Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.
Words are to Emily Richardson what clay is to sculptors, or paint to an artist. An improviser and alumna of The Second City, she possesses a rare and (to most of us) jaw-dropping quick-wittedness that enables her to conjure a story – and cajole hilarity – out of the most innocuous word or phrase, leaving an audience in hysterics. What’s more, she seems to be able to do it without effort . . . night after night after night.
These days, Ms Richardson’s talents are being put to the test, competition-style. She is one of six improvisers in The Second City’s Improv Showdown, an epic battle where two teams of improvisers square off in rapid-fire wordplay and a hail of jokes every Wednesday and Thursday afternoon until Labour Day. In addition to Ms Richardson, Isabel Kanaan, Ted Hambly, Tom Hearn, Devon Henderson and Reid Janisse round out the cast. Of course, improv depends on the audience for input, so every show is unique. This means there’s no rehearsing for these shows. Does it sound pressurized? Well, on top of everything else, Ms Richardson has to wage this improv battle in front of the most discriminating of audiences: children. As we know, kids say the darnedest things. And it’s up to Ms Richardson and company to take their ideas, and spin them into ephemeral gold in this knock-down, drag out, all-or-nothing improv face-off, where anything can happen (and usually does).
Happily, she revels in it. Just this past winter, she played a dastardly yet heart-tugging villain in The Misfit League, the superhero-themed show for children (and their grown ups) at The Second City Mainstage. Ms Richardson originally discovered her knack for acting and improv while a student at Queen’s University. After graduating from The Second City’s Conservatory and Longform programs, she spent a year with The Second City’s House Ensemble. Her work includes being a Bad Dog Featured Player and a member of the award-winning sketch comedy troupe The Sketchersons. She also recently appeared on AMI’s sketch TV show Blindsighted.
All of this vast experience comes to bear in Improv Showdown, which showcases The Second City traditions that audiences have grown to expect and love: high-energy characters, fast-paced jokes, and snicker-inducing asides that appeal to old and young alike. Thanks to Musical Director Ayaka Kinugawa, there is even a musical component, with dancing to boot! So how does this competition actually work? How heated do things really get? Do the losers get a consolation prize? And most important of all, how can our readers get in on the action? We took our questions to the warm and versatile Ms Richardson to get the lowdown on the Showdown.
SesayArts: For those who might not know what a “showdown” is (or have watched too much GLOW and have a skewed impression of what a showdown is), can you tell us what audiences can expect at Improv Showdown?
ER: Improv Showdown is a high-energy, totally hilarious improv competition. There are two teams of two (purple vs. yellow), a host, and our awesome musical director on the sidelines. We perform scenes and play improv games based on audience suggestions. No two shows are the same, and we never know what’s going to happen.
A lot of the games involve grabbing volunteers from the audience (don’t worry, if you don’t have your hand up, we won’t pick you), so kids get to jump onstage and join in on the fun. After each game, the host/audience awards points, and the team with the most points wins the Showdown. It. Is. BONKERS.
SesayArts: My entire family enjoyed The Misfit League, and you were terrific in it. Given your vast experience on stage and screen, what appeals to you about performing for children?
ER: I love performing for kids because they’re filled with wonder and curiosity. My mom was a kindergarten teacher, and she was always singing silly made-up songs, telling stories through puppets and stuffed animals, and playing pretend with her students. I want to pass that fun on to other kids. We only get that childhood magic for a few years of our lives, so let’s make the most of it!
SesayArts: What is the greatest thrill of improvising for and with young people? Conversely, what is the biggest challenge?
ER: Their imaginations are wild, which means they’re totally invested in the show. However, sometimes I forget just HOW invested they are. They really care about the characters onstage. So, sarcasm? Doesn’t work for the younger kids. May get a few chuckles from parents, but when you “ironically” shade or insult a fellow performer (in what you think is good fun), kids just see you as a bully and stop rooting for you.
SesayArts: Considering that the premise of Improv Showdown is a competition, what constitutes “winning”? And what might young people learn about competition from a show like this?
ER: Since the show is improvised, there’s a different winner every time. The host, musical director, and audience will each assign a point after every scene, and at the end of the show, we tally them all up, and declare a winner. After presenting the trophy (it’s a giraffe in a golden cup, as constructed by our awesome director, Reid Janisse), both teams do the ol’ “good game” handshakes, the winning team gives the losing team compliments, and we get the entire audience to cheer for everyone. Hopefully the kids see that you can be gracious and positive while competing, whether you win or lose.
SesayArts: As an improviser, I wonder if you feel that people have an unrealistic expectation of you to be funny all the time…. Do you get that? What would you like people to know about you, beyond your comedy?
ER: Weirdly enough, I think that pressure to be funny is mostly from myself. I started telling jokes in high school, as a way to make new friends and impress boys (spoiler alert: did not work). So, sometimes, especially when I meet new people, I catch myself hamming it up and trying to give them a show. It’s that need to be liked. Most comedians have that.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve chilled out. If people like me, they like me. If not, well, I’ll feel bad in the moment, but I’ll live.
I also teach improv classes at the Second City Training Centre, and get to work with lots of different people; nine to fivers, retirees, actors, artists, stay-at-home parents, etc… And they’re all there for different reasons. Some want to work on their public-speaking skills; many are there to improve their confidence or just get out of their comfort zone; others want to pursue comedy. But each one of them has their own unique sense of humour. The most serious-seeming people will surprise me with how hilarious they are. It’s a pretty cool job.
SesayArts: The final word is yours. What would you like to add that I haven’t asked?
ER: I want to encourage kids, especially young girls, to get out there and be silly. When I was younger, I was very cynical and eye-rolly. That was me being afraid of failure. My thinking was, if I screw up, I can save face by acting like I didn’t care about any of this to begin with. As I got older, I realized I LIKE trying! I like being vulnerable and honest and imperfect.
My favourite quote is from Amy Poehler: “No one looks stupid when they’re having fun”.
News You Can Use
What: Improv Showdown, featuring Emily Richardson, Isabel Kanaan, Ted Hambly, Tom Hearn, Devon Henderson and Reid Janisse. Stage Management by Sam Polito, Musical Direction by Ayaka Kinugawa
Who: Audiences of all ages
When: Wednesdays and Thursdays, 1 PM until Labour Day
Where: Second City Mainstage Theatre, 51 Mercer Street, Toronto, ON M5V 9G9
Info and Tickets: SecondCity.com
© 2018 Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya