Part 1 of a two-part feature interview with the actor, writer, producer, director, human fractal, and proselytiser for improvised theatre. (Read Part 2)
It’s tempting to say that Colin Munch has many things hidden within his relatively slight, unassuming frame: an impish little boy, a mischievous teenage punk, a horny hipster with an insinuating smirk, a nebbish cardigan-wearing father, a bullying Chairman of the Board, the hero of dozens of personal action movies, and countless varieties of (sometimes very nice, very sweet, yet also very scary) socio- and psychopaths. But none of this is hidden: when you see him perform, you see all that’s contained in that deep well of possibilities simultaneously, and it is a joy.
Originally from Ottawa, Munch moved to Toronto in 2005. He’s since proved to be one of the funniest, most charming, most sneakily affecting performers you are ever likely to see on a Toronto stage. But he is also a producer, a writer, a teacher, as well as a huge movie buff, a science fiction and horror nut, and both a wonderfully opinionated conversationalist (“‘Interstellar’ is a garbage movie for stupid people and anyone who says otherwise is a moron”) and a very generous one.
He recently sat down with me at Kalendar for a wide-ranging conversation on improv vs. comedy, directing and producing vs. performing and teaching, writing both fiction and sketch comedy, the pigeon holes of genre, the anxiety of turning 30, and the joy of finding the community he didn’t know he was looking for.
(In fact, we talked so much, I’ve decided to split this interview into two parts. After all, Munch is a man who deserves a sequel!)
There is a family disagreement about how Munch got into theatre at the ripe old age of seven: “I’m pretty sure I got into theatre on the recommendation of my therapist after my parents split up,” Munch says. “My mom maintains that it was my decision, but I think that is giving me too much credit as a child – to watch television and be, like, ‘I want to do that.’ I mean, I knew that it wasn’t real, but I don’t think that I ever really understood – and I don’t think I understand now – that that’s a thing I can do. Even though that’s what I do for a living, I still watch movies and think, ‘Gee, that looks neat.’ I don’t really get that that’s something I can aspire to. I’m shooting something this weekend – that is something I do, but how I get to do it baffles me.”
His way of dealing with his parents’ divorce led him to improv, before he knew what improv was. Still in elementary school, he attended a summer camp, and when he started delivering off-the-cuff lines at the camp grad show, the stuff he was coming up with was funnier than the script he’d been given. So that was it – an improviser was born.
When asked why he gravitated to comedy rather than drama, Munch has a simple answer: “It was the gratification. It’s instant genius.”
That lead to attending Canterbury, an Ottawa-area arts high school, and joining the improv team, which “at Canterbury,” he says, “was like joining the football team.” Improv was no quirky throwaway there. The school had a long record of winning nationals at the Canadian Improv Games all through the ’90s. Munch came to the school in its twilight stage, but helped take the school back to nationals twice, and won regional gold. Says Munch: “There’s a lot of Canadian Improv Games heritage at Bad Dog now.”
The young performers he competed against then are part of the brash crew of 20 and 30-soemthings lighting up the Toronto improv scene at Bad Dog, Social Capital, Second City, and elsewhere. He freely admits, however, that he went to post-secondary theatre school out of inertia, and that’s where he ran aground.
“Canterbury was very low-budget, so we had to generate our own stuff. I was the assistant tech director at my school, and I was the de facto captain of our improv team. I learned how to make my own stuff on a budget and how to sell it and how to wear many hats. And then I did a Fringe tour that was really successful right out of high school. So I learned how to do a show that could fit in the back of a van, driving for six hours and then setting up and teching in a city where nobody knows you. And doing all the postering and promotion on your own.”
He also did a lot of partying and celebrating theatre, he says, with obvious affection.
“And then I went to this dusty, stodgy, pretentious, fancy-schmancy theatre school where my only worth was as a body and a voice. You know, my brain and my ability as a writer and a creator were heavily downplayed. A very good friend of mine is there now, and what I realize through her is that the attitude is: ‘If you don’t already know this, you’re already too late.’ Like, ‘The stuff we’re teaching you is obvious, and if it isn’t, you’d better wake up.’ I find that approach to education really negative and pretentious.”
Peter: Was that environment competitive in a toxic way?
Colin: “Yeah. You just don’t feel valued. So I was there for two years. I officially got kicked out, but I just sort of stopped giving a shit about halfway through.”
Despite that negative experience, though, do you have any affection for traditional dramatic theatre?
“I love theatre but I find the fetishism of the ‘classics’ utterly bizarre. Shakespeare was a brilliant playwright, but do we really have to cycle through really only a third of his canon constantly, year after year? The money that large Shakespeare-specialist companies make is mind-boggling. ‘Macbeth’ and ‘Hamlet’, ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’ and ‘Much Ado About Nothing’… and ESPECIALLY ‘Romeo & Juliet’ are the safest of safe bets and it’s led to a major stagnation of creativity in big-budget theatre.
