I take my seat in Théâtre Sainte-Catherine, with its high walls and an assortment of tables, set up cafeteria style so the patrons sipping coffee have ample room to meet their colleagues and spread out their laptops and notebooks. The stage is empty and unlit by stage lights, but the pale yellow March light filters through the front window into the black walls of the theatre. Mark Louch brings us a both a cup of coffee from the café. I ask Mark what his position is here, so I can introduce him properly in this article. He replies, “Titles aren’t my forte. I call myself the director.”
“I’ve moved more into a role of delegating and overseeing and thinking longer term,” he pauses. “It’s also putting out all the fires.”
Mark and Alain Mercieca, his friend and writing partner, were sold the business on the condition that they would keep producing the Sunday Night Improv show – now the longest running improv show in the city. “Literally the day we bought the business there was a Sunday Night Improv and that was the first time I saw the show,” Mark says, “I came into it with that young attitude thinking, this is lame, I hate improv, but after getting so involved in it and watching so much of it, then I tried it out and it’s fascinating. I’m passionate about it now.” He laughs, “And it took me a good while before I even got on stage.”
He paired up with Calgary improv alum Sandi Armstrong, who came prepared with skills and games from Keith Johnstone’s book, Impro for Storytellers, and this would heavily influence the philosophy at Le Nouveau International. “I learned while I was here watching people fail, and figuring out the rules,” Mark says. “Now, late at night with any kind of artist I am known to go on rants about improv. It can help anybody in any setting, it’s not just for arts.” He explains, “It’s this training as a person because it teaches you to communicate with people.”
Failure and ego are two concepts that come up a lot during our conversation. Mark is trying to use improv techniques with his young children, who often get frustrated when they don’t succeed at something on the first try. “[My son] makes a mistake and he’s making all these excuses about why he made the mistake, because his ego is trying to protect him,” Mark explains. “It’s hard to accept the fact that we fail. What improv is teaching everybody is that we are all just failing all the time, if you can get over your ego, you can be in the now.”
Le Nouveau International gives members of the public the chance to fail at free improv workshops offered before their Sunday and Monday improv shows. Mark says the reasons for doing this are “selfish” as he hopes that a free improv education will provide the community with strong improvisers, which the company needs to continue to bring in the audience. I can see it that way because ultimately, growing and strengthening the skills of the artistic workforce in Montreal serves the entire community.
“It’s a safe space for artists and creative development. We want to be that community space where everyone is welcome. It’s where you can come feel at home. Everyone’s welcome, all the time, it’s a collective, and we need everybody, and we rely on the whole community to keep it going. If it wasn’t for the artist there would be nothing,” Mark says, betraying himself as decidedly un-selfish.
The workshops are actually a place to un-learn all the little quirks and foibles that prevent an actor (or a regular person) from being grounded in a scene, but they aren’t trying to mold participants into the perfect improviser, in fact Mark would tell you there’s no such thing. “All the techniques and rules we have in improv are just trying to trick you into being you. Everybody will have these defense mechanisms and right away will try to be funny or try to make an audience like you.” He continues, “The rules are: be normal, be positive, don’t block. All these rules are just ways to make sure you keep getting back to start.”
If you’d rather keep your failures off stage, you have two improv shows to choose from at Théâtre Sainte-Catherine, one in each language, and both are successful ventures for Le Nouveau International. When I ask Mark what he attributes this to, he says, “It’s a five dollar show where anything can happen. There’s something to be said about sitting in a room where you’re having an effect on the show,” he grins, “and there’s something to be said for not taking yourself too seriously.”
I’m finished my cup of coffee now, and a few of the theatre’s other caffeinated clientele have finished theirs and left, there are new people seated with their fresh cups, and servers are bringing out plates of food to the early lunchers. Mark calls this café addition the “biggest change” to hit Theatre Sainte-Catherine during his tenure as director. “The whole theatre used to survive on rental income,” he explains, “but when we did a little bit of renovation and knocked the wall down and opened it during the day, now the pressure’s off all over.”
Mark lets on that there were some mixed reactions to the new business venture coming out of the theatre, saying, “It wasn’t easy for a lot of people to take because we were so used to our punk rock theatre where everyone did whatever they wanted. It was all about the art. So, there were a lot of people feeling that we weren’t into that anymore, and what about theatre? And do you still care about the shows?”
These remarks surprise me. To me, the answer to that last question is a resounding yes – and I’ve only been talking to Mark for the time it takes to drink a cup of coffee. This company is made up of the type of people to make the most of what resources they have, and I don’t see how a café as a revenue stream compromises the integrity of the art any more than relying on annual audience subscriptions, granting & funding agencies, or private donations for revenue – all theatre companies work with what they’ve got access to in order to keep producing. Like Mark says, “It’s a balance.”
When asked how he responded to those comments at the time, Mark replies, “Maybe not always perfectly. There were probably some heated conversations and there still are conversations about what we’re doing and it’s not easy to carry the weight of it all. It’s hard for someone who’s an actor in the community looking in at us who have the financial burden. If we don’t do this, probably in the next five years we will have to close, or move on, or pass it on to somebody else. So, this way we can keep doing what we want to do.”
