Monday, 10 June 2013

Actions, Objectives and Super-Objectives

By Jason Blackwater, of The Maydays
This is not an improv blog as such. It's about people. What people want and how they go about getting it.
The Stanislavski system of Objectives refers to a character's wants within a play. He theorised that the character will always want to achieve something by the end of the play and that every decision they make should lead them towards that goal in some way.
So how does this apply to us? We probably don't go through life carefully considering every action and it's role within our life plan but what if we did?
To explain what I mean, I suppose I should go into a bit of detail about what each of these terms refer to. I shall be calling on the help of Wikipedia for this's been 6 years!


The objective is a goal that a character wants to achieve. This is often worded in a question form as "What do I want?" An objective should be action-oriented, as opposed to an internal goal, in order to encourage character interaction onstage. The objective does not necessarily have to be achieved by the character and can be as simple as the script permits. For example, an objective for a particular character may simply be 'to pour a mug of tea.' For each scene, the actor must discover the character's objective. Every objective is different for each actor involved because they are based on the characters of the script.
If we apply this to our daily lives, this is what we want to do right now. My objective, right now is to write this blog. It's quite a simple objective but an objective it is, nonetheless. My objective for the day is to have a productive day despite being really quite tired.


A super-objective, in contrast, focuses on the entire play as a whole. A super-objective can direct and connect an actor's choice of objectives from scene to scene. The super-objective serves as the final goal that a character wishes to achieve within the script.
In our daily life this is the big goal, the "where do I wanna be in..." question. Mine is to earn a decent living from just things I enjoy doing; Improv, acting and design. 


Obstacles are the aspects that will stop or hinder a character from achieving his or her individual objective. For example, while the character searches for tea bags to make the mug of tea, they find that there are no teabags in the tin.
Tiredness would be an obstacle to both my objective for the moment and for the day. If I'm feeling tired I may want to just sack them both off, order a pizza and watch Jonathan Creek on Netflix until nightfall
The obstacle to my super-objective of being a full time fun merchant is availability of work and the UK improv scene being fledgling. These are harder obstacles to overcome but I have more time to overcome them.

Tools or Methods

Tools or methods are the different techniques that a character uses to surpass obstacles and achieve their objective. For example, the character searches around the kitchen, they walk to the shops, or they call on the neighbour to be able to make the tea to pour.
My tool or method for overcoming my tiredness and writing this blog is connected to my super-objective. This is where it gets interesting. I shall come to the specifics of that in a minute but will-power and desire are my methods for achieving my objective of writing this blog,


Actions are referred to as how the character is going to say or do something. More specifically, it as an objective for each line. Actions are how a character is going to achieve their objective. For example, a line in the script may read, '(whilst on the phone) "Hello, Sally. It's Bill from next door. You wouldn't happen to have any spare tea bags, would you? I know how well-organized you are." The Action for this line may be 'to flatter' in order to achieve the Objective of collecting the tea bags. Actions will be different for every single actor based on their character choices.
Part of my plan for having a productive day is meeting up with a friend for a roast. She's helping me plan for the Brighton Improv Festival next year and we may discuss it over beef and yorkshire puddings. My action was to remind. Remind her she hasn't seen me for a while and remind her that I require her help.
So, the interesting bit, the whole reason I'm writing this blog, the whole reason I got out of bed at the exact moment I did, all boils down to that super-objective of wanting to be a full-time performer. Here's how it goes.

I want to be a full time performer
Availability of work
Create more work
Relatively low profile of The Maydays
Raise the profile of The Maydays
annual trips to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival
Raise some money
Kickstarter campaign
People are quite understandably, given the economic climate, reluctant to give up their hard-earned cash
Write a blog about Stanislvski that is entertaining and informative to convince you that I care deeply about my craft and humbly request, nay plead with you to go to our kickstarter project page by clicking here and giving whatever you can because I want to do this full time and the first step is in my grasp.

Every journey starts with a single step but you've got to be moving the right direction.

Thursday, 16 May 2013

Slapdash 2013: London's Biggest International Festival of Improvisation

Slapdash is an international festival of improvisation in its fourth year. This year we have guests from The Upright Citizen's Brigade in New York, The Finland Improvisation Festival in Tempere, The Philly Improv Theater, Amsterdam and Tel Aviv, and a guest or two left to be announced. Check out the (gradually evolving) schedule below.

It's our most ambitious festival yet and we're really hoping to reach out to the improvisation community and get everyone involved.

Oh, and if you would like some PERFORMANCE OPPORTUNITIES, on the first night of the festival, we are trialling a format called the Fancy Pants Mash Up, which we have stolen wholesale from some guys in Austin, Texas. But they stole it from Canada, so it's all ok. Here's the event: 

Thursday, 9 May 2013

Memories of London Fringe Theatre in the 1990s

Michael Brunström
The first time I went to see a real piece of 'fringe' theatre was at The Hope  Anchor on Upper Street in Islington. It was a hectic and full-blooded production of Eugene Ionesco's The Chairs, rather elaborately staged in the room downstairs. It was paired with a new play, the title of which I've forgotten, which had beautiful performances, nudity, complex sets, and eerie poetic language throughout. I was fifteen years old. It cost £2.50 to get in. During the interval I had to wait outside in the street because I wasn't allowed in the bar.