“Broadway’s mining of pop culture for their big musicals is also part of the problem, and that holds no appeal for me whatsoever. The creativity, the theatre magic that goes into staging something like Spiderman benefits us all, but it puts the smaller pro companies, like Tarragon and Factory, into a creative stranglehold. Even SoulPepper, which produces great work, has to bank on ‘American classics’ that have been produced to death despite many of them being less than forty years old. I LOVE ‘Glengarry Glen Ross’, but are you telling me NO ONE has written another great slice-of-life white collar drama in thirty years? (Rant over.)
How then have you navigated your way in the theatre world post-theatre school?
“I have been very lucky to have been adopted into the indie scene in Toronto and I’ve gotten to dip my toes into some very exciting stuff over the last few years. My friendships with Kat Sandler, Danny Pagett, Ben Blais, and Claire Burns have allowed me to ‘jump the queue’ into being a part of some really great, wholly unique new theatre, like ‘Sucker’ and ‘Punch Up’, and do projects like ‘Trout Stanley’, which took an overlooked Canadian classic, which is only a decade old, and put a really hip new spin on it. My label as ‘the comedy guy’ in the indie theatre scene irks me sometimes, because it’s not how I see myself, and it is occasionally used derogatorily to minimize my work, but I can’t deny that it’s gotten me into stuff that otherwise wouldn’t even have been on my radar. That and I haven’t auditioned for a play in about seven years, other than the Factory Theatre generals. I can’t complain about that.”
How did you get involved with Bad Dog?
“I was depressed for about a year after theatre school.” (Munch relates a deeply personal, and sad, if not atypical story of life in your early twenties as a struggling creative person facing an uncertain future, combined with the traumatic end of relationship. The less said about that the better.) “And my friend Julian, who was with me at George Brown in first year and decided not to continue, he was involved with the Impatient Theatre Company [ITC], which is a departed school and company.
“A lot of great people came out of ITC. And they were doing a tournament called Cage Match, which Bob Banks and Adrianne Gagnon run. And they were all ITC guys. So a bunch of other George Brown castoffs and I started a team called Sex T-Rex and we won the tournament first time out, as total nobodies. So out of that we got a regular show that Matt Folliott and Kayla Lorette and Alana Johnston used to produce. And then we just started to get more stuff, I started to get involved in more and more things. Conor Bradbury and I from Sex T-Rex we went up and did a show in Ottawa with Crush, which is run by an old friend of mine, Al Connors, who used to run the Canadian Improv Games up there. We went up and did a show with Project Project, and at the time Project Project was Julie Dumais [now Osborne], Sean Tabares, Sarah Hillier and Alex Tindal. So that’s where we met and Julie and I hung out, and really hit it off. And I think she got the job as Bad Dog’s Artistic Director that year. And she put out this call for shows. She needed to spice up their calendar.”
This is when Bad Dog was at Comedy Bar?
“No, this was in the old space on the Danforth. So I pitched her this idea that I’d had for a while. I was playing this video game called ‘Uncharted’, which is kind of like a modern Indiana Jones-style video game, and I knew the beats of the story so well, I was anticipating them before they happened. And I just thought, ‘Sex T-Rex could improvise this story no problem.’
“And we’d never done anything like that before. Our improv had always been movie-based, but it was really loose. It was like, ‘Give us the title of a movie and we’ll improvise it.’ ”
I’ve seen some of these videos on YouTube, you guys doing ‘Home Alone’, etc.
“Yeah, we’d get two and mash them up. Or, like, we’d get someone to describe a movie to us and we’d improvise that, not the actual movie but their 30-second précis of ‘Free Willy’ or whatever it was.”
Why was it always movie based?
“It just gives the audience a frame of reference. We were also a very visual team and that was what set us apart. When we would do Cage Match, we did a lot of theatrical stuff: zooms and pans and treating the audience like a camera.”
Where did the name ‘Sex T-Rex’ come from?
“It’s a line in ‘Predator’ that Jesse Ventura says. He chewing tobacco in a helicopter and he says, ‘This stuff will make you a goddamned sexual Tyrannosaurus, like me.’ So the original name was ‘Sexual Tyrannosaurus’, and I liked that, because we could shorten it to ‘Sex T-Rex’. I still think the name is the best thing. I love that company so much, but I still think the name is the best thing about it.”
Are you guys still an active troupe, or do you just reconvene for the occasional show?
“I’m not with them anymore. I bowed out over creative differences and kind of managerial stress about a year and a half ago. But the show I pitched to Julie turned into ‘Callaghan!’, which we just remounted for one-night-only at Bad Dog. So I’m still on good terms with them though I’m not an active member anymore.”
It’s based on a video game structure?
“Yeah, sort of. It’s based on the rogue archaeologist/mercenary archetype, and the pace of the show is really rollicking. It’s really fun and fast. ‘Sex T-Rex’s players all have this stage combat training from George Brown, so I wanted to do something that had a fight or a choreographed action sequence in every performance. The guy who teaches stage combat at George Brown is Simon Fon and he’s amazing.”
I think many people have trouble understanding what it means to produce or direct an improv show. Can you explain what you do in each of those roles?
