We were delighted to be able to talk to Monica Gaga earlier this month about how improv can be used to empower young people, the transition to online learning and her upcoming guest workshop at the Bristol Improv Theatre…
Q: Hi Monica! We can’t wait to host your workshop at the BIT on using Improv to empower young people. Can you tell us a little bit about what to expect from the workshop?
Expect to leave this workshop with a smile on your face and the tools to build, deliver and evaluate a youth engagement programme. I have designed this session to be fun with a mixture of practical and discussion based activities that you won’t need a background in the arts to enjoy.
Q: In this chaotic and unpredictable year, online teaching and learning has been something many students and teachers have had to quickly adapt to. Can you tell us about some of the challenges this might pose?
The digital divide means that some young people may struggle to get online and if they can, finding the space can be difficult. This something we will consider when looking at youth engagement in the workshop. We will also touch on how to turn what we may see as cons into pros as we work in an ever changing landscape.
Q: Conversely, what are some of the positives of online teaching and learning? How might you empower young people online?
I definitely am not missing the commute and for some young people they can participate in more as they do not have to rely on the availability of their parents or guardians to take them to sessions. Being able to take ownership in your own growth can be so empowering for young people and the start of them being able to make informed choices.
Q: And where/how does improv fit into this?
Improv is about working with the unexpected, accepting and building on what you have and when you throw in some of the other principles of improv like listing, the power of place and taking the fear out of failure you have a fantastic vehicle for change, growth and empowerment.
Q: What do you hope people will take away from this workshop?
A fresh look at how to engage youth people and tap into the power of play for their groups and theirselves.
Q: Finally, can you tell us one of your favourite things about improv? Do you have a favourite memory of a great event or the aspect that makes you particularly passionate about your work?
I love that moment in a session or a project when the young are really in the moment, they are present, they are engaged and they are having a great time. It’s then I feel they are ready to grow, are open to change and most willing to take charge of that journey.
Imogen Palmer discusses the vital topic of handling sensitive issues in the improv classroom in the lead up to her online interactive panel.
I am very passionate & enthusiastic about talking about how to hold supported spaces and practicing how to handle sensitive issues in the classroom & rehearsal room when they arise
By sensitive issues, I mean sexism, homophobia, racism, ableism etc. and also when personal emotional or physical boundaries have been crossed for participants or the facilitator.
In improv, we are teaching students to override their self-censor which is wonderful but also means subconscious bias can emerge. Nervous students can also misjudge boundaries both physically and emotionally.
I have been traumatised in the past by teachers & directors who:
>>> brushed over incidents where I was clearly uncomfortable
>>> Became defensive when I (as the student/actor) tried to have a conversation about what had made me uncomfortable.
Two examples of incidents (for me) are:
1. a man I didn’t know grabbed my waist from behind in a scene to simulate me giving birth
2. a scene where the group game was to call the only female character a ‘slut’ (a word I find highly triggering due to past trauma).
Leader’s response to the above two incidents
1. No acknowledgement of my discomfort whatsoever when I screamed. Everyone laughed. We moved immediately onto the next exercise and I was left shaken. I was new to the company and the man was an experienced player who had been away for a while.
2. I tried to have a conversation around the ‘slut’ scene after the run through (I had started to cry during it and owned it as a character choice to make it work). When I raised it as a question- ‘did anyone else find that scene uncomfortable?’ -the leader and group became defensive and shut my objection down. They told me it was part of the story.
What does a best practice response look like?
I was motivated by numerous incidents like these to go into teaching myself and have now done it 5+ years. I am still learning how to handle situations like the above.
If I could magic wand the above and be a teacher / participant in the room of either of the above, I would:
>>> frame the sessions so that everyone is mindful of different physical and emotional boundaries and encourage healthy dialogue about them.
>>> If it is a beginner/ mixed group, consider putting a ‘container’ around personal space bubbles.
>>> Support the student who is expressing discomfort. It does not matter how much it seems like ‘not a big deal’ to me. We have no idea of everyone’s stories, backgrounds and boundaries.
>>> If I noticed a student become uncomfortable from their body language, pause the scene to check-in with everyone or put a container around the word ‘slut’ which is a sexist & outdated slur for a woman. I would encourage the actors to play to the top of their intelligence & challenge outdated stereotypes.
>>> Encourage students to check-in with each other. Eg.
A: ‘How did you find it in that scene when I grabbed you from behind?’ B: ‘I actually hate being grabbed from behind. If you’re going to touch me, please can you do it in my sight line and say something like ‘give me your hand’ so I have some warning/ I can consent’
>>> Privately check-in with the student later to see how they are. Avoid being pitying with this or treating them like a fragile, breakable object. We all have triggers and react in surprising ways sometimes. ‘How are you?’
‘Is there anything I can do to support you?’
And then LISTEN.
No teacher is capable of catching everything in the class, nor are they able to know everyone’s different emotional or physical boundaries.
