Thursday, 31 May 2012

The Improvised Wizard of Oz – Story versus Plot

There's a lot of fun to be had asking members of the audience up on to the stage to improvise a play with us. Of course, this has to be done with care. It works best in a chummy environment where the audience already know each other well. It often helps if we can win their trust by playing a shortform game like Pillars or Puppets in the first half, to demonstrate that we're in the business of making them look good. Volunteers with no stage experience at all tend to get more out of it, and are easier to play with, than those who think they're going to be brilliant. We choose stories that everyone is familiar with, so that no one has to worry about what happens next. A Christmas pantomime is ideal. The show is guided every step of the way by a narrator.

In the past, we have held on-stage auditions for the role of protagonist, hoping that the audience will vote for their friends to play the lead. For the most part so far, this hasn't worked: the audience plays it safe and votes for an improviser to play the main character.

At the weekend, The Inflatables did shortform games in front of a village hall crowd of about 125, and persuaded eight volunteers to join us on stage for the second half. Backstage during the interval, we played a quick warmup game of Zip Zap Boing, then went straight into improvising The Wizard of Oz. Abandoning the audition process, we reassigned the role of Dorothy on a scene-by-scene basis. She was denoted by a blue gingham apron that was quick and easy to swap between actors. The remaining volunteers played scenery, Munchkins, flying monkeys, etc.

Dorothy is almost the perfect passive protagonist. She barely does anything and hardly changes over the course of the story. She is the perfect role for someone without improvising experience. She can be pimped and prodded along and made to look good, while the seasoned improvisers take the more difficult supporting roles.

It was great, energetic fun: fantastic to see the shyest of the volunteers start to come out of their shells on stage, and heartwarming to watch them being congratulated by their friends afterwards.

Dorothy serves as a good illustration of the distinction to be drawn between "story" and "plot", two words that are commonly used interchangeably. What is Dorothy's story? If we define her story has governed by the choices she makes, it could hardly be simpler. 1. She is unhappy at home. 2. She runs away. 3. She misses her family. 4. She goes home again. The two main decisions she takes (there are a couple of subtle other ones along the way) are marked by memorable lines: "Somewhere Over The Rainbow" and "There's no place like home". Almost everything else that she experiences consists of people telling her what to do, explaining what's going on and reacting to her. She kills two witches, both of them by accident. She even needs to be told to make the decision to go home.

By contrast, the plot of The Wizard of Oz is remarkably complex. It involves a twister, a pair of ruby slippers, flying monkeys, an egg timer and a hot air balloon. It is colourful and arbitrary, very much like the absurd nonsense that improvised comedy often creates. We can play around with it – embellish it using audience suggestions, send it panging off in random directions, do scenes in different genres – without ruining Dorothy's story. In our version, Dorothy won over the Wizard by growing a Ferrero Rocher tree from a magic bean. What the Scarecrow lacked was not a brain, but a sex drive. The plot was different, but the story was the same. She returned to Kansas at the end.

I don't wish to imply that plot is so insignificant it can be dispensed with. We cannot simply fast-forward to the emotional heart of a story without allowing the action to unfold in a colourful and coherent way. We included enough of the plot of The Wizard of Oz for the story to be recognizable, but lots of details – most notably the Tin Man and the Lion – were omitted, only for reasons of limited time.

In summary, the story belongs to the protagonist and is fixed. The plot belongs to the story and is arbitrary. The story is "what happened". The plot is "how it happened".

Improvisers who don't engage emotionally in the characters they play can easily get bogged down in plot. Without empathy for the characters and an understanding of how the decisions they make create the story, it is necessary to fall back on clever reincorporation of material in order to create a satisfying conclusion. And while some improvisers are amazingly good at this, and have fantastic skills of listening, memory and reincorporation, most improvisers struggle to tie everything together in this way. They could make their lives easier if they focused less on the plot and more on the story.

