On Monday nights, Calgary theatres go dark to allow the actors to rest up for the week of hard work ahead. But since 1999, some brave actors have used these breaks to craft engaging and entertaining serialized improvisational theatre.
"It gives us a chance to just play," says Karen Johnson-Diamond, cofounding producer of Dirty Laundry. "We really do it for fun. We call it our actors' bowling night. It's just a great way to improve improv skill, but also to just improve your acting altogether and just to have a lot of fun with your friends on stage."
This year, the cast is travelling across Canada, all in the comfort of the Lunchbox Theatre, as part of their 10th season, a parody of The Amazing Race called Dirty Laundry: The Amazing Rinse. The characters are big and bombastic -- Johnson-Diamond's own creation, Dr. Edna Whiteberg, is a disgraced Athabasca University academic left homeless after Oprah calls her book a fraud -- and the drama is delightfully absurd.
Although the show now plays in the Lunchbox Theatre space in the base of the Calgary Tower, it used to play in bars. Johnson-Diamond is pleased with the move. After all, the theatre is an actor's home away from home. Not to mention there are still some fun little quirks about playing in their new space.
"For a number of years, we were playing in the bar scene and it's not the same," says Johnson-Diamond. "The Lunchbox space is so intimate and great. There's an added level of fun; we have to change sets with them every five weeks. Every time they change over to the next show, we have to use whatever set they have. So last year, we were doing a 1960s ad agency on a set that was under the sea. It was a show about dolphins."
Not only is this improvised soap opera loaded with some of Calgary's finest, but it also features great guest stars as well. Jill Beland, host of Citytv's The City Show, dived in with a one-night appearance that ended up being held over a little longer than usual.
"She was going to be a one-night guest star, but last week she became the host of the show [reality show-within-a-show, Clean Across Canada]," laughs Johnson-Diamond. "So now she's back, because she's the host of the show. Poor Jill. She went, 'Yeah, okay I'll do it once,' and now she's back again -- but she had a really good time."
Like the small group of friends on stage, there's a small group of Dirty Laundry faithfuls. Audiences yell out the title with the narrator and help out the actors when they're having trouble remembering the show's occasionally complicated continuity. It's telling when a show, which has been going on for 10 seasons, has such a devoted audience.
"We have a couple that come to our show all the time," says Johnson-Diamond. "I remember when the wife was in during knee surgery and the husband came because she said, 'You have to go to the soaps and tell me what happens, because you can't miss an episode.' I think they've missed two episodes in nine years -- they're fantastic. They're the ones who tell us when we forget things."
One of the highlights of the Dirty Laundry experience for Johnson-Diamond, though, is just going to work every Monday night with a great cast of friends and colleagues and playing for an audience that truly loves coming out.
"Every single night I love going to work," she says. "I love going to do the show and being amazed at how talented my company is at improv. Even when we have new people join the company or guest stars, I just love those moments where people go and say, 'There is no way that song was improvised.'
"I go, 'It totally was. I guarantee it.' "