Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Interview with Larry Mollin (Homemade Theatre)

Larry Mollin is a TV writer/producer whose credits include “Beverly Hills 90210,” “Renegade” and “Knight Rider.”  Homemade Theatre was the creative partnership of Larry Mollin, Phil Savath, Barry Flatman and Fred Mollin.  During the 70s in Toronto, the quartet had their own fully-funded theatre, and produced “Homemade TV,” a CBC-TV series that ran for three seasons.  In 1974, Homemade Theatre produced the first Improv Olympics in Canada, with professional and amateur leagues. 

This interview was conducted in 2004 by Howard Jerome and Michael Golding, as part of a proposed book on the history of the Improv Olympics.  

Larry:  I think it was probably in 1974 or 1975 we met Howard Jerome and David Shepherd and we put together our version of the Improv Olympics – which was kind of slick, with a score methodism, scoreboard, crowds, teams – the best professional actors we could find in Toronto at the time including Delroy Lindo, who narrowly lost. And I remember some of the events we used were Silent Wrestling, which was a one-two minute event between two people. Two people played on each team. You would pick a situation out of a hat which would say “You just got the news that your mother had been hit by a train.” Some kind of terrible news that was beyond words. So in other words it was a silent scene where you had to communicate in a way what was going on and get your intentions across.

Howard: Was it then about indicating or raping on things?

Larry:  It was emotional and it was played naturalistically, because we were professional actors. We did not get involved in the amateur version. This was not Psycho Drama.  This was purely for paying audiences seeing professional actors.  Theatre companies from all across Toronto put teams up. It was a real prestige event in a sense that everyone wanted to be involved in it. It ran for a few nights until the finals. At the final show we gave a cup, which we called the "Stanley Slotzky Cup.” I believe it’s now sitting in someone’s storage room.  I’m trying to remember some of the other events.

Howard: Well, let me remind you. There’s Emotional Hurdles…

Larry: Right, right. Where you have to jump emotions. Go from like happiness, to sadness, to jealousy, to fear. You were given a course which you had to navigate through in a realistic way.  I’m not sure if there was text there which you had to incorporate.  What else?

Michael: Time Dash – where you go from one time period to another.

Larry; Don’t remember that.

Michael: Space jump – where you go from one location to another.

Larry: No.

Michael: Character Relay – where you switch characters back and forth through the course of the scene.

Larry: That one sounds familiar. I think we would do a scripted scene – like a “Three Sisters” scene and do the rotation that way.

Howard: Was any of this stuff archived, or documented on video?

Larry:  All this stuff was video-taped on that wonderful format – quarter inch reel to reel video. I’m sure the footage exists somewhere. I remember that the audiences really liked what we were doing. It was a big theatre community event. Audiences were excited by the competition – which was all good natured. There really was a good spirit associated with the whole event.   A lot of fun. A lot of good energy from the community.

Michael : How did you train for the Olympics?

Larry. I don’t remember. We were all skilled improv performers. We also all taught at various schools. We knew what we were going for. We just did it.

Michael: How did you come about working with David?

Larry: We didn’t really work with David.  We brought him up to kind of honor him. I remember he came up with Howard. I don’t remember him being involved all that much with what we were doing.  We were all a tight group and were pretty sure of what we were doing. We probably wouldn’t have listened to David anyway.  We were kind of an arrogant bunch. Still true. I believe David did some workshops for our Festival of Improvisation. We did a show also called “Babes In Lottery” – it was part of this festival. We had a crazy Argentinean who did a one man show. Still run into him out here over the last twenty years. He’s a repressed Chilean artist.

Howard: Where would you like to take this Michael?  Because obviously the connection with David was not huge.

Larry; No, it was actually more with you. We flew him up once and paid his expenses and he did a thing for the festival.

Michael: I thought it was interesting that you equated David’s working with amateurs as Psycho Drama.

Larry:  Well, David is a better person than we are.  He cared about people. We cared about acting. He was involved in fixing people and solving their problems through improvisation.  Using improv as a way to loosen blocks and build community. We were a bunch of jokers basically. We were good at what we did. We were talented.  I think we were afraid to use improvisation in a real way because we knew it’s a powerful tool. We didn’t feel qualified I guess. You can hurt people.  I still feel that way. It makes me nervous when people try role-playing. Psycho drama. Very distrustful of that stuff – it’s very dangerous.