This is why I believe it’s vital to frame and facilitate conversations around emotional & physical boundaries and encourage students to have an open dialogue with each other and the group.
I LOVE THIS ART FORM. The reason I want to write and talk about this is because I believe it can be an amazing tool for learning about boundaries and consent.
I believe we can use it to explore challenging issues like sexism with groups who have open dialogue and have built up trust over a long period of time.
When we just shut down a scene if it goes blue, that stops the opportunity for dialogue and learning.
When we ignore the incident, the person who is uncomfortable may never come back to improv.
By facilitating conversations we have more freedom to be braver and risker with our work. I am charing an online interactive panel with a host of international experts, via The Improv Place on Sunday 20th December, 2 pm – 4 pm (GMT).
The panel includes:
Monica Gaga (https://www.monicagaga.com)
Stephen Davidson (https://impromiscuous.com)
Laxmi Priya (https://www.icbangalore.com/trainers)
Velvet Wells (https://thevelvetduke.wordpress.com)
We talked to one of the UK’s longest standing longform improvisers, Katy Shutte, about her two upcoming workshops at the Bristol Improv Theatre…
Q: Hi Katy! Thrilled to have you hosting some online workshops at the BIT this winter! Can you tell us a little bit about what’s coming up?
I’m leading an immersive improv experience based on a pre-reality TV show called Ghostwatch from the 90s and I’ve (improv) gamified some of Brené Brown’s excellent research on vulnerability and empathy.
Q: Sounds great, we’d love to know more! Let’s start with ‘Ghostwatch’- where did the idea come from & how did you put it together?
Since improv moved to Zoom I’ve been wanting to do something where being alone in our houses can be terrifying! My last scripted show was a folk horror and I’m also borrowing heavily from the scary experience of watching Ghostwatch as a kid in the ‘90s. I’m basing the form on the beats in Ghostwatch and giving everyone separate missions, characters and tasks like a role playing game.
Q: And the same question for your ‘Play Like Brené’ workshop- for those who haven’t heard of her, can you tell us where your love of Brené’s work came from?
I saw Brené’s now super famous TED talk years ago followed by her series on Netflix. I was thrilled to come across this incredible body of evidence and work around vulnerability and I’d like to enjoy some of her modes of communication and exploration in an improv space.
Q: What do you hope people will take away from these events?
From Play Like Brené I hope people leave with a positive, applicable way of using and spreading Brené’s work.
After Ghostwatch, I hope no one can sleep.
Q: Within such a fab career, what has been your favourite part of teaching improv?
I love so much about teaching improv. I’m a theatre-maker, so I love how quickly conversations, concepts, themes and characters can just appear in our art form. I love improv festivals where people from all over the world and from different cultures and backgrounds can create work together, instantly. Online has given us a similar experience and I’m grateful for the hard lessons we are learning by exploring a totally different medium.
Q: Do you have any advice for people who might be new to improv and looking to find out more?
Give it a go. It’s nothing like stand-up, you don’t have to be a ‘funny’ or extroverted person. It’s all about support, creativity and fun and you might just find your new family there…
Imogen Palmer talks about her immensely popular course for womxn.
What makes someone a ‘Difficult Woman’?
According to some of the views this question drew up on my news feed, it can be anything from ‘not smiling’ to ‘asking for money as a freelancer’ to ‘existing in any way which upsets the patriarchy’.
The term ‘Difficult Woman’ came to my head recently when I watched Hannah Gadsby’s stand-up special ‘Douglas’ on Netflix. I am a long term fan of Hannah and this was my favourite show I’ve seen her do yet. In between laughing my head off, I kept shouting ‘yes! Oh my God, yes!’ much to the amusement of my partner. I finished it feeling high on life. Why? I’d just watched a queer woman take up space and confidently ‘bait her haters’ and own the fact that they hated her. She was proud that arseholes hated her. And why shouldn’t we be?
I have spent most of my life trying to be brave and sticking up for my values. The truth is (like loads of people) conflict makes me really anxious and scared but as a kid I decided I would rather stick up for myself and for other people when I thought things were unfair than keep quiet because that made you just as bad as the bullies.
This can be really hard. It can be particularly hard to do this when you look like a woman because of how we have been socialised. We have been taught to smooth over difficult situations and ‘get on with everyone’. Society LOVES prickly, rude white men (just look at how we glorify any one of the characters Benedict Cumberbach is typically cast in) but a woman? Being rude? Having an opinion different to others in the room? Negotiating for a fair wage? What a B****.
Some of the reasons we can struggle with speaking up is because:
1. We like to be liked
2. We are people pleasers
3. We were raised to be ‘polite’
4. We don’t think of ourselves as ‘difficult’.
I have had really weird experiences over the years when I expressed discomfort over sexist, racist or homophobic choices in the rehearsal room, challenged inconsiderate behaviour or when I expressed artistic opinions. In companies where everyone ‘talked the talk’ of being a friendly, liberal supportive place, their reactions baffled me.
