A conversation about Improv, equity & awkwardness
In Toronto, she’s one of the newer kids on the block, but Bad Dog and Second City performer Nicole Passmore’s been an improviser since she was a sci-fi obsessed teen growing up in Vancouver. And she’s just back from a showcase of Canadian talent in L.A. hosted by former Kid in the Hall Bruce McCullough, where she performed with fellow cast members of the ‘Benjamins,’ who have a unique way of getting a suggestion from the audience.
“Just with the most painfully awkward banter,” Passmore says. “Not because we chose it to be that way, it just was that way and we’ve chosen to continue it,” she explains. “For some reason the four of us in combination before a show are just painfully awkward. And we usually ask for something very strange. Or we’ll admit something true, and it’s almost like an exercise in being real.”
At their L.A. show they told the story of fellow cast member Kelli Ogmundson, who they dared to do a cartwheel inside the giant glass museum elevator at LACMA, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, only to have her “boob”—Nicole’s word—pop out mid-tumble. Unfazed, Kelli popped it back into place so seamlessly that no one else noticed until they looked at the video afterward.
Nicole: “So we’ll tell a story like that, and then go to the audience for, ‘What’s something you did that was fun?’ and just take something awkward they say and turn that into the source material for the show. It’s long form, so we come back to some certain ideas and characters, but it’s very free, and montage based. We don’t so much have a format as we do a style, which is very fast, irreverent, and uninhibited.”
I sat down with Nicole at the end of what she called a “raw week”—three days after the Trump election—to talk about her multiple roles as performer, writer, teacher, and coach, the big move from Vancouver to Toronto, and being a woman in a industry that doesn’t always make space for everyone to play.
Passmore and her sister grew up watching the gamut of cheezily great sci-fi shows (‘Stargate SG-1’, ‘Millennium’, ‘VR5’, ‘Sliders’) made in the city during ‘The X-Files’ era, and having the ‘Star Wars’ trilogy repeatedly inflicted on her by a babysitter who knew no other way to entertain his young charges.
The Passmore girls didn’t mind. They were hooked.
“I like that combination in sci-fi of – what do we already know about human nature? and how can we apply it to the mysterious and the unknown? I also love that feedback loop that happens with sci-fi of ‘We [the writers] imagine it, you [the scientists and engineers] make it, and from what you’ve made we imagine more, and then you make more.’ Which was true of [Star Trek creator Gene] Roddenberry. He would go to science conventions and look at new science products and extrapolate from that. And he would create things that scientists would then look at and make.”
She recalls an awkward get-to-know-you activity at school when her love of science fiction gave another student a little too direct a glimpse into her geek heart.
“The teacher asked everyone to pair up and ask questions of each other. This was in grade 4 or 5. And I was with this girl who was just beautiful, just a normal, cool girl. And she was, like, ‘My favourite TV show is E.R.’ And I misheard her, so I was like, ‘Oh, my god, I looove ‘VR5’ and went on a rant about it.
“Now, this show was terrible. It got cancelled because it cost $1 million an episode to create the virtual reality effects that you could probably do on your smartphone now. It was about a woman who hunted criminals through virtual reality. It was just terrible. But I loved it. And this other girl was like, ‘No, I said E.R.’ And I felt embarrassed, but I was also like – ‘No, this seems right. This is my life’.”
Those awkward moments would serve her well as she discovered a knack for comedy in her teens. Playing on a high school Improv team led Passmore to the Canadian Improv Games – and later, gigs coaching for CIG – as well as to the undergraduate theatre programme at UBC, where it took her three tries to get onto the university team.
But she didn’t let the discouraging audition process get in the way of doing underground stuff elsewhere, with co-conspirators Mark Little and Dave Morris. One thing led to another, teaching and performing in Vancouver, touring the festival circuit as ‘Virginia Jack’ with partner Briana Rayner, appearing in the Leo Award-nominated web series ‘Mental Beast’, and… even a gig at a women’s prison?
“Yeah, that was a really strange situation.”
Passmore explains that they were given certain rules up-front:
“Don’t talk about Christmas, don’t talk about the holidays, don’t talk about vacations, don’t talk about husbands. The [people who ran the prison] were worried that those topics would be triggering. But every time we asked for a suggestion, the inmates would manipulate it to make the scene about one of those things.”
Q: Did the inmates know what the forbidden topics were?
“No. But in trying to protect themselves from things that the prison staff thought would rile the inmates up, they didn’t realize that those were the things the inmates needed to see to feel some sort of release. So at first we were careful and then we started throwing caution to the wind – we’d ask for a non-geographical location, like a bank, or a coffee shop. And they’d be like, ‘An airport! On our way to Hawaii! On a Vacation!’
