I am temping in Westminster at the moment, on the 5th floor so I can see out over the chimneys and aerials. I was looking out the window this lunchtime and I saw a seagull waddling down a grey slate roof. I wondered what it’s like to be a seagull.
Specifically I wondered what it is like to be a seagull on the Thames, bobbing about in the cold water, then wheeling up into the air and swooping down onto the geometric coral of the Westminster rooftops. The roofs of Westminster are a desert, with gulleys that harbour bin-bags of occasional delight for a scavenger.
That is a pretty interesting transition.
When I look out, I see a distraction from the mundanity of a quiet afternoon, perhaps the seagull sees respite from the struggle for food. Does a seagull wheeling down onto a rooftop feel like a worker heading into the tea-room for a sit down?
Life is filled with boundaries and transitions.
In daily life we often go through these boundaries without noticing. The rush hour is a different place than my bedroom at night, but I rarely pay attention to how my state changes during the day.
It’s easy to miss this on stage as well. If you are having to create your environment as you go then you can’t completely be influenced by it. But you can be more aware of how you are affected, and then use that to find more nuance on stage. I think next time I get to play a bird I will notice the difference between being on land or in a tree. I think it’s more dangerous to be on the floor as a bird. I will feel safer in the trees as a bird.
I also think playing games around this in rehearsal is a good way to open up that nuance in performance. If you can play at being a deer in the woods and the same deer crossing a road you can see that a deer isn’t just a deer. A wolf in its pack is different from a lone wolf.
You might want to notice these moments over the next few days. How does your posture change when you go through these boundaries? For example coming in your front door, or getting on a packed or empty carriage. What expands in you when you move into a different environment and what contracts?
There is a lot of creative fuel to be found in the quietest moment of opening a window and hearing traffic.
Bill McLaughlin studied and worked with Del Close in Chicago and has performed and taught in New York and Philadelphia over the past 25 years. I had a chat with him to see what makes him tick and find out about the teaching he’s bringing over in March.
So, how long have you been doing improv?
Since 1977, so about 37 years, I moved down to Chicago then. I’m from the Philadelphia area originally and I went out there to study theatre. Professors I had were from the Midwest and they had told me about Northwestern University and the Goodman Theatre out in Chicago, and I thought this sounds great and my sister lives out there so I thought I’d go and investigate.
I had never seen an improv performance, and she took me to a show and that was it, I was like a kid in a candy shop, that was that.
It was in a small little club and they were doing short-form, and what really caught my eye is that you could be or do anything. They did a series of different structures and games, typical short-form stuff. I noticed that, people got to be so many different things and deal with so many different situations, as opposed to a play where you audition and if you don’t look like the plumber from next door you won’t be that person. I saw the opportunity to be whatever you wanted to be, so if I wanted to be a gangster or a cowboy I could do it, just a range of opportunity there and the fact it was playing. Just playing and using your imagination. I had been doing that naturally for years, I just thought ‘Wow look people actually do that on stage!”
That’s interesting, I never thought about how casting in acting can limit what you get to do. Whereas in improv you get to choose all the time.
Exactly. It’s your world and you are the creators creating your world and anything you want to be in it. That immediately attracted my attention, the challenge of being in the moment was so amazing too. Plays are wonderful I love doing plays and doing theatre, but it was a completely different level I saw and I thought I’ve got to push myself to do that.
And did it feed back into your acting?
I tell people, one of the things it did for me as an actor, it made me totally aware of what was going on at any minute. As an actor you have your lines, your character, whatever else is happening in the play you have to be aware of, but you are not focussed on it, its already written- its already taken care of. With improv you are never away from what’s going on, even if you aren’t in the scene that’s going on with your partners, you might be needed at any moment.
It made me so aware in acting, whether it was working or not, I felt this spontaneous connection to what was happening, I was in the moment even if it was a scripted play.
They use improv as an acting exercise, but to take it up to the level where you are absolutely responsible for it, you are not doing an improv exercise to be emotional or to stretch some character stuff, then you absolutely are completely responsible for what’s going on. So you have to be aware of everything: what are we connecting to, is there a storyline here, is there a game between us? There are so many levels. It absolutely pushes your intellect, you have to bring your A-game, you have to play at the top of your intelligence as they would say at Second City.
