Sunday 23 February 2014

Solo! Solo! Too Nakma Noya Solo!

At the end of this month, i.e. in a week, I’m taking part in a festival of solo improvisation called Remifestival. I’m very pleased to be a part of it. Someone asked me recently why do I do solo impro. It’s a good question. The simple answer is, “because it’s there.” Over the years, I’ve been in groups and shows ranging from 2 to about 50 people. It makes sense to try it with a group of one.

Before I talked a little about what it is that makes solo improv work for me, and how you fill the void left by other players and external ideas. Mostly it’s filled with paying attention to what you’ve set up, and to what you’re doing and saying, especially the things you didn’t intend to do or say.

I first tried a solo show a few years ago. It was a very nervous show that relied on monologues and improvised poems which were things I was good at. Since then I’ve worked a lot more on characterisation. So much so, it’s become one of the most important things in improv to me. With characters come relationships and with relationships you have the fuel that drives any scene and any story. Without relationships or characters that are affected by what’s going on, a story is just a bunch of stuff happening.

It can seem quite daunting going out on the stage alone. One of the nice things about gang improv is that there is always someone there to help you out when it goes wrong. Solo improv is almost in the world of stand-up, where you live or die by your own sword.

Fortunately, in improv you have the good fortune to not need a pre-prepared sword; but of course are free to conjure one up whenever needed. And you often also aren’t alone because, unlike a stand-up, you might well be working with a lighting and/or sound technician and/or musician. So there is someone there to help you. Plus improv audiences are way nicer than stand-up audiences. I don’t mean to be disparaging, but they are. I’ll talk about this more some time.

Even when you are performing with a gang, there are those moments when it’s just you on stage, and I have no problem with those moments. They make for a different dynamic and allow the audience to see a character when no one else is around. How often is that used in movies? Plenty.

The show I do now is intentionally ambitious. A whole film-like story created on stage but with the focus on the characters and relationships and using them to drive the narrative. But with the added lights and sounds, along with the audience’s willingness to come along with me, I’m never really alone.

The Remifestival is on 28th February and 1st March. It’s sure to be a lot of fun. I play on the 1st of March. Full details on the Remifestival website.

Tuesday 4 February 2014

IMPRO Amsterdam 2014: Day 5

I am writing this stiff and tired. My brain is a grey, soggy mush. But I have on my face a smile.

My legs ache from having been put through my paces by two separate dancers at different ends of the day. In the early afternoon, I took an interesting workshop given by Amy of the Raving Jaynes where we explored movements and physical interaction as a way to generate character and start scenes.

It was too much of a rush to make the early show today, which was a presentation by the highest level of Dutch improv school, TVA. They’ve also been working on a lot of movement and dance-based stuff. But I didn’t see it. So the best I can do is explain that I didn’t see it. Actually the best thing I could do is save your time, my time and internet bandwidth by not mentioning it at all. That’s what I should have done.
Photo via IMPRO Amsterdam

The main show started with a format called Personal Stories. After a week of working together, the festival cast now feels like an ensemble. Personal Stories takes audience suggestions of personal details and events and creates scenes and things based on them. It’s hosted so the players only have to worry about playing, which can really help them relax. There was a huge sofa to enable that. The host, Anja Boorsma, did a great job of choosing the task for each story, which included a high preponderance of death. It meant I got the song by one of the Irish players that I’d wished for. it was by George, by George, (as well as Michiel from the Dutch contingent) and was hauntingly great.

Over the week, object work has been on the increase in both quantity and quality. I suspect the cast had a session from the Mexicans. There were lots of scenes where people came on and represented or indicated or became objects.

Photo via IMPRO Amsterdam
The second show featured everyone in the festival cast. Which was not so unwieldy a number as you might think. All the 4 foreign groups had 2 or 3 players each, no more. The Dutch team had a comparatively massive 6. It’s still 16 players, which normally is about twice as many as too many on stage. But because everyone gave each other space, and again plenty of people got to be objects, it worked pretty well. The most notable object was an ancient Ming vase depicting a sad woman. It was very enjoyable, and quite ambitious to try to tell a story with so many people who had only been working together for a week. There were holes in the story and some trampled-on opportunities, but the commitment and joy at playing made it good fun to watch and a great end to the festival performances.

