Thursday, 29 May 2014

My History of Improv since I've been doing Improv

After Uni I wasn't so interested in improv, until I started watching Whose Line? again and just googled Improv courses on a whim. It was early 2011 and I was living in Holborn in central London but I didn't have much money, due respectively to me living as guardian (a bit like a live in security guard) in an office block, and busking for a living.

The search came up with Hoopla improv, drop-in course, £10 on the door, no booking necessary and less than an hours walk, saving some tube fare!

Steve Roe was teaching the class and I cannot recommend his classes enough. Very warm, friendly, welcoming, an atmosphere of trust and encouragement. The session's theme was spontaneity andI threw myself in! Although everyone else there was probably fairly new to improv I thought the standard was really high - possibly something to do with the standard I had been used to in my uni years, so I really felt the urge to try and raise my game.

I started to regularly attend Steve's drop-ins, and within a matter of weeks I felt I had learnt so much more than I had in all the years preceding the course.

I have not been taught by that many improv teachers, mainly because they tend to charge a lot more than Steve does, but when I have paid that little bit more to get another perspective, I've always felt a little short-changed. The only improv course I've been to that is on a par, in my opinion, is The Mayday's drop in with Liz Peters in Brighton which I went to the week before last. I may well go to that session again tomorrow!

I attended Steve's drop-ins for pretty much as long as he ran them. He's currently only running longer prebookable classes and I can never commit to any sort of schedule, but I now get my improv fixes elsewhere! I have just heard from Steve that he's bringing the drop-ins back in September - awesome news!

Since I attended those very first drop-ins, I've been a musician for the fantastic Music Box, been a member of the fun but short-lived experimental short form group Mini Mini Montage, and set up the Improvised Improv show in Edinburgh.

Upon returning from Edinburgh last year, I was asked to join The Sinister Tales of Doctor Synistra, and I have now been with them almost a year.

Although I'm not the most experienced of improvisers I now feel completely comfortable on stage and the most important thing is that I enjoy it. When that happens, the audience usually enjoys it, and everyone has a good time! I love the feeling of having no idea what's going to happen in a scene but still maintaining the confidence that I can cope with anything that does happen. And I think audiences really enjoy that as well. And that's just one of the reasons why improv is so awesome...

Doctor Synistra's Brighton Debut

I perform with a group called 'The Sinister Tales of Doctor Synistra' and we do improvised horror stories. Devised by Antony Noad, they had already been performing for several months by the time I joined after returning from the Edinburgh Fringe last year.

The premise is bit like an improvised tales of the crypt, but so that we don't have one person stuck as storyteller for the whole show, our storyteller is a hat that possesses its wearer with the spirit of Doctor Synistra. "Whoever wears the hat tells the tale - Whoever wears the hat is Doctor Synistra!"

The structure for an hour long show is three short stories and a commercial break, which is just a quick fun little scene. For each short story we have a slightly different structure, which have each been conceived initially and then evolved as we've played with them, so now we all have the main structure set in our minds to free up our thoughts for important things like character names and details for re-incorporation.

Getting the right balance of actual horror, comedy horror and being friendly to the audience, whilst delivering horrific cautionary tales, is something that has taken a lot of practice to get right, but I feel we have now achieved it, and there's nothing more satisfying than being able to scare or disgust an audience one minute and make them laugh the next.

I wrote some ambient music for when the audience is taking their seats. Discordant music on strings, piano and Hammond organ coupled with muffled and echoed screams and monstrous noises. Cheesy horror music, essentially. Then, over church organ chords, a big scary voice says "ladies and gentleman please welcome to the stage, The Sinister Tales of Doctor Synistra… Mwahahaha!"

And then we chat to the audience a bit to make them feel comfortable! This has taken us a long time to find the right approach, but we use a variation of the Get-to-know-someone intro, but instead of their favourite cheese/dinosaur/biscuit, we ask for their favourite horror movie method of gruesome death; and instead of getting them to shout "I love you" followed by the name of someone else they've just met, we get them to shout "No Satan, don't take" followed by the name of the person they've just met!

We did three shows at the beginning of the Brighton fringe and we have three more to go starting tomorrow. Those first three felt to me like the best shows we've done so far, and that the show is finally achieving the right balances of horror and humour, friendliness ans scariness.

In London, we're often used to our audiences being the improv underground. People who regularly seek out and support improv and other improvisers. It makes for a very supportive crowd which is very nice, but in Brighton we have had audiences who had just come to see a free show, or from the description in the guide alone, so it felt a little more like we had to work harder to earn our laughs. It has been a great experience so far, and I'm looking forward to the next three. They willl be awesome…

The best way to introduce an improv show

A lot of groups I've seen start with a standard intro that warms up their audience by getting them to shout out things to get them ready for the shouting of suggestions later in the show. The first one is always easy; your own name, the second is usually your favourite cheese/dinosaur/biscuit etc.

Then the audience is asked to meet someone new in the room and learn their name. This is such a great way to make a room feel comfortable, and often the ensuing mini conversations between these people who've just met at the improv could last a lot longer, if there wasn't a show about to start!

