Virtually improvising your way out of crises

How U of T alumni in The Second City practice what they preach

Virtually improvising your way out of crises

Improvisation isn’t just the secret ingredient behind popular comedy series Curb Your Enthusiasm — it’s also a key ingredient for thriving in a world that can become abruptly mired in crisis. 

We’ve seen the COVID-19 crisis force both people and organizations to perform outside of their comfort zones. If they’re going to succeed, they’ll need to learn to adapt, and learning to improvise can help them adapt more successfully.

For over 60 years, leaders in the world of improv have been found at The Second City (TSC). TSC is an improv-based sketch comedy theatre, based in Chicago with offshoots in Toronto and Hollywood. As an organization that considers the art of improvisation its fundamental core philosophy, TSC’s seamless transition to an online platform should come as no surprise. They quickly adapted to offer dozens of online classes and performances.

So why would anyone be interested in learning how to improvise? If the TSC’s successful transition isn’t enough to convince you, I recently caught up with three U of T alumni working at TSC and Second City Training Centre (SCTC) to discuss why students could benefit from incorporating improvisation techniques into their daily lives.

Inessa Frantowski, an alum of the UTM program in theatre and drama, now teaches sketch and improv at TSC in Los Angeles. She believes that anyone can benefit from learning improvisational skills. She discussed how practicing improv can benefit you in many other areas of life that you wouldn’t normally expect. For example, it can help you build and improve your relationships in a fun way. 

As a first-generation Canadian, she explained how improv can be great for helping people learn a new language, especially by improving one’s listening skills. A lot of our language is non-verbal communication that, through improv, you learn to identify more fluently, helping you become a more effective communicator. 

Dewi Minden, the musical director at SCTC, studied music composition at U of T after completing a Bachelor of Music at the University of British Columbia and a Master of Music at Laval University. While full of praise for U of T’s academic programs — which she credits with helping her fill any formal gaps she was missing — she said that there are beneficial skills she learned through improv that you wouldn’t expect to find in academia’s sort of serious, rigidly structured, and planned curriculum.

Dave Pearce, who completed his Bachelor of Science degree at U of T before joining TSC as a writer and educator, half-jokingly pondered how improv can be considered a sort of ‘license to humour.’

For Pearce, there’s a practical importance in developing the transferable skills that improv instills, as they are necessary and highly sought after by employers. He discussed how some of the online courses available at TSC aim to help people overcome their anxiety with public speaking. But there’s also another, more subtle, lesson.  

Improv helps you learn how to embrace failure in order to develop and build upon those little moments that might have otherwise been ignored. For example, Pearce shared a time when a slip of the tongue, mishmashing the words coleslaw and sausage into “slawsage,” led him and his troupe-mates on an hour-long improv journey. Improvisation is about harnessing the unexpected.

This sort of spontaneous magic is the key to producing material that could deliver what Paul Sills, a founding father of improvisational theatre, would call an “explosion of laughter.”

Minden explained how improv can help you ignore your more critical mind — which can be more of a hindrance for progress — and enable you to more positively embrace failure. In this way, you’re empowered with the confidence to throw yourself into whatever comes next and “fail big.” After all, in comedy, failure itself can be a tremendous success; for example, when making up lyrics on the spot, the attempt alone can make us laugh.

Frantowski emphasized how improvisation is full of moments that can be somewhat fleeting, and because of this, there’s always some risk. That said, the great thing about improv is you’re not doing it alone: improvisers have each other’s backs. 

With that in mind, I wasn’t surprised to find out about the time when TSC alumni Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara, Martin Short, Andrea Martin, and Joe Flaherty came to the aid of another TSC member, who was experiencing significant hardships and, in the process, helped establish a long-term alumni fund to support those in need. I think that level of support and commitment to each other is something we need to remember and continue in times of crisis.

All in all, I found the staff at TSC and in particular, this group of U of T alumni to be especially inspiring through their infectious and passionate personalities. During a global pandemic, that is the good kind of infection we should all be open to catch. You can find out more about TSC and try out TSC’s online courses through its website.

Science Spotlight: Seana Adams, Senior Executive of the Black Medical Students’ Association

Discussing the importance of representation, challenges to equity

Science Spotlight: Seana Adams, Senior Executive of the Black Medical Students’ Association

Seana Adams is a second-year medical student at U of T and a senior executive member of the Black Medical Students’ Association (BMSA).

She is also the co-founder of Mental Health in the Black Community, a speaker series in which experts discuss the mental health issues facing the Black community and share resources for navigating the health care system.

Adams spoke to The Varsity about what it means for an institution to be equitable and the challenges along the way to realizing that equity.

Path to medicine

Until 10th grade, Adams was interested in investigative journalism. A teacher then advised her to continue with science and to address the social justice issues she was passionate about through STEM. 

The next day, she changed her courses for grades 11 and 12. 

Growing up, Adams found the idea of Black physicians very normal; her paternal grandfather was a doctor in Jamaica. The realization that Black physicians were underrepresented in Canada only came to her later, and it motivated her to pursue medicine.

