By Troy Hasselman, October 18 2019 —
Dirty Laundry, Calgary’s live, fully improvised soap-opera is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. It’s 20th edition is themed around summer camps in Dirty Laundry Goes to Camp, which will première on Oct. 21.
Dirty Laundry has become an institution in our city, acting as a platform for some of our city’s strongest actors and improvisers to act out an unscripted, extended, longform story. Co-founder and artistic director Karen Johnson-Diamond credits its longevity, simply with how enjoyable the show is for both audience and cast.
“It’s the fun, it’s the people,” Johnson-Diamond says. “When Elinor Holt and I started this company it was two pals that love improvising together. We thought if we get together and have a fun improvisation the audience will come, and they did. All the people that have been in the company over the years have loved the form and love to show up and play and giggle.”
In 2014, Dirty Laundry: The Next Generation was launched as a means of giving a stage for Calgary’s young, up-and-coming improvisers, performing every Sunday Night at the Lunchbox Theatre. This has acted as a strong-jumping off point for young improvisers to become acquainted with longform storytelling.
“I think there always has been a lot of opportunity for teens all across Alberta to participate in short form, or game form improv,” Johnson-Diamond says. “They’ll learn a lot of theatre sports in school in fun and competitive high school tournaments, but there aren’t a lot of opportunities for character driven, longform improv. The improv is so much different when you’re playing a character with a storyline that goes over a number of months. With short form improv there is a challenge for kids to get a story told in a five-minute scene which ends up limiting their ability to dive into a character. As they are interested in a future in the arts as professional actors or directors, this form teaches them that skill of a story that begins in September and ends in April, and relationships that carry on and you’re improvising that relationship more than just the back and forth of a five-minute scene.”
This year will be the first time that the themes for first generation and next generation Dirty Laundry performances will be the same. In previous years, there would be two unrelated stories occuring between the two generations. These overlapping stories allow for crossover episodes between the first and next generation of performers, with each set of performers taking place in different camps in the same universe. The first generation company’s performance is set at Camp Tang and the next generation performers are at Camp Tastic. Johnson-Diamond says the idea for the show came from imagining a soap opera made up of characters that are mostly children.
“When people think of a soap opera, it’s always filled with major conflicts,” Johnson-Diamond says. “This company wants to take over that company or this woman is sleeping with that guy and having an affair. Which always happens, what we’re looking for this year, as every year is just start off on a normal level and see what conflicts come from that. We’ve never explored a season where a lot of the characters are kids, which will be hilariously challenging because often in soap operas the drama is centred on sexual tension or romantic relationships, that is less likely to be the case this season with all the characters. With this season, we’re excited to see what the high-stakes soap-opera drama is for ten-year-olds even though it’s a bunch of 30-to-40-year-olds.”
Johnson-Diamond is pleased with the role that Dirty Laundry has within Calgary as a means of giving a platform for local artists, but she also sees improv as a means of teaching important life skills that could help a person, regardless of what they pursue in life.
“I feel so good seeing how many young actors, directors and artists there are in Calgary that started as a part of Dirty Laundry, were a part of Dirty Laundry and are still a part of Dirty Laundry,” Johnson-Diamond says. “I want it to just keep being that fun and I want it to keep developing skills, and it really does develop amazing skills. We will teach team-building workshops for corporations simply because the backbone ideas of improv really are life rules. The idea of worrying more about the person you are talking to rather than what you are saying, listening and being willing to say yes to anything — those kind of skills are life skills. In improv, you wouldn’t say anything unless you hear what the other person is saying to you. I always hope that more people are getting into improv and I hope it’s something that brings them joy in their performance life, in a professional acting career there’s a lot of critique and negativity and this is a night of joy and giggles.”
The improv scene and theatre scene has grown substantially in Calgary in recent years and Dirty Laundry has been a large part of it. This has lead to guest stars for Dirty Laundry performances such as Loose Moose Theatre alumnus and Kim’s Convenience star Andrew Phung as well as mayor Naheed Nenshi. Johnson-Diamond says this speaks to the supportiveness and generosity of the arts scene in Calgary.
“The improv scene in Calgary is hot,” Johnson-Diamond says. “We can credit Loose Moose for making Calgary a huge improv centre, but the late Rick Hilton branched off and started more improv companies and his goal was to say ‘we can all do this, we don’t all have to this in our sandboxes, let’s all go to each others backyards and play.’ We’ve had a number of people in our company who also play for Loose Moose or the Kinkonauts or come from the U of C Improv Club. For someone like Andrew Phung, who’s grown up through improv, to share that with Dirty Laundry is wonderful. In the wider arts community, Calgary has a reputation for being a generous city that shares a lot of things.”
Performers from stage productions across Calgary participate in Dirty Laundry and Johnson-Diamond hopes that viewers of performances will be inspired to seek out performances from actors in their other work.
“One of our biggest goals with Dirty Laundry is to make sure that the people that come for the comedy and improv, also can see the actors for the improv show in all sorts of other theatres in Calgary. I like to think that Dirty Laundry is sending people that are comedy improv fans to go over to another theatre to see something that isn’t improv. For example right now in our company, we have people that are in A Christmas Carol, people in Iceland at Theatre Calgary, people that are in Sweet Charity, people that are in the Lunchbox show In Flanders Fields, and they do those shows Tuesday to Sunday and on Monday they show up and do the improv. We hope that Dirty Laundry is introducing our audience to all of the hundreds of shows that go on in Calgary every year.”
Dirty Laundry plays at the Lunchbox Theatre every Monday night from Oct. 21–Dec. 16, except Nov. 18, and again on every Monday from Feb.17–May 11, except March 16. Dirty Laundry: The Next Generation plays every Monday from Oct. 27–Dec. 8, except Nov. 17, and again every Sunday from Feb. 23–April 5, except March 15. Tickets are $16 and $10 for students. Flex packs are available with 10 tickets available for $100. More information about tickets, scheduling and the upcoming season can be found on their website.