I had never before seen anything like it in the theatre. The actors were close enough to touch. You could hear their breathing, smell their sweat (it was very hot down there), and peer into the cracks in their cakey make-up. The drama was underscored by the beat of the jukebox upstairs bleeding through the ceiling. The floor was sticky. Latecomers brought the stairway light with them. I loved it all. Everything was visceral, immediate, real. There was no slickness or fakery. Before that, I had only gazed down from the hushed darkness of an Upper Circle at a distant square of light with a collection of miniature mannequins on it. It had been more like TV than theatre.

For much of the next year or so, I got into the habit of going to the theatre every week if I could, usually on my own, sometimes with a friend of mine. I travelled out to unusual venues at the far end of the Piccadilly line. On more than one occasion, I was the only member of the audience, and I'd hang out with the actors afterwards. Sometimes I'd save up to see Ken Campbell at the Almeida or some bonkers performance art at the ICA.

Very few of those pub theatres that I went to in the 1990s are still operating (The Hope & Anchor is now a music venue). Before the Internet, it was necessary for plays in London to run for a minimum of three weeks, otherwise Time Out wouldn't review them, but the listings pages – divided into 'Off West End' and 'Fringe' – were extensive. For a multitude of reasons, however, it was becoming more expensive both to put on a play and to go and watch one, and it became clear that I had been lucky enough to catch the end of a Golden Age for London Fringe Theatre. Of course, if theatre has the ruthless persistence of a weed, it will always emerge from the cracks, making new cracks as it does so.

For me, improvisation has captured most fully that sense of excitement I first felt when I was sixteen; and in London and elsewhere, the scene is now growing. It is a form of theatre that has its roots in a tradition that is much, much older than the hushed, passive, cinematic form that emerged in the eighteenth century with the introduction of footlights and a fourth wall. (That's not to say that I never enjoy darkened auditoria. The vitality of the drama depends more on the complicity of the room than on any specific lighting decision.) The drama happens right in front of us, like close-up magic. Whether the audience shouts suggestions throughout, or only once at the beginning, or even not at all, we are all co-creators, co-conspirators, in an experience which belongs to us all and which nothing will disguise. Actors and audience alike hang on each character's words and actions, because they are of enhanced importance. 'Everything is an offer': that is my definition of reality, a reality that is greater than the dull, deaf world outside.

Sunday, 5 May 2013

Improv Audition Techniques and Tips (that are useful for people who aren't auditioning)

The London scene doesn't have an awful lot in the way of improv auditions, but there's stuff here that's relevant to being a decent workshopper too. :

Hideout Theatre performer and director, Kaci Beeler.
By Kaci Beeler of the Hideout Theater, Austin, TX
As an actor I’ve auditioned for countless plays, films, commercials, and improv shows. I’ve also been on the other side of the process and have held and watched auditions for several years now. Being on both sides of the situation has given me some insight that I’d like to share with aspiring actors and improvisers looking to book a part in an ensemble improv show.
At The Hideout Theatre, we hold auditions for our Mainstage productions 6 times a year, in addition to occasional auditions for other shows like the Flying Theater Machine (our improv show for kids) and Pick Your Own Path.
We have no prerequisites for auditions. Absolutely anyone can come and audition for a slot in our shows. That said, we are often looking for actors with specific skills who can improvise. For our Mainstage shows we have a limited time frame in which to mount the show, and our directors like to be able to hit the ground running. This isn’t said to be discouraging, it’s just the truth of the situation. Most of our shows have a mix of experienced performers and newer performers that we feel have potential.
Auditioning is a skill, and there are things you can do to make your experience easier and more fun for everyone involved.
Before signing up for an audition, make sure to check your personal calendar to see if you can actually commit to the rehearsal and show dates. If you’re not available for a large majority of the dates, it’s unlikely you’ll get cast, and you should probably consider waiting to audition when your schedule is more flexible or open. When an actor drops out of a production after getting cast, it looks bad. No one wants to work with a flake, no matter how good they are, plain and simple.
Thoroughly read and re-read the audition notice. Does the call mention certain source materials or inspirations to look at? Is the director looking for certain skills? Do your research. If you’re auditioning for improvised Shakespeare, for instance, it would be a good idea to actually read some Shakespeare, watch some films or a play, and really get a feel for the subject. At worst, you’ll learn something. You might even learn you don’t like the source material…in which case, you might not want to audition for the production after all. Just because the show is improvised doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be prepared. Some people are very good at winging it, but those people are few and far between. For the rest of us, it’s nice to at least have an idea of the style and tone we might be portraying in case the director wants to see it.

