“Wildfire Teen Improv Festival is very strange,” says 17-year-old Darby Gynane.
She’s heading into her fourth run at the festival alongside her teammates from Louis St. Laurent. The improv competition, running from Feb. 7 to 25 at the Citadel’s Ziedler Hall, pits teams of junior and senior high students from across Edmonton and Alberta against each other to see who’s the most spontaneously entertaining.
“You see people who are creating art in front of your eyes that they’re never going to do again and you’re never going to see again,” Gynane says. “It’s very much an in the moment kind of thing.”
That’s what Gynane means by “strange.” Improvised theatre is already a departure from traditional forms of reproducible entertainment, so when things get competitive in the annual festival, opposing teams push each other to be the best they can in any given performance. The result is a fun-filled rush for those on stage and in the audience.
Gynane fell in love with improv when she was whisked away to a workshop her seniors were running during a wrap party for a junior high musical. The liberating experience she had in that first session is what pulls many theatre students into the world of improv.
“It was so much fun, and I got to be as open and as strange as I wanted to be without feeling like I was going to be judged,” she says.
Rapid Fire Theatre’s Director of Education, Joe Vanderhelm, has heard the same thing during his time both participating in the festival in 1999, and administering it in recent years.
“They see improvisers getting up on stage, having fun getting laughs, and it just looks like a good time,” Vanderhelm says. “And it is, it absolutely is.”
This is the 11th year those good vibes have been exuding from the Wildfire Festival, and he says the biggest draw for the students and their audiences is the collaborative nature of successful improv.
“It’s not about me getting a laugh,” he says. “It’s about us doing something together that we could never have done on our own.”
Gynane’s favourite part of the competition is learning from the other schools.
“When you see the other teams, you learn so many new games and new styles and new approaches that you would have never thought of,” Gynane says. You have teams who have created games on the spot at competitions, and those are some of the best games ever done.”
Watching the teams devise new games or ace classic ones like “sounds like a song,” where whatever scene is being improvised must be converted into a musical number, is what gets the crowd going too.
“The competitiveness is really artificial for the most part,” Vanderhelm says.
Panels of Rapid Fire Theatre’s professional improvisers judge the students’ performances. They award points based on entertainment value and adherence to performance-specific rules, but Vanderhelm emphasizes that the festival is about more than earning a high score and winning a medal.
“When we see improvisers try to improvise competitively, it doesn’t work anymore,” he says. “It starts to actually be a detriment towards their skills ‘cause they start to tighten up and they get too tense, whereas improv asks that you be open.
“I find the best teams are the ones who are able to forget that they’re in a tournament, and just remember that they are performing on stage.”
Some of those high school teams that succeed during the festival’s second week will go on to represent Alberta at the Canadian Improv Games in Ottawa from April 18 to 22, but despite that, Vanderhelm says the performances are more cooperative than combative.
“The competition is fuelled by love and it’s fuelled by respect and admiration for each other,” Vanderhelm says. “So yes we want to do as best as we possibly can, but we’re never really comparing ourselves to each other, we’re comparing ourselves to ourselves.”
That self-improvement focus is key for the improvisers, and it keeps them coming back each month for the Northern Alberta Improv League, and each year for the Wild Fire Teen Improv Fest.
“Improv is one of the most accepting and welcoming and friendly communities that I have ever encountered,” Gynane says. And she says the relationships she forms throughout the festival are just as important as putting on a great performance.
“I got my start in improv by participating in this tournament and now I’m the guy who runs the show,” Vanderhelm says. “That’s always been kind of special for me, so I get to see the next bright, shining eyes of the improvisers.
“One of those people is going to be me someday, so that’s exciting.”