Becky Johnson is one of the headline performers at this year’s Slapdash Festival with The Sufferettes, on Saturday 8th June, 8pm. You can buy tickets for it here. She is also running a workshop: “Awareness, Impulse, Authenticity and Size” on Friday 7th June, 7–10pm. Book a place here.
So how long have you been doing improv?
Started when I was about 15, so that’s 20 years.
That’s a long journey. How has it been along the way?
For me, I have a very interesting and tumultuous relationships with improv. I started with the Canadian Improv Games which is a high school tournament, and then worked with a couple of companies in Vancouver after high school, till about 19 or 20, then became very disinterested with improv. I didn’t like the work I was doing, what I was exposed to felt very limited. So I quit, one of my many times quitting improv.
I went to theatre school in California, I studied physical theatre forms, clowning, melodrama, commedia dell’arte and mask. Then after that I did a little bit of improv, because I was stranded in Vancouver for a while after theatre school. I met Lee White from Crumbs, and we ended up doing some stuff together. It was interesting, I really liked his perspective, but I was still more into the obvious career choice: I wanted to be a clown *laughs*.
I moved to Toronto to study clown for a couple of years. Through all the clown work I realised what was missing for me in improv: this idea of heart, using your own material. That’s always a part of improv, but in clown the way I studied it, it was very clear that that’s what was happening.
So after a couple of years in Toronto, doing clown mostly and physical theatre, I came back to improv, and round this time we started a show in Toronto called Catch 23. We just celebrated our 10-year anniversary. For me the improv was very informed by all the clown work I had done. Eventually I stopped doing clown because I felt like it was making me go crazy. It was really unexpected that I ended up back in improv, and really happily back in improv.
I quit one other time since, but that was just a personal financial decision. I had to focus on something that would make more money. I’m convinced improv doesn’t make money at all as a performance form, I’m sure people can challenge me on that. A lot of people who make money also teach, and at that time I just wanted to perform. I was in a committed relationship, now married, and I had responsibilities, I couldn’t perform so much. That was a year or two, and I found a way to perform and it’s not too much of a strain on me. I have other ways to make money and I teach.
So for me the improv journey has been, over these 20 years, realising that there are a lot of mechanics and skills in improv, but also much more of yourself involved.
Indeed, I am in one of those periods where I feel less like performing and more organising my thoughts and working out my direction.
Well I’m a big proponent of quitting, not to jump ship, but because a lot of times it’s because we are not being fulfilled. It’s not just absence makes the heart grow fonder, it also crystallises what was working, and time off is also that fallow time where you can process things and come back to it.
I quit the last time because I felt bitter and burnt out, and then realised all the things it was giving me. Came back and I’ve been really, really happy in the last handful of years understanding where improv fits into my life.
The older I got, the less I thought about where my career was going and the more I understood the importance of just getting on stage and making people laugh.
I was like “Oh! This is a thing, this is important.”
Would you say you found what you were made to do?
I don’t know. I wanted to be an actor since age 11, but I was a mixture of tough and outgoing and shy and awkward. I feel like my process to improv was very studied. I wanted to learn how to be funny and how to improvise. As a result I actually get very angry when some people express the opinion that some people have it and some people don’t, because I know that I didn’t really start being funny. I did improv for years in high school, but what I was really doing was learning the mechanics of it, and I worked with a lot of really funny men (but also lovely men). It took me while to realise the comedy that I had. I was somehow drawn to this work, but it wasn’t an easy process to me.
It took time to find your voice?
Yeah! And that’s why clown was so important, because clown is about you and about your comedy. When I teach I feel that same thing. Some people take classes from other people and they say “I wanna do what you do”. My point in teaching is, what I do is me doing my thing, and I want to help you find your thing, if I can. Because hopefully it will be different and new and more exciting than anything that I have done. For me it’s because I went through such a process of figuring out what it was for me. I had to actually be opened up into finding my own comedy, so I feel that everybody has that in them and I have a lot of sensitivity towards that. I really really hate the idea that some people have it and some people don’t
I’m not that altruistic! *laughs* I want comedy to keep evolving and I think it’s within other people.
So you want to pass on the insights you gained through that work?
Yeah! The mechanics are important, knowing your place on stage, all that stuff but also as a teacher, what I’m trying to say is “OK, all of this stuff exists, but who are you?”
I was also angry about the early improv teaching I had, which was all about story and narrative and structure. And I felt that the people who are actually succeeding are showing a lot of themselves, is that a teachable skill? And then I studied clown and was like, oh it is, it is. It’s hard, but it’s teachable.
Do you think that because its hard that a lot of improv teaching can focus on that technical side instead?
I don’t now. It’s also hard for me because my entire formative education in improv was structural, so I talk about how important the individual is, but I also had all that training. So I wouldn’t say all you need is to take care of yourself, because that can lead to some serious self-indulgence. But I feel it’s a very big hole in improv education, ok we’ve gotten to a point where we can do all these things, but the question of you has never been addressed.
I see it as the actual improv coming from your core, and your technical mind is just a side coach. Your logical mind can point out what’s missing but everything ultimately comes from your belly.
Yeah, I ask this a lot in workshops too: “What is the minimum amount of information that the audience needs?”
You can do a scene where they don’t know who you are and don’t know where you are, and somehow it still works. When I was young I would watch this happen and I would watch a scene where so many of those things hadn’t been done and it was clearly successful and wonderful. So the question I ask myself a lot is: What’s required, and what’s not? I believe in this stripped down idea. Especially fun to work on with really experienced improvisers, where you have all of this, let’s see what the minimum amount is.
In the last 5 years, when I came back to improv, I ended up asking a lot of questions about mystery. Mystery is clearly okay as a storytelling device, but how much mystery is useful in improv, and how much mystery actually makes the scene a little more fulfilling? So those have been areas of exploration for me. And sometimes you go to far and no-one knows what the fuck is going on. *laughs* You’re floating in oblivion.
But it’s interesting to experiment in that direction and realise how little you actually need. Which is self-empowering, you on stage is the thing that’s interesting. Which of these are the essentials, and which of these are extra noise that you don’t need?
I think that’s something I had to get past, the idea of needing to provide information as the basis of improv. Trying to be funny or interesting are things you don’t need to do, because everyone is already genuinely interested in you by virtue of you being another human being.
Yeah, and if you get on stage with all the ideas in your head of what you are going to do, you actually become a little bit invisible. Whereas if you get on stage self-possessed, people will watch you for way longer than you believe. It takes a long time to train yourself to understand how people will just watch. It’s like an investment in a sort of self-confidence.
I believe that, as performers, and especially comedic ones, our job is to get up on stage and mirror the audiences experiences back to them. Probably in a weird or skewed or abstract or absurdist way, but still they see themselves on stage and if you muddy it with too much information they don’t see you any more. And you are them, if that isn’t too weird and abstract and idea.
I see it the same, I think. We are built kind of similarly, and we want to see other and understand ourselves and have that connection.
Yeah, for example Kayla and I perform in Catch 23 pretty regularly and a lot of times we’ll be, if not the only females on stage, the only all female group. I noticed when our show is judged by the audience the higher votes are higher pitched because it’s women. It’s not about gender politics, but it is about them seeing themselves reflected in one way or another.
I taught workshops for women. At first I thought, “This is silly: it’s the same for everybody.” and then I realised that of course it’s not. And one of the biggest things I had to say was: “OK, you might have a frustration that you’re in a company where you are the only woman and you keep being asked to play mothers and girlfriends, but what’s frustrating you is not that you are being asked to play those things, it’s that you are not being allowed to play them in the way that you know them to be. If you’re playing a wife who is just a stereotype that’s not fulfilling, but you know what it is to be in that situation, so … do it. Do it in all its complexity.”
That’s been my world of interest. Do these interpersonal dynamics you know inside and out, but do them fully.
I say this and also I did a show last week where I played a shoe-horn! It’s not like I only believe in this, but I felt like somehow it was never fully addressed that you should be the things that you know as well.
What is a memorable moment in improv for you?
I know the best improv thing I’ve done ever. Probably the very best thing I will ever do and it was very hard to realise that in the moment, so I truly felt it.
My old partner Graham Wagner and I, we were called Iron Cobra, we did a series of shows, I don’t really know how to categorise what we were doing.