“And then there was a scene where we Briana and I were a couple and halfway through I thought, ‘Oh, no’ – because I started to realize my character was going to leave her husband. And I could see the fear in Briana’s face, and I was afraid too. But we did it, and women started standing up and clapping and saying, ‘You go girl! You leave him!’ They literally cheered us on, and it got this huge reaction.
“The inmates didn’t care about the fourth wall. They would talk back to what was happening, but it was always positive. It was genuinely things like, ‘I like that character.’ Or, ‘That was a funny line’ Or they’d repeat things to each other and laugh. But they did get pretty riled up. So this one inmate just stood up very quietly and said, ‘Quiet,’ and everyone shut up. That was interesting. I was like, ‘Hmm, okay, you obviously matter here.’ Apparently everyone was afraid of her. They were getting too loud and she shut them down with one word – very impressive."
“Like I say, a really strange situation.”
Q: And then you came to Toronto in 2015. What prompted the move?
“Part of it was that I had turned 30, I had never been out of Vancouver for longer than a month, and I just felt that – nothing wrong with it – but I didn't want to live in the same city for the rest of my life. So I was feeling that itch to get out.”
Q: Had you been to Toronto or performed here before?
“I had come out to Toronto a handful of times to visit friends in the Improv community and to kind of just hang out. I had performed with the Benjamins at Comedy Bar, and I had met [Bad Dog artistic director] Julie Dumais-Osborne before that, but the first time we had gotten to really know each other was at the Austin Out of Bounds festival in 2009.
“It was a particularly good show for me, and pretty formative – one of the first times I felt really bold and free on stage. And every time I would come to Toronto, Julie would say to me, ‘You should move out here.’ Which everyone does to all their friends. But finally it just sort of clicked that that was something I wanted."
Q: Do you remember what specifically was so great about that Austin show?
“There was a scene where we were doing ‘Should Have Said’ ”—a short-form improv game where the audience can shout ‘Should Have Said’ any time they want to see the performer take the scene in a different direction—“and this one performer, who hadn’t been particularly kind to anybody, and was negating everything her partner offered her, kept getting ‘Should Have Said’ called five, six, seven times, for the same line, and nothing was changing. She kept bringing it back to the same core ideas, just slightly removed, so I ran onstage after one of the ‘Should Have Said’s and did the classic ‘What year is this?’ time travel routine."
Q: You dealt with a showboat by being a bigger showboat?
“I recognize the irony! I looove being on stage. And I can be loud. But I made it a point to still use what she had brought to the stage and reframe it. I didn’t negate anything they were doing. I used their relationship. And that was when the audience finally got on board and said, ‘Yep, we’re going there!’ ”
Q: How did she react?
“Oh, she was furious with me after. But she had insisted so much on her own ideas when it wasn’t going anywhere. And it was a competitive show.”
Q: What did you learn from that experience?
“I just wanted to be bold and bring a ton of energy to that scene – without blocking what they were doing; I made that my goal the whole time – because there was no energy, and there was no joy, there was no fun, nobody was having a good time – the players or the audience.
“So that was the first time I really exercised that ability to still be real and committed and stay in that world they had created, but also be big and bold and playful. And the audience loved it. That scene got 5’s across the board.”
Julie Dumais-Osborne was in the crowd, they bonded, and Julie was soon making the case for Nicole to move to Toronto.
“But to tell you the truth,” Passmore confides, “part of the reason was – and I’m not super out-loud about this; I never know how out-loud I should be, but I’m having an introspective raw week after this election [in the U.S.] and how people are behaving around it – partly I also moved for issues of feminism.
“Because I was in a company where I had fought pretty hard to get to the position that I had, and it was a great position and a great company. But we didn’t have enough female players, and I voiced that concern. At the time, I was the only female staff member of 9 or 10 people – and we had qualified women who could have been teaching for us.
“So I spoke up about this and was met with the same sort of rhetoric that was happening at the time – ‘Women aren’t funny’ – and then, ‘There aren’t enough of them [out there]’, and then, ‘They’re not reliable’ ”—she says, her voice rising with a sceptical tone—“which is such an interesting narrative. For sure, some aren’t reliable, because some of all people aren’t reliable. If we’re going to pretend that there aren’t flaky artists out there, that’s silly, because there are.”
Q: That’s an aspect of sexism, isn’t it – that if a guy is flaky, nobody attributes it to his gender.
“Absolutely. Yeah, I feel like any quote-unquote ‘minority’ – because I know women technically aren’t – we are treated as if we speak for the whole, whereas others aren’t. They just speak for themselves as individuals. So I quit. And then I realized I didn’t have a place to call home.”
