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​U of T creative writing team wins improv competition by combining laughs with storytelling

From left to right, U of T Scarborough students Cassandra MacDonald, Trevon Smith and Janet Monk are winners of the International Festival of Authors' Lit Jam (photo by Ken Jones)

Three talented creative writing students from U of T are winners of the International Festival of Authors’ inaugural Lit Jam – a timed, improvisational contest that matches storytelling teams against each other.  

Lit Jam asks student teams to create a story entirely on the spot based on an opening phrase. Each team is given three minutes to develop their story backstage, then has to alternate improvising and developing their story onstage for another five minutes. 

“Lit Jam is like Chopped, the cooking competition on TV,” says Trevon Smith, a fourth-year student in U of T Scarborough’s journalism program. “We’re given ingredients on the spot and then tasked with making something out of them.” 

U of T Scarborough’s team, which competed against the University of Guelph, Ryerson University and the Humber School of Creative and Performing Arts, consisted of Smith and fellow students Janet Monk and Cassandra MacDonald. The competition was judged by a panel of published authors.

“I was sweating bullets before I went onstage,” says Smith. “Then everything clicked when I got up to the mic. I looked out at the audience. The lights were so bright. I couldn’t see faces, but I knew friends, family and professors were in the audience, and I knew they were rooting for us.”

Immediately after selecting the story prompt, “What’s with the soap?” the team exchanged knowing looks. They recognized the potential of a generic prompt and began developing an intriguing story arc about two inept killers before going back onstage. Their story had the audience in stitches. 

“We’re starting to turn heads,” says Andrew Westoll, assistant professor, teaching stream from U of T Scarborough's department of English. “This is an important moment in the development and evolution of our creative writing program.” 

Established three years ago, there are currently 50 students in the program at U of T Scarborough, which is unique for being the only program at U of T that allows students to earn a minor in creative writing. Westoll says he proud of the team, and the students' efforts reflect the talent coming out of the creative writing program.  
In addition to winning $1,500, there are plans for the team to be interviewed for CBC Radio’s Here and Now, and a polished version of their improv story is to be published in NOW Toronto

“The real prize is getting published and getting our names out there,” says Monk, a third-year major in music and culture. “The whole thing is absolutely mind-blowing. We were up against published people, people with awards.”

Smith, Monk and MacDonald first met in Westoll’s fiction class but really got to know each other and their different storytelling styles during weeks of one-hour practices before the Lit Jam competition.

At first, they weren’t sure how to hand the story off to each other to keep the flow going so they developed a finger-snapping strategy. When a teammate snapped his or her fingers, it was a signal to help out, explains Monk.

“The person who is not talking is saying, ‘I have an idea. Let me in, or I’ll lose it.’”

With each practice, the trio became more aware of their individual strengths, adds Monk 

MacDonald, a third-year mental health studies student, calls Smith, “Left Turn Man” because Smith “enjoys taking stories in another direction to keep things exciting.” 

“After a while we could read each other well enough to know when to step in,” MacDonald says. “Trust was our greatest strength as a team.”