How to improvise in a genre without being trapped by it.

Ahead of his upcoming intensive on ‘Improvising Film Noir’, our fantastic improviser and instructor Stephen Clements shares some pearls of wisdom on this fascinating topic.


I have a deep and abiding love for genre fiction, mostly thanks to my father. My childhood was filled with stories, games, and comicbooks that he read, played, and enjoyed with me – sci-fi, fantasy, mysteries, horror, pulp adventure, superheros, etc. These larger-than-life characters, plots, and settings left a huge impact on my creative identity to this day – the stories I tell and characters I play will very often draw upon the familiar tropes of the genres that I loved earliest and best.

Returning to childhood favourites is a risky business, however. It’s easy to forget how rose-tinted the eyes of nostalgia can be, and stumble into unpleasant or off-putting themes or elements in a work (or more broadly across a genre) that you missed or misunderstood as a child. I recently reread The Big Sleep (featuring the definitive hardboiled detective, Philip Marlowe) and was unpleasantly surprised by the novel’s problematic treatment of women and gay characters. It’s hardly atypical for its genre in this regard – most Noir works came from or were heavily influenced by the 1930s and 40s and could forgivingly be described as ‘products of their time’ (unlike, say, the works of HP Lovecraft).

Problematic or troublesome elements of the genre you’re working with can be a huge hurdle to clear for improvisers. More than once, groups I’ve worked with have avoided a particular genre or shot down a particular show idea because of some element or other that they anticipated would be trouble, such as a lack of female character archetypes that aren’t fairly sexist (in Noir and Westerns) or an expectation of combat/action sequences that would be difficult to improvise safely (in action-heavy genres).

Noir works came from or were heavily influenced by the 1930s and 40s and could forgivingly be described as ‘products of their time’

The issue seems to arise from a feeling that genre is a big deal, not to be taken lightly: you have to include the proper parts of the thing, to honour the genre that you’ve chosen to work with, or else it isn’t a real genre show. This idea, that something has to be ‘done right’ or not at all, is a fairly familiar pitfall that new improvisers experience in beginner’s classes – it’s one of the ways that the notorious ‘inner critic’ shoots down our ideas before they make it out into the world. If we ignore the inner critic’s urge to ‘not do the thing’, as is received wisdom in improv, it leaves us with the question of how we ought to approach a genre that has some elements we don’t enjoy or find problematic.

A genre is a big thing, often very vaguely defined if defined at all 

The answer is simple, if not necessarily easy: leave them out! A genre is a big thing, often very vaguely defined if defined at all (there’s legitimate academic debate about exactly what counts as Film Noir, for example), built up over years of cultural output into a towering metropolis of trope and cliche. A genre show however, is much smaller and quite specific – it fits inside its genre, not the other way around. Trying to include all the possible elements of your chosen genre in one show will invariably leave it bursting at the seams, like trying to cram a whole city into one theatre. If a fantasy novelist doesn’t like dragons, for example, they simply don’t write about dragons in their novels. The novels are still fantasy without the dragons, and your genre show is still a genre show if you aren’t encompassing the whole of the genre.

Once we give ourselves permission to leave out the bits we don’t love, we can focus instead on including what we do. Take everything you love about your genre, shove it in a big cauldron and make yourself a delicious genre soup. Maybe you can even find space to explore better versions of the elements that gave you pause – swap your Noir show’s Femme Fatale for an Homme Homicide, or have deadly disputes in your Western be resolved by a tense highnoon duel of Rock-Paper-Scissors – there’s no limit to where your imagination can take you. 

When you come to improvise within a genre, remember the importance of self-expression. It’s your show, after all. Cherish the things that you love about your chosen genre, and if there’s something about it you don’t love? Forget it.


Can you relate to the struggle of improvising around troublesome elements in a genre you love? Or is this a skill you’d like to add to your improvisers toolkit? If this blog has piqued your interest, Stephen’s intensive ‘Genre Study: Improvising Film Noir’, is taking place on the 23rd and 24th January.