“I get laughed at when I tell people I direct improv shows. It’s maddening. It’s like telling a theatre director “Well, the actors just show up with their lines memorized and you tell them where to go.” And while, yes, that’s true, it’s a little more complicated than that. Usually at Bad Dog Julie [Dumais-Osborne] gives me a timeslot about four months in advance. I then have all that time to figure out what kind of show I want to do. In the case of ‘The Board’, I knew I wanted to do a show about the people who run for the board of directors at a condo. In an interview about that show I said I was interested in the people who have the ambition, the charisma, and the ego to run for, and get elected to, a committee of absolutely zero importance."
What about casting the shows? How do you assemble the performers?
“Casting improv shows is very difficult. You have to have a balance of performance types, you want to have gender parity, and then there’s the perennial dilemma of low-pay art: availability. The unwritten rule in improv is something I call preference for pay: ‘I’ll do the show, but if something paid comes up, I gotta take it.’ Everyone understands this, everyone does it, but it’s the bane of my existence as a director/producer. I also struggle with breaking up my favourites. I have my go-to players and Julie is always challenging me to shake up my ‘company.’ I cast two of my NSS [Narrative Studio Series] graduates, Nora and Scott, in ‘The PATH’ and it was really rewarding to have two former students join a full-fledged mainstage show. (And kill it, of course!)
“Once I have my cast and my concept, I need to have art and press done often way before I know how the mechanics of the show are going to work. This is why a strong concept off the top is so vital, and Julie rightly emphasizes this. You have to sell her on the show before you go any further. I usually have all this ready to go as soon as my concept comes down. I love coming up with titles, show art, and taglines so, for me, the concept comes packaged with how to sell it. One of my jobs as Artistic Associate is helping Julie and Lisa [Amerongen] brainstorm titles and taglines for other shows.
People may not understand, or may wonder, if there’s no script, how improv shows are rehearsed.
“There’s no script, but there’s a structure, and that’s what we rehearse. Usually about two weeks out from the show we’ll start having rehearsals, once or twice a week depending on how complex the structure is, to make sure everyone gels as an ensemble and to work out any bugs. My personal approach to rehearsal is collaborative with a cut-off: I’m very open to discussion and ideas in the room but ultimately I have final say as director. As a performer I hate wishy-washy directors who don’t make decisions as much as I hate directors who don’t listen to their performers.
“On top of all this I’m deciding on music for both the pre- and post-show, as well as music that will play during the show, whether to have props/costumes, etc. It’s all very dependent on the show. ‘Throne of Games’ had a very particular structure and tons of props/costumes and music. I had a dedicated props builder (Hanna Puley) and a music guy (Sex T-Rex’s Seann Murray), as well as a puppeteer (Sex T-Rex’s Kaitlin Morrow). For ‘The PATH’ I had literally nothing other than a loose dress code and a Philip Glass song I sourced off of YouTube for the intro. ‘The PATH’ – and its predecessor, ‘The Board’ – was a response to the more structure-heavy shows I’d been doing with the BDRP [Bad Dog Repertory Players], like ‘T.O., I Love You’. ‘The Board’ format is particularly fun for me because I can direct it internally, in character, while the show is happening.
“The most important thing in directing, whether scripted or improvised theatre, is to have a vision that you can succinctly communicate to your creative team that is flexible enough to bend to outside forces beyond your control, as well as leaving room open for happy accidents and ideas that pop up in rehearsal.”
It sounds like a tremendous number of balls in the air at once, especially if you are performing in the show as well.
“It is. On the producing side, I used to do everything to get a show up and running. In addition to all that directing work I just talked about, I’d also book the venue, make the Facebook event, print the poster/handbills, book opening acts (if any), wrangle everyone’s schedule. But directing and producing and performing is WAY too hard. Working with Bad Dog has taken most of that stress off me, and having a dedicated producing partner in the incredible Jocelyn Geddie has eliminated the rest of it. Jocelyn is my secret weapon and she’s producing all my shows for the next six months. She handles all the crap I hate doing so I can focus on the creative side, but she’s also an extremely capable performer and artist. I was sick a few weeks ago so she filled in for me in ‘The PATH’ and did a brilliant job. Aspiring comedy creators out there: HIRE A GOOD PRODUCER!”
You have another new show playing monthly, ‘Tales from the Black’, which is more of a storytelling show.
“Yeah, it’s similar to ‘The Moth’, in that it’s a live storytelling show, but the idea for it came out of watching the new ‘Mad Max’ and how each of those films feels like a legend being told to you by someone else. Max is sort of like the kernel that everything is built off of, but he’s not the most important part of the story. The world is the most important part of the story.
“But I specifically didn’t want to do a fan fiction show, because there’s already a really successful fan fiction show. And I think fan fiction is great but I find it limiting. So I wanted to celebrate all the great writers that I know in a non-comedic context. We’ve had a couple of funny ones, but for the most part it’s played straight.
And we have Nick Di Gaetano, who is the musician from ‘T.O. I Love You.’ He underscores all the stories, and he is also one of our regular performers. He always does some kind of character piece and a folk song, like a sci-fi song.”
And that’s not funny?
“No. Well… sometimes. He was dressed up as a cat wizard last time, but his song was about a race of beings who had developed on the shore of Hudson’s Bay and were watching humans come back to reclaim the world after they had abandoned it. So it’s sort of funny, but it’s also kind of melancholy. He’s an amazing musician.”
