Pippa Evans Interview: Part One (of Two)Posted: 4 February 2013
Pippa Evans is a massively versatile and accomplished improviser and comedian. She improvises with the Showstoppers and the Comedy Store Players, and has just begun Chat Show Roulette at the Hen & Chickens, hosted by Justin Edwards. She also performs in Newsjack and The Now Show on Radio 4, and is writing a sitcom for Loretta Maine, the main character she does on the comedy circuit. Together with Sanderson Jones, she has recently set up the Sunday Assembly, an a-religious church. She’s also started teaching Crunchy Frog impro classes. After the very first class, Michael had a cup of tea with her.
You’re doing loads of stuff at the moment, and different types of stuff.
I was told lately that I’m spreading myself too thin and that I ‘may never be famous.’ I said ‘Oh, is that my aim? I didn’t realise!’
Luke says that life should be T-shaped. You should spread yourself widely, but have a narrow root.
Yes. I suppose my root is comedy, and music. I do lots of music. I love music. I was brought up singing, and I think songs are just great. I like it when people sing together, like at Sunday Assembly. It was lovely to have as many people as knew the words singing together – even ‘Don’t Look Back in Anger’. It’s a very powerful thing (singing, not Oasis).
Would you say you come from a musical family?
I was brought up doing old-time music hall. My parents aren’t professional performers, but they did lots of am-dram and in the 1970s am-dram was the place to meet people, so my parents and most of their friends all shacked up at am-dram. I was brought up singing, doing pantomimes, music hall. It was songs, songs, songs.
At Christmas they used to have a party because they had an organ in their basement, which my dad would play, and everyone would sing carols together. It’s one of my favourite things. If there’s anything I could recreate, it would be that party, because it’s so joyous to have people chatting, chatting chatting, and then suddenly the organ would play and everyone would go ‘Good King Wenceslas looked out…’ while eating a honeyed sausage.
That sounds like a very supportive environment in which to perform.
We were always performing, all of us. We could all sing. We could all play musical instruments. When I was fourteen I asked my dad if I could go to stage school, but he said ‘You know what? You have GCSEs to do; it’s probably not the best time for you to change schools, but if you really want to, you can try and go to stage school.’ He was so generous. If he’d said ‘No, you can never go to stage school,’ I’d have cried ‘Oh no! I must go to stage school!’ So I didn’t.
So what did you do?
I went to university and did drama. But I had a gap year between school and university, when I did a stand-up comedy course at the City Lit, and I performed about twenty gigs as myself, as Pippa Evans.
I love the City Lit because you can do a course in absolutely everything. I’ve done clowning there. I’ve done tap dancing. I’ve done stand-up comedy. I’ve done film acting. I’ve done TV acting. I love the mix of people that you get there.
I remember there was a guy on the TV acting class. He was about eighty, and just sweated profusely and was grey in colour. He wore a massive biker jacket. He was fascinating because he was dreadful. Every time the teacher said – trying to be positive – ‘That wasn’t very good,’ he’d get out his Equity card and say ‘I’m a member of Equity’, as if that cancelled out him not being very good.
What’s the weirdest course you’ve done?
I recently did a course in hosting telephone conferences. I did that for a charity that takes old people on holiday, and the idea was that someone would host a telephone conference with lots of old people, which would be interesting in itself because there may be problems with hearing. I said ‘yes’ instantly because I come from the Yes World, but also because I said to myself ‘I wonder what we’ll find here.’
The best thing about the training is you get to meet five other people – and it’s only on the phone – who are from a different world. So there was a guy who was running a support group for pharmacists who are drug addicts. How fascinating! It had never crossed my mind that pharmacists would have drug problems, but it’s obvious.
Getting back to your story…
Then I went to university in Birmingham and did drama there. I did loads of musicals, plays etc. That’s what university is for, isn’t it? Also, me and my friends lived in an area called Selly Oak, so we made a TV soap opera called Sellyoaks. And that’s where I met my friend Dan, who I still work with now.
Then suddenly I decided I wasn’t going to do comedy. I’d wanted to do comedy my whole life, but it’s really terrifying to do and to say that’s you want to do, because the failure rate is so high. To say ‘that’s what I’m going to do’ is quite frightening. For a while I was going to be a TV producer and also I was going to be a proper actress, as in ‘doing theatre’. But I’ve never really enjoyed doing ‘proper acting’. I don’t look down on it. I look up to it, saying ‘I just can’t do it.’
What’s the difference between ‘proper acting’ and what you do?
I don’t think I could get through a Shakespeare without laughing or looking at the audience and winking. I think I’m probably too much of a whore for attention to be a proper actress. I like that attention to be on me a lot. I don’t know if that’s good for my ensemble work!
You do do a lot of ensemble work. When does impro enter the story?
