Ashley Comeau, a Comedy Writing and Performance graduate, has made a name for herself in the Canadian improv and comedy scene. She is an alumna of the Second City Toronto and was named Now Magazine's Best Female Improvisor in 2015. She's written, produced and acted in many TV shows, such as Degrassi, and currently performs and tours with her improv troupe, The Lusty Mannequins. Recently, Ashley co-founded the Mama City Improv Festival in Cape Town, South Africa. So how does a Canadian actor and improviser end up co-creating and organizing an improv festival in South Africa? We spoke with Ashley to find out.
How did you get involved in the Mama City Improv Festival?
I was at home alone (drinking pinot noir), and instead of going down a YouTube rabbit hole of videos that make you cry (like soldiers returning home from war to their dogs, and gay couples finally getting acceptance from their parents), I started doing research about international improv festivals on the internet. My partner's cousin lives in Cape Town, so I knew that we could potentially visit her and have a place to stay if we went there. I contacted one of the local troupes there (The Long Shots), and started a discussion with Eva Gilliam (a member of the Long Shots and a bonafide kick-ass woman), about teaching improv in Cape Town. She suggested we start a festival. With years of training from producing with the Toronto Sketch Comedy Festival, TIFF, and Big City Improv Festival, Eva and I designed the infrastructure for the Mama City Improv Festival*. Read: Eva wanted to get more improv voices in Cape Town and The Lusty Mannequins (myself, Connor Thompson and Alastair Forbes**) wanted to travel to Africa and work with great artists abroad so it worked out!
*Mama City Improv Festival was the decided upon name because Cape Town is known as the “Mother City.”
**Please note: The Lusty Mannequins is now Ashley Comeau, Connor Thompson, Alastair Forbes and Karen Parker.
Could you speak a bit about the comedy and improv scene in South Africa and Africa?
I only experienced improv in South Africa, specifically in Cape Town, but like Europe and North America, the improv theatre I saw was clever, funny and based on the theory of “Yes And.” The actors lived in the moments and the emotions that their characters created and let their motivation for the next moment come from the narratives that they had developed. The improv theories are the same but the socio-political context is different. It informed our improv and was really wonderful to see and celebrate the differences. The South African improvisers had a great time ripping on us Canadians in scenes for our vast ignorance about the cultural intricacies of Cape Town. Also, improv nerds can chat to improv nerds anywhere in the world! The two main troupes in Cape Town would be The Long Shots, more of a short form and long form type group with a penchant for fast-paced comedy, and Improguise, who I saw perform more of a long form narrative and who leans more to a preference of theatricality in their style. Both troupes are ripe with talent and hilarity! There are also a whole bunch of up-and-coming student troupes who are all going to steal our jobs soon!
What does the festival entail? What kinds of activities and shows will take place throughout the five days?
MCIF, in its second year, entails a slew of shows with an assortment of amazing troupes, both local and international. On top of that, there are workshops and parties and jam shows that everyone can partake in! Check it out here. NOT TO MENTION IT IS IN SOUTH FREAKING AFRICA, ONE OF THE MOST BEAUTIFUL PLACES ON EARTH!
How did your time at Humber prepare you to run an improv festival?
Taking the Comedy: Writing and Performance program taught me how to self-promote, work hard, and cook ground beef in a coffee maker while on tour. Producing your own comedy shows helps you realize the amount of work needed to get your career going. Humber helped me make realistic expectations about comedy and living in this genre of work. You have to be honest, work your ass off, and not be afraid to do the work. That being said, feel free to support Mama City Improv Festival with our IndieGoGo campaign. Hey, hustlers gotta hustle. #Shameless
What’s your advice to anyone interested in trying improv?
Listen, I don't know you; I don't know what you are into. You could be a pineapple-on-pizza person. Or a costume-on-your-dog person. Or a baby-voice-to-your-boyfriend person. (Please note that if you are into those three things, you're just like me and you will LOVE improv!) As cliche as this sounds, improv has changed my life, and continues to change my life. The friends, lessons, jobs and adventures (LIKE AFRICA!), that I have had have been arguably 99%-based in improv-related activities. There are many great schools, and teachers, and festivals (#MCIF2017) that can help you in your quest if you want to take up improv. My former English teacher at Humber used to sign off his emails with "Leap and the net appears"—I can't think of a better Sufi saying to describe how wonderfully beautiful and terrifying improv is.
Follow Ashley on Twitter @ashleycomeau.
Ashley Comeau. Photo credit: Denise Grant
Lusty Mannequins. Photo Credit: Connor Low