Lee Simpson of Improbable

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Earlier this year I saw Improbable’s show The Still, which was fascinating. They work for a week with an expert like a speech therapist or non-violent communications practicioner, then create a couple of improvised shows based on the work they have been learning about. It was eye-opening and a nice reminder of how flexible improvising is as a performance.

I had a chat with Lee Simpson, one of Improbable’s artistic directors alongside Phelim McDermott, about his long improv career (life?). With experience and influences ranging from the Comedy Store Players to Keith Johnstone he has absorbed much wisdom.

How long have you been improvising?

 Well the joke philosophical answer is all my life, as have we all. When I was at school, my drama teacher, Bob Hewett, read Keith Johnstone’s Book Impro. That must have been ‘79, and it changed his life. One student was reported as saying “Mr Hewitt has read a book and it’s changed his life so now he’s trying to change ours.”

I was one of the last intakes into this grammar school that was in the process of becoming a comprehensive school, and Bob was the head of English, and taught Drama. The book sort of exploded his head, he became less interested in teaching English and more interested in teaching drama. So he set up a lunch-time drama club, where we exclusively worked on Keith’s stuff. That was when I was 16.

Was it his enthusiasm for it that sold it to you, or did it really spark something in you immediately too?

I liked doing drama anyway and I liked the teacher anyway so the combination of the two meant that when he said “Lets do this stuff!”, I gave up my lunch breaks to do it. As soon as we started it was fantastic. It was unlike anything we had done. We ended up doing impro shows for the school during lunch hour.

It’s hard to imagine these days but at the time it was sort of unheard of. Theatre Machine had been doing stuff but not for a while and it was before Omelette Broadcasting were born, so the idea that people could go on stage and make it up seemed genuinely revolutionary. It wasn’t genuinely revolutionary because people had been doing it for years, but in Great Yarmouth, where I went to school, it doesn’t take much to seem revolutionary.

It was mind blowing.

Sounds like quite an experience!

 It was, and we kept with it after school. A little group of us, myself; Janita Rowland, (who is now my wife) Paul Hodds, Dean Lepley and Kevin Andrews. We set up a little group called ‘Play it by Ear’. We taught workshops in Great Yarmouth, for kids and teenagers

Then I went to drama school, and again was lucky to meet Andy Harman. Everyone has these meetings with people and you go “Wow how lucky was I to meet this person!”

So in addition to Bob Hewett, who’s still a friend, at drama school I met Andy. He taught improv at drama school and gave me my first gig in London. Andy’s great, I’m having lunch with him this Tuesday. So improv friends stay friends!

After Andy Harman I was lucky enough to hook up with Peter Wear, who is brilliant and very generous then ended up with Phelim. All big influences.

What is it that keeps you improvising?

 Ever since I started it’s been constantly unfolding. The thing that keeps me doing improv is because it’s a practice and not a skill. Unless I wake up tomorrow and I’m suddenly Buddha why would I not continue?

It’s constantly evolving. We always say that if you think you know how to do it you’re in trouble. It’s not a skill because it’s not a finite thing, its an infinite thing. You can never know it, there are as many connections as there are connections in the universe.

And I’m old now, especially in improv years I’m incredible old! As you age your relationship to it changes, because your relationship to the world changes. So what you ask of it changes and what it asks of you changes.

Its like a constant companion to you?

Companion, teacher, master, practice, world view. You could put any word you like in there. For me it’s an invitation to awareness, if there is any point in being alive it is to hopefully become aware and impro is an invitation to do that.

Improv says “Well, here you are: now is it possible to be aware of what somebody else is doing, what the audience is feeling, what the world is saying, what is going on inside you?” that’s an infinite list, an infinite number of things that one can bring one’s awareness to.

When a man is tired of impro he is tired of life.

That does seem to be the basic skill of impro. If a scene didnt work its because you missed something, in yourself or the other person. An improv scene is a good litmus test for your awareness. What was different in the beginning for you?

 When I started it was questions like: Can I do something without thinking too much? Can I say the first thing in my head? Can I speak dialogue and also build an environment?

The real basics, the technical basics which seem impossible when you start like how can one ever exists on stage and not just be in a blind panic? Then you grow and your relationship to time changes, so the things it asks of you changes.

We [Improbable] talk a little bit at the moment about the rule making software that runs in peoples brains. You don’t know that it’s running, it’s in the background so we don’t know that our brain is making rules for us as we go along based on what happens. So that dictates our behaviour the next time around and we don’t even notice.

So we learn a successful strategy which is a good thing and helps us, but we keep that strategy even when it ceases to be useful, even when it starts to becomes destructive. We keep that strategy  even if our life is falling apart or our relationships are turning to shit. Then the good reason for doing it is buried under so much crap you don’t even know where it came from. In the middle of it there is some core belief that sustains these outer casings of old habit.

I see that rulemaking software too. We learn things in society and I have always thought we need to leave those rules behind to get better at impro. 

 You have to be aware. What am I doing? What is happening as I do that? What is happening in the world when I do that?

Then being aware of those habits just gives you more choice to play different scenes or learn new things.

