Rapid Fire Theatre looks back on an improbable 40 years
The name theatresports seems like a bit of an oxymoron at first glance. Thanks to about three decades of theatre kids and jocks sneering at each other from either side of B-movie split screens, the thought of those two worlds coming together in an unhyphenated collision seems improbable, if not outright improper. But for British-born playwright and Canadian improv legend Keith Johnstone, the distance between those seemingly disparate worlds was always more conceptual than anything else.
“Professional wrestling was the only working-class Theatre that I’d ever seen,” Johnstone writes in his 1999 book Impro for Storytellers. Despite being a theatre tradition once geared toward nobles and groundlings alike, British theatre in the 1960s was defined by censorship from the Royal Household. For a young Johnstone, that meant his hope of injecting the theatre with the manic energy he witnessed while watching pro wrestling wasn’t just a distant reality — it was practically illegal. Johnstone instead took his dream with him to Canada, accepting a teaching position at the University of Calgary. It was there that he developed Theatresports while instructing at the famous Loose Moose Theatre (which he also helped co-found), melding timed formats, team competition and the unpredictability of a Royal Rumble into a distinctly un- British approach to improv. Johnstone’s innovation also turned out to be incredibly popular, and within a few years, Theatresports had found its way into theatre companies, improv troupes and drama classes around the world, including one particular theatre company right here in Edmonton.
LIVE FROM EDMONTON
In many ways, Edmonton in 1981 was the perfect place to start an improv troupe. With the Oilers still a few years away from an era-defining Stanley Cup run that would consume the city’s collective consciousness, Edmontonians’ curiosity and attention were still up for grabs. Edmonton also was, and still is, unique among Canadian metropolises for its long, dark, and cold winters; conditions that disqualified it from becoming a bona fide movie town, but ideal for producing performers ready to embrace Johnstone’s full-throated approach to improv.
“It’s not Toronto or Vancouver, where there’s a huge film and television scene and everyone’s hoping to get scouted and move on to the next thing,” says Paul Blinov, Associate Director of Education (Youth) at Rapid Fire Theatre. “In Edmonton, it’s about doing a good show because we’re here and it’s cold out and we want to do a good show.”
Blunt, practical and uniquely Edmontonian, that mindset helped launch Rapid Fire Theatre and grow it from an offshoot of the Theatre Network in 1981 to its own theatre company by 1988. The company relocated from the Phoenix Theatre two years later in search of a larger space, eventually finding itself at the Chinook Theatre, later renamed the Varscona Theatre.
Rapid Fire would spend more than 20 years at the Varscona, during which the company straddled the line between a local hangout and a training ground for globally recognized performers including Mass Effect voice actor Mark Meer and silver screen heart-throb Nathan Fillion.
“That was sort of its own era,” Blinov says, reflecting on Rapid Fire’s stay in Old Strathcona. “There would be lineups down the street every Friday, even in the winter.”
Rapid Fire’s growth at the Varscona wasn’t just vertical, but horizontal, too. Although the company was still committed to the quick, rapid-fire storytelling it had become synonymous with, international influences and local demand pushed it to expand into sketch comedy and even scripted work. Rapid Fire also established regular showcases and festivals like Bonfire, CHiMPROV and Improvaganza, all while displaying an adaptability that Blinov credits with the company’s uncharacteristically long lifespan.
“The ensemble is this slowly changing group of people that’s changed drastically over the years, but I think at its heart, it’s about all of us trying to take care of each other and celebrate each other and empower each other’s ideas.”
TEACHING FROM THE STAGE
After more than two decades at Varscona, Rapid Fire moved from its home in Old Strathcona to a dedicated space at the Citadel Theatre in 2012. The company’s audiences and programming had once again outgrown its performance space, but more importantly, so had its impact on the city’s arts scene.
“Some of my favourite artists will tend to be improvisers, and sometimes they’re people that I don’t even realize have connections to Rapid Fire,” says Jana O’Connor, an Edmonton-based writer and author who was a cast member at Rapid Fire in the early ’90s and 2000s. “That’s a legacy that [Rapid Fire] has offered Edmonton for so many years. It’s just developed all of these really amazing and diverse artists who have gone beyond Edmonton’s borders, and then equally, people who’ve stayed here and continue to teach and perform.”
O’Connor counts herself in both camps, having performed in Europe with Rapid Fire before launching a career as a screenwriter and playwright. Her connections to Rapid Fire helped her land spots on sketch comedy shows like CAUTION: May Contain Nuts and The Irrelevant Show, but speaking to O’Connor, she remarks on how the talents she honed as an improv player manifest themselves just about everywhere.
“I always talk about how I have no qualms about going into a job interview, because whatever they ask me, I’ll just come up with something,” she laughs.
The importance of creating an environment for performers and civilians alike to improvise was also echoed by Matt Schuurman, Rapid Fire’s current artistic director and the latest flag-bearer of the company’s workshop-based outreach strategy. “Education is a huge component to our company,” says Schuurman, who first got involved with Rapid Fire in 2001 during the annual Nosebowl High School Theatresports Tournament before joining as a company member in 2008. “One of the things we often say is that improv skills are life skills. The golden rule of improv is ‘Yes, and…’ So that kind of positivity, that creativity, that acceptance and listening are all great skills to bring into other elements of your life.”
With the cardinal rule of improv being centred on cooperation, it’s no surprise that collaboration has been a constant theme throughout Rapid Fire’s 40-year history. Whether that meant cast members fundraising for the Roxy after the theatre’s 2015 fire, partnering with the Citadel to introduce new generations to improv, or working with Edmonton Community Foundation to showcase women, trans and non-binary performers, Rapid Fire hasn’t stopped looking for ways to extend the scene.
“When that happens in a creative enterprise, it’s intriguing, and it’s fun, and you want to be a part of it, whether you’re on stage or you’re in the audience,” Blinov says. “Because it’s not the money, I’ll tell you that much. I think it’s because people genuinely onstage are having a good time and the audience senses that.”
To celebrate its 40th anniversary, Rapid Fire Theatre received support from Edmonton Community Foundation to publish a new book featuring interviews with current and former cast members and collaborators. The book is titled We Made It All Up and will be available Spring 2022.
This story comes from the Winter 2021 edition of Legacy in Action. Browse the full magazine here.