Alex Fradera & Julia Pöhlmann Interview

Alex Fradera and Julia Pöhlmann make up make shift, who are performing tonight at The Nursery as part of the Slapdash International  Improv Festival. Michael had a mug of tea with them.

make shift

Tell us about your team history.

Alex We met a couple of years ago at the Würzburg Festival, which Nadine Antler was the key organizer.

Julia Then we kept running into each other. Denmark… Chicago…

Alex In Chicago we had a lot of time to work together. The group was given a fifteen-minute scene to do in pairs and we happened to be together and we thought ‘This kinda works. It feels easy. It doesn’t feel stressful.’

It’s nice when it’s easy, isn’t it?

Alex It is. It inspired us to do duo stuff together with that iO flavour.

Julia We were both at the iO together, and we’ve both done some Keith Johnstone training. We’ve done mask improvisation together.

Alex For me, at least, I feel like I’ve been struggling – not in a negative sense – to see how these different ways of doing improv work together, how they speak to each other. It’s quite nice to be playing with someone who has the same reference points. So we can talk to each other and say ‘This scene felt really fun because it was true to such-and-such a spirit’, or ‘That scene didn’t work because we were trying to do two different things at once.’ We can have a dialogue about it. We talk through our improv quite a lot. We can be critical. It’s one of the things I like about it.

You set time aside for analysis?

Alex Yes. When that’s missing, I don’t think progress can be made in the same way.

Julia At the moment we’re focusing on character development and relationship-based scenes, a show inspired by images. We want to build strong characters and try to value both of them in the scene, and see where they go.

Alex FraderaAlex We have similar but different styles. For me, because I have so little acting background, one of the ways I find characters is through improvisation. I’ll keep yes-anding the things I know about a character until something three-dimensional comes out the other side. There are lots of amazing techniques of physicality and emotional beginnings that I try to use whenever I can, but the thing I find fun to keep exploring is to use every fact that comes into the improv to say something about the character. Keep building out from nothing. Every step can tell you more about them. In theory, if you’re ten steps in, then you’ve got a ten-step character.

Sounds like characters are a big thing for you two at the moment.

Alex Yes, character, point of view…

Julia … and relationship.

Alex Patterns and games are gifts that fall into that, but they’re not a dominant theme for us at the moment. Finding the game or the joke is a happy accident rather than the point of the play that we do.

Julia I think Alex is right! To be funny on stage, or to be a comedian, is one thing, but to see a person, a true character, is way more interesting: someone who has attitudes, a strong view about the world, or who seems to contradict himself, someone who isn’t just a pure evil person, who has little edges. I find that more pleasing and inspiring to watch.

Is it more inspiring to perform as well?

Julia Yes, it gives you more to work with. It creates a richer atmosphere on stage.

Alex I feel the same. For me, it’s more fun like that. It’s great to make people laugh. It’s wonderful. But the thing that I take away from a show is when there’s been a really interesting character, especially when I get to play one. It’s lovely to be around them. It’s even better to come away thinking ‘That weird guy who has an aggressive shouting tic but loves to hug people, and cries when he starts watching soap operas. He came out of me!’ It’s wonderful that that’s in there somewhere and that somehow it can get tickled out. It’s a really pleasing thing.

When I started doing improv, it was all about story. Then I realised that story is one way you can see inside people – a character goes on a journey and you get to seem them change. But even a slice-of-life scene, in which there isn’t much story, can be pleasing if the character unfolds in front of you and you can see into their guts. I love story so much, but only because I love the characters in the stories, more than the plot.

So it’s about exploring a character?

Julia I think jokes, funny lines, games, and even stories make you laugh on the spot, but the characters are something you can take away from a show.

Alex I like that. I’d like to think that the characters have a life beyond the edge of the stage. Following us around like a zombie horde.

Julia When the relationships are rich, they can affect each other so much. There’s so much they can do to each other.

Do you draw on your own creative relationship


Alex We definitely draw on dynamics that are real.

Julia I guess everyone does that.

Alex Sometimes in retrospect, we might look back on a scene and see that a dynamic that we played out is something we could talk about in real life as well, on a different scale. We often surprise ourselves, but there’s a reality behind it.

Julia Anything that comes from you has a reality behind it – it just got bigger.

I like creating monsters that have a basis in reality.

Alex It’s like pulling on piece of thread. You can keep pulling and start to make shapes in front of you from a single point.

Is that what you’re doing with this project, or do you have an end goal?

Julia A

t the moment we’re in the exploring phase. Trying out everything we think can be fun.

Alex We just want to keep exploring this furrow of working with realistic characters and coming to a point where you have two fully fledged, distinct points of view that are both interesting, and fun, and funny. There’s belly-laughs funny and then there’s the funny of recognition – ‘Oh yeah, my aunt is a bit like that.’ Either is good! For me, the end goal is to see how far we can go with starting with the accessible and familiar and finding out how odd we all are. My take on it is: everyone is weird and that’s great.