 Yeah! I think it gives you real choice, rather than that weird limited choice. Even Keith has stopped saying that you have to say the first thing in your head. It’s a great thing to practice but at a certain point you can choose, as long as you are aware of that process. Like the idea of accepting all offers: at a certain point you don’t have to, you just have to have awareness of what you are saying yes to. You are always saying yes to something. Even if you are saying yes to that part of you that doesn’t want to do something.

For example, if somebody comes in and says “Here is your tea my lord”

You say “I haven’t got a butler!” there’s your classic block right there. But you may be saying no to the scene about a butler, but you are saying yes to the part of you that doesn’t like the idea of that scene. You are always saying yes to a whole bunch of stuff and no to a whole bunch of stuff what ever you do.

More interesting to me is: can you have awareness to what you are saying yes to and what are you saying no to, and how you are saying no?

That is a very interesting way of looking at it. Ive never seen it that way. I have seen that when I started I tried to learn the rules and apply them without thought and it was frustrating. Now I see that its about learning to act without rules.

 I do think that at the same time, of course you have to practice saying “Yes”, because we don’t get a lot of practice in life. I’m about the billionth person to say that we don’t get a lot of practice in life, because if we did we wouldn’t be doing improv. We’d catch something unpleasant, end up dead or in prison. Or both. So of course we have to practice those things, and you have to go back to practicing them time and time again. It’s possible to kid yourself that you are making choices, when you are not because it’s a practice not a skill.

You are never in the same situation for 2 seconds running, let alone 2 shows running, it’s always different.

Have you used impro off stage as a tool?

 I think I’ve changed through impro, I think as a child I was quite intellectual plan-heavy, really good memory recall. I was good at being a ‘good pupil’ at school. Over the years, it may be the age or the lifestyle after a point, I’m not like that so much anymore. It’s fucked up my memory basically! *laughs*

You dont need to remember stuff if you can improvise.

 Yeah, I once had the actor’s nightmare where you find yourself on stage and don’t know your lines. I knew my acting career was done when I had the actor’s nightmare and I was fine. In this dream I was onstage and I didn’t know my lines or what show I was in or have the right costume on, and I thought “This is great!”. I woke up and thought oh great my acting career is done, I’m gonna have to improvise now.

But I don’t think I have used impro as a tool in my life. I don’t know, it’s hard to say.

Its just so interlinked with your life its difficult to imagine how you would be without it?

Yeah, I know that I’m rubbish at life. On stage the universe makes some sort of sense to me. The 2 hours I am on stage are the most relaxed hours of my day. The idea of ringing up a plumber fills me with fore-boding and dread. Maybe I imagine the consequences. If a real plumber does a bad job, I can imagine an armageddon like situation. On stage that’s fine.

I know it’s the other way round for other people, the idea of being on stage is their worst fear, but I think for performers it’s the other way round. The consequences are not as important.

The consequences can be that the audience doesn’t like you or not think you are any good. But that’s not serious. Very, very rarely have I been threatened with violence because of my performance. Very few abusive Tweets as it goes. It’s alright.

What does the future hold for you in improv?

There’s one project called Permission Improbable, which is looking at women in improvisation. Something me and Phelim have been interested in for a long time, since the 80s, when the situation of women in comedy and impro was way worse than it is now. Since then we have wanted to address it.

The landscape  has undoubtedly changed for women in impro and comedy. I think we’re now free of the situation where there is only allowed to be one funny women at a time. It was Victoria Wood for a while, then Emma Thompson, then Josie Lawrence. Or it was Victoria Wood +1, there was only Victoria Wood and one other woman at a time who were ‘funny’.

Now, there are enough fantastic female comedians and improvisers to be well past that. Although I still think there is difficulty – the world is sexist, therefore impro is sexist if only because impro reflects and distils, its a microcosm of the world. Feminism is a much more complex issue in the first world than it used to be, but it’s still an issue. We’re really exited about the possibilities of looking at that, we did an R&D then did a workshop this year, and want to do a show next.

We’re continuing with the  Still, which you saw recently. We would like to do the Season of the Still. We usually do The Still every 6 months and its just 1 show for a couple of days. We’d like to do 8 in ten weeks or something like that, see how that affects it. We were talking the other day about bringing Lifegame back. I had a really exciting idea about impro that I don’t want to talk about , I want to keep it under my hat for a while.

Very busy!

 Oh god yes, and that’s with all the other Improbable stuff. Phelim just started the next show, then Improbable is doing an Opera. I’m touring again. Paul Merton’s Impro chums are touring in the autumn. That’s always fun. Mike McShane is coming back for that I think.

Something that isn’t well known I think is that The Comedy Store Players used to tour, way back, when really the only comedians who toured were big names like Billy Connolly, Jasper Carrott, maybe Phil Cool. Comics didn’t tour. It was Nica Burns who put us on a bus and we toured the country doing venues like rep theatres. That was kind of unheard of at the time. That was fantastic, as close to being in a band as I was every going to get. Tour bus to hotel, soundcheck, gig, tour bus, hotel soundcheck, gig. I thought “This is almost rock and roll!” I’m lucky enough to be able to do that again.

Sounds like it will be an awesome time again. Thanks for taking time to chat and good luck with all the hard work.

Check out http://www.improbable.co.uk/ for more info on Improbable’s projects and upcoming shows.

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