It’s looking to be a busy few months for the improv comedy troupe known as The Understudies: their hit show Swipe Right For Love will be featured as part of this year’s Hamilton Fringe Festival; they’ll be participating in Hamilton Arts Week, commemorating their “3rd birthday celebration show”; and come Saturday May 25, they’ll be remounting Waaaay Off Broadway at the Staircase Theatre.
It was in that same venue that the show originally premiered in 2018, shortly before taking the Hamilton Fringe Festival of that same year by storm, selling out more than half of its run. And from what Kristi Boulton tells me, it was a genesis that might not have been.
“We’d been doing improv together for about two years at that point,” she says, sipping on a latte in the Red Church café on King, “and we wanted to try something different, to push ourselves as artists. So we took a Second City musical comedy course, to try it out.”
At this point, Boulton tells me, she and her fellow Understudies — Adriana Alfano, Andrew Hopps and Mart Alas, plus stage manager Rose Usenica — were already slated for BYOV performances in the Hamilton Fringe. “We were due to submit dates, posters and show–themes to the Staircase, and we wanted a trial show anyway to see if this would work, so we decided ‘WE’RE DOING THIS’.”
And “do this” they did, recruiting pianists Aaron Bruinsma and Steve McRae to serve as their musical accompanists.
“It was a BIG RISK,” Boulton stresses. “We’d taken maybe…one class of that Second City course at that point?
“But that’s the beauty of improv,” she continues, smiling. “The audience wants to support what you’re doing up there, so even if the big risk doesn’t pan out, you’ve still got that support, and that’s especially true of the improv community at the Staircase.”
Of course, things DID pan out pretty well, though by the time they got to the Hamilton Fringe — the company’s 4th Fringe festival in as many years. Funnily enough, in that same Festival, they had some unexpected company in the form of “Whose Opera Is It Anyway?”, another musical improv comedy show.
“At first, it was intimidating,” Boulton says. “Here’s this show with these professionally trained opera singers, and then there’s us, four complete newbies to musical improv comedy.” This intimidation passed quickly, however, as Boulton notes that the spirit of improv is everybody supporting each other. “Plus,” she adds, “we got to know them during the Festival and they were lovely people, really nice folk.”
Boulton does note that there will be some slight changes to the show: of the accompanying pianists, only McRae is returning; and “the Fifth Understudy” Michael Divinski will be stepping in to replace Mart Alas, who is taking a brief leave of absence. Regardless, Boulton, part of Hamilton’s theatre scene since 2008 (who, upon realizing how many years she’s been performing, paused the interview in order to bury her face in her hands and retreat inwards in order to process the information — and yes, she gave permission to share that part of the interview) is more than excited to be remounting the show.
“There’s nothing more fun than doing musical improv onstage,” she says, genuine joy in her voice. “I’ve done traditional theatre and musical theatre, and I desperately miss doing both, but there’s a RUSH to musical improv. You don’t know what the song’s subject, or the tune, or the music will be, you don’t know if there’ll be harmonies, and if there are, if they’ll work, and on top of all that, you still have to create a cohesive scene.
“But you’re having fun, and the audience is having fun, which means you have more fun — it becomes a kind of symbiotic high. Yeah, the risks are big, but the results can be euphoric.”!” V
Waaaay Off Broadway
Presented by: The Understudies
Playing at: The Staircase
27 Dundurn St N, Hamilton
Showdates: Saturday May 25 @ 8pm