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Guest Writer: Vance Gillis (Montreal)

Vance Gillis is an improvisor and stubble-faced man who teaches and performs at Montreal Improv. He is a proud member of Dream Hunks, Southern Heat, Soaring Eagle Partiot Hour, 52 Pickup, Monsters of Rock and the Montreal Improv house team, Night Bus.

To me the most attractive quality in an improvisor is a willingness to fail. I admire it.

A few of my improv heroes said something similar when I first started taking classes and I had no idea what they meant. I thought “willingness to fail” meant being big, loud and silly. I thought it meant being outrageous, dropping non-sequiturs and saying provocative things. And yes, sometimes that’s what that means. But it sort of misses the point.

I want to give a shit about your improv. When I sit in the audience I want to get absorbed in your stories and your characters and I want so badly for you to have fun and do a good job. I am rooting for you.

Here’s the ugly truth though: I don’t want you to tell me you are insecure with the choices you make on stage. I don’t want to watch you and think, “Oh, they went for the joke there because they didn’t feel comfortable.” The most “jokey” improv I’ve seen did not come across as the work of confident individuals. It came across as people who were so desperately afraid of failing that they couldn’t build realities or make choices that made sense.

In one of the very first classes I took, my teacher asked me to describe baking a cake while in the locker room at a gym. I started naming off the ingredients; “flour, sugar, eggs, uh… root beer, toothpaste…” I didn’t get much farther. People kind of laughed, I imagine out of camaraderie. It wasn’t funny. “Let’s stop it there” the teacher said and we sat down. Thank God. I was trying to be funny instead of trying to build the scene. The truth was that I couldn’t think of the ingredients and I was insecure so I went for the joke. I wanted people to laugh. I was looking for temporary validation. It wasn’t an organic mistake; it was a lame attempt at being funny. It ruined a decent scene and put my poor scene partner in this position where she had to try and finish this scene which had been fatally damaged by my insecure choice.

“That was boring,” the teacher concluded. He was absolutely right.

If you don’t commit to your ideas neither will the audience. If your character doesn’t care about anything because you don’t feel comfortable being vulnerable on stage then you’ve really limited how effective and funny you can be. Your insecurity on stage does not protect you, it damages you. Feel free to grab onto your strange ideas, to be outrageous and say provocative things but please do these things because you’re inspired, not because you’re scared.

Here’s the key: improv is temporary. It’s here now and it’s forgotten in a few moments. If you do the best improv set in the history of improv, ever, you will have about fifteen minutes of glory after the show and then it’s gone forever. If you do the worst improv set in the history of improv, ever, you will have maybe five minutes of despair followed by an invite to grab a beer. It doesn’t mean anything. It doesn’t say anything about you as a person.

Improv is one of the only facets of your life where you can fail and suffer so little for it. Why not take advantage of that? How liberating is it to allow yourself to fail at something?

Give a shit in your scenes. Commit. Have fun. Do the thing you are scared to do.

I’m rooting for you.

Previous Guests: Neil CurranJude ClaybourneColin MunchDavid RazowskyNicole LeeSteve JarandDave Pasquesi & earlier guests.

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Guest Writer: Neil Curran (Dublin)

Neil Curran is the founder of Improv Fest Ireland and the ‘Neil’ part of the “Neil+1” show. Because of his addiction, Neil can be found performing improv in the shower, in the elevator and in your doorway.

Do You Trust Me?

You don’t trust me. Really you don’t. We’ve never met. How could you trust me?   

Shall we improvise?

Now you have to trust me. But can we go from a non-trusting position to a trusting position just like that?

We’re taught in improv classes to trust your co-performers. We’re taught to trust ourselves. All really good advice. Like all relationships in life, if you don’t have trust you have nothing. You have no common ground.  

Is trust earned?

What happens when we’re on stage with an improviser we don’t think is good, or we don’t like them or he/she is nervous or he/she has never done improv before? Trust can easily evaporate and we risk going into Performance Survival Mode. It’s the moment when our egos do what it takes to ensure the shows goes well because we know best. And that’s when things take a turn for the worst.

I’ve been performing improv for many years and thought I understood what it meant to trust in improv until I started doing my solo show “Neil+1”. With Neil+1 I invite an audience member up on stage who has never seen improv before to become part of the show. The next hour of that person’s life is terrifying for them as he/she plunges themselves into the depths of long form improv without an ounce of instruction or experience. 

When I first started doing this show and I was finding my footing, I was equally terrified. All the doomsday scenarios were going through my head. What if it doesn’t work? What if my +1 doesn’t speak? What if my +1 freaks out?