We did this scene where the audience was endowed to be one character, the two of us were in the scene and the entire audience was another character in the scene, anybody in the audience could speak and we accepted it as this person. We named the character as Franklin. Graham and Franklin were interviewing me for the job, and it went well and some-one in the audience, Franklin, says:: “You have the job.”
“When do I start?” I said.
Franklin says “Now,”
So I left the stage, done I got the job. So Graham was on stage with Franklin having this conversation, and then someone in the audience says “I’d better get back to work.”
And Graham says “OK I guess I’ll go,” so Graham leaves.
I have to give big props to our technical improviser, who is my favourite technical improviser Mark Andrada, cos he kept the lights up. So Graham and I are now both back stage looking at each other, and Franklin is still going. The entire audience who have paid us to see a show is a character, doing a monologue together, Franklin talking to himself in his office.
Graham and I are facing each other behind the curtains being like “This is it, this is the best thing we can ever imagine happening. The audience has dismissed us from our show and is playing on its own without us, this is the most exciting and terrifying and amazing thing that has happened to us and probably will happen to us in improv.”
It was the most beautiful thing I can ever imagine happening in an improv show, the most beautiful thing I have ever experienced as a performer.
Do you take your improv skills into real life?
I’ve been doing it so long it’s hard to know. Overall I actually separate it a lot from my personal life. That also relates to why I stopped doing clown, because performance world of clown and improv really should have less rules than normal life. I’ve been doing improv since I was so long I had to find more space between the philosophy of my performance and my life.
Of course, I’ve met a lot of people for whom improv changed a lot in their personal life, but for me improv was formative in my personal life, so I had to find that separation.
I was working with this clown teacher in Toronto, and she said this amazing thing “This work can be therapeutic, but it’s not therapy,” That is a very subtle distinction.
It’s possible you do an improv show where something comes out of it for you that is really important for your personal life, but that can’t be your main goal. I’m very upset by performers who are overly selfish about themselves and their experience over the experiences of the audience. For sure, I’ve been in front of audiences who are crazy and out of control and don’t deserve me paying attention to their needs, but that’s pretty rare.
All these contradictions in performance and comedy!
I think that is the responsibility of any role in life, there comes a point where you just have to drop your shit and then get on with the job, because everybody else has that too.
Well, one of the aphorisms of the clown training which was very important to me creatively was “In order to do this work you must look at yourself from all directions and then allow people to laugh and find it funny.”
So the therapeutic side is the exposure of yourself and realisation of yourself, but in the end it’s not about you, you have to open it up to be funny to the audience. You can’t do one or the other, you can’t just be funny and you can’t just self-realise, but its both. I will expose myself to allow the dialogue to open, but I am still the performer and I have a very important job here. For me personally I have a huge amount of respect for that job.
To me that’s a gigantic part of improv, the dialogue with the audience. What makes it work is the audience having the moment of discovery with you, completely a part of the process.
Everybody is capable of incredible comedy, and the people who aren’t considered to be capable of it don’t like the feeling of being funny. In this clown workshop in Toronto, every single student in the class had one moment of brilliance, and for some of them afterwards they hated it. To be good at comedy you have to be laughed at, and some people hate that feeling so much.
This is how I feel about comedy, everybody is actually capable, but some people don’t like that feeling. To me that’s very empowering.
That’s always why I believe in that separation between performance and personal life, because I do want to be the joke on stage because I get that role and like it, but that’s actually not how I want to live my life. I don’t wanna be a laughing stock in my personal life! *laughs*
Have I answered all your questions?
Yes and more! Thanks Becky – we look forward to seeing you in the UK.
She can be seen every Friday night with The Stepfathers, every Sunday night in UCB NY’s longest running show, ASSSSCAT 30000 and hosting her monthly talk show “Strangers Wanted”, during which she hauls audience members onto the stage to be her announcer, her guests and even her house band. Outside of UCB she can be seen on The Chris Gethard Show (www.thechrisgethardshow.com), in her web series “Shannon O’Neill is…” and on twitter @spotastic. Shannon is one of the international guests of the Slapdash Festival: performing, teaching and hanging out.
How did you get into improv?
In college I was a communications broadcasting major, so I was mainly into TV-type stuff. I was in an organisation called the National Broadcasting Society and we took a trip to Chicago for a conference. I knew Second City was there, and I was always a huge Saturday Night Live fan so I wanted to see where all the people on SNL had come from. I organised my own little side-trip to see Second City and I was blown away.
They did sketch but they had an improv set afterwards. That blew me away, seeing it live in person, and I decided I wanted to try it. So when I moved to New York in 2000 I took my first class at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre.
My first exposure as a kid was Whose Line is it Anyway? on TV. It must be very different to be introduced to improv live.
I hadn’t seen Whose Line…? until I was in college, it was interesting to me but when I saw improvisation live, it was like: “That’s insane!”
And how did that first class go?
It was awesome, I was hooked after the very first class. It just felt like it was tapping into a part of my brain I hadn’t tapped into before. It was like an awakening, this was something that was really fun and it felt like my brain could handle it. So I didn’t stop, actually kind of became addicted [laughs].
You’ve been doing improv constantly since then?
Since 2000 yeah, my first class at UCB theatre was June 2000, so it’s almost been thirteen years.
Has that been a journey of ups and downs in terms of learning and doing shows?
Oh yeah, always ups and downs. Still, if you do shows that don’t feel so good you try to take lessons from them and kind of realise where you were. Maybe I was not focussed enough or something like that.
At the beginning mainly ups because I was just constantly learning, and I knew I was in the stage of learning and trying things. So in classes when I messed things up I would be OK with it because I was trying things out all the time, learning new forms and whatnot. But once I got on a team at the UCB theatre, then it was more pressure. Which is great; I’ve worked hard and am now performing on stage there regularly, but a bad show is a little more down, because its not just a class show, it’s a “show” show.
Do you think it is important as a performer to strike that balance between honing your own voice and also thinking about the audience and giving them a certain level of show?
Yes, you want to be able to explore and try new things, and UCB is really good about that.
For example, now I’m at a place where I watch teams and help figure out who gets placed. So I’m on the other side, and we are aware if a team is experimenting with stuff, we know they are doing that, so they’re given a little leeway to have some clunky shows whilst they are challenging themselves. So the theatre very much embraces that experimentation.
Sounds like you have found a spiritual home at UCB because of that?
Yeah. I found likeminded people. I get to see other people try out, not just improv, but written shows, sketch stuff. People are trying to find their voice, and UCB allows for that.
We have shows that sell out all the time. Our weekend shows pretty much all sell out, and those shows are the ones that subsidise the more experimental stuff where you might not get as big a crowd. That’s a really cool awesome thing about the theatre, because we are basically all supporting each other.
I do my Friday night and Sunday night shows, which sell out, and that’s awesome to have that really big crowd, which is going to allow somebody to come in and do a weirder show.
You really get to give back to the place you learned from.
What are the memorable shows you’ve seen along the way?
The ones that hit are the ones where you see something new that you’ve never seen someone do before.
My very first improv show of course, I had never seen it live before.
One of the first Harolds I saw at the UCB theatre: I remember being blown away by it, just seeing how these characters were coming back and these connections being made at the end.
Then as you see a lot of improv, they are all still really good but the inspiring ones space themselves out.
There was a Harold team called Neutrino that I saw. They were playing football, and watching them throw a football that wasn’t there: that blew my mind!
The first show I saw where the performers were really interacting with the audience, and I think most of the UCB 4 were in it: Amy [Poehler], Matt Walsh, Matt Besser and Ian Roberts, Adam McKay and Ali Farahnakian. It was just this amazing interactive show, they were being funny and yelling at the audience, not going over the limit, but being very hilarious.
I thought, “Oh wow, you can interact with the audience and they will enjoy it!” That really blew my mind. I really like to do that, not necessarily in improv, but in my non-improv work I like audience interaction.
Most recently the first musical improv show I saw, Baby Wants Candy, based in Chicago.
Improvised Shakespeare, when I saw them, in fact every time I see them! They are mind-blowing. Seeing something I know I would never be capable of is awesome. That’s a whole other level, the Improvised Shakespeare. Always see stuff that’s beyond your reach. Improvised Shakespeare is way above me, but there’s something in-between that I can keep striving for.
