Students Adrianne Fitch and Brian Nguyen, with instructor Irwin Levin behind them. Levin and Cass Freeman teach a free workshop on Sept. 13. (photo by Adam Abrams)
“When I teach a series of eight classes, I see people who are quite scared and nervous and sometimes very shy, and watch them become daring and playful improvisers towards the last class, and that is quite satisfying,” Cass Freeman told the Independent.
Freeman and her husband, Irwin Levin, are teaching an improv workshop with a focus on teamwork at Mount Pleasant Neighbourhood House Sept. 13. As well, Freeman is teaching a series at the Roundhouse Community Arts and Recreation Centre that runs eight Tuesday nights, starting Sept. 20.
“We really care about our students’ experiences,” said Freeman, who has taught improv comedy games on and off since the early 1990s. “We really want them to enjoy themselves and relax so they can be spontaneous. We rarely put people on the spot and, when we do, we coach them, so they don’t have to struggle up there alone.”
Freeman was an injured dancer when she found Vancouver Theatresports, now called the Improv Centre. “I saw them perform one night in the 1980s,” she said, “and I thought, ‘I can do that!’ So, I took a series of classes there and ended up performing in their first-ever Rookie Night. I was terrified, but I remember the audience endowing me as embarrassed, so I just hid behind the other players for a whole scene and did OK.
“Improv is such a positive form of theatre,” she added. “The people are really great, very playful and intelligent. I was quite a negative person in some ways, during my 20s especially. Improv really turned around my life. I was much more accepting of other people’s ideas. And I found the work to be really healing.”
Levin first heard about improv from Freeman. “I was doing standup comedy when I met Cass and found out that she was doing improv,” he said. “I was attracted to both Cass and improv simultaneously! (We met in 1994 and were married in 2000.) Now I will be taking a standup course as well as assisting Cass in improv workshops, so I will be getting the best of both comedy worlds.”
The couple has recently started their own improv business.
“We’d like to spread some playfulness, laughter and joy around our little corner of the world,” said Freeman about the venture. “We’d like to teach improv games for teamwork, stress reduction and creativity or just plain fun in as many different organizations as we can. People in the Jewish community have an amazing sense of humour, so we’d love to teach anyone in the community who is interested.”
Freeman has worked as a freelance journalist in radio, television and print since 1987. Her first article in the Jewish Independent, which was then called the Jewish Western Bulletin, was in 1982 – about human rights activist Judy Feld Carr and her efforts over some 30 years to bring Jews out of Syria. Her most recent article was this past April, a profile of Vancouver Playback Theatre.
Local readers may also know Freeman’s name from The World According to Keith, a 2004 documentary for Bravo TV that she co-produced, about Theatresports creator and instructor Keith Johnstone.
“Keith Johnstone created Theatresports, along with his university students in Calgary, during the late 1970s,” explained Freeman. “He has also taught improv all over the world and there are now more than 150 theatre troupes who perform Theatresports and other formats he has created, like Maestro Impro and his favourite format, called the Life Game. You can see Maestro Impro at Tightrope Theatre in Vancouver.
“Keith trusted me to make a documentary about him because after I watched his righthand man, Dennis Cahill, do a weekend workshop in Calgary, he said to me, ‘You were great, you were like a fly on the wall. We’ve had other journalists here and they were quite obnoxious.’
“Keith became like a second father to me,” said Freeman. “My dad came from England and Keith has the same wicked British sense of humour. We still keep in touch and I have an autographed book from him that says, ‘Be average, Cassandra,’ since he noticed that when I was in his workshops that I tried too hard.”
Another memorable moment in her career came when she was teaching at the Vancouver School Board night school, which she did for about five years. “One night,” said Freeman, “the administrator called me into his office and said, ‘The instructor next door to you is complaining that his students can’t concentrate because your students are laughing too much.’ It was the best insult anyone has ever given me.”
Levin recalled a private workshop he and Freeman did this past July. “One of the students was so inspired,” said Levin, “he has decided to pursue a career in acting.”
But aspirations to be an actor are not the main reason to learn improv.
“Improv can relieve stress, reduce stage fright and improve self-esteem,” said Freeman. “Improv games encourage creativity, quick thinking and communication skills, and are a great tool for breaking the ice, having fun and building team spirit.”
She described improv as a team sport, with almost all the games being about supporting the other person or people onstage with you. This is why it’s a great way to get over stage fright, she said, “because the focus will rarely be on you alone, like it is in standup comedy.”
Freeman and Levin welcome people of all ages, backgrounds and abilities to take their classes, as well as members of the LGBTQ+ community. And, as mentioned previously, fellow members of the Jewish community.
“We’d love to hear someone say ‘oy!’ on our stage. Or any other Yiddish or Hebrew phrases,” said Freeman. “There aren’t many improvisers out there who are Jewish and we’d like to change that.”
There are also not many improv instructors who are Jewish, she said. Nor instructors who have a disability.
“I’m among the many people who have an invisible disability,” she shared. “I’ve had it since I was 19. The way it affects me today, a few decades later, is that I can’t stand in line on pavement and I can’t walk at all unless I’m wearing a very shock absorbing running shoe. So, when I teach, I have to wear runners. At our last workshop, nine out of the 14 people participating said they had something physically wrong with them. We are delighted to be able to teach people with varying physical abilities.”
The free team-focused workshop on Sept. 13, 6-7:30 p.m., is part of Mount Pleasant Neighbourhood House’s Generations Moving Together (GMT) program, which “encourage[s] community involvement, movement, learning and connection between younger and older generations.” To register for the workshop, contact GMT coordinator Daniela Gunn-Doerge at [email protected] or call 604-879-8208, ext. 225. (Refreshments are provided.)
The improv classes at the Roundhouse run on Tuesdays from Sept. 20 to Nov. 8, 6:30-8:30 p.m. It’s $160, but half price for people who have a Leisure Access Card. To register, click here or call the Roundhouse on Sept. 17 at 604-713-1800. Freeman and Levin can be reached at [email protected] or 604-872-4638.