Mixtape Improv’s Renee Amber wants to add a laugh track to folk fest

Posted by Stephen Hunt, Calgary Herald on 29 July 2013

Renee Amber counts on the fact that every single person experiences life with their own personal soundtrack playing in the background.

The Calgary improv comic, just back from working as an alternate to Rebecca Northan in Blind Date in London, and comedy partner Stephen Kent, are taking their unique comic stylings to an unlikely venue this weekend.

That would be the Calgary Folk Festival, which is associated a lot more with earnest, earthy singer-songwriters than improv comedy, but therein lies the genius of the Calgary Folk Festival.

It isn’t afraid to take a sharp stick and poke it right into a few earnest singer-songwriter eyes.

Handling the sharp sticks inside the Apache Talk Tent this weekend will be, among others, Amber, Kent and recent Calgary Critics Award winning actor (for his role as Snoopy in the musical You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown) and musician Scott Shpeley.

What’s Mixtape Improv? “We take a famous album and play the album between scenes,” Amber says, “and do scenes based on them so ... the show is basically inspired by the content of the album.”

For their folk fest gig, the group are giving the original concept a little spin.

“We’re doing a takeoff of that with Scott (Shpeley),” she says.

“He’s going to be playing (music) a little bit between scenes and in scenes — but all of our scenes will be inspired by songs provided by the audience like, what’s your favourite breakup song?

“Then Scott will take it and maybe do his version of the song,” she adds, “and we’ll start the scene — it’s somewhere between improv and dramatic theatre” — not to mention comedy and folk songs.

“We wanted to keep that (musical component) since it’s the folk festival,” she says, “and have an opportunity to do musical-based stuff.

“Everybody,” she adds, “has those songs they absolutely love that they play over and over, so it’s great to have material like that to play off of.”

Then Sunday at 2:30, they will do something a little bit different during a session called Dramalogue.

“We’re performing with Amanda Brook Perrin, who’s a standup comedian,” Amber says. “She and another standup are going to be interviewing musicians and Stephen and myself will be improvising scenes based on their stories.”

It’s all inspired by different improvisational comedy games created by Loose Moose founder Keith Johnstone, the Brit who transformed Calgary into a global hot spot of improv comedy (and is known as the inventor of Theatre Sports).

Amber is a classically-trained actor who also grew up at Loose Moose (Kent also is a trained actor with a lot of improv experience), so they promise to bring a unique combination of talents to the Apache Talk Tent.

Anyways, it figures to be a little easier to riff off the lives and favourite breakup songs of folk festival patrons than Amber’s most recent gig, improvising blind dates with a lot of London guys, where Blind Date just wrapped up a successful run.

“They’re extremely adapt at evading revealing most things about themselves,” she says. “Everybody’s great with words in London. They can skirt around any issue.”

It turns out that while Keith Johnstone is a Brit, the British themselves were a little reticent to join in the Blind Date fun, where whoever is playing Mimi that night chooses as her blind date an audience member.

“They liked the show,” she says, “but they were so terrified they were going to be picked that even a reporter said — two in fact, one on a podcast and one in the paper — said, if you don’t want to be picked, just be rude to the performers.

“There was a little bit of a learning curve there.”

Eventually, British guys warmed up to the Calgary gals, producing — for Amber, at least — a few memorable dates.

“I had a great time,” she says. “I had a couple dates I could barely understand.”

How does an improv comedian handle a comedy partner they can’t understand?

“Well you know, just like in a relationship, where you speak two different languages,” she says.

“I guessed sometimes,” she says, “what they were saying, and other times, it just made for really funny exchanges.