Want to make a show? Join a Company? Or start your own?

Bristol based artist and improviser, Imogen Palmer, will be running an Improvised Narrative Scenework Intensive at the BIT this August (11th&12th).

Ahead of the weekend, Imogen shared her top tips and advice on how to take your creative practice further…

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Heads up, I am an 'emerging artist' which is a glamorous way of saying I am not paid for what I do yet but I treat myself and my work professionally. I work two day jobs in order to privately fund the multiple projects of my company 'The Delight Collective'. I primarily performed improvised theatre and comedy for 5 years before doing acting training, a playwriting residency and only really started practicing 'full-time' artist life about a year ago.

There are countless more talented and successful artists out there but they are probably too busy to write this blog. So here we go. Try not to view it as a be all and end all guide, it is purely a summary of some of what I've learnt from making a large amount of risks and mistakes. Take what is useful for you and ignore the rest.

Joining an existing, established company or show.

I have auditioned for and joined or been invited to join five different companies this way, both here and in Australia. It is a great way to learn the ropes of what it means to be in a semi-professional or professional company without having much responsibility. You can observe how the directors/company members run the room and learn lots from the more experienced artists. I believe it's important to be little fish sometimes, swimming in deep water with the big fish, to get us out of our comfort zone and help us grow. However, this fishy situation can come with its downsides.

Being a little fish is brilliant if you are comfortable with feeling uncomfortable or scared sometimes. If you are in a particularly vulnerable place in your life for whatever reason- DON'T put yourself through it. Join an Am Dram company instead. Build your confidence, be playful, try out being a Big Fish for a while until you're ready to dive back into deep water.There's no point being eaten by sharks when you haven't learnt how to swim. I've discovered that swinging (or SWIMMING trolololol) between Big Fish and Little Fish projects helps me to grow as an artist whilst maintaining a healthy level of self-worth.

HOW DO I JOIN AN EXISTING COMPANY/SHOW?

Great question! To start with, find one you like. Go see as many different improv, comedy or theatre shows as you can. If you can't afford tickets, VOLUNTEER for the Theatre's Front of House (FOH) or Box Office (BO).

Volunteering/working in theatres

In Bristol the Wardrobe Theatre and The Bristol Improv Theatre run great FOH/BO volunteer schemes in exchange for watching shows. The Bristol Old Vic do community outreach work which is also always looking for vollies. This way, you get to build your skills, your understanding of how theatres/festivals work AND make friends with your most powerful allies in this industry: Front of House/Box Office and Bar staff.

Even better can be a regular paid gig in one of these roles. I spent years working FOH/BO for Festivals and learnt the ins and outs of how to sell a show as well as seeing and meeting loads of amazing artists. The smart artists were incredibly kind to the FOH, BO and Bar staff. I believe it is not only plain kind to be kind but also these humans will sell your show! There is no better selling method than word of mouth and I've been on FOH shifts where we sold out a show through our recommendations to the general public.

Talk with the Artists

Once you've found a show or company you like and you thought 'I would love to play with them'- awesome saucesome! If you are a volunteer/working in the building, say hi to the artists and introduce yourself at an appropriate time. During their warm-up/tech/show is probably NOT a good time. After the show, in the bar, is a GREAT time. Tell them what you liked about their show/performance and offer to buy them a drink as a thank you. Try to avoid 100% fan-personing all over them.

One of the greatest compliments you can offer someone is to ask for their advice Eg. 'You have excellent stage presence, can I ask you for your advice on how you create that?' People are often very flattered when they are asked for advice and will 8/10 be happy to give it. Try to read how tired they are after their show. It might be more appropriate to say something like 'I love your work and I'd love to speak with you about it because it inspires me, is there any chance I could buy you a coffee/tea sometime?'

Offer to help out with the show in a non-performing context

After speaking with them and making a connection, you can then offer to volunteer to help them with set-up/tech/marketing/BO/FOH for other shows. Any way to be around with a friendly and helpful face is great. WARNING: if you are going to offer skills, make sure you can actually do them/ WANT to do them. It's no good offering to tech their show if you have NO IDEA how to tech and lighting boards scare you. It would be way worse to pretend and then F*** things up. Be honest with yourself and play to your strengths.

Sign up for a class

Sign up for a class one of the company members is teaching. This is an EXCELLENT way for a company member to see your work on an ongoing basis and how you take direction. I frequently end up casting students/people I've worked with before because you really build up trust during an intensive/ 7 week course. I've also been cast this way.

AUDITION

Some established companies do auditions and call-outs. Apply for these! Even if you don't think you stand a chance/don't know them very well, it's a great opportunity to have a free workshop with a company you admire. I would invite you to see it as a free workshop rather than an audition- stress can kill your play. The best improv audition I ever had was for a company where I was 50/50 bothered about getting in. I was mega surprised to receive the positive feedback I did and went on to join the company and had a fab time with them. Based on this experience I always try to go for any audition, even if I feel a bit 'so-so' about it and I try to view them all as practice/playtime/fun. You also get to learn about what an audition process feels like which is helpful to inform how you might run one in the future.