I really think it’s important to try new stuff, challenge yourself. In any art form, go do something you would not normally do.
What do you do outside of improv that feeds back into your art?
A good thing for me is that I’m married, and my husband is not a performer. So I have somebody who has a normal life. I have that great connection with someone who is not in the comedy world.
I like to read. I’m trying to read all the Pulitzer Prize winning novels, because it’s almost a guarantee of all the books being good but also a wide variety of books that win.
I’m into animal rescue because I’m an animal lover, that’s something I read about. That’s a sad thing I read a lot about, like puppy mills [laughs].
Most of my friends are from the theatre, but I also love basketball so I joined a league in the city. I got put on a team of complete strangers, and that’s been great, because I’m having non-comedy conversations. Although one of the girls is a comedy nerd I have slowly found out! [laughs]
I like real crime documentaries: those are fucked up and dark. My brain does like to read about dark terrible things. I did a one-person show a few years ago, called Prison Freaks: four real fucked up dark super insane characters, almost like monsters.
One was a cyclops, one was covered in eyeballs, all freak experiments. They all had dark terrible pasts, but I made them in a way that the audience still enjoyed watching them and could laugh at their good qualities, hard as that was.
There is an indie movie theatre near my apartment that has a lot of good stuff I see. Pretty normal stuff I guess.
Apart from the puppy mills and dark crime.
Yeah, yeah [laughs]!
I think a lot of that stuff is the normal way of charging yourself up for life, never mind art.
Yes, also I really try to follow that improv thing of just say yes to things.
Today I don’t have to go into the city, but if somebody called up with a cool thing to go try that I normally never do I try to say yes to it.
That’s something from improv you decided to take into the rest of life?
Definitely. In improv by just saying yes to stuff, you can find and discover really neat scenes. At the end you try to describe the scene and it sounds so insane but it made sense because you got there in a deserved way. You were just saying yes to the fun ideas on the way.
That really is how life works in the long run!
Yeah! Even this trip to London, obviously it’s an easy yes to say, but I’ve never been to London before. So I’ll be saying yes to lots of stuff when I’m there, stuff I’ve never done before!
What are the other things you use from improv in day to day life?
It’s always helpful with conversations. You really do learn to be a better listener in conversations. Not always, I still sometimes zone out!
I think it allows me not to get as frustrated with stuff. So, for example, if you order food in a diner and it comes and it’s wrong, some people blow up at that stuff, but there are no mistakes in improv so I try and let that be true in life.
In improv we always say “remember, don’t invent”. You can always use stuff from your life. So with family stuff I might listen to an opposing point of view more than I would before. Instead of just saying I disagree with you, now I say “Tell me more”, not in an aggressive way, just to hear more about what they’re saying. Just to observe their behaviour. I can let them know I don’t agree with their point of view but I will still listen to what they have to say. But then I might also edit that conversation and call “Scene!” [laughs]
That is a great like skill I had not considered, being able to eject from conversations with editing.
Yeah: “We have reached the peak of this conversation, time to go!” [laughs]
So on that note of ending a conversation, what are your final thoughts about coming over to the UK?
I’m really excited about coming over. Our student body at UCB is getting more and more diverse. I’ve had quite a few British students, even just visiting for short amounts of time or move here to study, and some of the lingo is different. I’m excited to see what I’m going to say which will be misinterpreted, and be exposed to British slang.
I’m excited about the ensemble stuff that Alan [Starzinski] and I are going to do. That’s always the fun part of festivals, getting to play with people you’ve never played with before and might not play with again. It’s great, it’s exciting.
Also the teaching, to come over and share what I know with groups and students.
We are always happy to get experienced teachers come over! Thanks Shannon, and we look forward to seeing you in the UK.
We are lucky enough to have various international improvisers coming over for the Slapdash Festival, and excitingly we have had the opportunity to interview some of the performers before they reach our sunny (not guaranteed) shores. Feast your eyes on the thoughts of Kaitlin Thompson who will be coming over from Philadelphia with Safe Weird.
Philadelphia improviser and sketch comedian Kaitlin Thompson began performing in 2008. Kaitlin writes and performs sketch comedy with regularly with ManiPedi. They were nominated for the 2012 and 2013 WitOut Award for Best Sketch Group in Philadelphia. The group was featured in the Ladies are Funny Festival 2012 in Austin, TX, as well as the 2012 Boston Comedy Arts Festival, where they were named one of the top festival picks by Dig Boston. Kaitlin currently improvises with independent teams Kait & Andrew and Safe Weird, and she wouldn’t change that for the world. Kaitlin has performed in the 14th Del Close Marathon as part of the late-night show Improv at Bernie’s.
How did you get into improv?
I never did any school plays or any kind of acting or comedy until taking an improv class at Bucks County Community College, but I was always interested in comedy. So many of my favorite comedians had done improv. I loved to watch the outtakes from TV shows and movies, seeing incredibly funny actors just making each other laugh, professionals breaking and cracking-up. Comedy seemed so fun to do, but I was too afraid to try acting or standup. I took the improv class because I wanted to desperately, but at the time I made the excuse that I took the class to keep being a full-time student so I could stay on my parents’ health insurance plan. That way, if I was abysmally unfunny I could brush it off as nothing but a 3-credit class with no homework.
What keeps you improvising?
It’s as fun as it looked. I’m also chasing that dragon of the first time I got a really big laugh in improv class.
What’s so great about improv?
That relief and pride you feel when your teammate walks out with an idea that’s ten times better than whatever stupid thing you had a mind to do when you first walked out to do a scene.
Also, you don’t have to worry about making and carrying around props.
What is a memorable improv show that you have seen or been in?
I saw Bassprov at the Chicago Improv Festival in 2012. It was my first time in Chicago, so I was already excited, but I was a total improv pleb. I had no idea what Bassprov was before I saw them. Their set was hysterically funny with this calm execution, it was great.
What is your ideal venue for a show?
A smallish black box theatre that is easy to pack with people. And it’s BYOB so no one is angry from waiting in the beer line for forty-five minutes.
How would you describe improv to a new audience member?
First, I would try not to let myself get too excited. I don’t want anyone to be underwhelmed.
I describe the bare-bones mechanics of improv to my friends who have never seen it: team gets a suggestion, they make up scenes. I try to emphasize that the performers could be on and have a great show or they might have some slow points or scenes that don’t end up going anywhere. I tell friends to drink enough so that they’re laughing generously but not so much that they’re talking during show.
How has improv changed your ‘real life’?
I’ve made a bunch of friends. It gave me more excuses to travel. I don’t agonize as much over little embarrassing things I might do throughout the day.
What is your impression of the UK, in general?
Friends who have been there say it’s beautiful and that I’m going to have a great time. I like beer, so I expect they’re right.
Anything else you would like to say?
I would just like to caution those who might meet me: in the same way that you should not judge all improv on one bad show, please don’t judge the United States on the embarrassing things I will do or say while visiting your wonderful country.
Catch Safe Weird on Thursday 13th of June at the Nursery Theatre, as part of the Slapdash Festival.
Stay tuned to our blog (you can’t untune from our blog) for more interviews, including the rest of Safe Weird, members of the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre and other improvisers who are coming into the UK from outside the UK. Prepare yourself.
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?
Tell me about Coalition.
Coalition is taking up most of my time at the moment. I’m co-writer and director which is not without its risks. I have suspicion about auteurs, in terms of creativity. The example I often give is The Singing Detective, written by Dennis Potter. It might be the most amazing narrative serial that has ever been done for British television. Dennis Potter was at the peak of his powers as a writer, but he was paired with a director whom he initially did not get on with at all. They had huge fights, as a result of which he rewrote the scripts, improving it dramatically. You can see his notes on the original ending and it would have been ghastly – a complete anti-climax. He was forced into making these changes by this spiky relationship with his director, and the result is a masterpiece.
But despite the plaudits he received, Potter refused to work with him ever again, and the next thing he did was Blackeyes, which he both wrote and directed himself. It included a lot of the stuff he’d thrown out of The Singing Detective, and it was dreadful. So being an auteur brings a huge danger of losing objectivity, which I’m skirting on! I’ve got my co-writer, who’s been to a lot of the rehearsals, to keep me in check, and at least I haven’t yet gone ‘Full Branagh’ – writing, directing and acting in the same production.
