way back in january i wrote about the 50-hour improvathon that i nearly watched all of. one of the highlights was a character called Tony Ferrari whose catchphrase "eeeeeeiiiyyyyyyyyy" became part of my everyday vocabulary.
joyfully, i was in vienna for work last week (yup, freelancing is working out allright). the joy wasn't particularly the work itself, but that i managed to get to see an improv show on the friday night at the Drachengasse Theatre, somewhere near a viennese church, somewhere in the city.
Jacob Banigan, the improviser behind T. Ferrari was in the show, and was happy for me to fire a bunch of questions at him in a somewhat amateur way. here is what/how it went down:
Jacob Banigan began improvising over 20 years ago in Edmonton, Canada, with the revered Rapid Fire Theatre. He's since moved to Austria, where he performs regularly with Theatre Im Bahnhof in Graz and The English Lovers in Vienna. He travels all over the world to teach and perform.
How did you discover improv?
JB: I first saw it when I was a teenager, when my sister told me to go see TheatreSports. I always knew I wanted to perform, and when I saw improv I realized the players were really enjoying themselves and the audience was with them the whole way. The world of stand-up looked pretty nasty, from a distance.
What do you really love about improv?
With improv, the audience accepts all your ideas. If you say you’re 10 feet tall, they just go: “Okay”. And if you act a little bit that way they see it even more. We can paint the picture as fast as we want. What sustains it is the reality of these ridiculous situations: audiences come back for the true moments, instead of the comedy of it.
What was your favourite ever improv moment?
In 2006 I got to do a World Cup of TheatreSports in the Canadian team, with two very good friends of mine: Steve Sim and Derek Flores. That was a super highlight for me. But I’ve worked with so many great people. I go to Edmonton and we have fantastic shows. Sometimes just me and Mark (Meer), sometimes with others. And Jim (Libby) and I tootle around doing a lot of two-man shows. We created a board game show where you roll the dice and it tells you how long the scene is. We both play all the characters. It’s a mix of short- and long-form.
You were in the 50 hour Improvathon, and you’ve done ultra-long Soapathons. What’s the best thing about them?
The stories can take so long and get so complex, and when you try to back-track through one you realise it started two days ago! In the Improvathon, Ruth (Bratt) and Mark (Meer) had a funny little boob-poke right near the beginning. It was so early, but it paid off throughout, and at the very end created the most romantic, touching scene. There would be no way to predict that, or make that happen, if you were writing that story.
Did you have any out-of-body experiences?
I had some brain farts, yeah. Nothing that was transcendent, just embarrassing. Part way through a scene you think: “Am I still here? Am I still talking? Fuck!” There’s always a time in the Soapathon where everyone is flumping on stage. But everyone comes back.
Have you ever had a totally shit show?
Oh yes. In Wetaskiwin, Alberta, a small town. We did a fundraiser gig for The Wives of the Mounties. Full of small-town ladies with power issues (because they’re married to Mounties), all hammered. We got there and the place was already a riot. We couldn't wait to get off the stage. It felt like forever. They hated us. They threw pennies at us. They even came on stage and said: “SHUT UP AND GET OFF!” I got mad. I’ve promised myself never to get mad on stage again. We did maybe 10-15 minutes… We were supposed to do 40.
Do you perform in German when you do shows in Austria?
I perform in German sometimes, very bad German. My characters are usually foreigners or animals. Or objects.
Did you have to adapt your humour in any way?
Performing in another language forces you to simplify. You can’t be clever. You can’t make jokes. If I lose track of what’s going on in a show that’s mostly in German, it’s usually because people have started making jokes or doing wordplay. If you keep it to what’s real, and what’s here, it’s no problem. It can be really helpful for people to travel and perform in another country where you can’t just make references to your own pop culture.
How would you describe your own style?
I don’t mind giving life to objects or to dogs. Again, don’t play the dog like a crazy dog - just be a dog. The reality of that is interesting, too. I don’t mind looking stupid, because it’s not me, it’s the character. If I went out there and tried to be funny and charming I’d be dead. You don’t have to defend your ideas or sneak them in emotionally, you just have to bring them to the stage and connect them to the other people. People respect that. Sometimes people take the serious stuff too seriously, that’s bad theatre. It just needs to be alive.
What was your favourite improv show you ever saw?
The first time I saw Crumbs in Winnipeg they just blew my mind. Their style was so different from anything I’d seen before and I immediately wanted to steal from them. I was watching their show looking for a structure, and afterwards they told me they didn’t have one. They just start: no games and no hooks! They just kinda play. It was a revelation.
Do you have an improv hero?
Mark Meer. Everyone is just trying to catch up to him. Actually when I’m playing with him I’m not trying to catch up to him, I’m trying to knock him off his balance. I learned years ago not to try to play the same game he’s playing, because you won’t be able to. If you’re in his game, great, but if you’re not - don’t even try. My job now is like: “Okay, Mark seems to know what he’s doing, I’m going to try and make him trip.” But he totally glosses over, like that’s part of his world too! There’s nobody else like him. And he does it with pure joy.
Do you think improv works on TV?
It’s on in America occasionally, but I don’t think it’s exactly been done properly. ‘Whose Line’ is fantastic, for what it is. There was this show called ‘The Green Screen Show’ [where actors do a short-form show in front of a green screen, then environment and props are animated in before it’s broadcast]. I liked that it was about suggesting something that could then be put in afterwards. You can’t do that on stage. I think that’s the way to go, just without all the ‘funny-funny’.
Jacob is currently working on an improvised movie. At the moment he's not sure exactly how it will work.
If you would like to read the whole unabridged interview you can: HERE