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.