“But I had this woman”—Julie Dumais-Osborne—“who was strong but also very kind, and just great example of how a person could lead a improv company, and she was offering me this great opportunity. And, of course, there is something to be said for staying and fighting in a place, but I felt I had fought long enough. And it was just so hard to keep continually seeing inexperienced men be given opportunities over very experienced women, teaching and performing.”
Passmore is quick to clarify both that her former company is no longer run by the same artistic director, and has rebuilt itself in a much more progressive way. And that artistic director that she challenged also changed – he began to hire more women after she threw down the gauntlet and left.
This passion for bringing more diverse voices to the stage is evident in her various projects. Passmore lights up when she talks about ‘Sex is Funny’.
“ ‘Sex is Funny’ was a mix of Improv, sketch, stand-Up, contemporary art-slash-movement pieces, and burlesque. We would always do an Improv set, but there were sketch pieces as well. Our mandate was just to have as diverse a cast as possible, with no content being oppressive or shaming. It was a great show. It was really, really fun to do, and it was great to see different people’s interpretations of how sex can be funny.”
The Most Dangerous Mind In The Room
As a student, I noticed this social justice and inclusion bent to Nicole’s teaching right away, and really appreciated it. She was one of the most ‘teacherly’ of instructors I had encountered: very precise, knows what she wants from you and how to get it, is great at giving feedback and at customizing her teaching to specific students. Everything was to a purpose. She knew her stuff.
Q: I wanted to ask you about teaching, because you have to develop an identity as a teacher. You don’t just become a teacher overnight.
Q: And it can be awkward standing up in front of a group of students. I don’t know if you are naturally an introvert or an extrovert…?
“I’m one of those combinations. I think Amy Poehler has this thing where she says, ‘Comedians are all introverted and extroverted, arrogant and insecure, all of that rolled up.’ I think I’m that.
“I got my start coaching with the Canadian Improv Games, which was great for me because they’re young, they’re high school students (grades 11 and 12), so you have a built-in authority. And I got lucky – the team I started with was so talented. Very, very skilled. They were all in the arts, into acting, etc. So I had an easier time than most, because I didn’t have to worry too much about teaching them basics, like, ‘Here’s how we say ‘Yes’.’ I could push those kids harder, and I got to explore different creative ways of teaching with them.”
“And then I started teaching adults, and that was one of the hardest transitions – even though it was at an introductory level – teaching people who were double my age.”
Q: Yeah, adult students can be very demanding, and very critical.
“Absolutely. And they have very different goals – some are just there to have fun, some needed this for work, some were actors, writers, other educators. And that can be really intimidating. But I realized pretty quickly two things: one – I had more experience than all of them, and I was allowed to be confident about that. And – two – you have to own your identity as a teacher – the personality, the voice, the authority – otherwise it’s going to be painful, it’s going to fall apart.
“I have authority because of my experience, but I think the best kind of authority comes from someone who really owns their point of view. And I got some great advice early on from another improviser who told me, ‘In Improv, because there are infinite possibilities, then every student could continually ask, ‘Well, what if we did this?’ ‘What about this?’ And the answer is always, ‘Yes, you could do it that way.’
“So you have to know that even though the answer is ‘Yes’, you’re not giving them every answer. You’re giving them YOUR answer, and you have to be confident about what your answer is and how you view Improv. Which was a great reminder, because the pressure sometimes mounts to be everything to everybody creatively, and to have all these different answers for different students, but I can’t do that. All I can do is filter things through what I believe and what I know and what I feel passionately about.”
Q: How do you like coaching vs. teaching vs. directing?
“I like them both, but they are different beasts. Obviously, with teaching you are building up fundamentals; with coaching you are looking at the group or at the form itself and how to make it better; with directing you’re helping to shape something with your players, or from your own idea. And I do love them all. Because there is a certain joy to helping people learn even what Improv is, versus creating a fully crafted complete piece, versus helping a group discover their voice.”
Q: Can you tell me a bit about what that experience was and how it happened?
“Sure. I taught at a lovely school but they had gone through five teachers already that year, and the teacher that finally stayed didn't know what she was getting into. They forced her to sign a one-year contract, and she was just frazzled. She was losing her mind.”
“70% of the kids in the class hadn’t asked to be there, she explained, and of those 70%, almost all of them had behavioural problems. Under the school’s elective course selection system, they were placed in drama because their other elective choices were unavailable – or because teachers didn’t want to deal with them – so only about 30% were there because they wanted to be.
“But I did 10 classes with them, teaching them Improv, and it was great, and they were great kids.”
Q: Had you ever worked with kids like that before?