How long has the process taken?
We had a reading of the draft back in October 2011, then another at the beginning of 2012. It went to Edinburgh in August 2012. Because it’s about how the coalition might end, by the middle of next year it will be a period piece. In the meantime we’ll be working on next year’s Edinburgh play. We’re already talking about a trilogy.
How did improv influence the writing process?
The best thing it taught me was not to be precious. Plays are not structured as tightly as screenplays – not the plays I want to write anyway. One of the things that you can do in a play, which is hard to do in other mediums, is to have two characters just stand there and articulate opposing points of view for seven or eight minutes. And it’s interesting, because of who they are and what they have to say. You can’t do that in a book, and you can’t really do that in TV and movies. You can’t even really do it in impro, although some people try. But you can do it in a play.
So our outline before we start writing is quite skimpy. If you’re writing a screenplay, I recommend having a very detailed outline before you begin, because a full-length screenplay has so much more structure than a two-act play. Of course, the drawback of having a skimpy outline is that it’s wasteful. We have to find out who the characters are by writing dialogue for them. You’ll get it wrong, so pages and pages and pages get thrown away. But if you’re used to improvising, if you’re used to everything you create being shown to one audience and then being thrown away, so it’s much easier to think: ‘Well I did spend four hours writing last night, and now I see it doesn’t fit, so out it goes.’
That’s also easier with a co-writer, because I can hand something over which I know I’ve dashed off, knowing that Robert [Khan] is going to improve it, or cut it. That’s very liberating. We don’t actually walk around improvising the characters, but I do essentially improvise at the keyboard. I know where I’ve got to get to at the end of this scene, but I don’t yet know how the characters are going to express those ideas.
Why do you say you can’t improvise two characters articulating opposite opinions?
Well, you can, obviously, but it’s a risky enterprise. There are two scenes like that in Coalition. Almost all of Scene 3 is this debate between two people, and that’s what drives the plot of the rest of the play. That was one of the hardest scenes to write. While some scenes are basically Tom scenes or Robert scenes, with that one we’re both in every line, because to sustain that, the scene has to be very carefully structured. The danger of improvising it is that there may be brilliant moments, but it’s bound to be flabby from time to time, because it’s a first draft. Everything in impro is a first draft. That’s what’s so exciting for an audience. It’s thrilling for them because they get to see your moment of inspiration actually happening in front of them. That’s what they can’t get enough of. But they also need variety. If you were to try to improvise that scene, you’d only hit pay dirt one time in ten. There’d be five or six that were all right, but two or three that were just boring because they never really went anywhere, or they didn’t move from beat-to-beat fast enough – or even that they skipped from idea to idea too quickly.
Is there a danger that impro scenes can become about ideas rather than about relationships?
Well, yes, but anything for variety. If you’ve just had a scene which was ferociously plot-driven, with huge life-changing events happening every minute, then following that with a scene in which two people just discuss ideas for a couple of minutes might be fine. I certainly think that an audience has more appetite for emotional change than they do discussions of abstract ideas. But if the improvisers are inspired, and the abstract ideas they are playing with are delightful, and their imaginations are on fire, of course we can watch that, maybe for several minutes.
Do you know the Unapplicable Law of Improvisation? I’m absolutely convinced this is true, but it’s completely impossible to apply, and therefore entirely useless. The ideal time to break a routine is just before the audience gets bored. That’s the moment you want to be finding. I’ve seen young improvisers flit from idea to idea because they fear what they have is not good enough. They’re squandering what could be fantastic ideas if they just stopped and developed them. Likewise, I’ve seen improvisers who will never move the plot forward, and never go to the next beat. They stay where they are because it feels safe. It’s always possible to miss the target in either direction. It’s completely contingent on what’s happened so far, on the mood of the audience, on the show to date, and so on.
Is there any truth in the assertion that the audience are always one step ahead of the improvisers?
Keith [Johnstone] talks about how the audience constructs a ‘shadow story’. You do it when you’re reading a book or watching a movie or an impro scene. You always have a sense of what’s going to come next. It is helpful to bear that in mind, to remind yourself that the solution is not to try to constantly surprise the audience. It’s trivial to surprise an audience, if that’s the only thing you want to do. The cost is that the content will be utterly bewildering. Eventually that in turn becomes boring because it doesn’t make any sense. A lot of the time, if you give the audience what they want, they’ll be pleased.
In Coalition, there’s a repeated trope in which Tory Minister-without-Portfolio heralds his arrival by a BlackBerry pinging. The ping sounds, someone looks at their phone and then the door will open. It’s a running joke. For his final appearance, Phill Jupitus, who plays this part, has taken to turning the handle of the door incredibly slowly. His entrance takes about a minute now. The audience knows what’s coming, because it’s been set up, and that’s what’s so delightful. We’re playing with the audience’s expectations and delivering on them.
If you get into the mindset of ‘The audience knows what’s coming; I’d better give them something else.’ then you’re going to tie yourself in knots. If you think the audience knows what’s coming, the best advice I can give you is to give it to them straight away. Then you’ll catch up with them. Then what’s on the other side might be something they couldn’t anticipate. Something fresher.
How long has the Spontaneity Shop been going?
What proportion of your time do you devote to that these days?
The Spontaneity Shop has taken various forms. Initially, it was just a small group of like-minded people who wanted to put on shows. Then we started doing workshops. The shows started to get better. We started to get invited to do festivals. We were invited to teach at RADA and that gave us access to some really good actors who we could train to improvise.
We got some TV interest in one of our formats, and it looked for a while as if we were going to get to do it on ITV, but it wasn’t to be – although to this day, I don’t think that pilot has ever been officially passed on! What happened instead is that we had people asking us to run sessions in their workplace and the corporate training side started to grow and grow. So a lot of my time is spent running that as a small business, and going out to lawyers and bankers and advertising agencies and charities and getting them to play ‘Yes And’ or working with them on presentations.
Do you enjoy that?
Yes I do. I’ve always enjoyed teaching. We still have a workshop programme running. Some people are very keen to improve. Some are passionate about the craft and some come just to play. I’ll take either. Both are good. But what’s so rewarding about working on, say, presentations, is that you start with someone who is very anxious about public speaking, but they know it’s important to crack it, so they’ll try the things I’m suggesting and I get to see them really grow and change over the course of a few hours. The corporate work frees me up to take some money and try not to lose it in Edinburgh on a play that I’ve written. The Spontaneity Shop is also one of the producers of the play. But all that doesn’t leave a lot of time for doing impro shows any more.
Do you regret that?
That depends what mood I’m in. If I’ve just done a really good show, I think ‘Why don’t I do this all the time?’ but the beauty and the curse of improvisation is that not all the shows are stellar. There are things you can do to mitigate against that, but if you work too hard to make sure that none of the shows is poor, then you usually create a long run of shows that are all right and none that are absolutely amazing. Having improvised for so long, I’ve belatedly discovered that there’s something a lot more rewarding about writing, because you can get it right! There was one scene in Edinburgh that never worked, and it took us long time to figure out why not. For the London run we did a rewrite, and now it works every time. That’s a pleasure which you can’t get from improvisation.
But I do have days when I miss it. Recently we had Rama Nicholas bring her new format over from Melbourne and we spent the day workshopping it and did a show in the evening. It was called ‘Close to You’ and I really enjoyed doing it.
How did you start out in improv?
I was at university writing sketches for Week Ending and taking very bad sketch shows to Edinburgh. That was about the same time that Whose Line…? came on the TV. So I was looking for something else to do to satisfy this need to make people laugh. I was trying stand-up, but I wasn’t ever comfortable doing it. I saw an advert in the paper for an impro weekend. I just loved it because it brought together everything I was interested in: collaboration, storytelling and comedy. The idea that there was a technique for all this was really interesting. It was at Jackson’s Lane and it was run by Phil Whelans. I still remind him whenever I see him that he was the first, that he’s to blame.
Then I started going to workshops with what was then called London Theatresports. Then we had Patti Stiles come through from Canada and that was the real turning point. I’d enjoyed the classes I’d been having but when Patti came along it was as if a magical box of secrets had suddenly been opened and it was all in there.
What was in there?