Applications

Take them seriously. Make a performance/acting CV if you can and ask a friend with a posh camera to take a headshot if you can't afford pro headshots. Half-hearted applications stand-out and not in a good way. Read the call-out carefully and emphasise all your relevant experience. Don't undersell yourself! Being a Scout Leader/Teacher is GREAT performance experience when it is spun in the right way.

I can't speak for scripted theatre but know that having a full-time/part-time job/caring commitments/ physical or mental conditions is not a barrier to being cast in an improv show- as long as you can make/try to make the commitments that the director is looking for. I find honesty is the best policy with commitments. I personally find people who have busy/varied lives make for excellent performers so I try to incorporate flex into projects but know that not every company you audition for may be able to do this.

Manage your expectations

If all the above goes well and BOOM you get into your dream company/show, try to remember to manage your expectations. Every opportunity looks fabulous from the outside and it's very easy to idealise. Know that every company you join will come with its own pros and cons. I would strongly advise you try and stick out any casting for at least 6 months- a year (some groups just take a bit of time to warm up to new people) but know that there is no shame in trying something, not quite gelling and parting ways. Most companies I've worked with have had a mentoring scheme or 1-1s with the director system in place where you can raise concerns/questions during your transition into the company. If this doesn't exist you can try to meet with the director/someone you connect with privately- sharing fears about fitting in with one person can be a great way to alleviate them.

How to join a company which has JUST begun

I've done this maybe three times and I LOVE it. A fresh company riding on the joy or vision of a director/group of people is such a lovely process to be a part of. It comes with its' own pluses and minuses as well but some of my most satisfying and rewarding experiences have come from this option.

Get out there and be available

Go to shows, classes and socials in the improv and theatre community. Like step one, talking with people and making friends is a great way of finding potential opportunities and creative collaborators. Try not to view it as 'networking'. I prefer the term 'friend-making' personally (although that may make some of you vom). For me that just stops it from being a weird forced interaction and more of an opportunity to chat and find out a bit more about someone. There are heaps of opportunities to do this in Bristol- Theatre Bristol open office, Tobacco Factory events, Watershed Friday talks, Backline.

Talking to strangers gets easier the more you do it. I am highly introverted and struggled with social anxiety throughout my teenage years and early twenties. I made a choice at some point to decide to become someone who can talk to strangers and make them feel comfortable and put myself in lots of terrifying (for me) situations as a result. This started with attending shows with a group of existing friends and building up to attending events on my own where I don't know anyone. I can now (fairly) confidently do the latter whenever although I will always have some nerves.

Finding out what other artistic stuff people like is a great way to find out if you'll connect creatively. It can also be massively fun to meet new people! Even if you don't click straightaway with someone or someone is a bit rude to you (this will happen), everything is an experience and one of those interactions might make their way into your artistic work one day.

My attitude is that kindness breeds kindness and I try to bring a lightness and sense of humour and compassion into interactions. If someone is a bit short or rude with me, I prefer to think that they are having a bad day or aren't in the mood to talk with a stranger. I try to read their body language and might politely move away if they seem defensive. I try not to assume people are blanket rude or hate me, but know that some people are a bit consistently rude and some people will hate you. That is the way.

Taking on feedback/ accepting that some people will just hate you

I have a loud laugh. It's hard to not know I'm in an audience. I've had this laugh since I was 6 and it got stronger when I did voice-work as part of my acting training. I know for a fact that some people in Bristol LOVE my laugh like nothing else, and some people HATE it. It's not something I can change but I will try to adjust my behaviour/take on feedback when it's clear I'm bothering or upsetting someone. However, I can't completely change something about myself just because half the people I meet don't like it. Listen and be open to feedback and change but know that some people will never like you and that's ok. Sometimes it can actually be a weird sort of compliment – people often hate people they are intimidated by because they are jealous of their confidence or work.

Starting your own company or show

Someone once gave me the advice 'the best way to learn how to run your own theatre company is to start one'. At the time I was like 'pfft, yeah right, as if I'll ever run a theatre company'. I've never seen myself as a natural leader and mostly resist and avoid leadership roles. However, my strong internal compass for fairness/ wanting to make the world a better place has often overridden this fear and I now find myself in a couple of leadership roles. Still terrified and hating bossing people around but proud and happy to be doing them.

