Steve Roe InterviewPosted: 11 February 2013
Steve Roe runs Hoopla, which hosts shows every Tuesday and Wednesday at The Miller, with at least two different improv groups performing each night. He also teaches Hoopla classes and courses in London and around the UK and also performs in Music Box and other shows. Michael sat down with him at The Miller for a cosy chat.
What percentages of your time do you spend teaching and performing?
Probably about 90 per cent of the time teaching and the rest performing. But if there were another percentage, I’d say I spend about 90 per cent of the time doing admin, 9 per cent teaching and 1 per cent performing. That’s a complete exaggeration. Don’t quote me on that. I haven’t measured it as a percentage, but I probably should do, as some kind of time management exercise. I tried performing every single day in Edinburgh and it just sent me mad three summers in a row, so performing once a week is enough for me.
Is it right for you to be doing 90 per cent admin?
Yes. I’m all for improv admin. It’s one of the chants from Crash Pad. I don’t think you can avoid it. Any successful performer has to do some admin. There’s got to be some work! But I quite like work, so I’m not going to play the improv martyr. Sometimes I’m guilty of portraying that image, but when it comes down to it, I love admin, doing websites and spreadsheets and html and stuff. I used to treat it as a necessary evil, but now I like it just as much as the improv.
Why is that side of things so important to you?
I like seeing things happen and making things happen that wouldn’t happen otherwise. I like having ideas and then doing them, and being there when they happen. That’s a good feeling. It doesn’t matter whether it’s performing, or teaching, a new show or an existing show, or hosting someone else’s show: I feel like Hannibal in The A-Team. I love it when a plan comes together. It’s also fun when it doesn’t quite come together! A hideous fuck-up can be amusing as well.
Name a notable fuck-up.
Oh, there’s been loads of fuck-ups. I bury them a bit and pretend they didn’t happen. People on Facebook and Twitter always look mind-numbingly successful because that’s all they post about. But behind all those people, there’s loads of fuck-ups. One I learned a lot from, which I loved, was when Music Box had a show in Brighton. We were probably a bit too optimistic about how many people were going to come and watch. So we turned up – a cast of six, plus a musician – and there was an audience of about three people. Previously, I would have been upset about that, but I’d realised that, to those three people, the show looks the same. Whether you’re in a crowd of sixty or a crowd of three, it’s the same show on the stage. They don’t care that there’s not many people. Actually, you can give them a much better show, an intimate show. So rather than not perform, we decided to do it, and make it awesome, as if it was a big show – not as in shouting in their faces, but in treating it, and them, with respect.
But somehow the marketing plan was that I had to get as drunk as possible with the audience afterwards. So I stayed until the very last train home, but made it my mission to get drunk with the audience, and did a mini pub crawl. I’d like to say that in the long term that was an effective marketing strategy, but it wasn’t. Music Box don’t do shows in Brighton any more, but it was fun on the way out.
Is having respect for the audience crucial?
Yes, that’s a big part of me, I hope. It’s something I want to encourage. I’ve learned shitloads from running a venue, not just performing in one group. It’s quite hard work getting an audience along every single week. You do learn a lot quite rapidly just by watching what goes well with an audience and what doesn’t. It’s been beneficial – and painful as well – to learn that I have a much louder audience voice in my head than a lot of improvisers do. For instance, when you’re first learning improv, you sometimes get taught not to think or worry about the audience, and to put all your attention on the other person. I’ve found from running a venue that I don’t have that any more. My attention is with the other person, but also with the audience. I used to think ‘Oh shit, has that fucked up my improv?’ but then I did loads of clown courses with Mick Barnfather, and I found that that’s a clown skill – being directed by the scene and by partner but also allowing yourself to be changed by the audience.
Are the audience an important part of improv?
There’s quite a lot of different opinions about that in improv. Keith Johnstone contradicts himself a few times, even within his book. He says, for instance: ‘Don’t be led astray by the audience’ and he talks about Michael Jackson being negatively taught by the audience to grab his crotch. But in the next chapter he describes dolphin training games, and when you go to his workshop he does dolphin training, which is a clown exercise in being led by the audience. I think the answer – as with most things – is to have a balance. So yes, the audience are important, because otherwise we’re just doing workshops and without them it’s not actually a show.
If improv wants to get bigger and better – whatever that is – and wants to be a genuine alternative to stand-up and other theatre, then knowing who the audience are and what they want to see and what puts them off is important. And usually the answers to those questions are really valuable to improvisers. At the end of the day, you’re creating something for the audience. People do find it personally important to improvise – and it’s a pleasant experience in itself – but if you’re putting on a show, that’s for the audience.