Curiously, when you allow a character to follow the story that is laid out for them, the plot often seems to look after itself. The mountain of miscellaneous stuff that you created through free-association in the first few scenes will uncannily include exactly what you need in terms of plot to allow the story to make sense, rather than be a burden that needs somehow to be accounted for. I cannot explain this phenomenon, but it happens with practice.

I'd be lying if I claimed that our Dorothies were three-dimensional and emotionally well drawn, or that The Improvised Wizard of Oz engaged the audience in deep empathy for her. Our show was little more than an affectionate (and occasionally bawdy) romp. But I wonder . . . Would we would have created such a delightful atmosphere in that village hall – with the audience singing joyfully along with our improvised choruses – had we not been faithful to her story?

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Lights, Camera, Easy Action!: This Weeks at The London Improv Comedy Club

The Beta Males: Happy Place, Wednesday 8pm 
How special do you like your special guests? Please press the screen at the appropriate answer:

1. Very special.
2. Extremely special.
3. Awful.
4. I like legs.
5. Hello.

If you answered any of the above, you're in luck. This week we've have some terribly special guests using their heads to make excellent things happen.


See below:

The amazing Montreal Improv are here! Brent & Marc, of the Montreal Improv Theatre, dive head first into the world of pulse-pounding action with their show, EASY ACTION. All without the use of stunt-doubles, wires, or scripts!

Will it just be two thirty-year-old Canadian men making machine-gun sounds on stage for an hour? Maybe. Don't miss this international exclusive performance on Tuesday.

They will be supported by fun times, in the form of games from Arthur.
Arthur is a naughty boy, but he has a good heart. Like if the Bash Street Kids were promoted to angels.
WHEN: 8pm, Tuesday 29th May
COST: £5 on the door

A smorgasbord of comedy titans to smash away your May blues, and shower you in a richness of laughter-soaked hilariousness.

Mighty Impressionist Max Dowler

Comedic Wunderkinderen The Beta Males (“Highly inventive… Elegantly written and exquisitely performed… one of the most exciting, gloriously funny acts out there.“ Time Out)

And Marbles (Two guys and a universe of characters and scenarios, entirely improvised)

Hosted by the charming, erudite and slightly dashing Horse & Louis
WHEN: 8pm, Wednesday 30th May
COST: £5 on the door.

Recommended by Time Out.

At each show, host and Second City alum David Shore interviews real celebrity guests. After each interview, the focus shifts to the Monkey Toast Players who use the interview as inspiration for their improvised scenes. The show then flicks back and forth from interview to improv to build a unique and hilarious show.

Special guests for this show: Editor-in-Chief of Time Out LondonTIM ARTHURmusical character comedian and star of BBC's Doctor Who and The Impressions Show, THOMAS NELSTROP, and more TBA!

This show's cast:
Phil Whelans (Pros from Dover, BBC), Susan Harrison, (Bagpuss), Paul Foxcroft, (The Institute), Charlotte Gittins (The Improvathon), Javier Jaquin (The Card Ninja) and Richard Soames (The Beta Males, BBC3).

Hosted by David Shore.
WHEN: 8pm, Friday 1st June
COST: £7 on the door. (£5 with the codeword "Toronto")

(click for details)

If you come, you will also - technically - be a guest. And you are very special, like that kid with the scooter and two helmets.
See you soon, special.
London Improv

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Thursday, 24 May 2012

The Accidental Festival: 31st May - 1st June

If we're not careful, improv will go mainstream and then more people will be able to enjoy it. It could happen, we surf on waves of success lately.

Helping the tides, The Accidental Festival is coming soon. They reckon that some of the best and most revolutionary breakthroughs come from accidents, so this year they've decided to let a bunch of comic improvisers loose in the Roundhouse... "there's an accident waiting to happen."

Featuring some really awesome improv groups, and favourites of London Improv. Including Music Box, Fat Kitten and - the excellent - Grand Theft Impro. If you want to see some improv in one of those professional theatre thingamajigs, or some other thrilling experimental theatre, pop along to their website for a look at the programme.