When I questioned moments (in as light and friendly a way as possible, being the sweet little woman I was), both men and women became defensive and sometimes angry in response. I now understand more about DARVO (which is worth looking up if something similar has happened to you) but at the time, these reactions made me believe I was wrong and I wasted way too much time feeling ashamed for having spoken up, worrying I was ‘rude’ for having done so and sometimes even (now embarrassingly) apologising for having ‘rocked the boat’.
I know the treatment I received would have been different if I was a man. We praise men for being assertive. We’re used to men having opinions and views which deserved to be heard. We stop, listen and don’t interrupt them.
One of the many things movements like MeToo and Black Lives Matter has shown me is, if you want to live in a more liberated world, we need to practice being ok with people finding you difficult when you challenge offensive or problematic behaviors which support a system of oppression.
We also need to practice being self-aware when we become defensive or prickly in response to a woman or member of another oppressed group speaks up.It is not enough to expect women and POC to do all the work. An improvisation class or rehearsal room can be a great place to practice this because in improv, we practice listening and also over-riding our self-censor which means a whole heap of subconscious biascan come to the surface. Great- a chance to learn from each other about this bias and how being aware of it is the first step to helping us unpick and override it.
Queer, black feminist Audre Lorde was on this 40 years agowhen she wrote:
‘Our speaking out will irritate some people, get us called bitchy or hypersensitive and disrupt some dinner parties. And then our speaking out will permit other women to speak, until laws are changed and lives are saved and the world is altered forever.
Next time, ask: What’s the worst that will happen? Then push yourself a little further than you dare. Once you start to speak, people will yell at you. They will interrupt you, put you down and suggest it’s personal. And the world won’t end.And the speaking will get easier and easier. ‘
Thanks to a lot of practice, inner work and queens like Audre and Hannah, I have officially given up on being liked.
I am proud of the people I’ve annoyed because if they want to live in a world where art forms like improvisation continue to be only accessible to white men then why would I want them to like me? F*** that.
I would rather work with people who believe in trying to make the world and the art we make as empowering and inclusive as possible by listening and learning as best we can, and creating spaces where feedback and difficult conversations can be practised in a sensitive way. This is an ongoing process but we can start by speaking up and listening when others speak up.
The workshop I have made includes some tools I have found useful to help me practice navigating some internalised misogynistic blocks around owning being difficult and supporting and championing women and oppressed groups. I don’t have all the answers, I don’t have the energy to fight all the fights all the time but what I do know is this: difficult women get shit done and being difficult is an art that can be practised.
Imogen is running an online taster session of ‘Being a Difficult Woman’ on Saturday 19th December.
Stephen Clements shows us how these two popular pastimes are more similar than you might first think and what you might learn from this…
It’s easy to think that Dungeons & Dragons and improv have little to do with each other outside of having risen to popularity at around the same time in the late 20th century thanks to the efforts of their respective gurus (Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson for D&D; Viola Spolin, Keith Johnstone, and many others for improv). According to stereotype, improv is for quirky extroverts rattling off gags in a student or backroom of a pub, D&D for nerdy introverts rolling dice and moving miniatures around a map in someone’s basement. Stereotypes are often inaccurate. D&D and improv are fundamentally about the same thing: telling a story together.
Stories! We’ve loved them ever since we learned to communicate with each other. As two modern expressions of this ancient art, improv and D&D can learn a lot from each other. Given that you’re reading this on an improv website I’m going to assume that you’re an improviser, so here are five things you can learn from Dungeons & Dragons to improve your improv.
1. Focus on the characters
Dungeons & Dragons was not originally about stories. To begin with, it was a spinoff of the wargaming system Chainmail. Where traditional wargames had the players control units of soldiers or whole armies in contests of strategy and tactics, D&D had the players take control of a single character each. Instead of battling against each other, players would see who could best overcome the traps and monsters within a dungeon and loot its many treasures. Despite its narrower, less military focus, early D&D was still very much a strategy game: it emphasised a player’s skill in a battle of wits against the devious Dungeon Master (DM). Your looted gold acted as a high score, and there came even official D&D tournaments.
It wasn’t until later that they realised people were finding joy in playing the roles of their characters and exploring their stories, rather than treating them as disposable game pieces. In the words of RPG designer John Wick, D&D was a “sophisticated, intricate and complicated combat simulation board game that people were turning into a roleplaying game” which was “like giving your rook a motive” in a game of chess.
Players’ attachment to their characters is what made D&D a success – it was wildly more popular than the wargames that had spawned it and was followed by dozens of other games in what quickly became the RPG genre. Every successive update to D&D has been more focused on your character and their story, and less on tactics (with the notable exception of the much-maligned 4th Edition [which remains an excellent way to start an argument on the internet]), and D&D is still the most popular pen-and-paper RPG today because of it.
