Pippa Evans Interview: Part Two (of Two)Posted: 5 February 2013
In Part One, Pippa talked about her background, how she found herself improvising, and about the relationship between impro and stand-up.
How else has impro affected your life?
I used to be quite bad at meeting people. I was stuck in my own thoughts of ‘Oh, they won’t like me! Blah blah blah!’ Improvisation is so much better when you’re interested in other people, the other performers on stage, rather than worrying about what you’re doing.
It’s great to meet someone new and genuinely want to know about them. When someone says ‘I’m an accountant’, I will genuinely have lots of questions about being an accountant. Twice I’ve had someone think I was patronising them because I was interested in their career. No, I would genuinely love to know what you do! I sit on my own in my house all day, writing, so I’d love to hear about offices and office politics. That’s one of my favourite things.
I like to get someone talking, not about ‘I write such-and-such…’ but about Clive, who sits at the table opposite and eats peanuts, and they smell, and the guy whose got the peanut allergy who has to move desks every time Clive eats peanuts.
A lot of people don’t enjoy what they do.
Perhaps it annoys people when they meet someone who says: ‘I had a dream to become an improviser and one day sing with Josie Lawrence. And that dream came true!’
You are doing what you wanted to do?
Yep. That ‘What happens next?’ thing is quite weird. ‘What should I do?’ I am pretty satisfied but then the old doubt creeps in. My brain switches from ‘Oh my god! Today I got to teach improvisation for three hours. Great! Fun! Watching people be brilliant! Tonight I will go and perform in a club, and that’s great! Tomorrow I have a Showstopper rehearsal.’ to ‘I have achieved nothing in my life and I want to throw myself in front of a bus’. It’s great fun being a performer!
It’s easy to put people in boxes: ‘Oh, you’re an accountant.’ ‘You’re a Victoria Wood.’ Improvisers don’t do that so much. They say: ‘Let’s find out who you are!’ Who are the people who have helped you find yourself?
Lloyd Stephens, I suppose. I don’t know what he does now. He was the one who said: ‘Come and do this. I think you should do this. I think you’re good at this.’ It’s so rare for anyone to say that. What a great offer! Gareth Kane took me on to the next level. Then it was Alan Marriott who did all those classes. He was so encouraging, so kind to me. He’d say ‘I think you’ve really got something. I think you should pursue this’. That’s the sign of a really good teacher: that they allow you to grow and be good. You can find teachers whose sole purpose is to say ‘That was very bad. You’re rubbish.’ Then I met Dylan. He used to help Alan. He was working with Ken, so he got me to audition for Adam at a Ken workshop for this new project that they were putting together, which was Showstopper. So the list would be: Lloyd Stephens, Gareth Kane, Alan Marriott, Dylan Emery, Adam Megiddo and Ken Campbell. Those would be my top six.
Ken was really fascinating. He was so amazing and interesting, but also such a goader. He would tell you ‘That’s fucking awful! It’s boring! I’m not interested! Do it again but better’ which goes against my general good teacher principles! But I guess if people keep going ‘You’re brilliant, you’re brilliant, you’re brilliant’ you can become lazy and think ‘Well, I know I can do a Polish voice if I get into trouble…’ It was wonderful to work with him.
I was so sad when he died as he’d just started doing little workshops with just me, Cariad and Dylan. We were learning to do all the Shakespeare stuff. I find the bardic stuff the hardest. As an improviser, there’s an eternal quest to know everything because you want to draw on everything.
Do you think Ken was interested more in people being interesting than in being brilliant?
He would shout at you. You were more scared of disappointing Ken than you were of doing the mental thing he’d asked you to do. I really pushed myself with him, because I didn’t want him to shout at me and I didn’t want to lose favour with him, because I loved doing all the shows with him.
There was this extraordinary gig at the Barbican, where they’d asked Ken to speak. But Ken decided he wouldn’t speak. Instead, he’d decided we’d do a small musical. That was the only time I crossed Ken. I said: ‘Do you think maybe you should go up and just explain? All these people have come to see you, and you’re not even going to speak to them?’ He said ‘No, fuck off!’ ‘Oh, OK!’ He said ‘If it’s boring, I’ll be out the back, eating a pie.’ So we just had to get up on stage.
They said ‘Please welcome, Ken Campbell’, and Adam Meggido and I just had to start singing, in the Barbican foyer, no amplification or anything: ‘What’s going on here?/Oh, there’s a show here!’ It was one of the funniest but worst things, because nobody knew it was improvised. That’s the other thing about impro. If you don’t know it’s improvised, it can just look shit. It looked like we’d written a dreadful little musical about Ken Campbell! That’s interesting, isn’t it? Impro isn’t funny unless people know it’s improvised.
They know it’s something. The terror helps.
In Showstopper now, we’re quite slick. We’re constantly trying to fight the battle of ‘You must write scripts for it’ because we know what we’re doing. We’re constantly having to find ways to push ourselves so we’re not just going: ‘Here’s another song/Yeah, I can rhyme it all day long/Yeah, it’s gonna be great/Yeah, here we are!’ That’s difficult, because to be comfortable is very comfortable!
If you still had Ken, he would make life hard for the Showstoppers! Do you find it hard to make life hard for yourself?
I like to make life hard for myself on purpose. This year I said to myself ‘I’m going to start teaching. I know have the knowledge, but I haven’t done lots of teaching, but I love it when I do teach. So let’s make myself be a teacher.’ When I saw the list of people today, I thought ‘Why am I teaching these people? They are brilliant!’ and then had to say to myself ‘Fucking go and teach them! Help make them even better! Make sure you’ve got the balls to do it. Go and teach.’
Another thing is that improvisation’s so diverse these days. Should you be doing longform improvisation, or shortform? Is Whose Line actually improvised? There’s the American stuff – the tagging out thing that’s very popular at the moment – and twoprov, which is suddenly the thing. Can you teach just impro? Can you teach impro? Can you teach impro?
I think you can. You said earlier that the best impro teachers are the ones that say ‘You’re good!’
It’s about encouraging people and getting them to try. I remember the first Crunchy Frog I ever did. I was really funny. Alan said: ‘Hey, you’re really funny! Let’s try and not be funny! Let’s do something else.’ At first I thought ‘That’s all impro is, isn’t it, being funny?’ Trying to get people to not try and be funny is interesting.
I can’t wait for the classes to get into the swing of things. It’s much easier when you start to know people, so you can say to them ‘You’ve done that before. Stop doing that! Try something else.’ I know I’ve got my habits. My habits are: make a joke, laugh at my own joke, do a Polish accent.
Doing the Comedy Store Players has been a baptism of fire, because they’ve worked together for twenty-five years. They all know each other so well. It’s like hanging out with a gang of bestest friends and saying ‘Can I play? Can I come?’ and finding a way to fit in without upsetting their balance.
That’s another thing you need to learn: to have the confidence to go and play with anybody. The Improvathon, if anything, proves that you can improvise with anyone, because you just get on with it. There’s no choice. You can’t say ‘I just want to play with Mark Meer.’ It’s just: ‘You three are in a scene, and you are an erotic horse. Off you go.’ That’s one of the joys of that show. Having to play with whoever.
We’re running out of time. Anything you want to add?
It would be lovely if improvisation could be celebrated as a proper form in Britain. My next dream is to have a theatre, as in a proper theatre, rather than a room above a pub, which is the Impro Theatre of London, and where there is always great impro on every night of the week, and people come to see it because it has an amazing reputation. That would be amazing.
Including OAPs and 3–5-year-olds?
Yes! Everybody! Everyone will come!
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.