Improv Avenue

A couple of nights ago I was standing with my work colleagues in the basement of the Oldtimers Cabin on 99th St., listening to Donovan Workun, Graham Neil and the Atomic Improv troupe explain we were standing on a beach. Or in France. Or on a tightrope over a gorge.

Donovan and Neiler 
It was a team-building experience, and the lesson was brilliantly simple: if improv comedians can't agree between themselves that the wooden floor is really a sandy strand, then there is no common space, imagined or not, and if there is no common space, there is no improv. That's the fact on which the performance is built. The stage isn't as real as that fiction.

Compare for power of spell cast, or not, an actor suggesting to his partner that "the sand on this beach is gorgeous" and being greeted with a delay and silence, or a shrug, or only a tentative nod of consent -- or, then, an enthusiastic, positive tag-taking and a comeback that "the tide is due to roll in in about an hour!"

That autopsy of what happens when improv comes to life came back to me tonight as Shelagh and I watched The Avenue, a new documentary from Jaimie Clements about the challenges of building community on 118th Ave. in north Edmonton.

Growing up in the northeast, we called it 18th Ave, of course. Just like 132 Ave. was shortened to 32nd. 37th was 137th Ave. Our imaginations, bordered to the south by 118th Ave,  somehow couldn't conceive of the actual 18th Ave.

Movie night 
A lot of my life happened on 118th Ave. I was baptized at St. Alphonsus Church, and got my boyhood haircuts at a little shop west of there. We crossed the Ave. on Sunday trips to my grandparents' house. My bikes came from George's Cycle. Many of my teeth were pulled out at Dr. Low's office just off 118th Ave. I first took music lessons at a little joint on 118th Ave. near 95th St. (I was told to practise until my fingers bled) and it was there my parents bought my prized Fender Mustang. I changed sides of the street to the  United Conservatory of Music and got my first job teaching guitar there a couple of years later. An always enjoyable trip was to The House of Banjo (now Myhre's Music) for violins, guitars, amps, and mandolins. As a crime reporter at The Edmonton Sun, I covered the seedy side of the Ave, especially at and near the now-demolished Mordor that was the Cromdale Hotel. Shelagh's grandmother lived in a great house just off 118th Ave., and Shelagh is now back in the neighbourhood as a member of the board of the Nina Haggerty Centre for the Arts.

One of the stars of the documentary is Christy Morin, who heads up Arts on the Ave., a member of the coalition of artists, businesses, and citizen groups that have helped confront the challenges of living and raising families in the neighbourhood. Near the end of the story, Morin is asked what advice she has for other neighbourhoods facing a similar crisis of chaos and crime and condoms.

Her answer surprised me, especially after seeing the work and planning and objective-setting and consultation and lobbying that have moved the neighbourhood -- Alberta Avenue, they call themselves --   back to vibrancy.

She said don't think about it too much. Don't put too many obstacles between you and your neighbours and the plans you want to effect. Just do it, believing those plans come from a good place.

And I realized at that instant that it's all improv.

Shelagh at the movie


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