true? It’s not about calling the cops or trying to figure out what happened. It’s us trying to be like, “Okay, there’s a body in the other room, but we also have to make sure everything’s fine for the party.”
We like the fact that as much as it is ridiculous, it’s all stuff that could happen. It’s all about the foibles of humanity and the relationships between people and it takes those tensions that might already exist, those love affairs that exist, and heightens them to the point of the ridiculous.
MR: Must be fun!
LJ: It is nice to escape a little bit. Which is not to say that we don’t deal with the issues of what’s going on in reality, but because it is so focused on just relationships between individuals and how silly and absurd they can be, it is a bit of an escape to get to go there and just live in that ridiculous and joyful place.
MR: Have you ever showed up to rehearsal and been in the shittiest mood and not been able to find that joy?
LJ: I had one where it was an 11 pm show, and I had just done D&D Live!, which is another show that I LOVE, and it’s so funny and also improvised. I’d done that earlier in the day and I’d done another show, so I came to do the 11pm show, and I was so zonked. I could not find my energy. But it’s the same thing that happens for any performer; the audience starts to come in, you have the cast around you, you put on your costume, and you’re like, “This is the best thing ever! What’s next?”
So it’s a nice medication for tiredness.
MR: Some of the best questions can come from inside the process. Do you have a question you’d like to ask each other about your experience within the show?
MW: Liz, when you’re standing backstage, and you’re like, “I need to figure out what I’m bringing to this scenario”, what’s that process like? How do you feel in that moment?
LJ: I don’t know. I really don’t think about it. I like to just go on stage. That’s the kind of classic improv thing: if you can really get used to just trusting yourself to go onstage.
Just open the door, going, “Here we are! What happens next?”
MW: In the show, how much awareness do you have of the bedroom when you’re in the living room?
LJ: I usually have an idea of what I think is going on. And everybody is so good at having their own ideas.
We talk about this in improv, it’s called “group mind” where everyone sort of ends up on the same page without discussing it at all.
The number of times that will happen with this show… I mean, it’s the magic of it!
MR: So the magic of it is a surprise to the improvisers too? I know as an audience member, that’s how it feels. Those moments feel…
LJ: Totally, you come back, and you’re just like wow! It feels so wild.
MR: What about pushing boundaries?
LJ: You check in. You talk about it, whether it’s physical touching or subjects you can touch on that may be a boundary. Even just one night, with my nose bleeds, and I was like, “Listen, guys, it might happen. I have tissue in my pocket. I’m okay, it’s okay.” And any of those types of conversations, you just need to have them. And we’ve had those. Any good cast will talk about it constantly.
MW: There are moments where people will say things, and we’ve had this in rehearsals, where somebody will take a dive, and be like, “I’m going to propose something…”
But our cast is really supportive and really knows each other and so they’re able to support them. And that’s what I love about improv – you can do something, and guaranteed, five people will say we’ve got your back, we’ve got you, we’ll take care of you.
There have definitely been moments where you need to be risky, but these people handled that with such care, and such responsibility, they made it so safe.
LJ: Anyone who is making a faux pas, it’s coming from a place of fear.
The biggest thing in improv is you need to go on stage making a choice to make everyone else look as good as possible so if you can do that, if everybody is doing that, then everybody is going to look great. You’re setting up everyone else to succeed. You can’t do that if you’re undercutting them or sacrificing them for a laugh or commenting on something for the sake of the audience.
MR: Lastly, tell me about working with Colin Mochrie!
LJ: He’s just the most generous man.
It’s such a generous thing to do; to know your name will lend fame, or excitement to someone’s show. He does that so willingly and generously.
He did this exercise with us, which is really difficult. Everyone was struggling to keep up and we started playing with the format of the game so it got faster and went backwards and forwards, so fast! But Colin was having no trouble, just breezing through it. Everyone know’s how funny he is and how sharp, but good lord the man is fast. And so present. We’re so excited to have him on the show!
Entrances and Exits
Presented by The Howland Company in association with Bad Dog Comedy Theatre
Created by Liz Johnston & Ruth Goodwin
Director: Paolo Santalucia
Starring: Ghazal Azarbad, Conor Bradbury, Nigel Downer, Dylan Evans, Ruth Goodwin, Liz Johnston, Connor Low
Designed by: Christian Horoszczak
Production Manager: Mimi Warshaw
A completely improvised play based on the structure of traditional farces we love like “The Norman Conquests” and “Noises Off”.
FACTORY THEATRE – MAINSPACE
125 Bathurst St
13th July – 7:30pm
14th July – 9:15pm
15th July – 12:00pm