We Interview The Comic Geniuses Who Guarantee You'll Laugh Your Ass Off At Comedy Bar's COMBUSTIONfestival

by Monica Heisey

My main memory of last year’s COMBUSTIONfestival involves an inebriated onstage dance party to R.Kelly’s Ignition with a lot of dudes in plaid shirts. Starting May 24th, COMBUSTION is back at Bloor West’s Comedy Bar, six days of improvisation, workshops and dance parties masterminded by Toronto-based troupe and Canadian Comedy Award nominees PROJECTproject. Now in its fourth year, the festival features comedians from all over Canada and the United States performing with their troupes from home and mixing it up with strangers and friends from abroad.

We talked to Julie Dumais and Alex Tindal from PROJECTproject who assured us that tunes-wise, dudes-wise, and laughs-wise, we’re in good hands with COMBUSTION.

Who is PROJECTproject?
Julie: We’ve been around since 2007—we [Alex Tindal, Julie Dumais, Sarah Hillier and Sean Tabares] have all been working together on and off for the past five to ten years, but we formalized in spring of 2007. We’ve had a lot of different shapes and have worked with a lot of different people; the four of us is the most streamlined we’ve ever been.

Why did you guys want to create the COMBUSTIONfestival?
Julie: The basic idea behind the festival is people. We like tackling projects that are interesting to us. The project-driven mentality of PROJECTproject means that we’re constantly evolving, trying to produce work that reflects what we’re excited about.

Alex: From a purely selfish perspective it’s a great excuse to have our favourite people from other places come hang out, to get to see the things we most like to watch with the people we most like to watch it from. Our guests from out of town don’t just do their own stuff, they mix it up and try new things—this festival is about showcasing things you can’t see the rest of the time in Toronto. We bring in shows that aren’t here year round, and even beyond that—the combos that come out of the festival you never see again.

Why do you think Toronto is a good location for a festival like this?
Alex: There are people we feel that the city hasn’t had a chance to meet yet, and we want to facilitate those introductions. We wanted to do something that felt more like a family—it’s as much about the people we’re all spending the week with as seeing the shows they’re putting on.

How did you go about planning each night? How did you decide who was performing when?
Julie: We wanted to avoid over-lapping, we want everyone to be able to see everything that is happening, so we can all go to all the shows. We try to avoid hierarchy all together, so no one is more of a headliner than anyone else. They’re all kick-ass improvisors and people we think will be putting on fantastic shows. We try to wall-to-wall it with quality so no one gets priority.

What happens after the shows are over?
Julie: What’s ended up happening is that the Toronto improv community has been really wonderful and embracing of it, and it’s kind of become a big party for that community. Improvisors are a hard-partying bunch apparently. We like dance parties, we like to stay up really late.

Alex: The cool thing about COMBUSTION is that there’s a social aspect to the festival; there’s not really a line between the performer and audience… you can mingle and drink and hang out after the show and then take workshops during the day, and have your mind blown onstage.

What’s the submission process?
Alex: It’s by invitation, ours isn’t a submission-based festival. A lot of us have long relationships with improvisors from other cities from traveling/improvising other places. We find people all over the place, sometimes at other festivals. We also take recommendations from people we’re close to… last year a group from New York told us about Crush and we’d never seen them but went on the authority of someone else we really trust and they were great. This year we’ve got a similar thing happening with Ted and Melanie. We’re always looking to balance the types of flavours we’re bringing into the mix so we don’t have all the same texture and type of improv. We’re really excited and we have been every year about making sure we are including and embracing fresh new acts… people that are younger, etc.

We also like to involve people who don’t improvise but have really cool talents. We try to work with filmmakers, musicians etc. to have people improvise in their way. We’re collaborating with Wilderness of Manitoba on a music/improv project, and the Doppelganger project involves some of our friends who work in film.

Can you explain the workshops series a bit? Who is teaching them, who can take them?
Alex: They’re open to the general public, some of them are better if you have some prior improv experience but many of them will work regardless, if you’re confident and a quick learner. The teachers are pretty wonderful. [Sign up for the workshops on PROJECTproject’s website]

Julie: It’s kind of an embarrassment of riches in terms of the talent that has come to town—there are intensives this week that you couldn’t get anywhere else, and for insanely cheap.

What, to you, is special about watching improv? What can you get from improv that you can’t get from sketch or a play?
Julie: There’s a level of immediacy to it. Because of its spontaneous nature, it’s about constant conversation between the audience and the stage. Even more than any other live performance, unscripted live performance is a shared experience that doesn’t get recreated.

Alex: The idea that you’re in the room for something that will never happen again. If you weren’t in the room you lost your chance to see it and if you were, you’re one of the few people that got to.

A lot of people feel it can be hard to access improv as an ‘outsider’, or someone who’s not involved in it themselves—do you think there’s any truth in that?
Julie: I think sometimes yes, there’s a weird thing that happens, we tend to perform a lot to our colleagues and friends, but I really feel the festival is programmed in such a way that every show has something that can be enjoyed by anyone in the audience. The audience’s enjoyment is top priority in terms of our programming. It’s not meant to be elitist or inaccessible, and we bring people out who share the idea that we don’t do improv for personal gratification, it’s about making a performance that the audience can enjoy.

Alex: Improv lives and dies on the dynamic between the audience and what’s happening onstage. We want to do the things we’re interested in but also respect the audience that comes; you can be accessible and still have artistic ideals.

Describe the festival in one word.
[This brought on a fairly lengthy debate in which the words ‘awesome,’ ‘explosive,’ ‘p-art-y’ and ‘best time ever’ were thrown around. Eventually they settled on ‘Laugh Party.’]

Check out Toronto’s leading Laugh Party May 24-29 at Comedy Bar.

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