13 April 2017
One of our most-nominated artists of the year, improviser Colin Munch is competing against himself in the Outstanding Sketch/Improv Performance category as a cast member of La Grande Jatte and creator/director/cast member of True Blue, both with Bad Dog Theatre. And that’s just the improv. He also starred in Theatre Brouhaha’s Outstanding Ensemble/Outstanding Production-nominated Fringe show Bright Lights, one of the most discussion-worthy productions of the year and a highlight of playwright Kat Sandler‘s impressive canon. Colin’s putting in long hours at The Second City right now but we came in early to fit in an interview before he went back to “comedy jail”.
Catch us up on your life since the 2014 Nominee Interview Series
Since then I’ve done two things with Kat Sandler. I did How to Start a Fire, our radio play with the Koffler Center, and Bright Lights, at this past Fringe. I did True Blue, I did two runs of True Blue. I started a podcast called Tales from the Black, which is based on the live show, which is like The Moth by way of the Twilight Zone, or Black Mirror. I started working at Second City last May, in the touring company, and now I’m on main stage. I’ve taught a lot of classes at Bad Dog. I taught True Blue as a class. I’m buying a bed [laughs], which I’m very excited about. Those are the major things, I think. I haven’t really traveled anywhere, I haven’t done anything super exciting. It’s mostly just work. Oh, and I wrote video game articles for you, which was the best. That whole thing was interesting because I thought that I played too many video games, and I realized that I really don’t. Video games take a lot of time. That was actually kind of comforting, it wasn’t as bad as I thought it was.
Two improv shows that you performed in this year are nominated. Let’s start with True Blue, which you also directed. How did that idea develop?
I love cop dramas. A lot of my ideas come from the same place. I’ll be watching something or playing a video game, and think “I get this story so well I could improvise it”. The early Sex T-Rex shows were the same. True Blue came out of the formula of cop procedurals. As you mentioned in your review, you said it’s something you’ve seen a thousand times before but is unlike anything you’ve ever seen, which I really love.
My quote was on the cover of your program for Fringe!
Absolutely. It’s a great quote. And I agree, part of the things that makes that show so successful is how familiar it is. How it’s a spin on a comfortable formula. I’ve always wanted to play a cop. It’s a career goal, for sure. So the way I achieve my career goals is I just make them for myself, and I did that. And obviously the Bad Dog team is amazing, and Julie [Dumais Osborne, Artistic Director] lets me do whatever I want, and was pulling for it from the start. We’ve always wanted to find an intersection between improv and theatre. All of her shows and my shows tend to skew a little bit towards the dramatic. Toronto I Love You had some very straight ahead dramatic story lines. The improv that I do with Hannah Spear, if we don’t tell a single joke, that’s fine, and audiences respond to that. So I was interested in exploring that more seriously. I said this to Dan Jeannotte, and he made fun of me, but being an improviser is kind of like being a detective because you’re constantly trying to figure out what’s going on. You’re constantly trying to make sense of a story and make sense of a character and make sense of everything. So the skills actually dovetail really nicely. And then it was just a matter of beating it out and figuring out what needs to happen when, and visually what it would look like, and I had Nick [DiGaetano] to help me with the music, and he did a great job with that. So the atmosphere of it was really important to me. And also like how much prop or costuming we would have. Early on in the process we were going to have a chalk outline of the body, and then we realized that drawing a stick man on the stage would look ridiculous and we couldn’t make it look good ever, so we cut that. So little, you know, things like that. What do we keep from the trope? And what do we throw away for the purposes of theatre?
How does one direct an improv show?
All of that stuff I just said is a big part of it. You come up with kind of like a concept that you can explain efficiently to a group of people. And then it’s all workshopping, you get your cast together, and my cast was amazing. And I had like improvisers, but also actors. Like I had in that first run, and they don’t improvise very much at all. So you try stuff out. You come in with a plan, and then you are prepared to throw the plan away. And you work and work and work, and talk. And then you put it up in front of a crowd as soon as you can. Like even really complex improv shows like True Blue only have maybe twelve-sixteen hours of rehearsal. Because you just get into an echo chamber, and it’s like you’re just doing the same things over and over again. And you need to know how an audience responds to the work, because that changes everything. And when you’re improvising, improvising to an empty room or improvising in the afternoon in a rehearsal space sucks, you need to have feedback. And part of what works about True Blue is the tension of the audience, and people like being as invested in solving the case as we are. And that pins and needles feeling of like can they pull this off? Which the audience is feeling and the cast is feeling, you don’t have that in rehearsal. You need to have a room of people who aren’t… The audience doesn’t lose anything if we fail, so you need to have that tension to really know if it works or not.
You also appeared to be directing from inside the show. How difficult was it to enforce the structure and pacing of a cop procedural in a medium that encourages usually riffing and exploring tangents?