What I’d seen in a lot of impro show up till then was people, very entertainingly and skilfully, messing about with their mates. It’s a perfectly fine thing to do. If the improvisers are relaxed enough in each others’ company, that can be delightful if the show is reasonably short. It’s also a pretty good description of the Horse Aquarium shows I was doing until recently with Paul Foxcroft and Briony Redman.
There’s a danger in having inexperienced improvisers, who are still dealing with anxiety, watching people who are very relaxed and comfortable messing about with their mates, and then quite naturally trying to emulate that. The results are generally not very good. I was starting to feeling stuck, but Patti came along with these very simple philosophies: make your partner look good, say ‘Yes and…’, push the narrative forward – and it all started to make a lot more sense.
Then I did one of Keith Johnstone’s summer schools, and it was around that time that I started to feel that I owned it, that it was mine. That’s when I started teaching, and when the shows got much better. We started doing Gorilla Theatre, which is a great format, and had more fun on stage without trying to emulate the performances we’d seen other people giving.
Was there a connection between starting to teach and the shows getting better?
I think it’s useful to teach. You know that you’ve understood something when you can articulate it to someone who hasn’t. And if you can spot bad habits in other people, then you can use those strategies on yourself. Patti used to say: ‘If, when you’re on stage, you can hear my voice in the back of your mind pushing you to the next thing, that will be very helpful. But over time, that needs to become your voice.’ If you get into the habit of watching two other people improvise something, and you have the instinct to shout out a piece of advice that will push them in the right direction, you can sometimes do that to yourself.
You can get a snapshot of where the whole scene is, and realise why, right now, it doesn’t feel like it’s working, and see the thing that needs to happen. That usually happens if the scene isn’t working. In an ideal situation, you’re just reacting. It’s happening. It’s inspired. But you often can’t sustain that state for two hours, so it’s good to have other techniques to fall back on for when that state doesn’t visit itself upon you. You can’t make it happen. You can’t decide you’re going to be in that state.
Who else has inspired you?
My partnership with Deborah [Frances-White] is also hugely important, though she’s scaled back her improvisation performing and switched to stand-up and writing. She came out of retirement to do that show with Rama Nicholas – and she’s been running a new impro show called Voices in your Head which is doing very well. But I’ve also been very curious to see how other teachers approach things. I had a very interesting time in Chicago about six years ago, but I didn’t see a lot of work that I really appreciated. It’s a shame that the town that is the home of impro has become so fixated on one way of presenting it. The Harold is not the be-all-and-end-all. It has a lot of virtues, but it can train improvisers in terribly bad habits.
Is studying a range of methods intrinsically a good idea, or do you find some approaches are simply better than others?
Of course, there’s a big audience for those Harold shows. That’s fine, but I’ll do the thing that pleases me. The only thing that really frustrates me is bad photocopying. I don’t mind people doing things that aren’t to my taste, but don’t copy something you thought was good and get it wrong! What’s the point of that? Either do a really faithful copy – take something like Theatresports or Gorilla Theatre that really works, and use all the things that work – or make up your own thing.
Whatever art form you’re working in, it’s fine to have a ‘thing’. We’re writing plays in a very specific style. They’re comedy plays, hopefully with a strong story. It’s a heightened world, and that’s a very deliberate choice. For me, that combines a lot of the things a good night out should include. We have the freedom to do pure jokes, to create bigger, richer characters, and deliver a good strong plot as well. That hopefully means there’s a lot of variety in two hours, so you don’t get bored.
I would find writing a straight drama very difficult, because you lack that feedback from the audience. An attentive audience sounds a lot like a bored audience, and it’s difficult to tell the difference. But with comedy, you’ve got very good feedback, so you should if you’re on the right track or not. Again, that’s why iteration is so important. Write it, put it in front of an audience, get some feedback, rewrite it. Keep doing that. That doesn’t mean we’re not influenced by straight drama, sitcom, sketch. These all have things to teach us. The basic model for Coalition is Macbeth, except it’s not in iambic pentameter and there are no ghosts.
The last show I did regularly – Horse Aquarium with me, Paul Foxcroft and Briony Redman – was my answer to the Harold, with all the things I didn’t like taken out. It had all the structural virtues of a Harold-like long-form, but with the heart and soul of a short-form show. We removed the thing that a lot of Harold players hate about short-form: there’s no stopping and starting and going to the audience every five minutes, and certainly no judges and no points. Our aim was to start a scene, create something, resolve that, and then blackout, and on to the next one. Rather than doing a stub and then trusting that over an hour or more all these fragments are going to interlock in some way, we try to make each piece satisfying in its own right.
We’ve had shows that were an hour of sketches, but we’ve also had shows in which there was lots of structure, with ideas bouncing around and stories threading through four or five scenes over the course of the night. The point of that show was to find two other improvisers I wanted to spend an hour on stage with, and try to have as little format as possible to get in our way. Over time, the style became much more playful. It became much less about narrative, which was unusual for me. It became almost anti-narrative, the game being that I would start a narrative, and Paul Foxcroft would try to stop me. Then it would become a tug of love over Briony. ‘Come and join the narrative!’ ‘Oh, but Paul looks like he’s having so much fun!’ ‘Yes, but this is important!’ That’s the meta-story.
Who wins that battle?
Paul, usually. That’s how the Comedy Store Players work. Neil Mullarkey says it’s not an improvisation show, it’s a workplace sitcom, where the characters’ job is playing theatre games. You’re not really there to watch them play theatre games. You’re there to watch these personalities interact while being put under the pressure of having to perform this task. It’s not very different than if they were working in an advertising agency, but not everybody gets that. They think that if they play the same games and pimp each other the same way, they’ll get the same result. They won’t, because they don’t have the same level of comfort and familiarity with the other people. As I said before: when inexperienced improvisers try to copy mature improvisers, they copy the wrong thing.
What’s in the future for Horse Aquarium?
Horse Aquarium started when we’d come to the end of a run of shows, and we again had overtures made to us from television, and we were trying to put on a show that fit certain criteria we’d been given. I remember standing at the back of the theatre, watching the audience come in, waiting to go on, and thinking ‘I’d rather be somewhere else.’ The show was fine, it was all right. There were very good people on stage, which of course is three quarters of the battle won, but I didn’t have anything invested in the show. When inevitably the TV show didn’t come off – as it was always destined not to, being a compromise – and with Deborah shifting her focus to stand-up, I thought ‘I’ll just not put any shows on, and see what happens.’
I ended up doing a regular impro workshop as part of an actors’ showcase, and they asked me to MC so I got to be on stage twice a month. I spent a lot of time doing Spontaneity Shop workshops and corporate training and, almost without realising it, I didn’t improvise for a year.
‘That’s unusual,’ I thought, ‘but if I were to design an impro show for myself, from scratch, what would it look like?’ That’s where Horse Aquarium came from. The cast was to be very small. It would be people whom I really trusted being on stage with, and it would be people I hadn’t taught from scratch so I’m not getting my own stuff fed back at me: people who can genuinely surprise me and keep me on my toes. That’s how I ended up with Paul and Briony. But we’ve all been too busy with other projects recently, so I’m sort of back where I was before. I’m still in touch with everyone, and we had this show recently with Rama, but at the moment I’m finding play-writing and directing more rewarding, albeit expensive. There’s wild talk of doing a radio version of Coalition, and there’s another play that we’re working on for Edinburgh 2013. For the moment, I’m happy to see where that takes me.
Coalition is on at The Pleasance Islington until 10 March. Buy tickets here.
Tom and Deborah’s terrific book The Improv Handbook: The Ultimate Guide to Improvising in Theatre, Comedy, and Beyond can be bought here.
Learn about the Spontaneity Shop’s courses in improvisation and communications training here.
Steve Roe runs Hoopla, which hosts shows every Tuesday and Wednesday at The Miller, with at least two different improv groups performing each night. He also teaches Hoopla classes and courses in London and around the UK and also performs in Music Box and other shows. Michael sat down with him at The Miller for a cosy chat.
What percentages of your time do you spend teaching and performing?
Probably about 90 per cent of the time teaching and the rest performing. But if there were another percentage, I’d say I spend about 90 per cent of the time doing admin, 9 per cent teaching and 1 per cent performing. That’s a complete exaggeration. Don’t quote me on that. I haven’t measured it as a percentage, but I probably should do, as some kind of time management exercise. I tried performing every single day in Edinburgh and it just sent me mad three summers in a row, so performing once a week is enough for me.
