Improv champions to defend national title

Gulf Islands team headed back to Ottawa in May

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Gulf Islands Secondary School’s senior improv team is gearing up for another run at the national championship after winning the Vancouver Island regional competition in February.

As the 2019 Canadian Improv Games champions and winners of the silver medal in 2018, core members Calla Adubofour-poku, Kahlila Ball, Josephine Gaffney and Amelia McCluskey will have one last opportunity to show their skills in Ottawa before they graduate in June. They are joined by new teammate Owen Goertz, a multi-instrumentalist whose musical skills help enhance the more traditional improv techniques.

Coach Jason Donaldson observed that GISS has made it to Ottawa and returned with a medal each year for the previous three national games, with the school’s first championship win in 2017. The team’s narrative has changed from 2008, the first time GISS went to the nationals, and even over the past few years. Getting through to the final round in 2020 will require great play in the moment and different strategizing beforehand.

“We’re no longer the scrappy underdogs coming from a small school in the Gulf Islands to compete with these urban teams. We’re now the returning champions,” Donaldson observed. “That means the psychology of how we’re going in and how I need to prepare them also changes.”

Vancouver Island is a stronghold of improv talent, and winning the regional title is not a given. In fact, GISS has earned its berth to the nationals more than once by winning the “wild card” video submission rather than the Vancouver Island cup. This year things were looking dicey at first: core member Kahlila Ball was too ill to compete during the first round of the weekend-long tournament, which took place in Courtenay Feb. 14-16.

Donaldson noted the team is already on the small side even without losing a member.

“We just hoped we could squeak through the first rounds without Kahlila and that she could make it to the finals,” he said. Since the team scored well but was almost tied in points after the first two rounds, doing a non-verbal event they had never tried before in the third round was a risky proposition, but one that ultimately worked.

“It was crazy-making to see if the risk would pay off,” Donaldson said. “If you roll the dice like that you will either get a one or a six — if you don’t roll it you can only ever get a four or a five. So it was really great to see it rewarded.”

Then in the final round with Ball back in place, GISS played a style event that scored exceptionally high and won them the cup.

“Making it out of the Vancouver Island region is as competitive as any night of preliminary play at the national tournament. The teams at our finals were phenomenal and we’re really hoping Ladysmith, who came in second, wins the wild card this year,” Donaldson said. (The Ladysmith team was in fact announced as the wild card winner after the interview took place.)

Just as meaningful as the win, for the coach, was seeing his team’s core members receive the Spirit of the Games Award. The honour is meant for just one person, but this time the judges could not single out any of the individual girls and felt compelled to share it between all four of them.

“It was really heart-warming to be acknowledged by the judges and the whole community for what the girls bring to the spirit of the games,” Donaldson said.

The national improv games take place May 11-14 this year. The trip involves a weeklong immersion in all things improv, with workshops in addition to the competitions. The students also take advantage of other educational opportunities while in Ottawa with visits to Parliament, national museums, galleries and other sites.

The team is now starting to get a major fundraising drive underway to help finance the trip. Several key sponsors and philanthropists have already committed funds to get the ball rolling. The team has also lined up work-trades including cleaning up furniture from the weekend’s film festival, bagging groceries at Country Grocer and adopting seniors through the Salt Spring Lions program. A series of fundraising performances will take place around the Gulf Islands in April, culminating with a full improv revue at Mahon Hall on April 24. Donaldson hopes that show will include all local groups practising the art form, from children at Stagecoach Theatre School to junior teams to an adult’s fun group.

Donations can be made to the team’s GoFundMe campaign under Send GISS to Ottawa 2020.

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