How do you approach writing for sketch? Do you work alone or with a partner? Do you use improv techniques or strategies to generate ideas, scenes, characters? How is that process different from the fiction you write?
“I don’t consider myself to be much a sketch writer. My friendship with ‘Uncalled For’ launched me into working with one of the best troupes around without any ‘training’ in sketch writing, similar to how I ended up doing improv. Usually I’ll see something in life or in film or TV and think of a fun twist on it, taking something to an extreme that the source material doesn’t. One of my first sketches, which I wrote for a show that had a ridiculously great cast (Peter n' Chris, Ashley Comeau, Connor Thompson, Sam Mullins, & Devon Hyland – again, I kinda cheated by getting onto this show), was basically Kyle Reese from Terminator f—king up over and over again because he doesn’t get sent back far enough to fix the problem. It’s really high concept, it has a lot of repetition, and the science is (more or less) solid. ‘Uncalled For’ instilled a lot of those values in me and their approach to sketch shows as plays is very much in line with my own sensibilities.
“But to go back to your question, the act of writing is repulsive to me. I hate it so badly. I much prefer editing.”
Yeah, editing is definitely more fun, because that’s when it starts to get really good. The philosopher Slavoj Žižek says he doesn’t write. He says, ‘I take notes, I take notes, I take notes. And then I edit, edit, edit.’ So there’s no writing involved.
“That’s a really nice way of thinking about it, because that’s what I do too. Mostly I just talk to myself, constantly, over and over again, until I eventually write it down.”
Probably one of the most internationally successful shows you’ve been involved in – not as a performer, but a writer – was ‘Spank,’ the ’50 Shades of Grey’ parody. How did that show and your involvement in it come about?
“That show is produced by a company in New York called Mills Entertainment, after Mike Mills, who is the president and a theatre producer. And they produce a lot of mass-market shows, like Colin Mochrie and Brad Sherwood’s improv tour and the Long Island Mediums’ live show, as well as other public appearance things for various performers. They wanted to cash in on the ’50 Shades of Grey’ phenomenon, so they hired Jim Millan, who is a really successful Toronto director who was instrumental in founding the Toronto Fringe, and he used to run Crows’ Theatre, and he directs all the Kids in the Hall live shows, he directs the MythBusters Live tour. He’s working with Chris Hadfield right now, and Alton Brown.
“So he got in touch with Paul and Julianne Snepsts, who run SketchFest, and asked them for a list of hot young Toronto sketch people, and she got them Ian McIntyre, Jon Blair and Alice Moran’s names And then, I think we had just finished working on ‘Throne of Games’, so Alice dropped my name, and he [Jim Millan] and I had lunch, and that was kind of it. I had been writing sketch for ‘Uncalled For’ for a couple of months, so I had a few sketches to show him.”
Were you an admirer of ’50 Shades’? (I ask incredulously, not expecting a ‘Yes’)
“No, God, no. I had to read the first book. It was horrible, but very easy to write a comedy about. I think I read the first few chapters of the second book, and it was even worse.”
Why is it so bad? I’ve never read it, but I know it started as ‘Twilight’ fan fiction.
“That’s a big clue. And once you know that, it’s unbelievable. Christian Grey is also Bruce Wayne. It’s Batman: a rich young billionaire with a dark secret, which is that he’s into S&M instead of being a crime fighter. And like ‘Twilight’ it’s just the worst kind of misogynist relationship. He has no respect for her, and she has no power. It’s really awful.
“But a big focus for me on ‘Spank’ was that I never wanted to make fun of the ’50 Shades’ fans who were coming to see the show. I didn’t want to mock the source material. I just wanted to shine a light on its sillier aspects. And I think that’s a big advantage that ‘Spank’ has over some of the other ’50 Shade’ parodies out there, because our show is really fun and light, and it’s not mean-spirited or gross.”
How did you walk that line between affectionate parody and mean-spirited satire?
“The fact that our Anastasia – she’s named Tasha in our story – is played by Alice Moran, and was written by her as well, made her much stronger and more self-aware, which really helped. We also wrote in the writer, as a narrator, and made her this sort of Chardonnay-swilling housewife having a wild weekend while her husband is out of town. She’s our audience cypher.
Does the show try to be sexy, because I imagine that’s part of what the ’50 Shades’ fans are coming for?
“Absolutely. So to play Christian Grey, we hired a guy named Patrick Whelan, who is a burlesque performer, and he’s very funny and incredibly handsome and very fit. He’s a great singer and he plays guitar, so he created a couple of burlesque numbers that we tossed into the show. He’s eye-candy for the ladies, which is an advantage that our show had, because I know one of the other parodies cast Christian Grey as a big sloppy fat guy, which is really funny, but is kind of mean.
“Our show played in Vegas, because it is kind of sexy. And let me tell you, writing a sexy comedy show with Jon Blair and Ian McIntyre was a pretty funny experience.”
How long was the writing process and how did you guys work?
