Published on December 8th, 2015 | by Biz Books
The Biz Interview: Love Musically Spotlight
If Love Actually is one of your favourite holiday movies, you’re in for a treat. On December 16th, the creative group of improv geniuses at Off Key Improv are opening Love Musically – an improvised musical inspired by Love Actually – just in time for the holidays.
We had to know more about what goes into creating an improvised musical, so we tracked down three members of the show – Sam Mitchell, Byron Abando, and Jamieson McCormack – to tell us more about the process and share some of their improv expertise and insights with our audience.
What is your involvement with Love Musically and how did that get started?
Sam Mitchell: I’ve been in Off Key Improv ever since the group emerged out of a weekly practice night where we would get together and improvise songs. When the idea for this show was proposed, I jumped at the opportunity because there just aren’t that many two-act musical improv shows to be a part of in Vancouver.
Byron Abando: I am one of the band members. I provide rhythm, percussion and sound effects. I got invited to play one of Off Key Improv shows and I got hooked.
Jamieson McCormack: Personally, I am a main stage payer as well as Off Key Improv’s Social Media Manager.
We got started 4 years ago, under Jennifer Pielak’s initiative, to challenge our comedy skills and workshop something new. However we all fell in love with building shows like Love Musically and now here we are, 4 years later and still together. Life is just a little better when you’re Off Key!
Love Musically is an improvised musical based on the film Love Actually. Can you explain how that works?
Sam Mitchell: The show will start with our host casting parts for each of the eight principal cast members based on who our audience is that night. The audience members choose what information to give us, and they spark the direction for the show to go. The improvisers play those roles for the entire show, exploring the stories that emerge between them without ever leaving the stage. There is no plan, so as for what happens next, your guess is as good as mine.
Byron Abando: We are taking the core concept of Love Actually which is connection and relationships between people as our main driving plot. Love Actually is beloved because people can relate to those characters and see bits of themselves in the difference roles.
Jamieson McCormack: The way we improvise is very unstructured – we like to let the energy of the night, our audience and their suggestions inspire how our characters and story develop. For Love Musically, the movie Love Actually will kind of be like an unseen player, always on stage with us giving us direction to play off of. If you’ve seen the movie, you’ll know it is all about the relationships, so we will be gathering real relationships from our audiences and improvising with truth on how hard, rewarding, silly and insane love can really be.
What are the creative challenges and rewards associated with creating an improvised musical?
Sam Mitchell: There are a lot of people in this show, and so coordinating that many minds when there’s no plan can be a challenge. But, somehow that challenge makes it all the more rewarding in the end. When you’re in the audience watching and something surprises or delights you, you can bet that we are surprised and delighted too. We’ve never seen the show either.
Byron Abando: The challenge is that it is somewhat like a high wire circus act without the net to catch you if you fall. On a scripted show you are not creating a new work, you are following another person’s creation. You can memorize your part, develop a muscle memory of sorts, and perform the show. But you did not create the show. The reward is the freedom of not being restricted by a script. It challenges your own knowledge of character and plot development. We all contribute to not only performing the show but creating it as well.
Jamieson McCormack: Creating improvised musicals still makes my palms sweaty and my heart race. I have been waiting for this to get easy for 4 whole years, and I have come to the realization it just never will. Improv has no safety net, so the challenges come when you’re doubting yourself or if you doubt another one of your fellow players. That energy breeds uncertainty and disconnects you from the moment you are in.
This being said, there is no bigger reward than getting over this doubt and learning to trust the process. When you get on stage with another player and you feel so connected, it’s like you both know where things are going without really knowing at all. It’s like magic… I have no other way of describing what it feels like. That’s why improvisors walk onto empty stages with nothing but a word of inspiration. For the raw, prickling, set-your-soul-on-fire, magic.
What can audiences expect when they see it?
Sam Mitchell: Since it’s all improvised you can expect to see an entirely new show every night. What remains the same is that you’ll see a cast improvising scenes and songs, supported by an incredible four-piece band, creating a musical before your eyes. If you love the spirit of the season, the fond memories and traditions, the challenges and emotions, you’ll see it all in this show.
Byron Abando: They can expect something new every night. It is the beauty of the show because it is never the same show. As it is a musical there will be singing, dancing, and dramatic moments. But how they will be presented will be new for every show. Be prepared to laugh and to cry.
Jamieson McCormack: With Love Musically you have to expect the unexpected. We are comedy improvisors, however above this we play to the truth. If a moment calls for something serious we will honour it. So much so that you could be laughing one moment and then crying in the next. The best jokes happen when we least expect them. When you’re with your family or best friends and something random happens that just splits your sides! These are always the funny moments we remember. Playing to the truth allows us to create these memorable moments naturally.
What are three things that every improv production needs in order to be successful?
Sam Mitchell: The desire to do an improv show,fearlessness, and an audience. I joke, but it’s true. You really don’t need all that much.
Byron Abando: Creativity, Knowledge, Practice.
Jamieson McCormack: Trust, a humble attitude and maybe one chair… though if you don’t have a chair you can always improvise one!
