Seriously! Dramatically Improvised Stories – A New Direction for Toronto Improv

By Mira Saraf

In my brain, improv, has always been linked to humour. The things I would expect would include, for instance, if, in Planes, Trains & Automobiles, instead of selling shower curtain rings, John Candy was, for instance, a condom salesman, or if Dr. Who journeyed to a planet full of fraggle rocks, These scenarios are all gold mines for hilarity and jokes, and it never occurred to me that it could exist otherwise.

That is until I met Darryl Pring. When I sat down with him, at one of the much-coveted tables at the Starbucks in the Eaton Centre Indigo, he told me about Seriously! Dramatically Improvised Stories, a groundbreaking new improv show that doesn’t focus on the funny.

Although Pring has been performing improv since about 2003 he has switched things up in the last couple of years. “I started coming up with ideas for shows that I wanted to see that we weren’t really seeing, at least in our market,” he says.
He started with a show called Troubadour, a pseudo competitive musical improv show but structured it in a way that it would turn into a long format play with a beginning, middle and end. This was a way of getting beyond vignettes and into true story-telling.

“That led me to other shows,” he says citing Don’t You Forget About John Hughes, and Don’t You Forget About Patrick Swayze among others. His latest is something unlike most of what’s out there.

Pring enjoys the rawness of improv. “The feeling of being on the edge of a failure which some people are afraid of and tend to pull back,” he says. They use jokes, “so they don’t have to explore the reality of the situation.” Seriously! will explore this territory. They will allow the improvisers to delve into true emotional territory.

“My sole intent [for the show] is to never go for the joke,” he says. However, the show will not be devoid of humour. But instead of the ridiculous it will come from “dealing with those realities of life that you can find true moments of hilarity and joy as well as empathy as well as hatred, vengeance, sadness, and jealousy.”

Pring teaches his students, whether funny or serious, to always follow their true emotions. “If someone says I love you in a scene and you have a visceral response to go “ewww”, follow that emotion,” he says. “It’ll always take you to a better place.”
As a writer, I’ve often been advised to go to my feelings for inspiration in character creation or to bring the words on my page to life. This feels like strangely familiar territory to me, in a completely unexpected way.

A great deal of improv is based on the principle of “yes and” – to agree with whatever someone says to you and add to it. Feeling comfortable with a group of people and finding a leadership balance on stage is crucial to this.

Teamwork between cast members is key. “When improv is at its best, is when they just support each other and trust each other.”
This concept reflects Darryl’s casting strategy. He tells me there are two types of improvisers: there are the ones that lead, and there are what he calls the ‘lynchpins’ of the situation that support the scene and are committed to it.

“It’s those lynchpins that I’m looking for. But I want a bunch of lynchpins together,” says Pring. As it turns out the lynchpins were on the same page as he was. “Every person I asked was a yes.”

Responses to the overall concept have been mixed. “I’ve had people tell me it’s a brilliant idea, and people tell me it’s a horrendous idea,” says Pring who worries that audience members may not catch onto the theme of serious or dramatic improv coming in and may be caught off guard that the show is not necessarily all comedy.

“I don’t know how more clear I can be but in the title saying it’s seriously called Dramatically Improvised Stories; says Pring. “Dramatic is a pretty clear word. So that’s a concern.”

However, he’s hoping to draw in a niche crowd whose needs perhaps haven’t been met from what’s currently in the market. He is interested in those, who are interested in the creation of a story rather than finding the next joke in ridiculous, the unbelievable and the absurd.

As a relative newcomer to theatre and definitely a newcomer to improv, the idea is intriguing. Although I must admit, I’m one of those laymen audience members that has always considered improv and comedy as completely intertwined, I am definitely curious to see how this will work.

The first edition of Seriously! Dramatically Improvised Stories was performed on Tuesday January 25 at The Bad Dog Theatre. Next month’s show will be on Tuesday February 22. Check the The Bad Dog Theatre Website for details closer to the date.