Then the audience is asked to shout out the name of the person they've just met, and after that, to show how much love there is in the room they're asked to shout out "I love you" followed by the name of the person they've just met!

The first time I saw this "Get-to-know-someone" intro, was by Steve Roe at one of his Hoopla Shows. At first I assumed everyone else who used it was copying it from him, but I don't know if he copied it from someone else to begin with. I think it would be hard to claim ownership, as can happen with jokes or, more commonly, heckler put-downs in stand up, once they're shared enough they become stock material. And I don't expect anyone would mind as long as it makes for better improv shows.

In both Stand-up and improv shows, I've found I've had to coax audience members to sit at the front. In stand-up it's understandable as the comedian usually chats to or "picks on" the front row. A lot of audiences are unfamiliar with improv and assume it's similar to stand-up. The Get-to-know-someone intro takes away all that apprehension and makes everyone feel at ease ready for an evening that celebrates its mistakes (and their justifications) just as much as when everything seems to be running perfectly as if scripted!

The other reason for a warm up and suggestions is to prove to the audience that it is all made up and  not scripted. The last improv show I attended, the cast told me they had overheard a complaint from an audience member in one show that "they hadn't learnt their lines very well!"

It becomes a balance of trying not to patronise the initiated while trying to explain to the newcomers, and the best way to solve this is the simple question "Who's seen improv before?" This can help you judge that, but then you're left wandering if some newcomers haven't shouted out because they think it's like stand-up and they'll get picked on if they do. So you tell them "This isn't stand up, we won't be picking on you!" And often they don't believe you, because many comedians tell the "don't worry I won't pick on you" lie!

Although the audience has come for improv, I've found the intro needs to seem slick and professional, or they lose confidence in the show. A well rehearsed intro helps.  I've seen some shows with scripted intros (not for improv purists)! But learning how to create right atmosphere for the show will ultimately make it more awesome…

Thursday, 22 May 2014

I just improvised an entire show on my own!

At tonight's Improvised Improv Show, I had two improvisers;  one primarily a stand-up who had compered the previous show (Laughing Horse Pick of the Fringe), and the other was a guy who might possibly have been on drugs... Unfortunately there was only one audience member and the other two felt like it was a waste of time and left!

My one audience member was Susanna (probably spelt differently) from the Netherlands, and I asked her what she would like for this very special one to one show, her choices were:

Teach her some improv
Do one man improv just for her
Try out some of my stand up that needed work
Do some of my slick polished stand up
Play some of my songs (I had my mandolin and uke with me)
Ditch the formalities and just have a chat.

During the course of the show we covered pretty much all of that list. I started off by giving her a copy of my album for being a good sport and deciding the show muss go on, and then said she could pick any song and I'd play it. She chose a track of mine called "I'm going to kill you", which she really seemed to enjoy and then asked me the inspiration behind it.

The inspiration is actually a set of sketches I wrote whilst at school, so I then proceeded to act out as much of them as I could remember, playing all the parts, mostly of terrible Italian stereotypes (which is okay as I'm a quarter Italian)!

After that I taught her some improv, starting with "Yes and" as an exercise:

We're in a swimming pool
Yes and it's a Turkish swimming pool
Yes and there's lots of Turkish people in the pool
Yes and there's one Albanian person
Yes and everybody's staring at him
Yes and that's because he's wearing an unusual bathing suit
Yes and it's got a union jack on it…

Then we played a few three line scenes where I showed her how to accept the reality of a scene, and finally I taught her Alphabet as it was pretty much the only simple game I could think of that doesn't require at least one other person in the room to play!

That brought us to the end of the show with just time to finish on a song (She chose Your Mother's Vagina - a crowd favourite), then I thanked her for coming, she thanked me for the show and then went back to her hostel ready to go back to London tomorrow for her last few days in the country.

I felt I gave areaway special performance tonight that Susanna will hopefully remember and maybe even be inspired by to seek out new shows and new improvisations. I certainly felt that I had passed the test I've always slightly feared doing The Improvised Improv Show - What do I do if I have an audience and no improvisers? The answer - I improvise!

Tonight I did it and it made me feel awesome...

The Improvised Improv Show has been to Brighton...

So taking The Improvised Improv Show to Brighton has been a fun experience which has just finished tonight as I type this. In hindsight it would have seen a better turnout of improvisers if it had been advertised in the programme, put on at the weekend and earlier in the day, but what happened was as to be expected for just putting it on on a whim in the slot where another show had cancelled.

In total I only had four people willing to improvise with me over the course of the three nights, and when I have fewer than four for any given show, I act as the host and as a player, so I had to play in all three shows here in Brighton.

On monday I had one other improviser, Calum Anderson, and an audience which gradually grew as the show went on which was great, but I had to keep stopping to welcome and explain the concept of the show, which must have been a little irritating for those who were there from the start. The theme of the show was Canadian and English interactions!

