Interview with Actor Improviser Teacher Simon McCamus
Through a networking event, I met actor, improviser and teacher Simon McCamus. A few days later, I went on Facebook and saw a post about an event at Second City. I love improv and I wanted to go downtown to support my friend. Second City has been bringing the funny for over 50 years and happens to have a training centre. The Second City Training Centre helps students develop their artistic voice, both individually and within an ensemble. After a quick chat with Simon at 99 Blue Jays Way, my wife and I entered the room and sat in the audience.
Four improvisers entered the room and Simon (improviser teacher) introduced the group and walked us through what to expect. On this day, they were asking for suggestions from the audience. My wife and I would shout out a few recommendations. After some fantastic comedy, the improvisers ask if anyone would like to participate? I felt a bit uneasy but my wife kept pointing to make me go on-stage.
First off, I want to give a shout out to all improvisers. The last time I was on-stage was in high school. A note I made after the experience is that you really need to listen. Listening is crucial in improv. Since there’s no script, if you’re not listening to your scene partner(s), you can be in serious jeopardy. Luckily, I only played a post in my scene where whenever an actor touched my shoulder I would shout out a word or quick phrase. I had tons of fun and hope to do this again in the future.
Today, I would like to introduce you to my friend, actor, improviser and teacher Simon McCamus.
1. Can we discuss your experience with competitive basketball?
My competitive basketball career was a hugely positive and defining part of my life. From age 10-23, I tried to become the best player I could by any means. Practiced consistently over the years by myself and with friends. I played as a point/shooting-guard on my school/university varsity teams and for house-leagues and rep/club teams. In addition, I studied the game by following the NBA, reading magazines about players, and books about individual skills and team strategy. I learned many invaluable lessons and shared so many memorable experiences with close friends, teammates, and coaches. I had some great coaches who were terrific mentors and other coaches who showed me the type of leader I did not want to be. Throughout the highs and lows on and off the court, basketball was always there for me as an outlet to have fun, sharpen my focus, and explore my competitiveness.
2. Walk us through your training at Second City, Simon McCamus?
Throughout 2011-2017 roughly, I’ve taken most of Second City’s course catalog starting with Level A improv. I’ve completed a few programs: adult improv (A-E), sketch-improv conservatory, clown, and long-form improv conservatory; as well as having dabbled in others: sketch-writing, stage-combat, standup, etc. Second City provided me a super fun and supportive playground to learn and develop new skills, meet wonderful people, and make some amazing friends.
With improv A-E (mostly Short Form improv), you start out learning the basics of YES AND, taking risks, embracing failure, teamwork, and the rules and strategies of various “Whose Line Is It Anyway” style games. Progressing through to Level D and E and into the Long Form program, you’re learning the nuances of longer improvised scenes or ‘sets’ (a single presentation of numerous thematically-related or narrative-based scenes).
In the sketch-improv conservatory and sketch writing program, you’re learning the fundamentals of writing and or performing basic comedic scene-structure comprising of: ‘platform’ or ’premise’, ‘tilt’ (the unusual /behaviour that launches the story forward), ‘heightening’ (intensifying, exaggerating, or exploring the unusual thing or behaviour) to a point of no return, and eventually resolution.
SCENES AND SCENE-FORMATS
There are many different types of scenes or scene-formats that you learn about such as a ‘grounded-relationship’ scene, a ‘blackout,’ a ‘fish out of the water,’ or a ‘clash of context.’ All in all, my Second City training has served me very well on and off stage/camera. The rules and lessons of improv are applicable to everyday life as well. They’re essentially a golden set of communication skills and principles.
3. Describe some of the talents at Second City? How are you assisting them at improv?
The talent at Second City is immense. Throughout the faculty, professional casts, and student-body, you have a large collection of award-winning and accomplished improvisers, actors, writers, clown performers, spoken-word artists, stunt performers, authors, podcasters. Some main stage alumni and student alumni have gone on to write and star in their own TV shows and CBC Gem series like “Baroness Von Sketch Show”, “Tallboyz,” and “Bit Playaz.”
Some ways I might ‘assist’ any of the talents are by filling in for a fellow teacher when they need to miss a class in order to be present for a major opportunity, or by being the best performer and teammate I can be to a fellow cast member, such as in our current Fam. Co. production of “In The Game” scheduled to resume whenever the quarantine ends.
4. What can you tell us about ‘Fake Cops’, that has been featured in improv festivals (Toronto, New York, Chicago, Detroit, Montreal, and Ottawa)?
Fake Cops is an improv troupe comprised of Alex Kolanko, Filipe Dimas, Andrew Bushell, Nicole Dunn, Ify Chiwetelu, and myself. Since our debut in the 2013 Big City Improv Festival, we’ve been hosting multiple monthly shows such as “The Disaster,” “Total Disaster,” and “Fake Cops vs S&P” at venues like the Ossington Tavern and Bad Dog Theatre.
We’ve been featured in Improv Festivals around North America as well as performed as a guest troupe at numerous shows throughout Toronto. In 2015, we received the Pat & Tony Adams Freedom Fund For The Arts Award in partnership with Bad Dog Theatre, which sponsored our production of “Fake Cops Presents A Fantastic Journey… At All Costs.”