What was your journey with improv?
I was in Chicago till the end of 79-80, we moved to New York and established a theatre, I was with this group but the director died and the group fell apart. I moved onto a group called the First Amendment, which was a much more freewheeling and extremely talented group of people, it was extraordinary. That was the group I preformed with at the Edinburgh festival, and we managed to hang together till 1990, the director lost the space we were in, and by that time people were branching off doing separate thing’s and I had a partner, a brilliant improviser by the name of Joe Perce, and we started doing corporate entertainment.
You’re doing a trade show, or product launch, all very corporate, but they were looking for people who could write a show and change it on the fly, who could deal with executives and have that flexibility to throw ideas that the client would like, and we had to involve. Again it’s your improvisational skills, you’re not just doing a show, you have to be informative and entertaining as well. It forced you to push your skills to another level, because I had the improv background, what ever the challenge is I will find a way to do it. I still do it.
I like to be a complete professional at that, I can go in and go to a corporate meeting and I know exactly what they are looking for but at the same time I am relaxed in the moment. Whatever comes up I say “Yeah!”
Sounds like improv really influenced you and is fundamental to how you approach life.
Exactly. Your brain has to adjust to the idea that you cannot predetermine what’s going on, you have to throw your expectations out the window sometimes, because things will change.
Yeah in improv, things don’t always work, there are those moment that aren’t the most brilliant, but you don’t worry about them. You learn from your success. That was one of the things Del Close used to teach, the only thing you can learn from your mistakes is not to repeat them, learn from your success and add to it. That builds your success and your strength.
You learn from the positive, and you have to recognise what stops you, what blocks you, what stands in your way- that’s great try not to do it again. But when I’m teaching that’s what I jump on, when I see the light go on for a student and they’ve done something that worked really well I’ll make sure they take a picture of it in their mind. Don’t lose that. That wasn’t an accident, what you did was actually just a really good move.
I like that kind of teaching, it’s about giving them the power. You didn’t give them anything, you just pointed it out for the student. They have the goods.
Yes! You mastered the technique!
A moment like that for me was when I was studying in Chicago at Second City. Whoever was playing with me was my boss and kept accusing me of making mistakes and I would ‘yes and’ it, I would say “Yeah when I turned on the photocopier that’s when the fire started.” I was almost ahead of my boss in showing how incompetent I was.
Del stopped the scene and said, “That’s what I was talking about when I said Yes anding.” And the feeling it gives you is that “Yeah I have this tool and I figured out how to use it!”
Those moments in improv you feel like you’re floating 3 feet off the floor.
Do you teach because you want to pass on that experience to others?
Exactly! Well first of all when I teach I’m entertained all the time. And I always have to learn, what can I do to take my teaching to the next level? It forces me to stay a student of what I do, I have to go out and see shows, see what’s changing, what’s evolving in improv. I go see shows up in New York and Philadelphia and see what people are doing because creative people are coming in and finding new ways to express improvisation and theatre. But yes, also teaching is giving people what I’ve had.
Last summer 3 of my students went to perform at the Slapdash Festival, Safe Weird (check our interviews with Safe Weird members Kaitlin and Rob & Andrew). I was talking to Andrew last night and he says he thinks about England every day, and he has to get back there some time, just the adventure of it. For me the places I went performing improv, I performed at the Edinburgh festival. With theatre I toured in Europe doing different things like Russian constructivist theatre. I love the adventure of taking a challenge and seeing where it takes you.
For me it’s always been where I am, who I’m with and what I’m doing. You’re meeting people who are like you. They raise your game, they raise your level of awareness and talent, and your enjoyment of it. So I love giving the adventure of it to people.
Even if they are just going to take a class and enjoy it, fine. If it makes you more confident getting up and speaking in your job, that’s great, because before that you didn’t think you could do that. So many students tell me “Before taking your class I had a hard time in conversation or a hard time with this.” I had a woman who could barely look or talk to anyone. When she finally let loose, because I set up the right environment where it doesn’t matter if you fail, by the end of it she revealed there was an incredibly intelligent person inside who could make some amazing choices. When somebody like that comes to you and tells you how much they appreciate what you did, what a reward that is.
