The AUSA Improvised Theatre Society

Last weekend I was in Aberdeen, a guest of the AUSA Improvised Theatre Society. I taught a weekend workshop called ‘Introduction to Narrative Longform’. We worked with energy and enthusiasm from 11am to 5pm on both Saturday and Sunday, undeterred by the fact that some of the actors were still sleep-deprived from having taken part in a twenty-four-hour play a few days earlier (six scripts written, actors cast, lines learned, costumes made and sets painted, all within one day).

Most of the students had only ever done shortform up until this point, and one of them had only ever attended a couple of improv classes. The exercises I covered were my take on things I have been lucky enough to have been introduced to by teachers of the calibre of Jason Chin, Crumbs, P’Graph and Mark Beltzman. At 5pm on the Sunday, an audience of friends braved the snow and wind to come to the lecture theatre, where the improvisers, split into two teams (‘We Have a Girl’ and ‘Sextastic’), performed two complete 25-minute stories based on a single audience suggestion, without any intervention from me. ‘Wonky Crags’ was set in the Scottish highlands. ‘Two Wives in Denial’ was set in ancient Egypt. Both explored the themes of family in-fighting, betrayal … and poison!

The weekend was a joy from start to finish.

Introduction to Narrative ImprovThis was the second time I’d been to Aberdeen to teach a weekend workshop. Last year, I taught my famous ‘Improvised Greek Tragedy’ class. That had been based on a single premise: we must improvise a Greek tragedy and here are the tools that we will need to do this. The difference in my approach this year must have been striking to those who did both classes, and highlights the changes that I’ve made as an improviser in the past year, principally through working with Luke. This year was less about product – the finished show – and more about process. There was no set agenda for the class performance at the end of the weekend – except to have fun, while perhaps taking on board some of the ideas we’d explored.

Apart from helping me to consolidate my understanding of these longform techniques, teaching this workshop showed me some of the things I myself still need to work on. I now realise that it is a very simple thing for an improviser with a little experience under his or her belt to diagnose problems in a scene or in another improviser’s habits. Blocking, asking questions, self-endowing (instead of endowing your scene partner), failing to listen, wimping out – all these issues are dead obvious to an outside viewer, so it is little wonder that many improvisers with only a couple of years’ experience – including myself, I hasten to add – have imagined that they could set themselves up as improv teachers.

It seems to me that the skill in teaching is to find a way for the student to identify these issues not as problems but as exciting opportunities for progress. Certainly, a teacher can demonstrate games and exercises that will help a student work a particular underused muscle, but in the end it will the students’ own task, not the teacher’s, to find a path through through the difficulty. The best thing a teacher can do is to help the student identify problems not as immediate hurdles that are standing in the way, but as distant goals that are to be reached in the future. And if we enjoy improvisation as process rather than product, then the joy of doing it consists in working towards that goal, rather than the end result of achieving it. There will always be goals. One useful piece of scenework advice I have often been given is: ‘Listen to the person, not the problem.’ Exactly the same advice applies to teaching. I’m already focussing more on process than on product or problem, so I know I’m doing it right, but I can do more.

The goal of having fun was, however, undoubtedly achieved. It gave me particular joy to overhear the students recounting their favourite bits from ‘Wonky Crags’ and ‘Two Wives in Denial’ in the pub afterwards, and it was very rewarding for me to have two or three improvisers approach me to announce their personal resolutions to work on specific aspects of their improv, and to tell me how improv was helping them with other aspects of their life – writing, attending interviews, listening and empathising. One improviser texted me once I was back in London to tell me that the weekend would probably go down as one of the highlights of their university life. I am deeply moved and grateful that someone would honour me with the privilege of being part of that experience.

The AUSA Improvised Theatre Society is going from strength to strength. I will be back in Aberdeen when the next opportunity emerges. I’d like to take this opportunity to thank them for a wonderful weekend. I love you guys. I hope your plans for the next year come together, and I hope at least some of you will get to travel to London very soon to take part in some of the many classes and shows that are happening here.

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