“I just got more passionate about getting involved and really seeing how we can use our privilege and our positions of power in our career to actually help society in a lot of the inequities that surround us,” she reflected.

Involvement in the BMSA 

As a senior executive member of the BMSA, Adams fulfills a role that traditionally entails community outreach with clubs and associations both on-campus and off-campus. Her focus is the Mental Health in the Black Community speaker series that she co-founded. 

She organizes the events for the series, arranges speakers, and works on outreach emails. Currently, the series has over 600 email addresses on its mailing list, which receive resources such as mental health directories, including those specifically for Black therapists.

“It’s not only running these events, but it’s creating a sense of community and solidarity with the communities that we came from,” Adams explained. 

Adams first became involved with the BMSA in her first year of medical school. Many in her year heard about the group from Chika Stacy Oriuwa — the only Black medical student in her class at the time and valedictorian of the Class of 2020.

She describes her motivation as wanting to “[connect] very strongly with these students and also [see] a community with them.”

She said that it’s important for organizations like the BMSA to exist because “we’re advocating for more spaces for students from underprivileged backgrounds… [and for them] so that we can actually give back to these communities that have been underserved for decades.”

Challenges in equity work 

“I think one of the challenges that I personally face is understanding the endurance that’s required for equity work,” Adams said. 

She noted how equity is a moving target. Although recent years have seen increased representation for Black medical students at U of T, Black graduates have been an institutional rarity for decades. 

“What that means is, in our community alone, it’s going to take a long time for these numbers to start reflecting the community that we serve,” Adams said. “And it’s very hard to be in institutions where you may feel as though they weren’t created with inclusivity in mind, especially [for racialized groups] or people from a low social class.”

She described that the most difficult part for her is understanding that change doesn’t happen instantaneously. However, she said that it is exciting to see her colleagues work on equity.

On representation and allyship

“Representation means having institutions reflect the community they’re based in and ensuring that all voices at the table are heard and considered for,” Adams said. 

She described how true representation does not exist until an institution reflects the composition and diversity of its community, including among leaders such as deans. 

She believes that an ally should be “someone who’s very genuine.” 

“They approach you, and they’re not coming from a place of power or knowledge, but they’re coming from a place of just wanting to learn,” Adams said.

While the equity work Adams does can be draining, she said that it is important to have “mental stamina and strength.” She had similar advice for other women in STEM. “Keep thriving, keep shining, keep pushing,” Adams said. “I stand with you; so many more people stand with you.”

“There are so many allies out there who, once again, like I said, genuinely are here to help… improve our environments. So the advice is to keep going and [stand together].”

“Hard news to hear”: Varsity Blues athletes faced with cancelled fall 2020 season

Varsity Blues soccer striker, rowing alum reflect on the OUA, U Sports decision

“Hard news to hear”: Varsity Blues athletes faced with cancelled fall 2020 season

On June 8, Ontario University Athletics (OUA) and U SPORTS, Canada’s national university athletics association, announced that all OUA and U SPORTS-affiliated athletics would be cancelled for the fall 2020 season in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Citing “the health of our student-athletes, coaches, administrators, [and] officials” in the statement released on the OUA’s official website, the association declared that its sanctioned sports will not be resumed until after December 31.

The association made it clear in its FAQ that, despite the many seasons that this decision has cancelled — among them football, rugby, rowing, and soccer — it will not reverse this call were restrictions to ease up later on. 

“It’s hard news to hear for sure but I understand why the OUA had to come to that decision,” said Varsity Blues women’s soccer striker Erin Kelly in an interview with The Varsity. Going into her fourth season with the team, Kelly hopes that this necessary measure will ensure a soccer season the following year, which will be her final year on the team. “I feel particularly sorry for the athletes that were intending to play their last year this fall,” she said. 

Kelly finds it most useful to focus on what she can do, rather than what has been cancelled. “I am planning on doing lots of strength training in order to prevent any injuries when we get back to playing in competitive games again.” 

Alexander Marcopoulos, a recent U of T alum and Varsity Blues rower, shared a similar sentiment. “It seems like the responsible thing to do, but understandably, athletes work really hard to compete,” he said. 

“[The rowing team] trains really hard for a very disproportionate amount of time in comparison to how much they compete for U of T, so I can see how every race really matters. If it happened to me, I would definitely be upset,” Marcopoulos noted. As a former rower, his own university-affiliated season comprised only four regattas.

Like Kelly, he also feels for those athletes, across all sports in the OUA, whose last season would have been this coming year. “If you’re a graduating athlete, there’s a lot of emotional attachment to that final year.”

Head rowing coach Mark Williams maintains that the rowing team, for one, will be doing what it can with the fall season: “we are now focused on developing future scenarios for a phased return to rowing that will follow the guidelines of our public health authorities, the university, and our provincial sport governing body.”

Although training would have to be modified for health and safety and for a glaring lack of regattas, Williams maintained that “we will be looking to make any training sessions that we do have engaging, effective, and oriented toward building community within our team.”

The OUA has not yet announced a decision for its winter-term athletics, but has announced that “the organization’s goal will be a 2nd Term return.”