I have a group of college students here I put together, they have only performed together a few times. I want them to perform more and get more experience, and hopefully they will go down into Philadelphia and take classes and get involved in the scene down there, or maybe go up to New York. I would love to see them push on with it and see them take that adventure.
Yes! It’s all about that adventure. That’s why it’s so good to have this international connection of people coming over. Do you have any words for people coming to take your workshop over here in London?
Be prepared to enjoy yourselves. I will stress generosity, bring that attitude with you. Bring that to my workshop.
There you have it! A lot of enthusiasm and adventurousness is headed our way in March. Bill is teaching his weekend workshop on devising formats in improv on the 22nd and 23rd of March. Find all the details and book here at the Nursery site.
I just read a great article by Arthur J. Deikman, about how to find personal freedom.
It resonated with me a lot, especially when I think of improv. When I started, without knowing it I was secretly asking for approval from the audience when I performed. The laughter or applause was the impetus to keep going. I realised that a couple of years ago, and it was very freeing to move past that stage.
We all have a steering wheel inside us. When I was hoping for a teacher to tell me how good I was, or an audience to encourage me I was letting go of the wheel and hoping somebody else would start driving for me. Then I wondered why it all felt so terrifying and out of control. Because my hands were off the wheel.
When I started experimenting and doing what interested me, suddenly I became much more confident. It was like I grabbed the wheel and started driving to interesting landmarks that caught my eye. I was no longer a passenger, I was an explorer.Of course I falter and fall back into old habits sometimes, but it’s really nobody’s job but mine to grab ahold of the wheel again.
Now when people appreciate my performance, it feels much more equal. They are jumping into the car for a while to come along for the ride, but I am choosing what sights we are going to see. And when I watch others I can relax and let them take me places. No need to be a back-seat driver.
What I realised is that it is supposed to feel strange and challenging when you do something completely new. I’m allowed to explore and make mistakes along the way just like everyone else. Trying to create a feeling of supreme confidence before I start experimenting is doing things the wrong way round. That’s like trying to draw a map before you’ve explored the territory. If you really want to grow and find something new about yourself you have to go where there aren’t any maps.
From the article above:
“Dependency kills us, for it is the unknown that gives us life. The unknown flowers when we are receptive to it, allowing it to enter. The unknown carries us to the constantly forming edge of the world where light, beauty, and ecstacy are found. There is no other path to the spiritual, to the creative, to reality.”
Check out my storytelling workshop coming up next week if you want to find more freedom in your work.
I am teaching a workshop on the 28th November, 7pm to 9.30pm as a brief taster of my approach to story. It is only 12 of your earth pounds, 10 if you pay in advance. Only 12 spots.
Who is it for?
Improvisers with any amount of experience who want an introduction into how I approach story. This workshop is for people who love telling stories and want to practice that, or people who haven’t found a fun way to do that yet. I think narrative is about enthusiasm and invention, it never has to be about mechanical plot progression.
What will you do?
- Practice telling stories with feedback so you learn more about your story style
- Learn what to pay attention to in stories; emotion/motivation, action, and details
- Experiment with story elements in scenes
What will you walk away with?
- More confidence in understanding/telling stories
- The perspective to take apart stories in your own time and see what makes them tick
About Luke Beahan
I fukken love stories.
This bit is a good taster for my approach because the About Me section is never about me, it’s about you. I read this section when I check out a workshop for many different reasons. Sometimes I have never heard of the person and want to know if they are related to any big name institute that increases my confidence. Sometimes I am on the fence and I want to get an idea of their personality and if I would like them. Sometimes I’m reading the bio of somebody I know wondering what angle they are using to present themself.
So you are reading this for what? Security, reassurance, some kind of clarification, a phrase that resonates and persuades you, idle nosiness. A multitude of motivations mix around in us all the time and if you identify what you are looking for it makes decisions a lot simpler. So too in improv and storytelling, if you identify what is moving you early on it makes what you are doing more focussed and fun.