Why should this matter to an improviser? Because D&D learned early on that people care about characters. It’s easy with improv to get caught up with the details of a narrative structure, expanding on throwaway details, or just a good gag, but audiences are always more interested in the characters and their stories. More than once I’ve realised mid-show that I’ve spent so much time thinking about other things that I haven’t spent any time just being the character I’m playing. Every time, my improv suffered. Focusing instead on being present and playing your character grounds you and your audience in the reality of your scene or story. Characters are, after all, the medium through which the audience experiences a story.
2. Be Interested and Be Interesting
Creating characters in improv and D&D are very different processes. In improv it’s a gradual process of growth throughout the scene as more details are added by your own offers or by endowment from a scene partner. In D&D you create your character in advance with a fairly involved process using lots of numbers, tables, and invention of backstory. This is all to the good – different processes for different purposes. What’s really interesting are two of the requirements for a really good D&D character: Hooks and Knives. Not literal hooks and knives, of course (though most D&D characters will carry daggers).
A hook is a detail that attaches the character to the story – the reason that the quest is personal for you. It’s fine to want to slay the evil archwizard because they’re a threat to civilisation, but if they murdered your parents and you’ve burned with the desire for revenge your whole life, even better! A character who cares about what is going on is more compelling than one who doesn’t. As an improviser, the easiest thing you can do to make your characters more compelling is to give them a hook that attaches them to the scene – to give them a reason to care about what’s going on. If your character is interested in and affected by what’s going on, the scene will be better.
A knife, conversely, is an established detail about your character or backstory that can be used later on by someone else to engage with you. Say your character never knew their father (a classic knife) – when the villain has them cornered and dramatically reveals that he was their father all along, the knife is used and the stakes have become higher (and intensely personal). Knives make it easy for the story to develop in a satisfying way. As an improviser, every established detail about your character can be used this way by your scene partner. A few interesting details that could be picked up later can make the difference between a good character and a great one. Give your scene partner the gift of a few knives that they could use!
3. Don’t be afraid of failure
Fear of failure is something every improviser has to contend with. Whenever you set out to do something without knowing exactly what will happen, there will always be that little voice that asks, “What if everything goes wrong?”. Overcoming that fear, ignoring the little voice, and doing the thing anyway are some of the first hurdles you face in improv and they never really go away completely.
D&D has an intimate relationship with failure – that’s what all the dice are for. Whenever your character does almost anything in D&D, from swinging your sword at a foe to making a good impression on a potential ally, rolling the dice ensures that there is a risk of failure. Embracing the potential for failure has several advantages. Risking failure makes success more exciting – a narrow victory against the forces of evil that sorely challenged your abilities is far more interesting than coasting to victory with ease. It teaches you resilience – coming up with a new plan after the first one fails spectacularly is a classic part of the D&D experience. It also shows you that failure can be a good thing in itself – if your character dies in battle with the villain, simply make your new character a family member on a quest for revenge and you’ve got a great hook ready to go!
As an improviser you should strive to embrace failure in the same way as a good D&D player, because taking risks is a key part of improvising.
4. Remember it’s a team effort
D&D and improv both occasionally suffer from the misconception that it’s a game you can “win”. In improv it might be someone trying hard to be the funniest or most interesting character in every scene, or simply unwilling to have their character not get what they want (one of the main reasons why arguments don’t usually make a good scene). In D&D it’s often the old-fashioned idea of the game as a contest against a DM who’s out to get you.
In both cases the answer is to simply remember that you’re all on the same team. In D&D the DM is not your enemy, they’re your ally in the goal of telling a great story and they’ve usually put in a heck of a lot of work preparing story details and supporting your choices as a player. There’s no DM in improv, but the lesson is the same: everyone improvising with you is your ally in the shared goal of a great scene or story, and you all have the responsibility of supporting each other’s choices. Remember that you’re all on the same team – whether it’s your improv team or your D&D group – and you’ll make success that much easier.
5. Give people what they want
I think it’s fair to say that there’s a tendency amongst improvisers to want to make choices that are clever and unexpected, to turn the situation on its head, to dazzle the audience with your skill and intellect. We’ve all known the pain of a performance that tries too hard to shake things up (to say nothing of being ‘random’ or ‘wacky’).
D&D has a lesson to teach here, and it’s to keep it simple and give people what they want. For almost 50 years D&D has been about the same kinds of story with the same tropes and clichés – the heroes fight monsters, overcome adversity, and challenge the villain in a climactic battle (probably acquiring loads of treasure along the way) – and people love it! Fulfilling your audience’s expectations is the easiest way to give them a good time. It’s less enjoyable to be completely blindsided by a twist than to have the satisfying moment of “I knew it!” when what you expected comes true. Fulfilling expectations is so important to D&D (and RPGs generally) that it’s a common practice to spend an entire session before the story begins just discussing everyone’s expectations about the story you’re about to tell and making sure everyone will get an experience they’ll be happy with. This ‘Session 0’ sets the group’s goal for the kind of story that they’ll be working together to create and is a fantastic tool for giving everyone a good time.