Charles Dickens Unleashed, 2011.
Show up on time for your audition slot, or better yet, early (sometimes there is paperwork to fill out). When it’s your audition time, be ready to go. Make sure to eat your sandwich or snack beforehand and have everything in order.
When coming into an audition room, play it cool. Be friendly, but not loud and boisterous. The manic energy in a group improv audition can be infectious and fun, but it’s rarely going to help you stand out in a positive way. Save the squeals with friends for later and focus on listening to the director. They’ll usually tell you exactly what they want to see happen.
Speak loudly and clearly. This is HUGE. HUGE!! If you can’t be heard, you might as well not be in the room. Stage work requires projection and speaking in a normal volume is not enough. Our downstairs theater at The Hideout in particular is a space that absolutely requires our improvisers to project loudly and clearly all the way to the back wall during a performance. A director can always believe that you will be able to speak more softly, so speak loudly and clearly (no muttering unless it’s intentional) from the beginning.
Be a team player. The director is often looking for someone who plays well with others. Even if an improviser is the funniest person in the room, if they ignore and step on every scene partner they work with, it’s unlikely they’ll get cast. Improv relies on a strong ensemble and listening and leaving space for others is just as important as taking the stage yourself.

Hideout Directors Andy Crouch and Troy Miller.
Photo by Steve Rogers.
That said, take your time to shine. We want team players but we also want improvisers who will claim the stage when it’s their time to shine and be the star. Are you delivering a monologue? Plant your feet, be bold and speak out! Take risks! If you’re a part of a group of people onstage working together, make sure you actually get out onstage. If you don’t go out onstage in an audition, how do we know you will in the show? A hesitant improviser can be as much of a detriment to an ensemble piece as a showboat.
How do you act as a team player AND a star? Pay attention to what’s going on around you. If you haven’t spoken in awhile and you are inspired by an idea – put it out there. Make it happen! If you’ve been putting a lot out there and making a lot happen, it might be good to reign it in and pull back for a little while and give someone else a chance. Better yet – set someone else up for success.
Confidence & Calm
Don’t apologize. Have you ever heard the phrase, “Fake it until you make it?” It’s a good one. Most people in this world are faking that they know what they are doing. You can also be one of those people, especially in improv where everything is pretend!
Everyone is a little shy, a little nervous, and a little self-conscious. At an audition, absolutely everyone is a bit anxious – even the director. It’s okay if you feel that way. It’s normal. Don’t let this feeling get in the way of your work. Don’t e-mail a director after an audition to tell them that you had a bad day so you were in your head during the audition, it won’t help. If you think you were in a weird or bad scene, just try to have fun and ride it on through. Failure and weirdness is a part of improv. It’s something to embrace, not fear. Directors know this, don’t worry. In improv auditions, we’re looking for how improvisers deal with perceived failures and hiccups.
I personally find that a mantra helps me when I feel apprehensive and anxious. I repeat it in my head whenever I felt a little bout of panic set in when I’m put on the spot and feel watched. For example: “The moment that is happening right now is the right moment.” I like that mantra because it reminds me that there is something perfect and unchangeable about the present moment. The people. The place. The energy. It’s all something to work *with* not against. Let go of expectations. They don’t really serve you. Make eye contact with your scene partners. Don’t be afraid to ask questions if you’re actually confused. Have fun with what you have right in front of you. Life’s too short to not enjoy your pursuits. Enjoy the process.
Another mantra I like is, “How fascinating!” Feel yourself thrown off by someone else’s actions? “How fascinating!” that is. Now you have an opportunity to really improvise and try something new.

Spirited, 2011.
A director is often looking to see a range of abilities within one audition. I don’t mean that everyone should change voices or characters every 3 seconds, but being able to take direction is of huge importance to the theatrical process of putting up a new production. If a director asks you or your group to try a specific approach, like, “quick, fast-paced scenes” or “slow, patient moments” or even, “acted as serious as possible”, it is to your advantage to do your best to execute the direction. Slow down if asked. Try an accent or character if the direction is suggested. Even if you think you have a better idea, or a funnier idea, the director is looking for something else in that moment. If you don’t understand the director’s notes or set-up, you can always ask for clarification. If you don’t like the director’s ideas and don’t want to follow their advice, then this production is probably not for you (and it’s better to know this early instead of later for all parties involved)!

Improvisers Jon Bolden and Hugo Vargas-Zesati.
Imagine you have to sit in a room for 3 hours and watch 60 different people, many of whom you know and like, vie for a part in a piece you care a lot about. Imagine that you have to pick only 10-12 of them to be in your show, even though at least 40 of them could do a good job in it. A director’s role in a production is not an easy one. Sometimes it’s a matter of numbers. Often, 40 people can’t be in one show. Sometimes it’s a matter of playing style. Maybe the director is looking to work with improvisers who bring a certain skill-set to the table. Whatever their decision, it wasn’t an easy one. Don’t take auditions too personally. The more you enjoy the process, the less painful all aspects of it will be.
If you want to know how your audition looked from the outside, most directors are cool with giving personal feedback BUT it’s best to wait several days after the audition before asking this of any director.
The more often you audition, the better you will get at it! It’s a skill, just like anything else, and it’s something you can work on.
Break a leg!

