I had no idea, when I was first learning to improvise, that I was actually learning to write. Everyone who gets
up and improvises a scene with another improviser, is basically co-writing a small, one-act play. When you’re starting out you’re too busy shitting your pants to realize what other skill is being developed.
Every play and every screenplay contain the same three things as a single scene: a beginning, middle and an end. They all begin with everything being fine in whatever world has been created, then a problem is introduced and then that problem gets resolved. Run credits.
So when I was learning to improvise with Second city, it was drilled into me that, if someone else got up to start a scene, I had to enter with a problem. Then the two of us would resolve it. We did that endlessly like doing kicks and punches over and over as in judo or karate or bok choy.
When I began with Theatresports in 1987, I had performed hundreds of scenes by then and I was about to improvise or write, thousands more. Add to that the chemistry between me and other players and we couldn’t help but try our hand at writing actual plays.
Christine Lippa, Shawn Macdonald and myself wrote ‘The Vacant Bachelor,’ a one-act Fringe play for Christine. It was our first play and got into the Pick of the Fringe. Shawn and I loved writing together. One night we were out for dinner and Shawn, who is gay, told me that his brother, Danny and his sister-in-law Wendy were coming to Vancouver for a visit. I was single at the time but trying to sleep with any woman who slowed down long enough.
I made the crack to Shawn, “Hey, wouldn’t it be funny if I slept with Wendy?” He laughed and came back some funny retort. Back to me. Back to him. We both stopped and said, “Wait, this feels like a play.”
So we jotted all of our jokes and plot points down on a couple of paper napkins that I took home and put into my sock drawer. A couple of months later, Shawn asked me to dig them out and see if we could actually try to write a play for the Vancouver Fringe Fest.
Long story short, we got it into the Fringe and it sold out. Then it got into the Pick of the Fringe and it sold out. The artistic director of Vancouver’s Arts Club Theatre saw it and asked if we could expend it into a two-act. We did and we made it even funnier. Then it got held over all summer. Then it won the Jessie Richardson “Best Play” Award of 1994.
The moral of this story? Try to sleep with as many people as you can and you might end up on stage holding a
Shawn and I went on to write other plays including the partly improvised, Jessie-nominated, “Fear Knot” and the “The History of Things to Come,” with Morris Panych for The Vancouver Playhouse.
After that I teamed up with yet another improviser named Richard Side after I told him this funny thing I did one Christmas 13 years ago. My step-daughter was 6 and I decided that I thought it might be fun to make Santa’s wallet. I got a thrift-store wallet and went to town. I made Santa’s driver’s licence, reminder notes from Mrs. Claus, maps of wind and weather, a list of names from the kids in her class, etc. I crammed that all into the wallet and then threw it in the fireplace on Christmas Eve.
She found it Christmas morning and was freaking out. Mission accomplished.
I told my friend Richard and he said, “There’s a movie there.” So we wrote a screenplay called, “Grunnywoegan & Pudge,” about two elves who have to go back into the human world on Christmas Eve to get Santa’s wallet because, without his driver’s licence, he can’t fly his sleigh.
The screenplay has been optioned.
Richard and I also co-wrote the Jessie-nominated, “A Town Called Hockey.” We currently write for a CBC Radio show that Richard produces called “The Debaters.”
I’ve written humour pieces for Vancouver Magazine, BC Business and The National Post.
And, this thing on writing that you’ve just read? I wrote that. Just saying.