Down On The Farm

It’s Sunday afternoon and Chris Hannay is sitting at the end of a bar. No, he’s not drowning his sorrows over the outlook of an Ottawa winter or his career prospects (he’s a journalist). Hannay, the co-founder of Experimental Farm Theatre, is in the upstairs lounge of LIVE on Elgin instructing a cluster of students in an improv exercise called “spinning plates.”

One member of the class is a server in a diner while the others are the metaphorical spinning plates, acting as customers with increasingly ridiculous demands. Hannay, wearing a brown hoodie and glasses, gives helpful hints and instruction to keep his pupils moving the sketch along. He doesn’t want any of the plates to tip over.

Last year, Hannay and his partner, Dani Alon, moved to Ottawa for work. It was a return for Hannay, who went to school at Carleton University but had been living in Toronto for the past five years. The pair cut their teeth in Toronto theatre houses Second City and the now-defunct Impatient Theatre Company. When they came to the nation’s capital, they came with a mission: to help revive Ottawa’s dormant improv scene.

Experimental Farm Theatre plays ‘Spinning Plates’ on Vimeo.

Hannay says upon returning to Ottawa there were only two groups and they only performed a couple times a month.

“Dani and I guested in people’s shows and we were like, ‘We want to perform more than this’,” says Hannay.

The pair founded the Experimental Farm Theatre last year and now put on monthly performances. The theatre troupe has 11 members and offers four levels of classes to the public that run for six weeks each. They currently are all sold out. Graduates of the class can become troupe members, participating in monthly shows at Pressed Urban Gourmet Sandwich Bar. The EFT also has a weekly “jam night” at a community centre where anyone can take part.

Member Val Perelshtein did improv in her native Montreal before moving to Ottawa and meeting Hannay and Alon. Perelshtein, who has a day job as a public servant, soon found herself handling the cash at EFT shows, helping out at the classes and performing with the group.

When doing improv in Montreal, Perelshtein says, “you have the ability to perform once a week if you really want to.” But when she moved to Ottawa, she adds, there was “not a path to performing regularly.”

“There’s nothing else like being on the stage and having the feedback from the audience to really hone the craft and figure it out on stage,” says Perelshtein. “That’s what’s great about what we’re trying to instill in the community. Anyone can do this, and if they want to perform, there’s a chance for them to do so.”

Hannay is a proud improv addict and sees how performing can benefit participants’ lives. “I think improv is about pushing people out of their comfort zones,” he says. This is evident at LIVE, when Hannay transforms the lounge into an imaginary battle field, forcing his students to interact as soldiers.

Both Hannay and Perelshtein point out that Ottawa has a rich history of improv, surpassing even Montreal’s, but it had become dormant until recently. They reference Ottawa residents like Tom Green and Mike MacDonald as having brought an avant-garde and experimental feel to Ottawa improv.

Perelshtein says she is sick of the bad rap Ottawans take for being boring, especially those who, like her, work for the government.

“It’s harder here because it’s smaller and there aren’t as many city dwellers as opposed to Montreal and Toronto,” she says. “Everyone comes to work downtown and leaves downtown. There’s not a big population that has a big art scene, it’s just a little bit of a smaller pond. They’re funny people though.”

Al Connors, the national director of the Canadian Improv Games, echoes that sentiment. “I think Ottawa is a kick-ass town that for some reason got a bad reputation. Every comedian who travels to Ottawa will make a joke about it and it’s just annoying and dumb. We hear it all the time and there’s no reason for it,” Connors says.

The games are a competition between high school improv groups across the country and have been held in Ottawa since their inception in 1978. Connors has been involved in the Ottawa improv scene for 20 years, assuming his current position in 2012.

“Ottawa’s standup scene has been huge forever and Ottawa’s improv scene is bigger now than it has been for the last 20 years,” he continues. “So yeah, I think Ottawa is a fantastic place to find something that fits your personal sense of humour.”

With next year marking the 40th anniversary of the games, Connors has set off on the task of reuniting what he estimates is more than 100,000 Canadian Improv Games alumni. “We’re doing an alumni drive and trying to reach out to universities and stuff like that,” he says, excited by the prospect. “We’re basically gonna throw a huge party next year.”

Back at the bar, Hannay and his students take a break. Conversation covers topics like Game of Thrones and the game console, Sega Genesis. Inevitably, Saturday Night Live is brought up and one of the class members asks Hannay to set him up for a Jimmy Fallon impression. Hannay can see the punch line forming from a mile away but serves it up to him on a platter anyway. The student breaks out laughing like the venerable host of The Tonight Show was known to do while on SNL. Hannay smirks, and then starts class up again. Someone has to spin those plates.

Author: Nathan Caddell

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  1. Thank you for taking the time and chat with us Nathan!

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    • Thank YOU! Was a pleasure!

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