Rapid Fire Theatre’s Improvaganza

With 20 years of laughs under its belt, Improvaganza is one of the most acclaimed festivals of its kind—which is high praise, in a city that knows a thing or two about festivals. In fact, Rapid Fire Theatre’s ten-day improv-and-sketch festival has such a high reputation, performers are willing to travel through hell and high water just to be part of it.

Don’t believe it? Ask Colin Mochrie.

The longtime star of TV’s Whose Line is it Anyway? was in Mexico two days before his headlining show at the 2018 festival. “Then the hurricane hit,” he says. Suddenly, every flight in the country was grounded. Things looked bleak, but Mochrie was determined. One way or another, he was getting to Edmonton.

Improvaganza debuted in 2000, in response to then-artistic director Jacob Banigan noticing how many Rapid Fire performers were travelling all around the world to play at other company’s festivals. The feeling was: if it worked there, why not here?

In addition to being a really good time, Improvaganza gave performers a place to develop the new forms they were discovering during their travels. “In the States, improv tends to be quite comedic,” says Matt Schuurman, Rapid Fire’s current artistic director. “Then once you get to Europe, it tends to be more narrative and theatrical. So it was about bringing those styles to Edmonton, and using the Theatresports format as an excuse to get everyone in the same room, playing together.”

For the uninitiated, Theatresports is a quick, competitive form of improv that pits groups against one another for laughs and glory. Each show at Improvaganza begins this way, with troupes from places as far-flung as England, Germany, Atlanta, and Toronto. Then, once the audience is fully warmed up, the second half of the night is a showcase for one particular group, improvising in a format of their choosing.

Savvy audience members love Improvaganza for the opportunity to see flavours and styles of improv that they may have never seen before, from improvised Ibsen (courtesy of a Norweigan troupe) to a full-on silent film (thanks to circus performers from Colombia). And for performers—well, the festival is special for them, too.

“For the people who actually tour, Improvaganza is everyone’s favourite festival,” says Kirsten Rasmussen, a Rapid Fire alum who now lives in Toronto. Whenever a team from out of town finds out Rasmussen is from Edmonton, they immediately ask her to put in a good word with their application. “The level of play is amazing,” she says. “Even just watching the shows, Improvaganza is an education. When I go back and play there, it’s hard for me to keep up, because they keep evolving.”

As for Mochrie? He somehow managed to find a direct flight out of Mexico—which would land in Edmonton 20 minutes after his Improvaganza show had started. Still, he had to try. And after a lengthy flight, a seemingly endless taxi to the gate, and an increasingly sweaty drive up the QEII, he arrived at the Citadel Theatre just as the lights were coming up for the second act. And all was well.

Mochrie would do it all over again, too. “I’ve always found Rapid Fire Theatre to be a class act,” he says. “They’ve always treated me very well, and the calibre of improv is world-class. I’d work with them any time.”

Written by Michael Hingston, an Edmonton-based writer and book publisher
November 3, 2020

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