For this show there was a whole band - four great musicians - who accompanied and lifted the performance. Whenever I speak to improv musicians they always understate what they do. Like they just tinkled a few keys under a scene. But good musicians can add so much to what is experienced by the audience and can make a singer of almost anyone. They are players, making and accepting offers like anyone else on the stage. And that goes for tech people as well.
Photo by Paul Strik
Paul Strik
Paul Strik

As ever, the festival ended with a big, old fancy dress party at which performers, organisers and anyone else in the vicinity celebrated the end of another enjoyable and successful festival. The party was roaring fun, with plenty of people going all out on the costume front. And here it was the turn of Jamie of the Raving Jaynes to put me through my paces as part of an interactive mass theatre piece using movement in space to the sounds of popular songs as a way to generate enjoyment and engender friendship.

My brain mush is starting to congeal; time for a coffee.

Sunday 2 February 2014

IMPRO Amsterdam 2014: Day 4

This blog is late. It was supposed to be ready yesterday, but life and workshops got in the way. But more about today tomorrow.

The festival has moved into the final phase that includes workshops for those quick enough to sign up. On Friday, I worked instead of workshopping, but did so in the style of a boy who wished he was a long way away.

Boxing. Photo by Mathieu van den Berk via
Friday saw the last of the single-group shows, with The Raving Jaynes, who are improvisers who come from a dancing background. I know plenty about improvisation but what I know about dancing you could write on a ballerina’s butt.

Inspired by what was to follow, the host, Jochem Meijer, invented the best warm-up game ever. Put simply it got the whole audience to dance. Willingly. If you want to know more, go and see a show he is hosting and he might do it again.

The Raving Jaynes’ show brings together dance and improv. For the main part of their show they performed a single story with a mixture of improvised dance and improvised scenes which are generally kept separate. The dances linked the scenes, showed the inner life of the character or depicted big events in a stylised way. It is when dancing that they really come into their own. Their attention to what each other is doing is quite phenomenal. A routine is picked up by the other almost instantaneously. There was a little character confusion in the scenes and I think given that the dancing gives the show a strong abstract side, I wonder if the characters could be painted with bigger brushes.

Reviewing an earlier show, I complained about lots of abstract with no substance. The Raving Jaynes really showed how the abstract can have substance. How it can be used to depict emotions and dramatic events in a way that differs from typical improv which tends to be very literal or symbolic but still quite literal. Obviously most improvisers are not going to be able to suddenly start dancing with the same proficiency as two trained professionals, but it does show that movement and the abstraction of emotions, etc, can be used to great effect if a group so desires.

Hitchhiker. Photo by Mathieu van den Berk /
The second half was Blockbuster, which started by showing 3 key scenes from movies in genres given by the audience. All three were great, high-impact scenes that the audience would have wanted to watch. But they had to pick one. They went for the thriller possibly because it was the last, but also I think because there were more unknowns in it. They then recreated the thriller with the same scene included somewhere in it.

The cast were really working together well, but it seemed clear the Austro-Americans were the driving force here. However, this is no bad thing; Their experience in this sort of thing is not to be underestimated. And I would certainly not go so far as to draw a parallel between this and story in which the holiday-makers were trapped and stalked by the characters played by the Austro-Americans.

The thriller ended up being more of a horror (the distinctions can be subtle), there was a fair bit of confusion and, of course, the original scene, when it reappeared, was a bit different. But the whole thing was played with gusto and some great physical work (not least, again, from the Mexicans) that it was enjoyable. It’s already a lot of mental work to for the players to make sure same scene comes back, so as an audience we do somewhat forgive some of the things that changed. (And as a group you could even justify it by saying a clip in a movie trailer is often different to the one that appears in the final cut of the movie because the trailer is often released before the film has been edited.) But, obviously, it’s a million times better if that promise to the audience is kept in it’s entirety. The other two start scenes, which were simpler and with less people, might have been easier to hit.

I personally think the show was made by the music. It was a thriller because it had a thriller soundtrack, created and put together magnificently by Wouter Snoei and Emil Struijker Boudier. Two hats off to them.

Again I missed out on the late night show, but it’s more important for the visitors to see a sample of what else the Netherlands has to off improv-wise that me. I can tell you Sleeping Together (or Het Bed In) is a great duo show about intimacy and relationships with the added excitement that real clothes come off.