As an improviser you usually won’t have a whole evening to find out what your audience expects, but you’ll often have a sense of what they want anyway – how else could you try to be unexpected? The trick is to resist the temptation to always be more clever and more complicated. Keep it simple, give people what they want, and you’ll have an easier time telling a story that pleases you and your audience
Stephen Clements is running an online taster course of ‘Dungeons & Dragons & Improv’ on Tuesday 8th December. Find out more about the upcoming 6-week online course, starting 5th Jan here.
Challenge toxicity and be more yourself
The toxic effects of the patriarchy on women are well known. I grew up dripping with internalised misogyny and self-loathing. But what about the effect on my brothers?
Since I posted about developing this course- a class using improv, discussion & reflection to help men dismantle some of the invisible effects of the patriarchy – a number of men in my life have said to me: ‘ah that’s great, but the men who really need the course won’t sign up.’
Who are the men that really need the course? I ask. ‘You know, the sexist ones, the arseholes.’
This makes me curious.
Everyone who is alive right now has been raised in a patriarchy, unless you’re in one of those matriarchal tribes. This means we’ve all absorbed via media, culture, societal pressure, the belief that men and women need to act and behave in a certain ways in order to be ‘proper’ or fit in.
I developed the course ‘Being a Difficult Woman’ to help women, like myself, who want to speak up & challenge oppression, but struggle because of how we’ve been socialised.
I want to do this for men too. Patriarchy sucks for everyone. It means that boys grow up thinking it’s wrong to be emotional and in touch with themselves. As a result, they are massively cut off from a huge part of the human experience. It imposes certain forms of masculinity and rewards toxic behaviour. This can make it hard for men to be themselves.
Barack Obama speaks about the pressure of ‘masculinity’ and how society made him feel like there was a ‘right way and a wrong way to be a man’. As he got older, he says, ‘Life became a lot easier when I simply started being myself.’
So where do we begin? Once we’ve recognised this big ol’ power structure and the ways in which we’ve been socialised, how can we get out?
Recognition is the first step, then it’s about stepping up and doing the work.
In this course we’ll use improv exercises, discussion and reflection in a non-judgemental way to explore some of the limiting beliefs that have been instilled in us by the patriarchy. We’ll learn about, and practice, challenging language or behaviour which is contributing to oppression.
This is not a course for toxic men. This is for men who are curious about how the patriarchy has influenced them and who want to find out more in a creative & collaborative environment. Men who want to practice challenging toxic behaviour and show up for themselves and for members of oppressed groups.
As Jackson Katz, the researcher writes:
‘We need men to speak out. We need to raise the bar a little higher.’ – Jackson Katz
Imogen Palmer is running an online taster session of ‘Dismantling the Patriarchy’ on Tuesday 1st December. Find out more about the 8-week online course, starting 7th Jan, here.
Caitlin Campbell, Artistic Director of the Bristol Improv Theatre, offers some great insight into making improv shows based around particular genres…
- Why are you choosing that genre?
There are all sorts of good answers to this question; “because we love it” has to be up there. I believe all great genre improv shows are love letters to the genre. The more you love it, the better you’ll know it, the harder you’ll work at it and ultimately you’ll make a better show. You can always tell when improvisers adore their source material, and it’s a joy to behold – if you’re doing a Doctor Who show I want you to get excited every time you hold hands and run down a corridor; those making up Jacobean tragedy should relish the opportunity of a needlessly dramatic death; why improvise Dickens if you don’t get a kick out of inventing ridiculous Victorian names?
Equally, I have heard that masters of genre improv Parallelogramophonagraph (from Austin, Texas) choose their genres by picking one they know absolutely nothing about – because then they get the pleasure of learning about it. It must also be a great way of keeping things fresh when you have been performing together for over 15 years.
Some wonderful wisdom passed through master teacher Patti Stiles and the Impro Melbourne school is that you should pick a genre that will force you to try new moves – for example if your improv group never manages to use silence and tension into your performance, do a Western.
The only answer that doesn’t sit well with me is ‘because no one else has done it yet, and we think people will come’. Fair enough if this is one reason among many – but if the genre isn’t lighting your fire for any other reasons, keep thinking.
2. Has someone else done it?
They have? Good! It doesn’t matter. Or at least, it shouldn’t: for all that the UK’s improvising community is warm and welcoming, it is also famously (and needlessly) territorial.
It comes from a completely understandable place – our art form is still young in the UK and we have to work hard to convince audiences to ‘take a chance’ on improv. Unless you run your own venue, you’ll probably end up performing in unsuitable stand-up venues because it’s hard to get programmed into traditional theatres (this was the main motivation behind opening the Bristol Improv Theatre). The one time of the year this isn’t the case is the Edinburgh Fringe festival, and nothing gets in the punters like a genre show. Never heard of improv? Doesn’t matter! Bet you’ve heard of Shakespeare/Austen/Sherlock Holmes!