I am hoping to enjoy the Tootsie Rollers.
WHEN: Thursday31st May - Sunday 1st June
COST: Tickets from £5, from the Box Office

Sunday, 20 May 2012

Excellent things: This Week at The London Improv Comedy Club

GTI: The Miller, 8pm, Wednesday
Oh you look well, don't you? For someone who has just saved an entire planet from a DNA-bomb that was going to wipe out all organic life. That's you, right? I have got the right person... right?

Well now you've stopped off for a couple of weeks of R&R before your next intergalactic mission, why not spend some of that time in comedy-land? Then you can get off to Vultron-4 and sort out their terrible  mouse infestation.

Don't worry, your Space-Captain has cleared it all. He thinks you deserve the fun:

YouTube sensations Conor, Luke and Tom do their thang. Climb aboard, they've got a trainload of fun and games for you.
"These pioneers of tomfoolery make us laugh to the point of exhaustion!" - The 405

Then stalwarts of The Miller, Music Box improvise a totally awesome musical. Music Box have a whole new cast of great improvisers, and they're kicking butt with it.
"Left me helpless with laughter" - FringeGuru
WHEN: 8pm, Tuesday 22nd May
COST: £5 on the door

Lucy Trodd and Ruth Bratt are in Showstoppers. They also do a sketch show together. It's a bit like the Two Ronnies, but insane.
Be tickled. Be troubled. Be laughing. With them, or at them, they don't mind either way.

Then Lucy and Ruth will join the cast of the awesome Grand Theft Impro for continued insanity. Grand Theft Impro are one of the most respected groups in the country. Improvised comedy, by veterans, for fun.
"Simply marvellous" - Time Out
WHEN: 8pm, Wednesday 23rd May
COST: £5 on the door.

(click for details)

Your ship leaves the Gamma-1 Space dock the following day, when you can get back to earning that hero badge you so proudly wear.
See ya!
London Improv

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Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Games, ghosts and golems: this week at The London Improv Comedy Club

The re-animated half-corpse of a centaur, at the 50-hour Improvathon. Obvs.
Hello pretty,

How are you? You look awake, which is a great start to the day. Hey, sorry this is a bit late this week. Over the weekend I was involved with the 50-hour London Improvathon. Which is exactly what it says it is: a 50 hour long show, set in ancient Greece where gods and mortals compete in the first Olympic games, whilst protecting Athens against the dark forces of the Underworld. Pippa Evans played Jet from Gladiators. It was totally historically accurate. 

Anyway, it was 50 hours long, so yesterday was largely a sleep day. But today I am (sort of) back in the land of the living, so here's whats going on this week:

We are showing a 1hr version of the original Ghostbusters film with overlaid sketch and song tributes to the film. Think Reduced Shakespeare meets Be Kind, Rewind! This is the scratch performance of a show that we are taking to Campsite at Pulse Festival at the beginning of June. Scratch means that it will be unapologetically shoddy with scripts in hands and lots of joyful bumbling.

With just 3 actors, overalls, cans of silly string and original songs, we present a very silly and interactive show.

We encourage you to bring sheets with eye-holes, a book, marshmallows and a can of silly string (that's your proton pack). Feel free to dress up Ghostbusters stylee. The Nursery can be a chilly venue (it's in an awesome railway tunnel), so bring an extra jumper too!

Starring: Katy Schutte (The Maydays, News Revue),
Tom Frankland (lots of proper Shakespeare shows at the Globe and puppetry things)
and Jonathan Monkhouse (London Improv, Project 2).

Sketches and lyrics by Chris Mead (Ood Cast) and Katy Schutte with additional material by the cast and Rebecca Macmillan. Music by Joe Samuel (The Maydays).
WHEN: 8pm, Tuesday 15th May
COST: £5 on the door

Arthur are back, mofos! A collaboration of improvisers gather together and provide you with fast-paced, action-faced improv. Classic games and scenes with new twists accompany totally new games. Think of it as Who's Line Is It Anyway? with a cowboy hat and a helicopter.