Yeah, the riffing thing, I’m glad you mentioned that, because that was something that I said really early on. We are trained as improvisers, as comedic improvisers, to find holes in people’s logic, and exploit them for comedy. I do that a lot, like I think that’s really delightful. So the change here was to find if someone had a flaw in their logic, you would exploit it for investigative purposes, right? So if someone screwed up on a name or whatever, you have to find a reason why they screwed up on that name. You can’t make fun of them, you go after them in a different way. I’m always in the shows I direct at Bad Dog, because I think that’s part of your responsibility, because you can only direct from a distance so effectively. It’s not like giving notes in a scripted show, because you give notes in a scripted show, and then the people address the notes and they don’t do it that way ever again. But an improv show is going to be different every time. So not only being the director but also being the lead investigator allows me to shape the show the way I want it to go. And I wasn’t the only one doing it. Amy Matysio was also very very good at it. Whoever was playing my partner is able to kind of direct the investigation, but the rest of the cast is as well. We have a scene halfway through the show where the detectives all stand around in the homicide office and throw ideas around. And that’s a way for us to kind of eliminate areas of inquiry. You know, like if there was some piece of evidence in the first scene that came up that no one’s really chased down that’s kinda fallen by the wayside, we can eliminate it, we can give it an alibi or be like, “Yeah this has nothing to do with it” so that we kind of focus the show as we go along. And early on in the process too, I had a couple of moments where I had to, like, wrangle people into being serious because their nerves lead them to comedy, because we’re all, you know, goofballs, so there were moments where I had, as Barnes in character, but also as me, the director, be like, everybody, focus, get back on track, let’s take this seriously and solve this thing. I think Carly Maga mentioned that in the Toronto Star review; she was like, they literally had to tell people to be professional at one point. I think it’s a necessary evil, like I think you have to be in an improv show you direct, so that you can make it go where you want it to go.
Though it was all unscripted, there were more pre-determined moments and concepts in True Blue than your average improv show. What were some of those that you came in with every day?
The structure of the show is pretty much the same every time, down to like the minute. So I have a spreadsheet that I give to the cast that’s like, first two minutes are this scene, and then we have the title credits, and then we have three minutes on this scene, four minutes on this scene, blah blah blah. So the basic, like, “this happens then this happens then this happens” was the same always. There would be moments of breath, there, where like usually at minute fifteen we’re supposed to go to a second location to interview a second suspect, but if we don’t have that yet or we need to spend more time on the crime scene, there’s flexibility there. And again, me being in the show I can make that decision, and then also Amy and I can talk about it and make that decision as well. The one thing that always had to happen was we had to open with the victim being alive, this like flashback scene with the victim being alive because we have to understand the stakes, you know, not that murder isn’t high stakes enough, but we need to be emotionally invested in the victim. And then, we have like a bullpen scene which I mentioned earlier around the twenty-five minute mark for a fifty-sixty minute show where we all kinda come together as detectives which is really us all coming together as actors and checking in. And we have a producer, Jocelyn Geddie or Jon Blair, who’s been assembling a crime board live for the show, they come down and present that to the detectives but also to the audience, so we’re all like,”Ok, so here’s everything. Here’s what we got, here’s what we can eliminate.” And then we go from there into the interview scenes, which are usually two suspects, sometimes three. So the kinda general shape of the show is the same every time, and it was quite firm, but it changed as the run went on, and even by the Fringe run, I had changed one really fundamental piece of it. At Bad Dog we had the scene with the victim and then the credits and then the crime scene, and then for the Fringe run I added an extra scene of the detectives driving to the crime scene, so that the rest of the cast could build the crime scene upstage kind of sotto voce, out of character. So similar to the exercises we did in rehearsal, we could be ok like this is here this is here this is here, and it also gives the audience a chance to get to know the detectives, because we realized we had kind of taken for granted that Amy and I would be the main characters, so when we kind of arrive on scene, the audience was be like, who are these two. So it gives them a chance to familiarize themselves with us a little bit. And it fits the procedural format, you know.
And the only thing you carried over from episode to episode was the personal lives of those two lead detectives. How full of characters were they by the end of the run, did they feel almost like scripted character development?