No wonder we want to be the only ones doing the thing we’re doing. But here’s a fun exercise – open the last fringe guide (from 2019 alas) and look up how many productions there were of Macbeth. Then try Medea, then Don’t Look Back In Anger, then any show where the ‘concept’ is ‘a single human stands on stage for an hour with a microphone telling jokes’.
In the last five years or so there have been at least six different improvised Murder Mystery shows at the fringe (I’m in one), and a further two improvised Sherlock Holmes shows (I’m in one of those too!). They all look different, sound different and market themselves differently, and have mostly managed to coexist peacefully (maybe it’s because we get all our aggression out on stage).
The lesson? Your USP shouldn’t just be the genre – it’s the fact that it’s you doing it, and what you’re doing with it. Focus on that, and on making your show the best it can be, and trust that everyone else is too. It’s okay for there to be more than one of anything.
3. What are you going to do with it?
Here’s the thing – you can just say ‘we’ll improvise the thing for 50 minutes to an hour!’ and that can be your entire devising process. But you’re missing out on a world of possibilities.
Get nerdy – think about how you want it to look, to feel. Where does it fall on the scale of parody to believable imitation? Are you going to multi-role, or play one character throughout? What scope does that give you for costume? If you’re adapting a cinematic genre, how are you going to bring that visual language into live performance?
What do people love about that genre that you could work into the show? I can’t be the only one who wants to see an improvised West Wing with a treadmill on stage so the improvisers can do the ‘now for ten quick briefings while we walk endlessly through corridors’ trope. Genres shows are trees absolute groaning with low hanging fruit – take it, squeeze it for every drop of juice. Be inventive, be silly.
The genre might be the way to get the audiences through the door – once they’re there, give them more.
4. Does it suit your group?
Again, there isn’t one right answer – just think about it. Does it play to your strengths, or will it force you to address your weaknesses? Who among you likes doing accents, playing villains, navigating complex plot twists, exchanging speedy repartee and loud bangs? How many of your troupe can be relied upon to turn up to a gig with proper shoes and an ironed shirt (seriously)? If the answer is none then maybe you should steer away from Film Noir for the meantime.
Or maybe there is a way of doing the genre that works for your group? If you love the meaty characters and dramatic plotting of Shakespeare but can’t bear the language, perhaps you’re improvising the gritty BBC reboot instead. Edinburgh-based Spontaneous Potter had a stroke of absolute genius when they decided to ask the audience for a Harry Potter ‘fanfiction’ title for their suggestion. It allows them to lean into their wonderfully weird and clever style, while still staying faithful to the core characters and ‘world rules’ that Potter fans adore.
5. Who is your audience?
The gift of genre improv is that it will bring people who don’t normally watch improv to your shows. The punter who says ‘well I always loved Blyton – so this looks like a Bit Of Fun!’ is your chance to create a life-long improv convert. Every year at the fringe I stop handing out wet fliers in the driving rain for five minutes to have a lovely conversation with someone who tells me they saw one improv show last year, and now they see them back-to-back. This is another reason we shouldn’t be so competitive – a rising tide raises all boats. If you want to get the audience on your side, you need to know who they are.
If you’re doing Roald Dahl improv, you’re probably going to get kids and families. Period dramas and Murder Mysteries bring an older crowd. Shakespeare brings tourists. Think about what they will want – it shouldn’t be your only basis for devising, but it should factor into the equation.
This is one of the other reasons it helps to adapt genres you love.
6. Are you prepared to spend hours watching/reading/listening to examples of that genre?
Because that is exactly what you need to do. Yes, it’s true that actors in scripted films and theatre adaptations deliver spellbinding performances without ever reading the source material – sometimes they are even better for it. But that’s because the treatment of the adaptation is being handled by a writer, a director, a producer and a team of designers. When you’re improvising you are every single one of those things, so do your research.
Whenever I watch the intro to an improv show and someone mentions that one or more of the cast have ‘literally never seen a John Hughes movie!’ I quietly grip the arms of my seat and curl my toes inside my shoes. Would you be happy if your dentist said ‘do you know what, I’ve never actually used a bone drill before!’? Would you chuckle indulgently if your daughter’s teacher said ‘the funny thing is, I actually hate kids!’ No, it’s not as life or death as a hole in the cheek or a child without basic numeracy, but it’s still a job, and your audience have invested their time and/or money to be there. Show a bit of respect.
This is one of the other reasons it helps to adapt genres you love.
7. Should it be an improv show? Why?
I don’t think we ask this enough. I first heard this useful provocation from Andy Yeoh (co-founder and former director of the BIT) who I believe originally got it from Adam Meggido (of Showstopper! fame). If you’re making an improvised show, you should know why it’s improvised, and that reason can’t just be ‘because I do improv and I want to do it’.
