Laughs, cheers, and 2-for-1 beers: Martha Graham’s La Belle Improv finds a new home at Comedyworks

Maelstrom of comedy Martha Graham taking improv to the bars. Collage by Xavier Tolentino.

Mention to anyone who’s not versed in all things comedy that you’re doing/learning improv, only to be met with weird stares followed by oft-negative comments about Whose Line is it Anyway’s brand of short form games or the hockey-inspired Ligue Nationale d’Improvisation … can’t blame the messenger really, because in this city they’re two of the forms that usually gain the most exposure in front of a mainstream crowd.

Then there’s long-form improv. The players on stage initiate a scene that’s inspired by a suggestion solicited from the audience (a random word, a type of relationship, etc.). A line of dialogue is built upon the next. The disarming truthfulness spoken from their character’s point of view allows them to stumble upon something funny. Now they’re practically writing on their feet. What comes out for [at least] the next 10 minutes is silly and unpredictable, both to the audience and to the performers. That’s improv, baby!

This is big money everywhere else in the world. There are festivals, improv nights in the oddest places, schools… In the US alone, the UCB in NYC & LA have legendary grads like Ellie Kemper, Jason Mantzoukas, Kate McKinnon… there’s Chicago, where some of the best improvisers have cut their teeth, like Amy Poehler, Adam McKay, Bill Murray. Even Chicago’s Second City has an outpost in Toronto; among its alumni are Wayne’s World’s Mike Myers and half of The Kids In The Hall. Kirsten Rasmussen, co-founder of MIT, is a teacher there, as well as a teacher/director at Bad Dog Theatre.

For the last 6 years, the Montreal Improv Theatre has opened their doors to students & performers, spreading the good word of the long-form improv scene. Similarly, Theatre Sainte Catherine regularly holds improv workshops & performance nights. This past summer’s (sniff) edition of Just For Laughs added to their roster a semi-improvised play called 50/50, as well as an improv night with Colin Mochrie & Brad Sherwood.

If the goal is to strengthen improv’s foothold in Montreal, as other cities have successfully done, the challenge would be to bring it outside of the schools and theatres; where better than at a comedy bar, the perfect place of congregation to spring improv on people in various states of inebriation who are ready to bust a gut laughing?

Martha Graham gets this. Full of faith in this exciting art form, she waited to graduate high school before going through all the levels at the Montreal Improv Theatre. Cut to three years later, and she’s got a potential goldmine in her hands. Burritoville was where she got her first weekly spot, thus inspiring the first iteration of her improv night, called Full of Beans.

But when the tex-mex gas station closed its doors this year, there was practically no downtime when the opportunity arose for Martha to move the show to Comedyworks, this time as La Belle Improv, its new name & logo inspired by the similarly-named, province-wide, casse-croute (food again!). When she’s not corralling improvisers, she also performs in different improv house teams and is one-third of sketch comedy troupe Pickle Party. As the bi-weekly La Belle Improv is gearing up for its third instalment this Tuesday night, I managed to wrangle a few answers outta this swiss army comedy knife.

Would you consider the Montreal improv scene to still be in its infancy, even though The Montreal Improv Theatre has been around for 6 years?

Definitely. It’s crazy for me to think about how much has changed just since I’ve started. It seems to be growing exponentially at times, other times I meet people in the city who have no idea that improv even exists here and I feel like we’re back at square one. These people have become my inspiration, it feels great to get even one new audience member out to a show, and I’m so glad I can make this my personal mission and play some small role in building the improv scene here.

I find that from the moment I signed up for improv classes, I finally found the group I wanted to belong to. You’re on numerous teams & productions with some of the most supportive people; have you found your tribe through improv?

Oh yeah, definitely. Every now and then I just have these moments of realization of how lucky I am to be friends with, and to work with such phenomenal people. I really don’t think I’d be doing any of the things I’m doing today if Alex Brown, producer extraordinaire, hadn’t first asked me to be a part of this wacky, 70’s summer camp themed show called Camp Wanapoke. So, Wanapoke definitely feels like home and family to me in terms of improv and life in general.

The first iteration of the improv night you did, Full of Beans at Burritoville… how did that come along, and did it then come easy to reboot it at Comedyworks?

It was technically the brainchild of some random business man whose name I can’t remember. I thought I was going to do some half assed PR project for school involving Montreal Improv and Burritoville and this man [who visited this class I was taking] came up with a better idea that would actually require me to work hard, UGH. Totally worth it though. After that I got some help from Marc Rowland, one of the directors of Montreal Improv, to wrap my head around this wild school project and made it happen! Comparatively, rebooting it at Comedyworks was an absolute breeze. They wanted improv to happen and I knew how to make it happen. Not to brag, but I was actually able to do the bulk of the production while on vacation (sunglasses face emoji).

3 years ago, did you have any inkling that you’d already be making big leaps in a short amount of time?

I think I did. Not necessarily because anything indicated I would, more because I was a silly teenager with big dreams and no idea how the real world worked. I had almost a year after finishing the levels at Montreal Improv and finding the people I perform and work with now where reality kind of came crashing down on me and it was pretty scary and frustrating. I stuck with it though and eventually everything seemed to just fall into place… LIFE, AM I RIGHT?