Thursday, 21 March 2013


In this two day course, you will get intensive training covering all the various areas that you need to create a musical on the fly.

You will learn:

  • How to create characters, scenes and stories that fit into the idiom of musicals
  • The stagecraft of musical theatre
  • How to improvise songs - solos, duets and group numbers
  • Dance and movement - how to move like you've been choreographed

For this workshop, you don't need to be a great singer or be a musical theatre performer, however, you should have a decent groundwork in improvisation. There will be a maximum of 15 people on the course. In the areas where repetition is vital (like improvising songs) we'll split the class across two rooms to maximise amount of practice you get.

COST: £150
WHEN: April 27th and 28th 2013, 10am to 4:30pm 
(you must show up at 9:45am to be ready for the start).
WHERE: The American Musical Theatre Academy in London,
Europa House, 13-17 Ironmonger Row, London, EC1V 3QG. 

The course will be taught by two of the Showstoppers - Dylan Emery, who co-created the show; and Duncan Walsh-Atkins, the show's musical director.

Dylan Emery (co-founder of The Showstoppers) has been performing, teaching and directing impro for more than 10 years. He has performed at The National Theatre, The Royal Court, the Bristol Old Vic, Latitude Festival and many times at the Edinburgh Fringe; he has also performed for BBC Radio 1, 7 and chaired the Showstopper Radio 4 series. He is a founder member of comedy impro troupe Grand Theft Impro and a member of 'hard-bardics' improvisers The School of Night. He also runs the UK improvisation news website

Duncan Walsh-Atkins (musical director of The Showstoppers). He was MD of the UK tours of The Blues Brothers Party, Round The Horne and Peter Pan at The Capitol. Other credits are the Flanders & Swann tribute At The Drop Of A Hippopotamus, Mitchell & Webb's Macbeth & The Beanstalk, Noel Coward's Words & Music, Mad About the Musicals. For Radio 4 he recorded September Tide with Jonathan Firth, A Portrait of a Lady and the Tina C series with Christopher Green. He recently co-wrote the musical Tailor-Made Man, which is running in the West End.

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

The Liverpool Improvathon is on the 1300 to Montana. From Liverpool. Soon.

Catch It.
Saddle up for the ride of your lives. For one weekend only, Impropriety are Goin' West! Let us take you to the town of Borderline with all its Cowboys, Cowgirls, Saloons, Sheriffs, Gold Diggers and Duels all created on the spur of the moment. An entirely improvised epic that will run continuously for 2013 minutes (33 hours and 33 minutes). This is one show that is not to be reined in.

The Improvathon is based on a format created and made popular by Canadian company DIE-Nasty, who have held an annual 50-hour “Soap-a-thon” for over 20 years. For the second year running, Impropriety will be joined by regular DIE-Nasty members Donovan Workun and Kory Mathewson along with special guests from around the UK.

Starts 1pm Saturday 6th April. Finishes 10.33pm Sunday 7th April. Episodes begin on odd numbered hours: 1pm, 3pm, 5pm, 7pm, etc (yes, all through the night!)

£5 per episode – on the door only.
The 1st 10 EARLY BIRD WEEKEND PASSES ONLY £15 (Usually £25) come and go throughout the event. On the door or online Buy weekend passes here.
£5 for ‘Children’s Hour’ (11am-1pm Sunday). Children get in free. All children MUST be accompanied by an adult.
£10 for ‘Sleepover” (11pm Sat – 9am Sun). Audiences encouraged to bring pyjamas and sleeping bags (Online tickets available £10 + £1 booking fee Buy Here)

Sunday, 17 March 2013

Audience versus Improviser

by Katy Schutte

It seems to me that there is sometimes quite a disparity between how much an audience enjoys a show and how much the performers enjoy a show (or how good they think it was). 
For me, there are three broad reactions I’ll have after doing a show:
  • Recriminating myself and/or the group for being awful (sometimes out loud, sometimes in my head  
  • Fairly satisfied, but analysing the crap out of the show (“Mr Muscle was a funny character, but why didn’t we have any depth to our relationships?”)
  • An air-punch where it was so great that I love my life and the show and everyone I’ve ever met (Bill Arnett has the term ‘way-homer’ for these; where you keep remembering a great moment from your show, all the way home)

There’s also a reaction around the ego where you personally feel you did or didn’t do good work.  Sometimes it can feel like you’re the only one who dropped the ball, or the only one who kept it together.  Interestingly, in improv, if the show as a whole fails, you feel like you’ve failed, because it’s a team game.  Conversely, sometimes a show can fail because one person stood out and the whole team game fell apart.  You’ve got to make other people look good.

