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!