Friday 31 January 2014

IMPRO Amsterdam 2014: Day 3

Day 3. It’s cold outside. So very cold. Supplies of food at basecamp are getting low. We’re more than half way through the quest. But it feels like we still have so far to go. I will see it through. After all this is only an improv festival not an Arctic expedition.

On the wall of the bar in the Compagnie Theatre (or in Dutch, Compagnietheater) are projected a collection of intriguing stills and vines-length video clips of great physical work. This collection grows every day. It’s a great way to be reminded of some of the best moments: The Austrian opening of the Vatican cupboard, the Mexican octopus are both there.

DeTales IMPRO Amsterdam
Picture via IMPRO Amsterdam
The first half today was another high concept but low faff format, called “DeTales” (pronounced "details" as opposed to the Dutch "De Taalez"). On a table at one side of the stage is an improvised (i.e. invisible) 3D holographic model of the area where the story is set. The players use this model, expanding it, zooming into show you where the action is happening and give you an idea of how things are connected. I enjoyed that. The story was a very good but slightly confusing tale of a haunted house and its new owners and terrible past. A little less story and a little more playing the scenes would have made it great. But that’s my whole ethos towards storytelling in improv. The fun isn’t in the story, the story is what takes the fun places and it’ll pretty much do it on its own if you let it.

As ever, the Mexican contingent had a lot to teach about physicalising the world around us. What I learnt, which I don’t think I ever realised before, is that for miming long objects, like a broom, mop or extended paintbrush, another player miming just the end is super effective. Especially when hoder and object end are really working together.

Snatch Comedy
Picture via IMPRO Amsterdam
The second half was from the Irish gang, Snatch. Once upon a time, the wildcard at the Amsterdam festival would be a team from Central America or a duo or a group that brings in an outside artform, such as dance. Nowadays its a short from group.

Snatch do old school shortform with a high degree of skill and energy. The runlist consisted of old favourites and I was disappointed there wasn’t a big rousing song at the end. Partly because the stereotype in my brain says all the Irish can sing like angels, but also I’m pretty sure I heard a couple of them singing in an earlier show in a way that confirmed the stereotype.

The high point for me was the superb sound effects skills of Adrian, which were evident in previous shows but given full reign to show how a tai chi grandmaster would cope with parachuting behind enemy lines - the enemy partly consisting of birds. I’m a tough person to please with shortform, but I enjoyed it. It was solid and energetic, but I would love to have felt they were pushing themselves for a festival that is used to groups pushing at least one boundary.

I missed out on the late show with a cast of international refugees (or foreign improvisers here on their own without a group) doing a thing called Around The World and so ducked off to catch up on some of that sleep stuff and try to convince the wife she’s a yet a full-blown improv widow.

Thursday 30 January 2014

IMPRO Amsterdam 2014: Day 2

Photo by Tom Koelman.
The first show of the evening was Libby’s Friends, in which one half of the Rocket Sugar Factory, Mr Jim Libby (Mr Gar Factory himself), has created, with a selection of the festival players, a format new format. I hear its exciting and daunting. Which is what improvisers live for. Improvisers are like tight-rope walkers, but without the real dangers of tight-rope walking. And with the possibility to recover from falling from the tight-rope and turn the act into a falling from the tight-rope act. So, nothing like tight-rope walkers at all.

Typically the mixer formats at this festival are intricate and maze-like, this was splendid in its simplicity, but also nicely different in its presentation. Gets are obtained on the way in via walkie-talkie and given to the tech guy. During the show, as scenes start, the suggestion is projected above the players so they can choose to see it before they go on of after. What was nice about it was that there were lots of great physical beginnings, helped partly by the cast being full of physical players.

It was nice that these physical starts were allowed to general abstract scenes. I do tire of that type of improv where everything that happens is instantly and glibly justified, so scenes in the abstract realm are a welcome relief. However, abstract scenes can also be about something or become about something, and there were a few scenes that didn’t quite get there. But, as a premiere for a new format that had only a little time to be prepared, it was fine. The energy was great and there some gems in there.