With short form at least there are in-built safety nets; if you are brand new you will likely succeed because;
  • The audience are probably your friends and family.
  • Games are built around letting the audience know when to laugh and automatically generate jokes. For example, New Choice means that you are regularly given a set up, set up, twist that always works.
  • Also, the audience love to see you die just as much – if not more – than they like to see you succeed.  In ‘Die’ for example, the competitive storytelling game where the audience shouts die when you mess up telling the story.  If no one died, the game wouldn’t be fun.

With long form it’s a little harder because there is less tolerance of bad improv.  There aren’t built-in safety nets (unless you count a form you’re using, but that’s really just a structure).  If you are just truthful and listen well, the audience are much more keen to see that than you being clever or funny, but it does take years and years for people to feel perfectly comfortable doing those simple things.
Coming off stage it’s sometimes confusing having the audience really love a show that you thought was bad or okay.  When someone comes up to you to tell you how great your show was, don’t tell them that they’re wrong!  Telling a fan of your show that they are incorrect or that your show is poor makes them feel bad and rips on your work, neither of which have a good outcome!  Just say thank you and work on your craft.  Also, they may be right, and you may be wrong. 

There seem to be a couple of reasons for the disparity between the audience and improviser’s viewpoints.  Audiences may not have seen as much improv as you.  For some people, they are pretty amazed that you can make up a show as you go and thoroughly enjoy the magic unfolding.
For me, I feel like a show fails when I am consciously working hard on it on stage.  Improvisers call this ‘being in your head’.  My favourite of the shows I have done are where my characters feel like they are being channelled and have a life of their own, that the beats or chapters of the narrative naturally fall out one by one.  I am perfectly in the group mind of the company and we all have similar ideas and initiations, or immediately enjoy and jump on board the surprises.  So, what’s the difference between one of those shows and one where I am standing on the side thinking ‘I haven’t really done many characters, maybe I’ll do a character’?  Well, here’s my revelation; nothing.  Nothing from the audience’s perspective anyhow.  For them it’s a great show.  They enjoyed everything about it.  It just happens that today, your auto-pilot didn’t kick in as well and you had to fly on manual.  It’s sometimes difficult to know which way to fly.  I had a show after Christmas where I hadn’t done a show for a few weeks and just thought ‘ah, it’ll be fine – I’ve been doing improv for years’.  Even if you’re an Olympic diver, you can’t just fall off the board and expect it to work, you have to use all your awareness and training and make that dive happen.  That show was a belly flop.  If you have a show where some other part of your brain is doing all the work; lucky you.  I’m not suggesting you spend all your time on stage consciously planning and analysing, but I am suggesting that you need to be alert and open the whole time, you can’t just sit back and expect it all to happen. 

There’s also another kind of show where you loved it, but the audience didn’t.  It was your best work, you did great.  These shows tend to disappear after you’ve done a fair bit of improv, but the causes are mostly vanity and in-jokes.  If you’re doing all your best schtick and having a super time but not listening to the other players, you may feel you did a great show, but the audience probably felt the gap between you and the other players.  In-jokes are also a problem.  You may have something that you do in rehearsals (we have some 8-year callbacks in the Maydays) but the audience are not only going to miss the joke, but will feel distanced by it.

It’s great to know what you’re working on, it’s the only way your improv will get better.  Enjoy the things you did well just as much as you notice the stuff you want to build on.  You are doing this because you love it (no one chooses improv as a sure-fire career path) so notice the great bits.  I used to keep a ‘Creative Arnica’ file on my laptop; every time someone said something nice about my or my team’s improv, I would make a note of it.  That way, if I had a shitty show or thought my work sucked I could have a look back and realise that I was probably just forgetting to give myself positive notes as well as constructive ones.  Creative Arnica; what can I say?  I lived in hippy Brighton for 10 years.

Remember that improv is a team sport.  Everyone has your back.  The team win – you win!  Hell, that’s why I ditched stand up to do more improv.  And it’s okay to fly on manual sometimes.  It won’t feel quite as magical as those autopilot gigs, but unless you show it on your face, the audience can’t tell the difference.

Monday, 11 March 2013

Conscious Incompetence (and why it's your friend)

by Katy Schutte

Over years of teaching improv, I have begun to notice that many students at one point or another appear to have a crisis of confidence and dips in their skill sets.  There seems to be an ongoing cycle that starts with enthusiasm, becomes more of a serious work ethic and then turns into a mini freak-out.  I have always advised these students - based on observation - that a dip in confidence seems to come along at the same time or just before a big jump in skills.  I had no evidence or explanation for this apart from my own observations.  Until now.

I was working in Chantilly, France recently, coaching improvisational thinking with leaders and was struck by something one of the other coaches mentioned.  If you work in the corporate world, this is probably not news to you, but it really lit up a light bulb for me.  There is a scale that runs like this:
Unconscious incompetence
Conscious incompetence
Conscious competence
Unconscious competence

So: we don’t know that we can’t do something, then we know we aren’t doing it right, so we learn to do it, then we forget that we’re even doing it.  