There are certain games that you learn that are exhilarating for the improvisers. If you play ‘Yes, Let’s’, which I was teaching last night, that can be really fun for the audience and the improvisers go ‘Fuck yeah. This is an awesome feeling. Literally life-changing. I can’t believe how much fun I’m having.’ That’s great, but if you teach ‘Who? What? Where?’ a lot of improvisers don’t like drilling it, because it initially sends them into their heads (until they’ve learnt to do it well through listening instead of thinking). It may not be such a pleasant experience for the improviser at first, but for the audience it makes a massive difference. Viewing a show from the audience’s point of view is important. There’s always big, obvious things that make a massive difference. Most improvisers are aware of them, but you can always be more aware. I wish I practised what I preach, but I don’t! I do try to think ‘What do they want to see?’ and ‘What’s helping them understand this?’
Did you watch lots of shows yourself before you decided you wanted to perform yourself?
Not many. When I started, I didn’t know what improv was at all. I didn’t know what the word meant. I started off when I lived in Brighton about eight years ago. My girlfriend at the time booked us in to see a comedy show, but we didn’t know what it was. It was just a date. We went along to the Marlborough Theatre. I remember eating a pizza from the box outside the theatre like a pig, because we were in a rush. I thought ‘God, this looks awful.’ And there was a bloke who opened the second-floor window and looked out and saw me, and then closed it. I thought ‘Agh, that’s embarrassing. I hope I never see him again.’ It turned out that bloke was John Cremer and the group was The Maydays. I didn’t know anything about them at the time. It was an awesome experience. The room was packed. The Marlborough Theatre is lovely – a really good improv space. This was pre-smoking ban, so there was smoke in the air making it atmospheric. I’m probably going to romanticise this lots! There weren’t enough seats so me and my girlfriend had to sit separately, so I ended up on a stool by myself with a pint, which meant I was totally immersed in the show. I had no idea what to expect. John Cremer came out and had us shouting out our names and our favourite dinosaurs. I immediately liked the guy. He was a warm person. Even as an audience member, I felt very welcomed, very safe – as if I was about to see beautiful things that humans can with each other, rather than something ugly – and very unforced.
Was that different from what you were familiar with?
Yeah, I was going through a stage of life of thinking that all humans did to each other was beat each other up, and compete and undercut each other. Like a lot of people do, for different reasons, I thought ‘Is this it? This is rubbish!’ So it was nice to see people genuinely trying to make something beautiful together. That’s the overall impression I got. They did a whole bunch of games and were so funny. I was trying to write sketch comedy at the time. I’d spent hours on it, and within five minutes they’d made up more funny stuff than I’d done writing through the night for six months. I laughed my arse off. They had a really good, warm relationship with each other. At points it felt very intuitive, like they were reading each other’s minds.
Then John got up on stage and said ‘We also teach workshops.’
The second I heard about it I knew I wanted to do it, but it took me two months just to get the courage to even find out his number. I had to go to the pub to find his number; then it took me another two weeks to get the courage to phone him up. I remember I had to go for a walk along the beach with his number on my phone, thinking about calling it just to find out where these workshops were. I didn’t phone even when I got to the end of the beach. I ended up walking along Brighton Marina until I got to the last rock on Brighton Marina and had nowhere else to go, and I thought ‘Fuck, I’ve got to phone this person!’ experiencing real anxiety.
What was the anxiety?
I was a lot more anxious back then. I was going through a year of being socially anxious anyway, but this felt like a lot of pressure to be funny – obviously in the first workshop you learn to remove that pressure – but I had so much pressure to be funny. Even when I phoned him up I was trying to make jokes, as if it was going to be about stand-up. So I was all ‘Blah, blah, blah! Joke, joke, joke!’ and he just went quiet and said ‘Yeah, so it’s on Thursday at 7.30pm.’ and I said ‘Blah, blah! Joke, joke!’ and he said ‘Right, so Thursday at 7.30pm’.
So I went along on Thursday at 7.30pm, Garton House, and loved it. Sometimes I think the main reason I’m qualified to teach improv is the fact that I was so terrible at it to start with, I really had to learn from the ground up so whatever someone is going through in my classes now I’ve been there! Before the class, I was getting my girlfriend to give me characters beforehand, which I then practised. I was reading the paper so that I had pre-funny stuff to say. I was writing a lot at that time, so I tried to remember as many jokes I’d written as possible. Before I even went into the room, I locked myself in the bathroom – this was for the first two months! – and I’d look in the mirror and pull faces to make myself laugh so that I turned into a one-man army of funny shit ready to come out. Bit by bit by bit, week on week, John very patiently got rid of all that stuff, until eventually I could walk into the room and just be there, in the moment, and listen and have fun with people, there and then, about what was actually going on.