“We each wrote a sketch in a vacuum and then read them around a table – me, Ian, John, Alice, and Anne Marie Scheffler (who was the narrator), and Jim – and then we plotted out the show roughly following the course of the first book, and then assigned scenes to different people. We went away and wrote them separately, then came back together, wrote connective tissue between the scenes, and put the show up on its feet.
“So the first show was kind of a Frankenstein. The second show, ‘Spank Harder’ (the sequel), was a little more writer-focused. So I think it’s a better script, but it wasn’t as successful. There was a little fatigue among audiences over the ’50 Shades’ property at that point. And theatres were losing interest too. They were like, ‘Why don’t we just book the first show again?’ Because they already knew the first show worked.”
What was it like to have ‘Spank’ picketed by the Westboro Baptist Church?
“I wasn’t there, but that was in Topeka, Kansas. They thought that people were going in to get spanked, because our tag line was ‘Get Spanked!’ So they picketed it and a huge thunderstorm started, just rolled in out of nowhere and drove them away, and pretty much as soon as they left, the storm broke. So make of that what you will, but I think that’s pretty amazing.”
That idea of not disrespecting the fans of the original book is interesting to me because it dovetails with some questions I have about criticism and how you receive or respond to criticism of your own work. You actually seem to get very good reviews even on the rare occasion when the shows you are in get more middling reviews. That must be very gratifying.
“Yeah, I love it.” (Laughter)
But you must know some of these critics face-to-face? I’ve seen Glenn Sumi from NOW at Bad Dog a couple of times.
Have you had any really traumatizing experiences with criticism?
“Um, yeah, my worst experience was actually in theatre school, from teachers. You get these little reports at the end of every term, and it’s kind of the only bit of written feedback you get. It’s like a paragraph of comments that comes weeks after the unit is completed. That’s probably different by now. But they told me I wasn’t an actor every chance they got. They kept asking me, ‘What are you doing here? You don’t belong here.’ I was told over and over that I didn’t belong, and that’s hard to hear when you are twenty, you know? When you are still formulating your personality and your dreams.
“The only time I’ve ever been slagged in the press was when I was doing a Fringe show in Edmonton, during what I call my wasted year – which I’ll write a book about some day.”
What did they fault you for?
“It was just this little show that we threw together. Looking back on it now, I’d love to revisit it. It was more of an exercise in catharsis than an actual show, and I am sorry that people had to pay to see it. But it was three scenes with loose frameworks, and we improvised the middle. It was about three roommates having an ideological split and the one guy is so freaked out about climate change that he wants to start a recycling business and the other guy just wants to keep his head down and work at the bank. It was very 22 of me. And I took it to the Ottawa and the Edmonton Fringe, and – I still can’t believe I did that; that was crazy – but the Edmonton Sun hated it. The little weekly culture mag, like their NOW equivalent, really liked it, which was gratifying. The big mega-corp paper hated it, but the little indie paper loved it.”
What did they say about it?
“The mega-corp paper basically said that Edmonton’s improv is very strong and very popular with rapid-fire dialogue, so their critic was basically saying my show wasn’t improv. Improv is ‘DIE-Nasty’”—the name of Rapid Fire Theatre’s improvised soap opera—“and TheatreSports, and what these guys are doing is not improv. They are not good enough to be in this festival. It came from a place of ignorance on the part of the reviewer as to what improv was. So that kind of negative criticism just strikes me as uneducated.”
For people who don’t watch a lot of improv, the notion of reviewing an improv show might seem confusing, because if it’s different every time, how do you review an improv show? Do you think the critics who come out to Bad Dog shows understand enough about improv to review them in light of the fact that it’s different every time?
“Every time a Bad Dog show gets reviewed, the culture changes a little bit, and progresses. We used to see a lot of reviews that ended with, ‘This show was really great WHEN I SAW IT, but it’s improvised, so when you see it, your experience may vary.’ And I get that. That’s just the reviewer covering his ass. But they don’t say that anymore. Especially when they come to see our mainstage shows, our repertory player shows. Because I think as a company, we have a reputation for consistency and quality that we’ve worked very, very hard to maintain, and continue to do so.
“So I think the culture is changing. Locally, Steve Fisher is the closest to an improv reviewer, and he’s still more of a comedy reviewer. There is no dedicated improv reviewer.
“I just want improv to be treated like theatre, because there is unscripted theatre out there, that is different every time, that is more structured than something like ‘T.O., I Love You’. But that show – although the storylines change and the locations change – it happens the same way every time. We know how that show works. I could do that show in my sleep now. And it’s still fresh and fun and exciting and wonderful and surprising each time. If Bad Dog is doing a run of that show, even if the cast is different, and the content is improvised, it’s always going to be good, because we don’t do bad editions of that show.”
Do you have any improv heroes? (N.B. Here I expect him to reference Keith Johnstone or Viola Spolin or the Upright Citizens Brigade (UCB). But, no, Munch prefers to give kudos to other performers, his peers and collaborators.)
“I really like TJ & Dave. What Hannah Spear and I do as ‘Trout and Sugar’ is really similar to their approach in that we’re just two people, and we play a bunch of characters, and we don’t take any suggestions from the audience.