To combat these fears, I tested different styles and formats. Some worked, some didn’t. But I couldn’t put my finger on what the winning formula was for my show until it dawned on me one day. I didn’t trust my co-performer. A basic fundamental of improv was being neglected because I didn’t think it was as relevant. And the knock on effect was that it was affecting me trusting myself.

And that’s when everything changed. How do you trust someone that you don’t know? You trust them to be themselves. You trust them to be nervous if they are nervous, to be arrogant if they are arrogant, to be chatty if they are chatty. All of it was perfect. As soon I trusted them to be themselves, I was then allowing myself to trust me again. I was free!

This applies to all situations on stage. No matter who your co-performer is, their skill level, their gender, their age, none of it matters. Let your co-performers be his/herself, whatever that is. You can then be who you are.

After the scene or the show is over, you may not remember much about what happened but if you have trusted your partner and yourself, you will know it. It’s that smile you give them afterward, that shared moment that says, “Thank you.”

Previous Guests: Jude ClaybourneColin MunchDavid RazowskyNicole LeeSteve JarandDave Pasquesi & earlier guests.

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Guest Writer: Jude Claybourne (London)

Jude Claybourne is an improviser out of London with love of language and languages, a passion for performance and a hunger for new challenges and new ideas.

“If you can be this large and you can build this enormous character, then you’re not so frightened without the mask.”

Keith Johnstone

Trance mask play is cathartic and compelling. It’s a very free and freeing form of improvisation based on a chapter in Keith Johnstone’s book, Impro. It’s clowning without any intention to be funny. It’s improvising in full stream-of-consciousness flow, with no rules, no ‘right’ and no limit to what can happen. It takes you out of yourself and into a brand new character: the mask. 

This work benefits us by giving us a pure experience and shaking off some of the mental limitations we practice in life and performance. ‘It wasn’t me, it was the mask!’ gives us permission to experiment, experience new things and play recklessly, with energy and enthusiasm. 

New masks are innocents. They are sure of nothing and have everything to learn and unlike many human adults, most masks are drawn to what’s fun and what’s fascinating rather than what’s right. With the mentality of a puppy or a curious toddler, to a mask, everything is new and their responses to what they discover are immediate, visceral and authentic. 

What’s behind mask work?

Our identity is deeply entwined in our face and how we see it. Every day, more times than we care to imagine, we look at our own reflection (just move a mirror from where it habitually hangs to find yourself staring at a blank wall every time you pass that spot).

It’s impossible to stay purely yourself when you open your eyes wide and look at your own face as a new mask. Gauze obscures a clear look into the familiarity of your own eyes. Most of the face you see is completely different, but your own mouth and chin and elements of your own voice, persist. For the time you’re in the mask, this is your face and what’s born of this melding is something new that’s part you, part mask. Its core is not entirely the same as yours, its knowledge is nowhere near yours, and freer for it. It has a mind of its own and if you’re curious enough, it’ll show you exactly what it wants. 

Previous Guests: Colin MunchDavid RazowskyNicole LeeSteve JarandDave Pasquesi & earlier guests.

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Guest Writer: Colin Munch (Toronto)

Colin Munch is a multiple Canadian Comedy Award-nominated writer, director, actor, and improviser as well as the Artistic Associate of Toronto’s Bad Dog Theatre. He has appeared in festivals in New York City, Boston, Montreal, Vancouver, Warsaw, and Regina.

Make It About You

Playing subtext is one of, if not the most, important acting techniques. It’s essentially Stanislavsky’s whole deal, who said it’s the actors job to play subtext, it’s the directors job to create it. In improv, where you are actor, director, and writer, how do you play subtext?

First off, what is it? Subtext is exactly what it sounds like; it’s the story underneath the story. In Pulp Fiction, when Mia and Vincent see each other at Marcellus Wallace’s place after her overdose, they exchange pleasantries that would be innocuous to anyone who doesn’t know their story, like Marcellus, but are loaded with meaning to them and to us. They know what they’ve been through, and it makes both Vincent’s concern and Mia’s direct response heavy with meaning; not just because of Mia’s overdose but because we watched them fall in love.

The classic romances are built around this idea, that we rarely say what we mean and even rarer what we feel. Subtext doesn’t always have to be unspoken, you can come right out and say you’re in love with each other, but that rocket isn’t going to launch itself!

You’ve probably heard “show don’t tell” a whole bunch but what does it really mean? For me, it’s conveying your feelings without words. Showing someone, and the audience, you’re in love with a big hug, or a touch on the arm, or even better, just a look and a smile. Creating a living, breathing world moves good improv to great and the easiest way to get there is through human interaction. Nothing is less interesting than watching two strangers meet for the first time on stage. Create a history together, either through conversation or by listening to what has already been established. Two strangers meeting is boring, two strangers meeting whose reputation precedes them; that’s interesting. Even better is two people who already have history, played by two actors who aren’t afraid to dive in. Scene work is half creating and half listening, and if you can task (ie: accomplish a physical goal) while you’re doing it, buddy, you’re golden.

