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Monday, December 29, 2014

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Comedian blends improv and acting

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Alan Kliffer

An improv comedian is someone who thinks on the spot and isn’t afraid to take chances. That describes Alan Kliffer in a nutshell.

Through his production company Kliffer Entertainment, the Winnipeg-born, Toronto-based actor, director and writer produces live shows featuring some of the biggest names in Canadian comedy. We’re talking Colin Mochrie, Linda Kash, and Kathy Greenwood, among many others.

What’s even more impressive is that the 28-year-old Second City alum launched his company less than a year ago. However, he’s no overnight success. He’s been acting since the age of five, when his parents enrolled him in a class at the Manitoba Theatre for Young People.

While performing his first monologue in that acting class, Kliffer noticed the audience started laughing hard. That’s when he realized the power of acting.

“I went to my parents when I was five years old and I said, ‘When I’m 18, I’m moving to Toronto and I’m becoming an actor,’” he told The CJN.

Kliffer did just that. But first, he found another love: improv. The young performer and Camp Massad alum began taking improv classes at the age of 14. He started competing in the High School Canadian Improv Games shortly afterward under the direction of Second City’s Scott Montgomery.

He attributes part of his passion for improv to a babysitter who let him watch sketch comedy as a kid.

“[She] let me sneak it when I was young,” he says, adding that he was watching Saturday Night Live even before he could understand the comedy.

Kliffer has never been afraid to make opportunities for himself. Early on, a Winnipeg sketch comedy troupe turned him down. Instead of giving up, he rallied his friends to form his own group and produced his first show at the age of 15.

He moved to Toronto in the early 2000s to study acting at the Randolph Academy for the Performing Arts. The Winnipeg native is the first to admit he’s had his fair share of ups and downs, but he’s always been able to bounce right back.

“I got held back my first term – I had to repeat it,” he says, revealing that he used to talk back to teachers and get to class late. “After I repeated my first term, I actually got kicked out of the school. I’m the only person in their 21-year history to have gone right back into the program and finished it and won an award.”

Not only that, Kliffer also founded the school’s improv club. He was recently invited back to Randolph – this time as an instructor – and today he teaches improv to first- and second-year students, many of whom seek his advice and mentorship.

After graduating from Randolph in 2006, he joined the prestigious improv conservatory program at Second City. Once he completed it, Kliffer was invited to work for the organization that launched the careers of comedians such as Eugene Levy and Tina Fey. Starting off as the camp director, he eventually became the training and education co-ordinator before moving on to the position of youth program director.

After two years of working for Second City, the comedy institution gave him two options: he could either go his own way and pursue acting, or stay in the organization in a strictly administrative role. It was a tough call, but he chose to go after his acting dream and become his own boss. It turned out to be the best decision he ever made.

Kliffer decided to use his savings from a corporate gig with the Discovery Channel to move to New York for the summer. While in the Big Apple, he spent a lot of time at the Upright Citizens Brigade, where he was introduced to a show that really piqued his interest.

Kliffer got the rights, tweaked it a bit and Mixed Company was born a few months later.

The show, which takes place every month at Toronto’s Comedy Bar, pairs actors with improv comedians, and the result is pure comedy gold. The actors are scripted, but their improv scene partners have no idea what’s coming next and are forced to do what they do best: think on the spot and improvise the entire scene.

The show is often performed to sold-out crowds, and the calibre of performers is quite impressive. The cast rotates each time, but on any given night audiences can expect to see stars from Degrassi, Rookie Blue and Whose Line is it Anyway?, among other shows. What’s even more impressive: the actors are willing to participate for free, a testament to Kliffer’s hard work and dedication.

A one-man company, Kliffer adds his personal touch to everything. The energetic producer makes sure his cast is always taken care of, edits the pre-show advertisements himself and sometimes stays up until 5 a.m. baking food to sell at the concession stand for his productions.

Kliffer says he hopes to continue growing his projects, which also include a web series (First Dates). One day, he also hopes to launch an improv acting studio in Toronto.

At the end of the day, he loves what he does and can’t imagine doing anything else.

“We as actors and as artists get to make people feel something,” he says.

“That’s pretty huge. Yeah, doctors save lives. We make people laugh and cry. We evoke emotions in other people. That is an unbelievable thing.”

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