Why does the world need musicals and improv (and both together)?
Sam Mitchell: For musicals: to see the world as a more magical place. For improv: to realize that everything we do in our daily lives is actually improvised. Together: to experience the joy of spontaneously created music.
Byron Abando: Musicals and improv provide joy and art to the world. When Winston Churchill was asked to cut arts funding in favour of the war effort, he simply replied “then what are we fighting for?” Why not put both together? Musical improv bridges multiple skills together and allows it’s players to showcase all of them including their own creative mind.
Jamieson McCormack: We are always looking to connect. Especially in this day and age, where some of our most intimate relationships are with a screen of some sort! People go to the theatre to feel something, be it laughter, sadness, joy… our emotions are what make us so human and connection to others is what nourishes these emotions. Music is audible emotion, and musicals are an expression of the overflow of these feelings.
Improv is created within every moment, and relies on connection, to both the players and the audience, to thrive. When you bring the two together what you get is a crashing of raw emotion channeled through undoubted connection. The world needs this to remember that it is possible. That hope, love and magic do exist. Not trying to wax poetics about a comedy show or anything, though if you come join our audience you’ll get what I’m talking about.
What are some of your favourite musicals?
Sam Mitchell: The Book of Mormon, The Last Five Years, Title of Show
Byron Abando: Once, Les Miserables, Hamilton
Jamieson McCormack: Two of my favourite screen musicals are both Joss Whedon creations: Once More With Feeling (The Buffy Musical) and Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. They’re both a little bit goofy, however Joss just gets it. Whatever “it” is, he gets.
For stage it would have to be Once: The Musical. It will stop your heart (*not literally).
What are your favourite holiday movies – besides Love Actually?
Sam Mitchell: I’m a big fan of A Charlie Brown Christmas.
Byron Abando: Miracle on 34th Street and The Holiday.
Jamieson McCormack: It’s A Wonderful Life for its sweet nostalgia and hopeful optimism and Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, the stop motion version, for allowing me to feel okay with being a weirdo misfit growing up. I feel like the island of misfit toys may very well be where improvisers come from!
Who are your improv influences?
Sam Mitchell: Before I started doing improv I watched a lot of improv. And every week my friends and I would go watch a group called Table 23 at a coffee shop—they did a great show, and their audiences were frequently at capacity. That group happened to feature Jennifer Pielak, who is now our director now in Off Key Improv, and Graham Myers, who later came to be the artistic director of Second Storey Theatre. I joined Graham’s theatre in 2011, performing in the resident cast in weekly shows. Those years formed the core of my experience as an improviser.
Byron Abando: The Second City and Second Storey Theatre.
Jamieson McCormack: Doug Widick from North Coast (NYC) and Kory Mathewson from Rapid Fire Theatre (Edmonton). I’ve taken workshops from both of them and have watched them in shows. They’re incredibly talented humans and good people.
What’s the most important lesson you have learned so far in your career?
Sam Mitchell: Surround yourself with creative people. There is nothing better than hearing new, exciting ideas from your friends and just being able to say: Yes, let’s do that.
Byron Abando: To keep learning and take educated risks.
Jamieson McCormack: When you want to do something, you have to commit to it. You will get no where doing things half a**. You’ve got to go all in, FULL A**!
What books and authors have been influential to you?
Sam Mitchell: There is a wealth of literature on improv, so I’ll mention only a few.
Improvisation for the Theatre by Viola Spolin – because you can’t go wrong with reading foundational texts.
Impro by Keith Johnstone – because of the impact he has had on improv in Canada
Process by Mary Scruggs and Michael Gellman – for their ingenuity in pursuing a similar improv form to what we are pursuing.
Homo Ludens by Johan Huizing – for his trailblazing anthropological study of play (after all, improv is primarily an expression of play).
The Boy Who Would Be a Helicopter by Vivian Paley – for her insight into how play develops in the child and how teachers ought to support that development.
Byron Abando: A Case of Need by Michael Crichton. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon.
Jamieson McCormack: The Harry Potter series is responsible for re-sparking my childish belief in magic, and I will always come back to it when I feel myself growing up too much for a dose of fantastical faith.
What other projects do you have in the works and where can we find out more about you?
Sam Mitchell: Aside from this work with Off Key Improv, I teach improv at two Coquitlam high schools. I also occasionally perform with Second Storey Theatre in Port Coquitlam.
Byron Abando: offkeyimprov.com
Jamieson McCormack: When I’m not with Off Key, I work in Social Media Marketing and I am also a Registered Holistic Nutritionist. You can follow me on Twitter and Instagram under @JamiesonEileen if you like food photos or 140 characters or less of random thoughts.
Our thanks to Sam Mitchell, Byron Abando, and Jamieson McCormack for speaking with us!
Love Musically plays December 16th to 20th at Studio 1398 on Granville Island (1398 Cartwright Street). Shows are 8pm Wednesday to Sunday with 2pm matinees on Saturday and Sunday. Tickets are $18 and are available at lovemusically.brownpapertickets.com.
For more information about Off Key Improv, please visit OffKeyImprov.com.