Is It Improvised? Wrap-up

Lucy Fennell and the performers during a Q and A after the performance

Lucy Fennell's pilot show "Is It Improvised, does it matter?" debuted at the Bristol Improv Theatre last Friday. In the final post of a trio of blogs, the people involved in the project reflect on the experience and what they have learned about improv, scripted scenes and their own approach to performance.


This week I have had the opportunity to direct three intuitive and courageous performers, Alison Cowling, John Gallagher Portero and Mark Dawson. As much as I've had my own experience of making the show, they have been inside it and all have their own take. So here is a little extract from them all about their experiences this week.

Alison Cowling:

This week has been so, so, so interesting! A practical, fun and exciting way to unpick what it is different between improv and scripted scenes…apart from the obvious!

For me staging has been the big thing that has highlighted the difference and how much there is to play with. As a theatre maker and deviser as well as an improviser it has been great to start messing with the different forms of theatre, pushing what we can do and how creative we can be.

When devising we always use improv as a tool to try things out and get ideas up on their feet to see if our creative ideas stick. With improv we don't always use a range of theatrical devices, so this week we've been playing with using monologues, split staging, montages, narrators and flashbacks (and even more!) to challenge our improv and expand our creative storytelling.

John Gallagher Portero:

I first did improv at university. It was one of the first things I did as a fresher, and it was the first time I had ever done any form of theatre. We mainly focused on Short Form, performing shows similar to that of Whose Line Is It Anyway? and Theatresports. Although I did dip my toes into writing, sketch, directing, and scripted work, I always returned to my roots in improv.

The experiment of scripted and improvised scenes coinciding together in one show never troubled me. I've seen it before. There are a lot of great improv teams that are as engaging, and dramatic as any scripted piece of theatre.

I think it has something to do with how improv is presented in Britain. With the exception of London, where the quality and variation of different improv styles is higher, most British cities have not seen 'good' improv. They have not seen TJ & Dave, they don't know what 'Game' is, they've never seen the impact that UCB and IO had on North American comedy.

That might sound very snobbish! I don't mean to be.

When I see a pun in an improv scene, or I see a wink to the audience, I die a little inside. To me, improv explores comedy and drama within its scene. It is an experience that brings both the performers and the audience together; it becomes its own unique art form. It should not be a folly for other comedic/theatre art forms. For example, using pun games in improv. Or an improvised version of a popular movie. You're USING improv to sell your show, and you're suggesting improv cannot be entertaining on its own.

That DEFINITELY sounds snobbish! Again, I don't mean to be. I respect all aspects of improv, I know there's an audience for it, and it does encourage positive results for improv. I just have preference to what I like.

British audiences are simply not used to well acted improv scenes. I think Lucy has struck a lovely balance of politely(very British) inviting audiences to trust this experiment. Can improv seem like it is scripted? Can improv prove to be as good as you think it might be? More clearly, can something I don't know much about be as entertaining as something I am accustomed to?

I am more accustomed to the brash, over-confidence of American style improv. It's fast, stylish, and it expects the audience to keep up every step of the way. That might be perfect for an American audience who are naturally more forgiving, but to a British audience, they expect more from something they have not seen before. Which is why American style longform is still finding its feet in the UK.

This show is a lovely balance, showcasing 'good' improv in a manner in which British audiences can feel relaxed watching it.

I am proud to be part of the show, I had incredible support from my fellow improvisers, and I learnt so much about the devising process. Lucy has a wonderful mind, and it's experiments like this that formed improv from a technique to learn acting, into its very own art form.

Mark Dawson:

When scripting from the improvisations, there is a tendency to overthink everything and create subtext for every line and word. The result can be a script overburdened with meaning. Whereas the improvisation that inspired it had a looseness and space for the audience members to create their own subtext, we now have a script that is so dripping with subtext the audience can't help but see it. The result is the audience no longer has the opportunity to join in the game of working out what's going on under the surface.

The re-writing of the scenes has also allowed us the opportunity of going back to some of original choices and making them bolder and more risky. The original improvisation might have involved someone with a pain in their right side that was named as a problem with the appendix. When we came to re-write it we could make a bolder choice and have the character suffering from cancer or a knife wound. And this has fed back into the improvisations forcing us to make bolder choices. If all our scripted scenes have big bold choices then our improvisations also need to have big bold choices to match. If they didn't, it would be obvious which are script and which are improvised.

One final thought. My instincts are always to find the comedy in the situation. For most of second day I tried to keep that tendency at bay. When I didn't the scene could easily turn into a cartoon or a bad piece of children's theatre. But by the end of the afternoon it was clear that a lot of scenes could get heavy very quickly if there is not some form of humour to bring a lightness of touch. For me, the biggest challenge of has been to bring back that humour but without undercutting the reality and realness of the scenes.


Interested in learning more in how improv and acting co-exist? Sign up to the Improv Actor's Clinic with Andy Yeoh. Tuesdays at 7pm. £15 / £10 for for Unscripted Players Members. Tickets for tomorrow (19th Feb) can be purchased HERE.