Dave Bourn InterviewPosted: 26 March 2013
Dave Bourn is currently the resident improvisation tutor at The University Of West London and the Court Theatre Drama School. He started improvising to help reduce his anxiety, and began performing with London Theatresports and Sacred Scriptless in the 1990s. He has directed shows by Stephen K. Amos, Carey Marx, Felix Dexter and Phil Nichol. The last of which was also nominated for the Perrier award. He has written for many comedians and sketch shows and also co-manages The Funny Side comedy club with Zoe Abbott. Before he began ad libbing professionally he gained a BSc. in Computer Science. He is the founder of Sprout Ideas, which teaches improvisation to actors and to the general public. Last month, Sprout hosted Impro Fest UK, a week-long festival of improvisation at The Lion & Unicorn Theatre, comprising nineteen different shows. After Sprout themselves performed their piece ‘Sprout Premiere: The Improvised Play’, Luke Beahan sat down next to Dave to talk about stuff.
How has the Festival been going?
The festival has been ace. Last year there were highs and lows; this year has been pretty much highs all the way. I’ve seen all the shows except one, and I’ve loved all of them. The audiences have been good by and large. There were two shows that had low audiences but all the others did really well.
What are the highs for you?
I’ve really enjoyed the variety of the shows. There have been game shows, longform shows, shortform shows. People have tried different things. I’m not sure if I’m allowed to mention your show [‘Luke & Michael’] but I particularly enjoyed that one, because it was quite different to all the others. It was very gentle and felt more experimental. I see a lot of shows that are more formulaic, which is good too, nothing wrong with that, but it’s also nice to see shows that are slightly more avant garde.
You really enjoy the whole spectrum of improv out there.
Absolutely, we can’t get enough! [Dave organises the festival with Martyn Hill.] This festival is really quite a labour of love. We’re not making much money as promoters, but the bonus is that we’re seeing eighteen shows for free, so that can’t be bad.
Does that feed back into your improv?
It certainly does. I wanna try out some of the things I’ve just seen in a workshop. Your show and another one had things I’d definitely like to try. The festival makes sense for me on two levels. It works for the general public because they see something new and exciting, and the more mainstream shows appeal to that. And for improvisers there are the shows that are a little different and slightly more unusual. They can check out what everyone else is doing.
It’s an experience for improvisers as well as the audience.
Yeah. There are there groups at the festival who are doing their first ever shows, so this was the focal point of their learning experience.
How long have you been doing and teaching improv?
That’s scary to think about! I did my first improv class in 1990, and I started teaching in 2000. We were going to Edinburgh and preparing to lose lots of money, so we wanted to raise a warchest. One of the ways we did it was to run workshops, and Alistar Buddington, Grant Westbrook and I started running those workshops.
What got you into your first class?
Well it was anxiety. If you look at my website it says I used to suffer from anxiety. I’d tried a bit of therapy. I’ve nothing against therapy but it wasn’t really working for me. So I wanted to try something practical, and a drama class seemed like a behavioural challenge, and a drama class with no script was a greater challenge.
I had a similar experience. I used to have a lot of anxiety and social anxiety, and I didn’t even know improv would help, but it has completely changed my life. Is that what keeps you doing it?
Totally, I absolutely think that’s true. I think if you’ve had anxiety you can always feel it around in the background somewhere, and the longer I go without performing the more I can feel that anxiety. I think I do my best shows when I’m not feeling nervous, excited yes, but not nervous or anxious. I don’t think anxiety is a useful emotion for improvisation.
Even in the show we just did, during the first ten minutes of the show I was getting back into the mindset of performing, because I haven’t done a full show for a year. It felt like being on a football pitch and your first few passes go astray because you haven’t played for a bit.
So is that why you teach, because you got so much from it and want to give that experience it to other people?
Absolutely. I think I’m a better teacher now than a performer, because I do that every week, and you get good at what you do. I think I’m probably more sensitive to nervous learners. You get a huge bandwidth of experiences coming to improv classes. Some of them are huge extroverts, who can’t wait to get on stage, and I can teach those people, but I can really connect with the more nervous introvert ones, because that’s where I’ve come from. So if some-one says ‘Oh I can never do that!’, I’ve got the experience of knowing that place.
You just want to give them the fun of being on the other side of that.
What’s happening for you after the Festival?
Right now I am putting together a few more experimental shows, with people I know but haven’t performed with much so that will be quite interesting. I’m still doing loads of teaching. I like to say that everyone should do an improv class, because they are so much fun and you can get so much from them that’s not related to going on stage. I feel that improv has a bit of a bum rap because people think they need to be hilariously funny to do it. All they need to be is a little bit creative, and everyone is a little bit creative, so anyone can improvise.
It’s that space we don’t always get at school or work, to exercise those creative muscles?
Absolutely. When I started improvising I was with London Theatre Sports. Tom [Salinsky] and Deborah [Frances-White] from Spontaneity Shop were also in classes there at the time. Our teachers were people like John Voce and Luke Sorba. I would say about half the people who did it were from an IT background, who just wanted to be creative for a couple of hours. And their ideas were amazing and that’s what improv taps into. In terms of stirring up your own creativity there’s nothing like an improv class.
I find that improv is really learning how to have your voice and play with other people.
There is a song by Morrisey called ‘Sing Your Life’, and it’s about how everyone has something to say: ‘Walk right up to the microphone/ And name/ All the things you love/ All the things that you loathe.’ I think improvisation allows you to do that. To express yourself. In a collaborative way, it’s not just about you, but a bit of what you are about can go into a scene, or a play, or a game.
It’s not self-involved – it’s creative giving in a shared space?
That’s exactly what it is! I like that expression. It’s not a self-involved creation, it’s a shared creation that you have a huge stake in. It couldn’t exist without you and it’s just a joyful place to be.
Do you have some final thoughts on learning and teaching improv?
I always tell my students: ‘This is just the way I do it,’ and I think that’s really important to emphasise. Just from watching all the improvisers this week there are so many different ways of doing it. When I was being taught, the ones who inspired me the most were the ones that just encouraged you to get up and have a go, and not constrict you. I think that encouragement is more important than the rules. Some people set themselves up as ‘improv gurus’ who tell your how it ‘should’ be done.
One teacher who inspired me said: ‘When you get on stage, just think about being in the moment right now, and not worrying about what some dude told you to do or not to do in the last class. Because it’s about being in the moment and sharing and listening and not about rules.’ And that stayed with me.
Occasionally I teach people from drama schools who are scared of improv. I can’t get my head around the fact that after two or three years of drama training they are afraid of improvisation. I used to be anxious of most things and even I can do it. If you fear improvisation then it’s not being taught right. I’ve never tried to set myself up as an improv guru, I’m just a bloke who does improvisation and tries to share it, know what I mean?