Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Musings on Musical Long-form Improv

You’re in a dark, damp tunnel under Waterloo Station. As you glance to your side, you realise that there is an auditorium so sold out that people have to stand at the back. With a mix of armchairs, sofas, kitchen chairs and velvet curtains it looks like a Terry Gilliam set (approved by David Lynch). Now comes the beginners’ call and you know that you will shortly be on stage with more than 15 people, some of whom you’ve never met. There’s not only no script, but you’re also required to make up songs in the moment. For most people this is an actors’ nightmare, but for the participants of SlapBash it is BLISS!

SlapBash is a wonderful improv event that took place last Thursday at the Old Vic Tunnels to raise money for London’s improv festival Slapdash in July. When a large group of musical improvisers turned up from different companies - many of whom had not met let alone worked together – with barely an hour in the space before the doors opened, I was thrilled. The levels of experience were quite different – from a glut of full time professionals to a couple of part-time hobbyists. We warmed up (and met) with Big Booty, Hot Spot, gift-giving and a pattern game, all of which told me that I was working with a fun, enthusiastic and capable bunch. For the show we had a possible list of mostly musical short form games, including a couple of ‘set pieces’ from the different troupes, but mostly simple set ups that anyone could join in. We had no MC and it was decided that we would just jump on stage when there was a gap to introduce any that took our fancy. I was delighted that almost every formulaic short form game was assimilated by the long-formers into a whirl of colour and movement! A blues number has a huge chorus line at it’s feet, all in perfect time and motion, a game reading from a book (and then having it taken away and continuing in the same style) is beautifully illustrated in tableaux from behind, Machines is filled out with glorious harmonies from all over the theatre. We played for two 40-minute sets in a fairly seamless ménage of music that enthralled the crowd.

It was very interesting to see how the various styles of improv fitted together. Showstopper endowed, led and directed from within, the Maydays connected with the audience using their real stories to make glorious playback songs, Music Box came from a place of character and monologue to find wonderful counterpoints, Friendly Fire spoke through physicality and sound to form abstract and beautiful theatre and Marbles kept it real with some awesome rap. Somehow all of these styles and games were brought together wonderfully. Any number of improv styles can be combined successfully if each accepts the common ground of listening, accepting and building.

I think the main difference between British and American long-form musicals is that the British say their intentions out loud, whereas Americans keep it unsaid and communicate with their group mind. The British like to see the workings, they want to be shown that it is improvised, to have storyteller and a familiar style named and called out before it is parodied rather than for someone to spot the style themselves. I for one am excited after Thursday that these are not mutually exclusive styles, they can live and breathe together for any good improviser and any audience.

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