Is it right for you to be doing 90 per cent admin?
Yes. I’m all for improv admin. It’s one of the chants from Crash Pad. I don’t think you can avoid it. Any successful performer has to do some admin. There’s got to be some work! But I quite like work, so I’m not going to play the improv martyr. Sometimes I’m guilty of portraying that image, but when it comes down to it, I love admin, doing websites and spreadsheets and html and stuff. I used to treat it as a necessary evil, but now I like it just as much as the improv.
Why is that side of things so important to you?
I like seeing things happen and making things happen that wouldn’t happen otherwise. I like having ideas and then doing them, and being there when they happen. That’s a good feeling. It doesn’t matter whether it’s performing, or teaching, a new show or an existing show, or hosting someone else’s show: I feel like Hannibal in The A-Team. I love it when a plan comes together. It’s also fun when it doesn’t quite come together! A hideous fuck-up can be amusing as well.
Name a notable fuck-up.
Oh, there’s been loads of fuck-ups. I bury them a bit and pretend they didn’t happen. People on Facebook and Twitter always look mind-numbingly successful because that’s all they post about. But behind all those people, there’s loads of fuck-ups. One I learned a lot from, which I loved, was when Music Box had a show in Brighton. We were probably a bit too optimistic about how many people were going to come and watch. So we turned up – a cast of six, plus a musician – and there was an audience of about three people. Previously, I would have been upset about that, but I’d realised that, to those three people, the show looks the same. Whether you’re in a crowd of sixty or a crowd of three, it’s the same show on the stage. They don’t care that there’s not many people. Actually, you can give them a much better show, an intimate show. So rather than not perform, we decided to do it, and make it awesome, as if it was a big show – not as in shouting in their faces, but in treating it, and them, with respect.
But somehow the marketing plan was that I had to get as drunk as possible with the audience afterwards. So I stayed until the very last train home, but made it my mission to get drunk with the audience, and did a mini pub crawl. I’d like to say that in the long term that was an effective marketing strategy, but it wasn’t. Music Box don’t do shows in Brighton any more, but it was fun on the way out.
Is having respect for the audience crucial?
Yes, that’s a big part of me, I hope. It’s something I want to encourage. I’ve learned shitloads from running a venue, not just performing in one group. It’s quite hard work getting an audience along every single week. You do learn a lot quite rapidly just by watching what goes well with an audience and what doesn’t. It’s been beneficial – and painful as well – to learn that I have a much louder audience voice in my head than a lot of improvisers do. For instance, when you’re first learning improv, you sometimes get taught not to think or worry about the audience, and to put all your attention on the other person. I’ve found from running a venue that I don’t have that any more. My attention is with the other person, but also with the audience. I used to think ‘Oh shit, has that fucked up my improv?’ but then I did loads of clown courses with Mick Barnfather, and I found that that’s a clown skill – being directed by the scene and by partner but also allowing yourself to be changed by the audience.
Are the audience an important part of improv?
There’s quite a lot of different opinions about that in improv. Keith Johnstone contradicts himself a few times, even within his book. He says, for instance: ‘Don’t be led astray by the audience’ and he talks about Michael Jackson being negatively taught by the audience to grab his crotch. But in the next chapter he describes dolphin training games, and when you go to his workshop he does dolphin training, which is a clown exercise in being led by the audience. I think the answer – as with most things – is to have a balance. So yes, the audience are important, because otherwise we’re just doing workshops and without them it’s not actually a show.
If improv wants to get bigger and better – whatever that is – and wants to be a genuine alternative to stand-up and other theatre, then knowing who the audience are and what they want to see and what puts them off is important. And usually the answers to those questions are really valuable to improvisers. At the end of the day, you’re creating something for the audience. People do find it personally important to improvise – and it’s a pleasant experience in itself – but if you’re putting on a show, that’s for the audience.
There are certain games that you learn that are exhilarating for the improvisers. If you play ‘Yes, Let’s’, which I was teaching last night, that can be really fun for the audience and the improvisers go ‘Fuck yeah. This is an awesome feeling. Literally life-changing. I can’t believe how much fun I’m having.’ That’s great, but if you teach ‘Who? What? Where?’ a lot of improvisers don’t like drilling it, because it initially sends them into their heads (until they’ve learnt to do it well through listening instead of thinking). It may not be such a pleasant experience for the improviser at first, but for the audience it makes a massive difference. Viewing a show from the audience’s point of view is important. There’s always big, obvious things that make a massive difference. Most improvisers are aware of them, but you can always be more aware. I wish I practised what I preach, but I don’t! I do try to think ‘What do they want to see?’ and ‘What’s helping them understand this?’
Did you watch lots of shows yourself before you decided you wanted to perform yourself?
Not many. When I started, I didn’t know what improv was at all. I didn’t know what the word meant. I started off when I lived in Brighton about eight years ago. My girlfriend at the time booked us in to see a comedy show, but we didn’t know what it was. It was just a date. We went along to the Marlborough Theatre. I remember eating a pizza from the box outside the theatre like a pig, because we were in a rush. I thought ‘God, this looks awful.’ And there was a bloke who opened the second-floor window and looked out and saw me, and then closed it. I thought ‘Agh, that’s embarrassing. I hope I never see him again.’ It turned out that bloke was John Cremer and the group was The Maydays. I didn’t know anything about them at the time. It was an awesome experience. The room was packed. The Marlborough Theatre is lovely – a really good improv space. This was pre-smoking ban, so there was smoke in the air making it atmospheric. I’m probably going to romanticise this lots! There weren’t enough seats so me and my girlfriend had to sit separately, so I ended up on a stool by myself with a pint, which meant I was totally immersed in the show. I had no idea what to expect. John Cremer came out and had us shouting out our names and our favourite dinosaurs. I immediately liked the guy. He was a warm person. Even as an audience member, I felt very welcomed, very safe – as if I was about to see beautiful things that humans can with each other, rather than something ugly – and very unforced.
Was that different from what you were familiar with?
Yeah, I was going through a stage of life of thinking that all humans did to each other was beat each other up, and compete and undercut each other. Like a lot of people do, for different reasons, I thought ‘Is this it? This is rubbish!’ So it was nice to see people genuinely trying to make something beautiful together. That’s the overall impression I got. They did a whole bunch of games and were so funny. I was trying to write sketch comedy at the time. I’d spent hours on it, and within five minutes they’d made up more funny stuff than I’d done writing through the night for six months. I laughed my arse off. They had a really good, warm relationship with each other. At points it felt very intuitive, like they were reading each other’s minds.
Then John got up on stage and said ‘We also teach workshops.’
The second I heard about it I knew I wanted to do it, but it took me two months just to get the courage to even find out his number. I had to go to the pub to find his number; then it took me another two weeks to get the courage to phone him up. I remember I had to go for a walk along the beach with his number on my phone, thinking about calling it just to find out where these workshops were. I didn’t phone even when I got to the end of the beach. I ended up walking along Brighton Marina until I got to the last rock on Brighton Marina and had nowhere else to go, and I thought ‘Fuck, I’ve got to phone this person!’ experiencing real anxiety.
What was the anxiety?
I was a lot more anxious back then. I was going through a year of being socially anxious anyway, but this felt like a lot of pressure to be funny – obviously in the first workshop you learn to remove that pressure – but I had so much pressure to be funny. Even when I phoned him up I was trying to make jokes, as if it was going to be about stand-up. So I was all ‘Blah, blah, blah! Joke, joke, joke!’ and he just went quiet and said ‘Yeah, so it’s on Thursday at 7.30pm.’ and I said ‘Blah, blah! Joke, joke!’ and he said ‘Right, so Thursday at 7.30pm’.
So I went along on Thursday at 7.30pm, Garton House, and loved it. Sometimes I think the main reason I’m qualified to teach improv is the fact that I was so terrible at it to start with, I really had to learn from the ground up so whatever someone is going through in my classes now I’ve been there! Before the class, I was getting my girlfriend to give me characters beforehand, which I then practised. I was reading the paper so that I had pre-funny stuff to say. I was writing a lot at that time, so I tried to remember as many jokes I’d written as possible. Before I even went into the room, I locked myself in the bathroom – this was for the first two months! – and I’d look in the mirror and pull faces to make myself laugh so that I turned into a one-man army of funny shit ready to come out. Bit by bit by bit, week on week, John very patiently got rid of all that stuff, until eventually I could walk into the room and just be there, in the moment, and listen and have fun with people, there and then, about what was actually going on.