For me, these are very clear levels within our improvisational learning.  The most important of which is conscious incompetence. 

When you are a total beginner in improv, you can often hugely enjoy performing; there are no nerves, no stress, you know you can do whatever you want and there’s nothing important riding on it.  You perform, you get LAUGHS - which is amazing - and then you’re done.  Fun.  After a while, you realise that you are maybe hitting on similar characters and gags because you know they work and because they feel easy and comfortable.  You begin to realise that there’s more to improv.  Where is the initial spark you had, why has it gotten harder?  There is more to learn.   You look at the people around you and see that they have skills you don’t, or that you’re not as good at.  So you work on those skills.  You increase your range, you take more risks, you are starting to enjoy the work again.  You get a lot better, then it’s easy, then you are slightly disconnected.  You’re maybe the best person in your company and you start to feel frustrated that others can’t keep up, or that the beginners class is too easy for you.  So you are consciously competent.  You join a more advanced class and really enjoy the scenes, they are rich, you are all listening to each other and the audience likes your shows.  You believe that this is the norm.  You are no longer stressing about your skill level because it is comfortable.  You have forgotten your struggle.  You are unconsciously competent.  You are GOOD.

Oh wait, another group came to town.  How the hell are they doing the improv they are doing?  What is long-form?  Is that monologue genuinely from real life?  Their physicality is incredible.  They sing!  Then here we go again.  Alexis Gallagher always maintains that it is best to be the second worst person in a company.  I think that’s a nice way to aspire to good improv.  That way, you are always consciously incompetent and trying to learn the skills you see around you.  But you’re not the worst, so you’re not going to feel like crap.  And confidence is a key part of successful improv.

This is by no means an experience that is only applicable to beginners.  I come across these blocks in my work every so often when I’m working with amazingly tight companies, strong singers and improvisers that never forget a name or drop a ball.  Just remember, whenever you know that you are terrible, that your improv is stale, that your work sucks, that you are the least funny/interesting person on stage; that is the point where you can go up a level.  That is the point where you’re challenging yourself and taking risks.  If you know you’re the most funny, interesting, talented, spontaneous person in the room, change rooms.  It’s important to feel good about conscious incompetence.  It’s the point where you’re most likely to surprise yourself, to take big risks and to push up your skill level.

Your degree of competence is important to different people in different ways:

The audience.  Audiences love to watch people that are at their ease, even if they are enjoying their own incompetence.  

Your peers.  Your fellow improvisers, employers and teachers; they all want you to be good.  They want you to step up and they want to help you achieve great things.  They also have your back.

Yourself.  No one is a harsher judge than yourself.  Enjoy it.  Let you be the harsh critic of you.  Just don’t let the critic get in there when you’re playing.  Love a show, get out of your head.  Then sit down after and watch the video, see what you did good and bad and set yourself some goals.  A side note on notes; I was shocked the first time I had two improv teachers contradict each other.  It’s not like maths, there is no absolute right.  Do what you think is more interesting.  Just make sure you’re not doing it because it’s safe.  Push your own boundaries and take advice when it speaks to you as the right advice.  Try everything you get taught and keep what works for you.  Always go in with an open mind, then jettison stuff afterwards if it doesn’t help.

Now stand up and declare “I am consciously incompetent” and enjoy how much you can improve every time those words ring true.

Thursday, 7 March 2013

Longform Workshops with Saturday Night Live Writer, Neil Casey

This workshop will focus on long-form scenework in the style taught at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatres in New York and Los Angeles. We will focus on improvising our way into realistic, believable scenes which will lead to organic discoveries with which we can build original and interesting Games, the patterns that make our scenes funny. Some experience with open improv scenework is encouraged but not required.

7-10 pm 26th-27th March
To book, please email

Neil Casey is an improvisor, writer and actor living in New York City. He has performed at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre since 2001 and has taught improv and sketch at the Upright Citizen's Brigade Training Center since 2006. He has also taught improv at the Williamstown Theatre Festival every summer since 2008. Neil is a member of several well-known improv troups including current UCB Weekend team Death By Roo Roo, Krompf, and The Two-Man Movie. He has performed all over America with the UCB Touring Company since 2005, and performs regularly in UCB's flagship show ASSSSCAT 3000. He has directed dozens of acclaimed stage shows including God's Pottery Saves the World (Edinburgh 2007), Waiting For Obama: A Night at the Hall of Presidents (SF SketchFest 2010), Kate McKinnon on Ice, and This Is Not A Sketch Show: A Sketch Show. 

His latest written show Small Men, written and performed with Will Hines and directed by Michael Delaney, was named the Best Sketch Show of 2012 by Time Out New York Magazine. He has appeared on a bunch of web series, commercials and TV shows on Adult Swim and IFC. The Washington Post referred to him as "deadpan" on 10 February 2010 in the print edition. A few months ago declared "Neil Casey is one of the best, if not the best improviser in New York right now." 

He is currently a writer on Saturday Night Live.

