Ottawa Improv Festival: Where acting outside the box is what it’s all about

Sachin Sinha, centre, in action in last year's festival. Photo: Tuong La

Sachin Sinha wants to be an actor. It’s been a passion since his high school days at Lisgar Collegiate. But in addition to school musicals and the like, he’s been honing his skills in Improv Theatre and it’s been a ready training ground.

The 21 year old is currently a member of the University of Ottawa’s touring Improv team and he’s a regular with Outtake Improv, which, among other things, hosts a monthly show at Live! on Elgin.

And this week he’ll be performing in the Ottawa Improv Festival which starts Thursday at Arts Court. The festival is been the creation of The Improv Embassy, who has produced gatherings in 2016 and 2017. Earlier versions of the festival were held in 2010, 2011 and 2014 making this year is the sixth time the festival has happened.

This year’s gathering will put 80 performers — including locals such as Outtake and Crush Improv, to folks from Montreal, Toronto and the Big Bang troupe from Boston, Mass. — on stage in a variety of styles from Improv scenes inspired by real-life stories, improvised fantasy epics, stream of consciousness performance, something called The Party Show (half party, half show) and a 50/50 show featuring actors and improvisers working together.

The latter will include Sinha, who will be one of the improvisers. The concept was developed in Montreal by Vance Gillis, the education director at Montreal Improv where it was a smash hit, even making it into the Just for Laughs festival.

“I started in high school at Lisgar. They had a pretty established Improv team and I managed to jump on board in my last year of high school. I fell in love wth it.

“It has some of the most energetic and enthusiastic people (around). Mix that with fact that I love drama,” and he found his niche.

“I love musicals, I love theatre, but Improv is a lot more accessible. There are a lot of people here who love this stuff. They love performing, making people laugh and collaborating with new, diverse and interesting people.”

This from a guy about to pursue an acting career after he graduates from uOttawa in business. The degree, it turns out, was a compromise with his parents.

“I’m looking at (going to) Toronto. Honestly, it feels like I’m going into it very prepared.” He’s not naive. He knows that success as an actor is as much about luck as it is talent.

“If it doesn’t work out at least I will have tried.” He’s ruled out more schooling. His education in Improv has been enough to hone acting skills and create the kind of connections that will help down the line.

“Improv teaches you to just go for it,” he says. It also teaches you how to listen “and adapt to any situation. I feel like a lot of improvisers feel the need to be clever and make jokes on stage and I, personally, having seen many shows, you can always tell when an improviser is trying to be funny.”

After hundreds of Improv performances, he’s pretty much up for anything including the 50/50 show which, when this interview took place, he knew very little about.

“In an Improv scene, it’s not so much about what is being said for me, it’s more about how I feel about this person. … At the end of the day, the audience won’t remember what I say, they’ll remember how I say it.”

Ray Besharah and Leigh Cameron at the 2017 Ottawa Improv Festival. Photo: Tuong La

Ottawa actor Ray Besharah isn’t doing Improv all the time, but when he does, he enjoys the challenge.

Besharah spends about 75 per cent of his acting time working in film and TV and about a quarter in theatre. He has his own production company called Garkin Productions and, oh yes, he also has a day job working in marketing.

“I’ve never been an actor trying to make a living as an actor, so Ottawa works out well for me.”

He started acting as a child, he says and working with the Upper Canada Playhouse and in local community theatre in the Winchester-Morrisburg area.

About 10 years ago, Besharah started writing his own scripts and taking them on the road to Fringe festivals across Canada. About the same time he dipped his toe into Improv. He does it infrequently, but he likes what Improv gives to him as an actor.

“Improv gives you the ability to stay loose on stage. It gives you a sense that nothing has to be locked in 100 per cent.”

That creates confidence and that reduces the anxiety about learning lines.

Besharah has been around Ottawa long enough to have witnessed the city’s Improv culture grow over time.

“I have been tracking the scene for 15, 20 years. It has had its ups and downs but … in the past five years, the scene has really started to explode.” He credits Crush Improv and The Improv Embassy, which, he says, has brought a Second City approach to the city. Getting a space on Rideau Street was also important for Improv Embassy, Besharah added.

He believes this all has resulted in a wave of new improvisers.

Another reason for this increase in activity, he says, could be that Improv seems to fit our DIY, spontaneous combustion times.

Besharah is also taking part in the 50/50 show with Sinha as one of the actors.

He has started memorizing his script.

“I’ve never done anything quite like this. I still will be improvising though. I have to present, verbatim, the words, but how I say those words will be coloured by the interaction with an improviser.”

The Ottawa Improv Festival runs from March 1 to 3 in the Arts Court Theatre. For tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.