Don't look now, it's the
Rocket Sugar Factory.
Photo by Tom Koelman
After the break, The Rocket Sugar Factory took off. The Rocket Sugar Factory are not unknown to me, I’ve seen this alliance of Canada and the US based in Austria a few times before. They don’t do disappointing.

This time, Mr Gar Factory and Rocket Su had a new format using the date of the performance and real historical events that fall upon it. As ever the duo’s ability to work together is tremendous. They set themselves challenges and they meet them. Not always without a struggle, but that’s how we know they are challenges. And the great thing about them is that they take their time with their scenes. I think they only did 4 scenes, but each was rich with environment, characters, relationships, and games. Splendid and inspiring stuff.

The Open Stage, of what I managed to see of it, was superbly well attended and ended with a musical which was pretty darn good considering the huge cast generally didn't know each other.

The late night entertainment was to go to a boat and get the drunker of the foreign guests to try and sing Dutch. Actually, being drunk helps.

Wednesday 29 January 2014

IMPRO Amsterdam 2014: Day 1

The festival kicked off last night with an introduction to all the groups taking part in a format called Pot Pourri. Pot Pourri, if you didn’t know, is the dried fruits and flowers used to make wooden bowls smell nice.

Firstly, individual challenges were set for each team with the intention to show off some of their individual strengths. At this stage of the festival, the full cast hasn’t really gelled. And the Dutch team, which was put together for the festival only, has barely had a head start. But it’s only the first day.

Photo by Richard Roling.
The Austrians (Rocket Sugar Factory), who are really North Americans, set the bar super high with a terrific creation of an epic story in a 5 mins. They are extraordinary good at picking up on each other’s suggestions, and really letting the story career ahead, jumping from one big scene to next, all logical and in the genre and all played with great commitment and a clarity in the characters that allowed the other actor to take them over seamlessly.

They were followed by the Americans (The Raving Jaynes), who are actually Americans. Their scenes are so rooted in movement, incorporating much from the world of dance, that when forced to do scenes in Dutch, of which they know only a handful of expressions, they still created a highly visual story driven by clear emotions.

Then a couple of group games to mix up the teams. At some points, these showed how improvisers from different backgrounds who don’t know each other so well can create something great using the simple process of listening and agreement, specifically in the scene about the lift that descends to Hell. And at other points they showed that without the knowing and trusting each other, the listening and agreeing can get lost.

After the break, we had the show of the Mexicans (ImproTOP), who are, well, Mexicans. And not afraid to show it. Their format was called Mariachi Stylo which is infused with Mexican music and folk storytelling. They are good at special effects, finding and playing games, as well adding detail, especially in their already wonderful physical work. My favourite game was probably the sending away and recalling of the horse.

The late night show was Double Feature, which featured myself and the charming Ryan Millar doing curtailed versions of our movie-based one man shows. I was given 60s Psychedelia by the enthusiastic audience which was a lot of fun. It meant I got to do 2 drug trip sequences, which I don’t get to do nearly enough of. Ryan got to tell the story of Earth Sally trying to get back to Earth and included one of my favourite visuals of the night: the classic hands pressing from different sides of a pane of glass, except one of them was all skeletal and oozing rotten flesh. See us both again soon at the Remi festival.

Thing I learnt during the show last night: If you turn up naked to a clothes shop, you’d think they’d be happy because they know you’re going to buy something.

Tuesday 28 January 2014

IMPRO Amsterdam 2014: Day 0

Today is officially day one of the festival. But, of course, time being irritatingly linear, I can only report after the fact. So actually on paper, nothing has happened yet. Obviously blogging about nothing seems to make no sense, unless you read a good few blogs or pretty much anything on twitter, then it seems the norm. But in fact stuff has already started happening.

