Sunday, March 27, 2011

Historical Document#2

            My first sustained efforts at writing came during my tenure in an improv and sketch comedy troupe known by the appropriately goofy name of Dangerous Poultry.

A typical poster for one of our shows at the Riv.

It began when I met a talented young guy named Gary Pearson in June Kreller’s TheatreSports Toronto improv class way back in 1984. We liked the cut of each other’s jibs, (which isn’t at all suggestive) and we formed a two-man team to perform in the weekly TheatreSports shows at Harbourfront. The show was, and still is, a form of competitive improvised comedy, which pits one team of improvisors against another in mock challenges and faux battle to gain points from a group of “judges”, or by audience applause.

At that time, the TheatreSports show was broken up into three matches, a ten minute and a twenty minute match in the first half and a forty minute match after the intermission. The length of your match reflected the experience and skill level of your team. Beginners did simple games in the ten minute match, intermediate players performed somewhat more sophisticated stuff in the twenty minute match, and the big comedy guns came out for the forty minute closing match.

Those Crazy Chickens. From left to right:
Gary Pearson, Warren Wilson, Sam Agro
Gary and I had a tangible rapport and we worked extremely well together. After a few weeks of trying him on for size we enlisted a third member, a very talented, and very Mormon, improv classmate named Warren Wilson. We nicknamed him “Whitebread”, based on both his unrepentant love of Wonder Bread, and his washed-out complexion, which bordered on albinism. With our trio complete, we put down our heads and went to work. We did extremely well in our ten minute opening matches and moved up fast. Within only a few months we were performing in the second half of the show, and rocking the house.

People, let me tell you, we were crazy for the improv. Each week we would attend our improv class, practice one night on our own, and perform in the Toronto show. Many weeks, we also performed in another TheatreSports show based in nearby Hamilton, where their membership was too lean to fill a show with their own players.

We often parodied popular movie
and theatrical posters on our handbills.
(This one drawn by Gary.)

It was less than a year before we started writing and performing sketch comedy in addition to our improv schedule. We performed regularly at a dingy little boho club on Queen Street know as The Rivoli, and shared the bill with the likes of The Illustrated Men, Dan Redican of The Frantics, The Kids in the Hall, The Vacant Lot, and some other local sketch troupes. We featured a host of very talented special guests, like Jerry Schaefer, Jane Luk, Lisa Merchant and the sweetly subversive Mr. David R. Healy. We also had a rotating cast of regular members in addition to our original trio, including Bill Dunphy, Marium Carvell, Moira Dunphy and Norm Hiscock.

A rather terrific publicity shot, snapped by photographer Janet Muise.
Left to right: Gary Pearson, Warren Wilson, Marium Carvell, Sam Agro

The troupe was exceptionally productive for the next three or four years, and built a respectable audience of fans. In addition to our regular shows at the Rivoli, we performed in several Sunday showcases at Second City Toronto’s Old Firehall, and launched a couple of successful forays to the Edmonton Fringe Festival where we performed to sold out audiences and (mostly) positive reviews. We did some damn funny sketches and improv along the way.

But, finally, things began to fray at the edges, and eventually unravel. A case of familiarity breeding contempt I suppose, or the clashing of egos, or, perhaps, conflicting ideologies. Or maybe over time we had just developed differing goals.

By 1990 we had disbanded the group.

Running order for a show at the Edmonton Fringe.

In spite of the conflicts, anger and ire we experienced at the end, I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. It was a great ride.

However, the most important thing I took away from my time with Poultry was the act of disciplined writing. I probably wrote about forty sketches and blackouts during the time we were together, and while most of them certainly sucked ass, there were six or seven pretty good ones in there. We would start working on a new show right after we finished the last one, and I was writing two or three new sketches for every show. Shows which we performed, on average, about every six weeks.

This regular writing schedule, while not deeply demanding, instilled in me the fundamental ability to write on a schedule and to utilize my spare time effectively. I learned to write whenever I had a few free moments, and maximize my efficiency. It also trained me to be critical of my own work. I certainly knew the rest of the troupe was going to be critical, so I tried my best to work out the bugs prior to presenting them with the work. (With limited success, probably, but I certainly tried.)

Left to Right: Sam Agro, Bill Dunphy,
Gary Pearson, Warren W. "Whitebread" Wilson
Note Gary's suspenders, a certain indicator
that wackiness is about to ensue!

Personal computers were just coming into vogue at that time, and for the first couple years of the group’s life I didn’t have one. I did have a fairly useless electronic typewriter, which I believe could hold about 80 words in memory before you had to print it out and write the next 80 words. As you can imagine, making revisions on this beast was desperately difficult. I did most of my preparatory writing longhand, and when I got it to a decent place, I’d transfer it into my typewriter 80 words at a time.

An electronic typewriter. The text could be read, and
corrected, using the tiny, tiny window just above the keyboard.

While I now use the computer for writing in general, I still write out my initial premises, and the first blast of notes on the idea, in long hand. I always feel a tad more connected to an idea if I play around with it using pencil and paper for a while before going all electronic on its ass.

Speaking of ideas, another thing working with Dangerous Poultry taught me was to doggedly write down a premise whenever I got one. This is a key skill, because ideas are ephemeral things, and they can easily waft away into the ether between conception and recording. Even with this habit firmly in place, I still lose tons of ideas every year. By quirks of timing and fate, they dissipate before they can be captured, drifting off into the empty void where lost left socks and misplaced cuff links reside.

Thus was forged this writer’s discipline and diligence.

Thanks, Dangerous Poultry.

Grainy xerox of a promotional shot for our show: DON'T TELL OUR MOMS
Left to right, clockwise: BIll Dunphy, Warren Wilson, Gary Pearson, Sam Agro.
Photo by Shannon Thompson.

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