A lot of improvisers want to be funny, but have to overcome the hurdle of trying to be funny and just allow it. Did improv allow you to be funny?
Not exactly. The journey was that I really wanted to be funny at the start and then, through John saying that you don’t have to be funny, I moved from improv to acting. For quite a while, I wanted to be a serious actor instead. I got into it because it was all about the funny, and because I thought it was going to be help my writing, but I found out that that was just the tip of the iceberg of human nature. From the improv I got more interested in acting. That was the accidental thing. It was as though I was following a trail of Smarties. I thought ‘Fuck me, this is awesome! Maybe there’ll be a tub of chocolate at the end!’ But instead, when I got to the end, there was the tub of chocolate, yes, but then I looked up and there was a chocolate factory, and beyond that was a magical landscape of hills and mountains and valleys and beauty. And then you realize that you can actually shape that landscape yourself. It’s a bit eye-opening! I was closed off before, and very narrow-minded about what life and what the world could be. It’s interesting: you do it for one reason – you think you’re following Smarties – but by the end of the year, it was ‘This is amazing. I’ve just changed huge amounts of my behaviour, and also my general mood.’
From the improv classes, I thought ‘Maybe I want to get into acting acting. Maybe that’s my calling.’ So I did this thing called the Academy of Creative Training, a really cool two-week acting class. I’d done lots of acting at school, but I’d had a break and hadn’t done it for a while. So I went to that and was having epiphanies left, right and centre. I remember coming home truly happy for the first time in ages and feeling it was the right thing to be doing. At the end, they gave you advice about where you should go after the course. With some people it’d be ‘You should come with us and do our two-year, full-time thing’ or ‘You’re so good, you should get into LAMDA or RADA and go for that stuff’ or ‘You need to go to the RSC’. We had this one-on-one thing and I was wondering what they were going to say to me. And they said: ‘Ah, Steve Roe, come in. There’s this guy you really need to work with. I think he’ll be perfect for you.’ They wrote the name down and gave it to me, and I turned it over and it was John Cremer! I said ‘I’ve just been with this guy for six months!’ and they said ‘Yes, you’re a comedy person, aren’t you?’ I said ‘But I want to get into acting!’ and they said ‘Yeah, er… no. You don’t look quite right.’
Four years later, I was still into improv, but I wanted to go to drama school. I wanted to learn to act properly. I’ve always done lots of acting classes on the side of improv. I had my audition pieces ready and did an audition training course, and kept trying to do deep dark characters from Shakespeare, from Titus Andronicus, where people are getting murdered and raped, and the teacher said ‘It’s not really you. The way you look, and behave… have you ever thought of being in comedy?’ I said ‘I’ve been doing that for five years!’
So I actually became interested in improv as an acting thing, not necessarily having to be funny. In fact, when Hoopla first started, me and Edgar were very diligent about not using ‘comedy’ on the website. I do now, but for the first couple of years, the word wasn’t allowed on the website or flyers. We weren’t allowed to mention laughing, and when we first started our shows we were very much improv shows first, the idea being that improv could create anything. We were like that for quite a long time. We’re now improv comedy, and I don’t hide that, largely because we run an Improv Comedy Club and that’s what we’re most successful at teaching and doing
I still do acting classes on the side, but I’ve accepted my comedy bones. In my head, I have a very positive body-image compared with what I actually look like. I don’t like photos or videos of me because in my head I’m still a slim seventeen-year-old and I look like actors – you know how actors look? I actually think I look like Bradley Cooper, seriously. That’s what I feel I look like. But when I see photos and videos, I think ‘Agh! Dammit! My face just looks funny!’
But as you know, to play comedy, you have to play it straight. You and your character can be having a horrible time on stage and the audience will love it. You can go to really dark places. The sillier it gets and the straighter you play it, the funnier it gets. There can be a character who, as far as you’re concerned, has a serious life journey on stage. The audience will say ‘Ha! Comedy genius!’ You’ll be thinking ‘At no point was that funny for me whatsoever! I got fired by an evil corporation and lost my wife to a jellyfish. These things are upsetting.’