The café has been up and running for about three years now, and Le Nouveau International has been producing at Theatre Sainte-Catherine for about ten. During that time, the company has been learning what works, what doesn’t work, what needs to be leaned into, and what needs to be jumped into.
Les Lundis D’impro is the best attended weekly event for Le Nouveau International, selling out every week. The show has a link back to the Keith Johnstone techniques from Alberta, but Quebecois improvisers wasted no time in developing new skills and games that play to their strengths and connect with the culture. Eventually those games made it back to France, where it became a major phenomenon. “It’s the French population that lives in Montreal who have friends visiting and they want to go see an improv show,” Mark says, “it’s the top of their list while they’re here, because here is where French improv is from. There’s enough French people in the city to support us all year long.”
The success of Lundis was a long time coming, and the team at Le Nouveau International put the time in to incubate that show, saying that they were “performing to six or seven people for years” but that after all that work, things are really paying off for them.
While they’re clearly dedicated to their improv audience, they found that their crowd at their Tuesday night weekly spot were looking for something a little different than improv or standup, which they could get their fill of other places during the week. The Tuesday night program had to offer something that couldn’t be easily found at other venues on that night – and there are a lot of Tuesday night open mics. Thus, Art Machine was born.
Art Machine runs the performing arts gamut, showing sketches, an improv, special guests, and live music – like if Saturday Night Live was hosted in a cabaret. “It’s not necessarily successful,” Mark says grinning, “but it’s cool.”
The troupe put on a new show every week, which satisfies the audience member that wants to see something they’ve never seen before. Mark says of his performers, “They’re all super talented in all the genres. Every week they have a new sketch they wrote, they open with an improv, two of them do a standup, they have workshopped sketch ideas, and then a musical guest. We always have a spot for a musical guest or clown or burlesque or something that’s a little showy.”
Mark says that not only are his two improv shows doing well, but that the form in general is experiencing an upswing at a time when other performing arts are on shakier ground. Theatre rentals, for example, are becoming less and less profitable and logistically manageable for Theatre Sainte-Catherine and companies that are producing plays in the space, including his company’s own improv shows, must be much more flexible. Mark explains, “Your play is going to take a full day of set up, it’s going to take lighting design, it’s going to take rehearsals onstage all these things where there’s no income coming in. That’s why we developed our theatre in away where we can start at six o’clock even though we’ve never rehearsed it before and put on show at eight and it’ll be OK.” He shrugs, “It’s going to be rough around the edges and it’s a new style, it’s not theatre in many people’s eyes, but I think the improv community is one of the few Anglophone communities that is growing.”
With Mark, we once again find ourselves at a place where the ends justify the means, and it’s imperative that the means push the boundaries of what is possible in a theatre space not just to keep things going, but to flourish in the face of struggles shared across the artistic community. “Most Anglo performing arts seem to be suffering,” Mark says simply.
“The standup community,” he gives as an example. “There’s always the new standup show that goes OK for a couple months, a season, a year, and then it’s finished. That person is gone, moves away or not doing comedy anymore, so that whole industry is fallible. We lose them all, all the greats that get to a point where they are producing all the shows, and we’re relying on them, we feel like there’s a thing happening, and then oup, they’re gone, so the whole community shuffles down, makes room for the next young guy.”
He’s describing artistic brain drain, and it shouldn’t be controversial to say that it’s effects are felt in lot of anglophone artistic sectors these days, including all forms of theatre. Which is not to lay the blame at the doors of those individuals who pursue careers in other cities (it shouldn’t be difficult to glean that this article is pro-do-what-you-gotta-do) but to signify a systemic issue.
Mark continues, “In my experience with the theatre community there’s not enough money to do that anymore,” he pauses, “I mean, we were forced to build a restaurant in order to support the theatre.”
Which is not to say it’s all gloom and doom. There are many companies and artists who are managing to shine through, advancing their craft, and making crazy good art. The improv community, per Mark, is one of those that is expanding despite the greater challenges in the industry. “Montreal improv is a machine now,” he laughs, “I feel like they have a parade from the University, who come to the show, go home, and then they’re back again the next day. So, they’re really growing, you know.”
That growth is the result of years of hard work in the community from people like Mark who are willing to put the time in, though he defers credit to the art form itself, and to the audiences who are responding positively to seeing performers who are open on stage – sans ego. Improv, he reminds me, is about “being who you are, instead of blocking with your ego to try and pretend to be something you’re not, or to try and make jokes.”
The audience at Le Nouveau International are looking for honesty and truth, like any other theatre audience, “they don’t what to see you trying to be anyone that you’re not.”
But improv teaches performers a different approach to accomplishing that honesty, separate from the principles of acting. “If get to be really great actor you can become this second person and be true to the character,” Mark suggests, “but I think the easiest thing is to base it off what you know, and who you are. I think that’s how an audience will connect much stronger to any kind of artist. Even the banter musician has between his songs, it’s a big moment where the audience is ready, and they are on board with the artist and they just want you to say something true.”