Tuesday, 24 January 2017

IMPRO Amsterdam 2017: Sneak Preview

Every year just before the start of the IMPRO Amsterdam festival proper, there is a sneak preview show where the teams playing at the festival perform for the organisers, volunteers and other members of the organisation behind the festival, TVA.

For those of you who don’t know, TVA is a sort improv academy / social club providing classes for all levels (from beginners to yellow (yes, the levels go all the way to yellow)). It started the festival long ago before many of you (us?) even knew what improv was (before some of you could even string the words “yes” and “and” together, I'll bet), so that they can invite groups from around the world they wanted to see and learn from. The founding principles still remain, but after 20-odd years the festival has grown and become as close to a well-oiled machine as any festival can be.

The sneak preview is a chance for the cast to warm up before the week and also to thank all those people who helped make the festival happen. We were treated with two sets of musical-inspired montages. A montage in this context is a sequence of seemingly unrelated scenes (which I might make the title of my first movie). Obviously nothing in life is unrelated - we are all connected by his hallowed noodly appendages - and an audience will find the hidden connections. What I enjoyed most about the show was seeing great players giving themselves the time and space to build great scenes. Players who yesterday were not a team. In fact many had not met before that day.

The scenes that emerged were sometimes amazing. There were a couple that turned out to be super dramatic: something that does not happen in improv so much at all, but shows how it’s not simply a medium for comedy but a method to create any form or style. Most notable was the tear-jerkingly realistic goodbye scene between Patti Stiles and Paul Dome.

What was also great about the show was already getting a chance to see some of the differences in styles that players from different backgrounds and places bring. There is a nice mix of players and they already feel like a team. It bodes well for the rest of the fest.

Last night’s interviews (for which you might read “conversations I drunkenly stumbled into”) included a promise that Patti Stiles, Charlotte Gittins and myself made to solve all of the world's problems - more on this later in the week; and having Will Luera explain how improv is basically physics. There is too much information to go into in one simple blog - you’ll have to take his workshop on the subject or read Stephen Hawking’s "A Brief History of Improv."

Thursday, 19 January 2017

IMPRO Amsterdam 2017: Introduction

This year I will be blogging (nearly) every day from IMPRO Amsterdam. For those of you who don’t know it, It’s one of the biggest and longest-running improvised comedy festivals in Europe. It’s also one of the best-organised and one that always has a great atmosphere (although I’m not sure which improv festivals don’t.) It runs for a week during the coldest part of the Amsterdam year and despite that attracts some top performers and teachers from all over this planet.

I’ll be attending shows, the odd workshop, and hanging out backstage and barside. I’ll be giving my opinion on what’s going on, mini reviews and I may even interview people. This in practice be more in the manner of getting drunk with people and asking them random questions.
[NOTE: this blog does not condone the use or abuse of alcohol or imply that its use has any relation to improvisation.] 

I’ll be posting here on my blog, the facebook page for that blog. Follow and like them to be kept up to the date.

And as well as me blogging during the festival there will be a podcast every day produced by the festival organisers interviewing (properly and soberly) members of the cast.

I’m already excited for this year’s festival. If you’re not, then you haven’t seen the list of people who are coming or are very jaded or are reading a blog about a subject totally alien to you.

If you don’t go, you can read all about it here. If you do, I’ll see you there. If I start slurring a random set of words at you in the small hours of the night, remember it probably means you’re being interviewed.
[NOTE: this blog really does not condone the use or abuse of alcohol or imply it should be used as a good technique for interviews.]

Friday, 6 May 2016

Yes And Action! Improv in Movies

Many of us are used to considering improv as a thing in itself. So much so, that we often forget that it can be a part of something rather than the whole thing. TV and movies don’t generally have a great relationship with improv. Both forms like predictability, and in fact need it to be able to secure a budget. There have been some improv TV shows, but not many, and the results tend to be patchy partly because improv tends to be a live medium that thrives on an audience knowing you are making it all up, which is hard to convince a TV audience of. Especially because as a TV viewer, you do not get to see the scenes that didn’t work. And I’ve even seen them reshoot ends they didn’t like, and seamlessly edit it on so in fact the final result is actually not your pure improv.

Is it that you are, in some manner, directing your conversation in my general direction?

But as part of the the process of developing the characters or story or for creating that spark in specific scenes within that story, it does have a place in movies especially. Still a very small part in the bigger picture (no pun intended). Although it depends upon the director. Some use lots of it, some use none.

Here is a well done video from the Now You See It channel that talks about the use of improv in movies. There’s also a chance to see a clip of the very attractive and articulate Dave Morris (you should watch his TEDx talk in full, even if you have already done so a hundred times). Key and Peele are also a good choice to feature because they both come from the improv world. Actors who developed their acting and knowledge of comedy scenes as improvisers but now work in the (mostly) scripted world.

