I have a vivid memory of one of my very earliest improv workshops. It was a seven-day intensive class taught by Dylan Emery, culminating in a performance of an extemporised musical. I look back on those days with great affection. Due to the fact that I had no idea what improvisation was, I made mistakes with greater confidence than I ever have since. It was the steepest learning curve I have experienced in my life.
During one session, Dylan had noticed a tendency (which, after all these years, I have yet to overcome 100 per cent) of rehearsing my words in my head before allowing them out through the front of my face, so he side-coached the scene by yelling out ‘New choice!’ after everything I said. Everything. The great thing about this was that I was unaware that ‘New Choice!’ was a well-worn shortform game and exercise designed to take you to an uncensored and unprepared state of mind. But in my ignorance, I simply assumed that everything I was saying was wrong, and that he was discounting every line I came up with in an attempt to steer me towards the perfect line. The memory of myself sweating and struggling, thinking to myself, ‘What on earth does he want me to say?’ makes me smile now. But eventually I reached the end of the list of things my brain could think up in advance, and Dylan was able to coax something genuinely spontaneous from me, perhaps for the first time in my life.
I was thinking back to that episode the other day after running a rehearsal with Luke. It’d been a while since I’d run a rehearsal, so beforehand I sat down and prepared ten different exercises to help us approach our chosen topic, which happened to be ‘creating strong initiations’. I wanted to make sure we had plenty to do, and that we wouldn’t get bored. At the rehearsal, we blasted through these exercises, and each one gave us a little glimpse into a particular technique, a way of thinking about how to create strong initiations.
But afterwards, I couldn’t help but think that we’d have achieved more if I’d just picked one or two exercises and we’d drilled them continuously for two hours. For me, exercises like ‘New Choice’ and ‘Endless Box’ only seem to work if they go on longer than I want them to. In fact, I often find that it is necessary to get bored of an exercise – to go through and past that moment when I’m starting to wonder what the purpose of it is – in order to reach the point where the rational part of me has entirely given up, and I’m learning with my instinct.
So while it’s fun to come up with lots of different exercises – which might be useful if I were introducing a new group to a range of things for them to go away and practice – I’m learning the value of taking a single idea and pushing it just a bit further than my comfort zone allows. Everything was like that when I was first starting out, and it was amazing.
I reckon a good driver could make for a good improviser. I can’t drive. However, for the purposes of simplifying my analogy between driving and improvising, I will stick to the one type of car I can drive.
Depending on your upbringing, this is either a dodgem or a bumper car. (If you call it a dodgem, you’re thinking about how deftly you can avoid other vehicles. If you call it a bumper car, you’re aiming to cause as much disruption as possible.)
Whatever you call it, there are only two controls: accelerate and steer. To me, improvising sometimes feels as simple as that. Yet for all its simplicity, it’s not easy to control. It’s all too easy to stick your foot down and come blasting into a scene at full throttle, with very little awareness of anything around you. You’ll end up straight into a wall, or another improviser. It’s hard to be fully aware of what’s around you when you’re going so fast.
If want to avoid being an aggressive improviser who bumps into things, you may wish to take more time to pay more attention to what’s around you. But you risk the opposite problem. It’s hard to get anywhere when you’re sitting in your car weighing up every obstacle in your path. And it’s actually harder to manoeuvre if you’re at a snail’s pace. Just go. Go anywhere. It doesn’t matter. It’s better to be crashing than creeping along tentatively. Where’s the fun in that?
I don’t believe that either “fast improv” or “slow improv” is intrinsically better. The two skills – awareness and boldness – aren’t contradictory. They’re complementary. The bigger the move you want to make, the more aware of what’s around you you need to be. You may actually get to the point of the scene quicker in the long run if you slow down on the corners. A great deal of energy and movement a great way to start, but a scene will hit a wall if nobody is paying attention.