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

What I Learned in the London 50 Hour Improvathon

... As Dizniz Al'Adin in the
2013 Improvathon 
By Jonathan Monkhouse

I am afraid of heights. I get vertigo when my body is not surrounded by very specific guidelines that, when boiled down, are based on two factors: 1) My own physical ability, and 2) My trust in the objects being used to support me.

I'm unfit. Chubby even. In places. If I fall, I'm not strong enough to grab something and pull myself back up. I couldn't hang from the branch of a tree safe in the knowledge that if things went wrong I could swing myself to safety like a howler monkey. Abseiling. Why the hell do people do that?
Found this in a lamp

I'm alright with some things, though. Actually I'm fairly okay if I'm up high on a genie-lift (pictured), because I know the tests that these things go through to make them safe. But a plank of wood hanging at a precarious angle on a couple of scaffold bars high over the stage at Hoxton Hall, where you have to go if you want to hang any back-lights. Doing that is not hilarious.

This fear is potentially crippling in multiple ways. Yes, the physical injury I would sustain when the ladder collapses beneath me and I fall 30' onto my face.. but more present is the fact that I earn a fair proportion of my living from working up high. As a live events technician I'm often up a ladder focussing blisteringly hot lights or hanging bulky projectors or heavy speaker stacks, or a 60ft banner from the front of an old crumbling theatre while wind and rain try to knock me to the pavement. Often under time pressure, often in venues that were never designed for ladders or rigging or people who need a cool ambient temperature. But it's part of my job. It's how I get to buy useful things like croissants.

So I have to do it. I have to do it. The croissants compel me.

And I'm compeled to do improv. I love it at least as much as a French breakfast pastry, and it is the most exciting, most liberating, most extreme sport I can think of. It is more petrifying than abseiling, and more rewarding than three wishes from a genie. So fuck it, I do it.
Cairo, 1926. Improvised. Epic.
While I was growing up my Dad often used the phrase, "It's not the fall that'll kill you, it's the hard bit at the bottom." .. one of my earliest discoveries of humour in the Monkhouse gene-pool. I believe there are others. And others. As advice, though, it didn't really help me with my fear.

The London Improvathon was terrifying. It has a fairly epic reputation amongst audience and performers alike. People fly in from round the world to be a part of it. It is performed in a 150 year old, lofty venue with a rich theatrical history. The stage towers over the audience giving any performer an instant status way higher than any single human deserves.

This was my first performance in the London 50. I've performed in other Improvathons in London, Liverpool and Bristol, and they have been totally fun and enjoyable. But this was my first London 50. And I was entering in the 30th hour after watching from the sound-desk for the first portion of the show, watching the very talented folk around me create the magical world that I was to jump into later on.

Entering my first scene felt like falling. From a great great height. I haven't felt that in an improv show for years.

Intimidated much? Yeah. Nervous? Feeling lost when I'm in a scene? Out of control? Yeah. Paranoid from being awake for the last 50+ hours? Not. Helping.

Lighting-tech Damian Robertson with director Adam
Meggido: sitting in the dark, in front of a computer
screen, in a warm room, concentrating, for 50 hours.
The hardest two jobs in the room.  
Learny thing number 1: Being awake that long is mental. Mental. But that's a given with a 50 hour show. I don't really need to talk about that, it's too obvious a part of the experience. Yes, it's painful, but I knew exactly how painful it would be. I've done it before when I operated lighting for the entire London 50 last year - which is, by the way, a nightmare and all credit to Damian who lit the whole show this time. The sleep deprivation is way harder on the desk than it is on the cast. Oh my god. At least the cast get to move around occasionally. And have adrenalin surges.

The biggest thing I learned from the Improvathon is about how much you take on stage with you.

Learny thing number 2: While it's an improviser's aim to be creating on the spot, on the stage, right there... unless you know how to play the Die-Nasty Improvathon format this is really hard. So I tell you now, with hope that if you ever get to do one, you are better prepared than I was. My biggest discovery leads to this:


Don't do it. You'll want to, but don't. It's a piece of advice I have heard from much more experienced improvathon players, but it never quite took hold until I experienced it first-hand. Sadly I learned its importance too late for this 50. If I get to do it again, at least I'll know.

Lately in my Improv life I have been used to freeform improvising. Little or no "format". Where the whole thing happens with you on stage, or just off-stage looking to come on and support at any given moment. It is your own personal instinct that takes you onto the stage, it is your own feeling for the story that drives it, and there is no time to excogitate the precise direction of the show because you are right there in its midst the whole way through.

Support group scenes have a certain double-resonance with
exhausted performers. 
With the way the Improvathon format works, you spend a huge amount of time off stage. It might be 45-60 minutes between your scenes. Stop, start, stop, start. And it is the director's decision when you enter, who you're entering with, and (often) what task you're going to complete while you're there. Its almost short-form in that way. That is, a predetermined set of actions that you are to 'play' during the next few minutes.

