Since November of 1999, Joe Vanderhelm has been improvising with Rapid Fire Theatre, performing in their weekly shows TheatreSports and CHiMPROV. Joe has had the opportunity participate in many improv festivals across Canada, The USA, Germany and the Reunion Island (off the coast of Madagascar). Joe Vanderhelm is Alberta’s Regional Director for the Canadian Improv Games and since 2006 he has been the Associate Artistic Director – Youth, of Rapid Fire Theatre, as such he produces the 3-week improv festival for teens: The WildFire Festival as well as the Northern Alberta Improv League. He has appeared in three feature films, most notably in HighWire Film’s Losing Will, an improvised film, created in conjunction with The Young Guns. When he isn’t improvising or acting, Joe works as a Science and Theatre teacher after having earned his Bachelor of Education, with a Drama minor, from the University of Alberta. Joe Vanderhelm was honoured to be awarded the 2015 Excellence in Teaching Award from the Province of Alberta.
TV Shows: The Simpsons, Archer, Orange is the New Black, Breaking Bad, Arrested Development, Oilers and Seahawks games.
Movies: The Mask, Shawshank Redemption, Star Wars, LOTR, Anything MARVEL.
Actors: Jim Carrey, Anne Hathaway, Natalie Portman, Hugh Jackman, Tom Hanks
Video Games: Mario 1-3, Super Mario World, Mario 64, Diablo 1&2, Heroes of Might and Magic 2-4, Warcraft 1&2 Warcraft 2, Civilization 1-5, Oblivion, Skyrim and NHL 2012-2015.
Authors: Stephen Hawking, Harper Lee, Mark Haddon, JRR Tolkien, Agatha Christie.
Music: Blink 182, Sum 41, Green Day, Billy Talent, The Offspring, Beastie Boys, Weezer, Macklemore, Eminem, Flight of the Conchords, Blair Crimmins & The Hookers, Girl Talk, The Lonely Island, They Might be Giants, Smash Mouth, “Weird Al” Yankovic and lots of Broadway soundtracks.
Websites TSN.ca, collegehumor
Food: I love food, but here are some of my fav restaurants: Woodwork, Meat, Sloppy Hoggs Roed Hus, Culina’s, 3 Boars, The Next Act, Farrow, Dadeo’s, Hotpot Express, All Happy Chinese, Tres Carnales, Zen, and these no-bake drop cookies that my sister makes.
Words to live by: You make a living by what you get, you make a life by what you give.
HOW YOU GET INVOLVED WITH RAPID FIRE?
I was in grade 10 at JH Picard school, and I was fooling around like a 15 year old boy would when the drama teacher, Mr. Shields came up to me and my friends and told us to meet him in the drama room after school. We all through we were in trouble, but when we arrived he told us that we were the new “improv team”. We told him “we don’t know what that means”. But for that year he trained us and in November of 1999, he entered us as a team into Rapid Fire Theatre’s high school TheatreSports tournament: The Nosebowl. We had a great time, and were fortunate enough to win. The prize? Playing one show with the professional improvisors of RFT. Well, we performed our one show, and it was amazing, and afterwards the artistic director at the time, Jacob Banigan, told us that we should come back and play again the next week. We were ecstatic, so we came back and played for the second time. And he asked us again, and again, until one week he didn’t. We were all a little bummed, but one of my teammates, Julian Faid, suggested that we just show up next week, even though we weren’t invited, the worst thing that could happen is we stay and watch the show. So, we summoned our courage, arrived at the theatre and walked backstage. When Jacob saw us he told us that he was glad we showed, as he forgot to invite us the previous week, and that we should just keep showing up every week. So we did, week after we week for 15 years, I would show up at the theatre and perform, and no one has ever told me to stop showing up.
WHAT ARE THE KEYS TO A SUCCESSFUL IMPROV SCENE?
The right balance between telling a story and playing the game of the scene. The perfect scene, to me, is one that follows the conventional points of a story: having a strong platform (knowing where the scene takes place, who the characters are and their relations to each other, and what is the routine for those characters in that place). Next we want a “tilt”, this could be a problem or conflict, but it is something that disrupts the routine and forces the characters into action. Then the stakes are raised and we find out why each characters cares about what has happened, also how it affects their relationships and maybe even how it affects the world. Then, finally they will find a solution to the conflict that satisfies their stakes. Of course, all the while this is happening, they might be playing within a TheatreSports game construct, and also while doing this playing the game of the scene: finding, playing a breaking patterns, using the rule of 3, using the stage space in fun and interesting ways, etc.
WHAT ARE SOME TIPS YOU CAN OFFER AUDIENCE MEMBERS ABOUT GIVING SUGGESTIONS TO IMPROVISERS?
This is a tricky one, because improvisors love specifics, but if it is too specific it is restrictive, and improvisors do not like being restricted (at least, artistically speaking). So something like “garden” is okay, but “rooftop garden” is awesome, but maybe something like “Rob Ford’s rooftop garden” is too specific. Suggestion giving is just like Goldilocks, it’s gotta be juuuuust right.
WHAT DO YOU LIKE ABOUT SHORT FORM VS. LONG FORM AND VICE VERSA?
I believe it was Jacob Banigan who said improv is like pasta, it can be cut up short like macaroni, or long like linguine, either way it’s still flour, eggs, salt and water. I guess what I am saying is that I love them both, and I love pasta, and I love metaphors.
HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE YOUR IMPROV STYLE?
When I first started improvising I was definitely focused on story-telling and narrative, and this is probably still my strongest skill by default. But as the years have gone on, I would like to think that I have refined my style into a “jack-of-all-trades” type, where I am able to be part of a scene and recognize if it needs more advancing or expanding or support or energy.
WHAT IS YOUR MOST MEMORABLE MOMENT ON STAGE?
Well, my memory isn’t quite what it used to be, and while the details aren’t quite all there, the most impactful moment was definitely my first performance on stage, I don’t remember the games we played, but I remember the nervousness in my stomach in the halls backstage, I remember the rush of adrenaline as we ran out on stage, and I remember the joy I felt when the audience laughed for the first time, it was… captivating, I knew that I needed to experience it again and again.
WHAT DO YOU DO OUTSIDE OF RFT?
I work as a high school drama and science teacher.
HOW DOES IMPROV COME IN HANDY IN YOUR DAY-TO-DAY LIFE?
Well, as a drama teacher there are many direct uses of improv, as it is one of the modules in the curriculum. But it is amazing how useful a skill it is as a science teacher as well. Being an improvisor means that you are positive, accepting, communicative, collaborative, a good listener, and adaptive. These skills I use everyday, whether I am on stage, or in front of the classroom, or hanging out with friends. Being a good improvisor makes you a pretty good human.
DESCRIBE WORKING FOR RAPID FIRE IN A SINGLE SENTENCE:
Well, I am actually one of the few people who are directly employed by Rapid Fire Theatre as a staff member. I am the Associate Artistic Director – Youth, which means my job is a liaise with drama teachers from all around Alberta and facilitate their schools ability to participate in improv, whether that is through the high school league that RFT runs: The NAIL, by visiting their school and giving a workshop to their team, or as a part of our 3-week teen improv festival: The WildFire Festival, which features the same tournament that my team won 15 years ago, I organize it now! It is quite honestly a dream-job, so my single sentence would be: Having the chance to give back to Rapid Fire Theatre by giving to other young improvisors, what Rapid Fire Theatre gave to me as a young improvisor.