There are no fixed rules about how to initiate scenes or develop them, any more than the fairground has a Highway Code. These things will come down to a mixture of personal style and in-the-moment intuition. But… imagine that your whole team is sat at the controls of one car, like clowns. All your hands are on the wheel. All your feet are on the pedal. You had better be all steering together, and all accelerating together, or you’ll get nowhere, or end up somewhere nobody intended.
Here’s some thoughts about what happens at the very, very start of an improv show, before the improv even starts.
I haven’t done a lot of improvising in the last few weeks (sob). Instead, I’ve been working on my solo act (under the sobriquet “Human Loire”).
In order to try the material out in front of as broad a range of audiences as possible, I’ve been performing at cabaret nights, alternative comedy nights and regular standup nights. My friend Tim has come along to a couple of these, to offer advice and moral support (and because I was obliged to bring one audience member in order to guarantee my slot on stage).
Tim’s not a performer, and doesn’t go to a huge number of gigs, but after we’d sat through quite a vast range of different acts together, and I’d bought him a pint of Doombar, he said something very useful: “The weird thing I’ve noticed from watching all these performers is that it doesn’t matter what the act is. The important thing is to get a good relationship going with the audience at the start. After that, you can do whatever the fuck you like.”
If you’re a good clown, you can hold the audience’s attention performing the most simple and untheatrical of actions. If you’re a good comic, you can deliver ghastly, leaden puns and get a wonderful warm reaction.
It’s the same for us improvisers. Our success or failure doesn’t rely upon the out-and-out quality of the material we improvise, or upon its style, but rather upon its joyful assertion – the manner in which it is instantaneously shared with everyone in the room, bringing everyone together in the same act of discovery.
Establishing that relationship at the start of a performance is something I’d like to work on more. It’s not an easy thing to do, especially where improv isn’t well understood by the general public. It’s a unique atmosphere that needs to be created – similar to that found at a comedy night or a sketch night, but also fundamentally different. It requires a great deal of trust on the part of both performers and audience, but the rewards are great if you can get it right.
That’s my goal, and I’d welcome any anecdotal or theoretical feedback from my fellow improvisers. If we want audiences and critics to “get” improv, we need to work on building that wonderful atmosphere of trust at the start of a show. After that, as Tim rightly points out, we can do whatever the fuck we like.
After a quiet summer, I was in need of a pick-me-up. I get very grumpy and introspective when I don’t get the opportunity to do improv. My improv drought recently ended with a flood: a five-day intensive longform improv class, taught by Charna Halpern.
Along with Del Close, Charna founded the iO Theater in Chicago, developed The Harold as a longform structure, and wrote the book Truth in Comedy: The Manual of Improvisation. She has had such a wide influence on the artform as it is practised worldwide that there was always a danger of her reputation getting in the way of the work. In my experience, when improv teachers are held up as “gurus”, people approach them less as facilitators, and more as physicians or priests, offering either health or salvation through their access to privileged wisdom.
Charna didn’t give many personal notes. She certainly never said “Don’t do this” or “Don’t do that”. She sometimes said “I loved it when you did so-and-so” and “You’re good at such-and-such”, but only when it benefited the whole group practising a specific form. She spoke about the things that helped each performance, rather than what might help each of us in turn. Steve Roe has written a great list of some of these tips.
For me, the week was all about operating as a group rather than as an individual. It’s rare for me to get up on stage in a team of more than five people. I was initially wary about being taught in a group of nineteen – I guessed that the class would involve a lot of sitting down watching two-person scenes – but the larger group gave me a different and useful perspective to the work. “Everybody up on stage!” became the signal for some of the best stuff of the week.
The focus away from myself turned out to be the most refreshing thing about the course. I didn’t come away with tips on how to make myself a shinier and more attractive improviser. It was all about how groups can make shinier and more attractive performances.
When I performing with a larger group, there will be moments when I am following and other times when I am initiating. (There are also those sublime organic instants, when the two modes are indistinguishable from each other. They’re still my favourite.) But I still have a tendency to attach some egotistical weight to my own initiations. When I step to the front of the stage, I change my focus. On a semi-conscious level I shift from thinking: “I’m supporting the others,” to “Now the others are supporting me.”