The Bristol Improv Theatre is seeking an ambitious, resourceful and visionary Artistic Director to join and artistically lead our team from May 2022. The Artistic Director will work with the Executive Director to form the executive team, who are answerable to the board of directors and are jointly responsible for the ongoing success of the theatre. The executive team will work together to strategically and operationally lead the organisation.

We believe this role would be a good fit for an emerging artist or director with a strong producing skillset and ambitious creative vision. We are expecting and encouraging early career applicants – prior experience of running a venue or company is not required. It may be that you have transferable skills or experience from another field, or that your experience has largely been based in the voluntary sector or community arts. If you feel excited by this role and can imagine a future for the Bristol Improv Theatre, we encourage you to apply. Equally, if you have relevant  experience and can see yourself working with us in a slightly different or more flexible capacity than we have outlined here, please describe this in your application. 

There will be a month-long handover and training period with the existing AD, and ongoing mentoring will be available. We are determined to find the right person (or people) for this role, and as such will happily discuss job sharing or other flexible working arrangements that might make this work viable for an applicant who was otherwise unable to take on the post.

If you are from a background that is currently underrepresented in the cultural sector (for example if you are from a group that experiences racism, if you did not go to university or received free school meals as a child, or if you have a disability)  and you would like support to articulate how your experience is transferable to the role, please contact Caitlin <caitlin@improvtheatre.co.uk> or Graham <g.johnson.rsn@gmail.com> and we would be happy to talk this through with you. 

Please note – the salary we are able to offer at this stage reflects the theatre’s income, rather than a competitive rate of pay for Artistic Directors. As the organisation is still very young and growing rapidly, the executive team carry out regular pay reviews and are committed to raising the pay of all staff whenever it is considered sustainable and financially viable.

Background

The Bristol Improv Theatre is the UK’s first permanent space dedicated to the art of improvised theatre. Founded in 2014 by a group of artists, teachers and theatre makers, we took over our Clifton premises in January 2017 and refurbished the building to create a bespoke 115 seat theatre space with a fully licensed bar, office, rehearsal space and residential and commercial accommodation. 

Since 2017 the Bristol Improv Theatre has experienced a significant period of growth, creating and playing host to a varied and engaging programme of shows, classes and events for Bristol’s creative community. The theatre now employs a team of 13 staff in administrative and operational roles, and works with a wider pool of freelancing associate artists and instructors. 

The theatre’s programme operates as a hybrid of a studio theatre and comedy club, combining a handful of recurring club night shows with touring shows and limited runs of new work. In addition to this, the theatre plays host to other Bristol companies and organisations, such as the Bristol Bad Film Club, Chucklebusters and the Bristol Burlesque Festival. 

Our Theatre School offers improv classes to adults, with an extensive roster of syllabuses which are delivered by experienced and trained associate instructors. These classes are an entry point for a number of pathways which the theatre provides to help developing artists to gain experience producing, directing and performing improvised theatre, including jams, scratch nights and a dedicated amateur company, the Unscripted Players. 

Structure and Governance

The Bristol Improv Theatre is currently a Company Limited by Guarantee, overseen by an independent voluntary board. We are currently in the process of applying to become a charity. 

ROLE DESCRIPTION

Purpose of Role:

  • Conceiving, developing and implementing the artistic vision of the Bristol Improv Theatre
  • Raising the profile and reputation of improvised theatre in the UK
  • Strategically leading the organisation to continue to establish the theatre’s reputation as an institution of improvised theatre both locally, nationally and internationally
  • Overseeing all aspects of artistic programming at the theatre
  • Working with the Executive Director to uphold an organisational culture which values high standards – both artistically and in terms of management practice. Ensuring the working culture is inclusive, collaborative, kind and supportive. 

