At this year’s Fringe Festival, Precinct: An Improvised Cop Comedy sold out performance after performance, was acclaimed by reviewers and even received a nomination for the Just for Laughs Comedy Award. The show follows the antics of Plateau cops Carl Boucher (Andrew Assaf), John Calgary (Dimitri Kyres) and Captain Bill Garber (Jason Grimmer) as they solve crimes and catch perpetrators, all while maintaining both their friendships and a stable working relationship, while guest improvisers play the suspects and/or perpetrators of the crime.
This month, the Fringe hit will return for a special one-night only holiday edition called A Very Precinct Christmas Special, to be performed twice on Dec. 9 at Montreal Improv.
The show’s format is based on narrative improv, meaning the actors create a new, fully improvised play at every performance. Precinct’s success is quite exceptional when you consider the expectations most people have of Fringe shows — that is, a show that has been crafted, repeated and rehearsed — elements that improv tends to eschew in favour of spontaneity and ad-libbing. To get a better understanding of narrative improv, I spoke to two local veterans of this show format: Precinct director (and narrative improv teacher) Brent Skagford and guest cast member James McGee.
“We learn narrative and storytelling from a very young age,” McGee says, noting that his role as a teacher of narrative is “reaffirming [storytelling] instincts that are already inside of us.”
Skagford explains that the basic elements of a narrative are “heroes with qualities and flaws, a backstory and a goal, desire or narrative drive.”
“We continue to build off those ideas to build a story,” McGee adds. The improvised aspect is that these elements are discovered on stage in front of the audience’s eyes. “Improv is appealing because from an audience standpoint, they don’t know what’s going to happen.” The added challenge of sustaining this improvisation for an extended amount of time and tying it all together to make a well-crafted story is what draws viewers in.
“Audiences are getting more and more savvy. We don’t need to prove that we’re improvising anymore — most everyone knows what improv is.” He concludes that because of this, “We can do more and more interesting things,” challenging themselves and the audiences’ understanding of improv.
The style of improvised narrative in Precinct borrows from genres we are familiar with, while others begin with a blank slate. McGee explains that Precinct viewers might expect “car chases, arrests, interrogations, cops being taken off of the case” and other elements you would find in many police procedurals. While this adds a solid foundation for the story, it can also be stressful.
“With a genre show you promise the audience something,” Skagford says. “There are expectations and if we don’t meet those, we let the audience down.” McGee chimes in, “They want to see things that they loved about it — it’s a matter of doing it in a way that makes it feel brand new every time.” ■
A Very Precinct Christmas Special: An Improvised Cop Comedy will be performed at Montreal Improv (3713 St-Laurent) on Saturday, Dec. 9, 8 p.m. and 11 p.m., $10