Yes, you can be off stage enjoying the scenes the other improvisers are doing, and sometimes running on to help in crowd scenes or to be scenery. This is good. Great. That is a very fun thing. However, my biggest problem was that I was spending these long stretches of time also thinking about my character: How my story was and should be progressing. How good/bad my last scene was. The fact that I haven't found my rhythm with this show yet. I'm exhausted. I have to prove that I deserve to be here. Are these thoughts led by sleep deprivation, or are they justified? I know I'm a better improviser than that last scene I did. Why can't I get comfortable on this crazy stage? Where do I want my character to go next?

That's it. That last one. That's the most problematic of all. DO NOT THINK ABOUT YOUR CHARACTER WHEN YOU ARE OFF STAGE. All this does is put obstacles in the way for your next scene. It led to me walking on stage for each of my scenes with a list of objectives that I wanted to achieve, which did nothing but get in the way of the scene that I was actually performing. My own thoughts had infected everything I was doing and despite the awesome offers being made for me by other improvisers, my brain had already decided the course my character should take and it was hard to deviate from that.

This, of course, is so important in any improv performance. It's just harder to avoid when you're given an hour to think in between your scenes, and you've been awake since 6am two days ago.

Salvador Dali (Mark Meer) presents his finest work.
Historically accurate. 
When you inhabit the same character for 20+ hours you really begin to care about them rather a lot, and you want them to achieve something cool. But all you are doing is planning. You don't want to be doing this. You know it's wrong, that's why you perform improv.

Your character only exists in the on-stage moments. Anything else, is nothing. Forget it. A predetermined plot is limiting, not freeing. One of the most enjoyable characters in the show was Ernest Hemingway, played by Die-Nasty's Jamie Cavanagh, who had barely done any research into the real life of Hemingway. This was a great decision and meant that Hemingway was one of the most fun characters to watch. Remember when Hemingway donned a cocktail dress, became part of the feminist alliance and revealed himself to be from Crete? Brilliant.

As the dust settles on our version of 1920's Cairo, there seems to be a widespread opinion that this was the best London 50 ever. A massive part of that success, I think, is down to the simplicity of the overarching storyline. It was essentially just a backdrop to much more interesting stuff. I don't think most of the audience could give a fuck whether the overall plot makes sense; especially the majority who aren't even there for more than 4-6 hours. For them, the 50 hour plot is irrelevant and unimportant. People want to see relationships between people and funny things. Who gives a crap whether a comedy show is historically accurate?

God, it seems so obvious now. Now that I am rested, lucid, and blessed with hindsight. I totally fucked up a scene in the last 6 hours of the show because I did not know this. Because I took too much on stage with me, stuff that I'd been throwing around in my mind for 45 minutes. Its not Improv, and it doesn't make your scene better. It makes it worse.

Just. Don't.
Don't think.

Dana Anderson of Die-Nasty said of the 50 hour, "It's the most intense improv workshop you'll ever do." He's right. Not many workshops leave me emotionally scarred, exhausted, and having learnt a lesson with that level of potency. DO NOT THINK ABOUT YOUR CHARACTER WHEN YOU ARE OFF STAGE. Alright, alright. I get it.

In a few months I'm going to be in a 34-hour in Liverpool. Similar format. I'll be giving myself one rule from the beginning (see above). I'll arrive with a costume and a character name, as required. The rest is just enjoying the scene that I'm in at any given moment, feeling privileged to be playing with wonderful performers, and getting to do something way more fun than most people get to do.

Improvathon photos courtesy of Scarab Pictures and Sam Carpenter.

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Thursday, 3 January 2013

Improvised Knifefight Lessons - #2

Jamie as Hercules in London Improvathon 2012

Character, Character... CHARACTER!

Characters are the lifeblood of stories. Formats, plot lines, twists and turns all mean very little if we do not care about the characters who inhabit them.

In this three hour intensive, we will be discussing and exercising different means of creating and portraying distinct, dynamic and practical characters in improv scenes and formats.

Jamie "Knifefight" Cavanagh is an Canadian actor, writer, comedian, and professional improvisor and is a graduate of the Bachelor of Fine Arts in Acting program at the University of Alberta.

Jamie has performed in festivals and cities all over the world including: The London Improvathon [London UK], World Domination Theatresports Tournament [Atlanta GA], The Chcago Improv Festival [Chicago IL], Uprfront Theatre [Bellingham WA], The Saint Valentines Day Massacre [Vancouver BC], Toronto Improv Festival [Toronto ON], the CRUMBs [Winnipeg MB] and has taught as a guest instructor at London’s renowned London Academy of Musical and Dramatic Arts (LAMDA). You might remember his as Hercules from last year's improathon. You should.

COST: £30
WHEN: 7-10pm, Wednesday 9th January 
WHERE: The Nursery, Arch 61, off Great Suffolk Street and parallel to Union St. SE1 0EU

This class has very limited places, book now by emailing
Payments may be made in advance to Paul Foxcroft, email for details. 

Also, Tuesday the 8th - Jamie teaches this.