Think fast: the Canadian Improv Games take the spotlight on CBC Gem

Andrew Phung (Kim’s Convenience) hosts the new CBC Gem series about the “Olympics of Improv."
Andrew Phung got his start in the acting world through improvisational theatre.

Improvisational theatre is the ultimate test for a stage performer: thinking fast on your feet and creating imaginative worlds with characters and ridiculous story arcs from nothing but a simple prompt from the audience ain't easy. 

It's how actor Andrew Phung got his start in television. Kim's Convenience creator Ins Choi discovered Phung while he was performing on stage at an improv show at the Edmonton Fringe Festival.

For many theatre kids across Canada, improv is like a sport. High school improv teams compete at the Canadian Improv Games (CIG). After winning regional tournaments, teams advance to the next stage: the national competition in Ottawa.

That's where the 2019 Canadian Improv Games Series kicks off – the first day of the national competition at the prestigious National Arts Centre. It's the biggest week of the year: teams have travelled far and wide for their chance at winning the championship.

How does it all work? Each night consists of multiple rounds of different teams performing scenes using random prompts provided by the audience. Each team has 15 seconds to huddle up and plan with their teammates before the scene begins. A judge reads out the scores at the end of the night, and the top teams advance to the final night for a chance to win the championship.

One super-important part of improv is making and accepting "offers" on stage. Whether that be an audience suggestion, or responding to a fellow actor improvising a new scenario – how well a performer can build on these improvised elements is key. And the judges take notice. It's the whole principle behind the old improv cliché of, "Yes, and?"

During the CBC Gem series, performers, coaches and CIG stewards reflect on the personal impact improv played on their own lives. 

Katie Bowes, the director and president of CIG, sees the effect that the improv games have on these teens by teaching them valuable life skills, boosting their confidence and helping them find their voice. In the first episode, Bowes poses this thought: what if you "found your voice" in your teen years instead of later in life? "It's a purely magical thing, [the] difference this makes in a young adult's life."

"Everything I know about theatre, about comedy and... about being a human being, I learned all of that through the foundations of improv," says Phung. "It gave me my entire career."

Join Andrew Phung as he jumps head first into the wild world of the "Improv Olympics" at the 2019 Canadian Improv Games. Stream the entire series now on CBC Gem.