With Charna, I had the opportunity to practise with my body and voice what I already knew in my head: that an improviser should be equally supportive whether they are following or initiating, whether they are in a spotlight at the front of the stage singing a song or at the back miming being a wardrobe. I’m massively grateful to her, and to my classmates, who were a magnificent team: Alex, Chris, Hettie, Jacob, Jason, Jules, Julia, Katie, Maria, Maria, Mario, Murray, Nicola, Pippa, Sarah, Steve, Tony and Veronika.
This autumn I will be starting one or two new improv projects. I will be busy, which is good.
I’m keen to introduce you to the life and work of Florence Foster Jenkins (1868–1944), an amateur opera singer whose career transcended the limitations of that most mundane and stifling of personal qualities: talent.
Her cracked tones and dire prosody were hilarious enough to give her significant public success, culminating in a sell-out performance at Carnegie Hall a few weeks before her death. As long as people were eager to hear her, it was her joy to sing for them. Her commitment and bravery make the question of whether or not she was deluded irrelevant. She’s a hero of mine.
To her critics, she was said to have retorted: “People may say I can’t sing, but no one can ever say I didn’t sing.” Take it away, F.F.J.:
Let us celebrate Florence Foster Jenkins, but as we do so, let us not forget her loyal accompanist, the undoubtedly talented Cosmé McMoon, who supported her throughout the years, playing along for her benefit and for ours.
I was in Brighton the other weekend visiting my brother and his family. Following a deliberately catastrophic night out drinking, we spent some relaxing time on the Saturday morning with their youngest daughter, my niece, Orla, who is a little over one year old.
Orla is currently learning to walk. At the time of writing she can manage about five steps at a time. Not bad, eh? We played an endlessly joyful game in which she would be helped to a standing position a few feet away from her dad. She would then totter towards him, collapse, then he would pick her up, plonk her in his lap and she’d slide down his legs. She’d then scamper away on all fours. Every stage in this process would be encouraged by the grown-ups: “Woooh!” Yeeah!” “Aaaah!” She never got bored. You’ve seldom seen a happier baby.
How amazing to learn something new by being supported by people who help you find the joy in what you do. I found myself envying Orla.
We joked about what it would be like if Orla were learning the way grown ups learn. “Her technique’s all over the place.” “She’s got a long way to go before she can seriously expect to impress anyone with her walking skills.” “Her progress shows what great teachers we are.” “She needs to show more commitment.” “She needs to aspire to be one of the great walkers.”
When we turn into “adults”, we are expected to have the basics covered – walking, talking, feeding ourselves, going to the toilet unassisted. After that, learning new things becomes a serious business, a chore, work. We are supposed to be motivated not by the joy of the thing itself but by the utility of the task, the desire to compete, to impress others, to gain acceptance or to chase a distant objective.
Not every lesson can be a carefree romp with people telling you how great you are all the time – obviously the rewards from analysing technique and putting legwork into improvement towards specific self-generated goals are often greater than can be got from pure unguided playfulness – but I think it is important never to lose sight of how all learning begins: the pleasure of the thing itself. It’s surprisingly easy to forget that. Unless we can find joy in a task irrespective of success or failure at it, why do it?
I think this is especially true of learning improv – for two reasons. Firstly, by definition everything we do we are doing for the first time, so failure must remain a joyful possibility. An improviser who relies too heavily on their tried-and-tested skills isn’t improvising as much as they could be, and risk-free improv is a contradiction in terms. Secondly, I believe that basic improv skills are as fundamental to human development as those a baby learns: breathing, controlling our bodies, being present and attentive, empathetic and supportive, playing creatively, following ideas, communicating emotions and saying yes. Modern society drills these skills out of us as we get older, and adult teaching methods are insufficient to drill them back into us.
How to Learn
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.
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 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?
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 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?
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.