How I did it 'by accident'

Creating 'The Delight Collective' (the company I am the artistic director of) was both an accident and the result of 26 years of life experience. I returned from two years of travel and acting/ improv training in Australia to find the UK depressed and sad in a post-Trump, post-Brexit world. I found all the improv and comedy I was watching to be reflecting this depression- a lot of work where characters were being cruel to each other and lots of comedy where people seemed to be fighting to be the funniest person on stage at the expense of the overall show and the story. It made me sad. I was confused. I cried a lot. I submitted an act for London's first ever pride improv Festival Zeal. I had a vague idea I would get together some LGBT+ improvisers in Bristol and send us over. I gave it the name of 'The Delight Collective'. Lo and behold, the act got selected and all of a sudden I needed a cast. At this point I was full on depressed after a number of job rejections, a broken heart and a couple of challenging life situations including living in a flea-ridden house alone. I didn't want to go. I was fully prepared to cancel the gig. However, I spoke to Caitlin Campbell, an incredible human and performer who was crazy enough to agree to do a two-prov with me. We had a couple of rehearsals (one in which we both just cried and held each other) and then went and performed in their closing night at the Leicester Square Theatre. Much to my surprise, we smashed the gig and got a lot of positive feedback.

I went back to Bristol and on the prompting of my friend Nic Tann, I book a gig for an old format called 'Friends Like These' at a couple of scratch nights. The shows go well and we have a nice time. By March, I move house to an even prettier house, I turn 26, I'm performing more regularly and teaching more. My confidence is building. I resurrect my abandoned solo project IMOGENÉ and this time ask the talented Jack Drewry to help me as a musician/theatre-maker. The show evolves into the show I've been waiting to make my whole life. I couldn't have done it without Jack and humans like Nic and Caitlin believing in me.

I see my writing mentor Tom at a writing festival. I tell him I haven't been writing. He encourages me to have a script-read of the play I wrote last year and find an emerging director. An old director friend moves back to Bristol, I meet her for coffee and I ask if she wants to listen to my play. She says yes, I arrange a script read. It goes well. All of a sudden, I have a company which is in the process of producing four ongoing projects.

Advice?

Start small. Book an open mic. Book a scratch. Find someone you like or who inspires you and ask them to do a two prov/ two hander play with you. Ask a third person to direct or coach you. Book in the show, book in proper rehearsal time and do it. You can do this without 'inventing a company' but you might find you unearth a company in the process. Sometimes we put so much pressure on the formation of the 'company' we kill the joy of play and creativity. Start with play and creativity and see what happens.

Sign up for a course

You can really bond with people over the course of 7/8 weeks and I've seen countless companies form out of classes. The very successful 'The Play that Goes Wrong' company Mischief Theatre came out of a group of friends who all studied at LAMDA together. They have an improv show too. You don't need to study at LAMDA. Find a style of improv/theatre/creativity which inspires you and sign up for it. Invest in your professional development. You have no idea who you might meet.

Balance artistic pursuits with a 'rent job'

Find a job which complements your artistic pursuits. We all gotta eat. We've got to pay rent. We need to afford classes and theatre tickets. We also might need to privately fund our first few years of artistic practice. The tricky part of funding applications is that they want to see your track record which can be tough when you have no money to start out.

Emerging Artists' Schemes

Look out for emerging artists schemes- Made in Bristol (Bristol Old Vic), Arts Lab (North Wall Arts Centre), Creative Youth Network (The Station), The Watershed. often have an age brackets but some don't. We can be an emerging artist at any point in our lifetime.

Mission, Vision and Values

Work out what your vision, mission and values are. What's important to you? This can really help when you start things like casting. I cast The Bish Bosh Bash! based on The Delight Collectives' values and it helped me make some difficult decisions.

Online presence

Make a Facebook page or website. A sense of identity. Somewhere you can send people to find you.

Ask for help

Get as many mentors as possible. If I tried to count how many people I believe formally or informally mentor me, I would say that number is now in its 20s. I don't believe one single person can help make you the person you want to be. Different people will be helpful for different areas- I have writing mentors, improv mentors, acting mentors, producing mentors, music mentors, theatre-making mentors, business mentors, being a decent human mentors. Spread the load and whilst you're at it: spread the love. Mentor and encourage others. I believe in theatre ecology rather than theatre competition. Yeah, it might have been really difficult for you to get where you are now. Why not make it a bit easier for someone else? Offer them a hand, give them a ladder. The more artists working, the more jobs and opportunities. We look after each other and the audiences and businesses will follow.

I believe it is especially important to support underrepresented groups- BAME, women, LGBT+, disabled (physical and mental). I've experienced discrimination for my gender, my sexuality and my mental health over the years and it bloody sucks. However, I try not to be bitter. Instead, I try to learn from my experience and run a company which creates an atmosphere of openness and support for people from different backgrounds. In his book 'Lost Connections', Johann Hari writes about mental health and hierarchy. A series of social experiments revealed that the more empowered or equal a group of people is, the greater their collective sense of well-being and the more effective their work output. That's right. SCIENCE backs up inclusivity and empowerment. Thanks Science.

It takes a lot of courage but I believe it is ultimately rewarding. Go forward. To quote that ol' Ghandi: Be the change you want to see in the world. Write the play you wish you could see at your local venue or direct and cast the show.

To quote Gwen Stefani, whatcha waiting, watcha waiting watcha waiting for?

Imogen Palmer

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Imogen's Improvised Narrative Scenework Intensive is running Sat 11th Aug – Sun 12th Aug. Book a place on the workshop weekend here.