Oh, yeah, absolutely. And we had these habits, you know, like Barnes became this kind of like, luddite, socially awkward weirdo, who is like super good at his job but is not really great at anything else. One episode … we would almost always talk about who we were dating, one or the other. Alan, who was Amy’s character, came out to be kind of a lush, and always was on a dating or an exercise fad that she never really took very seriously, like that she knew a lot about but never really, like fully committed to. And Barnes had like, a very strict, like, four date maximum, regimen. So we would talk about that quite a bit. And their dynamic became very strong. But also like our investigative style kind of solidified as the run went on as well. And what was interesting was, in the Fringe run when Amy and I weren’t as available, when we had different people come in and out, it was really interesting to watch, I mean I’m talking about the character I played, but to watch Barnes interact with other characters that he doesn’t know as well. We did an episode where Danny [Pagett] was my partner, and I ended up talking about Star Trek, and that’s where it came out that Barnes didn’t have a TV but he had a little portable DVD player, because he would indulge in science fiction sometimes. That was also the show that Neil Patrick Harris came to see, and apparently I made a line about bat’leths, and Kat Sandler said that Neil Patrick Harris laughed at that, so that makes me extremely happy that he knows what a bat’leth is. So it was cool to watch that development kind of progress. And actually, as a kind of cross-promotion thing, Tales from the Black, my storytelling show, I did a story as Detective Barnes at Tales From the Black about a serial killer, which is a potential story we’re thinking for like, maybe a possible Season Two, is we’re thinking about doing something that’s a little more structured, a little more scripted, that has like elements of a season arc, but procedural elements in every episode. So that would be an opportunity to explore the characters’ home lives a little bit more, to like see Barnes and Alan at home kind of away from the job. We also had, in the Bad Dog run we had Aurora Browne play the coroner, which is something that we more or less eliminated from the Fringe run, except when it came up Anand Rajaram would do it when Aurora wasn’t available, but Aurora’s character and Barnes had a bit of a thing, and that kinda just came up organically, because Aurora and I flirt on stage I guess, just kind of naturally, so that just kinda came out of the run. Which is one of the great things about improv, is you just find stuff, and you follow what the audience responds to. It was cool to step back into those characters week after week, or day after day.
But everyone else was a different person each time?
Yeah, more or less. The cast has these, like, detective characters that they play, but they’re less fleshed out. We never really gave them names. But they were sort of dependent on their dress, like Shanda [Bezic]’s detective character was always a little more, kind of, casual, so we figured that maybe she used to be an undercover, right? So she’s a little less formal on the job. Danny’s detective character ended up being the same character he played in Slip. Which was very cool. That was a fun opportunity for him. Paloma [Nunez]’s detective character was a little more matriarchal, so bits of the character’s personalities would come out. Anand’s detective characters were a little more cerebral. But for the most part it was just Barnes and Alan.
You talked about them a little bit already, but how do you assemble an ensemble?
Oh, that’s a good question. I try to think about skills and fundamentals and what people bring to the table, but I was very lucky with this cast where literally everyone I asked said yes immediately, except for Hannah Spear. The plan was always that Hannah and I would be the leads, and Hannah wasn’t available, so I had worked with Amy many times and Amy’s the best, and we have great chemistry on stage. And also Amy has played a cop a few different times in shows, and also Amy did training for the RCMP in Regina, as like they would put her up in like a warehouse with like a fake neighborhood and she would play like 911 callers. So she has all this great experience. But, no, everybody said yes. And it’s actually, if you look at the names of the cast, it’s almost exactly the same cast as I have for the path on The Board, and Pearson. Kevin [Vidal] and Amy and Paloma and Aurora, like they’re all in that show too, and that’s just kind of my like squad that I love working with. And a lot of them have acting training and more dramatic backgrounds as well. Anand and I love working together and were looking for something to work on for a while, and he’s obviously incredible and very versatile and takes things very seriously. And Anand was really good about like talking to me after the show and kinda working out the beats. Danny and Shanda had taken an Improv for Actors class that I run at Bad Dog and I’ve known them for years, we’re all George Brown goons together. So that that was kind of an easy ask. Yeah, I just ask my friends and they say yes. It’s the wonderful advantage of this community is people are down to try stuff. I know Julie talks more about like balance and who brings what to the table. I think about that a little bit but I don’t think about that as much as she does. I think she thinks of improv companies as baseball teams, and I think of them more as squads, like military squads, where it’s like everybody has specialties, but everybody’s kinda good at everything also. Which is what I needed in this show, because everybody plays every part, except for Amy and I.
The concept that a character could be lying is intrinsic to the cop drama, but also seems to be at odds with the “Yes and” agreement between improvisers. How did you deal with that dichotomy in True Blue?
I thought it would be a lot harder than it was, because improv is all justification. Right? “Yes and” has almost become a buzzword, like it is a buzzword at Second City, and I think buzzwords are dangerous, like “yes and” is the improv fundamental. You agree to a concept. Do you agree to a reality and then you build upon it? But you can still say the word “no” while agreeing to a reality. True Blue works the same way. Someone can tell me something, but because it’s not me versus the other character, because we’re building the story together, I can decide that they’re lying, or even realize that they’re lying based on all the other evidence that we have behind us. And the thing about the show as well is like we don’t know what is going on, like there were many episodes where I thought we were fucked until like minute fifty-five. And then it all kind of comes together, because we’re all working together. And that was something that we had to talk about a lot, in that we’re all… even if you find out that you’re the murderer, that’s ok, it doesn’t mean that you’re actually a bad person. Like leaning into being the heel and agreeing that we’re all telling the story together was a big part of it. And lying is, the use of lying in this show was part of that. Also, we have notebooks, like real notebooks that we’re writing actual notes in. And people would ask me that all the time, it’s like, “Are you just scribbling in there?” and it’s like “No, of course not.” Like we need to keep all these names and places straight. It’s handy that it looks good and it’s part of the visual look of the show and it’s part of the trope, but it’s also like we need these notes. When you’re playing a witness or a suspect, anyone other than a cop, you’re not allowed to have your notebook, because it doesn’t make sense with the genre, or with the reality. So we’ll have witnesses who are running off of their own memory, and making stuff up, so they can say stuff that they think it’s true, and maybe the character thinks it’s true too, but we’re like, well wait a minute, that’s not right. And that led to some pretty hilarious situations, and also just some like fun realizations.