It all comes back to listening, and having a playable, relatable intention right from the word ‘go’. Breathe in your scene partner, observe each other, and remember: collaborate, don’t fabricate.

Previous Guests: David RazowskyNicole LeeSteve JarandDave Pasquesi & earlier guests.

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Guest Writer: David Razowsky

David Razowsky is an actor, teacher, and director in Improvisational Acting based out of Los Angeles. He is an alum of The Second City, and was in the cast that included Stephen Colbert, Steve Carell, and Amy Sedaris, just to name a few. He was the Artistic Director of The Second City Los Angeles for nine years, and is the host of the podcast ADD Comedy with Dave Razowsky and Ian Foley.

Love and the Art of Improvisation

Love In the Art of Improvisation

Lovin’ the Art of Improvisation

A screed on the joy of being alive.

The muscles you use in improvisation are the same muscles you use when you’re falling in love with a new love.  Or rekindling a love from the woods of the past.

  • You’re emotionally affected when your partner’s near you.
  • You’re emotionally affected when they’re not near you.
  • You’re emotionally affected when they’re talking to you.
  • You’re emotionally affected when they’re not talking to you.
  • You’re emotionally affected when they’re talking to someone else.
  • You’re emotionally affected when they’re not talking to someone else.
  • You’re emotionally affected when they say your name. 
  • You’re emotionally affected when they don’t say your name.
  • You’re emotionally affected when they say someone else’s name.
  • You’re emotionally affected when you hear their name.
  • You’re emotionally affected when they touch you.
  • You’re emotionally affected when they don’t touch you.
  • You’re emotionally affected when they touch someone else.
  • You’re emotionally affected when they touch you and someone else.
  • What they say affects you.
  • What they don’t say affects you.
  • Their tone affects you.
  • Their volume affects you.
  • Their clothes affect you.
  • Every word affects you.
  • Every movement affects you.
  • Everything about them affects you.
  • Everything affects you.
  • Everything.

Someone recently asked me which of our teachers, Martin deMaat or Don DePollo said, “It’s your scene partner’s birthday.” (We think it was Martin, by the way.) Yeah, today’s a special day for a special person. A special person who matters to you, someone you want to make sure is happy, someone for whom you want to “make sure things work out,” someone who you care about as often as anyone is capable of caring for someone else. 

When you and I are on stage together I SEE you. I see you in all that you are doing. I see you in all movement and sound and fury and stillness. You are an “emotional delivery system” for me. You affect me, and you don’t have to do anything but be. 

Just “be.”

Celebrate your stillness. Rejoice in your awareness of your movement. Kvell (a Latin word, right?) in your mindfulness of that gesture you’re now engaged in. Honor your alertness to all that you are doing. Attach no ego, no judgment, no rules to that magnificent awake-ness of your being, of your present-ness to “the there.”

You are an actor improvising. You are a character embodied by an artist who is making shit up on the spot, in response to that wonderful artist with you on that stage. That wonderful artist whom you love, whose birthday it is, whose every movement inspires you, who you can’t keep your eyes off of, especially your inner eyes that peer out from your heart, that’s driven by your gut, that’s celebrating the applause that you think you hear, but it’s really an increase in your heartbeat and not because you’re nervous or anxious or worried or thinking, but because you’re in love.

“Be” in love. That love doesn’t have to show on the outside, but make sure it’s alive, alert and activated on the inside. Every day’s not only your birthday. It’s also your very own Valentine’s Day.

Previous Guests: Nicole LeeSteve JarandDave Pasquesi & earlier guests.

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Guest Writer: Nicole Lee (New York City)

Nicole Lee is a social science researcher, improviser and coach in New York City. She has studied improv since 2009 at UCB-NY, Annoyance, iO Chicago and Magnet. Nicole frequently blogs about improv on

Playing with Integrity

Susan Messing says that our integrity on stage is different from our integrity offstage. Lately, I’ve seen the applicability of this note in various places: in class, during practices and on stage. I think a lot of the notes we often get from our teachers and coaches - commit harder, don’t think - are rooted in this idea of integrity. In the past, I’ve blogged about how our own experiences and opinions can and should feed our improv. While that’s true, it is also important to remember that who we are onstage is not necessarily who we are offstage.

