How Toronto’s Bad Dog Theatre Company beat all the odds
On 138 Danforth Street in
fotosde viejas marroquies follandoToronto, you will find the home of Bad Dog Theatre Company. Open since 2003, the venue boasts a 60-seat house and two training studios. According to Artistic Director Marcel St. Pierre, however, Bad Dog’s home base has another name altogether. “We lovingly call the theatre ‘The House that Harry Patter Built,’” he says. “That show did keep us going that first year.” Like most young improv companies, Bad Dog was finding its feet, battling for funding and trying to pull in an audience. But there are the normal problems, and then there are the extraordinary ones, and Bad Dog was up against something worthy of Voldemort when SARS broke out in 2003. For a company that was fighting for its then-infant life in a city that was virtually under lockdown, the ubiquitous boy wizard was a gift from the theatre gods. Harry Patter attracted an audience that improv shows rarely see: kids and their parents. And so Bad Dog was born.
Five years on, Bad Dog boasts a schedule most improv companies would die for: an average of five nights of shows per week, sometimes even seven. Many of these are parodies, like Patter—whatever happens to be under the public’s pop culture lens at the moment. Recently, they closed a Battlestar Galactica show, as well as a popular medical drama called Hot Doctors in Love. “My character became a vampire in it,” says St. Pierre, with a laugh. That’s what the kids are thinking about, it would seem. The parody formula is Bad Dog’s key to keeping audiences coming back. “It’s definitely something we borrowed from Vancouver,” St. Pierre says, referring to Vancouver TheatreSports League’s shared parody predilection. To wit: Bad Dog just ran Vancouverite (of Urban Improv, and a recent Toronto transplant) Diana Frances’ A Twisted Christmas Carol. St. Pierre loves the collaboration: “We have a wonderful relationship with those folks [in Vancouver].”
But while parody might have built Bad Dog, it’s not the only thing that sustains it. The company also has a healthy Harold night—run autonomously, St. Pierre points out, by James Gangl and Carmine Lucarelli—and the theatre is Toronto’s flagship TheatreSports venue. Keeping the thirty-year-old art form of TheatreSports fresh and lively is another job that Bad Dog takes seriously. “We let it grow and change,” St. Pierre says. “It’s not the games that keep it relevant. It’s the improvisers themselves.”
It’s this outlook, which is both simple and refreshing, that sustains Bad Dog: the company puts all of its stock in people. The people who are already there, sweating volunteer hours, and the people who might show up on their doorstep tomorrow. St. Pierre puts it this way: “I try to keep the place very open and welcoming to other improv schools of thought and other improvisers. We’re always trying to be a leader, but really maintaining an open-door policy.” St. Pierre is quick to say that he doesn’t see other Toronto groups as being exclusive; it’s just that he wishes the occasional negativity that rolls through the scene didn’t happen. “It doesn’t matter what improv company you support,” he sums up. “The fact that you’re supporting improv is good for everybody.”
To see how they cultivated this faith in humanity, it pays to look back at Bad Dog’s history. The detailed version is available on their website, but essentially, Bad Dog sprung forth from the remains of Toronto TheatreSports (which was sliding out of notice as
Second City gained momentum in the ‘90s) and combined with the big ideas of
St. Pierre and Kerry Griffin, who visited Chicago’s Annoyance Theatre on the eve of its 10th Anniversary. The visit was eye opening. “It was just this collective of people who all worked together and loved the theatre,” St. Pierre recalls. To him, the key was settling down: if TheatreSports Toronto was going to survive in some capacity, it needed to stop moving. Together with Griffin and Bad Dog’s General Manager and workshop director Ralph MacLeod, he lobbied the board for a theatre, and for the money to lease it. They got the money, and five years later, they’re still here. And while Patter helped, it wasn’t magic that kept Bad Dog’s doors open—it was the people, and their energy.
amor entre marroqui y mexicanaGoing forward, St. Pierre says, the company is hoping to put on their second annual improv summit—a small get-together of improv companies and performers from across the country—next year. They’re also seeking a permanent home, and to put together an actual season. The latter is a goal that St. Pierre acknowledges is difficult for any improv theatre, especially one that is fed by new, up and coming people as well as the ideas floating around in pop culture. Still, if any company can do it, Bad Dog would seem to be it. After all, if you can weather SARS, what can’t you do?
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It’s no small feat, to be a thriving, independent improv entity on Second City’s territory, and in one of the most improv-thick cities in the world, to boot. As Bad Dog performer Jan Caruana puts it, “In the Toronto
fotos de mujeres marroquies desnudasorganizational design of hp scene, there is so much out there. It’s often hard for a show to find its audience, and it’s impossible to see everything.” But improvisers visiting Bad Dog can be assured that the door to the House That Harry Patter Built is open, and that they will always be welcome. As for St. Pierre, he’s not going anywhere anytime soon—improv is his calling. “I found this journal I’d written in college recently,” he says. “I talked about going and checking out Loose Moose in Calgary and Second City. And I’d completely forgotten about it.” And then twenty-odd years passed, and here he is. “You do what you’re supposed to do, I guess.” i.ca