Real Details: I have been performing and teaching improv for 5 years now, I have studied at iO Chicago’s intensive as well as hoovering up all random workshops that come to London. I will lead you through some exercises, encourage you to reflect and identify what you want to do and then give you tips about how to do that. I will be enthustiastic. I love telling stories and playing them out through improv and think it is a learnable discipline.
Time: 7.00pm to 9.30pm
Price: £12 on the day or £10 if you pay in advance.
Location: Marylebone Gardens, 35 Marylebone High St, W1U 4QA
To Book: Contact me on lukeDOTbeahanATgmailDOTcom or 079 7221 2883
I had a chance to sit down with Cariad Lloyd the other day. She does this thing, you may have heard of it, impro? I have enjoyed Cariad’s improvising ever since I saw her perform with The Institute many years ago. So it was a pleasure to find out about her journey so far.
How long have you been improvising?
Officially since 2005 though I did some at school and a show at university. In 2005 I did a course in short-form improv, run by Mark Phoenix.
That course was a changing point for you?
Yeah, definitely. I did a bit at school in drama lessons, and watched Whose Line is it Anyway? obsessively. I loved it but didn’t think you could do it as a job. I did a one-off impro show at university with Sara Pascoe (Sara and Cariad both went to Sussex) and it wasn’t great. I thought I didn’t really like improv because of that one night.
Then I saw this ten-week course that was run by Mark Phoenix, so I rang up and they said it was booked. A week later, they rang me back and said somebody had dropped out – do you still want to do it? I remember being in Richmond and thinking “Yeah, actually I do.”
I went and I was instantly at home. I found it easy. It felt like I just got it. It was the first thing I had ever really done that I just got. I bought Keith Johnstone’s book and it just blew my mind, all the things he was saying. I thought: I do that. And I realised I’ve always been improvising. I used to talk to myself in my room. I thought it was just a weird thing I did. I didn’t know I could do it out loud with other people.
The first course was simple basics; “Yes and”, “Who, What, Where”. I just loved it and we did a show at the end. Other people on the course were dreading the show and I just couldn’t wait to get on stage.
It just blew my mind. I felt like I’ve found my people, this is it. I did that course then I started doing bits of improv, and because there weren’t many girls then, I got recommended and I met people and did shows and then the next year I met Paul Foxcroft. The rest is history… *laughs*
When I talked to Lee Simpson he mentioned how few women were doing improv back in the 1980s and 1990s, and it seems only recently that has changed.
Yeah, sometimes I got a job because Pippa Evans or Ruth Bratt couldn’t do it. But then when I started The Institute (the improv group Cariad ran with Paul Foxcroft for two years in 2006) it had seven women, and three guys. It wasn’t conscious it was just the best people I could find coming up. It is a generational thing and has changed hugely since I started.
So was finding improvisers like finding your tribe?
Yeah, I was very scared of doing stuff on my own. I was so unconfident at that point I just wanted to do stuff that was fun. I wanted to be an actor, and acting was hard. I couldn’t get auditions or jobs but improv was a thing I did that was just fun.
Paul and I had been involved in a one-off charity impro night at The Canal Café in London, and after that we were both involved in a show that went to Edinburgh, so we sort of decided to continue doing it up there. Paul and I ran three nights in Edinburgh. They were late-night, rowdy TheatreSports type gigs. Three sold out nights to 200 people in C Venues. We got on so well, we spent the whole summer talking about improv. He knew a bit more and knew other people, and he took me to see the Penny Dreadfuls’ improv show Shamwagon, which was longform, which I had never seen before.
When we came back to London we decided to form The Institute and The Canal Café gave us a residency. It was so easy to form a group, there was just a lot of talented people around at that time, especially at The Canal Cafe: Sara Pascoe, Jess Fostekew, Gemma Whelan, Gemma Arrowsmith, Shelley Islam, Lucy Trodd, Vanessa Hammick, Ben Van De Velde, Nick Ewans, Steve Mould. As I’ve found with all things in my life: when you are doing the right thing it’s easy, it’s not hard. We had a free rehearsal space every Sunday near London Bridge in a Georgian building. We had a giant hall to run around in every Sunday for two years, and we didn’t have to pay for anything. It got harder as we tried to build it up, but that first year . . . !
