BWW Interview: Karen Johnson-Diamond Talks DIRTY LAUNDRY and the Joys of Improv
"There's no prep." That's what Karen Johnson-Diamond told me when I asked her about Dirty Laundry's opening night. Calgary's only long-form improv comedy is celebrating twenty years of joy and fear with the premiere of their newest season by going back to camp.
Karen Johnson-Diamond, the co-founder of Dirty Laundry - and a creator and performer with an illustrious resume of scripted and non-scripted work - sat down to talk with me about her company and her love of being absolutely terrified on stage.
Dirty Laundry is a long-form, improv, soap opera comedy. That may seem like a string of words but it makes perfect sense. Every season, for the past 20 years, Johnson-Diamond and a group of professional actors and improvisors get up on stage on Monday night (the only dark night in Calgary theatre) and create a continuous narrative over 20 "episodes" out of whatever they come up with on the night. Though the story continues from week to week, there is no rehearsal. Before every performance, they will remind the audience (and themselves) of what happened previously and pick up where they left off. A live director is also improvise every night, tracking each character's journey and creating scenarios for them to work through within the narrative.
This years setting is "a happy place": camp. And over the years, Dirty Laundry has had many different locations - most of which you would typically find on a soap opera (lawyer's office, hospital, space), but it all began in 1999 in a laundromat.
"[Dirty Laundry] started because Elinor Holt (Dirty Laundry's other co-founder) and I had both guest starred in DIENASTY up in Edmonton (the improv company is celebrating its 29th year) and I just wanted that freedom that we'd experienced in Edmonton. We knew that the thing to do was to find actors first, improvisors second." She told me about her love of character-driven storytelling and improvisation. As an actor, understanding a character and knowing what they want seems a lot less intimidating than stepping on stage and trying to get a laugh.
"...we're looking for something that happens for forty hours (20 2-hour episodes) and we were looking for the fun, and that's all we've been doing."
Then in 2014, Johnson-Diamond (who is also known as the Administrative Director of Artstrek) and Aaron Coates created Dirty Laundry: The Next Generation, a mentorship program and performance troop made of 15-18 year old performers who create their own show on Sunday nights. "We were just keen on giving the teens an outlet, and teaching them professional, accountable improv practice that will help them in their studies going forward or in their professional careers."
Because of the younger ages, there is extra care taken on Sunday nights to make sure all of the performers are safe and guided.
"We're not interested in putting them in uncomfortable positions on stage." It falls very much on the director for the night to steer the conversation away from anything unsafe, a job which presents its own challenges. "If you're on stage, you get called into maybe two scenes to act but if you're directing, you have to plow through every scene and listen to what was said and try to put them in those scenarios. If someone says 'I'm going to ask so-and-so to marry me, you gotta remember to give them that scene and give them that opportunity to do that. Ideally, eventually the Next Gen company will become 85% youth-driven. I would love it if it was a company member on the mic. It's a hard job and it's not an easy thing to teach."
Beyond teaching the Next Generation performance skills, Dirty Laundry also aims to help the young performers in their careers moving forward.
"We make sure we invite Artistic Directors to see the shows, we make sure that Casting Directors from films see the shows. We do have a knowledge of these kids now and I often get emails from somebody going 'I've got to cast six sixteen year olds, you got any?' and I just blast it off to the kids." Some of the performers may already have years of experience behind them, and some may be starting out for the first time outside of the classroom. It's all based on their audition into the company. Dirty Laundry also makes a point of doing a curtain speech at the end of every night, letting the audience know what other theatre is happening around the city and what other shows the performers are working on. "So I like to think, our Next Gen company especially, are being exposed to new theatre, but also that our audience is being exposed to new theatre."
This year, both companies are using the same setting (for the first time ever): a summer camp on the lake. The First Generation company are at Camp Tang and across the lake, the Next Generation are attending Camp Tastic. "Soap operas are always seen starting with conflict, and we just went: 'what if this year we started off in the happiest place and see what conflict grows from that...If you start too dark, more people get murdered. And I don't want people murdered at a summer camp." In both companies, there will be adults and youth playing a combination of camp counselors and campers which is something, Johnson-Diamond says is another first. "We've never explored the soap opera or the drama that kids have. So I'm nervous but also terribly excited about that."
Nervous but Terribly Excited seems to be the theme of Dirty Laundry, who preach a philosophy of 'failing forward'.
"People jump out of planes because of the thrill. I love going on stage scared to death." Johnson-Diamond said about her love of improvisation. "The energy that all of a sudden is injected into the show when it's immediate...For me, the easiest way to improvise is to take care of my scene partner. So rather than think in terms of 'always say yes, never say no' I think in terms of 'what does my partner need, what is my partner suggesting, what would make my partner look good in this scene?' So if we're all doing that, then we're all catching each other as we jump out of the plane."
"One year I let the audience decide what my character was because I had no clue. I said 'here's seven choices' and they clapped hardest for that one so I played her starting that night. I like giving them what they want. Rebecca Northan, she is an amazing Canadian improviser, and she says: 'audiences love you when you give them exactly what they want - because that's what they were thinking and they feel smart. Or they love you when they're surprised because they weren't even thinking that could happen.' It's hard to not please an audience when you stay honest in your characters."
Of course there are rules of improv as with any performing medium. "You hear someone say: 'never say no' in improv. But in long improv...what if the guy who runs the cafeteria wants to marry me but my character doesn't want to marry him? It's never about not saying no to every question, it's about not saying no to the idea of what's happening and the reality of what's happening. If I say no to his proposal, it's not denying that we are together and he loves me. Just stay positive. It is the easiest thing in the world to be negative. People immediately go to what's wrong. And in improv, you succeed better if you go for what's right rather than what's wrong. And that's why I love Dirty Laundry. Because it's positive."
Monday October 21st will be opening night for the First Generation company, followed by the Next Generation on Sunday October 27th. Tickets are $16 each or $10 for students, and can be purchased at https://www.dirtylaundrycalgary.com.
"Monday night is the first episode and that's the scariest episode for all of us so come watch us crap our pants."