They'll be followed by the excellent Do Not Adjust Your Stage, improvising an entire evening's television schedule in an hour. They are also fast and furious. Think of them as the Radio Times sitting on a firework, yelling Sioux battle cries.
WHEN: 8pm, Tuesday 15th May
COST: £5 on the door.

Jess Fostekew's Edinburgh preview is a gag-suffused show about brave words, new words and brave new words. Mainly japes about etymology. But it’s not just for nerds. There will also be a filthy joke (about nostrils).

Really all about the jokes, she doesn’t embark on a path unless there’s funny at the end of it.” Chortle
Tremendous charm.” Scotsman

Paul and Cariad are one of our favourite shows of all time. They have been nothing short of marvellous every time they've played our stage at The Miller, so we are delighted they'll be back. And we're even more delighted that - as he was in town for the Improvathon - they will be joined by the heroic Jamie Cavanagh, seasoned veteran of improv and 'proper actor and everything', from Rapid Fire theatre in Edmonton, Canada. Whoop!
WHEN: 8pm, Wednesday 9th May
COST: £5 on the door.

(click for details)

So there's time to have a little bit of a sleep before it all starts... but then; get up, a-get on up, like a fax machine, get on up, to your next wonderful show. A-get on up.
London Improv

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Monday, 14 May 2012

The Rules of Impro

I don’t think there are rules in impro. I want to explore three main lines of thought I have around the rules of impro.
  1. The benefits of Rules
  2. The drawbacks of Rules
  3. My relationship with the Rules

The Benefits

I think that people use rules to teach because they work. If you are writing an impro book then rules make good chapter or paragraph headers. You can chunk down decades of experience into compartmentalised ideas. It’s similar to me pulling the three main points of this article out above. I don’t think that I can capture everything there is to say about rules in impro in three ideas but it helps me and the reader. You know the practical advice is coming at the end, the first two sections are just explanation. It helps you to organise how you take in this information. Using rules can do the same thing, they are handholds for learning.

When running a workshop, using rules is a good way to depersonalise feedback. Telling a first-timer they are being too negative and dragging their partner down can be intimidating, telling them to follow the rule of Be Positive is easier for a lot of people to accept. It’s something taught in customer service as well, you never tell a customer they can’t have a refund because “I said so,” you tell them that “Unfortunately the rules say we can’t accept this item,” putting the focus onto something impersonal. Whether it’s entirely appropriate for workshops is another question but it certainly works and is used. Getting up in front of people and taking feedback is not a usual activity for most of us, giving direct feedback can be isolating, giving everyone the same rules to follow encourages a group atmosphere. Giving a group a rule to follow lets them all act together without too much trouble, because we are familiar with following rules without thinking about them.

"Please" and "Yhank you" are examples of rules we use. Without thinking we know exactly when to use them. If you learn a language with different rules then you can see how much we take for granted. For example in Cantonese there are two different thank yous, Mhgoi and Dojeh. Mhgoi is thanks for a service and Dojeh is thanks for a gift. I had to look that up because I can never remember which is which, but for a Cantonese speaker it’s obvious. A lot of social behaviour is based on rules so we can get along without having to analyse every interaction. Rules do a lot of work so you don't have to.

In summary, we use rules because they present familiar territory and can be used without much thought.

The Drawbacks

So what are the drawbacks then? I think it comes down to over-reliance on the safety and seductiveness of rules. On the concept of safety, I think this is one of the important things I realised about my approach to improv, and it relates to a learning experience I had in an Imprology workshop, run by Remy Bertrand. The introductory exercise was to introduce ourselves in pairs and then tell the group the other person’s life story. We all new this was the exercise, so we did our best to remember everything, then we talked about it. One guy said he wasn’t sure how much to reveal to the group of his partner’s story. Remy noted that she already knew it was going to be told to the group and it was interesting the extra rules we choose to put on ourselves. Not giving away too much often is the safer option in life, but it is fascinating how much of that can bleed into impro and stop you doing things that you need to be doing. A lot of my learning has been noticing habits and then doing the opposite in scenes because that takes me new places. So one drawback is that a certain part of our psychology just wants to attach to the rules and not look any further. I think I have gained a lot if freedom in improvising by acting exactly how I don’t act in real life. Going somewhere new can only be done by stepping outside of the boundaries.

