A Journey Through Learning with the Bristol Improv Theatre

Dr Petia Petrova, long-time student of the Bristol Improv Theatre School, takes us through her heartwarming experiences of learning with us. Right the way from first discovering improv to now having developed a new course, alongside our instructors, on ‘Improvisation Skills for Teaching’

Discovering improv

I went to a drop-in session at the Bristol Improv Theatre as a dare. I was trying to do one new thing a day for 43 days in a row. One day for each year of my life. I was not in a great place, so was pushing myself to experience life, and to get to know Bristol.

Stepping through the front door of the Bristol Improv Theatre took a lot of courage. I am not a creative person – I was not a regular at school plays or performances. I think I did some reciting in pre-school (aged 6), and once in primary school – I do not remember any details, other than the shoe-shaped bag that was for some reason a prop. 

Going through the front door was scary. I was about to chicken out and called my partner. I got the metaphorical push that I needed. I went in. And by doing so, I allowed fun, joy and mischief to enter my life. 

Don’t take me wrong, this was not an easy process. My first session was great fun, but also well out of my comfort zone. It took me another 3 months to gather enough courage to try again. I signed up to the ‘Discovery’ course, designed specifically for newbies like me. It was such a gentle and encouraging space. Imogen Palmer created a lovely atmosphere where we supported and cheered each other, and appreciated how unique and wonderful each of us was. Outside of the class, we set up an informal WhatsApp group and our connections and fun continued. 

This is where it all really begun for me. The Bristol Improv Theatre helped me not only put me back together again, but also allowed me to grow and enrich my life in a way that I had not expected. 

Performing improv

Many of us became rather addicted to signing up to different Bristol Improv Theatre courses. We got to know the other amazing teachers and performers at the Theatre (Caitlin Campbell and Stephen Clements, among others). We started performing during our ‘sharing sessions’, where we could invite our friends and family to see what we have learned. Well, once you get that buzz of hearing the audience laugh at a joke you have just created on stage, there is no turning back.  

We were high on the improv wave, performing, watching, having fun, then Covid struck. To use a term from higher education (HE) – the Bristol Improv Theatre ‘pivoted’ to online teaching. Yet, the courses were just as good. Being able to continue doing improv made the endless lockdown months more bearable, and less isolating, and of course we learned more improv techniques. 

Teaching and improv

I was so impressed by the quality of the online versions of the courses. It made me think that those of us working in HE can learn from the way improv is taught online at the Bristol Improv Theatre. In my day job I am an Associate Director of Academic Practice at University of the West of England (UWE) Bristol. I had a conversation with Imogen (Theatre School Manager at the Bristol Improv Theatre) and Caitlin (Artistic and Executive Director) about creating a bespoke set of experimental workshops titled ‘Improvisation Skills for Teaching’ for colleagues teaching at UWE. It is such a pleasure to work with professionals that really listen to what is needed and come up with appropriate and imaginative solutions. We piloted this course online in the Spring of 2021. It was one of the best evaluated staff development courses I am involved with. Now in Autumn 2021, we are delivering our second iteration of this course. There is also a lot of interest from other universities in this work. The course will next be delivered not only at UWE, but also at the St George’s, University of London. 

Improv has brought so much joy to my life. It feels really fulfilling to share this joy with others, both professionally and personally. 

Listen to course participants’ reflections about the Improvised Teaching Skills course at UWE >

Listen to Petia’s experiences of discovering improv on UWE’s Serious Leisure podcast >