Responsibilities of Role:

  • Artistic Programming
    • Work with the Programming Manager to present a programme of shows and events that is varied, high quality, artistically challenging, imaginative and entertaining
    • Maintain and develop relationships with other artistic centres, companies and venues with whom the theatre might share its artistic ambitions and resources (including touring initiatives)
  • Artistic Production
    • Work as a creative producer for new work for the theatre, including attracting cast and creative teams that serve the theatre’s goals with regard to artistic output, audience development and diversity
    • Develop policy, practices and resources to facilitate the creation of high quality work
    • Cultivate and attract both emerging and established practitioners, and actively seek out new talent to commission and collaborate with
    • Identify and commission inspiring artists to work with the Bristol Improv Theatre; advise and support them so they can make best use of the time and resources afforded to them by working with us
    • Work with the Executive Director to decide, allot and manage budgets for new work
  • Community & Pathways
    • Embody the theatre’s commitment to creating inclusive and supportive pathways for artists who wish to study, create and appear in improvised work, in order to train and empower emerging theatre makers
    • Maintain and grow these pathways; this includes, but is not limited to facilitating the theatre’s amateur improv company the Unscripted Players, and providing other entry levels to performance such as scratch nights, student showcases and improv jams
    • Work with the Theatre School Manager to develop the theatre’s offer of courses, drop ins and intensives
    • Support the Theatre School Manager to produce and maintain a growing roster of classes that embodies and communicates the theatre’s artistic and social values
  • Leadership
    • Assist with the transition away from being a private limited company
    • Line manage relevant senior staff, and work with the Executive Director to recruit and train new senior staff
    • Direct reports: Theatre School Manager, Programming Manager, HR Manager
    • Work with the Executive Director to create a safe, supportive working environment for all employees
    • Identify skills gaps and promote professional development among staff and associate artists
    • Report seasonally to the board on all artistic matters, to provide useful and accurate information to reflect the artistic progress and development of the theatre
    • Represent the theatre when necessary, at Bristol Improv Theatre events and shows, public functions or interviews with the media
  • Income generation
    • Work with the Executive Director to ensure the continuing financial viability of the theatre’s activities
    • Lead on researching and applying for grants, trust and funds for organisational development, artistic and outreach projects

PERSON SPECIFICATION

Essential

  • Ambitious for the Bristol Improv Theatre and improvised theatre in general, with the vision, imagination and passion to lead the theatre into the next phase of its artistic development
  • A pragmatic and resourceful mindset that can make the most of the opportunities (and financial limitations) that the run of a venue of this size affords
  • Comfortable and eager to be the public face of the Bristol Improv Theatre
  • Proven interest and understanding of improvised theatre
  • Proven experience of and commitment to producing new work
  • Personal commitment to diversifying the Bristol arts scene and championing inclusivity in working culture and practices. 
  • The ability to work under their own steam, with excellent organisational and time management skills
  • A strong understanding of and ability to create and maintain effective administrative processes
  • The ability to manage, lead and inspire staff and associate artists with patience, empathy and clear, well communicated direction
  • Persuasive and sensitive communication skills

Desired

  • Knowledge/experience of applying for funding, particularly with Arts Council England
  • Experience of developing partnerships with organisations and artists
  • Wide ranging networks in the theatre and cultural sector

HOW TO APPLY

To apply for this post please send us a CV and a cover letter (no more than two pages of A4). Please use language you’re comfortable communicating in and allow us to get to know you – tell us who you are, where you’re coming from, and what your vision is for the Bristol Improv Theatre. If you’d prefer, you can substitute the cover letter for a video or audio recording of no more than five minutes (please supply these as a web link rather than a downloadable file). If you would like to discuss other methods of application, please contact hr@improvtheatre.co.uk

Please send all applications to hr@improvtheatre.co.uk with ‘Artistic Director’ in the subject line. 

The closing date for applications is Monday 28th February.

We will be contacting applicants on an ad hoc basis to organise first round interviews with the current executive and a board representative. Second round interviews will take place in March 2022. 

Training and handover will take place Monday 2nd – Friday 27th May. Role will begin Monday 30th May.

Terms & Conditions

  • Hours: 150 hours per month (flexible working arrangements/job share negotiable)
  • Salary: £19,000 (for first year)
  • Holiday: 28 days
  • Probation: 6 months
  • Contract type: Permanent
  • Training & handover period: Monday 2nd – Friday 27th May
  • Job start date: Monday 30th May