For many, the idea of standing in front of an expectant audience without having prepared lines would be the stuff of nightmares. Not so for U of T Improv, one of the theatre improvisation clubs at the university.

On January 21–22, U of T Improv competed in a summit held at the Helen Gardiner Phelan Playhouse housed at University College. Seven other teams from universities across Ontario and Quebec also took part in the two-day event.

The first day of the competition focused on short-form improv, which usually revolves around a theme set through a game or suggestions from the audience. Long-form improv was featured on the second day, which involved extended performances that developed into stories. U of T Improv placed third overall at the summit, while Ottawa’s team came in second and the team from the University of Western Ontario came in first place.

The results were based on a combination of both audience reception and tallies by two judges.

Julian Frid, a professional improviser who studied at the Impatient Theatre Company and the Bad Dog Theatre Company in Toronto, has hosted the summit for five years. In addition to working with his own theatre troupe, Sex T Rex, Frid also teaches an improv class for beginners as part of Hart House’s Creative Classes.

“It’s a real unique experience, witnessing the same students and schools perform year after year, seeing how they change and evolve in their performance style,” he explained.

“I never had the opportunity to do improv before I came to Toronto, but it’s something that I’ve been interested in since I was a child,” said Kyle Warne, President of U of T Improv. He cites the popular television show Whose Line Is It Anyway? as something that inspired his love for the art form.

Warne remembers his high school drama teacher telling him that improvisation was not ‘real’ theatre and that it was a waste of time. But improvising adds an element of surprise to theatre and questions whether any art form should be subject to rigid expectations.

Warne pursued improv in his first year at university despite his drama teacher’s opinion and believes it has paid off. “I came to Toronto a fan of improv comedy, living here showed me how diverse it can be and made me fall in love with it,” he says. 

U of T Improv is not the only group that celebrates the art of improv on campus. SKULE Improv and St. Michael’s College Improv Club are also present at UTSG and host drop in sessions or practices every week. UTM and UTSC have improv clubs that welcome seasoned improvisors or beginners looking to get involved.

The University College Follies and The Bob at Victoria College also practice comedy but lean more towards a sketch format.

Many household names such as Will Ferrell, Bill Murray, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus launched their comedy careers doing improv.

Toronto’s own vibrant improv community features weekly shows at venues like Bad Dog Theatre, Comedy Bar, Social Capital Theatre and Second City. “Improv is so much more than just the games you see on a show like Whose Line,” Warne said.

U of T Improv will be on stage at the John Candy Box Theatre on February 10.

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