Although the festival proper starts tonight, there was a sneak preview show last night for TVA members and volunteers. However, a teaching obligation prevented me from going and none of my spies have reported in so all I can say is that it happened. (Great, so it’s still a blog about nothing.)

The festival proper starts tonight with a chance to get a glimpse of all the teams (in a format named after the fragranced scraps of dead tree that adorns many an otherwise clean suburban living room), a Mariachi-style show from the Mexicans and a duo of solo shows bringing up the rear in the late-night slot.

This year, I’m not a full cast member (“it’s all politics, you know”) and I’m not involved with organising it (ooh, there’s an idea) so I’ve not got a back-stage pass. This means I’m going to be writing about the festival from an audience point of view. Well, from the point of view of an audience member with a ton of improv experience who has previously performed at the festival and is performing this year but as part of the aforementioned late-night extra solo shows. But one looking at the festival as presented, with perhaps a little bit of behind-the scenes intrigue from my spies.

See tomorrow’s blog to see how tonight’s shows went (that’s how time works). There are still tickets I have been told, available via the IMPRO Amsterdam site.

Saturday 25 January 2014

IMPRO Amsterdam 2014: Ante festum

So next week is the 19th international IMPRO Amsterdam festival, the biggest event in the Dutch improv calendar. It’s always an education.

For me, as an audient, I am always most excited about seeing the groups from around the world and their differing approaches and styles. The mixer shows which serve as a warm-up before the main show are interesting, and it’s fun to see people from different cultures interact and surprise each other, but the groups doing their own thing, their own way is what rings my imaginary bell. As a performer at the festival, the shows where you mix it up with different players from different groups and places are very exciting.

I have a busy week next week, but I want to set myself the task of blogging every day about it. My thoughts and reports of what I’ve seen. This year I’m performing a solo thing as part of one of the late night extra shows (on Tuesday night), which is exciting.

So, you guys are my witness to the intention of daily blogging, but we’ll see if lady time will be gracious or not.

Details of the festival are here:

Monday 13 January 2014

Thought of the Day: If neither you nor your character cares about what is going on, why should the audience?

If neither you nor your character cares about what is going on, why should the audience?

Saturday 11 January 2014

Man of 1000 Faces

I’ve been doing a spot of solo improv recently and getting my head around the fact that there’s something very different about improvising on your own as opposed to how it’s normally done, with an ensemble. Or at least one other player. Solo improv misses that one important factor that makes improv so exciting, that unpredictability due to you the input from other players. It’s a collaborative art form. How do you collaborate with just yourself?

Well, two main ways, as I see it.

One. By really listening to yourself and paying attention to what you’re doing. I think there are a lot of improvisers who say a lot of stuff but it’s just stuff to fill the space and don’t listen to what it is. I think because performers know what they are about to say, they don’t listen to it. But what we mean to say doesn’t always come out that. We pismronounce words; me get the emPHAsis wrong; we don’t portray the emotion we intended, dammit. In a multi-person scene, these things can be picked up by other players, but it’s good for you to be aware as well. But when on your own, you should definitely know what’s going on. The other reason to listen is because of another way you can collaborate and listen.

Two. If you are fully in your character and fully in the moment, you should be surprising yourself all the time. Clearly I mean surprising yourself with stuff the fits the characters, the story and the world you are creating, not because you are listing random things for no reason. This is the main thing about solo improv I find fascination: Being able to have a conversation with two (or more characters) that you have no idea where it’s going, even though it is you who are creating those characters.

Neither of these is only relevant to solo improv; both are core to any form of improv. I think my advice for improvisers (whether on their own or with others) that seems to come from this is as follows: Jump in with both feet, but allow yourself the time to observe what’s going on. Jumping in isn’t about rushing full speed ahead, it’s about making bold choices, inhabiting your characters and doing exactly what the character, the scene and the story requires. Usually the character, the scene and the story are alrealy telling you what they require; you just need to listen to them.