Watch the video and feel free to share any feelings below.

Friday, 2 October 2015

Two Shades of Funny

There are two sorts of funny in improv: Constructive and destructive.

Constructive comedy comes directly from the situations, characters. It comes from within the scene. It emerges from making natural connections with the information we have. It is discovered in following the story and the progression of the characters. Constructive laughs sweep the audience along with the story, make them connect with the characters more and make them understand a little more.

Destructive comedy comes from outside the scene. It comes from the ego of the actor and a desire to be the funny one. It comes from ideas and references that are being forced where they are not wanted. Destructive laughs, make the actors stop and following the story and characters. It makes the whole edifice constructed in the brain of the audience member to start to crumble, and in some cases become destroyed completely. It makes us care less about the characters.

Stand-up can embrace both forms much better than improv, because it is about the laughter. Comedic plays or films almost never have the destructive type unless they are absurdist or “screwball.”

Improv, as ever, falls somewhere between these two mediums. In fact one possible definition for short form and long form could be to which end of the standup-theatre line people are trying for. And of course, short form can take destructive comedy. Whatever you are doing it’ll be over in a couple of minutes, nobody is emotionally invested, so why not gag the hell out of what you (or someone else) started.

But if you are trying to do something longer, and want to bring the audience along with you, you don’t want to be destroying what you’ve set up. Because if you are fine with destroying it, why should the audience care anything about it? They won’t. You don’t care, they don’t care.

Birdsong at the Comedy Theatre, London. Photograph: Tristram Kenton
And believe me, you are not reducing the comedy by not going for the destructive humour, not at all. Comic plays and movies are still funny. Not destroying the scene means you allow yourself the chance to find the constructive comedy. You allow characters to develop that allows you to find deeper comedy traits than simply a catchphrase or silly walk. It allows comic situations develop that are funny because they came about organically rather than just being contrived and forced on a scene. They allow us to find comedy in moments that are not inherently comic and still remain true to the predominant emotions in the scene.

In fact, I deliberately emphasised the destructive term because it really is that. It shuts of so many doors for things that would take a show from being merely funny to being amazing.

Monday, 27 April 2015

Opening Other Doors

I recently attended the Amsterdam premiere of Another One Opens, a movie made in Vienna by The English Lovers, a widely-respected English-language improv group there.

It’s a fully improvised movie. Or, at least, as fully improvised as a movie can be, which is quite a lot in this case.

Improvising in movies isn’t new, but it’s usually very limited and rarely part of the greater process. There is a growing trend for allowing actors to improvise lines in comedies, but this was always the norm for Christopher Guest’s awesome mockumentaries. Certain directors of drama and social realism have used improvisation to discover the specifics of the characters and to generate naturalistic dialogue. In the case of comedies, it allows the actors to come up with funny lines organically, which can really work when you have a cast of great comedians.

Another One Opens began as a concept with a set of locations and seven actors and the story came about through things that happened during the preparation and process itself as well as during the scenes. It harks back to the days where a movie was made by pointing a camera at a park bench and a policeman, and having Charlie Chaplin come along and try to sit down.

Still from englishloversmovie.com.
The result is interesting. It is a great-looking movie, nicely acted and professionally made. Maybe because it has its roots in improvised long forms, the genre seemed to veer about a bit. It was basically a “coming of middle age drama” but with some comic interludes and an element of magical mystery. The characterisation was good, but didn’t feel deep enough, somehow. I think movie goers are used to getting more back story and psychological insight into the changes rather than in improv where, as long as a character commits to the change, we’ll buy almost any reason.

Clearly improvisation is only a major tool of the movie as not everything on screen can be improvised in the sense that it’s used in improv. Scenes often require multiple takes, for example. Also some scenes were, by necessity, shot out of sequence, which is really difficult when you don’t already know the story. It means a lot of scenes didn’t make the final cut, but then that’s true of movies shot with lots of planning. Plus many of the scenes with moments of character discovery did not make the final movie. This however, mirrors the work of directors such as Mike Leigh and John Cassavetes who use and used a lot of improvisation to find out about the characters.

The story, which is usually pretty darn fixed in a movie, was one area where the improvisation method was followed. The story not really being set until near the end of filming, but being worked bit by but out after the end of that day’s filming. Very much how in a long form, it’s only after a scene you can see where a story is heading and use this to decide what needs to happen next or at least who needs be the focus.

Still from englishloversmovie.com.
The talk after was very interesting and brought up one of the important things about improvisation: improvisation is a process. It is an alternative method of putting on a show (or in this case, making a film) to writing a script and rehearsing it. Now this has many implications: One is that the expectations from improv is that it won’t create as good a result as the other process. And in general, I would agree.