The great Spruce gender mix-up.
Yeah, the great Spruce gender mix-up of 2016- exactly, right? That was a bit of first show jitters as well. One of the great things about the show too, is that the comedy hits so hard because things are so tense. Like some of the biggest laughs I’ve ever gotten in an improv show were in True Blue shows because we’re starved for a break in the tension. Even non-improvisers watching that show, you know I come off at the top of the show and I explain what improv is and how it works and everything. Non-improvisers watching the show, they know how scary it is. Not to drop NPH’s name again, but what he said to us after the show is, he was like, “Is that as terrifying to do as it is to watch?” So those moments where someone screws up and we all have to work together to fix it, that’s what the show’s all about, that’s the best part of doing the show.
What were some of the most interesting mysteries you solved?
Oh, man, so many cool ones. So we had one in the Fringe run, Kristian Bruun was our guest, and a painter had been found dead in her home.
I saw that one! He was an art expert.
He was an art expert. Tess [Degenstein] was the victim, I think. And there was a weird confusion about the cause of death, like Anand had played the coroner and he introduced like an element of some kind of chemical compound on a key that was found in her mouth, and the key in the mouth was a really intriguing detail. And one thing that stood out to me was that the door had been kicked in, and I really fixated on why was the door kicked in? Why did this happen, this doesn’t make any sense? It didn’t fit our narrative at all, and it didn’t fit the character of who she was. She was this really volatile, difficult person to be around and had these really volatile relationships. And it was really swinging back and forth between our two major suspects. And we had this very satisfying moment where Kristian and I together explained together why the door had been kicked in. It happened really late in the show, and it was something that I had kept bringing up, and it was extremely satisfying to unpack and unknot and figure out.
Then we had one in that run as well where it was a family; we had placed all of them at the scene at the same time but no one admitted that they were there at the same time. And it was this fun thing where in the first half hour of the show all their alibis were all way too tight together for it to make sense, and it could have been a disaster, like it could have been a mistake, but then we slowly unknotted that they had all been there at the same time and were all covering for each other because they were a family, and it was super fun to kinda watch that all come out. But it’s also all kind of a blur, and improv shows are always a blur, because you’re in this kind of like weird fugue state, even as the director trying to keep track of things. I’ve found my notebooks and had details of cases that I’ve completely forgotten. And that’s kind of what it’s like for people on the job as well, in a horrible way it all just starts to kinda, you remember specifics and details rather than the broad strokes.
You mentioned Kristian and Tess guesting. How hard was it to fit in guest stars with such a specific structure?
It wasn’t that bad. I had a rehearsal with all the guests. We had some other really great guests, too. Tony Nappo came in and did a show and he did great. Tess coming in was awesome. So we had a rehearsal with everybody where we kinda ran them through the format and we did a couple of mock cases. If you don’t want to throw yourself in the path of the story you don’t really have to. Like, the show benefits from support players very much, so you can really do a show where you are only on stage for maybe like two or three minutes. But you can kinda play puzzlemaker a little bit and help people out and take notes and stuff. And you can come into the bullpen scene as a detective and be like, “Well, you forgot about the screwdriver.” And it’s like, “Oh, yeah, screwdriver, right, you know, what does that mean? ” But also Kristian and Tess and all of our guests are also super super strong improvisers who wanted the challenge and they really threw themselves in there.
I unfortunately wasn’t present for the Tony Nappo show, but the Tony show was legendary, because he just came in like a fucking freight train. He’s also not an improviser. When I told him the show was improvised, he swore at me, and was like, “No, why would you ask me to do that, of course I’ll do it, thank you for asking me.” It was a real challenge for him, but a big part of improv is making your scene partner look like a genius. That’s your job. So having someone who is a genius like Tony who is also like an atom bomb in a goatee, was really fun to like channel his energy. Again, I wasn’t there [laughs], I made Danny [Pagett] do it [play Tony’s partner].
The reason I picked the guests I did was because I knew they could handle it. And that they would kind of throw themselves at the action, and they did, they did great. We even had a moment in one of the Fringe shows where, Tess was our guest- she’s going to hate that I’m saying this- Hannah felt that Tess didn’t get enough stage time, so we were really driving towards Hannah being the murderer, and she, at like minute fifty-five of a sixty minute Fringe slot, and you know what the Fringe is like [about not running long], Hannah was like, “It wasn’t me, it was Tess.” And I had this moment, where I like broke character, and I was like, “It’s way too late to pin it on her.” We rolled with it, and it was fine, and it ended up being very satisfying, but it was one of those moments where improv can be, you hear horror stories of actors in plays sabotaging each other, and this wasn’t a sabotage, but in improv you can really screw with people, and because you said it out loud, it’s true, and you have to deal with that reality. So we had some fun moments of that, working new people into the mix that way.