What is gained by this show being made up on the spot? What would be lost if it was worked into a scripted show that stayed the same every night? It feels like an uncomfortable question because if we don’t immediately find the answer we might start to wonder why we do improv at all, and if it isn’t just because we’re a bunch of attention hungry stage-hoggers who don’t like being told what to do (there are worse things). We sort of know the answer, but it’s very hard to put into words.
It is wrong to believe that improvisers improvise because we can’t write, direct, or act. In fact, a lot of us also do a combination of those things alongside improvising, and you could argue that improvising is itself a mix of all of those skills. So we’re not making things up because we have no choice.
A lot of us improvise because it’s fun – but if it’s only pleasurable for us, then it’s something we should do for ourselves, behind closed doors, like playing the harmonica or picking at scabs.
So why do people come to improv shows – and keep coming back? Because it’s engaging, it’s entertaining, it’s accessible and unpretentious and full of joy. Or perhaps because it’s impressive, it feels like a magic trick, it leaves the audience unable to believe it was really produced on the fly. Maybe it’s because the show is made just for that audience, and honours their input and makes them a part of the process of creating the show. When it comes to genre, it can allow us to live sumptuously within an imagined universe whose creator has long since died and cannot produce any more works for us to enjoy.
The answer for your show might be a mixture of all of those reasons – but thinking about them allows you to shape what you want the show to be, and work towards that. And then even though the show changes, you challenge yourselves to deliver that to every new audience, night after night.
Caitlin’s course, Genre Study: Improvising Period Dramas begins on Thursday 12th November and runs for 6 weeks. Get your tickets here.
Imogen Palmer shows why creating ‘Scenes from Truth’ are some of the best ways to get the Improv ball rolling…
Two actors are on stage. They are talking, they’re laughing, one of them is saying how much they’ve loved not wearing a bra during lockdown and they don’t think they can ever go back. The other shares that since having the freedom to wear pyjamas whilst working her whole wardrobe has been replaced by items which may look like clothes but are, essentially, pyjamas.
We get the sense that they are sisters or close friends. They’re putting things in boxes.
One says: ‘I’m sad you’re leaving.’
The other replies: ‘Me too.’
The lights go and we discuss the scene.
How did it feel for the audience?
‘I felt like I knew them’
‘Beautiful acting- so real.’
How was it for the actors?
EASY! Is the resounding answer. They were having a conversation, as themselves, with some imaginary story woven in.
What have I learnt is one of the gateways to amazing, heartfelt improv & acting?
Practicing being yourself on stage.
This is easier said than done.
Being authentic in front of other people or an audience can cause even the bravest amongst us to quake. What if we reveal too much? What if they judge us? I started learning authenticity work in Melbourne with a German practitioner Nadie Antler who helped us mine our memories for material. I remember distinctly feeling queasy in my stomach and heart as we were asked to share truthful childhood stories with the other participants (who were strangers!) in the class. I now recognise that this queasiness was the feeling which came with practicing being open and vulnerable when I had built up some incredibly tough protective walls for myself.
Cut to 2 years of intensive training later and I’m more or less an open book. I need to learn how to put my walls back up so I don’t get into trouble but the effect on my life and performance skills is incredible.
Vulnerability accelerates connection.
When I share a truth with a crowd of people whilst I am hosting a show, I speed up the feeling of connection and often cause them to laugh. When I play a character who experiences a moment of vulnerability on stage- maybe they are scared or frightened to ask the person they like out- this can solicit a roomful of ‘awws’ and connection.
Sharing truthful memories with each other & with the audience not only makes the ‘inventing’ easier because we’re drawing on truth but the gift we give the story is authenticity & detail. The other great thing is: no one needs to know whether it is true or not. The skill is to practice drawing from truth and then weaving in elements of imagination to serve the story. This way, if you are nervous about what you might reveal- remember it’s all made up! You are a great starting point.
In the exercise ‘cocktail party’ we practice having conversations and then take turns observing other’s conversations. It is mind-blowing how fascinating and fun it is to eavesdrop on other people’s conversations. Anyone who has ever turned their music down on public transport so they can listen to other people knows exactly what I mean.
There is a whole history of pursuing authenticity in acting, with master teachers such as Uta Hagen, Meisner and Stanislavski seeking this goal to name a few. How can I practice being an authentic human being who is alive one moment to the next?
In the course I’ve developed ‘Scenes from Truth’, I draw from improv and acting training to help participants practice being comfortable being themselves with each other and on stage, using their memory as a mine for detail. We practice using truth as a starting point and then explore how to begin to weave this into imaginary circumstances.
As Sanford Meisner said:
‘Acting is behaving truthfully under imaginary circumstances.’
The effect of this work is beautiful to watch, can often lead to belly laughter and is also very rewarding to do. A recent participant in the online version of the course wrote in their feedback that it was:
“Brilliant fun, energising, with great life lessons and training as well… It was something I looked forward to each week, and smiled about in the days in between. “
Like any skill, vulnerability & authenticity can be practiced. It takes courage, but the results are transformational, for your performances and for being yourself in your day to day life.
