The ability to think on your feet is crucial, of course.
But add to that a willingness to make a complete fool of yourself, and you might just spin comedy gold.
That’s exactly the mix it takes to succeed in the fast-paced world of improv theatre. Just ask the eight R.E. Mountain Secondary students in Gura Sidhu’s improvisation class, who will represent their school later this month in Ottawa at the Canadian Improv Games.
Along with Vancouver’s Lord Byng Secondary, the Mountain improv team will fly the flag for British Columbia, as high school students from across Canada gather to compete for a national title.
This is the first time in the Langley high school’s history that its improv team has advanced past provincial competition — punching their ticket to Ontario with a second place finish during a competition held last month at the Waterfront Theatre on Granville Island.
Not that their predecessors hadn’t come close in the past — they had.
Very close. A few times.
The school’s third-place finish in 2003 was a particularly bitter pill to swallow for Sidhu.
That group was exceptional, and deserved to win, he said. At the same time, the teacher acknowledged that judging art is a subjective practise.
And this year’s top-2 finish was something of a redemption for that loss, he said.
Once the results were in, Sidhu called all the members of the ’03 team to tell them the news.
“I told them, a little part of you is going to Ottawa with us.”
Twenty teams, including Mountain, will face off in the nation’s capital from April 14 to 19, with the Langley students competing on the first night against schools from Newfoundland, New Brunswick, Manitoba and Alberta.
The competition includes five categories: style (such as film noir or science fiction), a life scene, theme, story and character.
Each team must perform four of the five events — life and theme are mandatory. In the event of a tie breaker they would be required to do the one they dropped.
There are five keys to success in improv, explained Sidhu: Say yes as much as possible; use suggestions; try not to ask questions; don’t tell — show; and make offers.
Finding the right combination of performers to play off each other is another crucial element.
Mountain’s eight-member team is made up of four girls and four boys, all in either Grade 11 or Grade 12. Only one of them was a part of last year’s team; the rest are all brand new to improv.
Among them is a wide range of personalities — from organizers to clowns. But the mix has worked.
“There has been a good blend of players,” said Sidhu. “Everyone has a role — some are more prominent than others.”
Common sense, intelligence, phenomenal listening skills are among the qualities that make a good improv player, he added.
Another critical attribute is a willingness to take risks — “if I fall on my face, so what?” — said Sidhu.
“I need one of you to jump out of that plane,” he tells his students, “and, hopefully, the parachute opens.”
Among the theatrical skydivers who will play for Mountain this year in Ottawa is Sam Maj.
For the Grade 12 student who’s been involved in drama since Grade 6 — the opportunity to spend more time on stage a large part of improv’s appeal.
Last school year he wasn’t on the team, but he knew a few people who were. They were “cool, fun and outgoing,” he said.
“They seemed to be up for anything and I wanted to be like that.”
Still, getting to nationals for the first time in the school’s history is a big deal and it’s a fact that isn’t lost on Maj — even though it took a while for the news to sink in.
It wasn’t until he was sitting in McDonald’s, eating ice cream that the magnitude of their success suddenly hit him.
This isn’t the first time Maj, 17, has made it to the national level of a competition. He’s also done it in sport.
While waterskiing might not have much in common with improv, it has taught him how to deal with pressure.
And the pressure is intense, he said.
“With improv, you have to be perfect. Everything you say counts.”
At the same time, said Maj, experience has also taught him to just relax and enjoy the moment.
For Emma Horn, also in Grade 12, going to a national competition is brand new territory. But the 17-year-old, who took her first drama class as “the shyest” Grade 8 student, is looking forward to the camaraderie that comes with team competition.
“I’m so excited to have all my best friends to go with to something like this.”
Things weren’t quite so harmonious at the beginning, Horn notes.
“It was a rough start to the year.
“There’s a big mix of personalities,” she said.
That led to a few disagreements and arguments before the team members sat down and hashed it out.
“Most people on the team are on the side of relaxed and goofy. Others are more serious and keep us working.
“The dynamics are opposites, but it works.”
Once they knew they were on their way to Ottawa, the team went online to check out their competition
“A few of us are kind of nervous about (the Newfoundlanders),” said Horn. “Everyone says they’re so funny.”