Even more than Toronto, I Love You, La Grande Jatte seemed to have a lot of dramatic elements to it. Do you feel that the success of True Blue has opened the door for more of that at Bad Dog?
Yeah, I think so. We ran True Blue as a class because a lot of people asked us for it. We showcased it to the Academy a couple of times and the demand for it was quite high. So I’m really excited to see what the potential is for that. Especially now that I’m stepping away from Bad Dog, I’m excited to see how it develops without me, and Julie is too, for a little bit. True Blue and La Grande Jatte were both selected by the Bad Dog community as their favourite productions of 2016, which is very lovely, and I think that points to a desire in the community to expand our horizons and do more challenging work, and do things that’s a little closer to theatre, and make improv more than just telling jokes in the back of a bar. Which is great, and I love that, and I do that all the time, but even at Second City we’re always looking for more like grounded relationshippy kinda stuff. My current Second City cast has a bunch of improv blood in it, and I’m excited to see where the City kind of allows us to go. Because I’ve always thought that improv is art and theatre, and I won’t let anyone tell me otherwise. I said to the community, at that Bad Dog party, I was like, “I can’t wait to see who does this next”, you know, like what the next step from True Blue and Toronto, I Love You is. Because I think it’s all iterative.
Tell us a little about working with Julie [Dumais Osborne] on Grande Jatte.
Julie’s a genius, she’s the best, she’s my hero, she’s so inspiring, she works stuff to the bone. And she’s a nerd, I told you she thinks about an improv group like a baseball team, which is my assumption. So she’s very specific and direct, and she works and works and works and works and works, and we do notes before and after every show and we’re always figuring stuff out. And mechanically, La Grande Jatte is very specific in how it works, Toronto, I Love You is a little looser, but Grande Jatte is very, it’s dancey, in a way, so the precision of it was really important. And it was a really, really, interesting idea. And you know some of the other stuff that I do- I love the idea of treating the audience like a camera, and treating the stage as malleable. Because we don’t have sets or costumes, we can move stuff around so much. And Julie’s able to take concepts like that and turn them into workable mechanics so, so well. Because she thinks about stuff and is so detail-oriented, and is so conscious of the eye of the audience, and the comfort of the cast as well. And I think that comes from working with the Canadian Improv Games and working with teenagers. She is very good at explaining herself in a succinct way, and she’s very passionate about her ideas, but she is also open for discussion. Her rehearsal processes are very collaborative, there’s a lot of conversation, she really lets people vent and get their BS out, even though she knows she’s not going to change what she’s doing, she still lets people express themselves, and that’s something that I try to apply when I’m directing as well. She’s just the most patient woman [laughs] on the planet. And she just thinks about improv in a way that no one else does. She thinks about it like art, and Grande Jatte was a very deliberate intersection of those two ideas. And she knows that people are creeps, that was a big part of Grande Jatte too. David Fincher thinks that people are perverts, and I think he’s so right. Like, we wanna know what’s going on. You know? We wanna pry, we wanna figure out what’s behind that look or that body language, or whatever. Julie loves to people watch, so she made a show about people watching, and it was really fun to be a part of.
What were some of the best locations where you got to people watch?
You know what, the locations were actually really similar to Toronto, I Love You. We did a lot of airports, we did a lot of places where people are in transition, we did the Ferry Terminal, we did a marketplace, even our photo shoot was at Christie Pits and that is kind of a clear place to do it. It was a lot of travelling places. I’m also interested in terminals. I just did a whole show about the airport, so I’m interested in where people are going and where they’re coming from, and why. We did a show at a bus terminal or something, and it was really, that was my personal favourite show.
You’re in Second City’s Come What Mayhem right now (the original cast of which is nominated in your category). How is that going so far?
Great. It’s great. I went in on Tuesday. I had already done a week as Kyle [Dooley]’s understudy so I already had seven or eight performances. And Kyle and I are similar, we have similar comedic sensibilities, and we’re both improv guys. And he’s a lot funnier than I am, so I get to tell his jokes, and get huge laughs, and it’s very fun. That show is great. And it lets me work with people who I’ve admired from a distance for a long time, like Ann [Pornel] and Brandon [Hackett] , and Lindsay [Mullan], and people I’ve worked with very intimately like Devon [Hyland], and of course Paloma [Nunez], who I’m just a huge fan of. I put her in all my shows, and I just think she’s the greatest. So, yeah, it’s awesome. Carly [Heffernan] directed Come What Mayhem, and she’s great. She has a really interesting theatrical sensibility, which I think Second City really benefits from. She has a really kind of “burn the world down” attitude about things. That show is really personal and aggressive, and it’s cool. It’s a fun thing to be a part of. I love the beginning of that show. I love that that show begins with us running through the audience screaming and banging on things. It’s a really fun way to start a sketch comedy show.
