Two weeks ago, I had the pleasure of being able to perform with my troupe Darcy & Bingley at the inaugural East Coast Improv Festival in Halifax, Nova Scotia. The festival was hosted by the Make ‘Em Ups Improv Co., founded only a year ago by Toronto ex-pat Owen Stanford and native Haligonian Stephanie Foran.
Being originally from the East Coast (I was raised one province to the west in New Brunswick, on the Bay of Fundy), I had high expectations for the hospitality that Maritimers are known for. I was not disappointed in the least.
After arriving at the airport, we ran into the festival organizer who kindly gave us a ride to our hotel. No better way to say “Welcome to our festival!” than to do so, in person, the first moment possible. My duo partner and I left finding a place to stay until the last minute, so we missed out on staying at the festival hotel. We were able to find a reasonably priced hotel room at the Delta Halifax, a ten minute walk from the venue, the downtown, and the waterfront. We found out later that most of the other troupes and festival ensemble members billoted with local improvisors who took care of them, showing them the sights and sounds of the city during the day (to which we sometimes invited ourselves).
The three day festival began officially on Friday night. People arrived on Thursday, though, for an exclusive party at the venue that night to kick off the festival. Swag was given out, including graphic novels from a sponsoring comic book store, coupons for burger combos at a local burger place, and the handiest piece of swag: a map. That pre-opening night party, without the pressure of having to perform for anyone, gave all of us a chance to mingle in a casual environment without worry. After a few free beers from the festival beer sponsor, we wound up being initiated into a club of improvisors where, well, the first rule of this club was not to talk about it. Great after parties would be a hallmark of this festival, with a different one at a new venue every night. The organizers even opened up their home for all of the troupes for what turned into a down-home Maritime kitchen party.
The venue, Nova Scotia Theatre’s black box space named “The Bus Stop Theatre” (likely because of the bus stop directly outside of it) was a wonderful space for improv. It was licensed, which was a large benefit. It was also intimate, with a house able to accommodate about 60 – 75 people, and a wide and deep stage, with a few chairs and black cubes that could be sat upon, stood upon, and built upon. We felt safe to play in that space.
There was a group called “The Festival Ensemble.” While you could apply to festival with your troupe, you could also apply as an individual, and if you were selected, you would be placed in this group along with other improvisors who had been accepted from across the country. They rehearsed every day under the leadership of Julie Dumais, Artistic Director of the Bad Dog Theatre in Toronto. She had flown out specifically to coach this festival-based team. They were given two slots to perform at the festival to showcase what they had been working on. They had learned a format called “Pushpins,” and performed it without hesitation both nights.
While they were rehearsing, we spent our days being tourists, walking the boardwalk, visiting used book stores, and eating all of the ice cream and seafood we could find (which was quite a bit). We took in everything we could about the city, seeing what Halifax had to offer within walking distance (which was quite a bit). It wound up becoming a relaxing holiday, with new friends.
Each night, the shows focused on showcasing local talent and exposing the audience to talent from away. The venue was packed to capacity, with audience members hungry for improv and eager to laugh and be entertained every night.
The atmosphere of support amongst the performers was huge. Throoughout the festival, all of the performers watched each other’s set, celebrating the work the work that people were doing in various parts of the country. Improvisors from Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, Moncton, and Halifax, amongst other cities, sat in the audience or crouched in corridors to share the experience and let each other know that they had our backs.
Our set was on Sunday night, the last night of the festival. My parents had decided to come up from New Brunswick to see the show. At the house party the night before our set, I casually mentioned to the festival organizer that my parents were coming. Without my knowledge, he had had the best seats set aside in the theatre for them, brought them in ahead of the show, and gave them the VIP treatment. My parents were thrilled with the attention that they had received. They kept the “Reserved” signs that were on the chairs, and I’m pretty sure I’ll see them framed, in the living room, right next to the photos from their Italy trip the next time I’m home at Christmas. It was an incredibly kind gesture, one that shows the kindness and camaraderie that you can find at a small festival.
When we performed our set, we jumped all around, ran into the audience, stood close together and far upon, upstage and downstage, and had an incredible amount of fun. It felt like we were performing for our family (in my case, it was true) as we had gotten to spend so much time with the other troupes and members over the course of the festival. The closing dance party of the festival, held at the bar across the street from the venue, and was DJed by a local DJ popular on the scene, was bittersweet, as we had to say goodbye to our new improv siblings.
On the way to the airport after the festival had ended, we thanked our hosts for the great times, both on stage and off. This festival was very special, and it only has the potential to grow in the future. If this is what can happen after only a year, we look forward to seeing what will happen after more.
Chris Leveille is an actor, improviser, and writer from Quispamsis, New Brunswick. Since graduating from Bishop’s University with a degree in theatre, he has perfomed in and produced a number of productions in New Brunswick, Quebec, and Ontario, including touring the fringe circuit, performing at The Rivoli, Comedy Bar, and other venues in Toronto.