“But really, I love Hannah Spear so much. She’s also just one of my favourite actors. We start every set in blackout and we just make eye contact and when the lights come up we immediately start speaking. It’s so great to have the lights come up and to just see her, her warmth and humour and anxiety and our agreement, and then we just jump and go. Literally the first time we performed together we jumped off a cliff at the beginning of our set. I think about that all the time.
“Obviously Julie Osborne is a big improv hero. She doesn’t perform much anymore, but you see her work in everything Bad Dog does. Like ‘T.O. I Love You’ is her show through and through. We have very similar sensibilities. Her artistic sense and specificity as a director, as well as her warmth as a human being, are infinitely inspiring.”
You and James Gangl often appear in shows together, and seem to collaborate really well. The two of you once went to a conference for public speakers, jettisoned your original idea, and created the 'Eye of the Tiger' short-form game on the spot [wherein the two improvisers alternate at giving a more and more amped up, rapid-fire motivational speech]. Could you talk a little bit about the working relationship between the two of you?
“Gangl and I love each other, simple as that. We’re actually pretty different on stage. He’s fearless and I’m more story-driven, which is a powerful combination. He’s also had a really interesting life, as anyone who has seen his solo shows can attest, whereas I consider myself to be pretty spoiled. We don’t have a ‘defined’ professional relationship like I do with Hannah, or with Evany [Rosen], or Conor [Bradbury], but if I have a show come up out of the blue, he’s my go-to partner and we pop up in ensemble shows together (like ‘The Curator’) quite a bit. We’re a good example of different creative sensibilities and approaches gelling into a solid whole.
“A wonderful effect of this city and this community is meeting and working with people who have all approached the same thing from different angles. I consider my relationship with Peter Stevens (from ‘Elephant Empire’) and Nick Di Gaetano (of Mi Casa Theatre, musician for ‘Toronto, I Love You’ and ‘Tales from the Black’) to be similar to my relationship with Gangl. Being an only child, I’ve spent my life accumulating surrogate brothers. My relationship with these guys is what I imagine having a brother must feel like. We push each other, we respect each other, but we don’t fully understand each other. That’s a powerful thing to have in a collaboration.”
I’d be curious to hear a bit about your journey of becoming a teacher. [Full disclosure: I was Colin’s student for 8 weeks in the early part of 2015.] Did it take time to become comfortable in the role of ‘teacher’ or to develop your teaching persona? Because we loved your class—
We loved the energy you brought to it. I always remember you saying, ‘C’mon, behave like a bunch of people who want to be here.’ You didn’t let us slack off and get lazy and you were very good at jumping in with notes [‘notes’, by the way, is improv-speak for verbal feedback] – ‘Don’t ask questions,’ ‘You know the answer’ – which takes confidence as a teacher, because you have to know how much feedback is helpful, and how much is inhibiting. I thought you struck a really good balance with that.
“I’m glad to hear that, because I struggle with that all the time. I think particularly about foundation level classes, the makeup of every class is so different. I’m teaching a Foundations 3 class now that has some really experienced performers in it, people who do shows regularly. Someone had to run out of my class early to perform at Academy Tuesday last night. And then I have people in my class that are clearly there to work on their public speaking or their social skills, and I think that’s really interesting.”
Do you get frustrated with students who don’t take it seriously, or don’t do anything to improve their skills outside of class?
“It can be frustrating, but then I have to check in with myself and realize it’s not my job to impose my experience and my expectations on anybody.
“The way I look at it is that I do this not just for a LIVING but for my LIFE, so I should treat everyone as if they feel the same way. And it’s up to them to appropriate that for themselves or not. But I shouldn’t treat anyone as just a casual learner, because that’s disrespectful of their time.
“The balance that you mentioned about giving too many notes or too few is something I struggle with all the time. And I adjust it for every student. There are people I know I can go after and people I know I have to hang back. When two people are doing the same scene, I know I can go after this person for not making smarter choices, whereas for the other person I have to praise them for just saying anything at all. And being able to find that balance is difficult. I don’t have any training as a teacher, I’ve just kind of figured it out.”
How did you get your start as a teacher?
“The first improv class I taught was in Warsaw, Poland. ‘Uncalled For’ got flown to Konstancin, which is like a fancy suburb of Warsaw, to teach the improv community there. We had just developed the Narrative program, but I had never actually taught it. So I taught that curriculum in 18 hours over 3 days to a group of Polish students, and that was terrifying. When I came back to Toronto it was a little simpler, because I’d had this incredible experience teaching people who didn’t speak the language, and working through an interpreter – who was also an improviser.”
That’s an unusual way to start. How did that come about?
“ ‘Uncalled For's Mike Hughes used to date a girl who lived in Berlin and he would go there to visit her and do improv and clown shows. He met a Polish guy there named Arek who told Mike improv basically didn't exist in Poland, so Mike started doing workshops on a regular basis. I don't know the details but things grew really quickly and eventually the people doing it started receiving money from the Konstancin government to hold an improv festival and to fly Mike and other members of ‘Uncalled For’ out to teach and headline the festival.