Before transitioning to the mainstage cast, you were part of the touring company at Second City, which does the Christmas Show. Tell us a little about that and striking the balance between really silly family-friendly stuff and the more emotional or political.
TourCo’s the best gig in town. TourCo’s sweet. You get paid a livable wage, and it’s not a lot of expectation, and you don’t tour very much at all, you’re in town. The cast that I had was great and Leslie Seiler [the director] is amazing. I really really love that process. And the holiday show, our holiday show Eat Buy Repeat is 99% original, like we wrote almost that entire show. The only thing that’s archive is we have a scene between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, and even that we’ve adjusted to fit, you know, the world that we live in [nervous laughter]. So that process was really cool, and I’m really glad that I did it before going to main stage, because the way Second City develops shows is very unique, and I’ve never done that before.
Eat Buy Repeat is funny because we developed it during the election, and we all thought Hillary was going to win, and when she didn’t, we had four days to rework our show. And our show went from being this, like, pretty… Leslie Seiler loves Christmas more than anything else in the world except DisneyLand, so it went from this super positive “Christmas is awesome” thing to, like Allana Reoch’s first line in the opening song is, “What a fucked up world we live in.” And dropping an f-bomb right in the first five minutes of the show is risky. Especially for a [laughs] corporate-friendly holiday show. Striking that balance was really interesting and really fun.
And also Christmas isn’t a big deal to almost everybody in the cast. Like, Leslie loves Christmas more than all of the rest of that cast put together. So doing a show about our own relationship with our families and our relationship with the season and our anxieties was a really fun challenge. And there’s some really fun gags in that thing. I get to play Santa Claus in that show, which was really fun. I pretty much just act with my eyes. And then I get to do that song, and that song is semi-autobiographical, obviously, about how, you know, things just kind of matter less as you get older. And traditions kind of fall by the wayside, and Christmas has never been a big deal in my family anyway. So taking a cab home from the train station is very real, and going into a house that I no longer recognize- my parents moved a couple years ago, so I literally don’t belong in that house. Like, that cat does belong there more than I do, and she’s pissed when I come home because there’s not supposed to be anybody up after eight o’clock in my house, and I’m there, you know. I’ve never sung a solo before, and I’m not a great singer, but I like writing songs, and I wanted to challenge myself in that way, and Leslie let me do it. The first time we did it, Leslie was like, “Ugh, well, that’s in the show.” So she was really supportive of that. I’ve been talking about this for an hour but I love in a comedy show when you can be emotional and real and vulnerable. And I think people want to see that too. You know? People go to comedy shows expecting this laugh-a-minute thing, but they’re still at the theatre, and they still want to feel things, they still want to connect to things. I think that’s really important, and I’m glad I was able to get that out there.
Tell us about the development of the next mainstage show Everything Is Great Again.
We’re in a unique position in that we’re the first Second City show to be developed after Trump’s election, so we can really directly address some of the stuff that’s happening. I’m really interested in the challenge of writing satire that has legs, because we’re gonna run this show for six months, and I might not even still be doing it after a certain point. So that’s very interesting. I’m really interested in a Canadian perspective of what’s going on. I keep calling it “living at the foot of a volcano”. Because there’s so much American satire and so much American media, like American satire has become part of the left wing media machine. So I’m interested in the Canadian side of things.
The cast we have is just so good, it’s so good. I think we have the most diverse cast, certainly Second City Toronto has ever had. Also we have, Paloma’s the first mother Second City Toronto’s ever had in the cast, which is cool, and she’s pitched some really interesting stuff about that perspective. Kerry [Griffin, the director] is a real vet of this process, and he’s really amazing and we have Joel Buxton who’s AD’ing, who’s a Sketcherson, maybe former Sketcherson, and a great stand-up and like a really great comedic mind. So I think the team is really, really cool.
You’re also nominated as part of the ensemble of the Fringe hit Bright Lights. Tell us about working with that cast.
Also, just the greatest experience ever. I can’t believe Kat [Sandler] let me do that show and True Blue at the same time. Bright Lights started as a joke because Kat and I kinda took the Fringe off last year, because the Punch Up and Toronto, I Love You double bill that I got to do a few years ago was so awesome. And then we all just joked around about like, “Wouldn’t it be funny if Brouhaha did a show with Peter n’ Chris [Peter Carlone and Chris Wilson] and Morro & Jasp [Heather Marie Annis and Amy Lee] and hahaha that will never happen.” And then it just all kinda fucking did.
