Tom Salinsky Interview

Tom SalinskyTom Salinsky is the artistic director of The Spontaneity Shop and the author of The Improv Handbook. He is the co-author of Coalition, a comedy play currently running at the Pleasance Islington.


Tell me about Coalition.

Coalition is taking up most of my time at the moment. I’m co-writer and director which is not without its risks. I have suspicion about auteurs, in terms of creativity. The example I often give is The Singing Detective, written by Dennis Potter. It might be the most amazing narrative serial that has ever been done for British television. Dennis Potter was at the peak of his powers as a writer, but he was paired with a director whom he initially did not get on with at all. They had huge fights, as a result of which he rewrote the scripts, improving it dramatically. You can see his notes on the original ending and it would have been ghastly – a complete anti-climax. He was forced into making these changes by this spiky relationship with his director, and the result is a masterpiece.

But despite the plaudits he received, Potter refused to work with him ever again, and the next thing he did was Blackeyes, which he both wrote and directed himself. It included a lot of the stuff he’d thrown out of The Singing Detective, and it was dreadful. So being an auteur brings a huge danger of losing objectivity, which I’m skirting on! I’ve got my co-writer, who’s been to a lot of the rehearsals, to keep me in check, and at least I haven’t yet gone ‘Full Branagh’ – writing, directing and acting in the same production.

How long has the process taken?

We had a reading of the draft back in October 2011, then another at the beginning of 2012. It went to Edinburgh in August 2012. Because it’s about how the coalition might end, by the middle of next year it will be a period piece.  In the meantime we’ll be working on next year’s Edinburgh play. We’re already talking about a trilogy.

How did improv influence the writing process?

The best thing it taught me was not to be precious.  Plays are not structured as tightly as screenplays – not the plays I want to write anyway. One of the things that you can do in a play, which is hard to do in other mediums, is to have two characters just stand there and articulate opposing points of view for seven or eight minutes. And it’s interesting, because of who they are and what they have to say. You can’t do that in a book, and you can’t really do that in TV and movies.  You can’t even really do it in impro, although some people try. But you can do it in a play.

So our outline before we start writing is quite skimpy. If you’re writing a screenplay, I recommend having a very detailed outline before you begin, because a full-length screenplay has so much more structure than a two-act play. Of course, the drawback of having a skimpy outline is that it’s wasteful. We have to find out who the characters are by writing dialogue for them. You’ll get it wrong, so pages and pages and pages get thrown away. But if you’re used to improvising, if you’re used to everything you create being shown to one audience and then being thrown away, so it’s much easier to think: ‘Well I did spend four hours writing last night, and now I see it doesn’t fit, so out it goes.’

That’s also easier with a co-writer, because I can hand something over which I know I’ve dashed off, knowing that Robert [Khan] is going to improve it, or cut it. That’s very liberating. We don’t actually walk around improvising the characters, but I do essentially improvise at the keyboard. I know where I’ve got to get to at the end of this scene, but I don’t yet know how the characters are going to express those ideas.

Why do you say you can’t improvise two characters articulating opposite opinions?

Well, you can, obviously, but it’s a risky enterprise. There are two scenes like that in Coalition. Almost all of Scene 3 is this debate between two people, and that’s what drives the plot of the rest of the play. That was one of the hardest scenes to write. While some scenes are basically Tom scenes or Robert scenes, with that one we’re both in every line, because to sustain that, the scene has to be very carefully structured. The danger of improvising it is that there may be brilliant moments, but it’s bound to be flabby from time to time, because it’s a first draft. Everything in impro is a first draft. That’s what’s so exciting for an audience.  It’s thrilling for them because they get to see your moment of inspiration actually happening in front of them. That’s what they can’t get enough of.  But they also need variety. If you were to try to improvise that scene, you’d only hit pay dirt one time in ten. There’d be five or six that were all right, but two or three that were just boring because they never really went anywhere, or they didn’t move from beat-to-beat fast enough – or even that they skipped from idea to idea too quickly.

Is there a danger that impro scenes can become about ideas rather than about relationships?

Well, yes, but anything for variety. If you’ve just had a scene which was ferociously plot-driven, with huge life-changing events happening every minute, then following that with a scene in which two people just discuss ideas for a couple of minutes might be fine. I certainly think that an audience has more appetite for emotional change than they do discussions of abstract ideas. But if the improvisers are inspired, and the abstract ideas they are playing with are delightful, and their imaginations are on fire, of course we can watch that, maybe for several minutes.

