Ajay Heble, Professor, School of English and Theatre Studies, University of Guelph, and Director, International Institute for Critical Studies in Improvisation was recently awarded a $2.03 million grant from the Canada Foundation for Innovation to build ImprovLab at U of G. The funding will be used to build the 300-seat performance facility and furnish it with the latest technology. Petra Nyendick spoke with Professor Heble about this exciting project.

“First of all, congratulations! This is so exciting for IICSI, the University and the Guelph community at large. How do you think the community will become involved in this project?”

Thanks! Yes, we are all very excited about this. We’ve been working on developing plans for this facility for several years, and it’s great to see it coming to fruition. I anticipate that the facility will have a positive impact for a wide range of community members. Although the primary use will be for members of our research team, we certainly plan to have significant afterhours availability for community use by artists, festivals, and other arts organizations. Several community-based partners, including social service organizations, will also be involved. With KidsAbility, for example, we expect to hold improvisation workshops to support our research on the capacities and confidence of youth with disabilities; with Immigrant-Services Guelph-Wellington, we hope to be able to develop a series of projects investigating improvisational arts as means of self-representation and inter-cultural exchange among newcomers to Canada; and with Musagetes, ImprovLab will be a primary site for practice-based research initiatives involving our Improviser-in-Residence program. We also, of course, hope the that the facility can be a performance venue for arts organizations and festivals such as the Guelph Jazz Festival, Guelph Dance, Hillside Inside, ArtsEverywhere, and others.

ImprovLab’s collaborative, community-engaged research program will, in short, support sustained and meaningful contact with a broad range of community members

“There is limited venue space in Guelph and a 300-seat facility is desperately needed. How will the ImprovLab ease the need for IICSI to find appropriate performance facilities? What kind of events will take place in the new facility?”

Given the current lack of this type and size of space on-campus and city-wide, we have deliberately sought to fill this need. We expect that the flexible black-box space can be used for a variety of research projects, performances, and other activities, as in some of the examples I’ve noted above. The general lack of similarly sized performance facilities on-campus and throughout the City of Guelph has created an opening and an important opportunity for the development of a mid-size performance space. We will take advantage of the opportunity to partner with internal and external parties to maximize usage of the facility during off-hours and during gaps between research projects.

“What kind of state-of-the-art equipment do you envision at the ImprovLab?”

CFI funding will support equipment and interactive performance technologies including infrastructure for laptop music, surround audio, interactive instruments, video and immersive projection and archiving, interactive lighting, movement sensors, interface design, and high-grade internet for telematics. The facility’s main space will house a performance lab and studio space that can be adapted into smaller spaces for community workshops, focus groups, and telematic research collaboration and performance. This will be a combined production and presentation facility, designed for maximum collaborative capability for research, audio-visual documentation, and live performance.

“How will UofG students benefit and what will be their involvement with the new facility?”

The International Institute for Critical Studies in Improvisation has become a focal point for leading-edge research in an interdisciplinary field that our research team has, in effect, shaped and defined. Our team members have already trained and mentored several hundred students and postdoctoral fellows, and many of these students are now employed in a range of faculty, professional, community-based, and public sector roles. We expect that ImprovLab will significantly enhance our team’s ability to train students in a facility and with inter-disciplinary and cross-sector project goals that are not duplicated in this way anywhere else. The infrastructure will fill a significant resource need and will establish on-going training for faculty, graduate students, and outside users. The technological competencies, collaborative skills, practice-based research expertise, and community literacies that students, community partners, and the research team will develop at ImprovLab are in high demand across a range of sectors and markets. We expect over 100 students to be trained and mentored through their involvement with ImprovLab.

“When will building begin and what is the expected completion date?”

The building construction will begin by December 2018. Expected completion date is late 2020. We are thrilled to be working with world renowned Diamond Schmitt Architects on this facility. It promises to be a centerpiece for Guelph’s research, performance, and cultural communities. 

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