Much of the enjoyment people get from an improv show is because the audience is in on the fact the actors are making it up. The audience is much easier on them. Improv audiences are much more accepting than theatre audiences and certainly more than stand-up audiences. The same joke for example does way better if it happens during an improv show than if it is part of a stand-up routine or a scripted play. In fact, I would go a lot further and say that much of the laughter in an improv show comes from the process being visible to the audience. An actor being momentarily lost for words, a mistake being pointed out as a mistake rather than made part of the world, a gag that breaks the reality, that look many actors give to the audience to show them they are just mucking about and not taking any of this seriously… all of these contribute to much of the comedy in an improv show. It’s easy to think that this sort of thing are part and parcel of improv comedy rather than the crutches many improvisers find make sure it’s funny no matter what. It makes it harder to (a) use improv for anything other than comedy and (b) take the craft to the next level.

I do believe a cast of actors fully in tune, really working towards the goal of creating a great theatre piece (or whatever they intend to create) can create something as good as many scripted efforts. But I think that is the goal if you want to take the art further than it is. Until that is the focus of enough troupes, improv will always be treated like the lazy step-child of theatre and stand-up.

Still from englishloversmovie.com.
And although it seems the effort to create an improvised show is much less than to create a scripted one, it’s more that the efforts are placed differently. The build-up is not focused in a short period on a specific show but over a longer period on the process in general and on the building of the team. Plus an improviser capable of improvising a whole play-like structure needs to have had more stage-time than most actors need to be able to play a role effectively, because there’s a lot more going on, in my humble opinion. Not to take away from the craft of acting, which is a skill often lacking in improvisers and the reason believably is often not seen as a big requirement of improv shows.

This “improvisation as theatrical process” approach is definitely the one of The English Lovers as can be seen in their commitment to making a movie and the quality of the movie they made. A movie that more than proves the concept that a movie can be made this way if you have the belief and are willing to take the risk. Because, like everything improvised, there is a risk, and a movie is a much more expensive risk than most you are likely to take. And the more it is tried, the more chance that it might become a respected way to make low budget, reality-based movies.

More details of Another One Opens can be found on the website and IMDB.

Saturday, 28 March 2015

5 James Bond Villains and 2 Henchmen You’ll Meet in Improv

The murky yet glossy world of James Bond might seem a long way from the world of improvised comedy, but is it really? There is a lot of making the rules up as you go along, taking big risks, and using what you have there and then to make the best situation. And just occasionally someone has a dastardly plot to take over the scene. So here are a few of the Bond villains and henchmen you’ll meet at improv workshops and shows.

Auric Goldfinger

Goldfinger is obsessed with gold. Every scene will have something about gold in it. Everything he has is made of gold. People he doesn’t like will be killed using gold. You might think he’ll get bored with all that gold, but nope.

Ernst Stavro Blofeld

It’s always good being physical, and a great way to avoid being static is to have something to do to avoid just standing there with your arms by your side or in your pockets. Blofeld has a built-in go-to activity. In the quiet scenes, which is all of them except when he’s running around in a panic, he will be stroking his imaginary cat.

Dr No

Dr No will block any effort in your mission to have a great scene. He’ll block you no matter what you try. And he’ll get clever at it (he’s a Dr after all) so that you are not even aware he’s blocking you, but somehow the scene goes nowhere.

Francisco Scaramanga

If you have a magical weapon, surely you should use it whenever possible. There’s no point in using some other form of fighting when you have a golden gun. This villain has a device he’s very pleased with. He’ll use it to solve every situation he possibly can. The effect is often fatal.

Gustav Graves

Oozing with self-assurance and ready to snipe at any person he thinks he’s better than, which is everybody else. He’s got the swagger of someone who is damn sure of himself, but you somehow suspect he’s a very different person under that bravado.

Pussy Galore

What every scene needs is some good old sexual innuendo or just plain, outright sexual references. No matter what this scene is, where it’s set, what the relationship is, it will always lead to something sexual.


Oddjob doesn’t say much. But you tell him to do something, he’ll lumber off with hunched, tense shoulders, do it and then lumber back and wait your next offer in silence.

There are lots more villains and henchmen. Which ones have I missed that you have seen?

Monday, 2 February 2015

Top 10 Answers To Questions About Improv

  1. Actually it’s very different to stand-up.
  2. Yes we do rehearse.
  3. No, none of that was scripted. None of it.
  4. Stand-up is just one person standing saying funny things, improv is much less static. Usually.
  5. Okay, yes, the intro was prepared beforehand.
  6. I can tell you some names but you will never have heard of them.
  7. Chicago. No, I have no idea why.
  8. Most of us are in IT.
  9. Yes, but he was only the funniest because everyone else hurried around supported him.
  10. Will you stop fricking saying “stand-up!”