Do you know the Unapplicable Law of Improvisation? I’m absolutely convinced this is true, but it’s completely impossible to apply, and therefore entirely useless. The ideal time to break a routine is just before the audience gets bored. That’s the moment you want to be finding. I’ve seen young improvisers flit from idea to idea because they fear what they have is not good enough. They’re squandering what could be fantastic ideas if they just stopped and developed them. Likewise, I’ve seen improvisers who will never move the plot forward, and never go to the next beat. They stay where they are because it feels safe. It’s always possible to miss the target in either direction. It’s completely contingent on what’s happened so far, on the mood of the audience, on the show to date, and so on.

Is there any truth in the assertion that the audience are always one step ahead of the improvisers?

Keith [Johnstone] talks about how the audience constructs a ‘shadow story’. You do it when you’re reading a book or watching a movie or an impro scene. You always have a sense of what’s going to come next. It is helpful to bear that in mind, to remind yourself that the solution is not to try to constantly surprise the audience. It’s trivial to surprise an audience, if that’s the only thing you want to do. The cost is that the content will be utterly bewildering. Eventually that in turn becomes boring because it doesn’t make any sense. A lot of the time, if you give the audience what they want, they’ll be pleased.

In Coalition, there’s a repeated trope in which Tory Minister-without-Portfolio heralds his arrival by a BlackBerry pinging. The ping sounds, someone looks at their phone and then the door will open. It’s a running joke. For his final appearance, Phill Jupitus, who plays this part, has taken to turning the handle of the door incredibly slowly. His entrance takes about a minute now. The audience knows what’s coming, because it’s been set up, and that’s what’s so delightful. We’re playing with the audience’s expectations and delivering on them.

If you get into the mindset of ‘The audience knows what’s coming; I’d better give them something else.’ then you’re going to tie yourself in knots. If you think the audience knows what’s coming, the best advice I can give you is to give it to them straight away.  Then you’ll catch up with them. Then what’s on the other side might be something they couldn’t anticipate. Something fresher.

How long has the Spontaneity Shop been going?

Since 1996.

What proportion of your time do you devote to that these days?

The Spontaneity Shop has taken various forms. Initially, it was just a small group of like-minded people who wanted to put on shows. Then we started doing workshops. The shows started to get better. We started to get invited to do festivals. We were invited to teach at RADA and that gave us access to some really good actors who we could train to improvise.

We got some TV interest in one of our formats, and it looked for a while as if we were going to get to do it on ITV, but it wasn’t to be – although to this day, I don’t think that pilot has ever been officially passed on! What happened instead is that we had people asking us to run sessions in their workplace  and the corporate training side started to grow and grow. So a lot of my time is spent running that as a small business, and going out to lawyers and bankers and advertising agencies and charities and getting them to play ‘Yes And’ or working with them on presentations.

Do you enjoy that?

Yes I do. I’ve always enjoyed teaching. We still have a workshop programme running. Some people are very keen to improve. Some are passionate about the craft and some come just to play. I’ll take either. Both are good. But what’s so rewarding about working on, say, presentations, is that you start with someone who is very anxious about public speaking, but they know it’s important to crack it, so they’ll try the things I’m suggesting and I get to see them really grow and change over the course of a few hours. The corporate work frees me up to take some money and try not to lose it in Edinburgh on a play that I’ve written. The Spontaneity Shop is also one of the producers of the play. But all that doesn’t leave a lot of time for doing impro shows any more.

Do you regret that?

That depends what mood I’m in. If I’ve just done a really good show, I think ‘Why don’t I do this all the time?’ but the beauty and the curse of improvisation is that not all the shows are stellar. There are things you can do to mitigate against that, but if you work too hard to make sure that none of the shows is poor, then you usually create a long run of shows that are all right and none that are absolutely amazing. Having improvised for so long, I’ve belatedly discovered that there’s something a lot more rewarding about writing, because you can get it right! There was one scene in Edinburgh that never worked, and it took us long time to figure out why not. For the London run we did a rewrite, and now it works every time. That’s a pleasure which you can’t get from improvisation.

But I do have days when I miss it. Recently we had Rama Nicholas bring her new format over from Melbourne and we spent the day workshopping it and did a show in the evening. It was called ‘Close to You’ and I really enjoyed doing it.