That room. I still describe it as the perfect improv space. Wooden floor, long but wide and windows both sides. Natural light but the sun never hit you. Ahh, it was a dream room!
Do you believe that the universe works by giving you opportunity when you are in the right place?
I’m a massive hippy, yeah I do. So, improv changed my life and two books changed my life. The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, and You Can Heal Your Life by Louise L. Hay.
I think when you are doing the right thing, doors fly open. The moment I went into comedy it was easy. Of course I had hard moments, I didn’t swan my way to writing an Edinburgh show. I was trying to be an actress for so long, but the moment I started writing my own comedy, I got “Oh do you want to do this gig, this person wants to talk to you,” stuff that had never happened before and the same thing happened when I started doing improv.
How did the Artist’s Way help you?
I stopped doing improv for 18 months because my heart was broken when the Institute broke up. It was just so sad, that it didn’t work out, it was no one’s fault, just sad. I thought I would never do it again, then I did the Artist’s Way which made me write my Edinburgh show which changed my life, so I am a bit evangelical about it, sorry. There is a chapter about creativity you have closed the door on that you don’t need to.
I remember saying to my now husband “I haven’t done anything like that.” And he said “You don’t do improv any more”, and I thought “Oh god that’s true”. So I started guesting for people, and I did the rounds with various groups, and started being an improviser again. I didn’t have a group, and that was when Amy Cooke-Hodgson asked me if I wanted to come to a workshop for this Jane Austen show she wanted to try. And I was so ready for a group, and was finally saying yes to things in my life again.
So yeah, I firmly believe if you are doing the right thing and ask the universe for it and believe in what you are doing then that journey becomes easier.
What is it about improv that makes it special for you, as opposed to writing or standup?
I think what improv does that other things doesn’t is that you have to play nicely. You can do standup and do writing and not play nicely. But you can’t do that in improv. Somebody on that stage has to like you.
I teach actors sometimes that have never done improv. I always say you know when you see a group of kids and there is one kid who doesn’t play nice: don’t be that kid. Don’t be the grumpy one, don’t be the one throwing your teapot across the room.
Listen, take your turn. That is what improv really hones. It makes you aware of your behaviour with others.
You have to get on with people. Especially with the work I have done since then – it’s been a great tool. If you are in a writing room, you may hate an idea or be pissed off with a person, but you don’t have to block; you make them look good, let them win their game. It teaches you to work well with people, which is a really good and useful skill.
It teaches you to listen to others.
It’s interesting: I just started teaching drop-ins again for David Shore, and I think the biggest problem is people not listening to themselves. You do get a few people who don’t listen to other people and won’t let them in, but most people don’t listen to themselves. You have to Yes and yourself. People judge themselves before they have ever done anything.
That’s why those two books changed my life, because they are about stopping judging yourself and that voice that blocks creativity, and turning down that voice.
When I teach a class warm-up I say: “All of you had a voice in your head when it went wrong, saying I’m rubbish, I shouldn’t have said that. That person hates you. That person thinks you fancy them. We all have it, but when we realise we all have it, we can all turn it down.”
It’s useful for outside life, for crossing the road, but you can practice turning it down on stage. Judging yourself is the biggest problem for performers. Not willing to be bad, there is a whole chapter in The Artist’s Way about being willing to be a beginner, the humility of beginners is so important. Years ago I thought to myself if I ever think I’ve ‘got’ improv I probably shouldn’t do it any more. I’ve had moments where I think I know what I’m doing and then for six months the shows are bad!
I don’t care if you hate that teacher; go to the workshop, because you will learn something. You can take at least one thing from it. Those are my favourite improvisers, people who have done loads, done workshops, done clowning, writing, stand up, music, other things. They are taking from everything. When you talk to them about their favourite shows they are not just improv shows, it’s other things that are inspiring them.
I think you do need to create space between improv and life sometimes. You need perspective otherwise you have nothing to say.
I think the time I had off improv was the best thing I did for me. I had to think about what I thought about performance, what kind of improv I believed in. At that time it felt awful, but you can look back and find it useful, see what got solved during that time off.
How do you use improv in life?