A lot of improvisers want to be funny, but have to overcome the hurdle of trying to be funny and just allow it. Did improv allow you to be funny?
Not exactly. The journey was that I really wanted to be funny at the start and then, through John saying that you don’t have to be funny, I moved from improv to acting. For quite a while, I wanted to be a serious actor instead. I got into it because it was all about the funny, and because I thought it was going to be help my writing, but I found out that that was just the tip of the iceberg of human nature. From the improv I got more interested in acting. That was the accidental thing. It was as though I was following a trail of Smarties. I thought ‘Fuck me, this is awesome! Maybe there’ll be a tub of chocolate at the end!’ But instead, when I got to the end, there was the tub of chocolate, yes, but then I looked up and there was a chocolate factory, and beyond that was a magical landscape of hills and mountains and valleys and beauty. And then you realize that you can actually shape that landscape yourself. It’s a bit eye-opening! I was closed off before, and very narrow-minded about what life and what the world could be. It’s interesting: you do it for one reason – you think you’re following Smarties – but by the end of the year, it was ‘This is amazing. I’ve just changed huge amounts of my behaviour, and also my general mood.’
From the improv classes, I thought ‘Maybe I want to get into acting acting. Maybe that’s my calling.’ So I did this thing called the Academy of Creative Training, a really cool two-week acting class. I’d done lots of acting at school, but I’d had a break and hadn’t done it for a while. So I went to that and was having epiphanies left, right and centre. I remember coming home truly happy for the first time in ages and feeling it was the right thing to be doing. At the end, they gave you advice about where you should go after the course. With some people it’d be ‘You should come with us and do our two-year, full-time thing’ or ‘You’re so good, you should get into LAMDA or RADA and go for that stuff’ or ‘You need to go to the RSC’. We had this one-on-one thing and I was wondering what they were going to say to me. And they said: ‘Ah, Steve Roe, come in. There’s this guy you really need to work with. I think he’ll be perfect for you.’ They wrote the name down and gave it to me, and I turned it over and it was John Cremer! I said ‘I’ve just been with this guy for six months!’ and they said ‘Yes, you’re a comedy person, aren’t you?’ I said ‘But I want to get into acting!’ and they said ‘Yeah, er… no. You don’t look quite right.’
Four years later, I was still into improv, but I wanted to go to drama school. I wanted to learn to act properly. I’ve always done lots of acting classes on the side of improv. I had my audition pieces ready and did an audition training course, and kept trying to do deep dark characters from Shakespeare, from Titus Andronicus, where people are getting murdered and raped, and the teacher said ‘It’s not really you. The way you look, and behave… have you ever thought of being in comedy?’ I said ‘I’ve been doing that for five years!’
So I actually became interested in improv as an acting thing, not necessarily having to be funny. In fact, when Hoopla first started, me and Edgar were very diligent about not using ‘comedy’ on the website. I do now, but for the first couple of years, the word wasn’t allowed on the website or flyers. We weren’t allowed to mention laughing, and when we first started our shows we were very much improv shows first, the idea being that improv could create anything. We were like that for quite a long time. We’re now improv comedy, and I don’t hide that, largely because we run an Improv Comedy Club and that’s what we’re most successful at teaching and doing
I still do acting classes on the side, but I’ve accepted my comedy bones. In my head, I have a very positive body-image compared with what I actually look like. I don’t like photos or videos of me because in my head I’m still a slim seventeen-year-old and I look like actors – you know how actors look? I actually think I look like Bradley Cooper, seriously. That’s what I feel I look like. But when I see photos and videos, I think ‘Agh! Dammit! My face just looks funny!’
But as you know, to play comedy, you have to play it straight. You and your character can be having a horrible time on stage and the audience will love it. You can go to really dark places. The sillier it gets and the straighter you play it, the funnier it gets. There can be a character who, as far as you’re concerned, has a serious life journey on stage. The audience will say ‘Ha! Comedy genius!’ You’ll be thinking ‘At no point was that funny for me whatsoever! I got fired by an evil corporation and lost my wife to a jellyfish. These things are upsetting.’
Do improvisers play these scenes differently from actors?
I regard improv as acting turned inside-out. Not all actors work this way – improv is being used a lot more in acting these days – but generally speaking you get given a script. Before you even start rehearsing you can start working out your scene objectives, your line objectives, your play objectives or your life objective. You can get an ear for what’s real for that character in that present moment, what their backstory is, what’s going on and what their relationships are. Even if you’re using improv, you can’t just bring nothing and start with the lines. You have a pre-conceived notion of who you are and how things affect you. You start with that stuff and build up to the status, the behaviour and the emotions so that the emotion has this whole narrative behind it. You put yourself in that place either by using your imagination, or by using your own emotions.
Improv ends up being the other way round, which I find fascinating. Before you go on stage, you don’t know who you are or where you are. You don’t know what your relationship is to the other person. You don’t know what your objective is for the scene, because you don’t know what the scene is. You don’t know what your play or life objective is. What you have to do is just bring in behaviour and emotion from the start. Just do something. As Mick Napier says: ‘Do something. Do anything.’ As the scene goes on, you build up those things from that point, and you find out what your objective is with that person, what your story is, who you are. You discover it as you go along. It’s interesting, because you’ll suddenly click and think ‘I don’t just know this about my character, I know everything about them.’ It can be odd when the other improvisers pick that up as well. They’ll say things that you’re only thinking, and that’s an awesome feeling. Sometimes you have to shift the character and relationship about a bit. You think such-and-such is true, but haven’t said it yet, and they say something else. So you say ‘OK, my friend, I’m going to shift into that.’
There seem to be clear parallels between initiating an improv scene and starting something like Hoopla. You go in with an attitude, but with no idea what it will become.
Right at the start I had no idea that I’d be trying to make a living from it. I’d done loads of improv in Brighton, then came back to London. There were other improv companies, like Sprout – and I did one of their awesome courses – and there was Spontaneity Shop. And there happened to be a break when Crunchy Frog wasn’t running, and the main intention was to keep the fire alive, to keep the passion going. Also, I grew up in London and had a lot of old GCSE Drama friends, including Edgar, and friends of friends, and I realised the only time we saw each other is when we were getting obliterated drunk. I was bored of that, and wondered if I could do something different from drinking until we fell unconscious. So at first it was a drama group. It was free for the first couple of years for friends and friends of friends to come along. We were doing that week on week, with me and Edgar taking turns to run it. I had no idea how to run a workshop and sometimes resented having to do it. I just wanted to have fun. Once I accepted that people actually wanted me to run it, I thought ‘Right, then I’ll have fun with that as well. As well as performing, I’ll have fun with teaching too.’ It was super-experimental. Not on purpose. It was experimental because we didn’t know what we were doing. We just had glimmers of stuff from other courses and from books, and we’d just try out things. That’s how I learned to teach.
Why didn’t you enjoy teaching at first?
It was an emotional hurdle for me. I loved improv performing (not performing to an audience – I wasn’t doing that back then) because I liked that feeling I don’t have any more, where the audience have disappeared and it’s just me and someone else. I found that magical, because before then I didn’t like being in front of an audience as myself. In improv, when I found I had character, and my attention on the other person, I felt the fourth wall go down, and it felt safe, like a relief, even though now, when I perform, I don’t get that any more. There’s definitely no fourth wall any more. Maybe there should be. When I was teaching, I found it very awkward, I was very low status, but people were really nice. They were just coming along for a laugh, which is great – probably the main reason you should – but afterwards they’d give me feedback on my teaching. When it went well, I knew it’d gone really well, and when it went badly, I knew it’d gone really badly. I didn’t realize at the time how much I was learning, but I was, because it was every week for about two years. By the end of it, I found there were people coming who were out of the bounds of friends of friends of friends, that it had spread. So we kept going.
