Local comedy troupe combines gladiators, soap opera, and hilarity

The real test of comedians seems to be how they involve their audience and environment, and come up with comedy off-the-cuff.

While not everybody can be an actor, and not everybody can think on their feet, the Calgary-based improv comedy soap opera troupe, DIrty Laundry, does it all

While hosting a very like-minded group of performance artists, the troupe aims at entertaining in a spontaneous and audience-inclusive, yet still researched fashion.

Rob Ullett (Killing Machinus, left) and Stafford Perry (Harrianus Testosteronus, right) compete in a slow-motion bout at the coliseum.

Photo by: Kyle Napier

“This year we’ve gone deep into the past,” said Aaron Coates, co-artistic director of Dirty Laundry. “Truthfully, I’m a huge fan of Rome. I’ve always been fascinated by the Roman Republic and Empire. All that history has just been fascinating to me… This is the year to tackle Rome.”

Karen Johnson-Diamond, the group’s co-artistic director with Coates, says the Roman theme is meant to give the actors and the audience new set of challenges, by exploring a soap opera in a new time and place.

“At the end of the day, we’re a comedy soap opera — so we take liberties with historical accuracy but we still make it a point to anchor ourselves in the realities of Rome,” Coates added. “We’ve done a lot of research, and there are some bizarre and unusual things (about Roman culture) and hopefully we’ll be bringing that to the stage this season.”

The 4th Annual Calgary International Improv Festival was kicked-off by Dirty Laundry’s “Season XII: Ancient Rome” on Sept. 26, and will continue every Monday nighty at the Lunchbox Theatre, located 160-115 Ninth Ave. S.E.

Though the first episode has just aired, they’ve still got 23 episodes to perfom over the course of the season, with no script and no plans.

Being an improv group means the only parts of the play they know ahead of time is where a scene is going to be set and which characters the actors will be playing. This is because improv is a genre of theatre where the actors carry the creative weight instead of the director. The director views his actors as an “open source” for comedic content, giving the director greater choice in direction in terms of comedy.

Johnson-Diamond describes this season as “non-formal improv where there’s a story line that carries on continuously.”

This includes a story arc consistent with the entire 24-episode season, yet still allowing each independent two-hour episode to take its own direction.

“We try to run it exactly like your classic day-time soap opera,” says Coates, “In that every episode ends with cliffhangers, and we pick up the next week where we left off. Having said that, the cast tries to present a show that has a stand-alone quality to it as well.”

The well-knit cast and crew, who get along both on and off the set, consists of 14 different actors and a live musician contributing to the ambience and scenes of ad-lib songs. The group has been performing together since 1999.

Coates, reflecting on the art of spontaneity involved, says things happen during improv that never would in planned circumstances because you’re “flying on the seat of your pants,” which makes those moments amazing and surprising.

“However, no matter how great an improviser you are, the possibility of horrendous failure is always floating beside you,” says Coates.

Despite the ever-present chance at bombing a scene, the actors are able to blend their characters with their own personalities enough so the entire cast tends to work symbiotically.

This includes purposefully timed light dimming, flashbacks to childhoods, and hilarious names such as Chlamydia, Flava Flavious, Harrianus Testosteronus, and Killing Machinus.

“We know how we think, but there’ll still be great surprises when they (actors) throw you for a loop… You’re just sitting in a chair, watching the show, and all of a sudden you find out that you’re pregnant — well, there ya go,” Johnson-Diamond says with a laugh.

You can see “Season XII: Ancient Rome” every Monday from Sept. 26 to Dec. 19 (except for Oct. 17 and Nov. 21)

The show will continue Feb. 6 to May 14,

(except for Feb. 27, March 26, and April 23)

The show starts at 7:30, and tickets are $14.

Visit www.dirtylaundrycalgary.com for more information.

Quinton Zwicker, assistant stage manager, encourages Calgarians to check out their show.

“You should watch because it’s an overall fun night, and Mondays are usually not the best of days, so coming here just lightens up Mondays.”

knapier@cjournal.ca