Improv fanatic? Check out Vancouver Theatre Sports “The Massacre” Tourney

A young improvee is a terrible thing to waste.” – Howard Blank at Grapes of Laugh 

Vancouver TheatreSports League (VTSL), a local not-for-profit theatre, wholeheartedly stands by this sentiment as they support the next generation of “improvees” by providing them with an outlet to improvise on stage in front of an audience. From first watching a night of improv put on by the pros then transitioning to the training programs that VTSL offers, an aspiring improviser certainly benefits from what is offered at the theatre. The organization encourages innovation and creativity and opens the door for improv to be a viable career option or a hobby for old and young alike.

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In addition to their weekly programs, the theatre also hosts events, such as Grapes of Laugh, and tournaments such as “The Massacre“, which is currently in the semifinal stage and ends on February 16th. Now in its 26th year, “The Massacre” follows the same format of the regular programs, where the audience is the judge, and the competition is refereed. The preliminary stages of the tournament saw four Vancouver teams go head-to-head to find the “best” local talent. Teams include: Mom’s New Boyfriend, Rock-Tricity, Big Story Time and Buns-A-Glazin’. The teams were put together based on best team dynamic and chosen by VTSL’s Artistic Director, Denise Jones, and VTSL’s Artistic Associate, Pearce Visser. Upon having duked things out locally, the top Vancouver team will take on teams from Toronto, Austin, Portland, Slovenia and, last year’s winner, Edmonton.

I had the pleasure of recently attending consecutive evening performances, first for a regular show, then for the Grapes of Laugh event. As an advocate for improv, opting for it rather than stand-up comedy, I will unabashedly promote this tournament. Rarely will you see me laugh out loud while facing a stage, but the witty nature of these ad-lib performances never fails to make that happen. Whether one glass deep or six glasses deep, you’ll find me vying for a seat at the front so that I can feel as though I’m right in the action. Sometimes you’ll hear me shout out suggestions or volunteer to take part, but the majority of the time I’m happy to observe.

I chatted with Jay Ono, VTSL’s Executive Director, to find out more about the “The Massacre” tournament.

Why is it titled “The Massacre”? I read that is a “bloody, comedic battle”, but is there more to it?

Historically the organization was trying to find a way to create an event that would help build audiences during a slow time.  This was over 20 years ago and January and February are no longer slow months for TheatreSports.  The organization at the time felt that raising the stakes would be a great way to position the event, so they decided to base it on the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.  Competitive improv is not always pretty.

It states that you are “pulling out all the stops to make sure this will be your funniest festival yet”. What’s different this year?

The big shift has happened over the last few years is having groups apply to be part of the tournament. In the past we invited groups that we were familiar with. We have realized great artistic success and diversity with this model. This year, the artistic director has pulled together groups that are well established and are at the top of their game. We have added more International Jam Sessions which allow all of the improvisers to work together, in addition to performing with just their group.  Performances like these often become the most memorable moments for our audience and participating improvisers.

Has Vancouver ever won “The Massacre”? If so, when?

I think it has been a while since we won “The Massacre”, though we have placed in the top two for the last ten years.  Our performers do benefit from the home team edge i.e. home audience, home venue, etc.

Is there a prize for the winning team or is it all for bragging rights?

The winning team gets their team name on a massive trophy.  Not as big as the Stanley Cup, but big enough that you wouldn’t be able to put it in your carry-on luggage.  Bragging rights for sure, and now with social media it makes it so convenient to brag. The winning team also automatically gets an invite back to the tournament. This year Edmonton will be defending their title.

What is so unique about this improv festival? In other words, how did it come to be so “famous”?

I think the quality of the invited groups is a key success factor. Also, it’s more than the competition; it’s about talented improvisers coming together and sharing ideas on what good comedy improv is all about. Our audience gets exposed to different styles of improv, and the invited improvisers get to play for the best improv audience in the world, in one of the nicest improv venues in the world, and in one of the most beautiful cities in the world.

There are two shows for “The Massacre” tonight, as well as two Saturday night. It starts up again Tuesday the 11th and runs twice a night until the 16th for the final showdown. Buy tickets for the tournament here. Some evenings, including this weekend, have limited tickets left so act fast!

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