Now, I love teaching. I don’t get nervous at all. I do sometimes get that feeling, about half an hour before, when I think: ‘Is this going to be the night when I can’t teach an improv workshop any more? Has it gone cold?’ But pretty much the second it starts, it’s awesome, right up until the end, when I collapse in a heap and eat some fried chicken somewhere to recover.
Is fried chicken an essential ingredient of improv?
I wouldn’t recommend the fried chicken diet. I’m trying to give it up. The trouble with improv is that you constantly find yourself in a room above a pub late at night. I’ve got no willpower when it comes to food. I constantly find myself hungry at 11pm, about to get the Northern line home, and there’s the glowing yellow light of a fried chicken establishment. They get me. I’m a sucker.
In Part One, Pippa talked about her background, how she found herself improvising, and about the relationship between impro and stand-up.
How else has impro affected your life?
I used to be quite bad at meeting people. I was stuck in my own thoughts of ‘Oh, they won’t like me! Blah blah blah!’ Improvisation is so much better when you’re interested in other people, the other performers on stage, rather than worrying about what you’re doing.
It’s great to meet someone new and genuinely want to know about them. When someone says ‘I’m an accountant’, I will genuinely have lots of questions about being an accountant. Twice I’ve had someone think I was patronising them because I was interested in their career. No, I would genuinely love to know what you do! I sit on my own in my house all day, writing, so I’d love to hear about offices and office politics. That’s one of my favourite things.
I like to get someone talking, not about ‘I write such-and-such…’ but about Clive, who sits at the table opposite and eats peanuts, and they smell, and the guy whose got the peanut allergy who has to move desks every time Clive eats peanuts.
A lot of people don’t enjoy what they do.
Perhaps it annoys people when they meet someone who says: ‘I had a dream to become an improviser and one day sing with Josie Lawrence. And that dream came true!’
You are doing what you wanted to do?
Yep. That ‘What happens next?’ thing is quite weird. ‘What should I do?’ I am pretty satisfied but then the old doubt creeps in. My brain switches from ‘Oh my god! Today I got to teach improvisation for three hours. Great! Fun! Watching people be brilliant! Tonight I will go and perform in a club, and that’s great! Tomorrow I have a Showstopper rehearsal.’ to ‘I have achieved nothing in my life and I want to throw myself in front of a bus’. It’s great fun being a performer!
It’s easy to put people in boxes: ‘Oh, you’re an accountant.’ ‘You’re a Victoria Wood.’ Improvisers don’t do that so much. They say: ‘Let’s find out who you are!’ Who are the people who have helped you find yourself?
Lloyd Stephens, I suppose. I don’t know what he does now. He was the one who said: ‘Come and do this. I think you should do this. I think you’re good at this.’ It’s so rare for anyone to say that. What a great offer! Gareth Kane took me on to the next level. Then it was Alan Marriott who did all those classes. He was so encouraging, so kind to me. He’d say ‘I think you’ve really got something. I think you should pursue this’. That’s the sign of a really good teacher: that they allow you to grow and be good. You can find teachers whose sole purpose is to say ‘That was very bad. You’re rubbish.’ Then I met Dylan. He used to help Alan. He was working with Ken, so he got me to audition for Adam at a Ken workshop for this new project that they were putting together, which was Showstopper. So the list would be: Lloyd Stephens, Gareth Kane, Alan Marriott, Dylan Emery, Adam Megiddo and Ken Campbell. Those would be my top six.
Ken was really fascinating. He was so amazing and interesting, but also such a goader. He would tell you ‘That’s fucking awful! It’s boring! I’m not interested! Do it again but better’ which goes against my general good teacher principles! But I guess if people keep going ‘You’re brilliant, you’re brilliant, you’re brilliant’ you can become lazy and think ‘Well, I know I can do a Polish voice if I get into trouble…’ It was wonderful to work with him.
I was so sad when he died as he’d just started doing little workshops with just me, Cariad and Dylan. We were learning to do all the Shakespeare stuff. I find the bardic stuff the hardest. As an improviser, there’s an eternal quest to know everything because you want to draw on everything.
Do you think Ken was interested more in people being interesting than in being brilliant?
He would shout at you. You were more scared of disappointing Ken than you were of doing the mental thing he’d asked you to do. I really pushed myself with him, because I didn’t want him to shout at me and I didn’t want to lose favour with him, because I loved doing all the shows with him.
There was this extraordinary gig at the Barbican, where they’d asked Ken to speak. But Ken decided he wouldn’t speak. Instead, he’d decided we’d do a small musical. That was the only time I crossed Ken. I said: ‘Do you think maybe you should go up and just explain? All these people have come to see you, and you’re not even going to speak to them?’ He said ‘No, fuck off!’ ‘Oh, OK!’ He said ‘If it’s boring, I’ll be out the back, eating a pie.’ So we just had to get up on stage.
They said ‘Please welcome, Ken Campbell’, and Adam Meggido and I just had to start singing, in the Barbican foyer, no amplification or anything: ‘What’s going on here?/Oh, there’s a show here!’ It was one of the funniest but worst things, because nobody knew it was improvised. That’s the other thing about impro. If you don’t know it’s improvised, it can just look shit. It looked like we’d written a dreadful little musical about Ken Campbell! That’s interesting, isn’t it? Impro isn’t funny unless people know it’s improvised.
They know it’s something. The terror helps.
In Showstopper now, we’re quite slick. We’re constantly trying to fight the battle of ‘You must write scripts for it’ because we know what we’re doing. We’re constantly having to find ways to push ourselves so we’re not just going: ‘Here’s another song/Yeah, I can rhyme it all day long/Yeah, it’s gonna be great/Yeah, here we are!’ That’s difficult, because to be comfortable is very comfortable!
If you still had Ken, he would make life hard for the Showstoppers! Do you find it hard to make life hard for yourself?
I like to make life hard for myself on purpose. This year I said to myself ‘I’m going to start teaching. I know have the knowledge, but I haven’t done lots of teaching, but I love it when I do teach. So let’s make myself be a teacher.’ When I saw the list of people today, I thought ‘Why am I teaching these people? They are brilliant!’ and then had to say to myself ‘Fucking go and teach them! Help make them even better! Make sure you’ve got the balls to do it. Go and teach.’
Another thing is that improvisation’s so diverse these days. Should you be doing longform improvisation, or shortform? Is Whose Line actually improvised? There’s the American stuff – the tagging out thing that’s very popular at the moment – and twoprov, which is suddenly the thing. Can you teach just impro? Can you teach impro? Can you teach impro?
I think you can. You said earlier that the best impro teachers are the ones that say ‘You’re good!’
It’s about encouraging people and getting them to try. I remember the first Crunchy Frog I ever did. I was really funny. Alan said: ‘Hey, you’re really funny! Let’s try and not be funny! Let’s do something else.’ At first I thought ‘That’s all impro is, isn’t it, being funny?’ Trying to get people to not try and be funny is interesting.
I can’t wait for the classes to get into the swing of things. It’s much easier when you start to know people, so you can say to them ‘You’ve done that before. Stop doing that! Try something else.’ I know I’ve got my habits. My habits are: make a joke, laugh at my own joke, do a Polish accent.
Doing the Comedy Store Players has been a baptism of fire, because they’ve worked together for twenty-five years. They all know each other so well. It’s like hanging out with a gang of bestest friends and saying ‘Can I play? Can I come?’ and finding a way to fit in without upsetting their balance.
That’s another thing you need to learn: to have the confidence to go and play with anybody. The Improvathon, if anything, proves that you can improvise with anyone, because you just get on with it. There’s no choice. You can’t say ‘I just want to play with Mark Meer.’ It’s just: ‘You three are in a scene, and you are an erotic horse. Off you go.’ That’s one of the joys of that show. Having to play with whoever.
We’re running out of time. Anything you want to add?
It would be lovely if improvisation could be celebrated as a proper form in Britain. My next dream is to have a theatre, as in a proper theatre, rather than a room above a pub, which is the Impro Theatre of London, and where there is always great impro on every night of the week, and people come to see it because it has an amazing reputation. That would be amazing.
Including OAPs and 3–5-year-olds?
Yes! Everybody! Everyone will come!
Pippa’s teaching regular Crunchy Frog Impro Classes on Saturday mornings. All levels are welcome, but pre-booking is essential, so click here to get tickets.