“Not to that extent. Oh my god, no. The kids I tend to work with are ones who’ve chosen Improv, or at least chosen drama, rather than having it foisted on them. So there was a lot of rowdiness. They’d had so many teachers not like them, and not respect them, and not care. So, on the first day, when I was saying goodbye to them by their names, they were blown away that I knew them.”
Q: It’s such a basic thing to learn their names.
“It’s so basic, and it’s mind-blowing to me how much people overlook it or think it’s not important. It’s so simple. But that’s the core identifier of you as a human being, and if I’m willing to call you by your name, then you have an identity.
“So I got a lot of really good work out of those kids. But I also had a kid who disappeared and nobody knew what had happened to him. He literally stopped going to school.”
Q: Did he ever resurface?
“Not to my knowledge. Nobody knew what had happened to him.”
Q: But it’s a very specific skill set, working with young people.
“Yeah, you have to know how to behave around them. There’s a psychology there. You have to make them understand that they have to do real work, and there’s learning to do, but also how can you have fun without being, ‘Hey, I’m the cool old lady’.”
Passmore is up on Desiigner and Chance the Rapper, and she knows where the phrase “juju on that beat” comes from, but she doesn’t try to pass herself off as ‘cool’.
“That’s a death trap,” she says. “If I walked into any group, especially teens, and was like, ‘Hey, kids, I know what’s up.’ They’d be like, ‘We’re on to you, old lady’.”
The Race to Equity
As it happens, Passmore’s tenure as a performer and teacher at Bad Dog has coincided with sometimes contentious period of change in the comedy community due to a heightened awareness around issues of sexual assault and a general push for greater inclusion and diversity on Toronto stages. As a substantially female-led organization, Bad Dog has made a point of being a leader in this regard, with new sexual harassment policies, gender-neutral washrooms, and the addition of new drop-in workshops catering to people of colour, women, and the LGBTQ community.
Although generally well received, there has been some pushback against these efforts from the odd visitor who feels that the atmosphere feels hostile to men.
I asked Passmore for her take on these developments, and true to form, she responded with a mixture of passion and compassion.
“It’s not that I don’t feel sympathetic. But some part of me rolls my eyes, like, ‘Get over it. We’ve been dealing with [this set of issues] all our lives’.”
Q: What’s the saying – ‘When you’re accustomed to being on top, equality feels like oppression’?
“Right. I would love my mind to be changed about this, but every time someone raises a fuss about efforts toward greater inclusion, it’s always one of the usual suspects. And that’s the part where I’m like, ‘Prove me wrong, universe!’
“But I get it. There’s this very abrupt thing happening to men right now, and they’re still getting used to it. So to that extent, I feel sympathetic. And on the other hand, though, I feel like ‘You should know better, and you should have the same empathy and understanding’.”
Interestingly, Passmore suggests, when you include more women, other kinds of diversity tend to come along with that.
“I used to do this annoying thing where I would look at how many women were in a line-up [for an improv show] on Facebook, and it was always under 20%. You know, 19%, 17% – whatever it was, I would message [the director] or post it on their wall, just the percentage, and they always knew what I meant.”
(She generally knew these people professionally, by the way, so it wasn’t just a trollish comment coming out of the blue.)
“I would look for diversity in other ways too, and if a show happened to be diverse otherwise, they didn’t deserve those messages from me. But, generally speaking, if a show didn’t have women on it, it also didn’t have any other form of diversity.”
When everyone can see themselves on stage, Passmore believes, there is also room to genuinely acknowledge and celebrate the contributions of those who haven’t traditionally been excluded.
“Colin [Munch] and I were talking about diversity one night after he had performed in a show. And we were commenting on how great it was to see so many women and people of different backgrounds, and people who don’t identify as heterosexual, in this pretty diverse cast.
“And I turned to Colin and said to him, ‘You did an amazing job tonight, Colin, and I’m really happy that people got to see that. And I think it’s important to remember to be a great example of what a white man can do onstage as well'."
(By all reports, the compliment was well received.)
"Because it’s important for people to see themselves on stage. All types of people.”
As for the gender-neutral bathrooms, Passmore has a little less patience.
“I still tend to use the traditionally ‘female’ washroom. But I had this one particularly clueless woman come in and say, ‘Gender-neutral bathrooms? How do these work? Like, how does this even work?!’ So she slams on the door to the stall and is trying to open it, saying, ‘I don’t even get it!’ And I said, ‘Someone’s in here! That’s how they work – like every other bathroom you’ve ever used in your life!’ ”
A fitting way to end a “raw week”—with a good laugh!
Catch Nicole Passmore onstage as part of HouseCo at Second City on Friday nights through the end of December, and at Theatresports (Saturdays at 8:00) and The Curator (every 4th Saturday, 9:30) BOTH at Bad Dog.