Room To Improv

Standup Comedians Love To Take Potshots At Improvisation. Ellie Harvie Says Bring It On

Put Ellie Harvie in the spotlight and watch her work. Whether it's dramatic acting (she received a 2002 Gemini nomination for a guest-starring role on Cold Squad), comedy (she played Morticia on The New Addams Family), sketch comedy (CBC's Western Alienation Comedy Hour), standup (headlining at clubs and festivals), or improv (a winner of the 1995 Just for Laughs improv tournament), she will take to any stage. Just show her the money.

"I'm a whore," she says. "I'll go wherever the work is."

That isn't surprising, given the peripatetic life of the Vancouver-based actor, who grew up "all over Canada", spent three consecutive TV-pilot seasons down in Los Angeles, and calls White Rock home. In July, she teamed up with Yuk Yuk's comedy club on Burrard Street, known across the country as a haven for standup, to host an improv night every Tuesday. Harvie fell in love with improvisation in acting school and honed her skills with Vancouver Theatre-Sports for 10 years before reluctantly retiring.

"At a certain point, you feel like you're the guy who already graduated hanging around the high school," she tells the Georgia Straight on the patio of a West Broadway restaurant. "There's always new people, and you feel you make them nervous, you feel you don't fit in, and it's just not comfortable."

Harvie approached Yuk Yuk's because of her early memories of TheatreSports, which used to be located in the Back Alley Theatre at Thurlow and Robson. She's attempting to bring improv off Granville Island and out of Kitsilano, where it now resides with the VancouverTheatreSports League at the Arts Club and Urban Improv at the Urban Well, respectively.

"It was just electric," she recalls of the old days of TheatreSports. "Such a great feel down there. It was downtown and the shows were always packed. That's where I found my feet. We were doing anywhere from five to eight shows a week."

Harvie won't get that kind of quantity at Yuk Yuk's, but she's happy with the quality of the club. "I think it's a great room," she says. "I wanted it [the improv night] to be at a comedy club. I wanted it to be a place where you could have a beer. I'm hoping the population will sustain it. Obviously Yuk Yuk's needs to make money, so we'll need an audience. I know there's lots of actors that want to come down."

And not just improv actors. Harvie is open to bringing in standup comics and letting them try their luck. Standup has long been the bully cousin of improv, with comedians taking potshots at the genre; the only thing missing is the letter "e", goes one quip. "If you can do it, make fun of it," responds Harvie, one of the few actors anywhere who are adept at both forms. (Roman Danylo and Greg Proops are two other notable switch hitters.)

Still, she'd love to see more standups give it a whirl. "I think some of them would be great," she says. "And who knows? You might stumble onto an idea that's funny and build it into a standup bit."

Mostly, though, Yuk Yuk's audiences will see professional improv artists, many of them VTSL alumni who still crave that creative outlet. The show is in long format, rather than broken up into the brief games that are typical of improv shows. Actors get a topic from the crowd and then riff on it for half an hour. "The people who have a lot of experience improvising really love that format because it's so open," Harvie explains. "You can go dark places; you can go wacky places."

It's also an open show, meaning that any professional performer can arrange to be part of that week's offering--with one caveat, Harvie says: "Anyone who doesn't like improvising with me or knows I don't like improvising with them, don't bother coming down."

Harvie will continue to pay the bills by appearing in Canada Trust and Canadian Tire ads, acting in locally shot TV series and movies, and doing standup at various venues, but improv is her great joy. "The thing about improv is it's so stress-free. You're just reacting. You don't have to remember anything. You just get out there and you bring it. And to me, I would way rather do a night of improv than go to a party. That's a party to me. That's my good time." The same goes for the audience. Watching a master of improvisation enjoying herself is always contagious.

"It's a great skill to have," Harvie notes. "But honestly, I think I'm a better dramatic actress than anything. The core of acting comes from the same place. TV, film, comedy, drama--they're very specific, but they all come from the same place, which is an open heart, a need to communicate, a need to connect. The intangible is the funny. Either you are or you aren't."

And Ellie Harvie is. Just watch her.

Ellie Harvie hosts an improv night Tuesdays at Yuk Yuk's at the Century Plaza Hotel, starting at 8:30 p.m.