text: Nicky Nasrallah | photography: Chris Robinson 

What if you could see some of the planet’s greatest improvisers do their thing under one roof, in one short weekend?

Toronto comedy group National Theatre Of The World (NTOW) has collected the top acts from as far away as Mumbai and Melbourne to come take part in the Impulse Festival (December 12-15), a weekend of performances, workshops, and one record-breaking marathon improv set.

I sat down with Co-Artistic Director Naomi Snieckus between a fireplace and a construction site in the heart of Toronto’s historic Distillery District, where NTOW is the artist in residence at Soulpepper Theatre.

Nicky Nasrallah: Hello, Naomi.

Naomi Snieckus: Hello, Quippers.

NN: I’m very excited about this.

NS: About this moment right now, or the festival?

NN: Both! You’ve been working with Soulpepper for almost a year now?

NS: We’ve been in residence doing some things like the Word Festival, we did an improvised Charles Dickens play, and then we did a run of our Script Tease show here in the Tankhouse. And now this festival is sort of our big commitment.

NN: So it’s all been leading up to this.

NS: When we signed up, Albert Schultz (Soulpepper’s Founding Artistic Director) asked what we wanted to do and we said, “Here are all of our dreams.” And he said, “Let’s do all of them.” He’s a big thinker. It’s such a gift they’ve given us. We couldn’t do this without them.

NN: How did you choose the international groups that you wanted to showcase in this festival?

NS: We at NTOW have been traveling around a lot, doing festivals in Berlin, Amsterdam, Israel, and England so we’ve started meeting all these people in these international settings. There were certain people who were so inspiring to us. Matthieu Loos from Lyon, France, is one of the best guys. We took a workshop from him and I remember saying to Matt, “We need to bring him to Toronto.”

We’ve known Patti Styles for a long time just through the community, but she’s really world renowned as far as improvisation goes. We’ve also worked with Sean McCann and Adam Meggido from School Of Night. Actually, Matt and I were in England and did the marathon. We were on our way to Amsterdam, and then we stopped and did a quick 10 hours of improv, and we met them all there. They’re fantastic.

And then we actually did the Bollywood improv when we were in Berlin. They did a workshop, and then there were about 20 of us who did it. It was amazing, because it’s such a supportive format. Then there’s Die Gorillas, of course, who invited us to Berlin and got the ball rolling. CRUMBS Garage from Winnipeg and Gordon’s Big Bald Head from Edmonton, those are friends of Matt from the olden days, but they’re also internationally known.

NN: I wish I could see everything. Who’s teaching the workshops? 

NS: Every group is teaching an advanced and a beginners workshop. So everybody. It’s sort of like Christmas, isn’t it? Christmas for comedy… or, sorry, Holiday Season. It’s one of those mixed bags of awesomeness. The shows are all individually going to be fantastic, and plus they’re all teaching. You’ll want to do it all. The way we’ve scheduled it, you can see everything. There are a couple of mashups. We’re doing a mashup with the guys from France, so if you can’t see us individually, you can see that. So if you get the full pass, you can see a lot of great shows.

NN: A lot of people who do comedy in this city generally perform for their peers. How do you reach out to a broader audience that’s not already involved in the industry?

NS: I think that because we have an improvised theatre mandate, it does open it up a lot to other groups. Because we’ve established a reputation of crossing theatre with improv, people are more aware they’re going to get a certain experience. We’ve stood the test of time. And Soulpepper brings a whole other audience to us. When we did our Script Tease Project, we didn’t know anyone in the audience. Because people are in this home already, they go, “Oh, what’s that?” It’s a great way to introduce what we’re doing because it isn’t something that anybody else has seen before.

NN: I think that’s the best. Performing for an audience of strangers.

NS: Yeah, it’s pretty exciting. We sort of had that theory in the beginning that we don’t necessarily want to perform for our friends. You grow tiresome of going to a show with the same group of people all the time. It’s great and it’s your community, but you should also expand.

NN: And what will audiences expect from the Impulse Festival?

NS: You’re going to get the top standard of improv in the world. The people that are coming from all over the place are definitely at the top of their game. The folks from France are famous over there. And so are the guys from Australia and Mumbai. So you’re getting a really high level of improv. And theatrical improv, too. People that have dedicated their life to this. They’re not just doing it for fun on the weekend. They believe in improv as a way of life.

NN: And then there’s the 55-hour Soap-a-thon.

NS: One of these things would be enough, but because Soulpepper is a big dreamer, and so are we, we came up with the idea of doing a full festival and this marathon. We’ve had to add on an extra hour because Australia just did 54, and we’re trying to break the record. We’re going to have a core group of people, some from the festival and some from the community, that will do all 55 hours, and some will come in for an episode or two. Colin Mochrie is coming in for the end. George Stroumboulopoulos said he would do it.

NN: The good thing about this marathon is I can come at a time when I normally wouldn’t be able to see a show.

NS: Right. People say “I can’t come, I have a show.” Well, you can come after your show. It’s set in Santa’s workshop. It’ll be a really cool experience.

NN: Is there anything you want to say before we part?

NS: I think this is a really exciting thing for Toronto, so I hope that it’s celebrated. It’s not our project, it’s the community’s project.

(Naomi’s phone rings. It’s NTOW’s Co-Artistic Director Matt Baram calling from Halifax.)

NS: I just did the interview with Quip. Is there anything you’d like to add about the festival? Ok! Great, I’ll tell him. (She hangs up.) He said “No.”

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