After I read The Artist’s Way I sat down at the computer and started treating writing like improv. Before I would sit down and write one sentence and go “It’s shit”. If that was a scene and I was teaching and they did that I would scream at them! Why don’t you just Yes and your writing?
So I did that, then I showed it to people and they liked it and I did the show and people liked it, and I got more confidence with myself.
It’s the same things you do in improv that work that work in life. I was blocking myself, not writing anything down, not gigging. It took me four or five years to do standup, and people kept telling me to keep doing it and eventually stopped, and it took everyone stopping to make me realise I needed to do it.
It just gave me a kick up the arse made me think “If you want to do it, do it. Don’t talk about it.”
That’s a good last line for an interview.
Just do it! *laughs*
Alan Watts says many useful things. Finding your voice is very important in many fields, especially in a collaborative art form like improv. I think if you are trying to find your voice its worth looking in the right place.
If you are looking back on what you have already done, then maybe you aren’t looking in the right place. If you are comparing yourself with others then maybe you aren’t looking in the right place.
Maybe you need to listen more and talk less about your ‘self’. You don’t need to tell others what you are like, or repeat to yourself old images of yourself. You can just explore and react. Water running down a hill finds out the shape of the hill by fitting to its terrain. You can find out about yourself by observing how you react to your terrain. You need to listen to yourself before you can listen to others.
There is a Louis CK video that a lot of people have been linking recently. I like it, it agrees with my philosophy and it reminded me of something that I don’t think is addressed a lot when learning to improvise.
His point about letting yourself feel sad is really important, I think it’s similar to letting yourself feel unsure and surprised in improv. Sometimes it seems like classes or workshops are based around the idea of tricks, that our natural state is to be in our head and we need to shock ourselves or trick ourselves into living the moment. That’s not true. We’re born in the moment and we come back to the moment in periods of drama or intimacy, and we most probably die in the moment.
When I started I thought that moment of uncertainty was something to be avoided. Certain parts of society are about appearances, looking confident and giving the appearance that you know what you are doing. We learn a lot by copying as we grow and it’s easy to take that behaviour on board without realising it.
A scene is like a conversation. Sometimes you reach the end of a conversation, and you both feel it’s been exhausted without having to acknowledge it, the air has run out of the balloon. It doesn’t matter what you do next, you can say goodbye or you can start up another thread of conversation, you can sit around in silence if you’re both comfortable with each other. If the other person said something earlier you want to talk about some more you can bring that back up again. What’s important is that you both notice that beat happen at the same time, it’s just an internal feeling that doesn’t need to be articulated. It’s the same for scenes, they have beats and when that beat ends you can finish the scene or bring something else new into it.
You have internal beats too. You can be improvising and run out of things to say. That’s just a sign that you need to bring something new up, or reincorporate something that happened before. It’s not a sign that you’re fucked, that you’ve forgotten how to improvise. I think that’s a learned mistake that people take on stage with them quite a lot. They assume that you can’t sit with that moment and let it sink in, that you need to immediately move to something else or be doing something to be good at improv. They run away from that moment of uncertainty and
I think to be good at improv you need to learn how to be comfortable with yourself. You need to learn how to stand on the sides of a show patiently watching and listening until you step up, without having to plan or desperately memorise character names. You need to learn how to react with good humour to your partners’ curveball and instintively accept it. Once you’ve learned that and your heart isn’t beating with fear at the unknown you have a lot more mental resources to spend on the technical stuff. You learn when to add more character or more details, or when to edit a scene and bring it back.
Sometimes people say they do improv to help them learn how to be in the moment. I think that’s the other way round. You need to learn how to be in the moment in order to improvise. You don’t paint so that you can see. You have to be able to see in order to paint. You can’t live shying away from uncertainty and then transform when you get on stage. You have to learn how to live with uncertainty and trust yourself, and then you take that on stage and improvise from that place.
Otherwise you are just jacking off to avoid your fear for a while, and it’s never really satisfying as Louis says. No, it’s not comfortable to face that fear, it never is and its not supposed to be. Chase the fear not the comfort.
This is something I say because I have done it myself, and I continue to practice doing it. It’s not an automatic skill, so it does take practice, but it just gives back so much more pleasure and enjoyment than trying to ‘solve’ improv.