Julia Pöhlmann

Julia So far as improv technique goes, we’re looking for a way to highlight both characters – not just one hero and one helper, but to make sure they both get their time. Sometimes you do want to see a hero and watch them struggle, but very often both characters have potential and we want find a way to get that out of them.

Alex Another aim we have is to go to darker and more taboo and difficult places and staying with them, not just to mine for melodrama and pain but to find comedy and pathos. It’s really fun to watch.

Julia … and to do.

What’s the process like?

Alex It’s a lot of small advances and massive retreats! Sometimes we’ll be really honest about it and sometimes we fall back away from it. And there are moments when you can actually feel it. I think Del Close said you should wear the clothes of your enemies. If you’re going to play a racist, don’t just make them an easy target so that they’re ridiculed within the first minute. Fully inhabit that character. Make them big. Make them strong. Make them defined. Only then can we open them up. Play the biggest racist you can find! Go further into the darkness. It can be fun and nasty.

Fun and nasty, Julia?

Julia Sometimes!

But ‘fun’ is a word you’ve used quite lot.

Julia It has to be fun! Otherwise why should we do it? If the performers aren’t having fun, the audience won’t.

I agree. But not every artform is driven by ‘fun’. I think improv might even be unique in that.

Alex It’s ‘fun’ over ‘funny’, for me. A show doesn’t have to be funny, but if I feel that the performers didn’t have fun making it, as an audience member I struggle to appreciate it. If they seem to be working hard, if they seem shaken by the process, if two of them seem bored and the other one’s trying to fit it all together, even if it ‘worked’, I don’t think I would enjoy it. But if it was slapdash, but they seemed to be having a good time doing it, even if there weren’t that many jokes, but they were enjoying building a big world with crazy detail, then I probably would enjoy it.

Julia In my experience other art forms can create an expectation that work is necessary to find success. I sometimes feel a bit of that too even in improv. Then I tell myself: ‘I’m not here to do art. I’m here to have fun!’ If the show happens to be ‘Art’ then that’s good, but it’s not something I want to worry about. Otherwise it’s work. And you can feel it when there’s a lot of hard work in a show.

I sometimes put pressure on myself to find the fun, so I turn fun into work.

Julia That can happen, and it’s OK. Sometimes I find myself working in a show, and afterwards I’ll say ‘Oh fuck, it was a lot of work tonight!’ Then it just happens, and it’s all easy and light. I guess it goes back and forth.

Alex I think preparation for a show makes a big difference. In the past I’ve done warm-ups that weren’t right for me because they put a premium on quickness. There’s a balance to be struck, but I know it when I feel it. Sometimes I’ll do an exercise and think ‘I didn’t need to get any more fast and frenetic. I needed to do something around eye-contact, touching, taking a breath.’

I like the idea that there are so many possible patterns and directions in a show that there’s no way you can pick up on them all. You shouldn’t even worry. You’re watching the scene to see what strikes you. If nothing strikes you, then keep doing what you’re doing, or introduce something on a whim and see where it takes you. There will be something. There’s a philosophy that everything in the scene can come out of the very first offer. I like that, in the sense that it encourages you not to create more than you need, but actually I’m happy to think that the first offer could be cool, but if I’m not inspired by it, then the second offer might hold something fun, or the third offer, or the fourth offer. Hopefully not the five hundredth offer – there’s a limit to it! I find it’s helpful to relax and see what comes. I find my horizon narrows when I try too hard to find the thing, as if I’m looking through a telescope to find the details of a scene. Better to relax and let it wash over me.

That’s a nice idea. To be receptive.

Alex For me it’s useful, maybe because I tend too much toward the other way – perhaps other people need the opposite advice to become more focussed. In my case that’s when I feel most relaxed and most likely to pick up an interesting moment in a scene.

What relaxes you?

Julia For me, it relaxes me when I’m on stage with someone I can trust. When I know how far I can go. When I can go further with something and know that they can take it. For example, I know with Alex that whatever I do, he’s going to save it! I just go on with that feeling, and that really relaxes me. I also like the idea that there is always something there when we enter the scene. It means that we don’t need to think – we just go on and open our eyes. All we need to do it use our eyes and ears. More than our brains.

Another thing that relaxes me is giving myself a task for a show. Alex will say something like…

Alex … I want to see happy high status tonight …

Julia … or ‘I want to see a break-up scene’. Something like that.

I want to see you ride a turtle. Are you looking forward to the show?

Alex Yes! It’s the first show we’ve done in the UK under this name. We didn’t have a name the last time we played here. It’s a première.

Julia A UK première!

Catch make shift at The Nursery tonight. Doors 7.30pm. Show 8pm. Get tickets here or on the door.


2 Comments on “Alex Fradera & Julia Pöhlmann Interview”

  1. […] Image of Julia and Alex are by Luke & Michael […]

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