Do improvisers play these scenes differently from actors?
I regard improv as acting turned inside-out. Not all actors work this way – improv is being used a lot more in acting these days – but generally speaking you get given a script. Before you even start rehearsing you can start working out your scene objectives, your line objectives, your play objectives or your life objective. You can get an ear for what’s real for that character in that present moment, what their backstory is, what’s going on and what their relationships are. Even if you’re using improv, you can’t just bring nothing and start with the lines. You have a pre-conceived notion of who you are and how things affect you. You start with that stuff and build up to the status, the behaviour and the emotions so that the emotion has this whole narrative behind it. You put yourself in that place either by using your imagination, or by using your own emotions.
Improv ends up being the other way round, which I find fascinating. Before you go on stage, you don’t know who you are or where you are. You don’t know what your relationship is to the other person. You don’t know what your objective is for the scene, because you don’t know what the scene is. You don’t know what your play or life objective is. What you have to do is just bring in behaviour and emotion from the start. Just do something. As Mick Napier says: ‘Do something. Do anything.’ As the scene goes on, you build up those things from that point, and you find out what your objective is with that person, what your story is, who you are. You discover it as you go along. It’s interesting, because you’ll suddenly click and think ‘I don’t just know this about my character, I know everything about them.’ It can be odd when the other improvisers pick that up as well. They’ll say things that you’re only thinking, and that’s an awesome feeling. Sometimes you have to shift the character and relationship about a bit. You think such-and-such is true, but haven’t said it yet, and they say something else. So you say ‘OK, my friend, I’m going to shift into that.’
There seem to be clear parallels between initiating an improv scene and starting something like Hoopla. You go in with an attitude, but with no idea what it will become.
Right at the start I had no idea that I’d be trying to make a living from it. I’d done loads of improv in Brighton, then came back to London. There were other improv companies, like Sprout – and I did one of their awesome courses – and there was Spontaneity Shop. And there happened to be a break when Crunchy Frog wasn’t running, and the main intention was to keep the fire alive, to keep the passion going. Also, I grew up in London and had a lot of old GCSE Drama friends, including Edgar, and friends of friends, and I realised the only time we saw each other is when we were getting obliterated drunk. I was bored of that, and wondered if I could do something different from drinking until we fell unconscious. So at first it was a drama group. It was free for the first couple of years for friends and friends of friends to come along. We were doing that week on week, with me and Edgar taking turns to run it. I had no idea how to run a workshop and sometimes resented having to do it. I just wanted to have fun. Once I accepted that people actually wanted me to run it, I thought ‘Right, then I’ll have fun with that as well. As well as performing, I’ll have fun with teaching too.’ It was super-experimental. Not on purpose. It was experimental because we didn’t know what we were doing. We just had glimmers of stuff from other courses and from books, and we’d just try out things. That’s how I learned to teach.
Why didn’t you enjoy teaching at first?
It was an emotional hurdle for me. I loved improv performing (not performing to an audience – I wasn’t doing that back then) because I liked that feeling I don’t have any more, where the audience have disappeared and it’s just me and someone else. I found that magical, because before then I didn’t like being in front of an audience as myself. In improv, when I found I had character, and my attention on the other person, I felt the fourth wall go down, and it felt safe, like a relief, even though now, when I perform, I don’t get that any more. There’s definitely no fourth wall any more. Maybe there should be. When I was teaching, I found it very awkward, I was very low status, but people were really nice. They were just coming along for a laugh, which is great – probably the main reason you should – but afterwards they’d give me feedback on my teaching. When it went well, I knew it’d gone really well, and when it went badly, I knew it’d gone really badly. I didn’t realize at the time how much I was learning, but I was, because it was every week for about two years. By the end of it, I found there were people coming who were out of the bounds of friends of friends of friends, that it had spread. So we kept going.
Now, I love teaching. I don’t get nervous at all. I do sometimes get that feeling, about half an hour before, when I think: ‘Is this going to be the night when I can’t teach an improv workshop any more? Has it gone cold?’ But pretty much the second it starts, it’s awesome, right up until the end, when I collapse in a heap and eat some fried chicken somewhere to recover.
Is fried chicken an essential ingredient of improv?
I wouldn’t recommend the fried chicken diet. I’m trying to give it up. The trouble with improv is that you constantly find yourself in a room above a pub late at night. I’ve got no willpower when it comes to food. I constantly find myself hungry at 11pm, about to get the Northern line home, and there’s the glowing yellow light of a fried chicken establishment. They get me. I’m a sucker.