Alistair Cook is the father of improvised theatre in Vancouver. That’s not to say he descended from the heavens with improv in hand, ready to brighten up the lives of Vancouverites. No, Alistair Cook didn’t introduce the form to our city. He does, however, look like the type of guy who sometimes goes to Home Depot and maybe talks about sports a lot, which are both important, fatherly qualities, and enough to earn him that title.
More importantly, Cook is the man in charge of Instant Theatre, a hilarious mainstay in the Vancouver theatre scene; and a producer of the Vancouver International Improv Festival, a world-class event that brings joy and laughter to the city just as the October weather makes us hate everything. After 20 years of working with improv in every way imaginable, there’s a good chance he holds the answer to the important questions. So naturally, we asked him about sports and ghost mojitos. A full transcription of the interview can be found below.
First off, could I get you to introduce yourself?
Sure. I’m Alistair Cook, I’m the artistic director of Instant Theatre Company and the managing producer of Vancouver International Improv Festival, among other things.
The past 20 years we’ve been producing improvisational theatre in Vancouver, touring all over North America and sometimes to Europe and Australia. Basically, we’ve been producing what we feel is great short-form and long-form improv.
What’s the current cast you’re working with like?
Well, we have two large casts. We have our company cast, which has all the veteran improvisers that we’ve been working with for quite a while, and then we have the StreetFight cast, who are our up-and-comers who perform regularly in our Sunday night show.
What’s going on with Instant Theatre right now?
We have our Sunday shows, every week we put on StreetFight and the Late Show. We’re presently in the midst of the Vancouver Fringe Festival, we’re producing Starship Galaxy, which is an improvised space adventure. And we’re gearing up as producers of the Vancouver International Improv Festival!
Yes, I can. I think the suggestion was microchip. The Starship Galaxy and its crew found themselves out in space next to a fully Amish planet that was being attacked by another race who were fully involved in technology. They wanted all planets to be covered in electrical objects. The crew assisted the Amish, through various horse-drawn cart escapades. They managed to fight off the techno-bots and save the Amish planet.
How do you go about designing a show like that?
When you’re working with a genre as vast as science fiction, you have to look at all the sub-genres and map it all out. Then you simplify it down to the essential skeleton. What does the audience expect to see in an improvised piece about science fiction? Then you figure out what is a variable, and what needs to happen. For example, there always needs to be some heroic character who is going through space, finding adventures and doing good. Whether that’s a captain, or a pirate, or just some fourteen-year-old kid in Dad’s spaceship is up to the audience. In this particular show we wanted to work off the Firefly, Star Trek world.
What other elements do you need to focus on in a space epic?
Primarily, we were looking at the types of characters and the language. Like in Star Trek, just how people interact with each other, the hierarchy. [We looked at] the parallels between Guardians of the Galaxy and Firefly, Star Wars and the space opera or space western. We just watched a lot of movies and tried to figure out how to reinvent, not just revisit exact moments from those movies.
You’re performing that at Havana, right?
It’s at Havana, it’s a Bring Your Own Venue show [for the Vancouver Fringe Festival].
Well, as you know, recently Fidel Castro has had some medical issues. And some say that every time he gets sick, his ghost transports itself to behind the bar at Havana. I’ve had one of his mojitos, and they are great.
Spooky. What’s it been like working with Vancouver Fringe?
It’s been great, they’re a fantastic organization.
For people who haven’t experienced improv, how is it different from regular theatre?
What’s the difference between a soccer game and a football game? They’re both sports, they’re both exciting! But the content is a bit different. Improv and theatre are both theatrical entertainment. One is made up on that evening based on suggestions from the audience, the other has painstakingly been rehearsed down to the moment. Theatres these days aren’t making as much money. People always say “Theatre is so live! You have to come down and see it!” But if you’re doing another Shakespeare, another Death of a Salesman, sure, it could be an ingenious artwork, but it’s being revisited. It’s universally known. It might be a little stale. With improv, every single night is brand new and being discovered onstage as the audience sees it. Improvisation is the most live theatre there is. That’s the difference.
Although, we’re kind of the drunken uncle of theatre. Theatre people love having us at parties, but don’t want to talk about us.
Right now? We have a fantastic cast, we’re doing great shows, and we’re always looking for new experiences and new formats. However, I’d say a lot of groups do that. We copy great things from a lot of groups, and great groups in Vancouver copy things from us. What really differentiates our group?
We’re more attractive?
I’ll take that. Looking at the big picture, what makes for good improv?
Pure joy and discovery onstage. And groups that hold themselves to a high artistic bar, that want to achieve something new every night instead of revisiting comedic techniques. There are too many Hilarious Surfer characters. It might work for comedy’s sake, but it’s not exciting. If you’re joyful, if you’re discovering things, and if you’re always trying to find something new, that’s good improv.
Well, we’re producing the Vancouver International Improv Festival. That’s the biggest thing we’re working on right now, even though the Fringe show is on. We have 30 shows, acts from all over North America, some of the greatest talent teaching workshops, and it’s our 15th anniversary. We’ve been producing this festival for quite a while now and this year it’s spread to a couple venues. We’ve always tried to keep it nice and small, so that everyone meets each other, but it’s gotten to the point where we have so many people who want to be in the festival and see the festival that we just have to expand. I put my foot down at two [venues].
What are you most excited about in regards to producing the festival?
There’s an improvised hip-hop long-form show called North Coast coming from New York. We’ve got friends of mine from Minneapolis, Mike and Joe from Ferrari McSpeedy, who are some of the best, least-known improvisers in North America. They’re outstanding. Becky Johnson and Kayla at Sufferettes, one of the greatest duos out there. They’ve just toured extensively in Europe and all over Canada. I’m starting to just list off the whole festival, because it’s all really good.
Is there anything you’d like to mention before we wrap up?
I think Vancouver has, for many years, been a place where improv comes and teaches Vancouver how to do it. Now we’ve reached a point where we have created a lot of great ideas and great new techniques. The next ten years is going to be about Vancouver going out and showing the world.
My favourite sports saying is “shoulders never lie.” Basically, the linebacker, wherever the guy running with the ball is in football, the direction his shoulders are pointing is where he’s going. Shoulders never lie. That’s really just a thing to remember in life, isn’t it?
That’s right. Shoulders. They just…
They don’t lie.
Starship Galaxy takes place at Havana Theatre as part of the Vancouver Fringe Festival. Tickets and more information can be found here.