That show went through so many changes and so many different concepts, and Kat wrote a show that plays to the strengths of the five of us so well, and her strength as well, and also showed really unexpected sides of people too, you know. Like, sure, Chris and Peter got to play these broad, ridiculous characters, that are also frighteningly close to their real personalities, but also I think they also got to do some really really great acting in that show. Heather is so brittle and vulnerable in that show and her monologue is so compelling and so fun to watch. And Amy is so damaged, and it was really hard to be mean to her every night. We talked about this in the post-show interview as well, but I think Peter did some really beautiful work in that, as this guy who could be such a comedic stereotype, but really cares for those people in that room. And Chris played this super vulnerable, fucked up alcoholic. Kat’s just so good at those sketches of characters, and then she hires people who can flesh them out really well. All good directors are control freaks, and Kat Sandler is a hell of a control freak. And really, we all benefit from it.
That process was extremely intense. We put that show together in like ten days or something ridiculous. It was really really long days by the end of it. And I’m also trying to do this fucking improvised cop show, I was a lunatic, I’m out of my mind. But we all really really got along, we all really love each other, and that process, just getting to spend time with those people and go to work with those people every day was so great. Was so cool. And we’re all still friends. Which, you know, I think that really speaks to something. That process was very challenging, but we all kinda came out of it loving the show and loving each other.
And the audience response to it was just so amazing. Like… you never know. We didn’t know what the response would be. And also the response to the subtext of it all. Watching that conversation happen- literally, in your case, where you sat us down and talked to us about it– but watching the conversation happen at the tent, and online. And the resistance to it was very interesting. Some people don’t want to think about that kind of stuff, and they certainly don’t want their comedies to force them to think about it. That was really gratifying, because we talked about that a lot. A lot, a lot, a lot.
In your experience, what percentage of people even got the subtext at all, and of those, how many people thought Ross was guilty?
Honestly, like 50/50.
Yeah, Some people, whoosh, they didn’t even think about it. And other people thought about it so much that it superseded some of the comedy. And I think I said this to you- I kinda had three scenarios. Either he’s a complete innocent, and Heather’s character is having some kind of psychosomatic projection and breakdown. Or he is an alien, and is just kinda shitty at his job, which is the most fun one to play. And then the third one is that he’s a complete psycho. He’s like this manipulative psycho who has created this fantasy for these two women. I won’t say that I ever played it that way, because it would change too much, but it’s there. It’s in the text if you wanna go looking for it, it’s there.
One of your biggest assets as a performer is honesty. How did you deploy that quality in a role that was most easily interpretable as a very dishonest person?
I just play myself. I’m not a very good actor [laughs]. I’m not, I’m not a chameleon, I just play myself, I just react to things honestly. And Sandler lets you do that in her writing and in her direction. She wrote that part for me, so she knew what I was going to bring to it. I think because I do so much improv, I’m just open all the time. I’m down, I’m just ready for it. And I like being physical and taking risks, and that role demanded that of me.
I think part of the insidiousness of Ross is that I’m playing this part, and I like playing a cheerful idiot. I like playing a bright-eyed, helpful person, that’s one of my stock characters. So putting me in that place, putting the audience in that position also was really smart. And we did it with Pat in Punch-Up as well. Like, Pat is this like super caustic, angry, bitter dude, who’s fucked up and needs to move on and slowly realizes that over the course of the hour he spends with Duncan. But you put yourself in the real situation and you answer it honestly.
Did the script change very much during the rehearsal process?
[Laughs] All the time. Kat doesn’t take breaks, she can’t. So we’d go to lunch, and she’d do rewrites. We got new, freshly printed scripts, maybe three times. Which, in a ten-day rehearsal period, is every couple of days. And we’re writing notes, and our scripts are a disaster. They’re covered in marks, and the numbering is all different. And also, you know, she’s got me up there, so also sometimes I just kinda say whatever the fuck I want in rehearsal, and she’s like, “Ok, I guess I’ll write that down.” All of us, we can all improvise, so that would happen sometimes too. But there’s not a lot of improv in the room. She comes with a plan, and we just iterate on the plan over and over and over again. Also, there’s not much to iterate on, it’s all pretty good. You know, like her first drafts are pretty fucking good [laughs]. But yeah, there’s a lot of play in the room. And we’re also on our feet very fast. I think we had one, maybe two days at the table. But we got up real quick, because you have to. You have to start blocking right away.
Do you have a favourite moment in that production?
I’ll tell you this, the scariest moment in the show is when I pretend to be an alien. Because as an actor, it’s really scary to scream at the top of your lungs and take focus. Which seems counter-intuitive, because you take focus constantly. But to literally slam the brakes on the action of the show, and have everyone look at you, and then make such a strong Hail Mary play as the character but also as the actor, because I had to make up what my alien voice sounded like and all this stuff, right? That was really fun.
And also the end of the show when I just tell everybody what their damage is. I like playing the heel, I like playing the villain. So it was fun to just, like, rip into everybody and have this high-energy monologue. And to play the pain as well, because I’ve been shot by a crossbow at this point, was really great. And to immediately have Amy Lee, the sweetest kindest person in the whole world, basically kill me, tear this thing out of me. That part was really great. Kat has built this maelstrom of tension that pays off in a great way.
You also host a storytelling show that’s become a podcast. Tell us a little bit about Tales from the Black. What have been some of your favourite stories so far?