How did you start out in improv?

I was at university writing sketches for Week Ending and taking very bad sketch shows to Edinburgh. That was about the same time that Whose Line…? came on the TV. So I was looking for something else to do to satisfy this need to make people laugh. I was trying stand-up, but I wasn’t ever comfortable doing it. I saw an advert in the paper for an impro weekend. I just loved it because it brought together everything I was interested in: collaboration, storytelling and comedy. The idea that there was a technique for all this was really interesting. It was at Jackson’s Lane and it was run by Phil Whelans.  I still remind him whenever I see him that he was the first, that he’s to blame.

Then I started going to workshops with what was then called London Theatresports. Then we had Patti Stiles come through from Canada and that was the real turning point. I’d enjoyed the classes I’d been having but when Patti came along it was as if a magical box of secrets had suddenly been opened and it was all in there.

What was in there?

What I’d seen in a lot of impro show up till then was people, very entertainingly and skilfully, messing about with their mates. It’s a perfectly fine thing to do. If the improvisers are relaxed enough in each others’ company, that can be delightful if the show is reasonably short. It’s also a pretty good description of the Horse Aquarium shows I was doing until recently with Paul Foxcroft and Briony Redman.

There’s a danger in having inexperienced improvisers, who are still dealing with anxiety, watching people who are very relaxed and comfortable messing about with their mates, and then quite naturally trying to emulate that. The results are generally not very good. I was starting to feeling stuck, but Patti came along with these very simple philosophies: make your partner look good, say ‘Yes and…’, push the narrative forward – and it all started to make a lot more sense.

Then I did one of Keith Johnstone’s summer schools, and it was around that time that I started to feel that I owned it, that it was mine. That’s when I started teaching, and when the shows got much better. We started doing Gorilla Theatre, which is a great format, and had more fun on stage without trying to emulate the performances we’d seen other people giving.

Was there a connection between starting to teach and the shows getting better?

I think it’s useful to teach. You know that you’ve understood something when you can articulate it to someone who hasn’t. And if you can spot bad habits in other people, then you can use those strategies on yourself. Patti used to say: ‘If, when you’re on stage, you can hear my voice in the back of your mind pushing you to the next thing, that will be very helpful. But over time, that needs to become your voice.’ If you get into the habit of watching two other people improvise something, and you have the instinct to shout out a piece of advice that will push them in the right direction, you can sometimes do that to yourself.

You can get a snapshot of where the whole scene is, and realise why, right now, it doesn’t feel like it’s working, and see the thing that needs to happen. That usually happens if the scene isn’t working. In an ideal situation, you’re just reacting. It’s happening. It’s inspired. But you often can’t sustain that state for two hours, so it’s good to have other techniques to fall back on for when that state doesn’t visit itself upon you. You can’t make it happen. You can’t decide you’re going to be in that state.

Who else has inspired you?

My partnership with Deborah [Frances-White] is also hugely important, though she’s scaled back her improvisation performing and switched to stand-up and writing. She came out of retirement to do that show with Rama Nicholas – and she’s been running a new impro show called Voices in your Head which is doing very well. But I’ve also been very curious to see how other teachers approach things. I had a very interesting time in Chicago about six years ago, but I didn’t see a lot of work that I really appreciated. It’s a shame that the town that is the home of impro has become so fixated on one way of presenting it. The Harold is not the be-all-and-end-all. It has a lot of virtues, but it can train improvisers in terribly bad habits.

Is studying a range of methods intrinsically a good idea, or do you find some approaches are simply better than others?

Of course, there’s a big audience for those Harold shows. That’s fine, but I’ll do the thing that pleases me. The only thing that really frustrates me is bad photocopying. I don’t mind people doing things that aren’t to my taste, but don’t copy something you thought was good and get it wrong! What’s the point of that? Either do a really faithful copy – take something like Theatresports or Gorilla Theatre that really works, and use all the things that work – or make up your own thing.

Whatever art form you’re working in, it’s fine to have a ‘thing’. We’re writing plays in a very specific style. They’re comedy plays, hopefully with a strong story. It’s a heightened world, and that’s a very deliberate choice. For me, that combines a lot of the things a good night out should include. We have the freedom to do pure jokes, to create bigger, richer characters, and deliver a good strong plot as well. That hopefully means there’s a lot of variety in two hours, so you don’t get bored.