The reason why I do what I do now is all due to a woman called Marie Hale, who I met on that stand-up course when I was eighteen. That’s because we did one week on improvisation. I improvised with her and it was very good and very funny and everyone laughed. Up until that point I hadn’t really made anyone laugh in that class. Four years later, she’d had an idea for a play, and she sent me an email saying ‘Are you free on this day? Would you come and improvise a play with me, because I remember you did that and you said you quite liked impro?’ Of course, I’d always liked Whose Line is it Anyway? and all that stuff, so I said ‘Sure!’ And in that play there was a guy called Lloyd Stephens, and he said ‘Oh you’re quite good. I’m doing an impro show in Edinburgh.’
This was 2005, and in Edinburgh I was doing a musical, which was probably the worst musical you could ever imagine in your life. I owned a circus and was playing a 60 year old Polish woman. There was a forced abortion and it had a song. I MEAN!
I bumped into Lloyd in the street and he said ‘If you ever want to come and see impro, come to the show and I’ll let you in for free. So I’d just go down every night and watch them. Ruth Bratt was in that show, and Gareth Kane.
Then Ruth left the group, so he said ‘Why don’t you come down and try out?’ You know the rule: you can only have one girl. So I said ‘Yes, of course’ and just jumped in and started doing it. It was in a pub, ten or fifteen people in the audience.
So you hadn’t had much training when you started?
Almost nothing. Then they lost the room, so Gareth, Big John Mawer (we always call him ‘Big John’ Mawer) and Ruth started a new group. They needed another girl, because they went against the one girl grain, so Gareth suggested me. Suddenly I was in a group with three very good improvisers. I had no training, but was very good at games like A–Z and being ‘the girl’. We had our first show and I wasn’t great. I was just floundering. I realised I had to know what I was doing and I’d have to work harder if I wanted to stay in that group. So I started going to Crunchy Frog and that’s when I met Alan Marriott and Dylan Emery.
What did impro allow you to do that was different?
To just say things that come into my head and not worry about them. To enjoy the sense of freedom, and the support of the audience. One thing I really like is that, when you do stand-up, there’s always a sense of ‘You’ve written this. This is your material. If this isn’t funny, then you are not funny.’ In impro, there’s this great feeling of freedom, that you just go on a stage and try something and play, and the audience are playing with you because they’re generally just pleased that you’re trying.
That’s so great! It’s very British. We’re very pleased that somebody’s ‘having a go’. When you go and see a play, you expect something. Maybe we don’t expect so much from impro. Maybe the bar is lower. I’d quite like to change that.
Did you find stand-up less scary after you’d found impro?
No, impro is a lot less frightening. I think it’s something to do with it not being all on your back. Don’t get me wrong, I love performing by myself, and I love being Loretta Maine. But when I’m headlining, I feel a pressure. I worry that if I have an off day then I’ll ruin the audience’s evening. As a performer, I feel we are there to do a job, to entertain. If the audience leave unsatisfied, then I feel I have failed.
It’s really different to do something like Showstopper. The first thing we do is all go out on stage and all sing a song, all together, That’s really beautiful: ‘We’re all here together, guys! Let’s do this!’
Let’s ruin it together?
Like I said at the start of my impro class: ‘Let’s fail.’ There’s a freedom to fail, and that’s brilliant, especially for a perfectionist like me. Most performers are perfectionists. It’s funny how many perfectionists are attracted to impro, when it’s the hardest thing to make perfect.
Some people start in impro and go into stand-up and other people go the other way, whereas you’ve kept them going side-by-side, which is unusual.
It’s sometimes tough, because the improviser in me goes ‘Don’t write anything! Just see what happens!’ which is a dangerous thing in stand-up because they’re expecting punchline, punchline, punchline. But doing improvisation has also helped my stand-up because I do have that confidence that if something happens, if someone heckles me, I can see that as an offer rather than an attack: ‘Well, sir, I’ll show you my tits if you show me yours. After all, they are much bigger than mine.’
Do you say ‘yes’ too much in your career?
I say ‘yes’ to a lot of things. I’m much better now at saying ‘Yes I’d love to, but I’m afraid I’m busy.’ That’s not exactly an improviser thing; that’s a beginning-of-a-performing-career thing. You just have to say ‘yes’ to everything because you can’t be picky until you’re allowed to be picky. It’s lovely to have the chance to be picky. Before then you have to say ‘Yes, I will stand in your music video for £10’, ‘I will be an extra for nothing because I know I might meet this person’, or ‘I just need something on my CV!’
Impro has influenced my life, though. On Sunday Assembly, Sanderson Jones is an entrepreneur, and he’s amazing. In his mind, everything is ready, planned, done, pif, paf, pow, business, business, business. Whereas I’m more: ‘OK, we did the first one. Let’s see what happens next. What happens next?’ That’s a great combination, actually, because it means we think in different ways. I used to think ‘Where am I going to be in ten years’ time?’ But now I’m all ‘What’s gonna happen tomorrow?’ I find it a really great way of living. What’s better than saying yes?
Coming up in Part Two: Pippa explains how to be genuinely interested in people, discusses what makes a good impro teacher, and describes working with Ken Campbell.
Pippa’s teaching regular Crunchy Frog Impro Classes on Saturday mornings. All levels are welcome, but pre-booking is essential, so click here to get tickets.