We’re probably mostly known for our monthly show at the Ossington Tavern called “The Disaster,” which has been running for 6 plus years. It’s perhaps the only experimental comedy show in the city where you could do almost anything. We invite comedy guests to perform 5 minutes of whatever they want as long as it’s not traditional to stand up or improv.
We’ve seen some incredibly hilarious, moving, honest, absurd, and head-turning performance-art pieces. After the ‘disaster guests,’ we improvise a set to close the show. We’ve refined our skills over the years and grown closer to each other to the point where our improv sets can swing from the most banal and grounded scene-work to the most ludicrous, 4th wall breaking, mischievous and high-energy absurdity from one moment to the next. They are a super talented and wonderful bunch that I am seriously lucky to have met and become friends and teammates with.
5. Simon McCamus, how would you describe acting on-screen vs performing on stage? Is it the same or slightly different?
It depends. Some similarities between on-stage acting vs on-camera acting are that you’re trying to portray characters –realistic or eccentric- with as much focus, commitment, and honesty to their experience and in response to their given circumstances as possible. Some differences arise out of the necessity of the mediums. Generally, on-stage, you perform ‘bigger’ and ‘louder’ so you’re visible and audible to the whole audience all the way to the back row.
Generally, on-camera, you’re playing within the dimensions of a high-res camera frame and sensitive mic so it serves you better to keep your movements more precise to the limits of your space/position as well as keeping your volume at the appropriate level for the scene.
Acting exclusively in one genre –comedy or drama- for both stage and screen, then there will be more similarity of performance between the mediums.
Comedy, you’re going for humour obviously, so there’s usually more license for playing with eccentric, unusual, or absurd behaviour, speech, and body language, or realistic behaviour under absurd circumstances.
Drama, the performance is usually geared towards more realistic behaviour and language exploring the more serious subject matter. We’re trying to portray those characters dealing with those circumstances with more sincerity and care. My stage-acting career has been exclusively with comedic productions, be it improv, sketch comedy, or comedic theatre. My camera-acting career has been roughly 50/50 comedy-drama across commercials, TV, and film.
I think generally the core of performance across genres and mediums remains mostly intact or the same, while the differences across them are a little more surface-level. That’s my vague answer!
6. Describe what it means to you to help people connect with each other and explore their talents?
I suppose what it means for me to “help people connect with each other and explore their talents” in an improv-comedy context is simply that. Whether I’m working with a Level A class of people brand new to improv, or a veteran improv troupe looking to refine their advanced skills, connection, and self-exploration or development are what it’s all about. “Connecting to yourself,” I should say, is a huge piece of that quote, perhaps a byproduct of connecting to others and exploring your talent/creativity. Improv requires high levels of focused awareness and teamwork.
Paying attention to one another simultaneously by sight, sound, touch, and vibe/energy/tension is vital. You have to listen, make eye contact, have spatial awareness, interpret body language, and intonation via tone of voice. We have to assume subtext or hidden meaning. Remember what’s already been said or done by others or with others. The more we can redirect our attention from our selves (self-consciousness, doubt, anxiety, day-dreaming, etc.) towards our teammates, the stronger we will ‘connect’ to each other.
Also, with a greater redirected focus towards our teammates -I think on average- the more instinctive, confident, courageous, joyful, and creative we will play/improvise. It’s hard to be self-conscious when you’re fully immersed in the ‘game’ or activity and staying aware of your teammates and paying attention to the shared point/object of focus.
I think “exploring their talents” in an improv context boils down to developing our abilities to spontaneous co-create theatre. Whether we’re in a scene doing impressions of popular figures or being inspired by figures from our personal lives, or playing closer to our own usual selves, we’re expressing various perspectives, experiences, emotions, philosophies, and histories that we’ve encountered in our lives through our characters. We’re synthesizing and expressing all of this information we’ve consumed throughout our lives in a specific way.
Even before all of that, we’re practicing and strengthening basic communication skills and exploring the full range of our own body as our communicative instrument: our body language, movement, vocal range, emotional range, vocabulary, and intellectual sharpness to articulate and express our thoughts and feelings with confidence and clarity.
7. Simon McCamus, describe the funniest moment you ever had on stage in improv?
The funniest moment I ever had on stage? There are many. Now I’m sad that I haven’t been video recording all of my shows since I started lol. One that pops up now is Fake Cops at the Chicago Improv Festival in 2015 or 2016 I think. Our suggestion was “timeshare.” Eventually, midway through our set, I was on the sidelines and got the impulse to appear in the scene via a time-traveling ‘time-chair.’
It was heavily “Terminator” inspired as many of my improv choices have been. I think I kidnapped Alex in the scene immediately after appearing in order to save him from some doom. Eventually, after a few call-backs to this ‘time-chair’ thing, Alex and I got stuck in this time vortex where we fell into a loop where we repeated a 10-second interaction between us verbatim for what felt like a long time. We kept repeating and heightening it until exhaustion. The audience and our teammates were losing their minds. It was magical.