The door to classroom 7.425 swings open and shut as students exit on a mid-February school day. Dragonforce can be heard blasting from the stereo on the other side. A tall 27-year-old holds out his hand. He’s dressed in grey sweat pants with a long-sleeved black shirt underneath a large brown jacket. His chestnut brown coif, he says, is “wake up in the morning hair.”
“Hi, I’m Aaron,” he says, smiling.
Aaron Janke is a Concordia student doing a double major in acting and singing. By day, he’s just like every other student who attends classes and races to do last minute assignments, but by night, he shakes off his quiet demeanour and embraces his true improv star as one-tenth of the On The Spot improvisation troupe at Comedyworks.
Tonight, the lights at the Comedyworks will shine brightly on the small stage at the front of the room. Janke will watch his partner, Paula Davies, walk dramatically towards him, her hair flying to the side, demanding “You think I don’t know what they call you?”
Janke throws his right arm out behind him, pointing to no one in particular. “What do they call me, huh?” He yells at her angrily and the sound of his voice fills the small room. He is referring to his imaginary backstabbing frenemies.
The audience roars, including Davies who turns her back to the audience in an attempt to stifle her laughter. “You think I don’t know what they call you?” she asks, suddenly back in character. “They call you” – she pulls out a piece of paper, filling in the mad lib word – “ham!”
“Everyone wants a piece of the ham,” he replies, winking suggestively at the audience before host Terence Bowman jumps on the stage to signal the end of the scene.
But that’s not until later, when his troupe is set to take part in the Winter Improv Olympics. Janke tells me he is not nervous, but the day is still young, and he has to get a new student card. He’s already lost it twice this year.
Five minutes later, as we walk out of Birks Student Service Centre, Janke holds up his new ID for the two of us to examine.
“Do I look too stoned?”
“Kind of,” I reply. “Yeah.”
After a quick stop at Burritoville, we make our way to the shuttle bus. He tells me he had previously studied in creative writing but found it too stagnant. “I like to move,” Janke says as we cross at a red light. “It’s kind of my thing,” he jokes, unravelling his lunch as we sit on the shuttle bus. “I’m a rebel.”
As we wait for the bus to depart, Janke explains that first year acting students don’t put on productions in the theatre. They are trained in the ensemble atmosphere and perform in second year. This is one of the reasons why he loves being part of On The Spot.
Having joined the troupe a few years ago, Janke is able to fuel his creative energy and put his impromptu acting skills to the test on a weekly basis, even if he is spewing Lady Gaga jokes instead of reciting Shakespearean poetry. “I guess you could say it’s my job,” he laughs. The 10 members of Janke’s improv troop range from 20 to 50 years of age. While On the Spot is a comedic troupe, Janke also enjoys doing more dramatic and emotional pieces of theatre.
The conversation shifts to Janke’s new iPhone, a source of electronic pride, as he gives me a lesson on how to scam Bell customer services. He instructs me to tell them: “I am thinking of switching to a different provider.” After all, part of being an actor is getting your way.
The rest of the day is a rush of musical theory classes and private singing lessons. Before we know it, the sun has set and school is finally over for the day. Janke has still not broken a sweat over the competition tonight. As we pass the enormous canary-yellow doors into the dimly lit Comedyworks bar, Janke has to guide me up the three or four flights of stairs to the green room. On The Spot is a permanent troupe in the club and the group has its own space. As we pass the room’s threshold, Janke becomes more relaxed. He laughs and jokes with his team mates before changing into his On The Spot T-shirt.
“I think I’ll put makeup on,” says Paula Davis, Janke’s onstage partner, as she walks into the room to grab her bag. “I think it’ll help our chances.”
“I think I’ll put makeup on too,” agrees Janke enthusiastically before disappearing out the door.
Before long we are heading downstairs. Suddenly, the lights turn off and the theme from Star Wars begins to play. “This ridiculously pretentious and over dramatic music can only mean one thing…” says Bowman, host for the evening. The Improv Olympics are about to begin.
The five members of the On The Spot troupe are sitting comfortably on the right side of the stage. They’ve done this many times before.
The challengers: Team Norway – from Montreal (coincidentally, Canada is playing Norway at the same time in hockey, we win 7-0).
The opening ceremony is a contemporary-style dance with the theme of “poverty and free cupcakes.” The dance riles up the audiences as the performers demand that Beijing “suck it!”
What follows is two hours of challenging improvisation scenes that leaves the audience in stitches.
In the end, the final score is On the Spot, 62 and Team Norway, 61.5.
As the audience cheers, Bowman quips “maybe next time you’ll be half a point better!” Then the Star Wars music stops, the lights are switched on and each actor hides away their various personas to be, well, themselves. The teams disperse to have a few drinks, mingle with the crowd and laugh about the show.
For a few hours each week, Janke is able to leave his real life behind in exchange for various comedic personalities but the loom of university is never far from his mind. Midterms start tomorrow, and there is a mountain of homework and studying to be done tonight.
On The Spot is celebrating their 20th anniversary at ComedyWorks (1238 Bishop) from April 13 to 17 with shows at 8:30 p.m., and at 11 p.m. on Friday and Saturday.
On the Spot performs regularly every Tuesday and Wednesday at 8:30 p.m.