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Carson Graham's unscripted squad gets room to improv at nationals

April 19, 2017

​By Jeremy Shepherd, North Shore News


Carson Graham’s timid improv team manage to come out of their shells at a recent rehearsal. Photo by Paul McGrath, North Shore News

“Intuitive improvisation is the secret of genius.”
– Christopher Walken as the bad guy in A View to a Kill

The prisoner is on the verge of busting out when we move.

Now we’re decompressing in Hawaii. Now: stranded in the belly of a whale. Now: on the barren red plains of Mars where bored aliens plan to assuage their ennui by invading Earth. Now … something completely different.

Carson Graham secondary’s improv players run, slither, preen, strut and fight their way from one end of the stage to the other in one of the troupe’s last practices before the Canadian Improv Games – basically the Stanley Cup of high school spontaneity – scheduled for April 19-22 in Ottawa, Ont.

“They basically practise their entire season for one performance of 16 minutes,” says head coach Jullian Kolstee.

The team had disbanded in March after missing out on the national competition but a video submission landed them a last-minute wildcard berth.

The re-assembled squad stand in a circle on stage, passing an invisible bolt of energy from hand to hand.

The bolt is a bit like fairies or the value of a non-essential commodity – if we agree it’s real, it’s real. The players recognize when they’ve caught it and when they’ve missed it.

After warming up they have 10 frantic seconds in a huddle to create a scene that must take place at a waterpark. As soon as time is called they break their huddle and fan across the stage, stretching and contracting with hive-like efficiency as Asiah Butler prepares for her first slide down the park’s main attraction: Big Thunder.

“You cannot be riding the slide with your shoes on! Did you miss that memo?” hollers Devon Sacre as the waterpark’s belligerent lifeguard.
“I love when you yell at me because you’re giving me attention,” Butler calls back.

Once the scene is complete, Sacre discusses the fluidity of improv. No matter the context, any phrase spoken on stage becomes “the new truth,” he explains.

“I kind of just started yelling and then figured out – as I was yelling – why I could be yelling,” he says. “I find that when I think I actually do a little bit worse.”

As a Grade 12 student, the national tournament is Sacre’s “last chance at it,” he says.

Leaving the team – particularly after four years and three trips to the national tournament – was unthinkable for Joseph Logelin.

Following 2016’s silver medal finish, Logelin returned to serve as assistant coach alongside Kolstee.

“We train, we practice skills and exercises. I teach them how to do better scenes …” Kolstee says.

“We teach them,” Logelin interjects, drawing a laugh from the players.

Improvisers can’t exactly rehearse like an actor rehearses a play but they can sharpen their skills.

“That’s where the pride comes in,” Logelin says.

Logelin started his high school career at Handsworth secondary. He wasn’t exactly bullied, he says, explaining he was never doused with beer at a party. But he did endure an onslaught of little insults that accumulated.

“Being made fun of, just quickly … but it’s all the time.”

Being accepted on the improv team changed everything, he says.

“I just fell in love with it.”

Despite a big, infectious laugh, Logelin is dead serious when he talks about upholding the Carson Graham work ethic.

“We’ve built a culture,” Kolstee says, shortly before suggesting one of the players iron her wrinkled team shirt.

“You know I don’t do any chores,” responds Ayesha Daoud.

Daoud has a four-item to-do list scrawled on her forearm.

“I didn’t do anything on this list,” she admits with a grin. “Agendas don’t work, nothing works.”

But on stage Daoud is an architect, guiding several scenes through her narration.

“Improv means so much to me because it’s making something out of nothing,” she explains.

After two years of rejection, getting a spot on the team was “the best feeling in the world.”

A big part of the reason is the feeling of acceptance, she explains.

“You can do anything you want and everyone on stage will accept it.”

“Acceptance is a fundamental principle of improv,” Kolstee agrees. “When you’re at an age and you’re so uncomfortable with yourself and awkward, it’s really challenging and life changing.”

But despite the emphasis on acceptance, Kolstee doesn’t spare the squad from criticism.

Despite a fine Irish lilt supplied by Tate Schofield, a scene about a metal shop worker named Crankshaft O’Bronnigan who wields a giant hammer, navigates a strained relationship with his mother and plays an exceptional game of basketball doesn’t really work.

“Was that what you wanted?” Kolstee asks when the scene ends.

“No!” the team responds in unison.

Kolstee lays out his critique as the players flock to chip and Cheetos bags like hummingbirds to a feeder.

It was slow. It lacked urgency, Kolstee tells them. The players weren’t “dying for every second on stage.”

The team weathers the verdict quite well.

Everyone who does improv has survived an onstage wreck, Sacre confides. It’s part and parcel with building the plane as you learn to fly it.

But some scenes shape up quite well. In a low-key character study, Fiona Obstacaulo plays a teenager who’s secluded herself in the library, much to the chagrin of her oblivious friend Andy Alvarez.

The scene also demonstrates the challenge of improv. As Obstacaulo seems just about to penetrate to the core of a wounded character obsessed with drawing a perfect version of her mother, Logelin’s voice booms out: “Thirty seconds!”

“You have to be completely comfortable with failure,” Kolstee says, advising the students to “fail with joy.”

The team has come together “like a bunch of misfits,” according to Sacre.

But the squad is something more, according to Daoud.

While the players all have their fears and their troubles “everything is dropped” in the theatre.

The theatre is a home and her fellow players are “a family,” she pronounces.

As rehearsal wraps up and the North Shore News reporter heads out, Greer Mellenger-Brown issues a simple request: “Make us look cool.”