Scenes from Truth is a four-week course part of the Performing Level 2 program at The Bristol Improv Theatre. It starts on Mondays from the 9th November. Book your space here.
Lucy Fennell talks about the stimulus and conception of her new, online course ‘Live Devised’
The title of the scene, projected onto the wall is ‘Prawns’… the lights flicker, an instrumental begins to play, two performers confidently take their place centre stage, standing back to back and, with their elongated shadow in the eye line of their scene partner, they simultaneously begin to mime eating with a knife and fork. At one point, a performer offers a taste of their food and the other mimes eating it from the proffered fork, all the while facing away from each other.
This vignette, performed with aplomb by Alison Cowling and John Gallagher Portero, is the first and I think, only piece of improv I have seen where the performers did not make eye contact from the beginning of the scene to the end. Neither, as far as I can remember did they interrupt each other and, when the scene came to a natural conclusion they both chose the exact same moment to walk away, never once turning to face the other.
The resulting scene was remarkable; unfolding as a visual metaphor about connection, as the characters (a married couple) demonstrated their (literal) outward-facing preoccupation with everybody else’s relationships at the expense of their own. This scene set a high bar for the sort of improv I have aimed to perform, direct and teach ever since; scenes performed with fierce theatrical discipline, deliberate moves made with conviction, glorious subtext, multiplicity of meaning, visually arresting staging, and all miraculously achieved without script, rehearsal or choreography.
For context, I should probably mention that this particular scene was performed as part of ‘Is it improvised, does it matter? – an experimental show I made in collaboration with the Bristol Improv Theatre. It was a collection of scenes, some of which were completely improvised, and others which were entirely scripted, choreographed and extensively rehearsed. The ten scenes were shown in a random order and all had one-word titles submitted by the audience prior to the show. The audience’s role in this experiment was to consider, after each scene, if it was improvised or not, and on account of the high proportion of experienced improvisers in this audience, they were almost always able to tell. However, when it came to ‘Prawns’ many were deceived and the majority of people voted that it was scripted.
Like all good experiments, ‘Is it improvised…’contained successes, failures and things to learn from. Getting the audience to guess was quite alienating for them, and I didn’t much like the potential hostility of the test element. But there was something interesting about the way the challenge affected the performers. The stakes were incredibly high as they set about trying to imbue the scripted pieces with the effervescence and ‘joy de vive’ of spontaneous creation whilst sticking to their well rehearsed lines and blocking. Understandably, the stakes were even higher when there was no script. Having to improvise in such a way that the audience might feasibly think the scene was scripted and rehearsed meant that every moment, from the placing of chairs on the stage, the entrances and exits, every uttered noise, gesture and choice of dialogue had to look like a pre-planned, deliberate move. The audience were seeking out the signs of muscle memory, fixed on the deliberateness of a single step, the placement of a ‘um’, the way a line interrupted stood to serve or detract from a scene. It was all under the microscope and being analysed by experts trained to spot if that moment was funny because we had planned for it to be, or if the very fact it was unplanned made it funny.
In the process of rehearsing for the show we kept taking notes of theatrical elements being employed in the work we were devising and scripting. These included: physical sequences in sync, monologues, silence, repetition, motifs, choral performance, direct address of the audience, language juxtaposing with action, use of autobiography…all of these came up in the work we were lovingly devising and rehearsing. It dawned on all of us that if these ambitious elements were present in the scripted scenes, then it would be out of place if the improvised scenes were devoid of them, we had to reconfigure our improv style to stand any chance of winning* the guessing game against the audience.
In rehearsal I also observed the importance of precision in regards to language and action. Using a script heightened our awareness of everything that was said and done in the improvised work, because if ‘Prawns’ had been scripted then the line “Please pass the salt” could have been crafted to have an intention behind it and a tone alongside it. Picking up the napkin and spitting gristle into it might have been written into the stage directions as a humourous manifestation of the character’s disgust at what their partner had said. The conceit of a guessing game about what was improvised and what was not gave the performers permission (not that it was needed) to take their time, hold the space and improvise as though someone had written it, which in a way, they had.
‘Live devising’ then, is to be actively conscious that our improvisations are being crafted in the moment. It is an illusion that takes the work of nanoseconds and presents it as the chiseled masterpiece of a lifetime. It is the art of being deliberate in our use of words and actions, and perhaps of saying less but ultimately saying more. It’s the freedom to make less sense but to collaboratively shape a bigger meaning from the chaos. It’s a challenge to ourselves before stepping on stage to make every output count. And for me that’s a headspace that’s terrifying and thrilling in equal measure.
*Ultimately the only winner was improv.
Lucy’s online course, ‘Live Devised’, starts on Monday 26th October and runs for 6 weeks. Make sure you don’t miss out on some fantastic teaching! To book your place, just click here.