Rapid Fire Theatre warms up new home with Bonfire

· The Pulse

Now that Rapid Fire Theatre has settled into its new home in Old Strathcona, it's getting ready to welcome audiences to its first festival in the space.

Bonfire, which will run at the Rapid Fire Theatre Exchange from April 27 to 29, is "our festival of new ideas and new creation" starring members of the company's ensemble, artistic director Matt Schuurman told Taproot.

"It's an entire festival of world premieres or pilot episodes or however you want to look at it … It's just this spirit of innovation and experimentation."

Rapid Fire moved into the Telephone Historical Centre building at 10437 83 Ave NW this year after signing a 40-year lease with building owner TELUS in 2021. The 40-year-old arts organization needed its own venue to keep up with its programming, Schuurman said, and he can't wait to introduce audiences to it during Bonfire.

"I think it's so fitting that this is the first festival from our festival lineup that is going to be taking place in the space," he said.

The building was renovated for $3.5 million by Group2, the architectural design firm that has also handled projects for the Roxy Theatre and Varscona Theatre, among many others.

"There's this elevated sense of fun when you first step into the lobby — there's a neon sign on the wall that says 'Let's make shit up,'" said Schuurman. "There's this sense of ridiculousness and fun, but … it's a proper theatre venue with all the bells and whistles: curtains, lights, sound, all that great stuff, comfy theatre seats, and it's very much an intimate space."

For Phase 1 of Rapid Fire's occupancy, the renovation included 160 seats, a lobby, a bar, concessions, washrooms, and an artist lounge. Fundraising is now underway for a Phase 2 renovation of the basement that will include additional performance space, plus capacity for workshops, classes, and rentals. It's about 10% of its way toward a goal of $1 million.

A host is surrounded by two couches full of three improvisers each on the Rapid Fire Theatre Exchange stage. In the background, a sign that reads "Play the Game!"

Play the Game!, a show created at a past Bonfire festival, now makes up part of the recurring programming at Rapid Fire Theatre. It's pictured here in the intimate new Rapid Fire Theatre Exchange space. (Supplied)

Bonfire is one of three annual festivals held by Rapid Fire. The others are Wildfire, a student showcase held each February, and Improvaganza, a festival of international sketch and theatre performances held each June.

Schuurman said Bonfire is one of the best chances to see what Rapid Fire's ensemble does best: play with audiences.

"These are shows where the audience plays such an important role," he said. "Our job as improvisers is to engage with the audience and to create shows with the audience."

Nowhere is that more true than at performances of Improving the Audience, one of the most boundary-pushing shows at Bonfire, where the entirety of the action takes place off-stage in the theatre's seats.

Another adventurous option at the festival is The Gigglish Phantasm, a dark-magic odyssey inspired by 1980s Jim Henson classics Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal.

Bonfire isn't just for theatre-goers looking to plumb the furthest reaches of the improv form. There will also be take-offs on familiar material, such as The Morning Show, Short Island Mediums, and Rapid Fire Anatomy — a send-up of a certain prime-time hospital drama.

For those who like stand-up comedy, Schuurman suggests The Improv Stand-Up Friendship Fun Time Show.

"What's going to happen is, a local stand-up comedian is going to do a (five-minute) set, and then based on the jokes from that set, performers are going to take that as inspiration for a few scenes of improv, and then we'll see another five-minute set of stand-up, and then more improv, back and forth," he said.

Following Bonfire, the next major events will be the aforementioned Improvaganza in June and then, of course, the Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival in August.

Until then, audiences can experience live improv from Rapid Fire seven nights a week in its new permanent home.