Howard: Do you think it’s psychologically dangerous?

Larry: Yeah – you can really hurt people’s psyches. 

Howard: I’m trying to piece this time-line together. The Olympics David and I developed  in New York, at the Space for Innovative Development in ’72, was different from what we did in Toronto in ‘74.

Larry: Well, we refined it. We probably ripped some stuff off of David and he ripped a lot off of us.  These were our events before they were his.

Howard:  So, we brought the idea of the Olympics to Toronto, the who/what/where format and you added a more theatrical component to it.

Larry: That’s exactly correct. We were theatre people. And we wanted to make it an audience-fun event that they could watch and was played by professionals.  Emotional Hurdles, Character Relay – we took these games, gave them form and catchy names.

Howard: Your version of the Olympics was the best example of the format I have ever seen.

Larry: We had great actors.

Michael:  How long did you do the Olympics?

Larry: We were always doing improvisation formats, but I think we did the Olympics just for that one week festival in 1974. But maybe we did a tour that was hosted by Canada – around ‘76 or so.  A touring event for Ontario then working with theatre groups doing improv. I have a vague memory of that.

Michael: Do you still use improvisation today?

Larry:   Sure. I’m basically a writer. There’s a big improv  element to that. Story. Thinking about characters. Stuff like that.  It’s just in my head.

Michael: Do you watch any of the popular forms of improv today?

Larry: Sure. Drew Carrey is doing essentially what we did almost thirty years ago. It’s good. People like it. Larry David’s show is great.

Howard: Have you seen the veritable plethora of improv sketch shows and competitions that are on now? It’s really interesting. They have the Improv Comedy Play-offs. There’s a group of our former Canadian students doing a TV series called Sketch Troupe. They’re springing up all the place.

Michael: Cheap to produce.

Larry:  Sure.  I’m a little skeptical of them. They don’t seem like real improv. Maybe they are.

Howard: That brings up an interesting question. What is real improv?

Larry: What we did was real improv.  Which is kind of dangerous, taking risks. A real sense of failure.  Scary.

Howard: I remember some of the crazy audience formats you did Like “Disaster Land” and the one about the cruise ship.

Larry:  “Holiday Cruise.” It was improv in that the audience was involved. The situation was scripted. There is a great story about opening night for the show. The woman writing the newspaper review panicked because terrorists board the ship at one point. She  gave a terrible review.  But all those shows were improv on a different scale.

Howard:  Which seems to have proceeded the way for other popular audience participation shows. Like “Tony N’ Tina’s Wedding.”

Larry: Those shows are highly profitable. Since we were all working on grants, we weren’t allowed to make money.

Howard: I still haven’t made money off of improv.

Michael: If you did the Olympic version you did thirty years ago today, would any part of it have to be changed or adapted?

Larry: No.  The format is ageless.  I don’t think anything would have to change.

Michael: Do you remember what the judging criteria was?

Larry: Not sure. I know we had the top Toronto theatre critics as judges.  I think it was all about good acting.  We were all artists. What’s the criteria now?

Michael:  Teamwork, how well the theme was explored. Feeling. Character and space work.

Larry: That sounds like what we were probably scoring on.

Howard: There seems to be a shift in improv over the years from structured forms to more free form styles.

Larry: I’ll agree with that.  To me improv is where you have two people on stage interacting with each other. It’s as simple as that.

Video of Homemade Theatre's Improv Olympics - Professional League

Video of Homemade Theatre's Improv Olympics - Amateur League

Michael Golding is a writer, director and improv teacher.  He can be contacted for workshops, festivals and private consultations at Michael participated in the evolution of the Improv Olympics & Canadian Improv Games.  Artistic director of the Comic Strip Improv Group in N.Y. & created the Insight Theatre Company for Planned Parenthood, Ottawa.  He is a faculty member at El Camino College in Los Angeles, working with at-risk teens and traditional students. Michael holds a BFA degree in Drama from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts & an MA degree in Educational Theatre from NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education & Human Development. 

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