Improv makes an impact at the National Arts Centre

The 2019 Canadian Improv Games Series is streaming now on CBC Gem.

The 2019 Canadian Improv Games Series is streaming now on CBC Gem.

The Canadian Improv Games finale will be livestreamed by Algonquin College on April 4.

Canada's biggest high school improv tournament is happening this week at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa. It's known as the Canadian Improv Games (CIG for short) and this year marks the 42nd season of the theatre festival.

During the first week of April, improv teams from high schools across Canada perform on the renowned National Arts Centre stage in different improv games. These games are otherwise known as "events" that test the participant's ability to think on their feet and collaborate under pressure.

For these theatre kids, the national CIGs are a pretty big deal. Each team performing in Ottawa successfully competed in regional division competitions or won the online tournament to qualify for the nationals. And although it's a competition with scores, judges and referees, the lighthearted spirit of play and teamwork remains at the heart of the festival.

And now there's a whole docu-series about this year's experience hosted by Andrew Phung. Stream it now on CBC Gem.


If you're not a high school theatre student, you probably have never heard of the CIG. But some of their alumni may ring a bell — Seth Rogen, Nathan Fielder, Alanis Morrisette, Tatiana Maslany and Sandra Oh are just a few notable entertainers that have risen through CIG.

Improv played a big influence in Sandra Oh's early career. Before hosting Saturday Night Live last weekend, the Golden Globe winner gave a shout-out on Twitter to her high school drama teachers and the Canadian Improv Games. "To everyone I did improv with in Ottawa from '86 to '90, I know one of the reasons why I'm here is because I played with all of you guys," says Sandra Oh in her video.


The CIG have also fostered some performers from the next generation of Canadian comedic talent. Juno-nominated comedian Chanty Marostica came through the ranks of the Canadian Improv Games with Winnipeg's Kelvin improv team. Mark Little of Cavendish, Gary and His Demons and the Picnicface comedy troupe also played on stage with CIG.

This is what the CIGs looked like back in the late 1970’s when they were called the ‘Improv Olympics.’


It all started with Howard Jerome and the late James "Willie" Wyllie in 1977. They were inspired by the "Improv Olympics"— an idea developed by Howard Jerome and David Shepard to create an improv tournament in their regional Ottawa high schools.

The first tournaments started as small competitions between eight high schools in Ottawa. As it gained momentum, the competitive theatre games grew to involve schools in Kingston, then Toronto and soon it had spread all the way to Vancouver.

Back then, the games were known as the Improv Olympics — until the International Olympic Committee caught wind and stepped in with a cease and desist letter to enforce their Olympic trademark. From that point on, they were known as the Canadian Improv Games.

By 1995, the CIG had grown so popular that it had a special television broadcast on YTV. And in 2017, the games celebrated its 40th anniversary.

Pictured are the founders and early supporters of the Canadian Improv Games. From L to R: Micheal Golding; Jamie Wylie; Howard Jerome; David Shepherd.


It's a long journey for some of these high school teams to make it to Ottawa. G.P. Vanier Secondary's senior improv team is making the trip all the way from Courtenay on Vancouver Island. Gulf Islands Secondary School improv team won the online wildcard tournament — an online submission format for teams who can't make the trip to regionals.

Ottawa's Canterbury High School improv team has a short trek to the National Arts Centre. Having the hometown advantage, Canterbury was one of the original teams to compete in the Improv Olympics back in the late 1970s.

Over the next few days, they'll compete in improv games on stage at the National Arts Centre with teams from each region across the country for the title of Canadian Improv Games champions.

From the west coast to the east coast, here's the improv teams and the regions they represent:

There are currently no schools representing Nunavut, Yukon and Northwest Territories at the CIG.


Get a first person point of view of the whole experience through the eyes of fellow improviser Andrew Phung: stream the 2019 Canadian Improv Games Series now on CBC Gem.

About the Author

Chanel Klein is a multi-platform producer specializing in digital video production. Currently, she produces digital and video content for many of your favourite factual programs at CBC Television's Unscripted Digital division in Toronto. Before working with CBC, Chanel hosted and produced a national award-winning community radio program in Vancouver.