You might be forgiven for confusing an improv night for a bunch of kids play acting in the basement. But that might still make for a fine night of comedy.

Improv lovers and newcomers alike can get their share of this kind of comedy for the rest of this week at the 10th annual Mprov Festival and at regular shows in English and French at Improv Montreal, a big part of the flourishing improv scene in Montreal.

The week’s Festival lines up of acts from across Canada. There are two or three shows every night with a variety of two or three troupes performing at each show. The intimate setting offers a fringe-like feel which puts everyone physically close to the show and, actually right into the show, with its audience participation element.

Improv sketches often kick off with scene suggestions by the audience. That guarantees the authenticity of improv, where almost everything is made up on the spot. The resulting unscripted comedy isn’t always perfect, but it’s all the more fascinating to watch considering that it’s being made up on the spot.

improv picJeff Gandell of the comedy troupe Helmut, which performs regularly at Improv Montrel and at the Festival, says that despite all the zany unpredictability, actors can still prepare for the unexpected. “One of the things we work on is whatever comes next. If you’re listening to your scene partner it will all make sense,” he says.

Of course all the rapid action sketches require actors to think just as quickly on their feet. Sketches can last a few seconds or several minutes, often they are intertwined with running gags somehow stories and characters developed throughout the performance, even if not always in the formulaic way that they do in scripted sketches.

Those who were fans of the TV series Whose Line Is it Anyway will be familiar with some of the short improv games that are regularly played by some troupes such as WFIIA at the Festival. These games usually involve some audience participation like suggesting a film genre or title or climax that will be played out on stage starting in the following few seconds.

There are plenty of surprises, even for the actors on stage. That’s the beauty of improv.

Most of the sketches work, but that’s not a given. When they don’t work you get to watch actors trying the bring something back to life that’s heading off a cliff. Sadistically, part of the fun of improv is seeing that the actors are often getting themselves in to trouble and watching how they get out.

“Yeah we definitely try to stitch each other up,” says Mariana Vial of Helmut as others in her troupe chuckle in agreement, “but ultimately we trust each other and help each other as well.”

Tag teaming is a commonly used device, for one actor to jump into a scene to get another out of a jam. But one key to Improvisational acting seems to be to avoid taking anything or yourself too seriously.

But is improv entertaining enough to keep a sketch show going ninety minutes? That depends very much on the actors and audience. Here at the Festival, both seem to feed off each other in a way more evident than in any other comedy or theatre.

Anyone who is inspired by what they see on stage by no means has to content themselves with being members of the audience. Like many forms of comedy, the best way to learn it is by doing it. There are weekend workshops held at Montreal Improv and Theatre Ste. Catherine. Both venues cater to English and French wannabe jokers.

Meanwhile the festival and regular Improv performances continue in both languages at Improv Montreal, 3697 St. Laurent, which should not remain such a well-kept secret.

Here are some sounds from Mprov and comments from some of the people involved: