From my perspective, this year has been about two things thus far: crushing celebrity deaths, and improvised comedy.
Anyone who either knows me or has read around this website will know that my main focus for the last few years has been on improvised comedy, and developing The Same Faces as a group and a brand (whilst also doing my best to keep a foot, lower leg, and most of my thigh in the waters of stand up). This has provided various ups and downs during that time.
In just under two weeks time, I’m co-running a weekend improv retreat in Leicestershire, which will include a panel discussion – that I’m moderating – called, “Improv: A Dirty Word”, because, to my frustration, I’ve come to realise that it is.
In America, Improv is a much valued art-form, with various companies dedicated to its teachings in New York, Chicago, and LA, and whose alumni often go on to become some of the world’s biggest comedy stars (Will Ferrell, Steve Carell, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, and Stephen Colbert, to name but a few). In the UK, however, improv is seen as the ugly step-sibling of stand up comedy; not valued for the skill and discipline required to do it, and with little recognition by the comedy industry as a whole. “It always seemed to me like the players were enjoying it more than the audience,” was a real thing a friend of mine from the stand up world said to me about eight months ago. That may well be true for some groups, but as a child of both stand up and improv worlds, my belief has always been that if the audience isn’t laughing, first and foremost, you’re failing at your most basic requirement.
Since Whose Line Is It Anyway? finished airing here in 1999 (which, by that point, had been using predominantly American cast members - rather than UK talent – for at least five series), very little mainstream improv has existed, and both its popularity and public awareness has waned. Two different attempts have been made to bring it back into mainstream consciousness in the last 5 years, with the BBC’s short-lived Fast & Loose (produced by the team behind Whose Line), and the even shorter lived Dave pilot, Improvisation, my dear Mark Watson – the failure of Fast & Loose was probably down to the overly contrived set ups for most of the games (despite featuring several decent improvisers, including Pippa Evans, Wayne Brady, Humphrey Kerr, and Jonathan Mangum), while IMDMW, had the air of a show commissioned purely on the “strength” of its title, but made a fatal error by using stand ups rather than trained improvisers, leaving those taking part to look horribly out of their depth.
So this has been my battle for the last few years; building up a regular audience of people, by convincing them that improv could be just as funny as stand up, if not more so, and that the excitement of spontaneity would get them hooked. Simultaneously, I was attempting to develop and expand two workshops (one in Leicester, one in Northampton) in a generation that hasn’t grown up with improv as part of the culture.
But during this last fortnight, several things have happened that makes me think improv is on the rise.
First, it was announced that the stage version of Whose Line Is It Anyway? (with Clive Anderson, Josie Lawrence, Greg Proops, Brad Sherwood, and Colin Mochrie) is to return to the West End this summer, after its successful run last year. This feels to me like Dan Patterson trying to prove that Whose Line still has an audience in the UK, and that the TV show should be revived here, just as it was a few years ago in the USA. I’m all for this, though I’d like to hope that if they did so, they’d look to bring in some new British blood in the process (yes, I mean me; ok?! I’ve wanted to be on that show for 12 years!).
Then, last week, I saw a three-month old article from Vice, that declared “London's Newest Craze is Improv Comedy, Apparently”. Several of my non-Capital-dwelling improv friends were frustrated by this piece, due its “nothing happens outside of London” implication, and its somewhat condescending tone (the word “apparently” is in the title, after all) – even when improv is catching on, it’s still shaped as the surprise hit of a lesser art-form. However, strip all of that away, and the actual idea is promising; if improv is getting mainstream attention in London, hopefully it won’t be long until word spreads around the rest of the country that improv can be amazing, confidence building, and even – dare I say – cool.
The timing of when I found that article was amusing to me, as it came a week after The Same Faces performed in our first London show, in an Improv Death Match versus City Impro – an event which – somewhat surprisingly, considering they had home-field advantage – we won.
In my summary of our Edinburgh experience last summer, I wrote about how pleased I was to find that we could mix it with some of the best improvisers at the Fringe, and I did have a similar feeling after we left London – the guys & girls at City Impro are undoubtedly talented performers, so – even though the competition is a daft structural contrivance – it actually did mean something to me that we beat them. Here were we, a little known team from Leicester, taking on the group from the big city filled with international performers and Edinburgh Fringe veterans! I always find these experiences reassuring, not least because I’ve never won a damn thing for stand up (at least partially because I hate competing against my friends, but mostly because my material loses impact in five minute chunks – I’m a short-form improviser but a long-form stand up).
And then thirdly, this weekend happened (first weekend of April 2016), and two significant events took place. The first of which was the wonderful improvised comedy-musical Showstoppers winning an Olivier Award for its West End residency. This is fascinating to me, because Showstoppers is unmistakably a comedy show, but it’s been embraced by the Theatre world. By contrast, the two biggest comedy festivals in the UK (Edinburgh Fringe and Leicester Comedy Festival) don’t consider improvised shows for award recognition, preferring to focus on scripted content (as though creating a new show every day is somehow less impressive – you see? Improv’s a dirty word in comedy). But again, I’m looking for the positives here, and if the theatre world is going to legitimise and bring attention to a production like Showstoppers, that can only be good news for the rest of the improv community.
Secondly, on Saturday night was the third anniversary show for The Same Faces, which we celebrated by having twice the usual number of players; inviting those who’d made a significant contribution to the group (and were available) in the last three years. It was one of our best shows to date, with a full audience, and a lovely cake! It was a fantastic night for me to look at the project I’d spent three years building as its director, and to see all the people it’s brought together, who probably wouldn’t have met otherwise. I was joined on stage by several people who hadn’t even considered doing improv 37 months ago, but were now playing at such a high standard that any combination could play together without any gulf in talent. It was probably one of the most satisfying gigs I’ve ever been a part of, and confirmed to me that my philosophy for improv is working.
I was involved with a few groups prior to The Same Faces, and have made guest appearances with various others. One of the things that these experiences – and stand up comedy – have taught me is that improv needs to have a quality threshold, while providing a development structure for new players. In stand up, nobody gets paid until they’re good enough; you have to serve your apprenticeship first, to develop your skills and hone your craft, and that’s why the free-entry open-mike circuit exists. Conversely to this, I’ve been involved with improv groups who would put people on stage with no prior training, and then charge the audience to come and watch – this is, in my opinion, one of the things that gives improv a bad name. You can’t give a paying audience a sub-standard product; you’ve got to make sure all your players are sufficiently well trained that they can produce a show worth paying for. It requires time, dedication, and a willingness to learn, but you can develop people to the point where they can achieve this. Improv skills, unlike virtually any other form of comedy, can be developed without an audience present – go to a workshop and become the best you can, if you want to get on stage.
One of the best quotations about improv I ever heard was this: “you shouldn’t want to be the best person in your improv group”; playing with people who are better than you is what makes you better, so if you’re taking pride in being the stand out performer in an improv show, then perhaps you should try stand up instead, because you’re not appreciating the team dynamic required.
My two workshops each meet weekly, and I believe this is essential for development – the brain is like any muscle, and you have to exercise it regularly to make sure it’s in peak condition.
The trouble with all this is, sometimes, your local improv community is too limited for you to either get better, or to find better players to play with, and this leads to my major point about British improv.
Improv in the UK is segregated around the country; there’s generally one group in each of the major cities (and several in London/Birmingham), and often a group at the artsy universities. The trouble is, aside from those who can afford to go up to the Edinburgh Fringe each summer, many of these groups never meet. Never share ideas. Never swap performers for shows. Never perform together, and never share a workshop. In stand up, everyone knows everyone, because we all travel around the country for gigs. Improv needs a taste of this; we need to merge the community. We need to see what each other are doing, and do our best to raise the standard for the art-form as a whole. The groups who are doing well are under no obligation to pull everyone else up with them, but it’s a shame if they don’t, as a rising tide lifts all ships.
For the last year or so, I’ve been doing what I can to bring the improv community together – The Same Faces has always had guest players at each of our shows, as it gives an opportunity for new players from my workshops to step up, and for members of other groups to come and guest with us. Now, I’m working on taking it to another level. Recently, I’ve personally been to play with groups in Nottingham, Derby, Edinburgh and London, and took part in the Improv Smackdown in Birmingham last April, all for the sake of meeting new improvisers, and encouraging them to come and play with us when they can.
Last November I attended Geoff Monk’s excellent Improv Co-Op Weekend in Edale, which featured 32 improvisers from around the country locked inside the YHA for an intensive workshop programme. It was so much fun, that I offered to help run the next one, which – as I alluded to above – is now just eleven days away. Unlike other similar weekend events, this one is taught by those attending (with prior teaching experience), hence the co-op aspect, which helps keep the price down, and encourages the sharing of ideas amongst the different groups.
We’ve made a big effort to expand this one, and we’ve now got 50+ people coming from places including Birmingham, Cheltenham, Leicester, Northampton, Sheffield, Totnes, London, Nottingham, Manchester, and even Germany! Aside from moderating the panel discussion, I also had the responsibility of programming the workshops, so I can’t wait to bring these people together and have them meet other improvisers from around the country – I firmly believe that events like this are what will make the country’s improv community stronger, enhance the perception of it as an art-form, and increase the nationwide talent level. If we can do all of that, I’m confident that audiences will flock to our shows, regardless of where in the country we’re performing.