I would find writing a straight drama very difficult, because you lack that feedback from the audience. An attentive audience sounds a lot like a bored audience, and it’s difficult to tell the difference. But with comedy, you’ve got very good feedback, so you should if you’re on the right track or not. Again, that’s why iteration is so important. Write it, put it in front of an audience, get some feedback, rewrite it. Keep doing that. That doesn’t mean we’re not influenced by straight drama, sitcom, sketch. These all have things to teach us. The basic model for Coalition is Macbeth, except it’s not in iambic pentameter and there are no ghosts.

The last show I did regularly – Horse Aquarium with me, Paul Foxcroft and Briony Redman – was my answer to the Harold, with all the things I didn’t like taken out. It had all the structural virtues of a Harold-like long-form, but with the heart and soul of a short-form show. We removed the thing that a lot of Harold players hate about short-form: there’s no stopping and starting and going to the audience every five minutes, and certainly no judges and no points. Our aim was to start a scene, create something, resolve that, and then blackout, and on to the next one. Rather than doing a stub and then trusting that over an hour or more all these fragments are going to interlock in some way, we try to make each piece satisfying in its own right.

We’ve had shows that were an hour of sketches, but we’ve also had shows in which there was lots of structure, with ideas bouncing around and stories threading through four or five scenes over the course of the night. The point of that show was to find two other improvisers I wanted to spend an hour on stage with, and try to have as little format as possible to get in our way. Over time, the style became much more playful. It became much less about narrative, which was unusual for me. It became almost anti-narrative, the game being that I would start a narrative, and Paul Foxcroft would try to stop me. Then it would become a tug of love over Briony. ‘Come and join the narrative!’ ‘Oh, but Paul looks like he’s having so much fun!’ ‘Yes, but this is important!’ That’s the meta-story.

Who wins that battle?

Paul, usually. That’s how the Comedy Store Players work. Neil Mullarkey says it’s not an improvisation show, it’s a workplace sitcom, where the characters’ job is playing theatre games. You’re not really there to watch them play theatre games. You’re there to watch these personalities interact while being put under the pressure of having to perform this task. It’s not very different than if they were working in an advertising agency, but not everybody gets that. They think that if they play the same games and pimp each other the same way, they’ll get the same result. They won’t, because they don’t have the same level of comfort and familiarity with the other people. As I said before: when inexperienced improvisers try to copy mature improvisers, they copy the wrong thing.

What’s in the future for Horse Aquarium?

Horse Aquarium started when we’d come to the end of a run of shows, and we again had overtures made to us from television, and we were trying to put on a show that fit certain criteria we’d been given. I remember standing at the back of the theatre, watching the audience come in, waiting to go on, and thinking ‘I’d rather be somewhere else.’ The show was fine, it was all right. There were very good people on stage, which of course is three quarters of the battle won, but I didn’t have anything invested in the show. When inevitably the TV show didn’t come off – as it was always destined not to, being a compromise – and with Deborah shifting her focus to stand-up, I thought ‘I’ll just not put any shows on, and see what happens.’

I ended up doing a regular impro workshop as part of an actors’ showcase, and they asked me to MC so I got to be on stage twice a month. I spent a lot of time doing Spontaneity Shop workshops and corporate training and, almost without realising it, I didn’t improvise for a year.

‘That’s unusual,’ I thought, ‘but if I were to design an impro show for myself, from scratch, what would it look like?’ That’s where Horse Aquarium came from. The cast was to be very small. It would be people whom I really trusted being on stage with, and it would be people I hadn’t taught from scratch so I’m not getting my own stuff fed back at me: people who can genuinely surprise me and keep me on my toes. That’s how I ended up with Paul and Briony. But we’ve all been too busy with other projects recently, so I’m sort of back where I was before. I’m still in touch with everyone, and we had this show recently with Rama, but at the moment I’m finding play-writing and directing more rewarding, albeit expensive. There’s wild talk of doing a radio version of Coalition, and there’s another play that we’re working on for Edinburgh 2013. For the moment, I’m happy to see where that takes me.


Coalition is on at The Pleasance Islington until 10 March. Buy tickets here.

Tom and Deborah’s terrific book The Improv Handbook: The Ultimate Guide to Improvising in Theatre, Comedy, and Beyond can be bought here.

Learn about the Spontaneity Shop’s courses in improvisation and communications training here.



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