“A lot of the techniques are the same ones I use in my teaching at Bad Dog, like Passive Aggressive Kitchen came out of that week in Warsaw.” (In this exercise, players first build a kitchen by miming the objects in it, then act out one and two and three-person scenes in that space, without talking.) “Not because they're mutes, but because they have nothing to say to each other. The idea is to show how much you can communicate without speaking, how much life you can have in your body and your eyes and your breath without outright saying what you’re thinking. And it’s always fascinating to watch the different reactions to being silent and being still. Who panics, who creates a story, who can just sit and look out the window and eat an apple and STILL be compelling to watch. It’s very intense, takes at least an hour to do, and I don’t toss people into it lightly.
Are there any moments of teaching or mentoring that stand out for you from that trip? Maybe a moment when you thought you has some facility as a teacher?
“My favourite memory of that trip comes from my last day there. The group did a story, in Polish, about an old man asking a younger friend about his travels around Europe. The set consisted of the two having a simple scene in the old man’s workshop and the younger man describing what he had seen. As they spoke, the rest of the group created the visuals behind and around them, like flocks of birds, the Eiffel Tower, little silent vignettes. It was pure magic and they did it with almost no input from me. Watching a group of people apply techniques you’ve been working on for days, totally on their own, is amazing. That was when the teaching bug really bit me.
“During our showcase at the festival, Anders [Yates] and I played two ‘evil’ characters at the top of a large tower. I threw my teacup off the roof and we showed it tumbling down to the street, where it shattered in front of two other characters played by myself and Caitlin [Howden]. That little visual interlude got a great response. The audience, almost all of whom were non-improvisers, stopped the show with their applause.”
How do you think teaching has influenced you as a performer?
“Teaching has helped to solidify what I value as a performer and an artist, because I had better be able to back-up what I am saying, and I have to believe what I am instructing. And I will say, every time I watch a class perform in a student showcase, it’s the hardest thing in the world.”
Yeah, I’ve watched you at student shows with your notebook and it’s interesting to see what you laugh at. Some things that get big laughs from the audience, you don’t seem to react to.
“When you’re working with a group of people for so long, I get to know that class’s shtick really well. So, I’m like, ‘Okay, great, I love this joke too and I know it works really well for you, but I’ve seen this before that’s not what I am looking for.’ I tend to laugh at smart moves different players make. I find when I am watching shows I tend to laugh at stuff a few seconds before the audience will, because I see the move that’s being made. Which may be really pretentious to say, but it’s true.”
But you take pleasure in seeing your students do well.
“Oh, yeah. It’s so cool. I had a student in my Foundations 3 last week and we were doing a scene where she had to be a really high-status tough person—”
She’s not that in real life?
“No, she’s like this tiny, really sweet, standup comedian. She’s so funny and so nice. So I was, like, that's the challenge for you – you should play a high-status character next time without me having to tell you to do it. And she did. The next time she was onstage she played a boss, it was unbelievable. It was so great to see someone apply a note so readily, so quickly.”
I remember you saying once that at Bad Dog you teach improvisation, not 'comedy'. I wonder if you could articulate what you see as the distinction between 'improv' and 'comedy'.
“So, I actually don’t say this anymore, but it’s related to what I said in answer to the previous question. I’ve started to broaden my definition of what a comedian is, and I approach the title in a more historical context. I hate genre, it’s a tool bred purely of marketing, and the distinction of comedy/drama only hurts creativity. I tend to shift focus away from purely comedic scenes in improv to avoid bad habits in students. Improvisers shouldn’t be dancing monkeys, or desperate for approval, or arrogant in their expertise. I don’t want someone having their heart ripped out by a lover on stage worrying about cracking one-liners while they dig deep into their emotional reservoir. Comedy comes from pain and recognizing ourselves in the subject, the ‘gee I’m glad that isn’t me’ impulse we indulge in when we watch drama. If you’re the kind of improviser who snipes gags from the back, you’d better be able to justify your emotional frigidity by showing me another side of the character, otherwise you’re being lazy and cruel to your scene partner.
“Improv IS theatre. It’s a very challenging kind of theatre to perform, to create, and sometimes to watch. Bad improv destroys the art form in a way that bad theatre, film, music, whatever never does. Nobody sees a bad TV show and swears off TV shows forever, but that happens all the time in improv.
“Bad Dog very carefully labels its student shows as just that, and we do not produce shows that we’re not proud of selling to anyone. Certainly some of our programming is more in line with what audiences who grew up on ‘Whose Line Is It Anyway?’ consider to be improv, but a lot of our high-up staffers and performers are theatre school rejects – like me – who aspire to do shows that could be sold as theatre. I don’t think one is better than the other. I love doing TheatreSports and Throw Down, and I am very interested in knocking down the walls between the two.
“Julie says a lot that we can teach people how to improvise, but we can’t teach people how to be charming. This is true of any performance art. You can nail the science, the academia of improvising, but if people aren’t interested in watching you, they won’t watch you. It’s a harsh lesson but it’s not something we shy away from.