The distinction between who we are onstage and off is simple, but important. Our integrity offstage comprises who we are as people in the real world - our beliefs and our principles. Our integrity onstage comprises who we are and how we play as improvisers, performers and actors. While these two aspects of our integrity are shades of the same thing, having an integrity onstage that is mutually exclusive from our offstage integrity frees us to do, play and say things on stage that we might not be able to say or do in the real world. When people forget that, the fear of embarrassment or judgment creeps into our play and inhibits us from fully committing on stage, or from pushing ourselves to try new things and characters.

It’s important to protect our integrity both on and offstage. But when we confuse the two or when we let our offstage integrity creep onstage, we are protecting the wrong integrity to our own detriment. We are unable to take notes from our coach or teacher. We get defensive about notes and create an uncomfortable atmosphere for our fellow players. We may refuse to commit to trying an exercise because it conflicts with our integrity and we verbally disagree with the teacher or coach.

You can’t focus on the integrity of your scene if you’re busy worrying about damage to your own, personal integrity. While we should never feel obliged to do something onstage that conflicts with our own beliefs (e.g. giving a blow job or using racial epithets), we should make active choices to do or not to do things in scenes, rather than make passive choices out of fear. 

When the only thing we can control on stage is our own bodies, it’s frustrating to be impeded by our own minds. I can certainly relate to the pitfalls of being my own worst enemy as an improviser and getting in my own way of fearless improv. But I have learned to check my offstage integrity at the door before a class, practice or show. Only then can I be certain that my improv integrity is protected.

Previous Guests: Steve JarandDave Pasquesi & earlier guests.

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Guest Writer: Steve Jarand (Calgary)

Steve Jarand teaches drama and mask, works with children and does science and nature theatre. Steve, Keith Johnstone and Dennis Cahill are leading the most recent and powerful series of mask workshops at Loose Moose Theatre.

The Issue

Most improv that I see finds the players improvising on a superficial level. There is an illusion of honesty, authenticity and freshness but actually players are clinging to their own habits, patterns and tricks.

In the worst case, scenes become bizarre, violent and sexual but even at a higher stage the spirit of the work tends to hang at the level of: “look what I can do.”

I believe the audience sees everything. Some things reach them only subconsciously but nothing is missed. They know when we are actually improvising and when we are just jumping from one planned or familiar unit to another.

I’ll invent a scene now to illustrate (The notes in brackets are when the improvising has stopped):

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Guest Writer: David Pasquesi (Chicago)

David Pasquesi is an improviser that lives in Chicago, IL. He has done other things as well.


I have learned the most as an improviser when performing in front of people. And even better is to perform in front of strangers. Best is to perform in front of paying strangers. That is to say: a workshop is helpful, free shows for other improvisers and friends is more helpful and the most helpful situation to learn about improvisation is to do shows in front of a paying audience. They tell you an awful lot. You don’t have to wonder if what you were doing was compelling. They’ll tell you. And, at least here in Chicago.. and now in New York, too… they are supportive and willing to go along with you. They are constantly saying, “Keep going, we’re with you.” I mean, that’s what they’re saying when they’re not saying, “Jesus Christ. Why don’t you just stop it? Stop this. Stop doing it. Go far away. You’re terrible.”

I also think it’s helpful to remember they don’t owe us anything. They have already done their job. They showed up and they paid for a ticket. I know some folks say that they don’t pay any attention to the audience, but I don’t think that’s true. If an audience is actively uninterested… we can’t help but notice, and it affects us. The audience has an effect… and usually a very positive one. They encourage us to dare… to go on into the unknown. I am grateful for all the audiences that buoyed me/us. Those who joined in the adventure… even when they were less than rewarded, they come back to try it all again. Those who are willing to ‘come along’ without knowing the destination.

So… to all those people who have shown up for the past 30 years… Thanks… and how’m I doing?

Previous Guests

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Montreal Improv is growing!

So, here’s the official annoucement: Montreal Improv will be opening up a brand new theatre space! 

It’s just a few doors south from our current location, above the Second Cup. We’ve been renting it as an extra classroom for the last few months but signed the lease and got our city permits on Friday.

It’s in a pretty raw state right now but the renovations have already begun. As soon as we have a Grand Opening date, we’ll let everyone know.

A few extra answers:

  • Yes, we plan on keeping our current space as classrooms and as a smaller venue.
  • No, we’re not allowed a full liquor license.  But we will probably be able to get an event license for things like our anniversary and Mprov.
  • Yes, we will need your help.
  • No, it couldn’t have been done without the awesome work of Marc, Bryan, Kirsten, Brent, Christine, all of our amazing teachers & students and Montreal’s thriving improv community.


- vinny & marc & bryan

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