Not only did the improv team from Toronto District Christian High School (TDChristian) win gold at the Toronto Regional competition of the Canadian Improv Games in early April, they also made history. For the first time in forty years, the winning team at the Canadian competition was comprised of only two players, as opposed to a regular team of eight.
Nathan Lise has been a part of the improv team since it began five years ago, and his teammate Elizabeth Parenteau joined the following year. Led by their drama teacher, Richard Peters, they worked along with more than a dozen other students this past year to develop communication, social, and presenting skills through practice and improv games.
“Improv is mostly about learning skills and gaining confidence in yourself as a person,” shared Nathan. “People don’t realize that all of life is improvised—you don’t have a script for the conversations you have every day with each other. Once you realize that, you become a lot more confident doing improv.”
“Improv improves skills such as movement, vocal and physical characterization, teamwork, and giving and receiving,” added Elizabeth. “The best thing is that you’re learning without even thinking!”
The improv program has been in place for only five years at TDChristian. Before that, the drama program focused primarily on the presentation of yearly school plays. After an exceptional presentation of the musical “The Sound of Music” in 2012, Mr. Peters found that his talented drama students were looking for a new challenge, and one of them suggested that they enter a team into the Canadian Improv Games (CIG)—one of the largest and most geographically dispersed theatre festivals in Canada. Since 1977, the GIC provides high school improv teams with educational resources, training, and workshops that culminate in annual competitions at the regional and national level. Each year, thousands of high school students from across Canada take part in the improv program, and finalists from each regional tournament travel to Ottawa to perform in a 4-night festival at the National Arts Centre.
“We went into our first night of competition not even fully understanding all the events,” shared Mr. Peters. “But that night, I can say, truly changed my teaching career and, I daresay, my life.”
Soon after having his first taste of improv competition, Mr. Peters put together a five-year plan for the drama program at TDChristian, including scholarships to CIG’s “Improv U” summer camp, a new drama room dedicated to improv, taking a sabbatical to attend classes at Second City and Bad Dog, and buying and reading half a dozen or more books on Improv.
“I am incredibly competitive,” he shared. “After that first night, I wanted to win!”
The road to this year’s regional competition in Toronto was not an easy one for Mr. Peters or the improv team. He acknowledged that it takes a lot of energy to help students develop into strong team improvisers and that it takes a lot of sacrifice and commitment on the students’ part to get there.
“I had my five-year plan, but it rarely went exactly as I was hoping it would,” Mr. Peters admitted. “I lost team members due to academic concerns, to “offstage drama”, and to stage fright. Also, a few people thought that getting into Nationals was a pipe dream and weren’t prepared to spend so much time and effort on something that could very likely never happen.”
Despite these setbacks, two teams from TDChristian entered this year’s regional competition at the Al Green Theatre in Toronto—a traditional team of eight students, which is the standard number of players on a team, and another team of two.
“Nathan and I started dating, and you can’t really have people on an improv team when you’re dating,” explained Elizabeth when asked why they entered a second team into the competition. “If there’s room for some players to favour each other more than others, or if there is tension in the relationship, it creates an imbalance on the team and things don’t work. After brainstorming our options together, Mr. Peters threw out the crazy idea that we start our own team, and it didn’t take long for Nathan and I to decide that we’d go for it!”
While Nathan and Elizabeth were aware that there were some definite drawbacks to only having two people on a team, they decided the risk would be worth it. “If one team member is out, your team no longer exists,” Nathan commented. “And you can’t really do anything with people as props or objects because you need both people to play a character. But, on the positive side, you don’t miss things very easily because there is only one other person to pay attention to. It’s easier to stay connected.”
The odds at the regional competition were stacked against both relatively inexperienced improv teams from TDChristian. Many teams that compete in the Canadian Improv Games have a legacy that goes back decades and originate from schools that have four or five times the enrollment. But the students went in with a positive attitude and were excited to be a part of the competition.
“It was all just so much fun!” shared Nathan. “Being up on stage is so enjoyable and invigorating. That’s honestly the highlight—the fun of the performance!”
The two-person team attracted the attention of others immediately, and both Nathan and Elizabeth struggled at times to maintain their focus. “Instant mini-fame!” shared Nathan. “Everyone was surprised that there were only two of us, and we started to get really nervous for our second performance when we made it to the top five. But we just tried to relax, and we made it through (with a lot of prayer) and still had a blast.”
“Oddly, one of the biggest roadblocks we hit in the competition was success. You are taught in improv not to judge and to let yourself fail,” added Elizabeth. “But when we faced great success, we let it get to our heads. Not in the way you’d think—it worried us and started making us have expectations of ourselves that we’d never had before.”
Both improv teams from TDChristian did exceptionally well at the competition. The eight-member improv team captured eleventh place—the school’s best showing up until that date. And, to everyone’s delight, Nathan and Elizabeth won the gold medal, earning them a place in the National Improv competition in Ottawa at the end of April.
“It’s going to be so cool to compete with the best improv teams across Canada!” exclaimed Nathan. “We’ve worked really hard to get to this place, and I’m excited to see how we do.”
Both Nathan and Elizabeth believe that doing improv is something that has benefitted them in many areas of their lives. “You learn how important communication is,” shared Nathan, “and you learn to recognize that your ideas are valued and worthy of being shared with others. Improv builds self-awareness, compassion, and a respect for others—things I didn’t have before I started.”
“Whenever you are a part of any relationship—whether it’s a friendship or a family member or a boyfriend or girlfriend—if you have the attitude that they are allowed to fail, and you can allow yourself to fail, it sets things up for success at a much different level,” added Elizabeth. “Those are all things you learn to do in improv, but they are things that stay with you for life.”
Their teacher, Mr. Peters, is thrilled that his team has been given a spot to compete at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa with the top twenty teams across Canada on the weekend of April 19-22nd, but he also admits that winning Nationals was not, in fact, the most valuable thing he took from this experience.
“Before improv, I had been struggling to engage ‘non-drama nerd’ students in my class,” he shared. “I had been pushing the skill-learning components of drama. CIG showed me students engaged up to their eyeballs, learning skills more effectively than the ways I had been teaching them and having a blast throughout the process. It was clearly life changing for the kids involved!”
Mr. Peters recognized that through improv he has developed the deepest relationship he has ever had with students while still teaching them and that his students were learning faster, often without even feeling like they were being “taught”. Over time, even his colleagues have commended him for the amazing growth they saw in students after participating in improv. “In pursuing this goal to reach the Nationals, these more important and more rewarding things became a reality for me,” he concluded. “The lives of my students have been changed and so has mine.”
Nathan and Elizabeth came in 6th place in all of Canada at the GIC National Finals in Ottawa on the weekend of April 19-22, 2017. Now that Mr. Peters has successfully reached the end of his five year plan, he is already in the process of putting together a new ten year plan. His goal is to see at least five other Christian Schools in Ontario with integral, vibrant improv programs, and he’s hoping that this article will kick off his new plan.
Interested? For more resources about high school improv programs, you can continue the conversation with Richard Peters by joining the High School Improv Group on edCommons!