It’s really fun to get to curate things a little bit. And pick and choose. The community response to Tales from the Black has been really great, people are really excited about the idea. I know so many great writers who seem obligated to write comedy, but it’s all speculative fiction, it’s all the same. You know, sci-fi and horror and fantasy and comedy, you all take an aspect of reality and you blow it up. And making a podcast is fun because it lets me give Nick [DiGaetano] a little more autonomy, a little more freedom. And that guy thrives on freedom if nothing else, he’s a genius. And we have very similar creative sensibilities. And I’m a big fan of Paul Aflalo, who’s my audio producer, and he runs No More Radio, which is our hosting network. He just moved to the city, so I’m glad that I was able to give him a project, you know, something to focus on. And we’ve wanted to work together for a long time, because we’re fans. And he’s got a lot of experience. He runs, among other things, he produces Confabulation, which is Matt Goldberg’s storytelling podcast out of Montreal, which now has a Toronto and Vancouver thing, and it’s very popular and very successful. So he brought a lot of that experience to our little show.
In terms of my favourite stories, in last episode that got released, episode 3, Anders [Yates] tells a story about hooking up with a guy on Grindr, but this guy basically has sex with the objects in Anders’ apartment, and he feels them. Which is a really cool commentary on consumerism and style and vanity. And also it’s a story about two gay dudes having sex, and you don’t hear that very often. It was really cool to have that at the live show and then also to like have that as part of our podcast. That was really exciting for me, because, you know, I can’t write that, I can’t write from that perspective. Anders is a brilliant writer, he’s certainly the most prolific writer in Uncalled For, so giving him an opportunity to write in a different medium was really fun.
Jocelyn Geddie has a really great story from the perspective of a young girl whose parents keep cloning her to keep her at a certain age, and she keeps finding out, and they keep killing her and replacing her, and it’s heartbreaking. Jocelyn brings an incredible amount of vulnerability to her voice when she reads, and I really really love that story. That’s an early one, that’s from last year, and it’s really great. We’ve had Gwynne [Phillips] and Briana [Templeton] on the show, and they bring their weirdness and their heart and their honesty to their work just as hard as they do to Templeton Philharmonic. They’re just the best, I love those guys.
Nick, Paul, and I are so busy that we can’t keep a regular schedule up. So we’re just gonna release episodes whenever they’re done, which tickles me in a way. Because, when I listen to a podcast, I don’t know when things come out, I don’t care. You know, something pops up, and it’s like, “oh there’s a new Reply All, great, I’ll listen to that”. So that thing’s just gonna come out as it comes out. You know, I’m in comedy jail now [referring to the intense Second City schedule], so I’m just gonna be able to take care of it when I can. We’ve been talking about doing another live show soon, so I’ll let you know about that, I’ll see if that’s still gonna happen. Because we still want to be able to have a community thing. But I’m really excited about that project, I think it’s really great. Oh, and also Nigel Downer just did a new logo for us, so if nothing else I have to keep doing the show just so people can keep looking at that sweet logo that Nigel did for us, which is awesome.
What else are you doing now/what’s your next project?
Second City owns me.
I’m writing a book. Because I guess I’m not busy enough. It’s essentially based on the story that I made Tales From the Black for, so you can listen to the podcast and see if you can guess which one. So, I’m working on that, which is really funny because I don’t know how to write a book. But I read a lot. And I know what I like to read and I know what interests me. People keep asking me like why don’t you write spec scripts, why don’t you write screenplays and stuff, and I don’t know how to do that. Like, I know enough about writing screenplays and writing scripts to know that I don’t know how to do it. So it’s easier for me to write a novel that I know nothing about. [Laughs] You know what I mean? It’s easier for me to justify that. And Gwen, my ex, her dad is a very successful published author, so I spent an hour on the phone and he gave me some advice, and I’m trying to follow that.
So I’m doing that and the idea is that Second’s City’s process is getting me in the habit of going to work every day at 2PM. So I’m going to try to just keep that going after the show opens. Obviously after I take a bit of a break, keep that going. Because I like the idea of doing all this live stuff, but also like having a thing people can go and look at and take off the shelf and have in their home and read. Also being a writer doesn’t require me to go anywhere, talk to anyone, be charming, because I feel like I might get burned out on that by the time that Second City is done with me. So that’s kinda what’s bubbling. And Tales is continuing.
Second City is the first full-time job I’ve ever had, ever. So I’m still reconciling how much that’s going to be, and how much that’s going to take up. Because I can’t ever do just one thing, I’m always doing a bunch of different things. And certainly I’ve scaled back what I’m doing, I’m not teaching right now, so I’m interested to see if I can reconcile that new thing with how I like to live my life. And also video games. There’s so many video games.
Do you have anything you’d like to add?
Oh, just the same thing as earlier. This is just the greatest. It’s such a wonderful opportunity for people to come and talk about what they do and what they’re passionate about, and the community in this city is so vibrant and so great. I’m just so happy to be a part of it.