Acting out at nationals

A quick-witted team of young Red Deer improvisers invented scenarios about three unionized little pigs, a romantic breakup in a car wash and a greedy-guts on Ottawa’s National Arts Centre stage.

A quick-witted team of young Red Deer improvisers invented scenarios about three unionized little pigs, a romantic breakup in a car wash and a greedy-guts on Ottawa’s National Arts Centre stage.

Eight senior members of the Hunting Hills High School Improv Team were the only Albertans competing in the Canadian Improv Games in Ottawa March 23-26.

“We were so excited! … It’s been sort of a dreams of mine ever since the eight of us joined (the team) in Grade 9,” said graduating student Emily Wood.

She and the other Hunting Hills team members earned admission into the competition by winning at the provincial level in Edmonton in February.

Their teacher Sue Merry was thrilled to see how well her improvisers held up against 17 other student teams from Toronto, Vancouver, Winnipeg, Halifax, and other cities. “You had to see it. It was so cool,” said Merry.

The Ottawa audience shouted out suggestions, such as “fairy tale” and “stick of dynamite” and the students had just 15 seconds to huddle together and think of a scene to act out on stage.

“We had no idea what we were doing,” recalled chuckling Grade-12 student Aidan Sullivan. Yet he and the others managed to come up with often hilarious improvisations — including a spoof in which the Three Little Pigs were dealing with a union dispute at a construction site.

Most students in the tight group have been improvising together since Grade 9, and their ability to work as an ensemble made the team successful, said Merry.

The drama and English teacher has directed the improv team since 2000 and remains astounded by what her “super-talented, hardworking, and dedicated” students can accomplish. “They figure it out on stage together, and you wouldn’t believe the things they create — it’s just fantastic!”

Besides learning to think on their feet, improvisation improves listening ability, boosts creativity, confidence and co-operation, said Merry.

Among the teams from St. John’s, Nfld. to B.C.’s lower mainland, the Hunting Hills group scored in the middle of the pack in Ottawa. But the students came away pleased to have held their own against students from mostly big-city high schools.

It was a unique experience, said Sullivan. “I met some friends and had some fantastic moments.”

His teammate, Grade-12 student Duncan Macaulay said, “My favourite part was just getting to perform on the National Arts Centre stage. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

Macaulay hopes to someday join Edmonton’s Rapid Fire Theatre, while Wood is planning to study theatre at the University of Essex in the U.K.

Wood credits her “role model,” Merry, for teaching her to be brave in front of an audience, and to stretch her talent.

“One of the things that’s often overlooked with improv is it has amazing actors” who can convey dramatic, as well as comic, scenes, said Wood. On-stage in Ottawa, she portrayed half of a romantic couple who broke up while sitting in a vehicle that was going through a car wash. “We went very deep … it was like washing one’s past away …”

Grade 11 student Neelam Singh created a greedy character who was funny through sheer physicality.

Singh was a relative latecomer to the improv club, successfully auditioning for it in Grade 10. She recalled having to get over stage fright, initially. “You have to become open to a new art form.” What made it easier was learning that other team members would be there for you, she added.

“Not a single person is greedy for the spotlight.”

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