The other way that I think rules limit is by becoming a sort of fetish. It is a very seductive idea that we can memorise a few simple sentences and become great improvisers. I know I subconsciously assumed that’s how it worked when I started. I read Impro by Keith Johnstone and because I understood what he was talking about I just assumed that I got it. It took a lot of experience to realise that just because I remembered the ideas didn’t mean that I understood them, much less was putting them into practice. Learning the rules can also give you a false sense of security. It’s easy to learn the rules and then note all the times that other people don’t follow them, tricking you into believing that you are somehow better because of other people’s flaws. It makes no sense but it’s a mental trick that happens to all of us everywhere in life. The speck in another person’s eye is easier to see than the plank in your own eye. Rules can be a useful ladder to learning but they can also just be a speck-measuring scale.

In summary the drawback is that they present familiar territory and can be used without much thought.

My Relationship

When I think about the rules I think about the adage “Don’t mistake the map for the territory”. When rules work they do so because they are getting you to do rewarding improv, but rewarding improv is its own thing. It exists apart from the rules. Rules are the signpost, not the end result, and rules have their limits.

For example even something that I treat as a cast-iron rule has its limits. Don’t Gag is a pretty good rule to follow, but if you get stuck in a scene with no energy, no end in sight and you know you can’t sort it out, one way to end it is to say something blatantly gaggy in a slightly louder voice so they pull the lights. Gagging is a bullet in the head of a scene, but sometimes you need to put a scene down and move onto the next. If you turn that into the rule: Don’t Gag Unless You Want to End a Scene, then I think you just create another problem. You absolve yourself of having to commit to scenes. You can just eject at any moment your interest starts to lull. Rather than being sensitive to the needs of the scene you can decide the scene is dead and kill it rather than jump in with what it needs.

Not having rules is an interesting challenge for me because I like rules and I like getting things right. I studied maths and solving equations is essentially just applying the right set of rules to a problem. I enjoyed calculus because differentiation and integration are just applying two opposite sets of rules to equations and seeing what comes out the other side. I was good at maths because I was good at understanding rules and then knowing how to apply them. Compared to something like chemistry, where you need to memorise chains of reactions and catalysts and reactants, maths is easy. So even though I don’t believe in hard rules I still find myself unconsciously adopting advice as set in stone without thinking about it.

This is why it is important for me to avoid unconscious adoption of rules. I decided that I don’t want to replace my social rules with another set of improv rules because I don’t see that as the lesson of improv. When I read Del Close and Johnstone and Napier I see the same thing, there are lots of things that get in the way of being genuine and spontaneous. The rules are designed to take a lot of that out of your way, but if you aren’t careful you just put another set of blocks in the way. The only way that I can realistically be open and attentive to everyone I play with is if I practice being open and attentive with everyone I play with.

That is something I am happy to make my goal in improv. Let’s be honest if I wanted to work in an environment where most of what I said was passed over and people followed a set of arbitrary and unexamined rules I could just go out into the world. Deciding that improv is about self-awareness and understanding in order to relate creatively to other people seems like the more challenging and therefore more rewarding approach to take. I have to be different every time I work with somebody new, that’s more exciting than being the same every time. In the long run I think this approach builds personal confidence and also encourages supportiveness in a group. The rules don’t keep you safe, being in a group that listens is what keeps you safe.

Sunday, 6 May 2012

The Olympics Arrive Early: This Week at The London Improv Comedy Club

Some of the cast of the Die-Nasty Impro Soap.
Oh wow, it's a big week for improv in London.