“George Brown, for all my negative feelings towards their style, was pretty upfront about how ‘compelling’ an actor has to be. I spend a lot of time in my more advanced classes stripping away the artifice and forcing students to just stand on stage and be seen, to have an inner life and be present on stage with no jokes, no words, and minimal movement.” (As in his Passive Aggressive Kitchen exercise.) “One clear indicator of an inexperienced improviser is what they do when they’re alone. Are they tasking? Do we believe that they are in a real place? Or are they looking all around them at their still-off-stage teammates, begging for help? You’ll never see a Rep Player look for help. You’ll never see Matt Folliott or Jan Caruana or Rob Baker beg to be saved from being alone. When someone new joins them it’s a celebration, not a relief.”
One of the themes of my book ‘Adultescence’ is making that transition from adolescence to adulthood and how in some ways there aren’t clear cultural markers anymore of when you become an adult. It’s become this vague period that can stretch from your teens into your 30s or even 40s, if you don’t have kids or aren’t married. So I wonder when you felt like you were officially an adult, or if it’s still ambiguous for you?
“I’m thinking a lot these days about whether I want to have kids because all of my friends are having kids. Half of ‘Uncalled For’ have kids now, which is strange because they were party animals. I met them 10 years ago, the summer before I moved to Toronto, and they were living out of a shortbus doing a Fringe tour and doing improv for a living. They were so cool. And now there’s three children in ‘Uncalled For.’ ”
This seems to happen around 30. People start marrying off and having kids.
“Yeah, I don’t know if I’m ever going to get married. But I’m not discounting the possibility. The thing is that I don’t think I’ll ever feel ready. Like I’ll never feel like an adult, and I can barely take care of myself. So it freaks me out that I’d have to take care of another person.”
I feel the same way. I’m also just too selfish with my time.
“But I like kids a lot. I like my friends’ kids more than I like my friends with kids.” (Laughter)
“But, yeah, there are no cultural touchstones anymore. They’re all artificial, false. Graduating from university, or whatever – that doesn’t make you an adult. I just turned 30, so I’m freaking out about how old I am. I always think of myself as three years younger than I really am.”
I think they say most people, even the very elderly, in their heads still feel like they are 23, 24. That’s how they think of themselves. I guess that’s when you sort of settle into your adult personality. Of course things change, but in your head, you kind of are still that person.
“And 24 for me is when this chapter of my life started. That’s when I started doing improv more or less full time, I think that’s when I got my first paid acting job and got into the film union, so that makes sense to me.”
I’m in this odd place in my life where my parents are both gone, but I don’t have any children either. So I am really not responsible for anyone other than myself (and my partner, but he takes perfectly good care of himself). So there’s a nice freedom to that, but there’s also a weird emptiness to it. Not to be dramatic—
“No, I know what you mean.”
It’s just really weird to move around Toronto and feel that there are so many layers of life accumulation. It would be nice to feel that every corner didn’t have five stories attached to it.
“But that’s what’s great about living in cities. I love that.”
As a cast member of ‘T.O. I Love You’ do you have some favourite spots in Toronto you don’t mind sharing? (Don’t out anything you don’t want people to flock to!)
“I really like the kind of industrial area around the docks on the waterfront. I think that’s really interesting. It makes me feel very urban and I like the history down there.”
It’s probably rapidly disappearing, no?
“It is. My kids won’t know anything about that. It’ll be futuretown down there.
“My ex-girlfriend and I lived in a place in Cabbagetown with a backyard and a tree in it, and I often think about that place. I’ll never ever go back there, because it’s someone else’s yard and someone else’s tree now. So that represents a time in my life that I’ll never get back.
“And, this is going to sound so cheesy, but I love that there is a theatre I can go to whenever I want and where everybody knows me, and I can do whatever I want there with people I love and respect. The growth of that place over the last few years is too much to handle. It staggers us. I’m not as involved in the administration as Julie [Osborne], Lisa Amerongen and Jess [Bryson] are. I’ve never wanted to be part of a community, and I’ve never been interested in a home base.”
“I don’t know.”
Maybe you’re a lone wolf.
“Yeah, I guess so. I have my family, and they’re tight, and I like that. It’s my dad in me. He was kind of a wanderer when he was younger. Not anymore. But our sensibility is the same. We’re both dreamers. But having a place like Bad Dog is amazing. If I could have told my teenage self that I would be doing this right now, I wouldn’t have believed it.”
That teenager is still very much alive inside the Colin Munch that has, hand-in-hand with a menagerie of collaborators and co-conspirators at Bad Dog, stretched a huge canvass out over the city on which they can paint whatever they want, in whatever colours they choose, and make us laugh, cry, gasp and howl on cue. Drop by the theatre just about any night of the week to see what colour his hands are today. He moves so fast, the paint on his fingers never dries.
You can catch Colin next telling stories in ‘Tales from the Black’ monthly at Bad Dog (next show December 4th), and as a rotating cast member of ‘The Pageant’ (Bad Dog’s outrageous annual Christmas show) running Friday to Sunday, December 4th to 18th. Part 2 of my interview with Colin - in which we nerd out over the Sci-Fi films of our youth, the novel he’s been writing since he was nine, his frustrations with genre, and the dim hope that sci-fi might actually help us imagine and build the future we want to move toward - is up now!