By: Hayley Kellett
Everyone has a celebrity doppelgänger. Mine was Kate Winslet – specifically a green dress wearing Winslet from Titanic. Until 2009, when I met Aurora Browne.
Aurora was fresh off her Canadian Comedy Award for Best Female Improviser and was slotted to be my Second City Conservatory instructor. Aurora was Second City alum, a successful comedy writer for CBC and CTV, and one of my idols. She’s so charming and I was genuinely floored when people told me I looked like her. An instant new celebrity doppelgänger! I would find any excuse to be in the same room in hopes that I would be compared to Aurora, even if it were just in this small way.
I spent a year studying with a very pregnant Aurora (all our sketches ended up being about babies. Surprise, surprise) and over the next few years had the opportunity to perform by her side and watch her career explode with success. Suddenly, Baroness von Sketch Show was in the world. For those of you unfamiliar with BVS, it is a sketch comedy show broadcast on CBC featuring a cast of fiercely funny women. While I sat in my living room under the framed photo of my conservatory grad show A Funny Afternoon: Based on the Novel Push By Sapphire - a dated title now, but fitting for a show in 2010 - Aurora and I spoke over the phone while she was shopping at Home Depot. We discussed her history with improv, sketch and comedy.
Hayley Kellett: When were you introduced to improv?
Aurora Browne: I was in a language camp in Quebec when I was 17. We did full on Theatre Sports in a little fake hockey area, the timekeepers wore jerseys, the whole bit! I was doing it in French too. You know when you drink and you’re a little more comfortable speaking another language? It was kind of like that – not that I was drinking – but because I was thinking about the French, I wasn’t in my head so much. And then because I it was improv, I wasn’t so in my head about the French. So, I got better at both of them because I was doing it in another language. Then I didn’t do it again until after I graduated theatre school.
HK: When did you dive back in?
AB: My former university roommate was taking classes and I went to go see her Second City Level D show and that’s the night I met Carolyn Taylor, and the rest is history!
HK: That’s amazing that you met Carolyn, one of your BVS co-stars, so early on. I know that you two were neighbours for a long time. When did you start working together professionally?
AB: She was in the Second City Touring Company when I got hired, but not for very long. It was just a few months before Mary Pat Barrow left the Mainstage and Coco was moved up. Then four months later I joined her just as she was finishing her first show Honk if you Love Cheeses and we wrote my first show and her second show Family Circus Maximus. Jennifer Goodhue was also part of that show. We got hired at the same time. That was a “meant to be” moment.
HK: So obviously this is how you and Carolyn came together, but I’m curious to how you, Meredith MacNeill and Jennifer Whalen met to form Baroness von Sketch.
AB: Well I would definitely say that Coco was the common denominator because all of us knew her. I had met Jen Whalen at Second City because she was already an alumnus by the time I got there. She had done This Hour has 22 Minutes and so had Meredith. Jen has already left when Meredith started, so Carolyn was the one who encountered Meredith. I remember her coming back and saying “oh my god you have to meet this woman Meredith MacNeill she’s amazing. We talked about doing a show together. Do you want to get in on this?” I said “of course!” So in fact, I met Meredith doing this show trusting Carolyn's opinion enough and it turned out that Coco’s call was totally right.
HK: It sounds like Carolyn has been an amazing influence.
AB: Yeah! My professional life has been entwined with Coco for so long. Even though she was off doing writing stuff for a while, and I went off to do Comedy Inc. We would always come back together. She’s been such a dear friend for so long.
HK: Do you remember the first writers meeting with the four of you?
AB: At first we were working independently, Meredith was elsewhere and we would meet up in person in Toronto sporadically. We had put together this sizzle reel that we worked on individually, but the first time we had a writer’s retreat was kind of amazing. We’d put in our sizzle reel in to CBC and they wanted us to write a bunch of sketches. So we decided to do a full retreat.
I remember watching the new biography series about Monty Python. This 6 CD thing and Kris (Aurora’s partner) had it, and we watched it, and they talked about how when they went to write one of their movies they rented a house in Jamaica and it was amazing, everything came together so easily. So we needed a place. I asked my sister to lend us her cottage for a few days. It’s a beautiful place. We went and we just sat down and wrote for four days. I don’t think we even played music while we were there. We didn’t turn the stereo on once. That’s how much we were concentrating on what was in our heads. We would have little pitch meetings and then break off into different areas. Somebody would be on one deck, and I would be on another balcony. We came back with the sketches from there and we submitted them to CBC and they picked the ones they wanted and we made a kind of pilot from there.
HK: Is that where you wrote The Cottage sketch?
AB: No actually, the one we wrote there was Mom’s Say Hello. We went down for a swim, taking a break, and we were doing that thing where you walk into the water with your hair up in a bun. We were all swimming a bit like our moms. Doing the breaststroke, keeping your head up. We were like a flock of mothers. We started saying “hello, hello” to each other. We started brainstorming in the water of all the different kinds of ways moms could say hello, and Jen Whalen went away to write it. When I got home I told Kris and Sebastian (her son) about it and ever since then when we get home to our apartment we all say “hello” like moms
HK: I love that the roots of that sketch are in improvisation and just embracing the moment. Do you improvise a lot to write sketches?