On Tuesday Calum returned and Tom (who's surname shall remain mysterious as I never asked) also joined us as well. The theme of the show was fruit and vegetables, which is a theme that I'm sure has been suggested at least once if not twice before in Edinburgh last year, but as the group was entirely different that hardly matters!

Tonight was a special show and deserves an entire post dedicated to it...

Returning to the other previous shows, I had to chose games for two people, which generally featured a brief cameo of a third person on the Tuesday. The games I chose were:

3 line secnes
Questions only
Audience props
New Choice
Emotional roller-coaster (+ remaining quotes!)

With two people I had to get an audience member to call the emotions in the last game, which was a bad idea and made for a weak finish, but if nothing else I've gotten pretty good at training the audiences for these shows to be incredibly forgiving, so they were still happy that the majority of the show had been good.

Calum and Tom, were both brilliant and, although I don't know off hand what shows they take part in, I highly recommend them. They're probably awesome...

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

My history of Improv before I started doing Improv

I did GCSE drama. It was a bit improv-y because most of the things we did were devised scenes which were generally improvised to start with and then we'd decide what worked what didn't and do them again until they got better. But we had no formal instruction, and what often inside was heavily dictated by a member of the group determined to make some point about human rights or something, which often seemed to make for 'powerful' scenes with no sense of fun. Apart from the occasional scripted amateur play, I abandoned drama until I went to university.

In the Uni Drama society we had a couple of members over the years who had clearly had some, but minimal, experience of improv, and it was basically used as a way to fill our twice weekly meetings without having to plan anything. We would try and emulate the games we had seen on Whose Line is it Anyway, with a few different games taught to us by other members.

Two spring to mind that I've never played since; Park Bench, where the setting is always a park and the goal of the game is to sit down next to whoever is sat there and get them to leave somehow; and Hitch-hike, where the setting is always a car and the person in the driver's seat dictates the reality of the scene.

We also played many of the popular warm up games, and in fact these were so popular that, much to my frustration, the warm up games often became the focus of a session and we wouldn't actually get to do any actual acting. But it wasn't surprising that many members of the group didn't enjoy the improv games, because we'd never had any formal training.

Nobody had ever told us not to block. This led to several funny at first, tiresome very quickly, scenes of people saying they're doing something and then the rest of the characters in the scene not going with the reality and just deciding that they're just a crazy person.

"I'm playing the trombone"
"no you're not, you're just waving your arms and singing"

You can eventually learn that blocking is a bad thing for a scene, although it takes a long time to figure out if nobody tells you.

Nobody had ever told us "yes and". And everyone always felt that the character they played was a representation of them. There was a refusal to play a character that would do something that you wouldn't, most notably with the girls whenever it hinted at anything sexual.

"So all we need you to do Candy, is burst out of the cake, sing happy birthday, take all your clothes off and do a sexy dance"
"There must be some mistake - I'm not a stripper"

Four years of that. And in hindsight I hardly learnt anything! When I did start learning improv properly it all seemed so much more awesome...

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

The Improvised Improv Show Goes to Brighton!

I'll fill in more details about the previous year the show has been running in due course, but as I have only just decided to write this as a blog, I will start with things as fresh in the memory as possible!

This year I was accepted to put on three shows as part of the Brighton Fringe; The Sinister Tales of Doctor Synistra (an improv horror show), Amusia (my solo musical comedy show) and The Pirate Captain's Silly Sea Shanties - Arrr, it be a free family show, mattes! Each of these shows has been performed three times so far (and gone really well, I might add), and with a further 3 performances still to catch on the 30th, 31st of May and 1st of June - plug!

Upon announcing that these shows would be taking place, my aunt incredibly generously gave me the use of her holiday home in Brighton as she and her husband would not be using it during that time. I say aunt, I'm actually her cousin-once-removed, or as she calls my generation - the cousins who ought to be removed, but that's a little convoluted for people who don't really need to know all those details, so I've just been referring to it as 'my aunt's flat', which is where I currently sit typing this.

Seeing as it was now going to cost me very little to be in Brighton, I made the decision to spend as much of the fringe as I could in Brighton, traveling back up to London only to work (I busk for a living and, at this time of year it's only really worth doing at the weekends and if the weather is good). And seeing as was here, I thought I could put on The Improvised Improv show to see what it's like in a different location! I contacted Alex Petty of The Laughing Horse and asked if he had any gaps, and there was a show that had dropped out, so I could put it on and without any of those pesky fees you usually have to pay to cover advertising and professionalism!

With only a week to advertise the show, I printed posters and flyers in black and white and photocopied them in Brighton's lovely Jubile Library for only a couple of quid, and began sticking them up / handing them out. I also posted it all over Facebook and twitter.

Unfortunately I had chosen to do the show on weekdays, and most of the improvisers who were performing at the fringe were only down from London for the weekends so I hoped that I would get some local support! I had absolutely no idea what to expect! Was Brighton's improv community going to support me? Or was I going to have to do my first solo improv show in front of a crowd that had paid nothing? All I knew is that whatever happened it would be awesome...