What do you like about the new space over the previous one?

Well I love that it exists!! I was heartbroken when Burritoville went out of business and I’m so grateful Comedyworks was ready and willing to have us while barely missing a beat. I also love that it’s an established comedy bar, a lot of the grudge work that made Full of Beans tough is taken care of for me by the wonderful team working there. It feels strange that I can run a bi-weekly improv show and not be worrying about it constantly, but it also feels freaking great!

Who are your favourite improv acts who have come to the show so far?

I can’t pick just one act!! A show that sticks out to me featured GROSS, Quest of the Dragon King and Queen. It was one of those magical shows where each team did a totally different format. Long-form, Narrative and Armando, where the improvisers did the monologues and the scenes!! The line up was also kind of a big deal, GROSS and QDK are vets of MIT and Queen reunited Sandi Armstrong and Heidi Weeks from Theatre Sainte Catherine and Kirsten Rasmussen from Second City for the first time in years. The room was packed for the first time. My parents showed up. All the sets were phenomenal. It was all that magic I’ve been talking about.

What other kind of improv formats would you like to see at your improv night? Musical improv, campfire…?

Another tough one!! I’m so happy with all the acts I see. Musical would be really, really cool though. Musical improv anywhere in Montreal would be really, really cool.

I find that for the uninitiated, the audience sometimes is trying to figure out what’s going on. What styles work best for a mixed crowd from your experience?

Gosh, I don’t know. I think there will always be people who hate improv of any form and there will always be people (myself) dying to see anything and everything. Maybe the easiest answer would be classic improv games because that’s something very easy to follow and that most people are already familiar with. Although, I normally find myself most entertained when the performers themselves are entertained, so I let the teams doing LBI decide a format for themselves. On a good night a new audience member may actually be introduced to many forms, I think that’s pretty cool.

There is often talk about the necessity for safe spaces… what might happen if a new team you’ve never seen before did the show and still made poor choices where someone or a group of people were made to feel uncomfortable? Or would it be hard for those groups to sign up?

This is something I think about a lot. There are only so many preventative measures I feel I can take before becoming exclusive, which I don’t want either. I’m lucky to know so many improvisers that foster safe spaces and consent in all their performances and I can rely on them to put on good shows every other week, but I want to give new people a shot too.
I have one brand new troupe working up to a show at the end of the month and they’re really excited that someone is giving them the chance to perform. I haven’t seen them perform before, no one has! I don’t want to be afraid to say yes to people and close that door on them. It can be hard in this city to find a stage if you haven’t spent time and money on classes to integrate into the existing community. So, I’m willing to take that risk and trust that we all want the same basic things from improv, one of those things being a safe space. At the end of the day, if something goes wrong and this philosophy gets me into trouble, I trust myself to handle the situation.

For improvisers who would like to sign up, how far ahead is LBI booked up? And what can you say about the scared feeling that a novice performer might have when performing outside of the school (e.g. ME)?

LBI is filling up WAY faster than Full of Beans was! It’s seriously booked up until November, I almost can’t believe it.
As for the scared feeling, IGNORE IT!!!!! If you have any incline to try it out, contact me and contact me quick because there are fewer slots in the new show!! Something I loved about Full of Beans was bringing together all levels of experience to have fun doing something we all love. I notice, for myself anyway, that performing in a place that isn’t also an improv school can be very freeing. Maybe having a bar helps with that too…
When I first discovered improv it was totally magical and I fell in love with it and just because so many of us have taken classes and learned that there are rules and that it can be very technical and stressful doesn’t mean that it’s not still magical and spontaneous. I personally don’t want to watch the perfect improv technique, my goal is to see people getting inspired and having fun.

At Comedyworks, I’ve seen 2 people max on stage so far… would it be a hazard if more were on there?

Not at all!! Opening night we had a group of five do some group scenes that were fantastic (it was GODDAMN BEAR if you’re curious) and believe it or not, the stage at Burritoville was smaller and only had one entry point. I think it’s part of the art of improv, being able to make any stage work.

How can the improv teams contact you to try and book a spot?

So far everyone is booked through Facebook messenger. They can contact me through my personal account or through La Belle Improv’s Facebook page.

What’s the lineup for the next show this coming Tuesday?

The next line up is Dough Girls (Carolyn Howard and Carmen Rose), “IF THIS DOESN’T GO WELL WE’RE QUITTING COMEDY” (Danny Belair and Paul Solomon), Genghis (Kate Bradley, Paige Cooper, Al Lafrance, Paul Piro and Stefan Spec), The Laser Twins (Dale Bernier and David Kaufman) and Adrianne Schoen doing a special performance of her narrowly acclaimed sketch “The Feminist Magician”.

True or false: improv brings people together.

TRUE.

La Belle Improv takes place at Comedyworks (1238 Bishop) every other Tuesday. The next show is Tuesday, October 11th. Tickets are $8 or $5 for students and Montreal Improv students. Doors 8pm Show 8:30pm. 2-for-1 beers!

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