AB: We come in with ideas to our Monday meetings. Sometimes the ideas are fully formed, and you talk about it at the table. I like to work quickly. I’ll see the premise in my head and I’ll just transcribe what I see. Other times, like when I’m working with Goodhue or Mer, we’ll do a low level, casual improv where we are sitting our chairs and acting it out. Then we transcribe from there. I definitely think people in the writers room having improv experience certainly makes for good writing because when you’re writing purely through improv, you can’t control what your partner is going to do, so they always do something that surprises you. Often it’s better for the scene. Every actor is finding something interesting for them to do. I find you get more nuanced stuff through that process. I think a lot of people in our writing room have been through that, so our group can think that way while putting together a sketch.
HK: Can you tell me a bit about your team of writers?
AB: Jennifer Goodhue, Monica Heisey, Dawn Whitwell have been there every year since the beginning. I couldn’t be there a lot in the first year, I took a gig before I knew we were green lit so we used my portion of the budget to hire Dawn and the other writers. Mae Martin was in the room for season two. Sabrina Jaleese has been a contributing writer remotely. Elvira Kurt. This year we expanded it because we have ten episodes. Alex Tindle, Kris Siddiqi, Chris Lock came in this year. So did Michael Veloso. There’s a lot!
HK: It’s sounds like you have an amazing group of people, that’s mostly female, which is incredible.
AB: And it’s not just sketch writers either. Zoe Whittal was one of our writers last year and she’s a novelist. Mariko Tamaki and she’s not your traditional sketch writer either (Aurora told me after our interview that Mariko now writes The Hulk comics. Too cool!). Hope McKenzie came in this year and she mostly does mystery, horror theatre and short stories. Donna St Marten came in and she’s a feminist writer. Lots of different kinds of voices. Lots of ladies and a lot of non-traditional sketch.
HK: Did you have any big goals with Season 3? Things you wanted to bring forward?
AB: Climate change is creeping in a lot. The big things we’re scared about. More things with the world. I think now having done two seasons, we’re more comfortable with trying things that are more daring form wise. We’re more comfortable going backwards and forwards in time, experimenting with genre, expanding where we’re setting things and being a little more conceptual. We’re experimenting more with that we can do without losing what the truth of the show is.
There are really three kinds of sketches on our show. There’s the sketches that are very self-consciously about being women, sketches about our truth in the world, but we’re women so it happens to be about that, and then there are always the sketches where it doesn’t matter who we are but everyone will find funny. Sometimes those things overlap and we’re trying to get more into all of those categories. There are times where we encounter a particular slice of women life hasn’t been written about yet so we get to break new ground on it, and then there are other things where everybody is going at it.
HK: I’m really grateful to see strong, powerful, hilarious female voices represented on tv. Something I’m really passionate about is getting women involved in comedy, for a long time it was hard to point to things and have references for people to look to and get inspired.
AB: I think you’re totally right; you have to have those things. Of course we want to be up there because we’re funny and we’re making it amazing, not just because we’re women, but also it is important to have women up there. Whenever people bitch about social justice casting, like when people get mad about a black stormtrooper in Star Wars. On one hand I’m asking, do we have to make it a thing because we’re comedians, we’re here because we love doing this first. But on the other I’m asking aren’t you bored? Don’t you want to see something new? It’s exciting when you’ve never seen something before! I think most people are very open to what we’re doing, we have a very welcome reception online. Sometimes people get really mad because they think you’re shaking a finger at them. No. That’s not what it’s about. We’re trying to make you laugh. That’s all it is.
HK: Now this is a hard question, because it’s always tricky to pick favourites, but is there a sketch that you wrote or were part of that is at the top of your list?
AB: I was very proud of Awkward Park. That’s the one that Kris Siddiqi is in. We shot it in the park down the street from our house. Trinity Bellwoods. My hubby was in it with me. We didn’t even have to talk about the fact that on the page it doesn’t really read that the couple is flirting as much as we were on the screen. I love acting with Kris. He totally had the vibe right away. I loved how Alicia directed it. The people were great. It just worked out perfectly.
HK: I figured that would be your pick. Working with Kris must have been so great. It looked like it came together in one take.
AB: It practically did!
HK: You and Kris are both improvisers and have a son together. Do you have any big improv lessons that have stuck with you and made you better parents?
AB: Yes. Absolutely. I would say as parents to chill and be in the moment and not try to write your child’s experience. Just listen and yes and them. You want your parents to take you in as you are. Let them have their own reactions and let them find their own way in the world while you’re beside them. That sounds so flakey and cheesy but I believe it.
HK: In Guelph, improv and comedy is still quite new and a lot of folks are experiencing it for the first time. Do you have any advice for new folks to this world?
AB: First of all, improv is life. Anything that you need to learn as a person you probably need to learn for improv and vice versa. If you find you’re not listening a lot on stage, just check out the rest of your life. Let those very simple lessons of improv absorb into the rest of your life and you’ll find that they absorb back into your improv that much faster. Second, do it as much as you can, and don’t be afraid to do it as much as you can. Third, always go back to those simple rules: play positive and yes and. If I were to think of improv as soccer or basketball, go to practice, practice all the drills and you’ll be ready for the game.
I would encourage you all to take Aurora’s advice to heart. I did, and it lead me to a wonderful career performing all over the globe. Now, I have landed happily in Guelph and communicate the same sentiment to our student body at The Making-Box. Play positive, and Yes And your way to success! Improv can help you be a better actor, writer, parent and human being. It connects you with a network of people who support you, and help you find joy. Now let’s get to practice people!