It's the London 50-Hour Improvathon this weekend, so throughout this week there will be an influx of some of the best improvisers from around the world popping over to play in it. And while they're here, they'll be doing other bits and pieces too.

This is a bumper pack impro mail-out, because there's a few opportunities to see some of these guys this week and we wouldn't want you to miss out.

Actually, on Wednesday you might even get to be on stage with some of them, if they fancy popping down to our all-in impro-jam at The Miller (details below). They might do, y'never know. 

Improvisers from all over the world, all together in this brilliant city. Well that's just wonderful.

It's a debut show from Kate Feeney (Irish), Emily Howell (Australian) and Constantine Pavlou (Greek). Impronational relations have never been stronger. 

They will be followed by another debut, as old hands George Bream, Becca Gibson, Edgar Fernando and Steve Roe perform Improvised Sketches based on audience suggestions.
WHEN: 8pm, Tuesday 8th May
COST: £5 on the door

Mark Meer is regarded as one of the most awesome improvisers around. Not without reason. He is one of Canada's most respected improvisers, part of the the fantastic 'Die-Nasty', stars in TV show "May Contain Nuts", and is the voice of Commander Shephard in the Mass Effect video games. His two-person show "The Harold of Galactus" is a joyfully geeky superhero origin story, with another of Canada's finest improvisers, Chris Craddock.
Mark will be performing a two person show with Paul Foxcroft, which might be a similar thing. 

Before Paul and Mark go on, we're going to have a big fat impro jam, where anyone can play. Anyone who wants to take part puts their name in a hat, and we draw names and games at random for an hour. With the influx of international impro-stars, anyone could end up playing with anyone. Crikey, it's going to be fun.
WHEN: 8pm, Wednesday 9th May
COST: £5 on the door (free to participants).

The brilliant GTI are back for a new season of veteran impro, performed by impro-veterans, for fun. They'll be joined by the aforementioned Mark Meer, and also the awe-inspiring Jacob Banigan.

Jacob began improvising over 20 years ago in Edmonton, Canada, with the revered Rapid Fire Theatre (same as Mark) and now lives in Austria.

He has taken first place in many international Theatresports competitions, including the 2006 TS World Cup, Münich Impro Cup, Berlin Impro Cup, Atlanta World Domination (solo), as well as the Austrian National Championships many times over. He is a veteran of at least twelve 50-Hour Soap-a-Thons in Canada and London..
WHEN: 8.30pm, Thursday 10th May
COST: £7 on the door

It's the big one. One of the biggest impro events in the country, the London 50-hour Improvathon is an entirely improvised comedy soap opera set in Ancient Greece during the 2012 BC games.

The fifth annual 50 hour London Improvathon features some of the best improvisers from the UK, Ireland, America, Australia, Canada, India, Norway, Greece and Holland in a hilarious celebration of all things spontaneous.

Performed round the clock for 50hrs straight, this is an extraordinary and euphoric ensemble performance.
Pop in any time you like, day or night. Come in costume if you wish!

So whether you are looking for a bit of Friday evening comedy, a perfect continuation for your night out or a Sunday family outing, come join us whatever time you feel like! And don't miss the final few episodes where the whole extravaganza comes to its fantastic finale.

We provide music, tea, coffee, snacks and an all night bar throughout the Improvathon so you can stay for the entire 50hrs if you want!

'It's like nothing you've ever seen before.' - Time Out

'Fearsomely able improvisers' - The Financial Times

'Absolutely incredible. This isn't theatre, it's bloodsports' -

WHEN: 7pm, Friday11th May - until - 10pm, Sunday 13th May
COST: 50hr pass is £50,
an episode pass costs £12.50 (concessions £50).
You can also upgrade your episode pass for only £5 to see another episode.

(click for details)

All that, and cuddles (if you play your cards right). This week is mega. Join in the fun-stuff.
London Improv

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