Improvised Sketch Comedy and Narrative. Can They Co-Exist?

Up the Antics have been experimenting with a new format recently- ‘the pretty flower’. This has brought up some interesting results in rehearsals as Luke Mallison explores in this blog.

At Up The Antics, we have a long standing tradition of taking the “rulebook” of improv, ripping it up, setting it on fire and then throwing it out the window. 

We once did 15 minutes of explaining GDPR to the Lib Dem alliance in Thornbury. And it killed.

This has become especially handy as we have been rehearsing our new format “The Pretty Flower”. This is an established american-style longform format with one grounded scene that the group will return to throughout the show, as they explore characters and comedic ideas around it. Last month’s show was set largely in Woolworths, and was centred around the blossoming relationship of two co-workers. However, their romance was interrupted by Waqar’s career as a trainee pilot, a luxury elevator service and Vicky’s dreams of being a PR Queen.

Naturally, the opening scene becomes more “story based” with the sketch comedy coming from the tag runs. As it’s a scene we keep returning to, it makes a lot of sense that the audience would want to see a satisfying narrative with a clear beginning, middle and end.

My urge is to fight this with every core of my being and make it all about the sketch comedy. Recently, I have been questioning if this is right? Should I calm down and let the narrative threads unfold? To provide some kind of justification to my gut reaction, I think it would be hard and incredibly frustrating to perform a narrative that is constantly interrupted by tag runs exploring random stuff. You would think of a great idea, only to be interrupted by 10 minutes of Waqar pushing Scott to the floor over and over again (this happened in January)

One of the things we all agree on is there isn’t a “right way” to perform improv, apart from the obvious need to protect each other’s safety (in particular, Scott’s hands and knees). This is an artform by its very definition we define the rules of as we go along. I had the very useful note recently when leading a workshop that the language shouldn’t be “here’s how you do it” but “here are some useful tools and techniques that will help you improve in this specific area”. This allows your group to not get obsessed by the idea of doing it right, but to share their experiences and learnings amongst a group of people who all want to achieve the same thing; a great show. 

So in conclusion, I don’t have an answer, but I’m learning that my steadfast resolve to only do one kind of improv probably isn’t the healthiest habit Treating all the wonderful and different theories out there as a mezze board of useful techniques will help me and the groups I’m in during our performances, and enable us to feel comfortable enough to keep on setting fire to that rulebook.

Catch Up the Antics Performing this Friday, 25th March at the Bristol Improv Theatre!